Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
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 presbyteros 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 people.

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. [1]

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 understandable. 

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.
[1] Who Wrote the New Testament?, Burton L Mack, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996

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