Paragraph 62 is a summary statement of God’s relationship to Israel. It highlights several key points in the Catechism’s exposition of divine revelation throughout Hebrew history. Footnote 20 refers to the decree Dei Verbum from Vatican II, the decree on Divine Revelation. In summary, para. 62 identifies the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—as pivotal characters in history, though it is ‘after the patriarchs” that God formed Israel by “freeing them from slavery in Egypt.” The editors here are suggesting that the escape from Egypt set the stage for God to make a formal covenant or contract with Israel to become “his people.”
This becomes clearer with a stated reference to Mount Sinai, where Moses encountered God and returned to his (Moses’) people with the terms of the contract. The purpose of the Law is the recognition of God as “one, living, and true God.” In the summary statement of the full law, the introductory Ten Commandments, the first commandment is belief and recognition that “I am the Lord, thy God” and there is no other. In a world where divinities were both multiple and unpredictable, the tribes of Israel were called to believe in a divinity that was unique and predictable, i.e., forever faithful.
Para. 62 goes on to say that the Law had been given to Israel “so they would look for the promised Savior.” In the Catholic setting of the Catechism, this phrase is interpreted toward the life and works of Jesus. In truth, the words savior and messiah in the Hebrew Scripture could be interpreted quite broadly across the two millennia of Jewish life before Christ, and certainly after it. Speculation on the nature of a messiah intensified in times when one would have been particularly useful, as in the sixth century B.C. when most Israelites were carried off to slavery, and again during the Roman occupation. At the time of Jesus, the concept of a savior was quite diverse.
A critical fact of Jewish Revelation is its historical nature, of which the Law (in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and the later summary Deuteronomy) Numbers) and its transmission is a narrative in its totality. Jews then and today reverence their history. By the year 300 B.C., a period of relative peace under the Persians, the collection of the books of Israel’s history were brought together in writing as a combination creed and collective celebration of God’s saving works. Such a collection is known as a “canon” and enjoys position of privilege. Adding or subtracting works after the establishment of the canon by the holy leaders is nearly unheard of. Thus, the Hebrew Canon, what we have called the Old Testament, was initiated in large part by the beginning of third century before Christ. However, there were two significant meetings in Jewish history to determine the precise texts for inclusion.
Given the powerful influence of Greek language and thought after the conquests of Alexander the Great, there was considerable interest throughout the Greek speaking world for a Greek language canon translation. Such a translation came about after a meeting of 72 Jewish holy men in Alexandria, Egypt. The story goes that King Ptolemy II sequestered each scholar in a chamber and asked him to write the sacred books in Greek from memory. Ptolemy wished to have the Hebrew Canon for the famous library of Alexandria, which at its zenith housed perhaps 500,000 scrolls before its tragic destruction. This translation of the Canon is known today as the Septuagint (from the Latin “70”) and it is the Canon adopted by the early Christian Church when it set about to establish the New Testament Canon about two centuries after Christ. When you see the abbreviation LXX (Roman 70), this is a reference to the Greek collection.
However, conservative Jews distrusted the Greek influence, and there was a second Jewish Canon, possibly drawn up in Jamnia in the Holy Land around 90 A.D. There is considerable debate about its circumstances, but this canon is briefer than the Septuagint. Devout Jews considered some of the “later” Biblical books as unworthy of the canon, notably the Wisdom books and the colorful Maccabees accounts, among others. Perhaps because this Jamnia canon was written in Hebrew and reflected conservative Jewish belief, many centuries later Martin Luther would embrace that canon over the Septuagint of Catholic usage. Often we hear the expression of “Protestant Bible” vs. “Catholic Bible.” This polarity seems to reflect the preference of the Jamnia Canon by Protestant reformers. The “Catholic” bible is longer in part because it incorporates the longer LXX inclusion of texts.
The importance of the Jewish canon cannot be overstated. The revered text was considered the narrative of God’s actions on behalf of Israel. The establishment of an official telling of the story tended to stabilize Jewish identity and practice. It officially ended the age of the prophets and the inclusion of new material into the text. (Catholics have a similar dynamic regarding our sacred texts; it is Church doctrine that Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle and Biblical author, St. John.)
The noted historian Paul Johnson, in his A History of the Jews (1987) *, makes two impressive points about the profound sense of Jewish history in its religious expression in the canon of its faith. First, the Jews were pioneers in creating consequential, substantial, and interpretive history. Secondly, the Jews mastered the art of verbal presentation of the human personality. As Johnson puts it, “The Jews were the first race to find words to express the deepest human emotions, especially the feelings produced by bodily or mental suffering, anxiety, human despair and desolation, and the remedies for these evils produced by human ingenuity—hope, resolution, confidence in divine assistance, the consciousness of innocence or righteousness, penitence, sorrow and humility. (p. 69)
Little wonder pagan King Ptolemy II wanted the Jewish canon in his great library.
*See my review here.