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The Sacred Scriptures Of The Jewish People And The Christian Bible

August 9, 2010

Some reading selections from Pontifical Biblical Commission’s work by the same name. This grew out of my post on the Easter Faith and its Meaning In History. Someone recommended this paper and I found it to be a really good read. As is my habit I have broken it into topics, deleted what didn’t seem pertinent to my interest and highlighted the good stuff.

From the Preface by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:

The Great Promise Of The Manicheans
The internal unity of the Church’s Bible, which comprises the Old and New Testaments, was a central theme in the theology of the Church Fathers. That it was far from being a theoretical problem only is evident from dipping, so to speak, into the spiritual journey of one of the greatest teachers of Christendom, Saint Augustine of Hippo. In 373, the 19 year old Augustine already had his first decisive experience of conversion. His reading of one of the works of Cicero — Hortensius, since lost — brought about a profound transformation which he himself described later on as follows: “Towards you, O Lord, it directed my prayers… I began to pick myself up to return to you… How ardent I was, O my God, to let go of the earthly and take wing back to you” (Conf. III, 4, 81).

For the young African who, as a child, had received the salt that made him a catechumen, it was clear that conversion to God entailed attachment to Christ; apart from Christ, he could not truly find God. So he went from Cicero to the Bible and experienced a terrible disappointment: in the exacting legal prescriptions of the Old Testament, in its complex and, at times, brutal narratives, he failed to find that Wisdom towards which he wanted to travel. In the course of his search, he encountered certain people who proclaimed a new spiritual Christianity, one which understood the Old Testament as spiritually deficient and repugnant; a Christianity in which Christ had no need of the witness of the Hebrew prophets. Those people promised him a Christianity of pure and simple reason, a Christianity in which Christ was the great illuminator, leading human beings to true self-knowledge. These were the Manicheans. The great promise of the Manicheans proved illusory, but the problem remained unresolved for all that.

An Interpretation Of The Old Testament: The Exegetical Method Of Ambrose
Augustine was unable to convert to the Christianity of the Catholic Church until he had learned, through Ambrose, an interpretation of the Old Testament that made transparent the relationship of Israel’s Bible to Christ and thus revealed that Wisdom for which he searched. What was overcome was not only the exterior obstacle of an unsatisfactory literary form of the Old Latin Bible, but above all the interior obstacle of a book that was no longer just a document of the religious history of a particular people, with all its strayings and mistakes. It revealed instead a Wisdom addressed to all and came from God. Through the transparency of Israel’s long, slow historical journey, that reading of Israel’s Bible identified Christ, the Word, eternal Wisdom. It was, therefore, of fundamental importance not only for Augustine’s decision of faith; it was and is the basis for the faith decision of the Church as a whole.

Harnack’s Thesis
But is all this true? Is it also demonstrable and tenable still today? From the viewpoint of historical-critical exegesis, it seems — at first glance, in any case — that exactly the opposite is true. It was in 1920 that the well-known liberal theologian Adolf Harnack formulated the following thesis: “The rejection of the Old Testament in the second century [an allusion to Marcion] was an error which the great Church was right in resisting; holding on to it in the 16th century was a disaster from which the Reformation has not yet been able to extricate itself; but to maintain it since the 19th century in Protestantism as a canonical document equal in value to the New Testament, that is the result of religious and ecclesial paralysis”.

Is Harnack right? At first glance several things seem to point in that direction. The exegetical method of Ambrose did indeed open the way to the Church for Augustine, and in its basic orientation — allowing, of course, for a considerable measure of variance in the details — became the foundation of Augustine’s faith in the biblical word of God, consisting of two parts, and nevertheless composing a unity.

Origen’s Exegesis
But it is still possible to make the following objection: Ambrose had learned this exegesis from the school of Origen, who had been the first to develop its methodology.

But Origen, it may be said, only applied to the Bible the allegorical method of interpretation which was practiced in the Greek world, to explain the religious texts of antiquity — in particular, Homer — and not only produced a Hellenization intrinsically foreign to the biblical word, but used a method that was unreliable, because, in the last analysis, it tried to preserve as something sacred what was, in fact, only a witness to a moribund culture. Yet, it is not that simple.

Much more than the Greek exegesis of Homer, Origen could build on the Old Testament interpretation which was born in a Jewish milieu, especially in Alexandria, beginning with Philo who sought in a totally appropriate way to introduce the Bible to Greeks who were long in search of the one biblical God beyond polytheism. And Origen had studied at the feet of the rabbis. He eventually developed specifically Christian principles: the internal unity of the Bible as a rule of interpretation, Christ as the meeting point of all the Old Testament pathways.

Christ as the key to the “Scriptures”
In whatever way one judges the detailed exegesis of Origen and Ambrose, its deepest basis was neither Hellenistic allegory, nor Philo nor rabbinic methods. Strictly speaking, — leaving aside the details of interpretation – its basis was the New Testament itself. Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the true heir to the Old Testament — “the Scriptures” — and to offer a true interpretation, which, admittedly, was not that of the schools, but came from the authority of the Author himself: “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). The Emmaus narrative also expresses this claim: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). The New Testament authors sought to ground this claim into details, in particular Matthew, but Paul as well, by using rabbinic methods of interpretation to show that the scribal interpretation led to Christ as the key to the “Scriptures”. For the authors and founders of the New Testament, the Old Testament was simply “the Scriptures”: it was only later that the developing Church gradually formed a New Testament canon which was also Sacred Scripture, but in the sense that it still presupposed Israel’s Bible to be such, the Bible read by the apostles and their disciples, and now called the Old Testament, which provided the interpretative key.

From this viewpoint, the Fathers of the Church created nothing new when they gave a Christological interpretation to the Old Testament; they only developed and systematized what they themselves had already discovered in the New Testament. This fundamental synthesis for the Christian faith would become problematic when historical consciousness developed rules of interpretation that made Patristic exegesis appear non-historical and so objectively indefensible.

Luther’s New Formula; Harnack’s Impasse
In the context of humanism, with its new-found historical awareness, but especially in the context of his doctrine of justification, Luther invented a new formula relating the two parts of the Christian Bible, one no longer based on the internal harmony of the Old and New Testaments, but on their essential dialectic linkage within an existential history of salvation, the antithesis between Law and Gospel. Bultmann modernized this approach when he said that the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ by foundering. More radical is the proposition of Harnack mentioned above; as far as I can see, it was not generally accepted, but it was completely logical for an exegesis for which texts from the past could have no meaning other than that intended by the authors in their historical context. That the biblical authors in the centuries before Christ, writing in the Old Testament, intended to refer in advance to Christ and New Testament faith, looks to the modern historical consciousness as highly unlikely.

As a result, the triumph of historical-critical exegesis seemed to sound the death-knell for the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament initiated by the New Testament itself. It is not a question here of historical details, as we have seen, it is the very foundations of Christianity that are being questioned. It is understandable then that nobody has since embraced Harnack’s position and made the definitive break with the Old Testament that Marcion prematurely wished to accomplish. What would have remained, our New Testament, would itself be devoid of meaning.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission
The Document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission introduced by this Preface declares: “Without the Old Testament, the New Testament would be an unintelligible book, a plant deprived of its roots and destined to dry up and wither” (no. 84). From this perspective, one can appreciate the enormous task the Pontifical Biblical Commission set for itself in deciding to tackle the theme of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. If the impasse presented by Harnack is to be overcome, the very concept of an interpretation of historical texts must be broadened and deepened enough to be tenable in today’s liberal climate, and capable of application, especially to Biblical texts received in faith as the Word of God. Important contributions have been made in this direction over recent decades.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission made its own contribution in the Document published in 1993 on “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”. The recognition of the multidimensional nature of human language, not staying fixed to a particular moment in history, but having a hold on the future, is an aid that permits a greater understanding of how the Word of God can avail of the human word to confer on a history in progress a meaning that surpasses the present moment and yet brings out, precisely in this way, the unity of the whole. Beginning from that Document, and mindful of methodology, the Biblical Commission examined the relationship between the many great thematic threads of both Testaments, and was able to conclude that the Christian hermeneutic of the Old Testament, admittedly very different from that of Judaism, “corresponds nevertheless to a potentiality of meaning effectively present in the texts” (no. 64). This is a conclusion, which seems to me to be of great importance for the pursuit of dialogue, but above all, for grounding the Christian faith.

In its work, the Biblical Commission could not ignore the contemporary context, where the shock of the Shoah has put the whole question under a new light. Two main problems are posed:

  1. Can Christians, after all that has happened, still claim in good conscience to be the legitimate heirs of Israel’s Bible? Have they the right to propose a Christian interpretation of this Bible, or should they not instead, respectfully and humbly, renounce any claim that, in the light of what has happened, must look like a usurpation?
  2. The second question follows from the first: In its presentation of the Jews and the Jewish people, has not the New Testament itself contributed to creating a hostility towards the Jewish people that provided a support for the ideology of those who wished to destroy Israel? The Commission set about addressing those two questions.

It is clear that a Christian rejection of the Old Testament would not only put an end to Christianity itself as indicated above, but, in addition, would prevent the fostering of positive relations between Christians and Jews, precisely because they would lack common ground. In the light of what has happened, what ought to emerge now is a new respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. On this subject, the Document says two things. First it declares that “the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Scriptures of the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading, which developed in parallel fashion” (no. 22). It adds that Christians can learn a great deal from a Jewish exegesis practiced for more than 2000 years; in return, Christians may hope that Jews can profit from Christian exegetical research (ibid.). I think this analysis will prove useful for the pursuit of Judeo-Christian dialogue, as well as for the interior formation of Christian consciousness.

Reproofs Addressed To Jews In The New Testament
The question of how Jews are presented in the New Testament is dealt with in the second part of the Document; the “anti-Jewish” texts there are methodically analyzed for an understanding of them. Here, I want only to underline an aspect which seems to me to be particularly important. The Document shows that the reproofs addressed to Jews in the New Testament are neither more frequent nor more virulent than the accusations against Israel in the Law and the Prophets, at the heart of the Old Testament itself (no. 87). They belong to the prophetic language of the Old Testament and are, therefore, to be interpreted in the same way as the prophetic messages: they warn against contemporary aberrations, but they are essentially of a temporary nature and always open to new possibilities of salvation.

From The Introduction
What relations does the Christian Bible establish between Christians and the Jewish people? The general answer is clear: between Christians and Jews, the Christian Bible establishes many close relations. Firstly, because the Christian Bible is composed, for the greater part, of the “Holy Scriptures” (Romans 1:2) of the Jewish people, which Christians call the “Old Testament”; secondly, because the Christian Bible is also comprised of a collection of writings which, while expressing faith in Christ Jesus, puts them in close relationship with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures. This second collection, as we know, is called the “New Testament”, an expression correlative to “Old Testament”.

That an intimate relationship exists between them is undeniable. A closer examination, however, reveals that this is not a straightforward relationship, but a very complex one that ranges from perfect accord on some points to one of great tension on others..

Jewish Roots
It is above all by virtue of its historical origin that the Christian community discovers its links with the Jewish people. Indeed, the person in whom it puts its faith, Jesus of Nazareth, is himself a son of this people. So too are the Twelve whom he chose “to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message” (Mark 3:14). In the beginning, the apostolic preaching was addressed only to the Jews and proselytes, pagans associated with the Jewish community (cf. Acts 2:11). Christianity, then, came to birth in the bosom of first century Judaism.

Although it gradually detached itself from Judaism, the Church could never forget its Jewish roots, something clearly attested in the New Testament; it even recognized a certain priority for Jews, for the Gospel is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

Old Testament and New Testament
A perennial manifestation of this link to their beginnings is the acceptance by Christians of the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people as the Word of God addressed to themselves as well. Indeed, the Church has accepted as inspired by God all the writings contained in the Hebrew Bible as well as those in the Greek Bible. The title “Old Testament” given to this collection of writings is an expression coined by the apostle Paul to designate the writings attributed to Moses (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:14-15). Its scope has been extended, since the end of the second century, to include other Jewish writings in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. The title “New Testament” takes its origin from a message in the Book of Jeremiah which announced a “new covenant” (Jr 31:31), the expression is translated in the Greek of the Septuagint as “new dispensation”, “new testament” (kain diathk). The message announced that God intended to establish a new covenant. The Christian faith sees this promise fulfilled in the mystery of Christ Jesus with the institution of the Eucharist (cf. 1 Co 11:25; Heb 9:15). Consequently, that collection of writings which expresses the Church’s faith in all its novelty is called the “New Testament”. The title itself points towards a relationship with the “Old Testament”.

The New Testament recognizes the authority of the Sacred Scriptures
The New Testament writings were never presented as something entirely new. On the contrary, they attest their rootedness in the long religious experience of the people of Israel, an experience recorded in diverse forms in the sacred books which comprise the Jewish Scriptures. The New Testament recognizes their divine authority. This recognition manifests itself in different ways, with different degrees of explicitness.

  1. Implicit Recognition Of Authority
    Beginning from the less explicit, which nevertheless is revealing, we notice that the same language is used. The Greek of the New Testament is closely dependent on the Greek of the Septuagint, in grammatical turns of phrase which were influenced by the Hebrew, or in the vocabulary, of a religious nature in particular. Without a knowledge of Septuagint Greek, it is impossible to ascertain the exact meaning of many important New Testament terms.
    This linguistic relationship extends to numerous expressions borrowed by the New Testament from the Jewish Scriptures, giving rise to frequent reminiscences and implicit quotations, that is, entire phrases found in the New Testament without any indication of origin. These reminiscences are numerous, but their identification often gives rise to discussion. To take an obvious example: although the Book of Revelation contains no explicit quotations from the Jewish Bible, it is a whole tissue of reminiscences and allusions. The text is so steeped in the Old Testament that it is difficult to distinguish what is an allusion to it and what is not.
  2. Explicit Recourse To The Authority Of The Jewish Scriptures
    This recognition of authority takes different forms depending on the case. Frequently, in a revelatory context the simple verb legei, “it says”, is found, without any expressed subject, as in later rabbinic writings, but the context shows that a subject conferring great authority on the text is to be understood: Scripture, the Lord or Christ. At other times the subject is expressed: it is “Scripture”, “the Law”, or “Moses” or “David”, with the added note that he was inspired, “the Holy Spirit” or “the prophet”, frequently “Isaiah”, sometimes “Jeremiah”, but it is also “the Holy Spirit” or “the Lord” as the prophets used to say. Twice, Matthew has a complex formula indicating both the divine speaker and the human spokesperson: “what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet…” (Matthew 1:22; 2:15). At other times the mention of the Lord remains implicit, suggested only by the preposition dia “through”, referring to the human spokesperson. In these texts of Matthew, the verb “to say” in the present tense results in presenting the quotations from the Jewish Bible as living words possessing perennial authority.
    In his doctrinal arguments, the apostle Paul constantly relies on his people’s Scriptures. He makes a clear distinction between scriptural argumentation and “human” reasoning. To the arguments from Scripture he attributes an incontestable value. For him the Jewish Scriptures have an equally enduring value for guiding the spiritual lives of Christians: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope”.
    The New Testament recognizes the definitive value of arguments based on the Jewish Scriptures. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus declares that “Scripture cannot be annulled” (John 10:35). Its value derives from the fact that it is the “word of God” (ibid.). This conviction is frequently evident. Two texts are particularly significant for this subject, since they speak of divine inspiration. In the Second Letter to Timothy, after mentioning the “Sacred Scriptures” (2 Timothy 3:15), we find this affirmation: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Specifically referring to the prophetic oracles contained in the Old Testament, the Second Letter of Peter declares: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pt 1:20-21). These two texts not only affirms the authority of the Jewish Scriptures; they reveal the basis for this authority as divine inspiration.

The New Testament attests conformity to the Jewish Scriptures
A twofold conviction is apparent in other texts: on the one hand, what is written in the Jewish Scriptures must of necessity be fulfilled because it reveals the plan of God which cannot fail to be accomplished; on the other hand, the life, death and resurrection of Christ are fully in accord with the Scriptures.

  1. Necessity of fulfilling the Scriptures
    The clearest expression of this is found in the words addressed by the risen Christ to his disciples, in the Gospel of Luke: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must (dei) be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). This assertion shows the basis of the necessity (dei, “must”) for the paschal mystery of Jesus, affirmed in numerous passages in the Gospels: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and after three days rise again”; “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled which say it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:54); “This Scripture must be fulfilled in me” (Luke 22:37).
    Because what is written in the Old Testament “must” be fulfilled, the events take place “so that” it is fulfilled. This is what Matthew often expresses in the infancy narrative, later on in Jesus’ public life and for the whole passion (Matthew 26:56). Mark has a parallel to the last mentioned passage in a powerfully elliptic phrase: “But let the Scriptures be fulfilled” (Mark 14:49). Luke does not use this expression but John has recourse to it almost as often as Matthew does. The Gospels’ insistence on the purpose of these events “so that the Scriptures be fulfilled” attributes the utmost importance to the Jewish Scriptures. It is clearly understood that these events would be meaningless if they did not correspond to what the Scriptures say. It would not be a question there of the realization of God’s plan.
  2. Conformity to the Scriptures
    Other texts affirm that the whole mystery of Christ is in conformity with the Jewish Scriptures. The early Christian preaching is summarized in the kerygmatic formula recounted by Paul: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). He adds: “Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach and this is what you believed” (1 Corinthians 15:11). The Christian faith, then, is not based solely on events, but on the conformity of these events to the revelation contained in the Jewish Scriptures. On his journey towards the passion, Jesus says: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (Matthew 26:24; Mark 14:21). After his resurrection, Jesus himself “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures”.19 In his discourse to the Jews of Antioch in Pisidia, Paul recalls these events by saying that “the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him [Jesus] or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled these words by condemning him” (Acts 13:27). The New Testament shows by these declarations that it is indissolubly linked to the Jewish Scriptures.
    Some disputed points that need to be kept in mind may be mentioned here. In the Gospel of Matthew, a saying of Jesus claims perfect continuity between the faith of Christians and the Tôrah: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). This theological affirmation is characteristic of Matthew and his community. It is in tension with other sayings of the Lord which relativizes the Sabbath observance (Matthew 12:8,12) and ritual purity (Matthew 15:11).
    In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus appropriates a saying of Isaiah (Luke 4:17-21; Is 61:1-2) to define his mission as he begins his ministry. The ending of the Gospel expands this perspective when it speaks of fulfilling “all that is written” about Jesus (Luke 24:44).
    On that point, it is essential, according to Jesus, to “hear Moses and the prophets”, the ending of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:29-31) drives home the point: without a docile listening, even the greatest prodigies are of no avail.
    The Fourth Gospel expresses a similar perspective: Jesus attributes to the writings of Moses an authority comparable to his own words, when he says to opponents: “If you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (John 5:47). In a Gospel where Jesus affirms that his words “are spirit and life” (John 6:63), such an assertion gives primary importance to the Torah.
    In the Acts of the Apostles, the kerygmatic discourses of the Church leaders — Peter, Paul and Barnabas, James — place the events of the Passion, Resurrection, Pentecost and the missionary outreach of the Church in perfect continuity with the Jewish Scriptures.
  3. Conformity and Difference
    Although it never explicitly affirms the authority of the Jewish Scriptures, the Letter to the Hebrews clearly shows that it recognizes this authority by repeatedly quoting texts to ground its teaching and exhortations. It contains numerous affirmations of conformity to prophetic revelation, but also affirmations of conformity that include aspects of non-conformity as well. This was already the case in the Pauline Letters. In the Letters to Galatians and Romans, the apostle argues from the Law to prove that faith in Christ has put an end to the Law’s regime. He shows that the Law as revelation predicted its own end as an institution necessary for salvation. The most important text on this subject is Romans 3:21 where the apostle affirms that the manifestation of the justice of God in the justification offered by faith in Christ is brought about “apart from the Law”, but is nevertheless “attested by the Law and the Prophets”. In a similar way, the Letter to the Hebrews shows that the mystery of Christ fulfils the prophecies and what was prefigured in the Jewish Scriptures, but, at the same time, affirms non-conformity to the ancient institutions: the glorified Christ is at one and the same time in conformity with the words of Psalms 109 (110):1,4, and in non-conformity with the levitical priesthood (cf. Hebrews 7:11,28).
    The basic affirmation remains the same. The writings of the New Testament acknowledge that the Jewish Scriptures have a permanent value as divine revelation. They have a positive outlook towards them and regard them as the foundation on which they themselves rest. Consequently, the Church has always held that the Jewish Scriptures form an integral part of the Christian Bible.

Scripture and Oral Tradition in Judaism and Christianity
In many religions there exists a tension between Scripture and Tradition. This is true of Oriental Religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) and Islam. The written texts can never express the Tradition in an exhaustive manner. They have to be completed by additions and interpretations which are eventually written down but are subject to certain limitations. This phenomenon can be seen in Christianity as well as in Judaism, with developments that are partly similar and partly different. A common trait is that both share a significant part of the same canon of Scripture.

  1. Scripture and Tradition in the Old Testament and Judaism
    Tradition gives birth to Scripture. The origin of Old Testament texts and the history of the formation of the canon have been the subject of important works in the last few years. A certain consensus has been reached according to which by the end of the first century of our era, the long process of the formation of the Hebrew Bible was practically completed. This canon comprised the Torah, the Prophets and the greater part of the “Writings”. To determine the origin of the individual books is often a difficult task. In many cases, one must settle for hypotheses. These are, for the most part, based on results furnished by Form, Tradition and Redaction Criticism. It can be deduced from them that ancient precepts were assembled in collections which were gradually inserted in the books of the Pentateuch. The older narratives were likewise committed to writing and arranged together. Collections of narrative texts and rules of conduct were combined. Prophetic messages were collected and compiled in books bearing the prophets’ names. The sapiential texts, Psalms and didactic narratives were likewise collected much later.
    Over time Tradition produced a “second Scripture” (Mishna). No written text can adequately express all the riches of a tradition. The biblical sacred texts left open many questions concerning the proper understanding of Israelite faith and conduct. That gave rise, in Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism, to a long process of written texts, from the “Mishna” (“Second Text”), edited at the beginning of the third century by Jehuda ha-Nasi, to the “Tosepta” (“Supplement”) and Talmud in its twofold forms (Babylonian and Jerusalem). Notwithstanding its authority, this interpretation by itself was not deemed adequate in later times, with the result that later rabbinic explanations were added. These additions were never granted the same authority as the Talmud, they served only as an aid to interpretation. Unresolved questions were submitted to the decisions of the Grand Rabbinate.In this manner, written texts gave rise to further developments. Between written texts and oral tradition a certain sustained tension is evident.
  2. The Limits of Tradition
    When it was put into writing to be joined to Scripture, a normative Tradition, for all that, never enjoyed the same authority as Scripture. It did not become part of the “Writings which soil the hands”, that is, “which are sacred” and was not accepted as such in the liturgy. The Mishna, the Tosepta and the Talmud have their place in the synagogue as texts to be studied, but they are not read in the liturgy. Generally, a tradition is evaluated by its conformity to the Torah. The reading of the Torah occupies a privileged place in the liturgy of the Synagogue. To it are added pericopes chosen from the Prophets. According to ancient Jewish belief, the Torah was conceived before the creation of the world. The Samaritans accept only the Torah as Sacred Scripture, while the Sadduccees reject every normative Tradition outside the Law and the Prophets. Conversely, Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism accept, alongside the written Law, an oral Law given simultaneously to Moses and enjoying the same authority. A tract in the Mishna states: “At Sinai, Moses received the oral Law and handed it on to Joshua, and Joshua to the ancestors, and the ancestors to the prophets, and the prophets handed it on to members of the Great Synagogue” (Aboth 1:1). Clearly, a striking diversity is apparent from the manner of conceiving the role of Tradition.

Scripture and Tradition in Early Christianity

  1. 1.       Tradition gives birth to Scripture
    In early Christianity, an evolution similar to that of Judaism can be observed with, however, an initial difference: early Christians had the Scriptures from the very beginning, since as Jews, they accepted Israel’s Bible as Scripture. But for them an oral tradition was added on, “the teaching of the Apostles” (Acts 2:42), which handed on the words of Jesus and the narrative of events concerning him. The Gospel catechesis took shape only gradually. To better ensure their faithful transmission, the words of Jesus and the narratives were put in writing. Thus, the way was prepared for the redaction of the Gospels which took place some decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In addition, professions of faith were also composed, together with the liturgical hymns which are found in the New Testament Letters. The Letters of Paul and the other apostles or leaders were first read in the church for which they were written (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:27), were passed on to other churches (cf. Colossians 4:16), preserved to be read on other occasions and eventually accepted as Scripture (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16) and attached to the Gospels. In this way, the canon of the New Testament was gradually formed within the apostolic Tradition.
  2. 2.       Tradition completes Scripture.
    Christianity has in common with Judaism the conviction that God’s revelation cannot be expressed in its entirety in written texts.
    This is clear from the ending of the Fourth Gospel where it is stated that the whole world would be unable to contain the books that could be written recounting the actions of Jesus (John 21:25). On the other hand, a vibrant tradition is indispensable to make Scripture come alive and maintain its relevance.
    It is worth recalling here the teaching of the Farewell Discourse on the role of “the Spirit of truth” after Jesus’ departure. He will remind the disciples of all that Jesus said (John 14:26), bear witness on Jesus’ behalf (15:26), and lead the disciples “into all the truth” (16:13), giving them a deeper understanding of the person of Christ, his message and work. As a result of the Spirit’s action, the tradition remains alive and dynamic.
    Having affirmed that the apostolic preaching is found “expressed in a special way” (“speciali modo exprimitur”) in the inspired Books, the Second Vatican Council observes that it is Tradition “that renders a more profound understanding in the Church of Sacred Scripture and makes it always effective” (Dei Verbum). Scripture is defined as the “Word of God committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”; but it is Tradition that “transmits to the successors of the apostles the Word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and by the Holy Spirit to the apostles, so that, illumined by the Spirit of truth, they will protect it faithfully, explain it and make it known by their preaching” (Dei Verbum 9). The Council concludes: “Consequently, it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws its certainty about everything which has been revealed” and adds: “That is why both — Scripture and Tradition — must be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence” (Dei Verbum 9).
  3. The Limits Of The Additional Contribution Of Tradition
    To what extent can there be in the Christian Church a tradition that is a material addition to the word of Scripture? This question has long been debated in the history of theology. The Second Vatican Council appears to have left the matter open, but at least declined to speak of “two sources of revelation”, which would be Scripture and Tradition; it affirmed instead that “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture constitute a unique sacred deposit of the Word of God which is entrusted to the Church” (Dei Verbum 10). It likewise rejected the idea of a tradition completely independent of Scripture. On one point at least, the Council mentions an additional contribution made by Tradition, one of great importance: Tradition “enabled the Church to recognize the full canon of the Sacred Books” (DV 8). Here, the extent to which Scripture and Tradition are inseparable can be seen.
  4. Relationship Between The Two Perspectives
    As we have shown, there is a corresponding relationship between Scripture and Tradition in Judaism and Christianity. On one point, there is a greater correspondence, since both religions share a common heritage in the “Sacred Scripture of Israel”.
    From a hermeneutical viewpoint, however, perspectives differ. For all the currents within Judaism during the period corresponding to the formation of the canon, the Law was at the centre. Indeed, in it were to be found the essential institutions revealed by God himself governing the religious, moral, juridical and political life of the Jewish nation after the Exile. The prophetic corpus contains divinely inspired words, transmitted by the prophets and accepted as authentic, but it contained no laws capable of providing an institutional base. From this point of view, the prophetic writings are of second rank. The “Writings” contain neither laws nor prophetic words and consequently occupy third place.
    This hermeneutical perspective was not taken over by the Christian communities, with the exception, perhaps, of those in Judeo-Christian milieus linked to Pharisaic Judaism by their veneration of the Law. In the New Testament, the general tendency is to give more importance to the prophetic texts, understood as foretelling the mystery of Christ. The apostle Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews do not hesitate to enter into polemics against the Law. Besides, early Christianity shared apocalyptic currents with the Zealots and with the Essenes apocalyptic messianic expectation; from Hellenistic Judaism it adopted a more extended, sapientially oriented body of Scripture capable of fostering intercultural relations.
    What distinguishes early Christianity from all these other currents is the conviction that the eschatological prophetic promises are no longer considered simply as an object of future hope, since their fulfillment had already begun in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. It is about him that the Jewish Scriptures speak, in their whole extension, and it is in light of him that they are to be fully comprehended.

Jewish Exegetical Methods employed in the New Testament

1.  Jewish Methods of Exegesis

Judaism derived from the Scriptures its understanding of God and of the world, as well as of God’s plans. The clearest expression of how Jesus’ contemporaries interpreted the Scriptures are given in the Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts copied between the second century B.C. and 60 A.D., and so are therefore close to Jesus’ ministry and the formation of the Gospels. However, these documents express only one aspect of the Jewish tradition; they come from within a particular current and do not represent the whole tradition.
The earliest rabbinic attestation of exegetical method based on Old Testament texts, is a series of seven “rules” traditionally attributed to Rabbi Hillel (d. 10 A.D.). Irrespective of whether this attribution is well founded or not, these seven middoth certainly represent a codification of contemporary methods of argument from Scripture, in particular for deducing rules of conduct.
Another method of using Scripture can be seen in first century historical writings, particularly Josephus, but it had already been employed in the Old Testament itself. It consists of using biblical terms to describe events in order to illuminate their meaning. Thus, the return from the Babylonian Exile is described in terms that evoke the liberation from Egyptian oppression at the time of the Exodus (Is 43:16-21). The final restoration of Zion is represented as a new Eden.24 At Qumran, a similar technique was widely used.

2.  Exegesis at Qumran and in the New Testament
With regard to forms and method, the New Testament, especially the Gospels, presents striking resemblances to Qumran in its use of Scripture. The formulae for introducing quotations are often the same, for example: “thus it is written”, “as it is written”, “in conformity with what was said”. The similarity in scriptural usage derives from an outlook common to both the Qumran community and that of the New Testament. Both were eschatological communities that saw biblical prophecies being fulfilled in their own time, in a manner surpassing the expectation and understanding of the Prophets who had originally spoken them. Both were convinced that the full understanding of the prophecies had been revealed to their founder and transmitted by him, “the Teacher of Righteousness” at Qumran, Jesus for Christians.
Exactly as in the Dead Sea Scrolls, certain biblical texts are used in the New Testament in their literal and historical sense, while others are applied in a more or less forced manner, to the contemporary situation. Scripture was understood as containing the very words of God. Some interpretations, in both texts, take a word and separate it from its context and original meaning to give it a significance that does not correspond to the principles of modern exegesis. An important difference, however, should be noted. In the Qumran texts, the point of departure is Scripture. Certain texts — for example the pesher of Habakkuk — are an extended commentary on a biblical text, which is then applied, verse by verse, to a contemporary situation; others are collections of texts dealing with the same theme, for example, Q Melchisedeq on the messianic era. In the New Testament, in contrast, the point of departure is the Christ event. It does not apply Scripture to the present, but explains and comments on the Christ event in the light of Scripture. The only points in common are the techniques employed, often with a striking similarity, as in Romans 10:5-13 and in the Letter to the Hebrews.

3.  Rabbinic Methods in the New Testament
Traditional Jewish methods of scriptural argumentation for the purpose of establishing rules of conduct — methods later codified by the rabbis — are frequently used in the words of Jesus transmitted in the Gospels and in the Epistles. Those occurring most often are the first two middoth (“rules”) of Hillel, qal wa-homer and gezerah shawah. These correspond more or less to arguments a fortiori and by analogy respectively.

A particular trait is that the argument often revolves around the meaning of a single word. This meaning is established by its occurence in a certain context and is then applied, often in a very artificial manner, to another context. This technique has a strong resemblance to rabbinic midrash, with one characteristic difference: in the rabbinic midrash, there is a citation of differing opinions from various authorities in such a way that it becomes a technique of argumentation, while in the New Testament the authority of Jesus is decisive.

Paul in particular frequently uses these techniques especially in discussions with well-informed Jewish adversaries, whether Christian or not. Oftentimes he uses them to counter traditional positions in Judaism or to support important points in his own teaching.27

Rabbinic argumentation is also found in the Letters to the Ephesians and Hebrews.28 The Epistle of Jude, for its part, is almost entirely made up of exegetical explications resembling the pesharim (“interpretations”) found in the Qumran Scrolls and in some apocalyptic writings. It uses figures and examples in a verbal chain structure in conformity with Jewish scriptural exegesis.

A particular form of Jewish exegesis found in the New Testament is the homily delivered in the synagogue. According to John 6:59, the Bread of Life discourse was delivered by Jesus in the synagogue at Capernaum. Its form closely corresponds to synagogal homilies of the first century: an explanation of a Pentateuchal text supported by a prophetic text; each part of the text is explained; slight adjustments to the form of words are made to give a new interpretation. Traces of this model can perhaps also be found in the missionary discourses in the Acts of the Apostles, especially in Paul’s homily in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:17-41).

4.  Important Allusions to the Old Testament

The New Testament frequently uses allusions to biblical events as a means of bringing out the meaning of the events of Jesus’ life. The narratives of Jesus’ infancy in the Gospel of Matthew do not disclose their full meaning unless read against the background of biblical and post-biblical narratives concerning Moses. The infancy gospel of Luke is more in the style of biblical allusions found in the first century Psalms of Solomon or in the Qumran Hymns; the Canticles of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon can be compared to Qumran hymns.29 Events in the life of Jesus, like the theophany on the occasion of his baptism, the transfiguration, the multiplication of the loaves and the walking on the water, are similarly narrated with deliberate allusions to Old Testaments events and narratives. The reaction of listeners to Jesus’ parables (for example, the parable of the murderous tenants, Mt 21:33-43 and par.) shows that they were accustomed to using biblical imagery as a technique to express a message or give a lesson.

Among the Gospels, Matthew shows greatest familiarity with the Jewish techniques in utilizing Scripture. After the manner of the Qumran pesharim, he often quotes Scripture; he makes wide use of juridical and symbolic argumentation similar to those which were common in later rabbinic writings. More than the other Gospels, he uses midrashic stories in his narratives (the infancy gospel, the episode of Judas’ death, the intervention of Pilate’s wife). The rabbinic style of argumentation frequently used, especially in the Pauline Letters and in the Letter to the Hebrews, undoubtedly attests that the New Testament emerged from the matrix of Judaism and that it is infused with the mentality of Jewish biblical commentators.

The Extension of the Canon of Scripture
The title “canon” (Greek kan(o-)n, “rule”) means the list of books which are accepted as inspired by God and having a regulatory function for faith and morals. We are only concerned here with the formation of the canon of the Old Testament.

1. In Judaism
There are differences between the Jewish canon of Scripture29 and the Christian canon of the Old Testament.  To explain these differences, it was generally thought that at the beginning of the Christian era, there existed two canons within Judaism: a Hebrew or Palestinian canon, and an extended Alexandrian canon in Greek — called the Septuagint — which was adopted by Christians.

Recent research and discoveries, however, have cast doubt on this opinion. It now seems more probable that at the time of Christianity’s birth, closed collections of the Law and the Prophets existed in a textual foRomans substantially identical with the Old Testament. The collection of “Writings”, on the other hand, was not as well defined either in Palestine or in the Jewish diaspora, with regard to the number of books and their textual form. Towards the end of the first century A.D., it seems that 24/22 books were generally accepted by Jews as sacred,32 but it is only much later that the list became exclusive.33 When the limits of the Hebrew canon were fixed, the deuterocanonical books were not included.

Many of the books belonging to the third group of religious texts, not yet fixed, were regularly read in Jewish communities during the first century A.D. They were translated into Greek and circulated among Hellenistic Jews, both in Palestine and in the diaspora.

2. In the Early Church

17. Since the first Christians were for the most part Palestinian Jews, either “Hebrew” or “Hellenistic” (cf. Acts 6:1), their views on Scripture would have reflected those of their environment, but we are poorly informed on the subject. Nevertheless, the writings of the New Testament suggest that a sacred literature wider than the Hebrew canon circulated in Christian communities. Generally, the authors of the New Testament manifest a knowledge of the deuterocanonical books and other non-canonical ones since the number of books cited in the New Testament exceeds not only the Hebrew canon, but also the so-called Alexandrian canon. When Christianity spread into the Greek world, it continued to use sacred books received from Hellenistic Judaism. Although Hellenistic Christians received their Scriptures from the Jews in the form of the Septuagint, we do not know the precise form, because the Septuagint has come down to us only in Christian writings. What the Church seems to have received was a body of Sacred Scripture which, within Judaism, was in the process of becoming canonical. When Judaism came to close its own canon, the Christian Church was sufficiently independent from Judaism not to be immediately affected. It was only at a later period that a closed Hebrew canon began to exert influence on how Christians viewed it.

3. Formation of the Christian Canon

The Old Testament of the early Church took different shapes in different regions as the diverse lists from Patristic times show. The majority of Christian writings from the second century, as well as manuscripts of the Bible from the fourth century onwards, made use of or contain a great number of Jewish sacred books, including those which were not admitted into the Hebrew canon. It was only after the Jews had defined their canon that the Church thought of closing its own Old Testament canon. But we are lacking information on the procedure adopted and the reasons given for the inclusion of this or that book in the canon. It is possible, nevertheless, to trace in a general way the evolution of the canon in the Church, both in the East and in the West.

In the East from Origen’s time (c. 185-253) there was an attempt to conform Christian usage to the Hebrew canon of 24/22 books using various combinations and stratagems. Origen himself knew of the existence of numerous textual differences, which were often considerable, between the Hebrew and the Greek Bible. To this was added the problem of different listings of books. The attempt to conform to the Hebrew text of the Hebrew canon did not prevent Christian authors in the East from utilizing in their writings books that were never admitted into the Hebrew canon, or from following the Septuagint text. The notion that the Hebrew canon should be preferred by Christians does not seem to have produced in the Eastern Church either a profound or long-lasting impression.

In the West, the use of a larger collection of sacred books was common and was defended by Augustine. When it came to selecting books to be included in the canon, Augustine (354-430) based his judgment on the constant practice of the Church. At the beginning of the fifth century, councils adopted his position in drawing up the Old Testament canon. Although these councils were regional, the unanimity expressed in their lists represents Church usage in the West.

As regards the textual differences between the Greek and the Hebrew Bible, Jerome based his translation on the Hebrew text. For the deuterocanonical books, he was generally content to correct the Old Latin (translation). From this time on, the Church in the West recognized a twofold biblical tradition: that of the Hebrew text for books of the Hebrew canon, and that of the Greek Bible for the other books, all in a Latin translation.

Based on a time-honored tradition, the Councils of Florence in 1442 and Trent in 1564 resolved for Catholics any doubts and uncertainties. Their list comprises 73 books, which were accepted as sacred and canonical because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, 46 for the Old Testament, 27 for the New.  In this way the Catholic Church received its definitive canon. To determine this canon, it based itself on the Church’s constant usage. In adopting this canon, which is larger than the Hebrew, it has preserved an authentic memory of Christian origins, since, as we have seen, the more restricted Hebrew canon is later than the formation of the New Testament.

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