Tradition (in the Bible)

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There are two concepts designated by the term tradition: the body of beliefs accepted by a society that gives it continuity with past generations and unity within itself and the process by which these beliefs are transmitted.

In the Old Testament. Israel's history, beginning with the Patriarchs, covered more than a millennium and a half. It was by the transmission and development of Israel's tradition that unity of spirit and growth in under-standing were made possible.

Formulation. Tradition needs to be formulated in some manner that will make transmission possible. The formulation will take different forms depending on time and place and the circle within which it takes place. Thus, the acts and requirements of Israel's God may be incorporated into historical narrative, poetry, prophetic oracles, or legislation. In addition to the spoken or written word, tradition may be incorporated into liturgical acts that recall the events of the past in cultic celebration. Since the main purpose of tradition is to actualize the events of the past and put the believer in contact with the saving work of God, this method is extremely important. Note the use of the term "memorial" for some of these rites (Ex 12.14) and the similar intent of the Last Supper in the New Testament (1 Cor 11.2426).

Content. The essence of Old Testament tradition lies in the history it recounts and the inspired interpretation given it; this is the content of the summaries of faith ("cultic credos") in Dt 6.2024; 26.59; Jos 24.213. The cultic act was accompanied by an explanation that is explicitly commanded to be repeated to each new generation (Ex 12.2627).

Tradition was capable of growth and reformulation. As new insights into God's plan were acquired, they were incorporated into the very recital of the events of the past. Such reformulation was not a falsification of ancient truths, but was rather a means of approaching more truly to God's eternal plan. The account of the call of Abraham in Genesis, for example, while resting on an early tradition, reveals insights acquired in the light of later events. Thus, there is a close connection between tradition and revelation.

The transition from oral tradition to written documents was gradual and is largely hidden in obscurity. National calamities in which the very structure of society was threatened, such as the fall of Judah in 587 b.c., would have given great impetus to committing traditions to writing. Scholars of the Uppsala school tend to hold that little of the Old Testament was written before exilic times, but their views have not been universally accepted.

In the New Testament. Tradition in the New Testament builds on the Old Testament, but is unique in many ways. Its essential content is the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. The period from its beginning to the completion of the New Testament was brief, well under a century.

Beginning and Formulation. Studies of H. Riesenfeld, B. Gerhardsson, and others have related New Testament tradition to rabbinic practice. The great rabbis gathered disciples who memorized their teachings and passed them on to others. Christ, too, was known as a rabbi (Mk 9.4; 11.21 etc.), a term that the New Testament usually renders as διδάσκαλος (teacher), gave special care to the formation of His close followers, who were called disciples (μαθηταί), and formulated His sayings in a manner apt for memorization by the use of parallelism, rhythm, and other techniques (see Mt7.2427). The institution of the Lord's Supper suggests that Jesus expected a lengthy period before His return, and if He wanted His teachings proclaimed to others and His work actualized for them, the formation of such a group was essential. Thus the kernel of New Testament tradition stems from the words of Jesus on the one hand and from the accounts of eyewitnesses to His ministry on the other.

In the Early Church. The first act of the Apostles after the Ascension was to choose a replacement for Judas; the function of the twelve was to bear witness to the work of God in Christ, especially to the ministry and Resurrection (Acts 1.1526). The Twelve acted as a collegium with the duty of instructing and forming new converts; this was accomplished by the spoken word, but also by liturgical rites and prayers (Acts 2.42). Form-critical studies have shown that many of the Gospel narratives were formulated in this earliest community. The selection and formation of Gospel materials was not done mechanically, however, but with an eye to the needs of the community. (see form criticism, biblical.)

The early existence of Christian tradition is attested also in the New Testament Epistles; this is important, for those of St. Paul, on the whole, are the earliest writings of the New Testament. Paul did not know Jesus in the flesh, but was called to the apostolic ministry after the Ascension. For this reason he often had to defend his authority as an Apostle. Yet, even in his earliest writings, it is clear that he submits his teaching to those who were Apostles before him (Gal 2.110) and bases it not only on the revelation made to him, but also on what had already been established as tradition. For example, A. M. Hunter has found in Paul's Epistles creedal formulas (1 Cor 15.37; Rom 1.35; 10.89), hymns (Eph 5.14; Phil2.611), stereotyped catechetical instruction, called τύπο ν διδαχ[symbol omitted]ς (pattern of teaching; Rom 6.17), and allusion to or citation of sayings of Christ (1 Cor 7.10; 9.14; 11.2425), all of which he must have received from those who were Christians before him. C. H. Dodd has shown that even Paul's utilization of the Old Testament exhibits a pattern common to other New Testament writers. (see testimonia.)

St. Paul, himself the product of strict rabbinical training, uses the technical terms of the rabbinic tradition process in their Greek equivalents: παραδιδόναι (for Heb. māsar ), to pass on, correlative to παραλαμβάνειν(for Heb. qibbēl ), to receive, in 1 Cor 11.23 and 15.3; κρατεȋν and κατέχειν, to hold fast, and many others. Although Jesus had rejected purely human tradition (Mk7.113), He is the new Moses (as shown in His Sermon on the Mount), and His word is to be held and kept as the new Torah (Law). Christ Himself is, in fact, the content of Christian tradition (Col 2.6).

Role of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Cor 11.23 St. Paul asserts that he received "from the Lord" what, clearly, he had received from the community. The preposition (πό) has generally been taken to refer to the ultimate, rather than to the immediate, source. O. Cullmann, however, sees here a reference to the glorified Christ acting immediately in and through the apostolic tradition as its immediate author, an action that is virtually identified with that of the Spirit (2 Cor 3.17); any other tradition, he holds, would have to be regarded as a tradition of men. Even if all this could be granted, it would be wrong to look to Paul for the final answer to the problem of the role of Christ and the Spirit in tradition, because it hardly arose for Paul. J. L. Leuba has pointed out that as long as the expectation of an immediate Parousia prevailed, there was no need felt to distinguish between Christological tradition and the action of the Spirit; later New Testament authors, however, found it necessary to make the distinction. St. Luke elaborated a theology of the "middle time," the career of Christ seen as the period between that of Israel and that of the Church; knowledge of the historical Christ, necessary for saving faith, is made present for men by the eyewitness testimony of the Apostles, closely related to the action of the Spirit, but distinguished from it. St. John goes a step further in establishing a decisive difference between the time when Jesus lived and the time when He is no longer on earth. The work of the risen Christ is also clearly distinguished from that of the Spirit, who is "another" paraclete (Jn 14.16). Here, too, there is an interim period in which the Lord acts both through the witness of men and the action of the Spirit (15.2627), who will reveal to them the deepest significance of what they have witnessed (16.13).

Tradition can be considered a deposit (παραθήκη; 1 Ti 6.20; 2 Ti 1.14). This means something that remains the goods of another, committed in trust, and which cannot be appropriated. Yet it need not be static. The servant who buried his lord's talent was blamed (Mt 25.2430); the scribe of the kingdom of heaven brings forth new things and old (Mt 13.52). The presence of the Spirit in the Church guarantees new insights and faithful continuity.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 284387. y. m. j. congar, La Tradition et les traditions, 2 v. (Paris 196063). o. cullmann, La Tradition (Neuchâtel 1953). b. gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript, tr. e. j. sharpe (Uppsala 1961). a. m. hunter, Paul and His Predecessors (rev. ed. Philadelphia 1961). e. nielsen, Oral Tradition (Chicago 1954). h. riesenfeld, The Gospel Tradition and Its Beginnings (London 1957). p. benoit, "La Tradition selon O. Cullmann," Exégèse et théologie, 2 v. (Paris 1961) 2:309317. l. cerfaux, "La Tradition selon saint Paul," Recueil L. Cerfaux, 2 v. (Gembloux 1954) 2:253263. j. l. leuba, "La Rapport entre l'Esprit et la tradition selon le N. T.," Verbum Caro 13 (1959) 133150. d. m. stanley, "Pauline Allusions to the Sayings of Jesus," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 23 (1961) 2639. d. a. knight, "Tradition History," Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:633638.

[j. jensen]