Can We Separate Scripture and Tradition?

John C. Cavadini responds to Benjamin Sommer’s Revelation and Authority

Benjamin Sommer. Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. pp. 440. $30.00.

In his thoughtful, creative, and learned book, Revelation and Authority, Benjamin Sommers reflects on Catholic ideas of the relationship between scripture and tradition, and he claims that there is a basic similarity between the Catholic and Jewish ideas without dismissing the notable differences. One of Sommer’s main points is that Judaism is not a “religion of the book” and that it substantially matches with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)  says about the Christian faith, which is that it “is not a ‘religion of the book.’” Rather, according to the CCC, “Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, ‘not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living,’” quoting St. Bernard of Clairvaux. I believe that Sommer could agree with this sentence as well mutatis mutandis, as a description of his position on scripture and tradition in Judaism, since it evokes the way in which the Word of God is, at least in a formal sense, eternally antecedent to scripture and tradition. Both scripture and tradition are modalities of the one living transmission of the Word insofar as it is revealed. Both in Sommer’s work and in Catholic thinking, tradition is the weightier term, for tradition is the living transmission of the Word of God in all the ways it is transmitted: in text, preaching, ritual, custom and legal regulation. Scripture cannot be understood as separate from this larger context of living transmission, although in the Catholic view it represents access to an absolutely unique moment.  In his little 1960 book The Word, Church and Sacraments, Louis Bouyer forcefully makes this point:

In the Catholic Church tradition is not something other than Holy Scripture and added to it, but rather the entire living transmission of the truth, whose central organ is the inspired Scripture. Scripture is not illuminated or completed by tradition as by something foreign to it and superadded. On the contrary, we must insist, Scripture keeps its true and complete sense only when it remains a vital part of that living tradition of the Church in which the inspired writers actually composed it, making it, as it were, the essential deposit of this tradition.

For the phrase, “whose central organ is the inspired Scripture,”  Sommer’s argument would substitute the phrase, “whose central organ is the Oral Torah.” And yet Sommer does not go so far as to argue that the canon should be dissolved, so there may be more similarity than meets the eye beneath the surface of Sommer’s text. Nevertheless, it is the larger point of agreement that stands out most saliently as Sommer suggests.

Saint Augustine makes a similar point in his use of meteorological imagery drawn from the Psalms. Commenting on Psalm 35.6, Augustine says: 

Your mercy is in heaven, O Lord, and your truth reaches even to the clouds,” [and] this means that the mercy you lavish on your holy ones is a heavenly, not an earthly, mercy; it is eternal, not bounded by time. But how did you proclaim it to the human race? By causing your truth to reach even to the clouds. Who could have had any idea of the heavenly mercy of God, unless God had announced it to human beings? How did he announce it? By sending his truth to the clouds. And what are these clouds? The preachers of God’s word. 

God does not speak in an unmediated way, but speaks through his preachers. They are like the clouds, pouring down rain upon the earth, proclaiming the mercy of God, which is heavenly and eternal and infinite.

The image of the preacher as a cloud “raining” God’s mercy corresponds to Augustine’s characteristic image for scripture itself, namely, the sky, familiar to any reader of the Confessions who has persisted to Book 13 (13.15.16). It comes from Psalm 103.2, which says, “He stretched out the sky like a skin. Augustine comments on the literal significance of this text and then passes to the figurative. Since “skin” represents mortality because the animal whose skin is “stretched out” into a tent or parchment is necessarily dead, the sky is the fabric of preaching, which, after the death of the mortal preachers, was preserved as scripture stretched out over us as an authority. In Augustine’s words:

Those who believed were to be saved through the foolishness of preaching, and so God chose mortal creatures, human beings subject to death and destined to die. He employed a mortal tongue and uttered mortal sounds, he employed the ministry of mortal men and made use of mortal instruments, and by this means a sky was made for you, so that in this mortal artifact you might come to know the immortal Word, and by participating in this Word you too might become immortal.

It is not only the clouds in the sky that represent preaching, but the sky itself.  This whole celestial arrangement is an apparatus of preaching.  God’s revelation is never direct, but always mediated through human authors whose deaths “stretch out” like a skin what they preached over all the earth. You could say that scripture “intends” or is intended to be preached, and it is only in preaching that its meaning is fully revealed, because it is itself preaching. It is essentially itself proclamation, and the whole delivery system, if it can be put that way, is as organic, or living, an arrangement as the rain that comes down from the clouds in the sky. Scripture remains uniquely authoritative, although it is not something essentially different from the rest of tradition.

Again, Sommer’s intuition about an affinity between Catholic and Jewish views of scripture and tradition is borne out.  However, the one point of difference already noted is not trivial. It is not accidental to the Catholic system that scripture is a unique and a uniquely authoritative moment in tradition as a whole. The Church does not consider even the most formally defined of dogmas to be “inspired” in the manner that scripture is “inspired,” such that one can say that God is its author even though it is equally true that the human authors are true authors and not simply stenographers. To give up scripture as a uniquely authoritative moment within tradition, as Sommer does, may be more “radical” – Sommer’s word choice – than it seems at first glance. I worry it is actually more radical than Sommer intends. Would not rejecting scripture mean rejecting the canonizing authority that accepted scripture as scripture in the first place? And is not this the same authority which, however painstakingly and through however long a process, seeks to authenticate certain traditions as genuine, and certain other developments as cul de sacs? In other words, I worry that to give up scripture as scripture also means losing tradition as tradition, for the authenticity of both is judged by the same religious authority. Could Sommer’s view, ironically, be much closer to the “Protestant” view, as he denominates it, than he would like? This seems to be the case, at least insofar as sola scriptura, by radically isolating scripture from tradition, can be a declaration of the authority of scripture against the authority of tradition, or, more precisely, against the authority of the Church which canonized scripture in the first place. The essential point of comparison is the rejection, whether de jure or de facto, of the claim to authority of the canonizing community.

Rather than continue comparing Sommer’s view to Catholic and Protestant views, I ask whether, despite his claim that Heschel and Rosenzweig tend in his direction, what is vindicated in the end is actually the secular judgments of historical-critical exegesis over against the judgments of Jewish religious authority in handing down Written Torah as its own unique category, scripture. I wonder if it is not finally analogous either to a Catholic view or a Protestant view but is actually a rejection of religious authority in favor of a secular magisterium. Sommer claims that those who are skeptical of the “whole attempt” to find older sources in scripture can skip the relevant section, but I wonder if the judgments he accepts about these sources and, more importantly, what they imply for him about the canonical form of scripture, is more foundational than it seems. I pose this as a question to think about, not a conclusive critique.

But  Sommer’s argument seems to depend on the location and even the naming of these older sources. The Pentateuch does not actually present itself as a dialectic among named partners in a conversation. In order to present it as such, the partners must be found and named. This naming also implies that the final products, for example, the Book of Genesis, and ultimately the Pentateuch, can in no sense have authors but must be attributed to well-meaning but unfortunately hapless persons known in the most generous terms as “editors,” “redactors,” “compilers,” or “anthologizers.” In other words, the editor is someone who occluded the voices as voices, and the canonical authority recognizing these texts as scripture arbitrarily favored these anthologies, and the meta-anthology known as Pentateuch, over others. “My project,” Sommer comments, “is to notice elements of conversation and continuity that go beyond the artificial boundaries that the various anthologizers over the ages have created.” But to call these boundaries “artificial” seems to privilege a secular judgment of modern historical-critical exegesis. Namely, it privileges the idea that these texts as a whole have no author over the religious judgment that canonized these texts and declared that they had an author, “Moses.” (I fully understand, as Sommer has shown, that from the point of view of the sages this may not have been the historical person of Moses, who rather stands in for a claim on the concrete unity or “spirit,” as well as authority, of the text.) One need not subscribe fully to Child’s canonical criticism project to worry that the opposite extreme is problematic, which is to deconstruct completely the canonical form as “artificial” on hypothetical historical grounds. Perhaps the religious Jews for whom Sommer is trying to downplay the danger in valorizing historical-critical judgments over those of the canonizers of the text have more to worry about than he believes.

But is it really all or nothing? Even on secular grounds, is it really unwarranted to give the benefit of the doubt to the canonical literary units as having meaning that we can discern, as units? I am reminded of a passage from Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, penned almost 50 years ago but seemingly just as relevant today:

The Book of Isaiah … can be analyzed as a mass of separate oracles, with three major foci, so to speak, one mainly pre-exilic, one exilic and one post-exilic. The ‘higher critics’ of the Bible are not literary critics, and we have to make the suggestion ourselves that the Book of Isaiah is in fact the unity it has always been traditionally taken to be, a unity not of authorship but of theme, and that theme in epitome the theme of the Bible, as a whole, as the parable of Israel lost, captive and redeemed.

One can justifiably comment, as Sommer does, that the rabbinic tradition never really did its work of commentary on the canonical books as wholes, but rather on the level of the verse, relating seemingly isolated verses from one book of the Bible to others, equally decontextualized, from other books. The Fathers of the Church to some extent worked the same way, and even ancient commentators on secular texts, such as the Platonic dialogues, also worked in that way. But this evidence is in no way conclusive. One can see this practice as an outcropping of the absolute confidence that, despite seeming inconsistencies in the texts on the level of detail, there was an overarching unity that vindicated the atomizing attention and that gave commentators the conviction that their project arose out of a unified vision that came from the texts and that a synthesis was not only possible but intended, and their efforts moved in that direction. In Heavenly Torah, Heschel comments on “how mightily did the Sages labor to preserve the unity of the Torah” without any hint that this was a vain enterprise.

This same logic applies to the extremely difficult passages such as the curse on Amalek. Origen famously called scripture a “beehive of temptations” because various passages from scripture can tempt one to doubt that there is, in fact, a coherent and valuable message, and so one had to wrestle with the texts. Origen, who commented not only on the book of Exodus but on Joshua and Judges too, was a complete pacifist who taught that the Bible nowhere advocates violence. Against Marcion, who would see in the texts regarding Amalek evidence that the God of the Jews was not a “good” God, Origen defended the integrity of the text as it was handed down in Jewish tradition. Here Sommer’s comments are at their most worrying to me. Commenting on later legal traditions that “effectively overturn” the laws regarding the extermination of the Canaanites, Sommer rejects their efforts. He comments, “And yet precisely because these verses never lose their apparent sense, they remain dangerous. That danger must be confronted and named; only by acknowledging these verses’ failure to reflect God’s will can a modern reader fully tame them.” Does this mean that we know what does and what does not reflect God’s will independent of the text since Sommer explicitly disowns traditional interpretations of the text as strained and as not going far enough? Does not the “Kantian” project of separating the noumena (or the Gebot) from the phenomena (or the Gesetz) come back with a vengeance here? If followed to its logical conclusion, where would one stop? Wouldn’t this be “religion within the bounds of pure reason alone?” Wouldn’t that be a fully “tamed” religion? I worry that the Kantian philosophical presuppositions, buttressed by the secular methodologies of historical-criticism, reject scripture as scripture. And I repeat that if true, with it must go tradition as tradition, because the ultimate foundation for judgment here would be a secular one.

Finally, with regard to participatory revelation, are the options really only a zero sum between what was “dictated” “stenographically” to Moses and what was written by Moses himself, so that the latter is human and the former divine, and the authorship of scripture needs to be divided between God and Moses and perhaps others? This view sounds almost like that of the Valentinian theologian Ptolemy, who famously divided the authorship of the Law into three parts: the divine part, Moses’s part, and the additions of the “elders of the people.” But Heschel himself mentions other alternatives that transcend such a drastic “either/or” notion of inspiration, alternatives that could be compatible with either Rabbi Ishmael’s or Rabbi Akiva’s schools, at least as Heschel lays them out. In such views, scripture is itself not only the story of, but itself an artifact of, a divine act of God’s self-entrustment to Moses and through him to Israel, and one could argue that it is as such an artifact of entrustment that its authority is constituted and recognized, through and through with no variation. As I already noted, my observations are not intended to be conclusive. My intention is merely to angle persuasively for a hearing of one basic question for the author of this excellent book, namely, is he really sure that he loses as little as he claims he loses in asserting that “there is no distinction between the Bible and later Jewish tradition,”  and that “both biblical criticism and the work of theologians like Rosenzweig and Heschel prompt the realization that for modern Judaism, there is no such thing as Written Torah”? Is he sure that Jewish tradition has driven him in this direction, and not rather a secular methodology with secular philosophical presuppositions that pressure his book to unintentionally overlook the evidence in both Heschel and Rosenzweig that he actually does lose something significant by eliminating the category of Written Torah altogether? Why would it be that specifically “modern” Judaism requires this elimination unless it is the “modern” secular methodologies that actually have played the constitutive role in determining what “modern” Judaism requires?

I believe that truly brilliant ideas sometimes cannot be expressed in the first instance without some degree of overstatement, because the brilliance of the idea is fighting its way through for the first time. After reading and reacting to this book, I am left with an overall impression of brilliance, but also the worry that what I see as possible overstatement, perhaps necessary if the idea is to be stated at all for its first time, needs to be cut back lest it actually undercut, in the end, its own genius. I have made some suggestions for the author to consider in areas where I think it is not as “all or nothing” as the book seems to believe.


John C. Cavadini is Professor of Theology at Notre Dame. He is also the Director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.

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