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Christians and Scripture

Christians and Scripture: Chapter 2


The Christian Biblical Hierarchy

The Christian Bible is a library composed of the Septuagint, the Gospels and a set of other Christian texts (the Acts of the Apostles, some of their letters, a sermon and a strange book called Revelation).The Church Fathers decided that these alone constituted the Christian sacred library, though they considered some books more important than others.

1. The Primacy of the Gospels

The Gospels tell Jesus' story. His story is fundamental to all the Churches including mine, the Roman Catholic Church. So the four Gospels occupy a very special place in all of them. I will here take as an example of this special place some of the liturgical practices of the Roman Catholic Church, practices which send a definite message to the faithful. During Mass, the most important assembly of this Church, the congregation rises only for the proclamation of the Gospel but not for that of the other texts of Scripture. The same happens for the Gospel Canticles at the Morning, Evening and Night prayers of the Divine Office.

We Roman Catholics believe that Jesus is God Incarnate. The Gospel writers also believed that. Not only is it clearly stated in the beginning of John's Gospel1 as well as at its end,2 it is apparent on every page.

After all, why were these written if not because they contain a very important message, so important that people were ready to forgo everything, even life, to pursue it? The Gospel message had to come from God as they were for the Jews the only messages worth dying for. While the other messages from God start with «Thus says the LORD God», Jesus' sayings start with «I say».3

Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus complain about His mission or get His marching orders; He does pray and is far from happy about the prospect of torture, but then who is? Nowhere in the Gospels does God speak to Jesus; only to others.4 In John, Jesus is unequivocal : He and the Father are one.5 He speaks for the Father,6 He is God's Voice.

So His sayings are the most important ones there is, because they are God's own sayings. They are what God wanted known of Himself and His purpose. Jesus' life is also part of God's self-revelation. His life is an example not only of how a Christian should live but also of how God acts, in His intercourse with humans and their society, be it at the religious, political or individual level.

This is why the Gospels are so important to Christians. They express Who God really is, and what humans really should be to have eternal life,7 that is, to be taken up in God.

What I say here is that Christians cannot put a text from the Septuagint on par with a text from the Gospel. The Gospels override the Septuagint; they also override the other Christian texts which should derive from the Gospels.

This statement is very important. If true, it means that finding out what we must be to be saved only requires looking at four books in the whole Christian library. It is not that the others are not beneficial or useful; just that they are not at the core of what it means to be a Christian.

Of course, the Gospels are immersed in the Septuagint. They constantly make reference to it. Jesus often comments it or uses it as the basis for His arguments. So there is a way one can say that a proper understanding of the Gospels requires a good knowledge of the Septuagint. This being said, the reading of the Septuagint is then made from the perspective of a Gospel text rather than per se and one can still note that a great many Septuagint texts are never referred to in the Gospels.

The concept of original sin, a concept Christians associate with the action described in Genesis of Adam and Eve eating of a forbidden fruit while in Paradise, is not found in rabbinical litterature. The Christian interpretation of this text is thus very different from that of the rabbis. Furthermore, Christians do not interpretet the Septuagint as rabbis do from within their rich Talmudic tradition but from a very different one indeed.

This being said, my statement on the supremacy of the Gospels stands logically only if there is nothing in the Gospels to contradict it. There is found in them no reference to other sacred texts written by Christians (hardly surprising, as the Gospels refer to a period prior and were, I believe, written before) so there is no mention of these being at par. But can we find something in the Gospels to contradict what I have said about the Gospels overriding the Septuagint? Some people would answer by an emphatic «yes».

Before I look into this point, there is another that must be examined first.

2. The Principle of Coherence

I consider it is impossible to accept any interpretation of any text in any Gospel which would contradict any other Gospel text. This is what I call the principle of coherence. Contradictions cannot have been introduced in the text by the author or by Jesus Himself. As Jesus Himself said: «Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand».8

This is a most important principle in reading each of the Gospels: any interpretation of any excerpt that involves a contradiction of another excerpt is a false interpretation. The only acceptable interpretations are those which permit the entire text to stand as a coherent whole.

This means that the reading of verses must not be done in isolation but within the context of the whole passage and of what else Jesus said or did. Only then can we know the all important inflexion in His voice that can change the meaning of a text completely. The Gospel authors never described such a thing as His tone of voice, but anyone who reads a novel knows how important this is.

This has to apply to the four Gospels taken together as they represent the life and sayings of the same Person by people who where in agreement over His message. There is one caveat: this does not apply to incidental details, details that do not change the meaning of the story, details that the normal reader of such texts would find irrelevant.

3. Jesus rewrote the Septuagint with His message

We can now come back to our problem about the Septuagint's status. The text that people would quote to prove that the Septuagint has to be considered on par with the Gospels is this text from Matthew:

[17] Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. [18] For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. [19] Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.9

In verse 18, Jesus states that nothing from the Law, however small, shall disappear until the physical world as we know it disappears. He adds in verse 19 that one has to live by and teach all the Law's commandments to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In verse 17, Jesus says that He has not come to dissolve, destroy, overturn or make obsolete the Law and the Prophets as these terms translate the Greek verb used «katalusai» (καταλυσαι). Jesus says He has come to fulfill, complete the Law and the Prophets as these are the translation of the Greek verb «plèrôsai» (πληρωσαι) which, by the way, could also be translated as fecundate (as a man makes a woman pregnant).

What does Jesus means by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets? That question needs an answer if we are to make sense of this text. The verse that follows the ones already quoted: «For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.»10 gives the answer. The commandments of the Law, lived in their entirety by the scribes and Pharisees, are not complete but miss some crucial elements. Jesus then proceeds to fill a few of them. They all have to do with interpersonal relations. He starts with what was incomplete «Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time», and follows it by «But I say unto you» which fulfills the original commandment by making it much stronger as in the following case:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.11

or by changing it completely as in this case:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.12

It is thus clear that in these instances, Jesus fulfills the Law by rewriting it! And rewrite He goes on doing, as in this other excerpt from Matthew:

The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? [8] He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. [9] And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.13

Verse 8 of this last quote makes it clear that for Jesus the Law - of Moses, not of God - is flawed; He fulfills it, makes it what it was meant to be. Verse 9 makes clear that for Jesus the Law of Moses condones pure and simple adultery.14 So Jesus corrects the errors from Moses and others, so as to make the Law what it was meant to be.

Someone could say that the Law Jesus refers to in the verses 17 to 19 previously examined is the «real» Law of God, while the Jews were following the «error-filled» Law given by Moses and so manage to reconcile His statements that way. While I have to agree that this is possible, I do not find this very convincing, as He would not then say that all the Law must be obeyed. So I maintain that Jesus was not serious about that statement but just said what some wanted to hear before He got down to the business of «fulfilling» the Law.

It should be apparent that I have applied here my Principle of Coherence: I have refused to take a verse like «Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.» out of context. It is only in its context that this verse can be understood as what Jesus meant it, as a piece of irony. Jesus is pulling the leg of His hearers as He really came to make clear a message that had not been clearly understood. And the proof of that is in the following verses, where He attacks quite a few verses of the Law of Moses. He renews His attack elsewhere, as I will show later in this Chapter.

There are many other examples of Jesus' irony in the Gospels. He enjoys poking fun at His hearers. He says things He does not mean so as to grab His hearers' attention, finds them all taken in, and then humours them.

That my understanding corresponds to that of Christians is proven by the fact that they do not follow the various laws that Jews follow to this day. If they really took the verses 18 and 19

[18] For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. [19] Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.15

seriously, they would have to follow the whole Law, all the various Jewish feasts as well as observe the sabbath as observant Jews do. And, with perhaps a few exceptions, they do not.

We have examined a first way in which Jesus fulfils the Law and the Prophets. But there is a second one, also very important. The risen Jesus says: «These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.»16

Jesus states categorically that He fulfilled in His life and sayings all that was written about Him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. This is the other way He fulfilled the Law.

4. The Septuagint must be read in the Gospels' light

Any Christian reading of the Septuagint must be done within the Gospels' perspective; first because Jesus rewrote what was badly done or flawed in the Law of Moses, and second, because it must be understood in many cases as referring to Him. Which parts refer to Him? We find: «And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.»17 So it seems from that text that the Christian understanding of the Septuagint as found in the Gospels and other Christian sacred texts goes back to Jesus Himself.

So for the Christian the Septuagint is completely subservient to the Gospels: it cannot stand alone.

This is very important indeed. Jesus did not condone stoning for adultery; so Christians do not. Christians cannot just go to the Law of Moses and apply it. They have to see what Jesus said and did about it first and foremost. He is their authority; and it is in the Gospels that they find His sayings and actions.

This, I gather, is the true position of the Roman Catholic Church since the Resurrection. The Church Fathers searched the Septuagint to find various symbols of Christ, the Church, etc. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah is read as a prophecy about Jesus; the crossing of the Red Sea, as a prefiguration of the sacrament of Baptism rather than as events pertaining to the Jewish people. The Church does not obey the laws concerning the sabbath, Passover, Succoth, etc. We are not told to go to pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We do not eat kosher even though this was a requirement for all Christians according to the First Jerusalem Council attended by the Apostles James, Peter and Paul and reported in the Book of Acts.18

This of course does not mean that the Septuagint is not important for us; just that the texts that are important for us are the ones that shine in the light of the Gospels. Some of the most beautiful pages of the Christian Bible are to be found in the Septuagint. The Church Fathers always had a predilection for the Book of Psalms, predilection that is made obvious in the «Liturgy of Hours» of the Roman Catholic Church. But it is also a fact that some Psalms, or excerpts of Psalms, have been banned from the latest «Liturgy of Hours» and that many texts of the Septuagint are not read at Mass or in the Office of Readings.

Let me finish this Chapter with two sayings of Jesus found in the second Chapter of Mark's Gospel. There the Gospel's author clearly wants to show how different Jesus' actions and sayings are from the Judaism of His time. In it, Jesus cures a paralytic after forgiving his sins,19 calls Himself a «physician» trying to bring «sinners» to repentance as He eats with them,20 does not fast like His religious Jewish contemporaries,21 and plucks ears of corn on the sabbath and calls Himself «Lord ... of the sabbath».22 In everyone of these occasions, Jesus is attacked, and rightly so, by the religious people of His day for breaking the religious rules set by Moses. There is no doubt that Jesus is not a good observant Jew.

Jesus' two sayings are :

No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.23

Jesus considers His message as totally different from the Judaism practiced in His day. He sees the old religious mould as obsolete because His new message does not fit in it. His new message, the new wine, would break the present religious set-up, the old bottles, if you tried to fit it in them. Put differently, the rent in the old garment, the inadequacy of the old message, cannot be fixed by His message as it will only make the tear worse.

So I suggest that Jesus Himself considered that He was overhauling everything that had been said before and rewriting not only the message but the way to live it (the religious institutions that would go with it). This surely puts the Septuagint totally subservient to the Gospels, which carry Jesus' message.

To finish, the other Christian texts must also be subservient to the Gospels as you cannot expect the disciples to be greater than their Master.24 There is no way that the authors of the other Christian texts could have improved on the Gospels by making within their texts more accurate statements of the thoughts of Jesus than those found in the Gospels.

To sum up so far, I consider that the whole of the Christian life must be based first and foremost on the Gospels, which I consider accurate renditions of the preaching and actions of Jesus as long as they are understood as a coherent whole. Christians must pick and choose in the rest of their Bible just as Jesus did with the Septuagint, by basing this process on Jesus' life and message. Christians cannot pick and choose within the Gospels: any passage of the Gospels must be understood in a way that it is in accord with the rest.

1 «In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,» (John 1:1;14)

2 «And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.» (John 20:28)

3 «Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.» (Matthew 5:38-9)

4 For instance: «And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.» (Mark 9:7). None of God's utterings are directed at Jesus alone, but at the bystanders.

5 «I and my Father are one.» (John 10:30)

6 «For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.» (John 12:49)

7 «Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.» (John 6:68)

8 Matthew 12:25

9 Matthew 5:17-19

10 Matthew 5:20

11 Matthew 5:21-2

12 Matthew 5:38-39

13 Matthew 19:3-9

14 This quote by itself should make it evident that there are some verses of the Septuagint which cannot be the word of God for a follower of Jesus.

15 Matthew 5:18-19

16 Luke 24:44

17 Luke 24:27

18 «But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.» (Acts 15:20). The fact that this requirement has long since been dropped shows that apostolic decisions are not final, even when found in the Bible.

19 Mark 2:1-12

20 Mark 2:16-17

21 Mark 2:18-20

22 Mark 2:23-28

23Mark 2:21-22

24 «The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord.» (Matthew 10:24)

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Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, June 6th, 2004

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