Scripture and Tradition

Paul wrote these words to Timothy:

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.—2 Timothy 2:15

This is good advice for all believers, for it is by rightly dividing, or properly interpreting, the Scriptures that we are able to better know our Lord and His will for us. God revealed Himself, first to Israel and then the world, through His prophets. These prophets, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, committed what had been revealed to them to what are now called the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament.

The prophets were silent from the time of Malachi, who committed inspired words to writing between 433 and 425 BC, until the advent of Jesus. Following Jesus' death and ascension, other inspired men penned the biographical books we know as the Gospels and other books and letters containing additional Divine revelation. When John set aside his brush after writing what we know as Revelation 22:21, the Canon of Scripture was closed. Since then, scholars have examined the sacred writings and, in some cases, written expositions and commentaries in which they provided their understanding of the inspired Scriptures. There is no reason to believe that any of these expositions and commentaries were written under Divine inspiration; they simply are the considered thoughts of men. These writings cannot be considered authoritative and, while perhaps useful for study, are not the word of God. In fact, there is no assurance that any particular exposition or commentary accurately interprets a passage from the Scriptures. For this reason, I believe that it is incumbent on every believer to develop the ability to accurately interpret the Bible; “rightly dividing the word of truth.”

Not surprisingly, my position that every believer must learn to properly interpret the Scriptures is not in agreement with the position of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). The RCC is not in agreement with the Canon of Scripture settled by the people to whom God first entrusted His revelation. The Catholic Old Testament canon, cast in stone at the 4th session of the Council of Trent, includes several documents rejected by Hebrew scholars when they settled the Hebrew Canon.

A reigning pope declared his opinion that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is a

…statement of the Church's faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Church's Magisterium. -- Fidei Depositum, apostolic constitution, promulgated by Pope John Paul II, on October 11, 1992

John Paul II validated the new catechism in these words:

I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion…This catechism is given to {the Church's Pastors and the Christian faithful} that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine… -- Ibid.

My copy of the 2nd Edition of the new catechism includes many useful research and study aids, including a listing of all the Scriptures drawn from in preparing the statements of doctrine compiled into the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). In searching through that list, I was struck by the fact that 2 Timothy 2:15, quoted above, was not included. Why not?

Furthermore, in order to curb impudent clever persons, the synod decrees that no one who relies on his own judgment in matters of faith and morals, which pertain to the building up of Christian doctrine, and that no one who distorts the Sacred Scripture according to his own opinions, shall dare to interpret the said Sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which is held by holy mother Church, whose duty it is to judge regarding the true sense and interpretation of holy Scriptures, or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers, even though interpretations of this kind were never intended to be brought to light -- Council of Trent, 4th Session, Decree on the Use and Edition of the Sacred Books, Denzinger 786

In other words, the bishops at Trent, and others down through the centuries, made it clear that Catholics are not to study the Scriptures if that study results in understanding their message differently from what Mother Church tells them it says. The following paragraphs from the CCC make it clear, to me at least, that the RCC does not want Catholics “rightly dividing the word of truth.”

85. 'The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ' [DV 10 #2]. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., © 1994/1997, United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

In case that is not a sufficiently clear statement of just who is permitted to interpret the Scriptures within the Catholic Church, try this on for size:

100. The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.--CCC, Op. cit.

I don't know how many times I have read statements saying, or had Catholic apologists declare to me, that the Catholic Church is Israel perfected, or something to that effect. The message is, I believe, that what God began in the Hebrew nation, He perfected in the Catholic Church. In other words, or so it appears, the Catholic Church has supplanted the nation of Israel as God's Chosen People. I do not doubt that many Catholic apologists reading this will react to that statement in outrage, declaring it not to be so and providing a number of out-of-context 'proof texts' to support their position. I am not impressed by hysterical attempts at rebuttal and I urge others to adopt the same response.

There is truth, however, in Catholic claims to be rooted in Judaism, just as there is truth in similar professions made by non-Catholic Christians. The difference is that Catholicism appears to have retained, even expanded upon, Jewish doctrine and practices that do not conform to the clear teachings of Christ and the inspired writers of the New Testament; whereas Bible Christians, who find Christ in every book of the Old Testament, are principally guided by the doctrines found in the New Testament.

Throughout the centuries, Catholics and non-Catholics often have singled out Jews for unwarranted mistreatment, often claiming that Jews "murdered Christ." We have the testimony of Scripture to tell us that, indeed, some Jews -- notably money changers, priests and Levites, the High Priest, etc. -- did campaign for the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The same Scriptures also make clear the fact that other Jews accepted and believed Him. I submit that in any population, religious or otherwise, people with strong opinions may be found on every side of an issue. I know that Jesus was tortured and executed by Roman soldiers under Roman jurisdiction. I suggest to those who just have to have someone to blame for Christ's death, that they look to Almighty God, Who sent Logos to us for just that purpose.

I believe that Jews were and still are God's Chosen People and that He will deal with them according to His will, just as He will deal with Gentiles, believers and otherwise, according to His will.

Perhaps it would be well to look at the sources of Jewish doctrine and practice which, in some ways, approximate the Catholic understanding. Judaism, as most who read here likely know, has no New Testament. The Jewish Scriptures contain the same writings as found in the non-Catholic, or canonical, Old Testament, though they are divided and arranged differently. The Hebrew Bible is divided into three sections: the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nevtim) and the Writings (Kethuvim). In the strictest sense, Torah refers to the five books of the Law, sometimes called the Five Books of Moses. However, the word is also used to refer to the entire collection of books that make up the Hebrew Bible. Another word used in reference to the totality of the Written Torah is Tanakh, an acrostic formed from the Hebrew names of the three sections.

According to Scripture, God gave the Law to the Hebrew nation at Mount Sinai, or what Jews call The Stand at Mound Sinai (Maamad Har Sinai). The Talmud teaches, in Tractate Avodah Zarah 2b, that before offering it to the Hebrew people, God offered the Law to every nation in the world. The Law given to the Children of Israel consists of 613 mitzvoth, or commandments. These commandments governed every aspect of life in the theocracy that would become Israel. These 613 commandments were clear statements of what God expected of His Chosen People.

The Torah is the Word of God, clearly stated, yet just as does the Catholic Magisterium, Jewish scholars and rabbis added to it, explaining what God really meant to say. The books of the written Law are five in number. The books of the Oral Torah (Tradition) fill libraries. In many cases, as has done the Magisterium with the Scriptures, the scholars and rabbis have added laws that God apparently neglected to include in Torah. This is how they did it and are still doing it.

Like the Magisterium, Hebrew scholars and teachers studied the Scriptures and began explaining them and telling folks how to interpret them and how to apply the Law. According to Orthodox Judaism, God taught the Oral Torah to Moses while he was atop Mount Sinai. Moses taught others, who taught others, right down to today, much as Catholicism holds that Christ taught the Apostles, who taught their successors, who taught their successors, etc., in what Catholicism calls the Apostolic Succession.

77. 'In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.' [DV 7 #2; St. Irenaeus, Adv. Hares, 3, 3, 1:PG 7/1, 848; Harvey, 2, 9.] Indeed, 'the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.' [DV 8 #1.]

78. This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, wince it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, 'the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.' [DV 8 #1.] 'The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.' [DV 8 #3.]CCC, Op. cit.

The books that make up the New Testament were written in the first century following Christ's birth. In the second century, scholars and rabbis began to compile the Jewish oral tradition in a document called the Mishnah. Then, they began writing commentaries on commentaries in the Mishnah. These new commentaries are called the Gemara. By the end of the fifth century, the Mishnah and the Gemara were combined and called the Talmud. Actually, there are two Talmuds, one assembled in Jerusalem and the other, more comprehensive version, put together in Babylon. And, as might be expected, Jewish scholars kept on adding to the Talmud, just as Catholicism adds to the Scriptures, by writing commentaries on the commentaries on the commentaries on the Law.

The teachings of the CCC are divided into four sections with many sub-sections. Those in the Mishnah are in six sections, each of which has one or more sub-sections called tractates in English. Altogether, there are 63 tractates in the Mishnah.

There's more. The Midrashim are narratives based on sections of the Bible that do not directly address aspects of Jewish Law. Midrashim take several forms. They might be factual accounts from the lives of individuals that are used to illustrate a moral point, or fables used for the same purpose. Some Midrashim are philosophical propositions.

After the Midrash and the Talmud were closed, in the 5th century, rabbis and scholars continued to make Jewish Law (Halachah). For centuries, Jews in the Diaspora governed themselves through a system of communal courts that developed in Jewish cultural centers around the world. Jews would take their everyday concerns to their rabbis. When local rabbis were asked to address difficult issues of the Law, they often would present their interpretations to other, highly respected, rabbis for review. When the consulted rabbi replied, his response would include a detailed argument in support of his position. These Responsa (She'elot U-Teshuvot) were gathered and printed into thousands of volumes and new Responsa are being developed even today.

It seems to me that the way the Responsa are developed can be compared to the operation of Catholicism's Ordinary Magisterium. Catholic priests and bishops around the world are frequently called upon to resolve issues involving the applicability of Catholic law to life situations. A difference seems to be that, whereas the Responsa of the rabbis were distributed to other Jewish communities, the judicial decisions of local priests and bishops appear to be retained locally. Thus, all of Judaism can call up the Responsa when evaluating the application of Jewish law to a particular situation, while for Catholics; many judicial decisions of local priests and bishops appear to be handled as unique to their particular jurisdictions. This helps explain why Orthodox Jews, wherever they find themselves, know what is required of them vis-à-vis the halachah. Catholic practice, on the other hand, can vary widely from one area to another, as any Catholic who has done much traveling can confirm. In my experience, the sometimes great differences of teaching and practice among Catholic parishes and dioceses is generally explained by Catholic apologists with a statement similar to, “Well, that bishop or practice does not conform to the Catholic Church's teaching.”

The body of Jewish tradition is quite extensive, as is the vast body of Catholic tradition, much of which is stored in the more than 30 kilometers of stacks in the Vatican Archives. Just as Catholic tradition has been distilled into more readily usable forms for the Catholic faithful, so also have there been efforts to facilitate quick answers to questions of Jewish Law. One such effort was made by the great medieval scholar Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, sometimes referred to as Maimonedes or Rambam. He compiled every imaginable topic of Jewish Law into his Mishneh Torah.

Maimonedes also assembled a list of foundational Jewish beliefs called the 13 Principles of Faith. Though this is a statement of faith that may appear comparable in application to the Apostles' Creed that is included in the liturgy of the Catholic Mass, that is not the case. The Apostles' Creed is a statement of basic beliefs that one must believe if he is to be considered one of the Catholic faithful.

194. The Apostles' Creed is so called because it is rightly considered to be a faithful summary of the apostles' faith. It is the ancient baptismal symbol of the Church of Rome. Its great authority arises from this fact: it is 'the Creed of the Roman Church, the See of Peter the first of the apostles, to which he brought the common faith.' {St. Ambrose, Expl. Symb. 7: PL 17, 1196.}

197. As on the day of our Baptism, when our whole life was entrusted to the 'standard of teaching,' [Rom 6:17.] let uys embrace the Creed in our life-giving faith. To say the Credo with faith is to enter into communion with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and also with the whole Church which transmits the faith to us and in whose midst we believe:

This Creed is the spiritual seal, our heart's meditation and an ever-present guardian; it is, unquestionably, the treasure of our soul. {St. Ambrose, Expl. Symb. I: 17, 1193.}--CCC, Op. cit.

Catholics and former Catholics reading this should be familiar with the words of the Apostles' Creed, so I won't include it here. Maimonedes' Principles, while in the form of a creed, are not binding on Jews in the same way that creeds are for Catholics and some non-Catholic churches. In fact, Judaism has no formal set of doctrines that one must subscribe to if he is to be considered a Jew. In Catholicism, there is a vast number of dogmas to which the Catholic faithful are expected to assent in faith, lest they fall out of favor with Mother Church and be anathematized/excommunicated. In Judaism, there are no dogmas at all. For Jews, what one does is far more important than what one believes, though beliefs do count in Judaism. Following is a list of Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith:

1. God exists
2. God is one and unique
3. God is incorporeal
4. God is eternal
5. Prayer is to be directed to God alone and to no other
6. The words of the prophets are true
7. Moses' prophecies are true, and Moses was the greatest of the prophets
8. The Written Torah and Oral Torah were given to Moses
9. There will be no other Torah
10. God Knows the thoughts and deeds of men
11. God will reward the good and punish the wicked
12. The Messiah will come
13. The dead will be resurrected.

I hope that readers will find some of this information concerning the development and application of written and oral tradition in Judaism and Catholicism to be useful. In that Christians can also trace our roots back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I believe it important that we have some understanding of Judaism.

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