Traditions of the Elders
It's difficult for us today,
especially in the West, to appreciate the point that Jesus was making when
he talked about the "traditions of the elders". (An elder is
presbyteros in Greek, from which we get "presbyter" and, via Old
English, "priest" - literally a "senior".)
The Good News Bible translates the Greek word
as "ancestors" - a rendering which would be meaningful to people in Africa
and other more traditional cultures. Those cultures had no history as we
know it. As a result, their accurate historical horizon was limited to not
much more than 50 years. Beyond that was the realm of "the ancestors", who
were thought to guide a person or a nation in many matters by means of
dreams and hauntings.
Why should Jesus have bothered to say anything about the "traditions of
the elders" in Matthew 15.1-8 and 15.10 for example (also Mark 7.1-5, 14
which Matthew used as his source)?
There was no separation of Church and State in Jesus'
day. The idea would not have occurred to the average Hebrew. The point is
that the presbyteroi carried out a community function, not just a
religious one. Because there was no real distinction between religious and
secular matters, they would have had considerable power over ordinary
Whatever they declared right or wrong by interpreting
the Law would generally have been binding on an ordinary Jew who attended
synagogue. In Jerusalem a "High Council" or Sanhedrin would have
been regarded as a higher authority.
Despite their authority, we probably shouldn't think of
the elders as wielding an all-powerful, far-reaching authority over
ordinary people in villages and towns. Their influence is likely to have
been considerably less than, for instance, the Church's influence in
Europe of medieval times.
At local level the Elders would decide what punishment
could be inflicted upon someone for breaking the Torah or
"traditions". This could extend to flogging or - even more seriously for
the victim - excommunication. The latter would have amounted to banishment
from the local community. Because religion and civil affairs were one, a
ban from the synagogue could have a serious impact upon a family's
capacity to survive.
In Israel before the exile to Babylon, elders functioned
as heads of the Hebrew clans (the "twelve tribes of Israel"). The ancient
story goes that "seventy elders of Israel" were convened to ratify the
covenant which Moses had negotiated with God (Exodus 24). They were
portrayed as civil judges whose task it was to settle disputes
(Deuteronomy 21 and 22). Later they became rulers with political and
military powers (1 Samuel 4.3; 8.4-9).
When the tribal system collapsed after the exile, they
retained power as heads of eminent Jewish families. Eventually the
families became what we would today call "aristocrats" - such as those
with whom Nehemiah had many disputes (Nehemiah 5.7; 7.5). When Palestine
came under Greek rule in the centuries just before Jesus, the families
were given wide-ranging powers in a council called the Gerousia
("of the elders"), which in turn became the Sanhedrin. This is the
"Council of the Elders" referred to in Luke 22.66 and Acts 22.5 (both of
which were written by the same person).
So Jesus is attacking the very core of his social system
when he apparently refuses to be bound by some parts of the traditions.
This refusal must not be confused with the tendency of the gospel authors
to demonise the Hebrews - particularly in the Gospel of John. Matthew
15.1-6 and 15.10 survive the most rigorous tests of historicity. Other
anti-Semitic passages are now generally agreed to have been the work of
the gospel authors themselves.
Some think that the anti-Semitic tone of the gospels was
occasioned by the need of the early Church to differentiate itself from
its Hebrew origins. It had to do this if it was to establish itself as a
significant force in the Roman empire. By the fourth century, when the
Church in effect became the official religion of the empire, it had
... clearly distinguished itself from the contemporary
form of (rabbinic-synagogue) Judaism, had succeeded in appropriating all
the Jewish scriptures as the Christian Old Testament, and had developed
a rich anti-Jewish (adversus Judaios) literature.
It's striking that Jesus doesn't seem to appeal here to
a rival authority about tradition, but to reason. In effect, he
seems to have been objecting to a connection between food and spiritual
contamination, a connection which we today would generally think of as
magical or superstitious.
This magical connection was common in his time. It has
persisted throughout the ages to this day, and will probably always be
with us. It operates according to one of two principles elucidated by the
once-famous author of The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer. Magic is
based, he writes, on the principle
... first, that like produces like, or that an effect
resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in
contact with each other continue to act on each other ...
Jesus refuses the magical connection between the
external and the internal. It's not true, he says, that we can be
contaminated by something we touch or eat. Rather, the purity of our
actions is determined by what goes on inside us - that is, our subjective
state, our personal attitudes and decisions. This approach was clearly a
threat to the traditions of the elders.
For us in the 21st century Jesus' approach may not seem
all that extraordinary. But to his Jewish hearers, many of them unfamiliar
with the reasoning methods of Greek philosophy and Roman law, it may well
have been unusual. This was because in the ancient world the final proof
of anything was almost always not reason but authority.
Some Greek philosophers could be thought of as apparent
exceptions to this general line. Plato and Aristotle clearly rely on
reason for their conclusions about truth and social norms. Even so, they
were in a minority. Plato reminds us in his account of the death of
Socrates that the latter died not because he exercised reason, but because
he "corrupted the youth". He seduced them away from the gods and so
undermined the authority of the Greek elders.
This is not to say that people in Jesus' day didn't
consciously and deliberately think things through. What it does mean,
however, is that the power of past authority - the traditions of the
elders - was universally thought of as greater than the power of reason.
In short, the elders were honoured because they were thought to have the
weight of the entire Hebrew tradition behind them.
For Jesus to argue in the way he did seems natural to
us. But to his hearers he seemed to be challenging the very basis of
social order in the Palestine of his day.
Hebrews would not generally have accorded reason any
decisive authority. For them wisdom comes only from God who has delegated
it to the human race (Ps 8.5-6), his special people (Ps 68.35), to kings
(1 Chronicles 22.10) and the elders (through Moses, Deuteronomy 27.1).
Could it be that Jesus, by saying what he did, was also
challenging the "divine right" of kings and elders? We can't be certain,
but it seems distinctly possible. I think there can be little doubt that
he spoke as he did to stimulate his hearers to think about how they
responded to traditional authorities.
It wasn't long before Christians were attributing to
their elders an authority similar to that of the Jewish Elders. That it
eventually gave rise to the elaborate hierarchy of the Medieval Church is
Less understandable is the continuing insistence by the modern Church that
its version of the tradition of the elders has pride of place over reason,
even though Jesus himself refuted this.
 Who Wrote the New Testament?, Burton L
Mack, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996