The Traditions of Men and the Catholic Church

image of Pharisees“Gotcha! Jesus says in Mark 7:8, ‘You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’1, yet you Catholics say tradition is as important as scripture. See! The Catholic Church makes void the Word of God!”

Have you heard this before? Maybe from a friend, a loved one, or even a stranger? I know I have! Is it true though? Does the Catholic Church void God’s “Word” by holding to its traditions? No, of course not, but, I think a more appropriate question would be, is Jesus here condemning all traditions, or just those that contradict God’s Word? Too many non-Catholics seem to think this is a referendum on all “traditions”, no matter what. In addition to this verse, they will also cite Matthew’s version of this account in chapter 15, or even Jesus’s warning in the book of Revelation not to add or subtract to “this book”

 Revelation 22:18–19 (RSVCE)

18 I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

On the surface, it sounds convincing to the unsuspecting Catholic, however, as we will see, the more we dig into this line of reasoning, the more we will discover how shallow this argument truly is. Before we begin, though, take a brief moment to think about what “The Word” of God is. We use this term all the time and we rarely, if ever, stop to ponder its meaning. All to often we hear it used synonymously with the bible, but is that case? No! To be sure, the bible is inspired by God, and as a result, contains some of His “Word”, however, it is not “The Word” of God in its fullest, most true, sense. Let’s turn to the bible and see what it has to say on what, or, rather who, “The Word” of God is.

 John 1:1 & 14 (RSVCE)

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.2

As it turns out, “The Word” is the Son… Jesus the Christ… who can not be constrained to mere written text! To use more vivid language just to emphasis this point, let me say it this way… Jesus is a living breathing divine person, presiding on His throne in heaven, not a “dead letter” collecting dust on our coffee table’s. In fact, St. John will also say in the 20th chapter of his Gospel, verse 30, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;3”, so clearly, the written text doesn’t even contain all that Jesus did and taught to his Disciples; so how could we say that the bible is “The Word” of God in its fullest sense? Furthermore, after His resurrection, Jesus taught His disciples for 40 days, and scripture never reveals what He taught them during that time, but we do know that Jesus commanded them to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you;4” in Matthew 28:19-20! If, then, “ The Word” of God was contained to only the written text, how could the Apostles fulfill this command of Our Lord? Certainly they couldn’t, and neither did such a thought ever enter their mind’s because the faith was never to be constrained to mere written text, but, just like our Lord, it is a living, breathing entity. So, to start with, the Catholic Church holds fast to “The Word” of God, Jesus Christ, who is one with His body, which is the Church itself (Ephesians 4) through which (the Church) God’s manifold wisdom is taught even to the Angeles (Ephesians 3:10).

Getting back to our initial question; does Jesus condemn all traditions in Mark 7 (or Matthew 15) when He says in verse 8 “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men?” Or, perhaps just some? As always we should look for the author’s intended context, the meaning he intended us to receive, on any passage we are reading. Therefore, we must look at the verses before it and after, the chapter as a whole, the book as a whole, the Testament as a whole, the bible as a whole, and the lived Catholic teaching from the beginning until now. No verse of sacred scripture is an island to itself, rather, it is a thread in the tapestry of salvation history, and only when seen as a whole can its beauty be fully appreciated. So let’s read verse 8 in context and see what we might learn.

Mark 7:1–13 (RSVCE)

1 Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”

9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”

They thought they had the perfect trap for Him, gathering together to confront this “would-be” Messiah yet again. But, as usual, Jesus is always a few steps ahead of them. Jesus’ disciples were not washing their hands before they eat, and thus were ignoring the “tradition of the elders”, the Priests who have added a “few” extra precepts to the commandments of God (i.e. especially to the “law” of Deuteronomy). Notice what Jesus does after their confrontation, like always, rather than answer the question directly, He turns the tables on them. In essence He says, “You want to talk to me about ‘traditions?’ Fine, let’s talk about ‘traditions’… how about the ‘tradition’ of giving the money you are supposed to use to provide for your aging parents over to the Temple treasury in the name of God in order to avoid your responsibility as a good son! You hypocrites! You’ll follow any tradition other than God’s!”

The Scribes and Pharisees, the ruling authority, were using the “Corban rule” as a “get out of jail free card” to dodge their elderly parents and still consider themselves as fulfilling the 4th commandment to honor your father and mother. “So sorry mom and dad, I have no money for you, it was all given to God!” Jesus called them out for what they were truly guilty for, breaking the 4th commandment, and being hypocrites by picking and choosing how to follow God’s law… as they chose, instead of how it was dictated to them.

Its’s subtle, however there is an important distinction that Jesus is making here about traditions. Any “traditions” that are contrary to God’s commandments do in fact “make void the Word of God”, like this “Corban rule”, however He is not therefore making a blanket statement about all “traditions” in the process. If He were making such a blanket statement, then why would Jesus have also said in Matthew 23:2-3, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice5?” If in fact all traditions voided the “Word” of God, then why on earth would Jesus have ever commanded anyone to “practice and observe whatever “they” tell you?” After all, are not the “they” here the very same people Jesus derided as hypocrites in Mark 7 for the “traditions” they perpetrated upon the people? Why yes “they” are! So the context would suggest that Jesus was not summarily condemning all traditions, but, rather, only those that are in fact contrary to the “Word” of God.

Additionally, if Jesus was condemning all “traditions” then why didn’t St. Paul get the memo? Surely, St. Paul, who received his conversion from Christ Himself on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, who is responsible for more than half of the New Testament, should have known that Jesus condemned all “traditions”; right? Then why would St. Paul have written “…stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter6” in 2 Thessalonians 2:15? Or even in 1 Corinthians 11:2, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you 7?” Or even still in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.8” What was Paul thinking if in fact Jesus condemned all “traditions?” Could it be that St. Paul knew that Jesus only condemned those “traditions” that were contrary to God’s law, but certainly not all?

Well this raises a question, is there a tradition that is not found in scripture which all Christians follow? Yes, there is such a tradition… the canon of the New Testament! Nowhere in scripture do you find a divinely inspired list of the New Testament books! The table of contents found at the beginning of your bible is not divinely inspired scripture, rather it was placed there by the publishers, yet all Christians accept the 27 books of the New Testament even though they do so through “tradition!” The New Testament books were in fact hotly debated for nearly four hundred years before the Church, through two North African councils, would determine which books would make up the official canon, the same list we all accept today. In fact, it was the council of Trent in the 1540’s that would dogmatically define the list as a response to Martin Luther’s attempt to remove certain books from the canon of scripture (both New and Old Testaments).

There are many other “traditions” that Protestants follow, most without even thinking of them in that way. For instance, many Protestants will attend worship services on Sunday and Wednesday nights, yet no such command is found in Scripture. All faith traditions have a certain “routine”, some call them “liturgies”, that they follow every time they come together. They may open with prayer, sing a song, give a sermon, make an alter call, etc. etc. and, more than likely, they follow the same order of events every single time, yet this too is their “tradition.” All segments of humanity have “traditions” and not all are bad, most can be good in fact and would not be condemned as they do not, as the “Corban rule” did, make void God’s “Word”.

“Wait, what about that passage in Revelation 22? Didn’t Jesus command not to add or take away from ‘this book’?” Yes, but what do you think He meant by “this book?” Did He mean the book of Revelation or the entire bible? For the sake of the conversion, let’s say that He meant the entire bible; would that make sense? If that were true, then Martin Luther should be condemned by every Protestant for not only trying to remove a few New Testament books, but also, for removing the seven deuterocanonical books of the Old Testmanet, yet I highly doubt you will see that happen anytime soon. Besides that, God had already commanded Moses in Deuteronomy 4:2, You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.9”, yet that didn’t cause the Christians any indigestion when they added an entire New Testament. Why not? Because context is the key to understanding scripture. Jesus is clearly speaking of the book of Revelation in Revelation 22, not the entirety of scripture. Just as God was speaking of the law of Deuteronomy and not the entirety of salvation history. In fact, the “traditions of men” that Jesus is speaking of in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 is actually a direct violation to Deuteronomy 4:2, and not a blanket statement of all traditions within the body of Christ, the Church!

The very notion that faith can only be communicated through the written text would have been a foreign idea to the writers of the New Testament. We have already mentioned such verses as John 20:30, and 2 Thessalonians 2:15, however there are many verses that could be cited to make this point. Let me point out a few others.

Luke 1:4 (RSVCE)

4 that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.

 

2 John 12 (RSVCE)

12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

 

2 Timothy 3:14 (RSVCE)

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it

 

2 Timothy 2:2 (RSVCE)

2 …and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

 

1 Timothy 3:14–15 (RSVCE)

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, 15 if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

So you can see from just these few examples, the effort to write down the Gospels, or to communicate by letter was not the primary intention of the Church (the pillar and foundation of Truth), but, rather was a secondary intention to preserve and pass on the accounts of the Apostles, and to maintain communication with those that they could not be with face to face. Their letter’s would “just have to do” until they were able to come in person. The Gospel’s were preached, taught and handed on to “other faithful men” who would also teach and hand them on. Nowhere in scripture do we find the concept of passing out bibles (or scrolls and parchment) and instructing the community to simply read it for themselves.

In fact, the majority of the Old Testament was written in the Hebrew language, which meant that it contained only consonants and lacked all vowels. There are many Hebrew words that share the same consonants thus making it difficult to know which word the author intended in any given passage. If a Gentile just happened to stumble upon a Hebrew scroll and tried to read it, it would be impossible for him to know precisely how to interpret it without first knowing which vowels to use for each word. Yet, the Hebrew scriptures have been handed on, from one generation to the next, for thousands of years without fail. Why? Because never was their a book of the bible written when there was not an already existing community of God’s people to receive it, interpret it, and hand that book on to the next generation. The interpretation of the Old Testament is itself a “tradition” which we adhere to today. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls have verified our modern interpretations as being consistent with those of the first century, the time when our Lord walked the Earth.

Traditions play a bigger role in the faith than most non-Catholics are willing to admit. Our Lord never condemned traditions, rather he condemn anyone, and anything, who would violate God’s “Word” which, He is the fullness of! The Church, His body, is the pillar and foundation of Truth… not scripture… therefore, the Catholic is right to “hold fast to the traditions” they received from it! We do, on the other hand, reject the “traditions of men” that make void God’s “Word.” Traditions, such as those that would splinter His body and take away His sacraments, or the vicar of Christ on earth, the authority of the Church, the veneration of the Mother of Our Lord, the communion of the family of God, the Saints, etc. etc. … all of which Jesus Himself firmly established. No, rather we do hold fast to the traditions of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church… the “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all10 (Eph. 4:4-6)!”

 

About the Author:

Joe McClane – The Catholic Hack! – is the director and events coordinator for Fullness of Truth Catholic Evangelization Ministries, as well as an a Catholic New Media producer & Evangelist. He is married to his lovely wife Michelle and they have five children. The Catholic Hack | Catholic Apologetics, Theology & More!

 

1 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mk 7:8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

2 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Jn 1:14). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

3 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Jn 20:30). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

4 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Mt 28:19–20). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

5 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Mt 23:2–3). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

6 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (2 Th 2:15). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

7 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (1 Co 11:2–3). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

8 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (2 Th 3:6). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

9 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Dt 4:2). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

10 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Eph 4:4–6). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

About the Author: CatholicHack

Joe McClane is the General Manger of KSHJ 1430 AM on the Guadalupe Radio Network, Catholic radio in Houston, TX. Joe spent the last five years serving as the Director and Events Coordinator for the Fullness Of Truth Catholic Evangelization Ministries based in North Houston. Joe has been married, going on thirteen years, to Michelle, and they homeschool their five children. Joe and his family are parishioners of Annunciation Catholic Church in downtown Houston.
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