The biblical commission, the Jews, and scriptures

The biblical commission, the Jews, and scriptures – Pontifical Biblical Commission

Roland E. Murphy


This article contains a summary and critique of the most recent document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission (2001) that was made available in an official English translation in 2002. The book-length study embraces both Testaments. The approach to the Old Testament explores “fundamental themes”–covenant, law, and so forth–well known from past studies in biblical theology, and interpreted here in the light of Christian faith. Attitudes toward the Jews are briefly examined in each book of the New Testament; general and pastoral conclusions are drawn.


Vatican Council II brought on the reform of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in its personnel and in its position. The personnel now consists of about thirty members, scholars from various countries, who are qualified in biblical studies–in lively contrast to previous members drawn from Vatican bureaucrats, who relied on scholars for their decisions. The PBC is one arm of the CDF, or Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The 1993 document on The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church is a splendid example of the contribution of the PBC. Now in 2001 it has produced a book, THE JEWISH PEOPLE AND THEIR SACRED SCRIPTURES IN THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2002). The official English translation by Maurice Hogan is based on the French original. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote an introduction to it, dated to the feast of the Ascension, 2001.

The book has a specific stance: the Jews and their Scriptures are portrayed from the point of view of the Christian Bible. The work is divided into four parts. A brief introduction poses the question: “What relations does the Christian Bible establish between Christians and the Jewish people?” ([section] 1). Part 1 ([subsection] 2-18) affirms that the Jewish Scriptures are a “fundamental part of the Christian Bible.” It also tackles a host of questions, such as authority, “conformity,” canon, and hermeneutics–topics that could occupy several volumes. Part 2 ([subsection] 19-65) is the longest, an exposition of “fundamental themes in the Jewish Scriptures and their reception into faith in Christ.” Part 3 ([subsection] 66-83) is entitled “Jews in the New Testament.” After a sketch of the diversity existing within post-exilic Judaism, it describes statements about the Jews in each of the New Testament books–in a rather cursory manner. Part 4 ([subsection] 4-87) consists of conclusions, general and pastoral.

Part 2 constitutes the major portion of the book, “fundamental themes.” It opens with a dense treatment of “Christian understanding of the relationships between the Old and New Testaments.” It appeals to the well-known phenomenon (not a method) of re-reading (relecture) of the biblical text, found in both Testaments, wherein a later generation of believers deepens the understanding of their forebears. There is no enthusiasm for the allegorical approaches of the Fathers. The insistence of Aquinas on the “literal sense” led eventually to the “supremacy of the historical-critical method” ([section] 20). The PBC wisely insists that the prophecies are not “photographic anticipations of future events” ([section] 21), and that faith plays the key role in reading the Old Testament “in the light of Christ” (see 1Cor 3:14 in [section] 19). It describes the eschatological dimension of faith simply and directly. Like Jews, Christians too live in expectation: “The difference is that for us the One who is to come will have traits of the Jesus who has already come, and is already present and active among us” ([section] 21). The PBC appeals to an “internal dynamism” that finds its goal in Jesus. This is described as “a retrospective perception whose point of departure is not in the text as such, but in the events of the New Testament proclaimed by the apostolic preaching” ([section] 21; cf. [section] 86). These are helpful hints for a Christian reading of the Old Testament.

The “fundamental themes” are familiar from past studies of biblical theology, written mainly by Christian scholars. The topics are: revelation of God (God “speaks”), the human person, God as liberator and savior, election of Israel, covenant, law, prayer and cult (Jerusalem and Temple), divine reproaches and condemnations, and finally the promises. They are described on two levels, OT and NT, with some “progression” between the two being noted. It is misleading, however, to call these “shared” (French communs). The ancient Israelite and the Jewish tradition does not agree with the Christian development and meaning of the texts in question, as, for example, those dealing with election, law, and covenant. The overall perspective is that of Christian fulfillment, an interpretation of the themes in the light of Christian belief. This will doubtless be of some benefit to those Christians who are unaware of their Old Testament roots. “Appropriation” of Old Testament text is what occurs, not “sharing,” because of the serious interpretive disagreements between the two religious bodies.

The PBC is quite aware of the levels of interpretation, and has indicated this by the repeated references to “continuity”/”conformity” and “discontinuity”/”non-conformity” ([subsection] 6-8, 21, 22, 64-65, 84-86). Readers will be helped by keeping in mind a fundamental distinction, which is suggested by the document itself:

The basic theological presupposition is that God’s salvific plan which

culminates in Christ (cf. Eph. 1:3-14) is a unity, but that it is realised

progressively over the course of time. Both the unity and the gradual

revelation are important; likewise, continuity in certain points and

discontinuity in others” [[section] 21].

In other words, there is a difference between the divine plan and the literary witness to it as found in the Bible. The divine plan has a unity in the revelation that took place in Christ. But there is no “unity” to biblical writings that were scattered over centuries; they give witness to several different concerns dictated by historical events, always open to further interpretation. The perspective is Christian, for it reads the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, but it is not necessarily christological, that is, it does not refer directly to Christ. The “fundamental themes” are all examples of Christian perspective. Thus “covenant” is interpreted not only as the union of the “people of God” with YHWH, but as union in and through Christ with his Father. The evidence for God as liberator and savior is traced from the Exodus to the resurrection of Jesus.

These are legitimate interpretations from a Christian perspective, but certainly not from a Jewish point of view. The PBC recognizes this when it maintains that

Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a

possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Scriptures from the Second

Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed

in parallel fashion. Both readings are bound up with the vision of their

respective faiths, of which the readings are the result and expression

[[section] 22].

The “analogy” between Jewish and Christian interpretation is to be taken broadly. Strict Jewish interpretation puts the written law or Torah together with the unwritten law, later reduced to writing in the Mishna and Talmud. Both are Mosaic. The Christian counterpart would be the New Testament interpretation and its elaboration in Christian tradition.

As indicated above, the PBC stresses continuity between the Testaments, but also refers to discontinuity. The thrust of continuity is exemplified in the famous beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days he spoke to us in a son …” (Heb 1:1-2). Only at a few points does it mention discontinuity or “non-conformity,” as in the case of levitical priesthood ([section] 8) and various laws such as restrictions concerning food, ritual cleanness, etc. ([section] 65). It allows that these are still “of great importance” for Judaism, “but it is also clear that the radical replacement in the New Testament was already adumbrated in the Old Testament and so constitute a potentially legitimate reading” ([section] 64). The legitimacy is not in question, but the adumbration, or foreshadowing, is. This term is a favorite metaphor of Christian tradition, but it is open to arbitrary contacts between the Testaments (tithing, anyone?). Literary expressions and religious institutions are not shadows. They have a meaning and importance all their own that deserve skilled and balanced interpretation. This terminology is unhappy. The text is conceived as casting a shadow forward to a meaning that is arrived at retrospectively ([section] 21), looking backward.

“Fundamental themes” is meant to indicate that both Jews and Christians have a common base. But the development in [subsection] 19-65 is primarily a Christian interpretation in terms of continuity, as already noted. Only a few pages are given over to an explicit discussion of continuity/discontinuity, [subsection] 64-65. The PBC allows ([section] 64) that there are “ruptures” between the Testaments, but these do not “sub-merge continuity. They presuppose it in its essentials.” There follows a series of glaring ruptures, from levitical priesthood to sabbath observance (and more could be added). It goes on to say that these issues are clearly matters of great importance to Judaism. “But it is also clear that the radical replacement in the New Testament was already adumbrated in the Old Testament and so constitute a potentially legitimate reading” ([section] 64). Potentially legitimate, yes, but “adumbrated”? The document strives to slide around this by means of “progression” ([section] 65): “Discontinuity on certain points is only the negative side of what is positively called progression.” The progress is all one-sided, however, and the treatment in [section] 65 merely summarizes the continuity or progression displayed in the treatment of “fundamental themes.”

What is missing here? A feeling for the Old Testament. The PBC could not be expected to develop the Jewish viewpoint on the Old Testament. Moreover, there is no simple and unique Jewish interpretation, as various divisions of Reform and Orthodox Jewry can remind us. But the interpretation of the Old Testament by itself could have been more text-centered, in the sense of a “historical theology” on the basic level, with or without the legitimate progression into the Christian perspective. Has this been done? Yes, in the works of some Jewish scholars-Abraham Heschel on the prophets, Jon Levenson on Sinai and Zion, Moshe Greenberg on Exodus and Ezekiel, Michael Fox on Qoheleth. From an ecumenical point of view, the document is a missed opportunity. Christians need to learn how to read the Old Testament not merely in light of fulfillment, but with eagerness, and openness to its tentative and groping grasp of the mystery of the God whom Christians worship. And this is not beyond their reach. Gerhard von Rad captured the beauty and spirit of the Jewish Scriptures, even with his undeniable Christian presuppositions. Such also was the experience that Dietrich Bonhoeffer described in these memorable words:

My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like the Old

Testament, and no wonder, I have been reading it much more than the New for

the last few months. It is only when one knows the ineffability of the Name

of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ. It is only when one

loves life and the world so much that without them everything would be

gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world…. I don’t

think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too

directly [Bonhoeffer: 103-04].

There is a certain tone missing in the document of the PBC–call it wonderment, awe, admiration, that is present in the Old Testament text it studied. That too is part of Christian interpretation as well as continuity and progression. It may be said in reply that such was not the goal of the document, which hews closely to the Christian point of view that it describes very efficiently. But precisely in that case, a feel for the Old Testament would have made the task easier.

Part 3 deals expressly with “the various attitudes to the Jews expressed in the New Testament” ([section] 66) by a brief examination of various books, from Matthew to Revelation. That would call for volumes, and the extreme brevity of the remarks cannot be avoided. The document seems to play down the polemic between Jew and Christian, but in some cases it does not succeed. Matthew is described as the Gospel of fulfillment ([section] 71): “for it insists more on the continuity with the Old Testament, basic for the idea of fulfillment. It is this aspect that makes possible the establishment of fraternal bonds between Christians and Jews.” Tension and opposition are mentioned. Matthew 23:34 is explained as concerned to provide for the defense of Christians, but the changed circumstances today render it otiose: “Matthew’s polemic need no longer interfere with relations between Christians and Jews, and the aspect of continuity can and ought to prevail” ([section] 71). This comment is well meant, but it is an inept reflection both on the text and on the current situation. Some interpretations are severely strained or perhaps overly subtle, as when the “`synagogue’ [assembly] of Satan” in Revelation 2:9; 3:9 is interpreted in light of 12:10 as a “positive appreciation of `Jew’ as a title of honour, an honour that is denied to a synagogue which is actively hostile to Christians” ([section] 83).

This is not the place to take up the book-by-book analysis by the PBC. Those scholars were well aware of the charges of anti-Semitism levelled against the New Testament, rightly or wrongly. If the tone of an apologia appears, at least the approach puts before the readers the “difficult” texts that have surfaced in the history of exegesis. Sometimes needless pieties intrude. In 1 Thessalonians 2:16 Paul’s language is said to reflect 2 Chronicles 36:16, which refers to the destruction of 587. Instead of allowing mystery to stand, the document points out that the Lord had pity on his people. “It follows that the terrible prediction of Paul–one which unfortunately came to pass–did not exclude a subsequent reconciliation” ([section] 80). Sometimes the vituperative language of the New Testament is compared to that of the prophets, e.g., Jeremiah ([subsection] 52-53), but one is surprised by the conclusion: “In the New Testament, the reproaches addressed to Jews are not as frequent or as virulent as the accusations against Jews in the Law and the Prophets. Therefore, they no longer serve as a basis for anti-Jewish sentiment” ([section] 87). A “reproach” (French reproche) is much milder than an “accusation.” Jews can live and have lived with the extreme language of their Bible, but when inflammatory language has been taken up and used against them on a level not intended perhaps even by the New Testament writers, the comparison is not convincing. The judgment that such (hostile) usage “is contrary to the whole tenor of the New Testament” is correct objectively, but the Wirkungsgeschichte shows that polemic and hostility were not and cannot be removed so simply, as the history of Christianity bears out.

A perennial problem is the translation of hoi Ioudaioi as “the Jews.” Referring to Johannine usage, the PBC refuses to dodge by rendering “the Judaeans” or by other subterfuges ([section] 77). The first Christians were Jews. Unfortunately hostility gradually sprang up between them and the others who did not accept Jesus, and this is reflected in the final form of the Gospels. Raymond Brown wrote extensively on this and described the growing animosity of the tradition in the passion narratives:

Sometimes today there is pressure to drop from the New Testament as

anti-Semitic such references to “the Jews.” Nevertheless, I, for one, would

resist strongly such a movement. Rather than seeking to “improve” the

Passion narratives by eliminating such passages, those who preach or teach

the Bible should wrestle honestly with how first-century conditions qualify

and color what is reported. The final authors had in fact become

antagonistic to Jews who did not believe in Jesus. We have no need to

approve of that hostility, but to excise such references is to censor what

they intended.

Moreover, removing offensive passages enables hearers to accept

unthinkingly everything they find in the Bible, whereas taking the trouble

to explain the troublesome passages can lead to nuanced interpretation of

the Bible and help to develop a mature rather than a simplistic

understanding of the religious meaning of the Lord’s Passion for today

[Brown: 62].

The Testaments are described as united in an “impressive symbiosis,” and the communities have “vigorous spiritual ties” uniting them ([section] 85). Would Jews agree that the document has demonstrated such a symbiosis? It finds fault with the tendency in times past to neglect the “fundamental continuity” between Christians and Jews because the discontinuity has been exaggerated ([section] 84). But there is no explicit condemnation of the Christian authorities, religious and secular, who instigated or allowed pogroms in various historical periods. Church history is not the province of the PBC, but it casts its shadow on the document. Absent is an outright condemnation of the mentality that was fed by a superficial interpretation of the Bible.

Absent also is an explicit rejection of the “supercessionism” that lurks behind some Christian attitudes about fulfillment. Supercession and fulfillment are simply not the same. In current theological writings this supercession means that the Jews and their religion have disappeared (in the “eyes” of God) and been displaced by Christianity. In effect Judaism is defunct, finished. The hostility between Christians and Jews calls for a strong affirmation of the validity of a religion rooted in the Bible itself. The emphasis on the continuity between the Testaments can lead to a disregard of what it is that is fulfilled. The temptation is simply to bypass or even dismiss what is not “fulfilled.” However, the recognition of fulfillment rests on faith; it is not a simple acceptance of the continuity described in the document. To the credit of the PBC, it acknowledges that the Jewish reading of the Bible is possible and has its own integrity, being in continuity with its own Scriptures, and even analogous to the Christian reading ([section] 22, quoted above).

The conclusions of the document ([subsection] 84-86) are general and also pastoral. The general conclusion seems overly positive, but it does little more than repeat the continuity of the “fundamental themes.” It concludes that the breaks in the relationship between Jews and Christians in the past were never complete and should not have occurred, “for a complete break between Church and Synagogue contradicts Sacred Scripture” ([section] 85). What is meant by contradiction? The pastoral implications highlight the famous declaration of Vatican II, Nostra Aerate, and especially the many stirring statements of Pope John Paul II. Oddly, Christians are told to avoid “a one-sided reading of biblical texts.” This is a strange recommendation in view of Part 2, which presented a thoroughly Christian interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures. Now the “dynamism” that animates them is called a “dynamism of love” in lieu of the “internal dynamism” mentioned in [section] 21. It remains for the final paragraph of the book to describe the situation pithily and accurately. The disagreement between Church and Synagogue “is not to be taken as `anti-Jewish sentiment,’ for it is disagreement at the level of faith, the source of religious controversy between two human groups that take their point of departure from the same Old Testament faith basis, but are in disagreement on how to conceive the final development of that faith. Although profound, such disagreement in no way implies reciprocal hostility” ([section] 87).

We can return to the question that the PBC set for itself in [section] 1, “What relations does the Christian Bible establish between Christians and the Jewish people?” They well realize that their document had to be limited, and choices had to be made. They chose to present an interpretation primarily in the light of Christian faith. This has value for Christians, but may hardly be noticed by the Jewish community.

Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1962. LETTERS AND PAPERS FROM PRISON, edited by E. Bethge. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Brown, Raymond E. 1996. READING THE GOSPELS WITH THE CHURCH. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony.

Roland E. Murphy, S.T.D. (Catholic University of America), a member of the Carmelite Order, is George Washington Ivey Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at Duke University, now residing at Whitefriars Hall, Washington, D.C. 20017. His most recent book is EXPERIENCING OUR BIBLICAL HERITAGE (Hendrickson, 2001).

COPYRIGHT 2002 Biblical Theology Bulletin, Inc

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group