Paragraph 62: Religion of the Book
62 After the patriarchs, God formed Israel as his people by freeing them from slavery in Egypt. He established with them the covenant of Mount Sinai and, through Moses, gave them his law so that they would recognize him and serve him as the one living and true God, the provident Father and just judge, and so that they would look for the promised Savior.20
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.
Paragraph 61: Saying and Doing
61 The patriarchs, prophets and certain other Old Testament figures have been and always will be honored as saints in all the Church's liturgical traditions.
One of the signal achievements of the post-Vatican II era was been the integration of the full Hebrew-Israelite history into the Roman Catholic experience. For example, the 1970 Roman Missal’s inclusion of Old Testament text into the Liturgy of the Word is a weekly reminder of the unity of revelation in the two Testaments. The Mass of my youth contained only two readings, generally from Paul’s letters and the Four Gospels. The only text from Hebrew Scripture in the Tridentine Mass was the responsorial psalm, then called the “Gradual” or “Tract.” Subsequent paragraphs in the Catechism over the next several weeks will elaborate on the nature of Revelation through the various stages of Israel’s history.
Paragraph 61 is somewhat enigmatic. It singles out categories of individuals and “certain other figures” of Biblical history and asserts that they have been and always will be honored as saints in the Church’s liturgical traditions. This paragraph is true primarily from the long view; specifically, the Church’s relationship with both the texts and the history of chosen Israel is extremely complex, one might say almost schizophrenic. The treasury of the Psalms has been the backbone of the daily prayer of clerics and religious since the fourth century, and continues so in the Liturgy of the Hours. On the other hand, I have in front of me at this moment an official Roman Missal of 1956 that I used daily. Turning to the intercessory prayers of the Good Friday rite, I find, “Almighty and everlasting God, who drivest not away from thy mercy even the perfidious Jews, hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people….” Para. 61 would have been more accurately worded as a wish than a fact.
Paragraph 61 makes special mention of the liturgy of the Church. In truth, there is no feast on the Church’s calendar—at least in the last 500 years I checked—devoted to an Old Testament figure. Some scholars have argued that John the Baptist is the last of the great prophets of Israel. John has a saint’s feast day and a commemoration of his beheading in the Roman calendar of saints, but he has come down to us, of course, as a major player in the events surrounding Christ’s infancy, baptism, and public ministry from the New Testament Gospels, not the Old.
Much of the confusion about the relationship between Jews and Christians dates back to the time of Jesus himself, who stated on numerous occasions that he had come to bring the Law and the Prophets to fulfillment. Jesus himself was a Jew and died a Jew. The early Christians remained Jewish. Some of the Easter narratives from the Gospels explain how Jesus brought the Hebrew Scripture to fulfillment. The early Church, in developing its doctrines, would freely use the Hebrew texts as predictors of the coming of the messiah Jesus and building blocks, so to speak, of Catholic theological science for most of its history.
A few example will suffice. The story of Adam and Eve and the sin of this couple was, for centuries, the foundation stone for the biological passage of (original) sin through human intercourse and generation, and thus the need for imminent Baptism. As late as 1950 Pius XII, in his Humani Generis, was still arguing for a kind of biological continuity to Adam to protect doctrines of Baptism and original sin. A better example is the belief that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, the description of the Suffering Servant who takes upon himself the sin and suffering of us all.
Hebrew Revelation, then, was related more to Catholic doctrine than to Catholic worship. The Church depended upon specific writings from the Hebrew Scripture to buttress Catholic teaching, a practice irreverently called “cherry picking” by some, or “proof texting” in more polite society. The idea was to approach the Hebrew Scripture in a pragmatic way, as a back-up to Catholic doctrine and theological research. However, outside of academia the typical lay Catholic of medieval times would know very little of Jewish Scripture and religion, and most of that would be highly negative. Christians would hear the various Passion narratives each spring, each laying responsibility for Jesus’ death at the feet of the Jews. (“May his blood be upon us and upon our children.”) Anti-Semitism was very strong even in the post-Apostolic era. A Christian scholar named Marcion (d. 160 A.D.) went so far as to deny the Old Testament entirely, a heresy that moved the Church to define the official books of both the Hebrew and Christian testaments, the canonical books of the bible.
Another factor in Christian life and outlook was the fact that the Jews before Christ—even such figures as Moses and David—had died prior to the death of Jesus, when the sin of Adam and its guilt was broken in the waters of Baptism. In short, Moses and the rest had died without the opportunity of washing in the saving bath of Baptism in their lifetimes. There was considerable discussion and speculation about the status of the people mentioned in para. 61. As early as possibly 600 A.D. there is extant a Holy Saturday sermon describing the phrase “Jesus descended into hell.” It appears in the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday. In the hiatus between Good Friday and Easter, Jesus wanders the underworld (according to the sermon) and seeks out Adam and Eve to extend the grace of redemption to them. It would not have occurred to Christians to think of Old Testament figures as “saints,” despite the good deeds they may have accomplished, because they carried the burden of Adam’s sin within them.
The Church would eventually find terminology to describe the post-mortem circumstances of the holy souls of Israel, such as participating in “the anticipatory merits of Christ.” But until the post-Enlightenment development of modern Scripture studies which integrated the entire history of Israel into the Christian vision, revelatory contacts between Hebrew history and Christian faith were never as smooth as implied in para. 61.
The past two days have been busy, between teaching yesterday afternoon and preparing for a full day course on Saturday. However, the Saturday project is packed up and ready to go.
So, it looks like I have a free day Friday to do today's Catechism Analysis and, hopefully, Sacramental Saturday. I purchased a bag of 🎃 spice coffee today, so get ready for a caffeinated output tomorrow.
A Little Down Time
It was a busy week at the Cafe, and I am taking a break Thursday and Friday. I will see you again on Sacramental Saturday, all things being equal. 🙏
Today's post on the Catechism is posted below. As of Thursday afternoon my home is in the path of Hurricane Matthew. I don't expect to incur the damage of my neighbors 40 miles east over on the coast, but there is a good possibility we may lose power here for a while. Both today's and Saturday's posts have been already written and posted to the Café website in their appropriate streams. I will keep you up to date on circumstances and new postings on the Catechist Café Facebook site. I would also note that through the Facebook site you can receive notification as soon as new entries go up. I have been through hurricanes before--even lost a tree once--but this one looks bad. Keep a good thought for all of Central Florida and pray for the many who died in the Caribbean as a result of this storm.
60 The people descended from Abraham would be the trustee of the promise made to the patriarchs, the chosen people, called to prepare for that day when God would gather all his children into the unity of the Church.18 They would be the root on to which the Gentiles would be grafted, once they came to believe.19
Entering the letters of St. Paul for serious study is like undertaking professional auto racing—high risk, high reward. St. Paul is truly the first theologian of the Christian Church; his last letter of instruction was put to paper a full decade before the first Gospel [Mark] was composed. Like a theologian today, Paul has a system or overarching philosophy of reality in which he expounds the particulars of Christian belief. Today’s students of theology begin with a course on “foundational theology” or “systematic theology” which includes personal reflection on how the student structures reality in his or her own head. This is what makes it possible to enter the heads, so to speak, of people like St. Paul. I am always troubled that our catechist training programs don’t begin with this sort of preparation, but I digress.
St. Paul is the primary source for Paragraph 60, specifically his Chapter 17 of the Letter to the Romans. The Catechism here adopts Paul’s explanation of the meaning of Israel’s history to a Gentile audience, a predominantly Roman one, as you might guess by the title. It is a good thing that the Catechism is lengthy and detailed, for if all we had on the purpose of Israel’s religious history is Paragraph 60, the impression could easily be drawn that the successors of Abraham were caretakers—or trustees, a curious word--of God’s promise, keeping the seat warm till the coming of the Messiah.
I think that para. 60 wished to say more than that. Roman Catholics, most recently in Dei Verbum of Vatican II, have generally held that not only are the direct verbal interventions from God in the Hebrew Scriptures true Revelation, but the entire sweep of the 45 books of the Old Testament is the full embodiment of God’s revelation as received and believed by Jesus. The philosophical musings of Job, the pithy counsel of Proverbs, the erotic analogies of the Song of Songs, the moralistic sermons of the prophets—all stand alongside the Law and the historical narrative which begins with Genesis 12. Put another way, Israel itself, its history, is God’s Revelation, not some sort of warm-up act till the arrival of John the Baptist.
If you want a better argument for this point, ask yourself, “What would Jesus’ own foundational or systematic theology have looked like?” It no doubt would have been Jewish. From Jesus’ own words and actions, as well as the practices of the early Church, it is clear that Jesus thought he was bringing Jewish life to its fitting climax. His selection of Twelve intimate followers was not a workplace efficiency strategy, but the reestablishment of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, many of whom had died out in the millennium prior to Jesus’ time. As he died on the cross, his final words (in one account) were “It is finished.”
The history of Jesus’ followers and their Jewish brethren after the Resurrection is complicated, and it is chronicled in some detail by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, which Luke intended as the second volume of his Gospel. In Luke’s second account, we are introduced to one Saul of Tarsus, an extraordinary Jewish and conservative extremist in matters of religion. He participated in the killing of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, in the 30’s AD and proceeded to Damascus to lead more persecutions of Christians. The story of Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ, his physical blindness, and his acceptance into the Christian community at Damascus, is presumably well known to most readers.
It would be fascinating to know something of Saul’s overhaul of his “foundational theology.” Like an adult man who discovers that his real father was Al Capone, there is certainly a barely disguised sense of anger and betrayal with the Jewish tradition in which Saul had invested himself so rigorously. Much ink has been spilled on the psychological make-up of St. Paul, but suffice to say here that unlike Peter and the first Apostles, Paul embraced Christianity with some resistance toward his Jewish past. Not for nothing is he called the Apostle to the Gentiles, and Paul does credit himself with moving St. Peter and some of the other brethren to embrace a mission beyond the Jewish heartland and drop the requirement of circumcision for baptism.
In his Gentile mission, though, Paul would have to explain the Revelation of God in terms of a savior whose Jewish identity was beyond dispute. Para. 60 gives us some idea of how he might have done this. Paul acknowledges that the Jews are chosen people, called to prepare for a day when God would gather all his people. In reading Chapter 17 this morning, it seems that Paul envisioned a split between errant Jews and a remnant of true believers, a breech that must be healed if Christ’s community—all Jewish-- is to survive. Paul does not dwell on this here, but the unity of Israel appears to be of great importance in Paul’s understanding of Christ. Other New Testament writers do emphasize something of the same thing, that Jesus’ first mission was to the lost children of Israel. Consider the Canaanite woman who sought a healing from Jesus for her child (Matthew 15:26). Jesus relies that it is not right to take the children’s food and cast it to the dogs. In the Gospel, references to dogs are often metaphors for pagans. Our word “canine” is a derivative of Canaanite or pagan. No such narratives crop up in Paul’s writing.
So where do the Gentiles come into the picture? Paragraph 60 speaks of a “grafting” of the Gentiles to the tree of Israel. “Grafting” is the same term Paul uses in Romans 17. In Romans 17 Paul counsels a measure of respect that present and prospective Gentile Christians should acknowledge as they enjoy their status as rich vegetation on a tree whose roots were established long ago. Para. 60 is careful to note that this grafting comes about through baptism