views updated Jun 08 2018


TRADITION . The word tradition comes from the Latin noun traditio (handing over), which derives from the verb tradere (hand over, deliver). Traditio corresponds closely to the Greek paradosis, which also comes from a verb (paradidomi) meaning "hand over." Traditio and paradosis can be used literally or figuratively, in the latter case often to mean "teaching" or "instruction." Traditio and paradosis were commonly used in this sense by Latin and Greek Christian theologians to denote the body of teachings preserved and handed down by the church as "the Catholic faith." In the modern study of religion, however, a broader and more differentiated concept of tradition must be employed.

The Concept of Tradition

Culture depends on teaching and learning, and teaching and learning presuppose a tradition. The concept of tradition thus applies to all fields of culture, including science, arts and letters, education, law, politics, and religion.

A belief or practice in any field of culture may be said to be a tradition to the extent that it is received from the hands, lips, or the example of others rather than being discovered or invented; that it is received on the assumption that the authors and transmitters are reliable and therefore the tradition valid; and that it is received with the express command and conscious intention of further transmission without substantial change. Hence, as a source of knowledge, tradition is to be distinguished from rumor and fashion. Rumor and fashion, although received from others, are not necessarily assumed to be reliable or to merit transmission without alteration; on the contrary, they invite speculation and elaboration. Tradition, purporting to embody a fixed truth from an authoritative source, demands faithfulness and obedience.

Established traditions command respect because of their relative antiquity and the presumed trustworthiness of their authors and transmitters. Sacred traditions provide a link between the origin and destiny of things. The ancient Greek poet and prophet Hesiod in his Theogony says that the Muses, the daughters of Zeus, "inspired me with a divine voice to tell of the things that are to come and the things that were before" (ll. 3132). Similarly, the sacred traditions of all religions offer access to beginnings and insight into endings that personal experience and unaided reason cannot supply.

Sacred traditions sometimes tell of a golden age in the past. They preserve glimmers of the glorious age and establish beliefs, practices, and institutions to help people cope with the "iron age" of the present. At other times, traditions anticipate the attainment of a glorious future age, which they portray in prophecies. And sacred traditions often address past and future together. In all three cases, a view of time as something that can be recapitulated, or at least held in synoptic vision long enough to lend perspective on the present, underlies the concept of sacred tradition. The work of seizing time through myth or prophecy explains the critical importance of memory in religious traditions. Memory defies time and change. "Remember!" is the first commandment of tradition.

The second commandment is "Trust!" which in practice means "Obey!" Obedience to authorities who are deemed trustworthy is indispensable to the working of tradition because tradition is by definition something received from others. Within the community of tradition, obedience is validated by the benefits a person derives, or expects to derive, from following the tradition. From the outside, however, and especially from a modern critical perspective, the obedience tradition requires (and inspires) may appear to be confining, even oppressive. The discussion of tradition in the modern study of religion has been much affected by this clash of perspectives.

The concept of tradition in religion may be applied to the means by which norms of belief and practice are handed down (e.g., bards, books, chains of teachers, institutions) or to the norms themselves. This article is concerned with the norms, whereas the word transmission refers to the means by which traditional norms are handed down. The distinction between tradition and transmission is not absolute, however. Religions typically resist it, especially if it is used to justify attempts to abstract the supposed essence of a religion from its historic vehicles and forms of expression. Because tradition is by definition an indirect source of knowledge, the forms in which traditional knowledge is transmitted cannot be cast away without risking loss of content, because the content is not accessible or verifiable from contemporary sources. To the extent that it is immediately accessible, it ceases to be traditional in the strict sense of the word.

A sense of tradition as normative is a basic element in all religious systems, whether or not formal concepts of tradition exist. When formal concepts appear, they may be broad or specialized, depending on their function in the system and the degree of differentiation among the sources of religious belief and practice. Often the sense of tradition as normative is expressed by a broad collective reference to authoritative teachers or compendia: "the fathers," "the elders," "the sages," "the poets." An evolution from broad to specialized concepts can sometimes be discerned. In early Catholic Christianity, for example, the concept of tradition embraced all the formal sources of belief and practice handed down by the church, including the Holy Scriptures. Only much later, and only in the Western as distinct from the Eastern church, did "tradition" come to signify the extrabiblical (ecclesiastical) sources in particular, at which point the "problem" of scripture and tradition could arise. In Sunnī Islam, by contrast, the formal concept of tradition, the sunnah (custom, example) of the Prophet, became more specialized as a result of the formation of a closed collection of traditionsthe six books of adīths, or stories of the Prophet, compiled in the third and fourth centuries ah (ninth and tenth centuries ce) and eventually accepted as authoritative throughout Sunnī Islam.

Even more specialized cases are presented by two words meaning "tradition" in Judaism, Masora and Qabbalah, which come from verbs meaning "hand down" and "receive," respectively. The verbs are used at the beginning of the early rabbinic Ethics of the Fathers (Avot 1.1) with reference to the handing down of the Torah from God to Moses, Moses to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and so on. However, the nouns Masora and Qabbalah eventually came to be used not for tradition in the comprehensive sense but for specialized traditions: Masora for the exegetical traditions governing the transmission of the Hebrew text of the Holy Scriptures (hence "Masoretic text" for the canonical version of the Hebrew Bible), Qabbalah for the mystical and esoteric traditions of Judaism. The function of specialized concepts is to sharpen the definition of tradition in selected areas, not to diminish the scope of tradition as a comprehensive norm. In religions with highly specialized concepts of tradition, much that is traditional falls outside the formal concepts without being any less traditional for that reason.

In addition to occurring in the practice of religion, the concept of tradition appears also in the modern study of religion, where it is used descriptively rather than normatively and often rather loosely. Sometimes the word is little more than a synonym for the name of a religion, as when "Islamic tradition" simply denotes "Islam." This way of speaking may be questioned to the extent that it singles out traditionality as the most basic characteristic of a religion.

More problematic in relation to normative concepts of tradition is the pluralism reflected in some uses of the descriptive concept, as when "Chinese tradition" is applied collectively to the several religious systems of China or "Christian tradition" is used to group together conflicting normative versions of Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and so on). In some cases the modern descriptive concept of tradition fosters research into what might be called "deep tradition"cultural patterns and values so basic to a civilization that they are not formally stated in the classical tradition and may not even be clearly recognized by the bearers of the tradition. The concern of some modern scholars of India with the problem of defining the "Indianness" of Indiathe deposit of culture underlying the many different normative traditions of Indiais a case in point. In this case the notion of "Indian tradition" hypothesizes a unity that remains to be found and described. Such unities are difficult to define and are rejected by many scholars as mystifications meriting no more credence than "the Russian soul," "the Oriental mind," or other cultural stereotypes. Nevertheless, the presentiment of continuity in the world's great civilizations is powerful enough to motivate continuing research on "deep tradition."

Types of Traditions

Traditions may be verbal or nonverbal. Nonverbal traditions include traditional artifacts (e.g., icons, monuments, symbolic objects), sites, designs, gestures, postures, customs, and institutions. Nonverbal traditions cannot exist in isolation from verbal traditions, for the latter are needed to interpret them. However, nonverbal traditions possess a measure of autonomy in relation to verbal traditions because verbal interpretations can never completely penetrate the "thickness" of traditional objects or, in the case of religious objects, their presumed sacrality. Far from being dependent on specific verbal interpretations, nonverbal traditions typically host multiple or successive interpretations without losing their identity or traditional status. The persistence of nonverbal traditions in relative autonomy over against the interpretations attached to them is a good example of traditionality: the ascription of value to something by virtue of the fact that it has been handed down from early times on good authority.

Oral and written tradition

Verbal traditions may be oral or written. Although the distinction pertains first of all to the means of transmission rather than to tradition, the substance of traditions is affected by the differences between oral and written transmission.

First, the forms of expression used in traditions are dictated in part by the means available. Some forms, such as hymns, proverbs, riddles, and folk tales, are essentially oral. They may be written down, but writing does not open the way to a fuller realization of the form. Other forms, such as chronicles, law codes, and commentaries, depend on writing or are fully realized only in writing. Some of the most important forms of expression used in traditions, such as mythology and epic poetry, may reach a high level of development in either mode.

Second, oral tradition is a much older phenomenon than written tradition and precedes it in the formative period of traditions, even after the invention of writing. This fact suggests that written traditions themselves are shaped in part by oral traditions. In many literate religious traditions, for example, scriptural and pedagogical titles recall and even purport to re-create an oral system of communication. Thus, Qurʾān means "recitation." The title of the first book of rabbinic law, Mishnah, comes from a verb meaning "repeat" and refers to pedagogy based on oral recitation. Upaniad, a name for books of philosophical and esoteric teaching in Vedic tradition, comes from Sanskrit words meaning "sit down before [a teacher]." An accomplished monk in early Buddhism was called a bahusuta, "one who has heard much." The Greek word euangelion, "gospel" or "good news," means news in the literal sense of something proclaimed aloud in the hearing of the general public.

Third, oral tradition exists mainly in performance, while written tradition exists also in objective form apart from its applications. The relative independence of written texts stimulates the development of intellectuality and greatly increases the possibilities of dissemination in a fixed form. At the same time, writing involves significant dangers for a tradition. When a tradition is put into writing, its inconsistencies become more evident. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the quickened intellectuality that accompanies written traditions arises first of all from the need to address the inconsistencies that the writing down of a tradition exposes. Also, the independence of written texts opens the way to the use of traditional materials in ways not intended by traditional authorities, ways that are remote from the "living word" actualized in pedagogy and cult. To be sure, a written tradition is not further removed from the living word than an oral tradition insofar as the latter is understood as a tradition in the strict sense. Tradition, oral or written, is the word handed down by othersthe vehicle of the living word but not the living word itself. Nevertheless, the organic connection of oral tradition with performance guarantees the close proximity of tradition to the living word, whereas in the case of written tradition the connection is not as direct and greater pains must be taken to regulate the use of traditions.

Many moral and religious teachers have felt anxiety about writing. In the Phaedrus, for example, Plato has Socrates tell a story about a wise Egyptian king who, in reply to the god who offered the Egyptians the gift of writing as "a drug to produce memory and wisdom," observed that the invention was more likely to produce just the opposite, because those who came to depend on it would tend to seek wisdom in an external source rather than having to look within their own souls, and so they would "seem wise without being wise" (Phaedrus 274c275).

Fourth, oral and written traditions coexist and influence each other even after many authoritative sources of tradition have been committed to writing. Oral tradition is not a stage that is outgrown with the arrival of written tradition. Even after it has been replaced by writing as the chief means of transmission, oral tradition continues to thrive in the form of customs, folklore, popular preaching, storytelling, esoteric speculation, practical applications of religion to everyday life, and other manifestations of traditional mentality. The text of the Book of Exodus was well established by ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef's day, but that did not prevent the rabbi and his colleagues from arguing about the number and size of the frogs sent against Egypt in the famous plague (B.T., San. 67b). People love to talk, and talk preserves and extends itself by means of oral tradition. Sometimes oral tradition even generates new bodies of written tradition, as in the case of the oral Torah canonized in the rabbinic law codes, the Mishnah and the Talmud.

The importance of oral tradition in the history of traditions has been widely recognized in the modern study of religion. In particular, the concept of oral tradition has been used by scholars seeking to reconstruct the origins and early history of religious traditions. Unfortunately, the methodological problems of applying the concept of oral tradition are severe. Except for the data supplied by modern anthropologists and ethnographers from direct observation, the evidence for oral tradition must be extracted from written sources. Scholarly opinion thus divides along a spectrum running from skepticism about the possibility of ever isolating the original oral layer of a written tradition to more confident approaches based on literary and rhetorical analysis and the selective application of archaeological evidence.

Scripture and tradition

Many classical religious systems make a formal distinction between scripture and tradition. Scripture refers to divinely revealed texts; tradition refers to revelation mediated by human teachers. The distinction tends to be clear enough in practice. Thus Catholic Christians have no trouble distinguishing between the New Testament writings and the creeds and canons of the church councils; Muslims do not confuse the sunnah of the Prophet with the Qurʾān delivered by him. Yet the distinction between scripture and tradition is a difficult one to make in theory. It does not turn on the difference between divine revelation and human teaching, for in most religions authoritative tradition is reverenced almost as much as scripture as a conduit of revelation. Furthermore, the theoretical priority of scripture over tradition rarely translates into a higher degree of binding force in practice.

To some extent the distinction between scripture and tradition reflects the history of canonization in a religion. When a canon of scripture is definitively closed, authoritative teaching accruing thereafter is "tradition." Even so, the relationship must not be construed as a mere serial progression, least of all as a purely exegetical relationship, as if tradition were in essence commentary on a body of scripture that antedates it. Traditions often manifest a significant degree of independence from scripture for a variety of reasons: their origin in a time prior to the canonization of scripture, the diversity of sources embodied in tradition as opposed to the more restricted sources constituting a written canon, and the reference of tradition to basic religious functions not adequately treated by scripture, such as liturgy or law.

Beyond providing a source of religious authority in addition to scripture, tradition plays an indispensable role in the appropriation of scriptural sources. Scripture cannot be used if it cannot be interpreted, and every use (liturgical, legal, theological) implies an interpretation. Interpretation, however, requires a framework and accepted rules of discourse that scripture by itself cannot supply. They are supplied by tradition. Thus there arises a practical dependence of scripture on tradition. Dependence need not imply diminished regard for the authority of scripture. While the critical historian might view a hermeneutical tradition as a device for overcoming the piecemeal character or obscurity of scripture, the pious mind will regard it as the only conceivable means by which to gain access to the vast and awe-inspiring contents of divine revelationthe means established by divine authority as opposed to human ingenuity. In the eyes of piety there is no contradiction between an appreciation of the grandeur and sufficiency of scripture and a recognition of the crucial role of interpretation. The aim of interpretation is not to threaten but to preserve and protect scriptural revelation: "Tradition [Masora] is a fence to the Torah" (Avot 3.14).

Nevertheless, conflicts between scripture and tradition are bound to arise because of differences in provenance, time of origin, and ideological tendency. In every religion with a body of scripture, there will be traditions lacking scriptural warrant or even contradicting the plain sense of scripture, and there will be beliefs and practices mandated by scripture with no living function in the tradition. While exegetical ingenuity can go a long way toward resolving these conflicts, the problem of scripture and tradition cannot be settled by exegesis alone. From the outset, a conciliatory assumption of harmony between scripture and tradition must be made to support the work of exegesis and interpretation; otherwise the situation of the interpreter would be impossible, for scripture and tradition always diverge enough to make reconciliation impossible without the antecedent assumption of an ultimate harmony. This assumption is itself a traditum, a thing handed down and explicitly confessed by religious traditions with respect to their scriptures. The determination to affirm the harmony of scripture and tradition suggests that scripture has a significance that goes beyond its substantive contents, namely as an object of traditional loyalty, a badge of affiliation, and a symbol of continuity.

The role of the Vedic scriptures in Hinduism affords a good example. The Vedas were for a long time not scripture in the strict sense of the word because they were transmitted orally, but they played a quasi-scriptural role long before being committed to writing. In scriptural form they enjoy theoretical priority over the books of tradition (smti ; literally, "remembered") that were produced later. A wide gulf separates the religion of the Vedas from that of later Hindu tradition. The Vedas present a religion of animal sacrifice and of meat-eating, intoxicant-drinking priests; a worldview that knows nothing of the cycle of rebirth (sasāra ) and little of the theory of action (karman ); a cult without temple worship; and a pantheon in which many of the most popular gods and heroes of later Hinduism play little or no role. Nevertheless the books of smti consistently avow loyalty to the Vedas, and conciliatory explanations of departures from Vedic ways are offered. As Louis Renou put it, "The Veda is precisely the sign, perhaps the only one, of Indian orthodoxy" (Renou, 1960, vol. 6, pp. 23). In the religious history of India a crucial line of division separates the continuators of Vedic tradition from groups, such as the Jains and Buddhists, who broke with the tradition in principle. Among the continuators a community of tradition existed, despite many differences of doctrine and practice. Between the continuators and the others there was not a community of tradition, despite many historical and cultural affinities.

Tradition and Religious Originators

For a number of reasons the consciousness of standing in a sacred tradition is a typical feature of the outlook of originating figures in the history of religion. First, bearers of a new prophecy, revised values, or new loyalties must address their audience in terms the latter understands. The terms have to be drawn from a shared tradition. A classic example is in the Book of Exodus in the connection the prophet Moses proclaims between the God Yahveh, whose name he is commanded to reveal to the Israelite slaves, and "the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," that is to say the God or gods of ancient tradition (Ex. 3:1315; cf. Ex. 6:23).

Second, religious originators must be able to reflect upon their own experiences. Affording a means of achieving distance from the immediate present, tradition provides a framework for interrogation, interlocution, interpretation, and evaluation, without which reflection would be impossible. For example, early in his prophetic ministry Muammad experienced visions that he later came to regard as encounters with the archangel Gabriel, the figure thereafter identified by Muslims as the agent of Qurʾanic revelation. Scholars have pointed out, however, that the only reference to Gabriel as a revealer in the Qurʾān occurs in a late Medinan sūrah (2:9798) and that the descriptions of visions in earlier sūrah s (53:118, 81:1525) are vague about the identity of the being Muammad encountered. In other words, it appears that an angelological tradition, not invented by Muammad but accepted by him at some point, served the Prophet (and later Islam) as a way of understanding his early experiences.

Third, the consciousness of standing in a sacred tradition supports religious originators who break with the sacred traditions of their contemporaries and coreligionists. The originator's sense of tradition makes the break bearable and keeps it from being episodic or nihilistic. So, for example, the Apostle Paul, preaching a break with the Jewish law on the basis of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, was greatly aided by his conviction that he represented a tradition of faith authenticated by the law itself in its testimonies concerning Abraham (Rom. 34; Gal. 34).

The complexity of the relationship of religious originators to tradition can be seen in Jesus' confrontation with Jewish tradition as presented in the Synoptic Gospels. That presentation has decisively shaped the way the problem of tradition and innovation has been understood in the history of Christianity and even in modern scholarship. The German sociologist Max Weber (18641920), in his famous discussion of charismatic leadership, was thinking of the rhetorical dichotomies of Jesus when he wrote, "From a substantive point of view, every charismatic authority would have to subscribe to the proposition, 'It is written but I say unto you,'" and when he wrote, "Hence, in a revolutionary and sovereign manner, charismatic domination transforms all values and breaks all traditional and rational norms: 'It has been written but I say unto you'" (Weber, 1978, vol. 1, p. 243, vol. 2, p. 1115; cf. Mt. 5:21-48). Actually, in Matthew, Jesus does not say "It is written" but "You have heard that it was said to the men of old," but he then proceeds to quote from the Torah. Thus the confrontation is indeed between a written law and a living master. Jesus is also shown in the Synoptic Gospels to be sovereign over the sacred oral tradition claimed by the Pharisees, as when he reproached them saying, "You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men" (Mk. 7:8; cf. Mt. 15:19).

Nevertheless, Jesus' relation to Jewish tradition is misconstrued if one assumes that at bottom it was dichotomous. Throughout the Gospels, including the passages cited above, there is much evidence of continuity: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Mt. 5:17). The theme of continuity has often been muted by the anti-Judaic tendencies of much historical Christianity, including nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberal theology, which made a sharp distinction between the "legalistic" religion of the Jews and the "spiritual" religion of Jesus. Weber's discussion of charisma also tends to emphasize the break with tradition in the work of Jesus, as well as that of other prophets, military heroes, and messianic figures. Weber's emphasis is justifiable given his aims, namely the clarification of pure ("ideal") types. Abstractly considered, a charismatic leader always stands against tradition. He or she offers his or her followers something new and lays claim to a highly personal kind of authority, whereas "authority will be called traditional if legitimacy is claimed for it and believed in by virtue of the sanctity of age-old rules and powers" (Weber, 1978, vol. 1, p. 226). In historical reality, however, charismatic leaders always possess notions of tradition that play a crucial role in their own thinking and in their relationships with followers and with the general public. Thus Jesus, in the ostensibly anti-Mosaic teachings of Matthew 5 (e.g., vv. 2122: "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment") was probably not trying to invalidate the law of Moses but simply demanding behavior radically consistent with it. Jesus also frequently cited traditional authorities in his confrontation with the Pharisees, as when he cited the Prophet Isaiah to support his condemnation of "your tradition" (hand washing before meals) in Mark 7:67 (cf. Mt. 15:79; Is. 29:13). Here the condemnation of a certain understanding of tradition is itself supported by an appeal to tradition, as Jesus draws an analogy between his conflict with the Pharisees and the conflicts of the prophets of Israel with the religious establishment of an earlier day. Even conflicts with tradition are molded by tradition.

Charismatic prophets who attack the sacred traditions of their contemporaries are not the only type of originators in the history of religion. Sociable teachers of virtue who accept the commonly received forms of tradition but reinterpret their contents are also important. Originators of this type often make a conscious effort to deny the novelty of their message. Confucius is a good example. A powerful originator who reoriented Chinese tradition, Confucius achieved a remarkable humanization of the substance of Chinese religion in his doctrine of "humanity" (jen ). Yet he vigorously denied that there was anything new in his work. "I transmit but do not innovate; I am truthful in what I say and devoted to antiquity" (Analects 7.1, Lau translation). Confucius's words and deeds were designed to authenticate this claim. He was scrupulous in his observance of the established rites, devoted himself to traditional poetry and music, took the worthies of antiquity as his models, and showed reverence for the spirit world and for heaven.

The approach of Socrates to tradition, at least in Plato's quasi-canonical version, runs parallel to that of Confucius in an important way, though with an equally important difference. The difference lies in the methoddialecticwhich allows for the critical interrogation of received tradition in a spirit quite foreign to Confucius's approach. The parallel lies in Socrates' insistence that he had neither new truths to teach people nor access to a special or secret source of truth, but simply wanted to clarify the traditional valuesjustice, goodness, pietythat most people accept on faith but cannot define or defend when challenged to do so. Thus throughout Plato's portrait of Socrates there is a tension between the critique and the affirmation of Greek tradition. Socrates is depicted as a man who respects and participates in the common forms of tradition even as he demolishes the arguments of pretentious and incompetent apologists, such as Euthyphro, Ion, and Agathon. The Republic, for example, although it contains the sharpest attack on Greek tradition in Plato's dialogues, namely the critique of Homer and Hesiod for "badly portraying the nature of gods and heroes" (Republic 377e), opens with Socrates telling how he went down to Piraeus to pray to a goddess during a religious festival and ends with him recounting a myth of gods and heroes (the myth of Er).

The Formation of Traditions

A general theory of the formation of religious traditions has eluded scholars of religion despite the large body of specialized scholarship on the formative periods of many world religions. The difficulty is related to the conflict between the modern critical view of tradition as a historical product and the religious concept of tradition as a body of inviolate sacred canons transcending time and change. The application of historical and philological analysis to sacred traditions never fails to demonstrate their dependence on historical determinants. Yet the critical analysis of sacred traditions, if carried to the point of radical relativism, fails to account for the most distinctive fact of all: the continuity of certain sacred traditions with the capacity, however limited, to preserve themselves in a world of time and change.

The dynamics of traditionalism and relativism are further complicated by the instability of critical-historical theory itself. The annals of the modern study of religion abound with examples of theories that at one time commanded a substantial scholarly consensus but subsequently collapsed, not because they were opposed by religious traditionalists but because they were rejected by a new generation of critical scholars. For several decades of the twentieth century, for example, students in the reputable Protestant theological schools of Europe and North America were taught to view the Pentateuch through the lens of the "tradition history" school of Albrecht Alt, Gerhard von Rad, and Martin Noth. These scholars regarded the Pentateuch as the product of the expansion of smaller yet well-defined units of traditional material dating in some cases from as far back as the Middle Bronze Age (21001600 bce). Toward the end of the twentieth century this theory gave way to a view of the Pentateuch as a much later body of material reflecting the party struggles of the waning years of the Israelite monarchy (seventhsixth centuries bce) and owing relatively little to canonical forms handed down from earlier periods. The revisionist view itself is susceptible to revision, of course, not least because it tends to evade rather than settle the issue of tradition. While emphasizing the decisive role of political and religious elites in the fashioning of the Pentateuch, the revisionists concede that the elites did not create their material from nothing but worked with an antecedent "body of lore (myths, legends, laws, etc.)," "a basic core of stories, traditions, and so on," or a "body of diverse traditional material" (Van Seters, 1998, pp. 89, 14). If so, then an account of the history of these traditions is demanded. The category of tradition, marginalized by criticism of "tradition history," enters the picture again.

Political determinism, namely the view that traditions are formed by elites as a means of legitimating power and privilege, has been a powerful factor in modern theoretical reflection on the formation of religious traditions. Attention focused originally on clerical elites who, as Enlightenment rationalists supposed, invented the apparatus of religious tradition to exploit the ignorant masses. Beginning with the French Revolution the role of secular political elites also came under scrutiny, as critics of "ideology" exposed the cozy relations between church, throne, and aristocracy. As monarchical and aristocratic power declined in the nineteenth century, ideological criticism was directed against the new power elite, namely the middle class. The feminist criticism of tradition took shape in the same historical context. A related form of political determinism reverses the terms, suggesting that certain traditions were formed by oppressed groups as a way of contesting established power structures, whether through a revolutionary assault or through some sort of exodus from them. Such a view has been particularly influential in the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, in presentations of the ethics and "politics" of Jesus in the New Testament, and in liberation theology.

Delineating the connections between traditions and power elites has proved complicated enough to prevent the emergence of a generally accepted analysis. That power elites manipulate traditions and play a role in maintaining them has been clearly established by three centuries of critical analysis. What is not so clear is the extent to which traditions are the invention of power elites. The difficulty lies in the concept of legitimation. The legitimation, via tradition, of arrangements favorable to a power elite works only as long as the tradition is actually perceived as escapsulating a truth that transcends the elite. If the target audienceincluding the power elite itselfloses faith in the objective or unconstructed truth of a tradition, the latter quickly becomes useless for political as well as all other purposes. Legitimation thus proves to be an ambiguous concept: it combines political and transpolitical elements without clarifying the relationship between them.

The persistence of the tao-tʿai pattern (the animal mask or dragon figure) in traditional Chinese ritual and art can serve as an example of the dilemma faced by the interpreter of any enduring tradition. Widely disseminated by the Shang rulers of China in the second millennium bce, especially as a motif on the bronze ritual vessels of the period, the tao-tʿai and related patterns have been called "signs or emblems of Shang authority" (Hsu and Linduff, 1988, p. 19). Yet the origins of the pattern are almost certainly to be looked for in a shamanistic spirituality that long predated the Shang. Moreover, when the Chou dynasty overthrew the Shang in the late twelfth century bce, the new rulers perpetuated the classical pattern, thereby showing that they and their audience regarded it not as a Shang emblem but as a tradition of general validity, a channel of truth. Even if one can show that the meaning of the tao-tʿai changed significantly in the course of its long history, the persistence of the ancient template as a form for the discovery of new meaning is itself a highly significant fact about Chinese religion and thought, an example of a certain kind of traditionality.

An important contribution to study of the formation of traditions has been made by Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger, and others who have investigated "the invention of tradition" in modern times. Careful to distinguish their subject from tradition in a more comprehensive sense, these critics focus on the conscious production of new rituals in response to the social, political, and ecological upheavals created by modern capitalism. Invented traditions are designed to establish or symbolize social cohesion in an environment where traditional communal bonds have been disrupted or revolutionized. Typically modern communities, such as new nation-states, awakened ethnicities, labor unions, voluntary organizations, environmentalist groups, gender-based associations, and others, invent traditions as a way of justifying their novelty. Often this takes the form of embracing "traditions" that appear to be old but are in fact quite new. The Romantic movement, with its interest in premodern folk culture, was an important source of ideas for inventors of traditions. Archaeology and anthropology also contributed by stimulating interest in prehistoric civilization.

Efforts to promote the cult of goddesses (or the Goddess) in Europe and North America are a good example of the invention of tradition. The critical framework of modern goddess religiosity is provided by the feminist critique of patriarchalism and the environmentalist critique of capitalism and modern technology. The positive religious content is drawn from the work of archaeologists, such as Marija Gimbutas, who seek to reconstruct the goddess-centered spirituality of a putatively pre-patriarchal period of European civilization. The limitations of the enterprise derive from the difficulty of determining the actual significance of goddess motifs in their original context, given the absence of written sources.

In addition to political theories, linguistically based theories of the formation of tradition have been influential in the modern study of religion. Here traditionality is seen not just as the product of social and political interests but as something inherent in the very structure of human understanding. This view of tradition is connected with the linguistic turn in the human sciences in the twentieth century. Many twentieth-century thinkers lost confidence in Enlightenment rationalism with its search for an unmediated starting point of knowledge and focused instead on the medium in which human beings actually think and communicate. The concreteness of language seemed to provide a surer foundation for a theory of human understanding than metaphysical notions, such as self, substance, or God. In Anglo-American thought the linguistic turn generated analytic philosophy; in continental European thought it produced philosophical hermeneutics and postmodernism. The contribution of analytic philosophers to the theory of tradition has been modest. Continental philosophers on the other hand, especially Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Jacques Derrida, have had an enormous impact. By rejecting "pure" experience and insisting on the radically historical, interested, necessarily biased character of all human expression, these thinkers stimulated a new respect for tradition to the extent that tradition manifests the predicament of human understanding generally. If all human expression (ideas, values, symbols, and so on) is, in effect, a commentary on its own temporal situation (including the other human expressions found in its situation), then one may say that all human expression functions in and as a tradition of some kind.

Ironically, reverence for tradition played little part in the rise of philosophical hermeneutics and postmodernism. Heidegger viewed his philosophical project as a revolutionary break with the entire tradition of Western philosophy and theology since Plato, a view not unconnected with the European fascist project of leaping beyond modernity into a radically new historical epoch. The "post" in postmodernism encodes the same idea of an irrevocable break with the Western tradition. However, by rejecting the Enlightenment project of modernity, philosophical hermeneutics and postmodernism stimulated a fresh look at the premodern value systems the Enlightenment rejected, including historic religious traditions. Heidegger's more moderate heirs in the following generation, especially Gadamer and Ricoeur, have played a particularly prominent role in recasting the discussion of tradition.

Idealization and Canonization

All religious traditions construct pictures of their own formative periods. The pictures are built up over time by the retrospective projection of religious ideals onto the history of the tradition. Such pictures must not be accepted as literal descriptions of the formation of a tradition. Their function is to stress the unity and continuity of tradition, whereas the critical history of any tradition in the formative period never fails to reveal breaks, conflicts, and a diversity of views and practices.

An example of an idealized picture of the formative period of a tradition is the picture of the early Christian church in the Acts of the Apostles, a New Testament work composed in the last third of the first century. The picture of the church in Acts was shaped in part by the proto-Catholic ideal of a single apostolic church, and it contributed to the spread of this ideal in the following decades. Acts depicts a worldwide church directed from Jerusalem by twelve apostles governing alongside elders who are not identified as apostles, such as Jesus' brother James. Much attention is devoted to the missionary work of Paul, who is not identified as an apostle except in Acts 14. Stress is placed on Paul's cooperation with the Jerusalem church and on the harmony of his views with those of Peter, the only apostle to receive a substantial amount of attention in Acts. Matters that would tend to qualify the general impression of a unified church leadership, such as the nature of the relationship between the twelve apostles, Paul, and James, are not clarified. The picture in Acts is at variance with the evidence preserved in Paul's letters. Paul does not hesitate to call himself an apostle, does not deal with a group of twelve apostles in Jerusalem, records a sharp conflict with Peter (Gal. 2:1114), and in general gives the impression of a more independent relationship to the Jerusalem Church than the one ascribed to him by Acts.

The idealization of tradition by later canonizers stands in tension not only with protean historical experience but with living traditions originating prior to the canonization of the tradition. No religious tradition springs onto the scene already possessing the canonical structures that will hold it together in the long run. Nevertheless, nascent tradition must be defined and held together in some way in the circles where it is received. In these circles the legacy of charismatic leaders who can claim a direct link to the originating source of sacred tradition plays an important role, as do beliefs and practices validated by custom and oral tradition. Local centers of living tradition developing independently and without much central coordination are the original hearths of tradition. Examples are the regional schools of law in early Islam (e.g., Medinese, Iraqi, Syrian), the metropolitan churches in early Christianity (e.g., Antioch, Alexandria, Rome), and the various monastic disciplines elaborated by the Buddha's successors around a common core but admitting significant differences of practice and eventually belief. The fixing of canons in a tradition necessarily breeds conflict with the original local centers of living tradition. Conflict would be inevitable even if the work of later canonizers were free of ideological or regional bias, which is rarely the case. The function of canonization is to generalize and standardize, that of living tradition to affirm and develop inherited beliefs and practices.

Yet it must not be thought that canonization represents nothing but the regimentation of tradition by a central authority. Canonization is a process that presupposes a significant measure of consensus among the centers of living tradition to begin with. Without it the canonization of a tradition could not be successful but would result in division. An example of division is the split in the order of monks at the second Buddhist council, said to have been held at Vaisali about a century after the Buddha's death. Catholic Christianity and Sunnī Islam, on the other hand, are examples of extremely successful efforts of broad-based canonization, accomplished in each case during the first three to four centuries of the religion's existence. The consolidation of broad segments of Judaism in late antiquity on the basis of the Talmud is another example of canonization carried out in a religious environment that modern scholarship has shown to be far more diverse than formerly supposed.

If canons are by definition clear, communicable, and relatively easy to identify once the process of canonization has been completed, the consensus presupposed by canonization is more difficult to locate and define. The concept of consensus is further complicated by the fact that some religious traditions possess their own particular concepts of consensus, such as the concept of the consensus (ijmā ʿ) of the law schools in early Islam. While concepts of consensus in religious systems function primarily as ideals, the ideals usually preserve evidence of the fact that the formation of the tradition was not the work of a single religious center dictating canons to the periphery but resulted from the simultaneous emergence of distinct living traditions whose informal agreement on fundamentals was the sine qua non of the formal consolidation of tradition at a later time.

A good example of these dynamics is seen in the evolution of the sunnah, or tradition, in early Islam. In the third and fourth centuries ah (ninth and tenth centuries ce) the sunnah of the Prophet received its classic form in the six canonical books of adīths, or stories of the Prophet, eventually accepted by Sunnī Muslims. How these books were produced is not a mystery. They were the leading works to emerge from decades of travel, research, and discussion by learned seekers of adīths who undertook to discriminate between sound and spurious reports and whose methodologythe testing of the chain of transmission (isnād) of each reportwas rigorous, even though modern critical historians would question some of the criteria applied. However, to suppose that one has explained the formation of the sunnah upon rendering an account of the work of the seekers of adīths is to fail to address more basic and difficult questions: what was the connection between the adīth material on which the seekers worked and the living traditions of Islam before their time, and what factors of consensus operating in earlier times paved the way for their work?

Much modern Western scholarship on adīth and the closely related subject of early Islamic law stresses the breaks between the work of the canonizers and earlier Islam. It is pointed out that the transmission of adīths with a certifying isnād was a late phenomenon and that there is reason to doubt that adīths were formally transmitted at all in the first century of Islam. It is sometimes questioned whether the Prophet left any sunnah s, or traditions, apart from the Qurʾān. Above all it is pointed out that the schools of law, whose roots went back to early times, looked upon the later adīth movement as a disruptive force that threatened their own understanding of the sunnah as the tradition of the law schools (rather than of the Prophet himself) and undermined the ideal of consensus.

Some modern scholars, however, notably Fazlur Rahman in Islam (1979), have pointed out the ultimate irrationality of a critical historiography that bars the assumption of continuity in early Islam, since the consolidation of the sunnah and the integration of the traditional law schools into Sunnī tradition cannot be imagined without assuming significant elements of continuity and consensus at work from early times. Thus Rahman holds that, from the beginning, sunnah could not have meant the sunnah of the law schools alone but must have focused on the Prophet, at least in intention, even if "it was not so much like a path as like a riverbed which continuously assimilates new elements." Accordingly, transmission of the sunnah would have taken the form of a "'silent'or 'living' tradition" rather than a formal discipline (Rahman, 1979, pp. 5455). The later adīth movement formalized and, so to speak, professionalized the sunnah. But the movement was successful, in Rahman's opinion, because the concept of "the sunnah of the Prophet" had always been the implied ideal of Muslim practice, and also because a fixed corpus of adīths provided a more solid basis on which to build a pan-traditional ("Sunnī") consensus than did the ideal of the consensus of the law schools.

Beyond their role in the formative period of traditions, groups oriented toward a traditional consensus often play a significant role in the regulation or reformation of traditions. Brahman castes in many parts of Hindu India may be cited as an example of tradition-minded regulators. An important group of brahmans even goes by the name of Smārtas (from smti, "tradition"), or "traditionists."

For an example of tradition-minded reformers, one may point to the Pharisees in Judaism in late antiquity. Scholarly debate continues over how best to classify the Pharisees as a religious group and how to define their role in the reorganization of Judaism culminating in the canonization of the Mishnah and Talmud. In the twentieth century, George Foot Moore, Louis Finkelstein, and other scholars propounded a view of the Pharisees as representatives of a "normative Judaism" that served as the foundation for later rabbinic tradition. Subsequent scholarship has richly documented the religious diversity of Judaism in late antiquity, the influence of Hellenistic culture on the Pharisees themselves, and the role of parties other than the Pharisees in the making of rabbinic Judaism. The result has been to give rise to a revisionist view of the Pharisees almost diametrically opposed to the earlier one. Far from being seen as the bearers of "normative Judaism," the Pharisees are presented as simply one sect among many in the religiously complicated world of Judaism around the beginning of the Common Era. That the name Pharisee may have originally meant "sectarian" lends support to this view.

Yet the revisionist view has its problems. The conceptual problem is how to distinguish between sectarians and traditionists. If all religious activists in a given setting are "sectarians," then none of them are. To put it another way, the term sect in the history of religion has meaning only in contrast to church or similar terms denoting broad-based traditional structures emphasizing consensus and continuity. To be sure, the distinction between sectarians and traditionists is a relative one, but without it one cannot speak about some basic differences between religious groups. For example, the difference between the Pharisees on the one hand and the early Christians and the community at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered) on the other was a difference of kind, not just degree. The latter two were sects: small bands of devotees living apart from the ordinary world in a closely knit commune (Qumran) or preaching a radical new prophecy with its own novel cult (Christians). Moreover, Christians and Qumranians lived in the expectation of an approaching cosmic cataclysm that would put an end to the historic Judaism of their day. Long before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce, these groups had broken with Jerusalem and the Temple by reinterpreting Jewish tradition in terms of their own sources of illumination. The Pharisees too were innovators, but they had a completely different orientation to tradition. What set the Pharisees apart from Christians and Qumranians was the assumption of continuity with the historic institutions of Judaism, including the Temple, and the stress on realizing the goals of piety in the everyday world, without new prophecies and without a new cult.

The Multiformity of Classical Traditions

Classical traditions are multiform. Multiformity results from the adaptation of traditions to the variegated quality of human experience, including religious experience. Nestor, the voice of tradition in the Homeric poems, describes the problem exactly: "The gods do not give people all things at the same time" (Iliad 4.320). Talents, tastes, values, social and political roles, age, gender, and station in life vary among individuals and groups. Tradition is called upon to unite what experience divides, so that the old can communicate with the young, the intellectual with the illiterate, the urbanite with the rustic, the priest with the flock, the prince with the pauper. Unity is sought not through regimentation but through the multiform elaboration of tradition. Multiformity in turn makes it possible for tradition to play a number of mediating roles in a civilization: to apply religious values flexibly, to mediate conflicts between different sets of values, to host creative interaction between different theoretical viewpoints, and so on. The multiformity of classical traditions stops short of radical pluralism, however. In the end, every tradition recognizes a hierarchy of values.

Several kinds of multiformity can be seen in the history of classical traditions. One kind results from the sociocultural differentiation of a tradition. Using terms that subsequently found wide application in the study of religion, the anthropologist Robert Redfield, in his Peasant Society and Culture (1956), called the two basic forms of tradition resulting from this type of differentiation "the great tradition" and "the little tradition." The great tradition is literate, reflective, cultivated by specialists working in cities, schools, temples, monasteries, and the like. The little tradition is typically illiterate, customary, embodied in the common beliefs and practices of the mass of ordinary folk. Scholars and cultivated practitioners of religion have always recognized that classical and popular religion diverge, yet this recognition seldom led to advances in understanding because of the tendency to regard popular religion as a "lower" form of expression. The contribution of modern anthropological studies of religion has been to show, first, that popular religion is just as much a tradition as classical religion, a tradition that can achieve high levels of organization, complexity, and "rural cosmopolitanism"; and second, that the interaction between great and little forms of tradition is a dynamic one in which the little tradition not only receives from the great but also contributes to it. Great and little traditions are, as Redfield put it, "two currents of thought and action, distinguishable, yet ever flowing into and out of each other" (Redfield, 1956, p. 72). Redfield's distinction has been criticized by other anthropologists for oversimplifying "great" and "little" traditions and for underestimating the degree to which ordinary believers are conversant with their great tradition via nonliterary means, such as icons, oral tradition, preaching, rituals, and authority structures (Tambiah, 1970, pp. 34, 367377). But these criticisms do not so much refute the distinction as suggest a more nuanced version of it. Almost no responsible scholar of religion wishes to return to the privileging of text-based religiosity and the neglect of demotic factors.

A second kind of multiformity in classical traditions develops from the recognition of the multiplicity of paths to religious fulfillment. Classical Hinduism, for example, distinguishes at least three valid paths to the goal of liberation (moka ): the path of knowledge (jñāna mārga ), the path of devotion to a personal God (bhaktimārga ), and the path of ritual and dutiful action in the world (karma-mārga ). It is fairly clear that the paths originated at different times and in different circles and that they evolved in relative independence of each other. Furthermore there has never been a consensus in Hinduism about the relative merits of the paths. Monist philosophers unanimously proclaim the superiority of the path of knowledge, and their control of much of the higher philosophical literature of Hinduism has led some observers to assume that this appraisal is shared by most Hindus. Yet in the fervor of communion with God, the devotionalist does not doubt the superiority of the devotional path, nor in all probability has the majority of Indians doubted the practical superiority of dutiful action in the world. Thus the idea that the three paths are expressions of a common aspiration cannot be explained as the natural outcome of the paths themselves but must be seen as a traditum in its own righta tradition of handing down distinct paths in association with each other on the assumption of their mutual coherence. The assumption is an act of faith, since a systematic doctrine reconciling the different paths has never been accepted by all Hindus.

The Hebrew Scriptures constitute another traditum embodying a multiplicity of ways to religious insight. In Judaism and Christianity this multiplicity, while recognized, has not been emphasized in ways that would threaten strict monotheism or ecclesiastical unity. Nevertheless, the religious multiformity of the Bible has always been exploited by Jewish and Christian traditionists. Certainly the Bible would be a far less usable book if it admitted only the normative religion of priests and legists, only the charismatic religion of the prophets, only the Logos of the wise men, or only the devotionalism of the psalmist or if it lacked the rage of Job, the skepticism of Ecclesiastes, the eroticism of the Song of Songs. Nothing is more characteristic of the Hebrew Scriptures as a traditum than the transmission of many ways of theological insight together in a single canon of law, prophets, and writings. Historically, the various forms of religion represented in the Bible originated in relative independence from each other and were cultivated selectively by different groups. One must not project back into the ancient period a general fraternization of priests, legists, prophets, wise men, cult singers, and skeptics united in the praise of the Lord of Israel. Their solidarity in witness to and celebration of the Onethe "Bible" as distinguished from its component partswas the contribution of tradition.

Other kinds of multiformity result from the adaptation of a tradition to stages of life and degrees of religious virtuosity. An example is the classical Hindu doctrine of the four āśrama s, or stages of life (celibate student, householder, forest hermit, wandering ascetic). In the classical doctrine the four āśrama s are seen as successive stages through which a pious male of the twice-born castes will pass in the course of his life. It appears, however, that the distinction between the āśrama s antedates the notion that they represent "stages" in a coherent succession. In any case only a minority of Hindu householders have ever passed beyond the second stage, and many hermits and ascetics in the history of Indian religion were never householders. The doctrine of the āśrama s appears to be an attempt on the level of ideals to reconcile the world-affirming, dutiful religion of the Indian family system with the renunciationist religiosity of ascetic and mystical virtuosos. The contribution of tradition is the assumption that the four āśrama s are coherently related to each other, and that respect and communication are therefore possible among their representatives. The reach of Hindu tradition is thereby significantly expanded.

A special adaptation of tradition to stages of life is represented by forms of religion connected with dying and the treatment of the dead. In all societies these matters are regulated chiefly by tradition, because neither reason nor experience can offer much guidance. By establishing a role in death, a tradition secures a place for itself in life, because people's lives will be affected by the way they expect to die. In Japan, for example, Buddhism has traditionally been the religion of funerals, and only at the grave does it come close to being the universal religion of the Japanese people. Still its special authority over death is one of the ways Buddhism gains visibility and prestige in Japanese tradition as a whole.

In some religions the distinction between the religion of virtuosos and that of ordinary people is built into the fundamental structure of the tradition. Buddhism is a case in point. In its first century Buddhism was a religion of monks that, although moderate in comparison with other asceticisms in its day, proposed a way of life incompatible with life as a householder in the everyday world. Yet Buddhism managed to establish itself as the dominant religious tradition in several Asian societies. It achieved its hegemony not by abandoning monasticism but by developing a mode of lay religious participation distinct from the monastic one yet in harmony with it: laypeople are invited to earn "merit" by providing food, clothing, dwellings, and other services for monks. The rewards of this exchange for the laity are ritual protection against the chaotic forces of the universe, enhanced moral clarity in this life, and a better birth in the next life. This "domestication" of Buddhism, as Todd T. Lewis has called it, had a profound effect not only on Buddhist societies but on Buddhist monasticism itself (Lewis, 2000, pp. 34). While the Western scholarly stereotype of the Buddhist monk as a detached seeker of transcendental enlightenment (nirvāa ) can certainly be documented, the large majority of Buddhist monks seem to have been more concerned with such sociable pursuits as collecting and disseminating parables, conducting rituals, and preaching for the edification of the community as a whole. Indeed it is hard to imagine how Buddhism could have been such a successful religion if most of its monks had followed the more detached way. The dialectic of multiformity and community occurs in one form or another in every religious tradition.

Mysticism, Esotericism, and Tradition

Mysticism and esotericism are forms of religious expression that present special problems for classical traditions. Mysticism is the cultivation of closeness to or union with the divine or ultimate. It may or may not involve special doctrines; it always involves special techniques. Esotericism is the study and application of "secret" teachings of a speculative (e.g., theosophical, cosmological, eschatological) or practical (e.g., magical, occult) sort. Mysticism and esotericism need not overlap, although they often do. The genius of classical religious traditions is nowhere better seen than in their capacity to host mysticism and esotericism, if not always as honored traditions within the tradition at least as a traditionally tolerated religious "night life."

Experience is the goal of mysticism regardless of the means employed, which range from strict asceticism through sociable middle ways to antinomian abandon. In essence, mysticism is not a matter of tradition, since experience cannot be received from or handed on to others. Mysticism is a matter of insight or perception, not texts, doctrines, or rules. However, because mysticism is interesting to most religious communities, and because human beings need to communicate about the things that interest them, mysticism typically generates formal mystical traditions, which may grow to an imposing size and complexity even against the wishes of a saintly originator. Formal mystical traditions are canons applied specifically to adepts or aspirants, such as myths of foundation, sacred histories, chains of authoritative transmitters, initiatory rites, techniques of devotion and ecstasy, sayings, texts, and rules regulating physical functions. As a general rule, once a mystical tradition is formed, little vagueness or laxity in its application is tolerated even though the goal of mysticism remains personal experience. In fact the canons of mystical traditions tend to be even more rigorously defined and enforced than those of mainstream traditions. This is partly because of the elite character of mystical traditionsrules can be more strictly enforced when applied to a few; partly because of the central role of the spiritual master in many mystical traditions, a role commanding a high degree of obedience from aspirants and apprentices; and also perhaps because of the need to guard against the explosive forces of unstructured mysticism. In madness and in method the traditional mystic is not unlike a classical ūfī poet: God-intoxicated yet still mindful of the meters.

Whereas the interaction between mysticism and host traditions is extremely complex, the history of religion supports the generalization that the two need each other. Mysticism needs a host tradition as a source of vocabulary and symbols. Even though the meaning of these may be revised by the mystics who use them, without them the mystics would not be understood by anyone. In addition, the reserve shown to mystics by the authorities of a host tradition, beyond safeguarding the interests of the latter, is generally healthy for mystics because it challenges them to clarify their goals and refine their methods. As a rule the nemesis of mysticism is not too much structure but too little.

Mysticism can renew tradition. Cadmus and Tiresias, personages representing the Greek political and religious establishment in Euripides' play The Bacchae, gave good advice to every established tradition when they counseled the young ruler of Thebes, Pentheus, to admit the revels of the god Dionysos into the city, maintaining that incorporation of the cult would fortify tradition and enhance the prestige of the ruling house. If Pentheus disregarded his elders' advice with disastrous consequences to himself and his city, established traditions in the history of religion have usually heeded it. Traditions may also strengthen their links with popular culture by patronizing mystics. In spite of the elitism involved in a formal mystical discipline, many mystics have been rather sociable individuals, and they have almost always found favor with the popular strata. Among other things, this has made mystics and ascetics effective agents of mission in religious traditions with missionary ambitions.

Conflicts between mystics and host traditions are common and may be severe. In the sixth century certain Palestinian monks, seekers of union with Christ through mental prayer, claimed that they would achieve "equality with Christ" in the restoration of all things at the end of time, for which reason they were called Isochrists or "Equal-to-Christ-ers." They were expelled from their monastery, and the doctrines supporting their position were condemned by the Council of Constantinople (553 ce). The great Muslim mystic al-allāj was executed in Baghdad in 922 ce for claiming "I am the Truth" (i.e., God). In both cases, however, the conflict was precipitated more by the doctrinal implications of verbalized claims than by the practices or experiences that prompted the claims. The suppression of the Isochrists did not stop the spread of the mysticism of mental prayer in Eastern Orthodox monasteries; it simply showed that certain claims could not be expressed in public and probably should not be entertained in private, even if inspired by mystical experiences. Similarly many a ūfī after al-allāj has doubtless thought "I am the Truth" but has not said it or has said it in figurative language, with an appropriate gloss, or in the secrecy of the heart.

As a general rule, mystics and traditionists tend to recognize their mutual interest in avoiding direct conflict, or at least in finding ways to routinize it. Moreover, the way is always open for creative individuals to experiment with means of uniting mysticism and tradition. Individuals who succeed in this enjoy great popularity in their tradition. One may point to al-Ghazālī, who achieved fame in eleventh-century Islam as a doctor of law and a ūfī adept; to Gregory Palamas, the fourteenth-century bishop of Thessalonica, who employed the refined intellectual traditions of Greek Orthodox theology to defend the radical experientialism of rustic monks; and to the Indian philosopher Rāmānuja (eleventh to twelfth century), who, using the texts and methods of Vedānta, attempted to reconcile monism with the experientially based claims of devotionalists in a "qualified nondualism." In most cases the theoretical differences between mysticism and the doctrines of its host tradition are great enough to put an absolute synthesis beyond reach. But tradition does not require synthesis; mediation is enough.

Esotericism is concerned with teachings rather than experience, although mystical and esoteric currents mingle in the history of religion. The basis of esotericism in religion is the claim to possess secret or otherwise special traditions from an authoritative sourcetraditions that support speculation, occult practices including magic, or both. The possession of secret traditions may provide the basis for independence from other religious groups or for the existence of an elite group within a larger host tradition. Among the reasons given to justify secrecy are that most people are too simple or too perverse to understand true teachings or that the withholding of secrets is part of a providential plan to be revealed in the future. Also at work is the natural desire to avoid enraging the guardians of normative tradition by undercutting their authority in public. The threat of conflicts is real because esotericists always claim access to authoritative sources beyond those of normative tradition. So, for example, certain masters of Jewish Qabbalah claimed access through secret tradition to a primordial revelation from Adam or to texts composed by biblical patriarchs and other ancient worthies. Such claims compromised the singularity of the Torah received from Moses, and therefore also the authority of the Orthodox rabbis. Similarly, the teaching authority of Catholic Christian bishops was threatened by the belief of Gnostics that the inner meaning of the gospel was handed down by the apostles to an elite of spiritual and intellectual Christians, not to the church as a whole.

Like mystics, esotericists generally steer away from direct conflicts with traditional authorities and aim instead at accommodation. Rarely a religion in its own right, esotericism needs an exoteric tradition in order to define itself. The common tradition is enriched by the multiformity. One of the most important contributions of modern research on Qabbalah, for example, has been to show that many forms of esotericism were deeply embedded in the soil of Palestinian Judaism from early times and developed within the framework of the Talmudic tradition. This is not to deny that influences from other religions and from popular culture helped shape Qabbalah. But influences have consequences in the history of religion because they resonate with the needs and themes of established traditions. Esotericists, for the most part, are less interested in reshaping traditional piety than in heightening its intensity by focusing on specific values and goals within it. The "paradoxical emphasis on the congruence of intuition and tradition" that Gershom Scholem observed in Qabbalah is typical of the approach of most esotericists to their host traditions (Scholem, 1978, p. 3).

Tradition and Change

Religious traditions are not hostile to change, provided the new can be integrated with the old through reform or renewal. Integration is difficult to accomplish in practice, and religious traditions rarely make the effort except when compelled to do so by a crisis of some sort. In critical situations, however, when the outward authority or inner coherence of tradition is at stake, religious traditions can demonstrate a vitality that contrasts sharply with their apparent inertia at other times. There is no paradox here. One of the primary functions of religious traditions is to provide direction in times of change. A sense of tradition, allowing for the old to be appreciated as ever new and the new to be received as clarifying or fulfilling the old, serves to check the chaotic potential of change. Of course, traditions may be overwhelmed by a crisis of catastrophic proportions, such as the European conquest of the Americas. Even in these cases, however, features of the displaced tradition often survive under the auspices of the successor tradition, usually on the popular level in the form of an ongoing little tradition.

While religious traditions are not necessarily opposed to reform or renewal, revolutionary change is a different matter. By definition, a tradition is opposed to changes that abrogate the link with the past preserved in its fundamental tradita. The completely new is intolerable in a traditional religion. Even prophetic religions promising new and wondrous things typically do so in a way that reflects the mind of tradition. Prophets depend on traditions of expectationthat is, patterned ways of seeking and announcing the newand they use traditional paradigms to make sense of new developments. The Prophet Isaiah heralded the fall of Babylon and the liberation of the Judean exiles in his day as "new things created now, not long ago" (Is. 48:67). But the rhetoric of novelty did not keep him from understanding the liberation as a new Exodus and the liberator as the same Lord who stood for Israel in ancient times.

Before modern times, the greatest challenges to religious traditions came not from antireligious or nonreligious value systems but from rival religious traditions. The coexistence of different religious traditions in the same societies for long periods of time was also a source of change. While the interaction of religious traditions before modern times has not yet been studied in great detail, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the boundaries between traditions were much more permeable than either the guardians of tradition or their modern detractors suppose. Wilfred Cantwell Smith went so far as to propose a "history of religion in the singular" based on the countless ideas, stories, practices and accoutrements that have found their way into many different religious traditions (Smith, 1981, p. 3). Smith's paradigm is the legend of the Christian saint Josaphat (or Joasaph), the young Asian prince who abandoned his opulent, cocoon-like circumstances to seek salvation as a monk. The legend is the story of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, and it entered the repertoire of medieval Christianity from the East through an Islamic intermediary. By such a route did the Buddha become a Christian saint.

There is general agreement that the pace of religious change has quickened in recent centuries as a result of the economic, social, political, and intellectual changes summed up in the term modernization. The problem of tradition and modernity concerns the fate of traditional value systems, including religious traditions, in a world shaped by modern science and market capitalism and the ideologies and technologies resulting from them, such as liberalism, nationalism, socialism, and biological and social engineering. Despite numerous studies of the problem of modernization in particular societies, however, there is little consensus among scholars about the lasting effects of modernity on religious traditions.

When the problem began to be studied by social scientists in the nineteenth century, progressivist ideologies, liberal or socialist, shaped the discussion. Most critics assumed that tradition was fated to give way to modernity, either at a stroke or through gradual evolution. This view received a great deal of support from the spectacle of antitraditional, Marxist revolutions coming to power in Russia and China in the twentieth century. In the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, however, with the worldwide collapse of Communism and the decline of secularist regimes in the Islamic world and elsewhere, more attention has been given to the persistence of religious traditions. Evidence has also been adduced to show that in many societies modernization actually reinforces and even reinvigorates certain aspects of tradition, as, for example, when modern technologies of communication make it possible for religious groups to promote their messages with unprecedented militancy (e.g., Protestant Christian and Islamic fundamentalism), or when economic and political revolutions result in power and prominence for groups whose outlook remains deeply traditional (e.g., Hindu nationalism). In many places modernizing ideologies actually appear to require an alliance with tradition, including religious tradition, in order to promote their goals. The central role of nationalism in the contemporary world is a good example of this type of linkage. Nationalism owes its dynamism to the fact that whereas it promotes essentially secular values, it also serves to reaffirm traditional solidarities.

Postmodernism has attempted a resolution of the problem of tradition and modernity by declaring modernity, as such, to be over. Modernity in this context means the Enlightenment project of reforming the world on the basis of science, natural law (human rights), and a common human rationality. Postmodernism rejects this universalism in principle on the grounds of the endless plurality of human cultures and the unfinalizability of discourse. Although postmodernism was invented by radically secularized philosophical elites, its critique of Enlightenment liberalism has been embraced by some apologists for religious tradition according to the principle "my enemy's enemy is my friend." Yet the use of postmodernism to defend religious tradition is problematic. The world-historical religious traditions are universalist in principle, and it is hard to see in the final analysis how a case for them can be based on radical relativism. Postmodernists respond to this criticism by asserting that supposedly universalist or "great" traditions are in fact a vast congeries of essentially local and constantly changing beliefs and practices. There is truth in this assertion, but also a problem. Classifications such as "Christian," "Muslim," "Buddhist," and the like appear to count for something in the traditions that claim these names. Religious communities seem to aspire to identification with a great tradition, no matter how embedded they are in their local context. To be sure, there are several great traditions, not just one. But this multiplicity can be interpreted in a number of ways, including some that cohere with the universalism of the traditions themselves.

The postmodernist assertion that modernity is over can also be questioned. The claim seems to ignore the large body of evidence summed up in the term globalization. Globalization, as Peter Berger has observed, is "a continuation, albeit in an intensified and accelerated form, of the perduring challenge of modernization" (Berger and Huntington, 2002, p. 16). The forces of globalizationscience, market capitalism, individualismare expanding, not contracting in the world, and religious traditions everywhere are struggling to come to terms with them. The religious fundamentalisms that are often cited as evidence of the collapse of modernity are in fact just one of a number of responses to modernity, their stridency and extremism marking them as untraditional phenomena. While globalization occurs in diverse forms, there are enough similarities among its forms to suggest that it is indeed a global process. In short, whereas postmodernist critics have significantly refined the discussion of modernity by discrediting simplistic theories, the case is by no means closed.

For the time being the best approach is probably to recognize that the problem of tradition and modernity is part of the religious situation of contemporary civilization and not likely to be resolved, or even greatly altered, in the near future. The naive progressivism of the early theorists of modernization has been abandoned by most scholars, but the general problem stands. Given globalizing trends, the continuators of tradition may be expected to go on experiencing threats to their identities, including some that arise from within their own traditions as modernizing tendencies insinuate themselves even there. Yet the work of the globalizers is also full of tensions, and these are likely to intensify as idealistic enthusiasm for modern visions gives way to the difficulty of putting these visions into practice. Globalizers risk losing the way to the future for lack of a connection with the past. A steady orientation in any field of endeavor seems to require traditions: traditions inherited from premodern times, new traditions of modernity's own making, or new cultural syntheses combining elements of both.

See Also

Canon; Folk Religion; adīth; Memorization; Oral Tradition; Popular Religion; Reform; Revival and Renewal; Scripture; Sunnah.


Edward Shils's Tradition (Chicago, 1981) is an excellent introduction to the concept of tradition, although the book does not contain a specialized discussion of tradition in religion. Josef Pieper's Überlieferung: Begriff und Anspruch (Munich, 1970) is a good introduction to religious and theological dimensions of the concept. The lectures by Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven, Conn., 1984), offer a lively if brief defense of the centrality of tradition in religion and culture. The broad influence of Robert Redfield's concept of tradition makes his Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization (Chicago, 1956) required reading, especially chap. 3, "The Social Organization of Tradition." The most influential sociological discussion of tradition is Max Weber's in Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, 2 vols., edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Berkeley, Calif., and London, 1978). The seminal essay by T. S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London, 1920), pp. 4759, reprinted in Selected Essays, 3d ed. (New York, 1950), pp. 1322, is also essential reading.

For the contribution of philosophical hermeneutics to the discussion of tradition, one should consult the two masters of the discipline, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2d rev. ed. (New York, 1989); and Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation, edited and translated by John B. Thompson (Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1981). For an overview see Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, translated by Joel Weinsheimer (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1994).

On oral tradition one may begin with Jan Vansina's Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology (Chicago, 1965), a rigorous discussion of the value of oral tradition as a historical source; and Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York, 2002). The fundamental work on oral poetic tradition is Albert Bates Lord's The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1960). For a more recent treatment see Ruth Finnegan, Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context (Bloomington, Ind., 1992). On oral tradition in the Hebrew Bible see Eduard Nielsen's Oral Tradition: A Modern Problem in Old Testament Introduction, with a foreword by Harold H. Rowley (Chicago, 1954); and Susan Niditch, Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature (Louisville, Ky., 1996).

A large literature exists on the concept and practice of tradition in particular religions. The best of these works shed light not only on the traditions under investigation but on traditionality in general. On goddesses in prehistoric Europe see Marija Gimbutas, The Civilization of the Goddess, edited by Joan Marler (San Francisco, 1991). Douglas A. Knight, ed., Tradition and Theology in the Old Testament (Philadelphia, 1977), is a good collection of essays on tradition in the Hebrew Bible. James A. Sanders's Torah and Canon (Philadelphia, 1972) is a suggestive discussion of tradition and canonicity. See also John Van Seters, "The Pentateuch," in The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues, edited by Steven L. McKenzie and M. Patrick Graham (Louisville, Ky., 1998), pp. 349. For contrasting approaches to tradition in rabbinic Judaism see Jacob Weingreen, From Bible to Mishna: The Continuity of Tradition (New York, 1976); and Jacob Neusner, Early Rabbinic Judaism: Historical Studies in Religion, Literature, and Art (Leiden, Netherlands, 1975), especially chap. 1, "The Meaning of Oral Torah, with Special Reference to Kelim and Ohalot." On tradition in mystical Judaism see Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (New York, 1974).

On tradition in the history of Christianity one cannot do better than to consult Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 4 vols. (Chicago, 19711989). Yves M.-J. Congar, Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and a Theological Essay (New York, 1967), is a another masterful treatment by one of the intellectual leaders of the Second Vatican Council. One should also consult the classic that inspired both Pelikan and Congar, John Henry Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (New York, 1845). For Orthodox Christian approaches see John Meyendorff, Living Tradition: Orthodox Witness in the Contemporary World (Crestwood, N.Y., 1978); Constantine Scouteris, "Paradosis: The Orthodox Understanding of Tradition," Sobornost 4, no. 1 (1982): 3037; and Michael Plekon, ed., Tradition Alive: On the Church and the Christian Life in Our Time: Readings from the Eastern Church (Lanham, Md., 2003). See also the critical assessment by Paul Valliere, Modern Russian Theology: Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key (Edinburgh, U.K., and Grand Rapids, Mich., 2000), chap. 15, "Conclusion: The Limits of Tradition."

A probing discussion of tradition in Islam is in Fazlur Rahman's Islam, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1979), chaps. 3, "Origins and Development of the Tradition," and 4, "The Structure of the Law." Rahman's critique of the analysis of Islamic tradition by Western scholars illuminates the problem of continuity in religion in general. Similarly Robert Lingat's study of tradition (smti ) in Hinduism, The Classical Law of India, translated with additions by J. Duncan M. Derrett (Berkeley, Calif., 1973), provides insights into the workings of any system of norms based on tradition. See also Louis Renou, Études védiques et pāinéennes, vol. 6 (Paris, 1960).

On tradition in early Chinese civilization, see K. C. Chang, Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China (Cambridge, U.K., and London, 1983); Cho-Yun Hsu and Katheryn M. Linduff, Western Chou Civilization (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1988); and Aihe Wang, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China (Cambridge, U.K., 2000). The complex interaction between religious tradition and social systems in Buddhism is explored by S. J. Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge, U.K., 1970); Melford E. Spiro, Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, 2d ed. (Berkeley, Calif., 1982); and Todd T. Lewis, Popular Buddhist Texts from Nepal: Narratives and Rituals of Newar Buddhism (Albany, N.Y., 2000).

On tradition and change in modern times, see Robert N. Bellah, "Epilogue: Religion and Progress in Modern Asia," in Religion and Progress in Modern Asia, edited by Robert N. Bellah (New York, 1965), pp. 168229; and Eric J. Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, U.K., 1983). Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India (Chicago, 1967), is a classic study of the role of tradition in modern politics. Milton Singer, When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Indian Civilization, with a foreword by M. N. Srinivas (New York, 1972), is another fine work on tradition and modernity in South Asia. The tenacious reader will be rewarded by working through Joseph Richmond Levenson's Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy, 3 vols. (Berkeley, Calif., 19581968). Donald H. Shively, ed., Tradition and Modernization in Japanese Culture (Princeton, N.J., 1971), is a good collection of essays on tradition and change in early modern Japan. Paul Heelas, ed., with the assistance of David Martin and Paul Morris, Religion, Modernity, and Postmodernity (Oxford, U.K., and Malden, Mass., 1998), provides a sampling of postmodernist perspectives on issues of tradition and modernity.

From the growing literature on the cultural and religious impact of globalization, see Arjun Appadurai, ed., Globalization (Durham, N.C., and London, 2001); Peter L. Berger and Samuel P. Huntington, eds., Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World (Oxford, U.K., 2002); and Mark Juergensmeyer, ed., Global Religions: An Introduction (New York, 2003), which includes a helpful bibliography. In the same connection, William Ernest Hocking's suggestive typology of the interaction between religious traditions in Living Religions and a World Faith (New York, 1940) is receiving fresh attention, as is Wilfred Cantwell Smith's Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (Philadelphia, 1981).

Paul Valliere (1987 and 2005)


views updated Jun 08 2018


The basic sense of the term tradition remains quite close to its etymological roots. The Latin noun traditio describes the handing over of an item or an idea, while the English tradition refers to a social or cultural institution that is handed down from the past. This much seems straightforward. Sacrificing cattle, singing at graduation, celebrating the New Year with fireworks: all these appear quite plainly to be traditions for their practitioners. For all its seeming simplicity, though, tradition is indeed the "particularly difficult word" that Raymond Williams called it in his account of its changing meanings over the centuries. Its intellectual usage is especially fraught with argument, and since the 1970s, the term has been subjected to so many debates and revisions that few scholars use it nowadays with any confidence in its transparency.

Let us first consider how tradition has acquired its specific ideological and academic meanings. Often these formal uses have expanded on, intensified, and arguably distorted the minimal sense of traditions as institutions passed on through historical eras.

For a start, the idea that tradition derives from the past has often involved a subtle shift in emphasis, from the process of transmission to the fact of repetition. In this view, deeming a cultural form a tradition implies that all its instances are identical, that it does not change over time. This is not necessarily the case, however. Think of how we refer to traditions like Greco-Roman sculpture or Renaissance painting. No one assumes these styles remained the same throughout the time they endured, only that their later manifestations were in some way shaped by precedents. Nor does derivation from the past exclude the idea that traditions embody active historical processes. A dynamic view of traditions as developing and changing continuities is intrinsic to the way we trace, say, a line from the Romanesque to the Gothic in the tradition of medieval European architecture. Nonetheless, the trend is to equate tradition with replication, to judge institutions traditions insofar as they reiterate past performance. Consider how we tend to think inauthentic any tradition that has been altered by contemporary practice. In this view we cannot adapt or reinvigorate real traditions, let alone create them. At best, we preserve them.

A closely related extension of the idea of tradition opposes it to modernity. If modernity is a state of ceaseless change, tradition, as unchanging repetition, is its antithesis. This notion is so well established it seems self-evident now, but it also subtly inflates the basic sense of the term. Its origins lie in the ideological conflicts surrounding the intellectual, political, and economic revolutions, starting in eighteenth-century Europe, that shaped what we now regard as modern society. On the one hand, the proponents of Enlightenment and their heirs have called for a world based on reason, not on what they regard as baseless custom. On the other hand, various strands of conservative and Romantic thought have celebrated tradition as the treasure chest of accumulated experience, collective cultural genius, and authentic human sentiment, all threatened by the totalitarian visions of social reformers. But the most important point here is that both camps see modern developments, like democracy or mechanization, as absolute departures from the past. The premodern or traditional past is not just what precedes these particular changes, then; instead, it becomes the opposite of historical change itself.

Once tradition acquires this extended sense as the opposite of modernity, it assumes quite a curious temporality too. It comes to be identified with the past from which it is passively handed down and not with the expanse of time through which it is transmitted, up to and including the present. But even while we insist that traditions are part of the past, we also thereby deny that they have real historical lives (except insofar as history has diluted them) precisely because we think they are unchanging. We think traditions persist across the passing of time, but we only think they are in it when we talk about their destruction. Modernity, on the other hand, exists in time inasmuch as it is constant change but precisely because it is change it has no past.

Another important effect of turning tradition into the opposite of modernity is that these problems with the concept seem to intensify the farther its objects lie from what we take to be modernity. Within societies felt to be mainly modern, for instance, an emphasis on static rather than changing continuity is much more pronounced in talk about folk art and custom than it is in high cultural criticism. An electronic composer can move the classical chamber music tradition forward, but a hip-hop artist who samples the blues is untrue to its authentic agrarian roots. Elite traditions can change and still be traditions, but folk traditions cannot.

The greatest confusions come, though, from describing non-Western peoples and their societies as traditional in contrast to a West conceived as modern. This idea has global reach now, and non-Western intellectuals use it if anything more often than their Western peers at present. But it first appeared in the West, and it found its strongest expression there in the theories of specialist anthropological disciplines and discourses (Kuper; Stocking, 1968, 1996).

Anthropology began life as the study of non-Western peoples, and it kept this orientation until the late twentieth century because of the idea that these peoples' communities somehow embodied the human past. In the nineteenth through to the early twentieth centuries, this idea informed evolutionary theories that pictured human communities climbing a ladder of cultural progress. Topmost was the industrial West, with its bureaucratic states, nuclear families, and monotheistic faiths; at the bottom were stateless foragers with extensive notions of kinship and beliefs in natural spirits. Anthropology was tasked, then, with discovering where in this evolutionary hierarchy to place the many communities known to the ethnological record. But it was largely taken for granted that all peoples evolved in one and the same direction. And if some were less advanced at present than others, this had to be because they had developed more slowly. Some communities ambled along the course of human historical development, whereas others raced ahead. Traditional peoples were still living in the same evolutionary past that modern societies had already left behind them.

The catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century made it hard to sustain such sanguine faith that Western history represented the course of progress for all humanity. Also, by the 1940s, the claim that Western societies were more advanced than others suffered the taint of associations with discredited racist and fascist thought. Anthropology turned away from evolutionary comparisons in this period, instead cultivating a relativist attention to the differences among cultural systems in terms of their internal patterns. This did not weaken the tendency to contrast types of societies as traditional or modern, however. If anything, ironically, it strengthened it. This is because the idea that some communities changed more slowly than others was now understood as a function, not of their place on the ladder of progress, but of their own internal resistance to change. Instead of being considered still traditional inasmuch as they were not yet modern, communities like these were now imagined to be traditional by nature. The structuralists of the 1960s thus distinguished "hot" from "cold" societies: those that changed dynamically from those that tried to conserve old institutions. While some peoples therefore had histories proper, others experienced change as an entropic force in the face of which traditions only survived if they imposed their older structures on new events. Insofar as they succeeded at this, traditions actually swallowed up all trace of the fact that change had ever happened (Levi-Strauss).

In other words, anthropology gave a cultural cast to the schisms of time already implied in the contrast of tradition with modernity. Traditional peoples derived their ways from the past but had no histories. They lived across time but not in it. Modern people had histories, but the burden of the past was far behind them. They lived in time but did not straddle its passing.

Despite this confusion, the notion that some communities are traditional, and therefore the antithesis of the dynamic, changing West, has proven very resilient and influential. Advocates of modernization often assert how peoples need to leave traditional ways behind themnot just because traditions are part of the past in this view but also because they are held to be antithetical to change. The model of a contrast between the West and the Rest is also used quite widely to explain social inequalities and differences within the so-called developing nations that used to be grouped as the Third World. In this view developing nations have both modern and traditional sectors inside them, as if time ran on unrelated tracks not just for the world as a whole but even within some societies. Nor are such beliefs only held by self-described opponents of tradition. Multiculturalists and cultural conservatives often cherish traditions because they see them as islands of stability, in a modern world they judge to be unmoored and inauthentic. These sentiments usually add a mid-twentieth century anthropological perspective to the doubts about modernity and nostalgia for the past derived from older forms of anti-Enlightenment thinking.

Ironically, however, anthropology itself has mostly abandoned these ideas. In part this shift is due to a growing awareness of the conceptual problems presented by older anthropological usages. But the impetus to question older usage in the academy has itself arisen from broader intellectual and political developments in the decades after World War II.

By far the most important of these developments is the wave of European decolonization that took place in the 1950s and 1960s, creating a host of new independent nations out of the formerly colonized territories of Africa and Asia. Once these nations' political representatives took their places on the international stage, it became increasingly difficult to describe them in terms that made them seem less modern or developed than their peers from the states of the West. And even amidst the divisions of the Cold War era, the rise of a set of global institutions like the United Nations fostered a new sense of planetary civilization. The notion of a shared human fate, demanding respectful dialogue, became more widespread than ever during these decades.

In this changed political climate, many intellectuals became concerned with what it meant to call non-Western peoples traditional. Since tradition was so strongly imbued with the sense of being the antithesis of modernity, it seemed less and less appropriate to apply the idea to societies that now had the very same sets of institutions and ambitions that were identified with modernity in the West. In fact, as many thinkers came to insist, the use of terms like tradition did much more than impose anachronistic mistakes about the contemporary social lives and institutions of peoples outside the West. For in so doing it also demeaned and diminished them. In the first place it belittled their modern achievements, such as their struggles for liberation and their quests to achieve economic and political equality with European and other Western nations. In this way it, if anything, distorted these societies' actual histories. This seemed all the more discordant in the context of the 1960s and 1970s, when the former colonies witnessed new waves of social and cultural dynamism while Western nations mostly seemed to stagnate. But secondly and even more insidiously, to call these peoples traditional seemed to deny that they possessed even the capacities to have such histories at all. The strong distinction this usage drew between those who were tradition-bound on the one hand and the dynamic West on the other now seemed offensive to the new international ethos of equality among peoples. Most important, it also echoed the sorts of colonial stereotypes about non-Western peoples that anticolonial movements had resisted in their struggles for freedom from Western domination. To say that people were ruled by the past began to sound suspiciously like an excuse for ruling over them in the present.

In the postcolonial era, therefore, many politically minded intellectuals found ideas about tradition versus modernity inseparable from the history of colonial rule over non-European societies. By the early 1970s, this judgment had also penetrated critical discussions within universities. Inspired by the radical social movements of the 1960s, a young generation of scholars had already started questioning the idea that the academy and its products were politically disinterested. Instead, they argued, the mainstream human or social sciences had tended toward complicity in modern structures of power (Foucault and Gordon). In the case of anthropology, its relationship with European colonialism was the form of guilt provoking most critiques it faced (Asad; Mafeje). In their harshest forms, these discussions even saw anthropology mocked for having been the willing "handmaiden" of colonialism. And if anthropology found itself accused of being the intellectual servant of the West's colonial projects, this criticism was largely due to the images of non-Western peoples the discipline had developed under the rubric of tradition.

To critical scholars who sympathized with anticolonial movements, then, the use of the term tradition became problematic. Influenced by critiques of colonial discourse in the humanities, such as Edward Said's Orientialism (1979), some began to see anthropology's emphasis on traditions as part of a broader set of misrepresentations of non-Western peoples in Western thought. In this view, the portrayal of people in terms of their traditions made them appear to be mysterious, accepting of authority, immersed in collective cultural and spiritual lifein other words, not at all like the rational, pragmatic individuals who had earned the rights and freedoms of modernity. In one such commentary, Johannes Fabian (1983) showed how many anthropologists had exoticized the peoples whom they studied. Even though they shared so much time with their subjects during field research, he pointed out, their writing tended to represent these people as if they lived in other epochs. Not only did this make them look as if they lived in the past, but it also made it possible to overlook the conditions of colonial domination they faced in the present.

Critiques like these are widely accepted by scholars now, and few would think it tenable to assert today that some peoples have traditions while others have histories. But this was not the only effect of the conversations that took place in this vein in the 1970s. By showing that there was a politics to the concept of tradition, these commentaries also opened up another kind of critical discussion about tradition in the 1980s and afterward. This second wave of studies has focused less on the ideological meanings implicit in the idea of tradition and more on the contested social contexts in which various parties refer to traditions in order to advance their own agendas.

The most important step in this direction was Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's collection of historical essays that showed how several institutions generally thought traditional, from chieftaincy in Africa to tartan-wearing in Scotland, were actually of recent historical vintage. In each case, these historians argued, an institution was made to seem as if it came from the age-old past, in order to grant legitimacy to a social group and its projects in the present. The real task of scholarship, then, was to study not the transmission or replication but the invention of traditions.

This argument is radically unsettling, of course. Traditions are supposed to be the stable, enduring antitheses of invention, not its new, ephemeral products. So the claim that they are the latter has inspired an enormous body of literature by way of response in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Some have used this concept of invented traditions in order to revisit the relationship of ideas about tradition to colonialism. Instead of seeing tradition as a figment of the Western colonial mind alone, this kind of work examines the use of terms like tradition or custom by a range of social actors in colonial and postcolonial settings: by colonizers and colonized, urban elites and peasant villagers, nationalists and compradors, conservatives and modernizers, and even the scholars who study them all (Briggs; Foster; Jolly and Thomas; Keesing; Keesing and Tonkinson; Spiegel and Boonzaier). As these studies show, while Westerners may have used the idea of tradition to make non-Western peoples appear exotic and backward, non-Western peoples have used this concept to portray themselves as special communities, worthy of distinctive rights, entitlements, and identities. From this perspective tradition is less like an argument, true or false, about the lack of change in society and more like a language or idiom in which ever-changing arguments about social life are conducted. This treatment mitigates some of the most odious associations that critics of colonial discourse attached to the concept. It does not rescue the term itself for renewed academic use, however. Instead it demotes tradition to the status of a folk categoryan excellent object of study just like any idea one finds in such wide social circulation, but hardly a viable tool of social analysis.

The convergence of the postcolonial moment with the critical turn in scholarship has thus made it very difficult for scholars to speak of traditions without embarrassment. One quite common response to this situation is to use the term as if in its naive sense, while hedging it in heavy layers of irony. While true to the uncertainties that now surround the label, this is a less than helpful strategy for conceptual clarification. Another more considered and productive response is to bite the bullet and try to understand the relations among society, culture, and history with more rigor, self-reflection, and complexity than contrasts between tradition and modernity allow (Axel; Bauman and Briggs; Comaroff and Comaroff; Sahlins; Trouillot). But here there is also an irony of sorts. Although it may not use the term tradition with any innocence, what all such work affirms is that there are few more worthy tasks for the humanities and social sciences than helping us appreciate and understand the changing continuities in our social lives: the institutions that all of us keep handing down through time.

See also Anthropology ; Cultural Revivals ; Ritual .


Asad, Talal, ed. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. London: Ithaca Press, 1973.

Axel, Brian Keith. From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.

Bauman, Richard, and Charles L. Briggs. Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Briggs, Charles L. "The Politics of Discursive Authority in Research on the 'Invention of Tradition.'" Cultural Anthropology 11, no. 4 (1996): 435469.

Comaroff, John Lionel, and Jean Comaroff. Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Foster, Robert John. Nation Making: Emergent Identities in Postcolonial Melanesia. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Foucault, Michel, and Colin Gordon. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 19721977. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Jolly, Margaret, and Nicholas Thomas, eds. "The Politics of Tradition in the Pacific." Special issue of Oceania 62, no. 4 (1992).

Keesing, Roger M. Custom and Confrontation: The Kwaio Struggle for Cultural Autonomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Keesing, Roger M., and Robert Tonkinson, eds. "Reinventing Traditional Culture: The Politics of Kastom in Island Melanesia." Special issue of Mankind 13, no. 4 (1982).

Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Mafeje, Archie. "The Ideology of Tribalism." Journal of Modern African Studies 9 (1971): 253262.

Sahlins, Marshall David. Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Spiegel, Andrew, and Emile Boonzaier. "Promoting Tradition: Images of the South African Past." In South African Keywords: The Uses and Abuses of Political Concepts, edited by Emile Boonzaier and John Sharp. Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa: David Philip, 1988.

Stocking, George W. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. New York: Free Press, 1968.

. Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Hylton White


views updated May 23 2018






A key term in the study of culture, tradition refers most often to the collective customs and knowledge of a group or society. Tradition is a source of basic learning, occurring even before formal education begins and continuing throughout life. Its usual connotation is a social process of handing down knowledge from generation to generation, especially by oral and customary means. It therefore is associated with precedent and culturally is linked often to a groups heritage, although unlike referring to history, which suggests a time and place in the past, tradition carries a sense of social and cultural patternsways of doing thingsthat continuously occurred before. The term has other meanings as well, referring to the substantive results of this process, such as a story or ritual, a custom given social importance through repeated practice, knowledge whose official source cannot be verified but is held widely, or a concept (i.e., a mode of thought or behavior) characteristic of people generally. Social sciences scholarship may therefore refer to a tradition in a culture as a specific song passed down in a group through time or the tradition of a culture more broadly as a way of thinking and acting.

Culture in the past was a reference to place, often to a language group bounded in space, whereas traditions were more variably socialpossibly referring to family, age, and genderand migratory. In academic circles, tradition is more broadly defined than is culture, as in the use of such terms as Western tradition and Eastern tradition ; here tradition is used as a synonym for pattern. Culture, by contrast, is applied to all types of associations as well as bounded groups. The view persists that traditions define a culture, rather than the reverse, and the science of tradition in European American intellectual historywhose purpose is to objectify and organize traditionhas been associated with folklore and ethnological studies. As a result, many genres and groups labeled folk are often considered traditional or tradition-oriented.

The reverence commonly afforded to tradition indicates that people follow it, willingly or not, andsignificantly for social sciencesmay define themselves or their group through its presence. Whether following tradition means unconsciously adhering to a severe form of cultural authority or choosing from a tradition that one finds appropriate can be a cause for dispute among social scientists. Implied in this difference is a questioning of whether tradition forces stability and conformity or fosters change and progress. Inherent in the concept is a duality that is constantly negotiated in society: traditions reference on the one hand to precedent (as the source of knowledge and action) and on the other hand to the present (as living practice, often adapted and adjusted for particular needs and conditions).


For social scientists viewing tradition as providing the cultural authority of precedent, there is often an implication that tradition is a contrast to modernity, the latter characterized by individualism (with free will and choice), mobility, and progress. A tradition-oriented, or folk, society in anthropological and sociological scholarship (e.g., on groups such as the Amish, Japanese, Hutterites, and Bedouins) usually has the characteristics of valuing social interdependence, filial and ancestral piety, communitarian stability, and harmony or group orientation. Many folklorists, however, theorize that the role of tradition is essential to everyday life in modern complex societies, often enacted through cued and framed speech, narrative, and custom to express social identities within a mass culture or to provide a sense of control for individuals (e.g., dressing and athletic rituals).

Another duality with tradition has been with creativity, particularly in studies of artistic traditions. It is often assumed that traditional or folk art means repetition or imitation of precedent by a community, whereas fine or creative art represents individuality and novelty. The former is viewed as primitive or ordinary, whereas the latter is elite and refined. A modern philosophy of the arts incorporating tradition since the twentieth century considers tradition and creativity as intertwined in the artistic process, viewable in everyday practice as well as expressive culture.


Rather than use tradition to describe national or hemispheric patterns, many social scientists apply it to minority cultures and small groups. Arguably, national traditions have been categorized as histories, whereas marginal groups have often been described in terms of tradition. In public or political discourse in the United States, tradition may be invoked in proposals for maintaining national or majority traditional values or preserving the sanctity provided by tradition for institutions of the nuclear family and religion in daily life. Debates arose through the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first century over virtues that constituted the basis of U.S. culture. Associations such as the Traditional Values Coalition, Toward Tradition, and Citizens for Traditional Values took on the label of tradition to represent conservative religious groups in lobbying for prayer and religious programming in the schools, prohibitions on gay marriage, public support for parochial institutions, and school voucher programs. Although sounding secular and broad-based, traditional in the organizational titles came to stand for an orthodox morality upholding the centrality of religion in public life. It invoked the merit of traditional to describe national values proven worthy by time and by popular usage. The implication by advocates of traditional values is that rapid social change has undermined mainstream or national values, while opponents argue for establishment of new or multiple traditions that are culturally relative and legitimate even if they are different from the mainstream. Sometimes the culturally relative keyword of multiculturalism, implying that traditions are created anew in contemporary life, may be set against the concept of culturalism, connoting the stability of values passed from generation to generation. Both views, sometimes stated as sides in a U.S. culture war, invoke tradition for social legitimacy.

In other countries facing rapid social change and diversity, tradition has been a publicly contested term for viewing different priorities of building national unity and multicultural community. Modifiers to tradition such as national, ethnic, religious, folk, cultural, family, and local have implied a need to place a feeling of social connectedness, a collective memory, in an identified niche within mass society. In the Netherlands, a society with a tradition of tolerance toward minorities, a rapid rise of ethnic and religious minorities (e.g., Muslims from Turkey and Morocco) starting in the late twentieth century caused social scientists to notice political and cultural responses to define and celebrate Dutch traditions (e.g., Koninginnedag [Queens birthday], Sinterklaas or St. Nicholas Day) nationally as a way to mollify fears of losing Dutchness. While creating a sense of cultural norm-ing, applications of tradition have also been interpreted in social science as a process of otheringcharacterizing groups and individuals who do not conform. Subcultural difference can also be normed, as can be seen in the common Dutch social scientific attention to regional traditions of speech, architecture, and customs to show a type of cultural diversity, even within a small country.

The way that social scientists approach tradition can vary across national lines. It has often been argued that Japan and the United States, for example, provide contrasting views of tradition. In Japanese scholarship, tradition is associated with the reverence given to ancient customs and myths, the system of intimate group life established in hierarchical village social structures, and the everyday expressions of social relations based on rank and filial piety (e.g., different performances of respect to elders and superiors in bowing and speech). Tradition is considered the basis of a unified society, and the concept of modernization is integrated with tradition (technological progress and mobility while maintaining a group orientation). In the United States, tradition is tied to the recent past and is viewed as more varied, befitting a multicultural country. It is a more malleable, privatized concept, with less force of authority, and indeed is often seen as threatened or nostalgic in a postmodern society. Tradition in the United States is more often associated with religion than public life, although American social scientists frequently discuss organized efforts to construct tradition (e.g., folk revivals, ethnic and social movements, roots organizations, nationalistic movements).


A binary has emerged in cross-cultural studies of tradition between the naturalistic associations of genuine/authentic and the artificial connotations of invented/organized. The concept of invented tradition, defined by the social historian Eric Hobsbawm as a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past (Hobsbawm 1983, p. 1), suggests a linkage of organizers/inventors motivations for creating practices that invoke tradition and instill senses of the past and of belonging, especially within national contexts concerned with the modern displacement of heritage and community. These invented traditions usually are of recent origin but appear or claim to be old. They also try to construct cultural meanings in the public marketplace, which can be contested, such as the ritual of national founding principles in the American Thanksgiving marked by a twentieth-century reenact-ment of Pilgrims Progress celebrating the seventeenth-century settlement of the New World and protested by a simultaneously held National Day of Mourning sponsored by Native American groups starting in 1970.

Set against the background of change, traditions role in the way people live and view the world commands renewed attention as new forms of communication arise. As industrialization and urbanization supposedly ushered in a break with tradition in the twentieth century, in the twenty-first century trends of computerization and globalization raise questions anew about the processes of tradition for individuals and the various groups with which they identify, many of which have emerged only recently with invented traditions to promote bonding and expression. Social science inquiry has thus taken up tradition as a concept of social existence relating to modernization, diversity, and identity.


Bronner, Simon J. 1998. Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Bronner, Simon J. 2002. Folk Nation: Folklore in the Creation of American Tradition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Bronner, Simon J., ed. 1992. Creativity and Tradition in Folklore: New Directions. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Finnegan, Ruth. 1991. Tradition, but What Tradition and for Whom? Oral Tradition 6 (1): 104;124.

Gailey, Alan. 1989. The Nature of Tradition. Folklore 100 (2): 143161.

Glassie, Henry. 2003. Tradition. In Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, ed. Burt Feintuch, 176197. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric. 1983. Introduction: Inventing Traditions. In The Invention of Tradition, eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 114. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Shils, Edward. 1981. Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Simon J. Bronner


views updated Jun 08 2018


TRADITION (Heb. מָסֹרֶת). The term tradition derives from the Latin tradere, which means "to transmit" or "to give over." Generally, it refers to beliefs, doctrines, customs, ethical and moral standards, and cultural values and attitudes which are transmitted orally or by personal example. Under this designation, the process of transmission itself is also included. Theologically, in Judaism, tradition is the name applied to the unwritten code of law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.


Masoret is the general name for tradition. It is found in Ezekiel 20:37 and means originally "bond" or "fetter." Tradition is the discipline which establishes the correct practice and interpretation of the *Torah and was therefore regarded as a hedge or fetter about the Law (Avot 3:14). Since this knowledge was handed down by successive generations, it was also associated with the Hebrew word masor, denoting "to give over." In the talmudic literature, the term masoret is used to include all forms of tradition, both those which relate to the Bible and those which concern custom, law, historical events, folkways, and other subjects. Different kinds of traditions were given special names. Traditions which specified the vocalization, punctuation, spelling, and correct form of the biblical text were called *masorah. Those legal traditions which were revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai and were later preserved in writing, were known as *Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai ("law given to Moses on Sinai"). A legal tradition which was handed down by word of mouth, but did not necessarily emanate from Sinai, was called shemu'ah ("a report"). Religious and general traditions which became binding as result of long observance by successive generations were termed *minhag ("custom"). Prophetic traditions described in the books of the prophets and Hagiographa were known as Divrei Kabbalah ("words of tradition"). Esoteric and mystical traditions concerning God and the world transmitted to the elect and then passed down through the ages were called *Kabbalah, from kibbel ("to receive").


Many statutes were committed to writing by Moses. However, the vast majority of laws were handed down orally by him (see Written and Oral *Law). The Written Law did not always detail the manner and form of practice, giving rise of necessity to tradition. An instance of this kind is the law relating to fish which meet the biblical dietary requirements. Leviticus 11:9 states that a fish that has a fin and a scale in the water can be eaten. However, the minimum number of fins and scales that a fish must have to be ritually edible is not specified. The traditions relating to the Bible and Mishnah taught that a fish needs at least one fin and two scales to satisfy the biblical dietary requirements (see Arukh, S.V. Akunos). Similarly, the Bible commands that a paschal lamb be slaughtered on the 14th day of Nisan. There is no mention in the Bible as to whether it is permissible to perform this act if the 14th day of Nisan occurs on the Sabbath when the slaughtering of animals is forbidden. In the year 31 b.c.e., the 14th of Nisan fell on the Sabbath. The Sons of Bathyra, the heads of the high court, forgot the precedent previously established. Hillel, a then unknown Babylonian, volunteered the information that he had heard from Shemaiah and Avtalyon, the foremost teachers of the age, that it was permissible to slaughter the paschal lamb on the Sabbath. This reported tradition of Hillel's mentors was readily accepted (tj, Pes. 6:1, 33a), and it is mentioned that because of this display of erudition with regard to tradition, Hillel was appointed nasi. Tradition was also the vehicle of transmission for the rules of interpretation, of the Written Law, such as the laws of *hermeneutics. Since it was impossible within the confines of writing to record all the laws and their applications in all situations, a medium was needed to preserve this information. Even today, with the availability of writing media, much of our culture is handed down orally. Tradition was the means whereby extant law was maintained and applied to life. Thus R. Joshua b. Levi declared that all teachings both of the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and aggadah and those that were initiated by veteran scholars were already given to Moses on Mount Sinai (see tj, Pe'ah 2:6, 17a). Some traditions arose as a result of the common practice of the community. These practices were considered to emanate from eminent religious authorities and owed their binding character to having been handed down by previous generations, from father to son, a principle upheld by R. Johanan in the Talmud. The citizens of Beth-Shean complained to him that the custom of not going from Tyre to Sidon on the eve of the Sabbath was impossible for them to observe. R. Johanan replied, "Your fathers have already taken it (this custom) upon themselves" (Pes. 50b). As a result, this tradition could not be abrogated.


In rabbinic Judaism, tradition was binding and had the force of law. The divine revelation to Moses consisted of the Written Law and Oral Law with its implied exposition by the sages of Israel. Berakhot 5a tells that R. Levi b. Ḥama said in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: "What is the meaning of the verse, 'and I will give thee the tables of stone, and the law and the commandments, which I have written to teach them' [Ex. 24:12]. It means as follows: 'the tables of stone' are the Ten Commandments, 'the law' is the Pentateuch, 'the commandments' is the Mishnah, 'which I have written' are the prophets and the Hagiographa, 'to teach them' is the Gemara. This teaches us that all these things were given at Sinai." Originally, the Oral Law was handed down by word of mouth. When its transmission became difficult, it was set down in writing in the Mishnah and Talmud. The validity of the Oral Law was attacked by the *Sadducees, one of the early sects in Judaism. Josephus records that the Sadducees held that "only those observances are obligatory which are in the written word but that those which derived from the tradition of the forefathers need not be kept" (Ant. 13:297).

Talmudic Times

After the destruction of the Temple, the Sadducees disappeared. The body of tradition continued to grow as rites were introduced to replace the Temple ritual. Megillah 31b pictures the patriarch Abraham as concerned with how Israel could obtain forgiveness, once the Temple ceased to exist. God assures Abraham, "I have already ordained for them the order of the sacrifices. Every time that they read them, it is considered as if they offer up a sacrifice and I forgive them all their sins." After the destruction of the Temple, the system of public prayer was instituted to substitute for the Temple service. The liturgical traditions were handed down verbally, through the centuries, until they were compiled in the prayer book of Amram Gaon.

Medieval Times

At the end of the eighth century, rabbinic Judaism was again challenged by a new sect, the Karaites. They accepted the authority of the Bible but denied rabbinical tradition and law, which had developed further as the Mishnah and Talmud were elucidated and applied to life. Through its great exponents, Saadiah and Maimonides, rabbinic Judaism triumphed over the Karaites. The latter wrote his code of law, Mishneh Torah ("The Second Torah"), and showed the direct connection between the Written Law and its explanation in the Oral Law (Introd. Maim. Yad). As new situations arose, the talmudic, geonic, and post-geonic traditions were further amplified. They in turn were set down in writing in the responsa and codes. In the 16th century R. Joseph Caro produced his definitive code, the Shulḥan Arukh. With the addition of the glosses of R. Moses Isserles and later commentaries, it became the most comprehensive compendium of Jewish law and tradition to this day.

Modern Times

At the end of the 18th century rabbinic Judaism, which had maintained an unbroken chain of tradition from the days of Moses was again challenged. A *Reform movement began in Germany which sought to assimilate the Jews into the general culture by modifying Jewish traditions. Among the reforms instituted were sermons in the German vernacular, hymns and chorals in German, the use of the organ, and the confirmation of boys on the Feast of Pentecost instead of the traditional bar mitzvah. In the course of time, this movement established itself in America. Here it continued to propound its doctrine that Judaism was primarily a universalistic and moral religion. Only the moral law was binding. Ceremonial laws which could be adapted to the views of the modern environment were to be maintained. Other Mosaic and rabbinic laws which regulated diet, priestly purity, and dress could be discarded.

In reaction to the reformers' break with tradition, the *Conservative movement was formed in America. At the founding meeting of its congregational organization in 1913, it declared itself "a union of congregations for the promotion of traditional Judaism." Other aims were the furtherance of Sabbath observance and dietary laws, and the maintenance of the traditional liturgy with Hebrew as the language of prayer. As the complexion of American Jewry changed, the Conservative movement incorporated some Reform externals of worship such as family pews and the use of the organ in many congregations. However, it accepted the authority of rabbinic tradition, instituting changes advocated by its scholars, with regard for the attitude of the people and the place of the observance in Jewish tradition.

Transmitters of the Tradition

In rabbinic literature the chain of tradition is given as follows: Moses received the Torah on Sinai and delivered it to Joshua, who in turn delivered it to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Synagogue (Avot 1:1). According to rabbinic Judaism, the teaching of the great sages in every generation in keeping with the halakhah is binding (Deut. 17:88). Thus, the transmitters of tradition included the successors to the Men of the Great Synagogue down to modern times, namely: the scribes (soferim), the pairs (*zugot), the tannaim, the amoraim, the savoraim, the geonim, the codifiers, the world famous Torah authorities of every era, and the rashei ha-yeshivah ("heads of the academies").


Tradition has given Judaism a continuity with its past and preserved its character as a unique faith with a distinct way of life. As the successor of rabbinic Judaism, Orthodoxy representing tradition harks back to the Sinaitic divine revelation and can only be changed within the framework of rabbinic law. In Conservative Judaism, tradition is a vital force capable of modification according to the historical evolution of Jewish law. Reform Judaism has recently displayed a greater appreciation of traditional practices but tradition remains voluntary in character (see *Masorah).


S. Belkin, In His Image (1960), 290ff.; B. Cohen, Law and Tradition in Judaism (1959), 243ff.; I. Epstein, Judaism (1959), 49ff.; S. Freehof, Reform Jewish Practices (1944), 193ff.; S.R. Hirsch, Judaism Eternal, 2 (1956), 612ff.; L. Jacobs, Principles of Faith (1964), 473ff.; D. Rudavsky, Emancipation and Adjustment (1967), 460ff.

[Leon J. Yagod]


views updated May 14 2018

tra·di·tion / trəˈdishən/ • n. 1. the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way: every shade of color is fixed by tradition and governed by religious laws. ∎  a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on in this way: Japan's unique cultural traditions. ∎  [in sing.] an artistic or literary method or style established by an artist, writer, or movement, and subsequently followed by others: visionary works in the tradition of William Blake.2. Theol. a doctrine believed to have divine authority though not in the scriptures, in particular: ∎  (in Christianity) doctrine not explicit in the Bible but held to derive from the oral teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. ∎  (in Judaism) an ordinance of the oral law not in the Torah but held to have been given by God to Moses. ∎  (in Islam) a saying or act ascribed to the Prophet but not recorded in the Koran. See Hadith.DERIVATIVES: tra·di·tion·ar·y / -ˌnerē/ adj.tra·di·tion·ist / -nist/ n.tra·di·tion·less adj.ORIGIN: late Middle English: from Old French tradicion, or from Latin traditio(n-), from tradere ‘deliver, betray,’ from trans- ‘across’ + dare ‘give.’


views updated May 18 2018

Tradition. The formal transmission of information (both verbal and non-verbal) in religions. In non-text religions, the process of tradition is all the more vital since there is no independent repository of information in written form, whether designated as scripture or not—hence the foundational importance of myth and ritual in all religions. In Judaism, tradition became the authoritative interpretation and application of Torah, handed down, initially in oral form, from teacher (rabbi) to pupil. This tradition became of such importance that it was designated ‘second Torah’, Torah she beʿal peh (‘Torah transmitted by word of mouth’; see HALAKHAH). More widely, tradition in Judaism is referred to as masoret, which in the Talmud includes custom, law, history, and folklore. Tradition (see ḤADĪTH) is equally formal in Islam, since Muḥammad and his companions were the first living commentators on Qurʾān. In Christianity, the status of tradition is more complex (and controversial), since one part of the Church (the Roman Catholic) has given to tradition (as the unfolding of scripture) a defining role in some matters of salvation: that which is at best dimly alluded to in scripture, or only to be inferred (e.g. purgatory, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) can be defined by the pope ex cathedra: such definitions are infallible and irreformable—i.e. tradition has become equivalent to scripture. The formality of transmission in other religions can be seen in the importance of the saṃpradāyas among Hindus (see also VEDA), and the succession lists and transmission procedures and rituals among some Buddhists.


views updated May 09 2018

tradition, traditions A set of social practices which seek to celebrate and inculcate certain behavioural norms and values, implying continuity with a real or imagined past, and usually associated with widely accepted rituals or other forms of symbolic behaviour. Research has established that many traditions which are popularly perceived to be of long standing are in fact relatively recent inventions. Examples include the distinct Highland culture (of kilts, tartan, and bagpipes) of Scotland, a late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century creation; and the supposedly indigenous political and economic traditions of many African societies (which were in fact invented by colonial authorities in order to make the necessary connections between local and imperial political, social, and legal systems). Some fascinating case-studies along these lines are reported in Eric Hobsbawn and and Terence Ranger ( eds.) . The Invention of Tradition (1983)


views updated May 23 2018

tradition that which is handed down as belief or practice XIV; delivery, transmission XVI. — (O)F. tradicion, (also mod.) -tion, or L. trāditiō, -ōn-, f. trādere hand over, deliver, f. TRANS- + dāre give; see -ITION.
Hence traditional (-AL1) XVII.