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Traditions of the Elders

R. Steven Bernstein

In the Brit Chadasha, we see many references to the traditions of the elders. It is assumed that the reader will understand who the elders are. Unfortunately, through time, there are many that do not understand at all who the elders were.

Surveying the Tanakh, it is easy to see that the elders comprised the governmental structure of the children of Israel. They were the heads of the families, clans, and tribes, of the people of Israel. So, the children of Israel derived their everyday governmental structure through the elders.

All through the time of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, there is quite notably a rather contentious relationship between the elders and the prophets. It is frequently elders who tell the prophets, they are wrong. It is even the elders that sometimes have the prophets put the death. Why was this terrible relationship between the prophets and the elders occurring? The answer is in what is known as the traditions of the elders. The elders, in ancient times, would frequently structure and foment behavior within the children of Israel that violated Torah. The traditions of the elders would go so far, sometimes, as to promote Avodah Zarah, idol worship.

The traditions of the elders were usually innocuous. Sometimes it meant certain festivals, or celebrations, or even offerings that were unique to a particular tribe, clan or family. Sometimes the traditions of the elders meant observing a particular mitzvah in a particular way. There is no problem with following the traditions of the elders, as long as the tradition does not conflict with Torah. The difficulty was that throughout the time of the prophets, many of the traditions of the elders conflicted with Torah. One of the prophet’s major roles was in promoting Torah, the observance of Torah, to the children of Israel. So, when the traditions of the elders conflicted with Torah, the prophets came up against the elders. This is the source of the contentious relationship between the prophets and the elders.

With the Babylonian exile, the mantle of spiritual leadership passed from the prophets to the men of the great assembly. Indeed, many later prophets were part of the men of the great assembly, including, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Mordechai, Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah. With the Babylonian exile, much of the elders’ political power vanished. The institutions created by the men of the great assembly in the exile largely left the elders out of the power structure, with the exception of the Beit Din, where the elders were included as part of the court system. Even though their power was diminished there still remain a somewhat contentious relationship between the elders and the men of the great assembly.

With the return of the exiles to Israel, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, the elders had somewhat of a return to power under Zerubbabel. When Judah the Maccabee led the Hasmonean revolt, (the Hasmoneans themselves being a clan,) the elder’s power again strengthened within the governmental structure of Israel. So we see in Yeshua’s time that in addition to the power struggle occurring between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, we have an underlying separate power struggle occurring between the elders, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman Pro curate.

The elders were constantly trying to assert their authority over the oral law. So the elders would, on occasion, set rulings that were contrary to oral law in an effort to exert their authority. We see this occurring repeatedly in the Brit Chadasha. So when we see Yeshua and his disciples questioned as to why they are not following the traditions of the elders, this is not questioning why they are not following oral law. Oral law simply is not the traditions of the elders, and historically, we see there is no equivalency.

So, when did we see this understanding and interpretation of the equivalency of the oral law and the tradition of the elders occur? It is the same time that we see the oral law discredited within Christianity. The early church fathers needed to consolidate their political power in Rome, and take it away from the sages. Therefore, Torah had to be discredited. We see this in the writings of the early church fathers, and in the Council of Nicaea. Finally in the Council of Antioch, the following of Torah, both written and oral, is labeled as heretical. As part of this legacy the traditions of the elders began to be interpreted as the oral law. There is no question that Yeshua in his disciples did not follow the tradition of the elders, so this false equivalency served the early church fathers well. In fact, they did such a good job of equating the traditions of the elders and the oral law, that this teaching is pervasive within the body of Messiah, even today. But scripturally, we can see that the oral law has nothing to do with the traditions of the elders.

Wed, July 8 2020 16 Tammuz 5780