I like to say that studying Judaism made me Catholic. Many years ago, I was a zealous, anti-Catholic evangelical Christian living in Jerusalem and active in the Messianic Jewish movement. Messianic believers are eager to rediscover the Jewish Jesus and the Jewish practices of the Early Church before it became tainted and compromised—so they say—with gentile beliefs and practices.
Like my Messianic Jewish friends, I accepted as the foundation of my faith the principle of sola scriptura—the great theological pillar of the Reformation positing that the Bible is our only and final source of authority in matters of faith. According to the Reformers and their followers, because human traditions are unreliable and prone to change, the Bible alone is the trustworthy Word of God that communicates to us the eternal truths that God revealed for our salvation (cf. 2 Tm 3:16).
Yet after spending a few years in the Messianic movement, I began to feel uneasy about sola scriptura. I found the doctrinal anarchy reigning in Protestantism and in Messianic Judaism increasingly disturbing. Even though all believers accepted the Bible as the Word of God, they constantly disagreed among themselves on substantial points of doctrine, with no final authority able to arbitrate between them. I began to think, moreover, that the endless multiplication of denominations found in Protestantism could surely not be God’s will. This led me to investigate what Scripture and Judaism had to say about the nature of God’s revelation to man.
Sola Scriptura in Scripture?
My first, unsettling discovery was the realization that the Bible does not teach sola scriptura: indeed, Scripture never states anywhere that it is to be the only source of authority for our faith, or that all divinely revealed truth is to be found in Scripture and Scripture alone. This discovery was unsettling because it blurred the boundaries of God’s revelation. Sola scriptura provided security: As long as I believed that God’s Word was limited to the confines of the Bible—from Genesis to Revelation—I knew exactly where it began and where it ended. But if the concept of sola scriptura was unbiblical, did this mean that divine revelation could also be found elsewhere, outside of the Bible? If this was the case, then where was it? I continued to search for answers in the pages of Scripture.
As I studied the Early Church’s understanding of divine revelation, it became evident that the first Christians acknowledged and submitted to a binding, authoritative, apostolic tradition. Of course, they had the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament—as the canonical witness of God’s great words and deeds in Israel’s history. But the written New Testament as we know it did not yet exist. It took several decades until the first epistles and gospels were written and began to circulate in local churches, and it took nearly four centuries until the New Testament canon was finalized.[i]
How then did the early Christians learn about Christ and his teachings? They had to rely on apostolic tradition.[ii] The New Testament attests to this: St. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thes 2:15). Believers are to shun those who walk “not in accord with the tradition” received from the apostles (2 Thes 3:6). And Paul commends the Corinthians because they “maintain the traditions” that he delivered to them (1 Cor 11:2).
Likewise, the Church in the Acts of the Apostles was not a sola scriptura Church. Long before the first Christians had a written New Testament, they accepted apostolic authority under the leadership of Peter (cf. Acts 1:15; 2:14; 3:12), “And they held steadfastly to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), which was passed down orally. Given this picture of the Early Church, it is no wonder that the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” for the early Christian community was not the Bible but rather, as Paul writes to Timothy, “the Church of the living God” (1 Tm 3:15).
A little more study revealed that the idea of accepting and submitting to a binding, authoritative teaching tradition was not a Christian innovation, but something that the early Christians inherited from the Judaism of their day. This too is well attested in the Gospels.
Oral Tradition in the Gospels
Jesus took for granted the binding authority of Jewish oral tradition, then known as the “tradition of the elders” (Mt 15:2; Mk 7:3). Although he sometimes sharply disagreed with the scribes and the Pharisees over the interpretation of those traditions, Jesus still endorsed their religious authority as deriving from the authority of Moses. This is evident from his exhortation to the disciples that they continue to respect and obey Pharisaic teachings: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Mt 23:2–3). In other words, even though the scribes and Pharisees failed to live up to their own teachings, they still taught with the authority of Moses. For this reason, Jews—including Jesus’ disciples—should continue to submit to that authority.
That Jesus endorsed the teaching authority of the Pharisees is significant because the Pharisees taught much more than the written Torah, as is found in the Old Testament. Already in the first century, their teaching included a large body of oral traditions. As first-century Jewish historian Josephus observes: “the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses.”[iii] By endorsing their authority, Jesus implicitly endorsed the oral traditions and precepts that they taught. Certainly, Jesus prioritized “the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” (Mt 23:23) over the more minute precepts taught by the Pharisees such as the details of how and what to tithe. Still, Jesus tells them: “these [weightier matters] you ought to have done, without neglecting the others [the Pharisaic oral traditions]” (Mt 23:23, emphasis added). The fact that “justice and mercy and faith” were the most important aspects of the Torah did not mean that Jews were at liberty to casually dismiss the oral traditions taught by the scribes and Pharisees.
Oral Torah in Judaism
The role of oral tradition is so important in Judaism that it came to be known as the Oral Torah—a term denoting a separate body of teachings and precepts distinct from, yet closely related to, the written Torah (the Pentateuch). This distinction between “two Torahs” is well attested in ancient Jewish literature. For example, the Talmud records a conversation between a certain Gentile and the two great sages Shammai and Hillel (who were contemporaries of Jesus). When the Gentile asked them, “How many Torahs do you have?” both replied, “Two, one in writing, one memorized.”[iv]
Where does this Oral Torah originate and what does it contain? According to rabbinic Judaism, “besides the written law . . . God gave orally to Moses other laws and maxims, as well as verbal explanations of the written law, enjoining him not to record these teachings, but to deliver them to the people by word of mouth.”[v] In other words, the Oral Torah is the record of those discussions and legal decisions that God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai but were not recorded in the Written Torah or Pentateuch.
The existence of an oral law is necessitated by the character of the laws of the written Torah. Many of the Mosaic laws are worded very briefly and are virtually unintelligible without supplemental explanations or instructions. For example, the written Torah prohibits work on the Sabbath (Ex 20:10). But the Torah never defines what constitutes “work.” It is heavy physical labor? Is it engaging in activities related to one’s profession? According to the rabbis, it would be absurd to think that God gave such an important commandment as the Sabbath rest to Israel, then failed to specify how to keep the day holy. In this case, Jewish oral tradition has determined that the Sabbath rest prohibits not physical labor but rather ritual labor, that is, any creative act in which man interferes with nature and exercises his mastery over it.
A fifteenth-century Spanish Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Yosef Albo, explains the dynamic nature of the Torah and why a written text—even if divinely inspired!—is unable to address all human situations over time unless it has authoritative interpreters:
God’s law cannot be perfect so as to be adequate for all times, because the ever-new details of human relations, their customs and their acts, are too numerous to be embraced in a book. Therefore, Moses was given orally certain general principles, only briefly alluded to in the Torah, by means of which the wise men in every generation may work out the details as they appear.[vi]
Some rabbis held that God communicated to Moses at Mount Sinai the entire body of rabbinical teachings as taught throughout history.[vii] But the Oral Torah is probably better understood as God revealing to Moses the rules according to which rabbinical teachings would be developed over time. These rules could be deduced either from the written law by means of exegetical interpretations and logical conclusions, or as statutes that the rabbis promulgated by virtue of the authority given to them by the written Torah.[viii] In other words, the written Torah spells out the essential commandments that Israel is to keep, then adds principles and guidelines by which teachers and rabbis are to interpret and contextualize the commandments in future generations, always in organic continuity with the written Torah.
How is the Oral Torah preserved over time and faithfully transmitted from one generation to the next? It is passed on in a type of “apostolic succession,” as famously attested in the opening verse of the Mishnah tractate Pirke Avot, or “Ethics of the Fathers”:
Moses received Torah from Sinai, and passed it on to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets passed it on to men of the Great Assembly.[ix]
Thus, the Oral Torah that God gave to Moses was communicated orally from generation to generation in an ongoing chain of transmission. The reliability of the transmission was safeguarded by means of a rigorous process of repetition and memorization.[x] This process preserved the integrity of divine revelation while allowing for contextualization and adaptation as required by new situations over time within particular interpretive communities. Such was the Jewish view of the Torah at the time of Jesus and the apostles: “In the Second Temple period, there was thus no Torah apart from its tradition. Neither was there a concept of sola scriptura.”[xi]
From Oral to Written
Paradoxically, Jewish oral tradition was eventually put down in writing. After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and another crushing defeat at the hands of the Romans in AD 135, the Jews were banished from Jerusalem and left without a religious center. At the same time, the volume of the traditions and rulings became so unwieldy that it was becoming increasingly difficult to preserve them orally, especially in the midst of destabilizing political and religious upheavals. As a result, the rabbis decided to codify the Oral Torah and write it down, producing over the next few centuries the central texts of rabbinic Judaism—the most important being the Mishnah[xii] and the Talmud.[xiii]
From Jewish Oral Law to Catholic Sacred Tradition
Discovering and understanding the thought behind Jewish Oral Law led me to a whole new understanding of Catholic Sacred Tradition. The number of parallels between the two are considerable.
First, the concept of sola scriptura was unheard of both in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Both communities read their sacred texts through the lens of an authoritative interpretive tradition. The Early Church Fathers naturally adopted this principle from both rabbis and apostles. Consider, for example, how Origen set out to distinguish truth from error:
seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition.[xiv]
For Origen, the authentic Christian teachings that faithfully reflect the “opinions of Christ” are those in conformity with the tradition of the Church. Likewise, Catholics today believe that the Gospel is handed on in two ways: orally and in writing (CCC 76).
Second, just as for Jews the Torah was passed on from Moses to Joshua, to the elders, to the prophets, and to the men of the Great Assembly, for Origen the authoritative voice of the Church is preserved by a chain of transmission or “orderly succession from the apostles.” Early Church writer Papias notes that he learned the teachings of Jesus not so much from written accounts as from the “living and abiding voice” going back to the apostles:
If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders—what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John,5 the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.[xv]
Today, the Church continues to affirm the essential role of apostolic succession so that through the bishops—the successors of the apostles—“the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, [is] . . . preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”[xvi]
Third, there is a seamless integration between the oral and written transmission of divine revelation. Just as the Written and Oral Torah do not compete with one another but are two “modes” of God’s revelation at Mount Sinai for Israel, so for Catholics “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture . . . are bound closely together and communicate one with the other,” both making present and fruitful the mystery of Christ in the Church.[xvii]
Fourth, just as Jews believe that God entrusted the interpretation of the Torah to the rabbis, so Catholics believe that God entrusted the “authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition” to the “living, teaching office of the Church”—the Magisterium.[xviii] Just as the role of the rabbis was conservative—they did not have any authority to change the Torah but were responsible for preserving its integrity—so the Magisterium is “not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it.”[xix]
Finally, just as the Jewish Oral Law (paradoxically)was written down over time, so Catholic Sacred Tradition, first expressed in the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors, councils and popes, is eventually written down and preserved for future generations in ecclesial documents. Today, the most comprehensive yet easily accessible compilation of Catholic Sacred Tradition is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Catholics who desire to be knowledgeable of the Word of God, therefore, must study the Word zealously and diligently in both its written and “oral” forms—as communicated in Scripture and the Catechism.
Dr. André Villeneuve is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He holds a PhD in Religious/Biblical Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an S.S.L. from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and a MA in Theology and Catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville.
This article was originally published in The Catechetical Review 7.2 (April-June 2021)
[i] The first list of the twenty-seven canonical books of the New Testament as we know it today is that of Athanasius of Alexandria (367 A.D.). This list was confirmed at the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). See Harry Y. Gamble, “Canon: New Testament” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 856.
[ii] As the Catechism states: “The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition” (CCC 83).
[iii] Josephus, Antiquities 13.10.6. See T. M. Derico, “Oral Tradition” in Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
[iv] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
[v] J. Z. Lauterbach, “Oral Law” in The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901–1906), 423.
[vi] Rabbi Yosef Albo, Sefer Ha’Ikarim 3:23. The Sefer Ha’Ikarim is Albo’s classic work on the fundamentals of Judaism.
[vii] According to a discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah ii. 17a), “Every [decision] that an experienced student in the future will render before his master already has been stated to Moses at Sinai.”
[viii] For example, Deut 17:8–13 gives Levitical priests and judges the authority to make binding legal decisions to resolve the questions and disputes that ordinary Israelites bring before them. Cf. Lauterbach, “Oral Law,” 423
[ix] Pirke Avot 1:1.
[x] Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 54b.
[xi] Hindy Najman, “Torah and Tradition,” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 1317. Paradoxically, the Oral Law was eventually written down, so that today it is preserved as an enormous corpus of written texts, the earliest and most important being the Mishnah and Tosefta (early third century), and the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds (fifth and sixth centuries).
[xii] The Mishnah is the earliest compilation of the Jewish Oral Law, edited around AD 220. It is a first Jewish catechism of sorts, systematically and tersely organizing by topic the laws of the Torah.
[xiii] The Talmud is essentially a commentary on the Mishnah, interpreting, expounding, and developing its dense content through lengthy rabbinic discussions. There are two Talmuds: the Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud, edited around AD 450, and the Babylonian Talmud, edited around AD 550. Most Jews consider the Babylonian Talmud to be the most important Jewish sacred text. For an excellent overview of the rabbinical writings, see George Robinson, Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals (New York: Atria Books, 2016), 310–59.
[xiv] Origen, De Principiis, Preface, 2.
[xv] Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.4.
[xvi] DV 8; CCC 77.
[xvii] DV 9; CCC 80.
[xviii] DV 10; CCC 85.
[xix] DV 10; CCC 86.