Was Jesus a Traditionalist or Revisionist?

Was Jesus a Traditionalist or Revisionist?

Written on 04/22/2022

Department:
Author: Doug Porter

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It’s an old cliché but true: “The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself.” Change is always happening. It is one of the primary dynamics of human affairs. Today in the whirling dervish of our media-saturated environment, where opinion is taken to be fact and fact taken as opinion, there seems to be a wide array of approaches as to how to deal with change. I want to take a look at two of these approaches: traditionalist and revisionist.

Traditionalists tend to resist change to maintain a status quo. They share with Conservatives a position that distrusts the goodness of human nature. And at the same time they have a trust in the value of traditional political and cultural institutions to restrain human behavior. Consequently they are cautious in adopting untested innovations.

Revisionists are seen as critics of tradition and advocates for change. In the area of history they work with new data and theories in order to correct what they see as mistaken understandings of the past. These days it is often used as a pejorative term, accusing revisionists of having their own bias to change or distort facts to suit their own agenda. 

How do these two approaches shed light on the life and work of Jesus? In the Gospel accounts, Jesus himself frequently encountered advocates of tradition in his confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees of his day. The Pharisees were a Jewish sect whose religion valued strict adherence to the written Law of Moses and also to a tradition they believed was orally passed down from Moses. This tradition laid out the dos and don’ts of how to fulfill that Law in practice. For example, it specified which activities were allowed or not allowed in order to fulfill the commandment of resting on the Sabbath. However, sometimes the tradition developed in ways that accommodated human weakness and self-interest. In the more extreme instances, the tradition actually evolved such that its directives countered the commandments of the Law it was trying to fulfill. 

This can happen with any tradition. Understandings and practices become ‘set in stone,’ resistant to changes that inevitably arise. The danger is in the inflexibility and short-sightedness that often result. The letter of the Law is upheld while the spirit of the Law is set aside.

During the time of Jesus, the Pharisees exhibited this kind of inflexibility. Ardent legalists would be a generous description. And Jesus, the bringer of grace and truth, regularly drew their attacks.

There is an episode recorded in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 in which Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees and scribes with the accusation that some of his disciples don’t follow the traditional practice of washing hands before eating. This does not seem like a big deal to us in our culture, but apparently it was important to this contingent of authorities sent from headquarters in Jerusalem. They are questioning Jesus to find out how far he intends to extend his disregard for the tradition.

Now the Levitical law did require that priests wash their hands before making sacrifices (Ex. 30.18-21, 40.31). This was a practice of ritual cleansing. However, as part of their tradition, the Pharisees had extended this so that all Jews were required to practice the ritual of hand-washing.

Jesus answers the accusations of the Pharisees with his own accusation. He begins by calling them hypocrites. He cites the prophet Isaiah: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Mark 7.6,7). He then accuses them of setting aside the commands of God and holding onto the traditions of men. He cites an example: the Law plainly states that you must honor your father and mother, but if you make a pledge of money or property to the temple, that gift cannot be given to one’s parents, even should they need it. Jesus tells them they are making void the word of God by following their tradition.

Another example is the healing of the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The Pharisees complain because their tradition tells them this activity is not an approved activity according to the Law. Jesus “looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:4). He then declares that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

In both of these instances one could call the Pharisees traditionalists. They hold to the demands of their tradition. In their defense, one can see how in their earnestness they valued the tradition, for it seemed to them that it guided them in how to fulfill the Law. However, at times the requirements of the tradition interfered with the demands of the Law. In the examples above, the pledge made to the temple kept one from honoring one’s parents, and the Sabbath law would have prevented an act of healing.

So it would not be appropriate to call Jesus a traditionalist. He was keenly aware of how the form of religion can be modified and distorted such that it counters the intent of religion. He had the sharp eye of a prophet to discern where religion was lip service and not true devotion. And as we can see in these two episodes, he had little patience for it.

Can we then call Jesus a revisionist? If we look at the Sermon on the Mount, at several points Jesus takes the commandments of the Law and appears to modify them. For example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit murder,’ but I say unto you ‘Do not be angry with your brother or call him a fool.’” However, Jesus is not changing the Law, but rather adding a dose of gospel wisdom. Anger leads to murder, lust leads to adultery, swearing an oath leads to thinking you control your own life. As Jesus himself said, he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. In the same breath Jesus told his followers that their righteousness needed to be far better than that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5.17-20). Jesus consistently taught that the moral demands of the Law exceed following the letter of the Law.  

Throughout the history of the Christian Church we have the gospel of Jesus Christ and we have the tradition that grew up around it as we have tried to apply this gospel to living in this world. The Reformers argued that the Roman church of their day was giving tradition greater authority than Scripture in giving shape to the church. Over the centuries, the tradition of the Roman church had gathered multiple accommodations and distortions of the original gospel message. The tactic of the Reformers was to champion sola scriptura as the route to return to a clearer, purer grasp of the life of God in this world and how we are to respond to it. And the Reformers insisted that these distortions of the gospel needed to be purged.

The issue is not so much whether one holds strictly to a received tradition or whether one insists on the need to change that tradition. There is a danger in both these approaches, as they tend to focus on the process itself and work from a fixed position. Jesus might have been a revisionist in some of his teachings. He certainly brought a new and sharper focus to how one lives out obedience to God.

But the greater import of his life and teaching was that he himself was the Revision. God Incarnate in Jesus Christ was the clearest and most impactful revelation of the power, glory, and mystery of God—a revelation we have been unable to contain, despite all our human efforts. For example, in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, he acknowledged the worship that happened in Jerusalem but claimed that a time would come when “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4.23). True worship would no longer depend on physical location. Instead, the Gospel of John claims that Jesus is the real presence of and access to God the Father—the living water, the bread of life, the good shepherd, the true vine, the way, the truth and the life—come “that we might have life, and life eternal.”

As Christians we are called upon to discern the difference between what we hold to as tradition and what is the actual heart of the gospel. This is not to say that all tradition needs to be discarded. But we need to do the hard work of careful examination to discern whether any change that we encounter aligns with the gospel or with our evolved tradition—“rules taught by men” (Mark 7:6). With the prompting and guidance of the Holy Spirit, let us Christians not rest with being reformed, but respond to the call to continue reforming. This surely is an essential part of what it means to be “reformed and always reforming.”