Saturday, September 22, 2007

Alfred Edersheim on Matthew 15 and Tradition

A frequently used Scriptural argument put forth by Protestants (such as myself) against an undiscerning reliance on the so-called ‘Sacred Tradition’ of both the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox is an appeal to Matthew 15:1-9:

Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’ ” –Matthew 15:1-9 NASB

The argument presented by the Protestant is that the Lord Himself judged the verity or falsehood of a doctrine based upon whether it conformed to the clear teaching of Scripture. Therefore, the Christian should judge allegedly “Divine” traditions by Scripture instead of letting the alleged tradition be the interpretive grid from which we should read Scripture (and thus, it is presupposed that “Tradition” can never contradict Scripture). [The latter is the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox view.]

It is frequently objected by RC’s and EO’s that Jesus is only condemning human traditions and not Divine or “Sacred” traditions.

This is the reason for writing this post, to show that the “tradition of the elders” held by the scribes and Pharisees were believed to be, *not* simply human traditions, but rather, traditions that were given by God to some of the Old Testament recipients of revelation such as Moses and Solomon. In fact, my goal is to bolster the Protestant argument by showing that the view of tradition held by the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day (which He condemned) is eerily similar to the view of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

To quote Alfred Edersheim:

“But, in another aspect, the objection of the Scribes was not a mere cavil. In truth, it represented one of the great charges which the Pharisees brought against Jesus, and which determined them to seek His destruction…The second charge against Jesus was, that He was ‘not of God;’ that He is ‘a sinner’ (John 9:16, 24). If this could be established, it would, of course, prove that He was not the Messiah, but a deceiver who misled the people, and whom it was the duty of the Sanhedrin to unmask and arrest. The way in which they attempted to establish this, perhaps persuaded themselves that it was so, was by proving that He sanctioned in others, and Himself committed, breaches of the traditional law; which, according to their fundamental principles, involved heavier guilt than sins against the revealed Law of Moses…It was in support of the second of these charges, that the Scribes now blamed the Master for allowing His disciples to eat without having previously washed, or, as St. Mark - indicating, as we shall see, in the word the origin of the custom - expresses it with graphic accuracy: ‘with common hands.’…At the outset we have this confirmation of the Gospel language, that this practice is expressly admitted to have been, not a Law of Moses, but ‘a tradition of the elders.’ Still, and perhaps on this very account, it was so strictly enjoined, that to neglect it was like being guilty of gross carnal defilement. Its omission would lead to temporal destruction, or, at least, to poverty. Bread eaten with unwashen hands was as if it had been filth. Indeed, a Rabbi who had held this command in contempt was actually buried in excommunication. Thus, from their point of view, the charge of the Scribes against the disciples, so far from being exaggerated, is most moderately worded by the Evangelists…Jewish tradition traced, indeed, the command of washing the hands before eating - at least of sacrificial offerings - to Solomon, acknowledgment of which ‘the voice from heaven’ (Bath-Qol) had been heard to utter Prov. xxiii. 15, and xxvii. 11…That, in replying to the charge of the Scribes against His disciples, He neither vindicated their conduct, nor apologised for their breach of the Rabbinic ordinances, implied at least an attitude of indifference towards traditionalism. This is the more noticeable, since, as we know, the ordinances of the Scribes were declared more precious, of more binding importance than those of Holy Scripture itself…It has already been told, how Rabbinism, in the madness of its self-exaltation, represented God as busying Himself by day with the study of the Scriptures, and by night with that of the Mishnah; and how, in the heavenly Sanhedrin, over which the Almighty presided, the Rabbis sat in the order of their greatness, and the Halakhah was discussed, and decisions taken in accordance with it…The attitude of antagonism to traditionalism was never more pronounced than in what He said in reply to the charge of neglect of the ordinance about ‘the washing of hands.’ Here it must be remembered, that it was an admitted Rabbinic principle that, while the ordinances of Scripture required no confirmation, those of the Scribes needed such, and that no Halakhah (traditional law) might contradict Scripture. When Christ, therefore, next proceeded to show, that in a very important point - nay, in ‘many such like things’ - the Halakhah was utterly incompatible with Scripture, that, indeed, they made ‘void the Word of God’ by their traditions which they had received, He dealt the heaviest blow to traditionalism. Rabbinism stood self-condemned; on its own showing, it was to be rejected as incompatible with the Word of God.” (emphasis mine)
-Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Hendrickson Publishers, 7th printing October 2002), pp.480, 481, 483, 484, 485, and 486.

Also found here:

So, in summary, the Jews believed that their ‘Tradition’ was:
a.) Received as Divine revelation by King Solomon and passed down from him orally to the Rabbis. In fact, Jews today call it the “Oral Torah”:

Oral Torah. All Rabbinic traditions relating to the Written Torah and various legal aspects of Jewish life. The traditions were first passed on orally before they were written down…Torah. Literally, “teaching, instruction, law.” It can refer to: (1) the Written Torah (the first division of the Hebrew Bible; see Tanakh); or (2) the Oral Torah in its entirety (this of course includes the Written Torah as well).” (emphasis in original)
-Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2003), pp.236 and 237.

b.) The proper interpreter of Scripture, and thus, Scripture could never contradict it.

c.) Held to be on an equal par (or greater) with Scripture since they were both considered to be the Word of God.

Now, the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox view is that “Sacred” Tradition was/is:
a.) Received as oral Divine revelation from Jesus to the apostles who in turn taught it to their successors, the bishops.

b.) The proper interpreter of Scripture, and thus, Scripture could never contradict it.

c.) Held to be on an equal par with Scripture since they were both considered to be the Word of God.

The similarities are striking. Now, this argument does not prove that all oral tradition is false. Even the kerygma, the gospel proclamation made by the apostles, was originally in oral form (2 Thessalonians 2:15). However, what Jesus’ argument in Matthew 15:1-9 teaches us is that: a.) Scripture is clear and b.) because it is clear, it can judge the veracity of an allegedly Divine tradition.

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