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Apr 20, 2020

Scripture & Tradition: From Jewish Roots

Jeff Cavins

It is an all too common occurrence, Catholics leaving the Church because one well-intended Bible-believing Christian challenged their faith by asking one question, “Where is that in the Bible?” Suddenly, the scope of truth has been confined to a single book, the Bible, without either party realizing that they have bought into a collection of unexamined presuppositions. Namely:

1. The Bible alone is the means of divine revelation

2. The Bible-alone tradition is the way the Church has received revelation from the beginning, and…

3. The individual Christian is the authoritative interpreter of the Bible.

And without even the slightest hint of defense or a discerning pause the unsuspecting Catholic allows his friend’s presuppositions to go unchecked and in many cases adopts them as his own. After all, one would think, if someone can quote that much Scripture, he must know what he is talking about.

Hydrogen and Oxygen

But are the above presuppositions true? Perhaps the greatest difference between Catholics and Protestants is the way the two groups view the means of receiving divine revelation. For most Protestants, the only reliable source of divine revelation is the Bible. This tradition of relying on the Bible as the sole means of receiving God’s revelation, however, is fairly recent as it was only introduced in the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Faith, on the other hand, is not a “religion of the book,” rather, it is the religion of the “Word” of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 108). The Church teaches that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God (Dei Verbum, 10). The gospel of Jesus Christ is the source of all saving truth and moral discipline, and as such it must be conveyed to all generations. Therefore, Jesus commanded his apostles to preach the gospel.

In the apostolic preaching, the gospel was handed on in two ways:

1. Orally “by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received – whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit,”

2. In writing “by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing” (CCC, 76).

Both means of the apostolic message, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. They both flow from the same divine source, and share a common goal; to make present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ (CCC, 80). I like the way Mark Shea put it in his book By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition. He describes the relationship between Scripture and Tradition as one—but not the same.

“They were the hydrogen and oxygen that fused to form living water. They were the words and the tune of a single song. They were two sides of the same apostolic coin.”

p. 120

Jesus Delegates Authority

But the question arises, how can the full deposit of faith remain intact and free from the fallibility of an individual’s whim? This is particularly important since there was no formal New Testament to guide the Church until 393 A.D. Who would preserve and teach with authority the gospel as it spread into various cultures and continents? To safeguard the gospel, the apostles appointed bishops as their successors, giving them “their own position of teaching authority” (CCC, 77). In the process of apostolic succession, we see the continuation of Jesus’ delegated authority down through the ages.

For it was Jesus who said to Peter, the first pope:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:19

And to his apostles Jesus said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples … teaching them to observe all that I command you” (Matthew 28:18-20) and “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).

What We Mean by ‘Tradition’

This idea of a living, continuing authoritative presence did not begin with the Catholic Church. In the Old Testament we see an ongoing authority in the Mosaic priesthood as well as the Royal dynasty of David and the Sanhedrin established just prior to Jesus’ birth.

Today, the bishops around the world in union with the bishop of Rome, the pope, constitute the teaching authority of the Church. This authoritative body is often referred to as the Magisterium. The Magisterium, Sacred Tradition, and Sacred Scripture are so closely “linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others” (DV, 10).

This is the living Tradition of the Church. In defining what apostolic Tradition is we must first distinguish between social traditions, traditions of the Church and THE TRADITION. When the Church speaks of apostolic Tradition, she is not speaking of it in the sense that people traditionally open their gifts on Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas day. Frankly, this is your own business and can be modified upon your grandmother’s approval. Nor is apostolic Tradition the numerous theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions developed in the local churches over the years. These traditions, (often referred to as “small t” traditions) can be modified or entirely dropped under the guidance of the Magisterium.

Manmade and Genuine Tradition

The apostolic Tradition, however, comes from the apostles as they received it from Jesus’ teaching, from his example, and from what the Holy Spirit revealed to them. It is this apostolic Tradition that is referred to when the Church speaks of Scripture and Tradition making up the deposit of faith. This apostolic Tradition must be preserved and taught by the Church.

Jesus’ criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7:13, “that you have invalidated the word of God by your tradition,” is not a blanket condemnation of all tradition, but rather, a correction regarding a tradition of man (Corban) that had choked the power of the Word of God. According to this tradition, a son could declare that what he had intended to give his parents was considered “Corban,” i.e., a gift devoted to God. Once a gift was considered “Corban” it could no longer be designated for the care of their parents. Wouldn’t you condemn a tradition like that? Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out that the “traditions were criticized in order that genuine tradition might be revealed” (Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 95).

Oral and Written

It comes as a big surprise to some to realize that at no time in the history of the people of God was the concept of the Word of God bound only to the written page. From the beginning of the Bible until Moses (1400 BC), oral tradition was the only means of passing on the words of God. And from Moses on through to the Catholic Church it was clearly understood by all in God’s covenant family (Israel) that the Word of God was to be understood in terms of both oral and written Tradition. It was also understood by Jesus and the early Church that the Word of God was transmitted by two means: orally and in written form. Paul clearly understood this to be true as we see in his exhortation to Timothy:

“hold to traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by our letter.”

2 Thessalonians 2:14

Cardinal Ratzinger noted:

“Jesus did not present his message as something totally new, as the end of all that preceded it. He was and remained a Jew; that is, he linked his message to the tradition of believing Israel.”

ibid p. 95

This dual meaning of receiving the Word of God in oral and written form is part of the tradition of Israel. Just weeks after the children of Israel were freed from Egypt, they settled for one year at the base of Mt. Sinai. It was there on Mt. Sinai that Moses received the written Torah (the first five books in the Bible), and during the forty-year period following the Exodus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Moses put the Torah into writing.

The Oral Torah

The fact that God put his will into writing does not come as a surprise to most Christians, but what does cause people, particularly Protestants, to theologically stutter is the fact that the Jewish community of the Old Testament as well as the people of Jesus’ time all believed that God gave to Israel an oral law (oral tradition) in addition to the written law. Rabbi Hayim Donin in his book entitled To Be a Jew explains:

“we believe that God’s will was also made manifest in the Oral Tradition or Oral Torah which also had its source at Sinai, revealed to Moses and then orally taught by him to the religious heads of Israel.

The Written Torah itself alludes to such oral instructions. This Oral Torah—which clarifies and provides the details for many of the commandments contained in the Written Torah—was transmitted from generation to generation until finally recorded in the second century to become the cornerstone upon which the Talmud was built.”

p. 24-25

Jacob Neusner points out in his Introduction to the Mishnah, which is the codified oral tradition of the Jewish community, that the Oral Torah “bore the status of divine revelation right alongside the Pentateuch.”

An Ancient Current

The Jewish community, from which Christianity springs, has always understood Torah to be both written (Sefer Torah) and Oral (Torah She-B’al Peh). Along with the written Torah, the Oral Torah which Moses received at Sinai, was “transmitted to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly…” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1). In nearly identical fashion the Catholic Church has continued in this tradition of the Word of God coming to his people in both written and oral form. It is fair to say that the new concept of God’s Word coming only in the written form (Sola Scriptura) was a foreign idea to the Jews both in Moses’ and Jesus’ day.

It must be made clear that the Catholic teaching that “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God” (DV, 10) is not some new cleverly devised system, but is a continuation of that ancient stream in which our forefathers stood. The very idea of the Word of God being both written and oral flows from our Jewish roots. It is part of the nourishing sap of the Olive Tree (Israel), and those who stand outside of this tradition stand on the shores of the still flowing ancient current.

This first blog post in the Scripture & Tradition series by Jeff Cavins was published on The Great Adventure Blog, The Ascension Blog’s former home, April 17, 2015. It was originally published as an article in Envoy Magazine.

You May Also Like:

Four Sides of the Same Coin: When the Gospels ‘Disagree’

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Putting on the Armor of God

Jeff Cavins is passionate about helping people understand Scripture and become disciples of Jesus Christ. Though he was born Catholic, Jeff went to Bible school and served as a Protestant minister for twelve years before reverting to the  Catholic Faith. He then quickly became a leading Catholic evangelist and author. Jeff is best-known for creating The Great Adventure Bible study programs published by Ascension, which have been used by hundreds of thousands of people to engage in Scripture in a life-changing way. In addition to The Activated Disciple, some of his other recent projects include his podcast, The Jeff Cavins Show, and the Great Adventure Bible studiesEphesians: Discover Your Inheritance, and Wisdom: God’s Vision for Life.

Featured painting, “He Who is of God Hears the Word of God“, by James Tissot sourced from Wikimedia Commons

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  • “It was there on Mt. Sinai that Moses received the written Torah (the first five books in the Bible), and during the forty-year period following the Exodus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Moses put the Torah into writing.”

    Is this stated correctly? Would make more sense with the rest of the article if it said that Moses received the oral Torah. If not, why did Moses put into writing something that was already written?

    • By tradition we learned that Pentateuch was written about 800 years after the death of Moses or around 850 B.C., so it was not Moses the real writer but by the zealous Jews and attributed it to Moses. Pentateuch was written by different authors and was compiled from four original “source documents”—designated as J, E, D,
      and P. These four documents supposedly were written at different times around 850 B.C., and was characterized by its use of the divine name Yahweh. Elohim is the divine name that identifies the E, or Elohist, document, purportedly written around 750 B.C. The D, or Deuteronomist, document contained most of the book of Deuteronomy and was supposed to have been written around 620 B.C.
      The last section to be written was the P, or Priestly, document, which
      would have contained most of the priestly laws, and allegedly was
      written around 500 B.C. We are told these documents were then redacted (edited) into one work about 300 years later in 200 B.C. (Morris, 1976, p. 23; McDowell, 1999, p. 406).

      • The idea that Moses did not write the Pentateuch actually has been
        around for more than a millennium. However, until the mid-seventeenth century, the vast majority of people still maintained that Moses was its author. It was in the mid-1600s that the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza began to seriously question this widely held belief (Green, 1978, p. 47; Dillard and Longman, 1994, p. 40). French physician Jean Astruc developed the original Documentary Hypothesis in 1753, and it went through many different alterations until Karl Graf revised the initial hypothesis in the mid-nineteenth century. Julius Wellhausen then restated Graf’s Documentary Hypothesis and brought it to light in European and American scholarly circles (see McDowell, 1999, pp. 404-406). It thus has become known to many as the Graf-Wellhausen

        • This is all very intriguing…Didn’t Jesus say that Moses wrote of Him? Was He lying,Jose Samilin?

          • Jesus never lied, He is perfect, we are short of knowledge that we need to persevere in our learning and not abandoning Him.

          • Let me try this way then. While its from the Old Testament books where Jesus were foreshadowed, He is present even from the beginning of the world. Its also in the chronology of time that the books of the Bible were written, but such were transmitted by Tradition (not mere tradition) and preserved its purity till some inspired authors committed them in writing and same author ascribed their writing to Moses. this is the reason why Pentateuch was written about 800 years after the death of Moses. Therefore, Jesus did not lie.

      • Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in which Dr. Sacks defended the proposition that Moses wrote (or dictated) the first five books of the Bible. Brown’s (in the book of Andrew Brown) response was: “That is the most shocking thing I have ever heard an intellectual say” (1999, p. 167).

  • If the Roman Catholic Church was rejected during the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, when it was said, “we could come to Christ without the aid of the church,” do they know what is a bible, or do they know then what is a bible without the church?? They come to the room full of thousands and thousands of antiquity books, how do they know the 27 books of the New Testament and the 46 books of the Old Testament? What charism or magical formula can they employ to know these books?

  • Only the Catholic Church can claim to have link with Christ through the Apostolic succession and only the Catholic Church can offer the fulness of means of salvation through the Sacrament.

    • There is no”means of salvation”,Jose Samilin—we have Only ONE SAVIOUR,and His name is JESUS CHRIST!!!

      • The only one Saviour Jesus can save you through His Church being the Head of this Church, indivisible with His Mystical body, the Church.

        • You seem to be a victim of the phenomenon known as “catholic groupthink”,Jose…Let me ask the question like this(try using the Scriptures in your answer,NOT opinion): Has Almighty God ALWAYS been Saviour, or did men make Him so? I await your reply.

  • Not the individual Christian is the authoritative interpreter of the Bible. First of all, you must understand this: No prophecy in Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation (2 Pet. 1:20) It is the Magisterium of the church.

  • The Sola Scriptura position or bible alone is unbiblical, hence, the only bible is authoritative is false.

    • Can you prove that Jesus,who gave Scripture the highest priority,would make the same claim inre The Word of God,Jose Samilin?

    • I just read your link,Jose,and frankly, I don’t find it convincing at all.As I said in an earlier post,Our Saviour put a very high priority on the authority of Scripture(when He refuted Satan,He,the Saviour,said”It is written”,not”according to tradition”),and gave”tradition”short shrift.So…I’ll stick with Jesus’view of so-called ” tradition”.the Roman Catholic concept of tradition is too vague and arbitrary; besides, it wasn’t tradition that saved me,it was and is,My Saviour, The Risen Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ,so tradition can serve no useful purpose if it’s not found in Scripture,so…PEACE IN CHRIST, ALWAYS!

      • Good and thanks. Show me, then how does Scripture alone works without Sacred Tradition and without the Church established by Christ. How do you know which Scripture has authority? While Scripture refers to the Old Testament books, the old covenant, which you can’t appeal for salvation now but only through the New Covenant sealed with blood. Remember scripture is writing, mere paper and ink, its dead, without someone to proclaim it and without Sacred Tradition you do not have the Bible in your hand. Laurence, please explain your side, thanks.

        • I’m not going to keep going back and forth with a”dialogue” that’s obviously going nowhere, Jose…Your questions will be better served by asking the Saviour yourself; obviously the existing Scriptures served Jesus,the Apostles and especially the great Apostle Paul exactly as the Word of God should. When Our Saviour was handed the scroll in the synagogue and went to the passage He quoted from the Prophet Isaiah,obviously He needed no”tradition” to direct Him where to go.When the great Apostle Paul preached throughout Asia Minor in the synagogues and every place else he preached,obviously he knew what Scriptures from the Tanakh to minster from.Here’s a thought,Jose: Do you think that it is possible that the Holy Spirit taught and guided the evangelists,preachers prophets, HE commissioned? Perhaps this would be a good time for you to re-examine the Book of Acts; after all, Our Saviour told the disciples in the Johannine Discourse that The Holy Spirit would be their Teacher,yes? Obviously they trusted what the Saviour told them,and relied on the Holy Spirit’s Power and Guidance,didn’t they? And they made no mention of some vague, arbitrary “tradition”to guide them,did they? No.When the Bereans…”searched the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true”…they searched THE SCRIPTURES; they didn’t delve into some heretofore unknown”tradition”. And when you catholics attempt to use the few verses where Paul mentions the word”tradition”,tell me, Jose: exactly WHAT tradition(s) was he referring to? What did these”traditions” contain? Where they necessary for salvation? If not,what pratical purpose did they serve? Were we commanded by Almighty God to observe them,and if so what is the reason why they aren’t Enscripturated? Ask yourself this,Jose: Why wasn’t the Protoevangelium of James,which was supposedly composed around A.D.145 and primarily informs catholics of what the Roman Catholic Church believes about Mary,placed within the canon of the New Testament? After all there was plenty of time to do so yet…At any rate,Jose,as I said, I am done with this issue.The Scriptures tell us that…”Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind”… (The Epistle to the Romans,chapter 14,vs 5.)—I’m fully persuaded that whatever Roman Catholicism says about what is called”tradition”,if it doesn’t have a Scriptural foundation or can’t be verified by same,well…Let’s you and I agree to disagree,and be at peace.God Bless.

          • How do you know which Scripture is the Word of God without an external authority?
            Protestants took the bible catholics maintained by 1500 years, eliminated the books that the unbelieving jews didnt have and pretended christians have been wrong about which books are the word of God for 1500 years. The traditions that are passed are passed in the catholic church because obviously all of the apostles and their rightful successors are members of a single church, that is the Catholic church.
            If you want to learn them then read the church fathers and see for yourself that early christians believed the same things the catholic church teaches nowadays.

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