Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Received Tradition: Pushing Back the Veil of Time

Alice C. Linsley

The Bible scholar and the biblical anthropologist approach the Bible differently. The difference isn't simply that the first focuses on the Hebrew and/or Greek and its theological implications while the second focuses on culture traits. The Bible scholar is usually content to trace a word or a belief back to the early days of Judaism, but rarely beyond. The biblical anthropologist seeks to push back the veil of time and is always looking for antecedents. We want to know when and where a belief or practice first appeared. This means looking beyond the beginnings of Judaism (about 580 B.C.) and trying to understand Judaism's development from earlier expressions.When investigating the antecedents of Judaism, things start to get interesting about 4,000 years ago. That's when we can identify evidence of something very like Messianic expectation.

What most Jews believe and practice emerges from something non-Jewish or "proto-Jewish". This means that Jews received a tradition. They didn't invent one.  Received tradition is one of the characteristics of organic religions, that is religions that develop in a traceable way from antecedents of great antiquity. Such traditions are passed down through families, clans and tribes. I must have a tradition that tells me to expect a savior before I will live in expectation.

Tradition is said to live as the continuous expression of the Spirit's guidance and revelation and is the basis for spiritual authority. For an anthropologist this definition raises more questions than it answers. What exactly is the substance of the revelation? Is it fixed or does it change?

Looking at the tradition which Abraham received one finds an unchanging tradition that was already well developed among Abraham's ancestors.  None can claim that this tradition was invented by Jews or by Christians since it existed before either religion took shape. For convenience, we will call this the "Edenic tradition".  It is a very old tradition that speaks of God coming to the aid of mankind as a priest.

When we go back 4000 years ago we find two distinct religious traditions: one involving priests and the other involving shamans. While priests and shamans serve similar functions within their communities, they represent distinctly different, even opposite worldviews. Underlying shamanism is the belief that there are powerful spirits who cause imbalance and disharmony in the world. The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work and to find ways to appease the spirits. This often involves trances, encantations, and mind-altering substances, but rarely involves blood sacrifice.

Underlying the priesthood is belief in a single supreme Spirit or God to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. In this view, one God holds the world in balance and it is human actions that cause disharmony. The vast assortment of ancient laws governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, and cleansing rituals clarifies the role of the priest as one who offers sacrifice according to sacred law. The law represents received tradition preserved through the priestly lines.

The origins of the faith of the Son of God came to Abraham, not as special revelation, but as a tradition received from his forefathers. The distinctive traits of this tradition align remarkable well with the key features of catholic faith and practice:

  1. All-male ruler-priests
  2. Blood sacrifice at altars
  3. Expectation of the appearing of God
  4. As in heaven, so on earth - interpreted by morehs (prophets)
  5. Belief in an eternal and undivided Kingdom
The Edenic tradition is a consistent and cogent account of the people to whom a promise was given in Eden (Gen. 3:15). Because of this promise they lived in expectation of the Son of God and taught their children to do so. Because of this promise, they intermarried in expectaion that the Seed of the Woman would come of their priestly lines. In other words, the Edenic tradition is a family-tribal tradition. This is evident when one studies the genealogies and discovers that the ruler-priests of Abraham's people were allied by intermarriage and shared common beliefs and practices, such as circumcision, animal sacrifice by priests and divine guidance through prophets.

When we push back the veil of time to before Moses and Judaism, we find a tradition that appears not to have changed in substance and only somewhat in outward expression. We still have priests, altars, expectation of God's appearing/return, and belief in an undivided and eternal kingdom. Some say we still have prophets, but these days they seem few and far between. For all our technological prowess, there are few among us who can read the signs.

1 comment:

  1. In I Samuel 8:5-21, we are told that the Israelites demanded of Samuel,"Give us a king to lead us" as the other nations have. The people refused to listen to Samuel so he gave them a king, and the people lost the tradition of having God as the ruler. The Isrealites came to be enslaved by the monarchs, while God would only give them liberty.

    For more on the difference between shamans and priests see:

    Connie Cassels


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