Messianic believers in Yeshua rely on the Scriptures for guidance on things such as Torah-keeping, celebrating the Feasts, and so forth. Yet some say that in addition to the instructions of God’s word, we should also be keeping the traditions of Judaism—that this is a clear teaching of Paul. But is this what Paul really teaches? What should our attitude be toward Jewish tradition?
Paul does, in fact, very clearly say that we should “hold to the traditions” (2Th.2:15) and “keep the traditions” (1Co.11:2). These words from Paul are not in dispute. But the question is: to what “traditions” is Paul referring? Is he actually speaking of Jewish, rabbinic tradition?
The full verse of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 reads in the MJLT, “[H]old to the traditions… that you were taught by us—whether through word of mouth, or whether through our letter.” So our first clue about the traditions that Paul says to “hold to” were those taught to the people “through word” and “through our letter.” In other words, the traditions were taught to them by Paul. That is all we can glean from this verse. So far, it says nothing of Jewish tradition.
Then a little bit later in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, we are provided with more clarification. “[W]ithdraw yourselves from every brother who is walking disorderly and not following after the tradition… that you received from us.” Here, Paul is juxtaposing walking “after the tradition” with “walking disorderly.” Put another way, to walk after the tradition is orderly, and to walk not after the tradition is disorderly. Paul’s point is that failing to keep “the tradition” makes us worthy to be shunned by the believing community. Yet this still doesn’t indicate that he means Jewish tradition.
Finally, in 2 Thessalonians 3:7&10-12, we get our answer.
“[It is necessary] for you to imitate us, because we did not act disorderly among you…. [If] anyone is not willing to work, neither let him eat. For we hear of certain ones walking disorderly among you, working at nothing, but working at the affairs of others. But we command and exhort such persons… that, working with quietness, they eat their own bread.”
What Paul calls walking or acting “disorderly,” he finally explains as referring to those who are unwilling to work, and instead spend their time meddling in the affairs of others. And this is the “tradition” to which Paul wants the Thessalonians to hold: he is teaching them to not cause disorder within the believing community by being lazy, selfish leeches. Specifically, he is instructing them: if you don’t work, you don’t eat. That is the tradition taught to them by Paul. The “traditions” of which Paul speaks have nothing to do with Judaism.
On the contrary, the only place that Paul mentions Jewish tradition at all is in Galatians 1:13-16, and it’s not exactly a glowing recommendation.
“For you heard of my behavior at one time in Judaism: that I was exceedingly persecuting the [believers, and]… advancing in Judaism… being more abundantly zealous for my fathers’ traditions. But when God was well pleased… to reveal His Son in me… I would proclaim Good News of Him among the Goyim…”
So, at best, Paul’s attitude toward tradition can be seen as neutral. All we know for certain is that Paul was previously zealous for exactly two things: advancing in Judaism while keeping “my father’s traditions,” and persecuting believers. He is characterizing his “behavior at one time in Judaism” negatively. But now that he is devoted to Messiah, he is zealous only for proclaiming the Good News. Paul left his former zeal for Judaism and tradition behind.
When we allow tradition to compete with Scripture—or worse, mistake tradition for the word of God—it has the potential to lead us to overshadow, obscure, violate and nullify God’s commands. Contrary to popular belief, Jewish tradition isn’t necessary either for keeping Torah or for emulating Yeshua. Our zeal must not be for the traditions of Judaism, but for the Scriptures of God.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!