Why Jews Are Better Off

Why Jews Are Better Off in the Catholic Church Than in the Jews for Jesus

Originally published in The Catholic Faith magazine, July-August 1996
Originally published in The Catholic Faith magazine, Nov-Dec 2000

Many inquiring Jews imagine that Messianic Judaism, a Protestant evangelical denomination, is the place Christianity has reserved for them. The movement creates warm Judaic feelings.

However, we will be saved only if we do what Jesus said is necessary to be saved.

The problem arises when we start asking hard questions about the truth.

God’s Authority

God has always directly connected the authority of those who speak for him with his own authority.

The Torah

Every Torah scroll is made from living creatures. The parchment is lambskin, ritually prescribed sinews hold the pages together, and plants provide the ink. Jewish tradition holds that God dictated Torah to Moses as a stream of Hebrew letters, one at a time. Jewish scribes who hand copy Torah scrolls are extremely careful to preserve the exact sequence, not adding or subtracting even a single letter. Jesus referred to that tradition when He said, “Till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” Mt 5:18. An iota is a yod, the smallest Hebrew letter. A dot is the smallest part of a Hebrew letter. The Torah in every synagogue is an exact copy of an exact copy of an exact copy . . . of the Torah that God inspired Moses to write down by hand.

The Jewish Priest
God also instituted the Jewish priesthood through Moses, “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him . . .” Ex 28:1 “Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons” Ex 29:9. “The holy garments of Aaron shall be for his sons after him, to be anointed in them and ordained in them” Ex 29:29. It was to be a hereditary priesthood. Every Jewish priest descended from a priest who descended from a priest who descended from a priest … who descended from Aaron, who was ordained by Moses at God’s command. God directly connected every Jewish priest’s authority to sacrifice with his authority.

The Catholic Priest
Jesus told us, “I am the good shepherd” Jn 10:11. The Good Shepherd established his vicar on earth by directing Peter, “Feed My lambs . . . Tend My sheep . . . Feed My sheep” Jn 21:15-17. Jesus gave his Apostles a worldwide mission, hence successors, with the command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” Mt 28:19. He guaranteed the teaching of the Apostles and their successors, “I am with you always” Mt 28:20. St. Paul documented the Apostles’ authority to appoint successors, and the successors’ to appoint other successors: “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might … appoint elders in every town as I directed you … For a bishop, as God’s steward, must … hold firm to the sure word as taught” Titus 1:5. The Apostles enrolled Matthias Acts 1:26 to replace Judas and appointed deacons Acts 6:6 to assist. The descended Holy Spirit immediately highlighted the Church’s worldwide mission. Peter and the other Apostles spoke in their own language to the devout Jews of Jerusalem who had come from every nation under heaven, yet each Jew heard in his own native language. “And they were amazed and wondered, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?’” Acts 2:8.

Jesus told his Apostles, and by extension their successors, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” Mt 10:40. That authority has crossed the centuries in a continuing line of apostolic succession. Every pope is the successor of Peter. Every Catholic bishop, priest, and deacon was ordained by someone who was ordained by someone who was ordained by someone . . . who was personally ordained at the Last Supper by Jesus himself. The Son of God directly connected every Catholic priest’s authority to offer the Sacrifice with his authority.

Sacred Tradition
The Holy Spirit
Sacred Tradition is all of divine revelation, from the dawn of human history to the end of the apostolic age, passed across the centuries and preserved under divine guidance by the Church that Jesus instituted, particularly that part of divine revelation not contained in Sacred Scripture. The apostles had lived with Jesus twenty-four hours every day during his entire public ministry. They ate with him, walked the long roads with him, listened to him preach and teach in every town, and asked many questions during the evening hours. The apostles handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received either from Christ’s spoken word or way of life, or as the Holy Spirit prompted them.

Sacred Tradition is in the tradition of the Oral Torah, which was also handed down from one generation to the next. Judaism holds that the Oral Torah was equal in authority to the Written Torah because God gave it, and would protect it as it passed across the centuries. “[Jesus] went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled. ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’” Mt 2:23. The words spoken by the prophets, and the absence of any such Hebrew Scriptures prophecy, tell us that Jesus acknowledged an oral tradition of sacred teaching.

The Gospels came from Sacred Tradition. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John traveled around telling and re-telling what Jesus said and did. Many other disciples began to re-tell the evangelists’ stories, explaining as they began that this was the Gospel according to Matthew, or Mark, or Luke or John. St. John acknowledged that many things Jesus said and did were not in the Gospels, “There are also many other things which Jesus did” Jn 21:25. St. Paul gave an example, quoting a statement by Jesus that did not appear in the Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” Acts 20:35. As the four evangelists got older and began to consider that Jesus might not return during their earthly lives, they wrote down their accounts, calling them Gospels, even as the rabbis finally wrote down the Oral Torah, calling it the Mishna Torah, around AD 200.

Jesus told us, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth” Jn 16:12 St. Paul explicitly supported Sacred Tradition: “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” 2 Tim 2:2. “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” 2 Thes 2:15. “Keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” 2 Thes 3:6. “Maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” 1 Cor 11:2.

The Vicar of Christ
For Sacred Tradition to exist, there must be an authoritative teacher on earth.

The early Christians knew Peter as the Vicar of Christ. “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them” Acts 5:14-15. Peter wrote to all Christ’s followers: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” 2 Peter 1:20.

Over the years Jesus has used some strikingly immoral men. Vigilius arranged the killing of two previous popes and accepted the papacy and 700 pounds of gold on the promise that he would promote a heresy, yet once in the Chair of Peter he renounced the heresy and taught true doctrine at the cost of his life. Alexander VI, a member of the infamous Borgia family, fathered several children as a cardinal, but once on the Chair of Peter taught true doctrine. The evidence is dramatic. We have had 266 popes in two thousand years. Not a single pope has ever reversed a predecessor’s teaching on faith or morals. In all of world history, no other institution has had comparable governance. The 266 popes taught true doctrine not because of any personal holiness, but by the power of the King of Kings. Jesus, as always, was the model: “For I have not spoken on My own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak” Jn 12:49.

Luther’s “Authority”
Jesus had told the seventy, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” Lk 10:16. He who hears you hears me exactly describes the Vicar of Christ. He who rejects you exactly describes Protestantism. Can anyone trust his understanding of Scripture to Martin Luther, who rejected the Vicar of Christ?

The Indulgences and the Reformation
Martin Luther was a well educated man. Born in Germany in 1483, he was ordained an Augustinian priest in 1507 and from 1512 until his death in 1546 he was a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. However, Luther soon despaired of his own sinfulness and came to believe that his sins were so great that God could not forgive him. He began to imagine that Christ was a stern judge instead of a loving Redeemer. He denied free will, believing that if God gave a man the grace to believe in the merits of Jesus Christ he would be saved, and if not he would go to hell, regardless of his own efforts. Finally, he concluded that only faith could save him because nothing he could do would persuade God to forgive his sins.

Luther’s idea of predestination, that nothing a man can do will influence his eternal destiny, imagines that God condemns some men to eternal torment despite their best efforts to be good. It is inconsistent with justice and mercy, and with Christ’s constant teaching: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses” Mt 6:14. “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” Mt 7:2. “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” Mt 12:37. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven … The measure you give will be the measure you get back” Lk 6:37. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” Lk 11:9. Jesus would have no reason to teach these things if we were not free to act on them.

Luther concluded that if he believed in Jesus as our Redeemer, God would overlook his sins and cover them, in effect pretend that they were not there. That more than anything revealed how deranged he had become. God would never take sin into heaven, like a mudball covered with snow, and lie to himself that He could not see it. But Luther, imagining that nothing we can do will help us, no longer believed in indulgences, which are holy acts that help us.

§ 1471 An indulgence remits the temporal punishment that remains after sins are forgiven, to re-balance the moral order. Briefly, temporal punishment is, “I forgive you for breaking my window, but you have to replace it.” An indulgence is, “Thank you for helping my mother. It’s okay, I’ll pay for the window.” If we obtain indulgences sufficient to re-balance the moral order for all our sins, we can bypass purgatory and fly straight to heaven. If not, the indulgences we earn reduce our stay in purgatory. The Catholic Church since its early days has encouraged us to perform holy acts that re-balance the moral order.

In 1514, Pope Leo X offered a plenary indulgence to all the faithful who contributed to the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome according to their means, provided that they fulfilled the general conditions: true contrition, prayer for the pope’s intentions, and complete detachment from sin. The rebuilding of St. Peter’s was a necessary mission for the Church, and the granting of an indulgence for it was the same as granting an indulgence for a contribution to the poor. St. Peter’s would serve the poor in spirit.

Jesus had told the twelve, “You received without pay, give without pay” Mt 10:8. To this day every contribution to Holy Mother Church is voluntary. Charging for religious services is a mortal sin called simony Acts 8:18. The pope’s action was not simony because it was not the withholding of religious services otherwise due the person unless money were paid.

There was some confusion because Pope Leo X let Wittenberg’s local bishop keep half his receipts to pay off a large debt. It did not amount to simony, but it helped Luther gather support. Certainly, some priests in their enthusiasm misrepresented the Church’s teaching. They are human, and sinners like the rest of us. Even if the Pope had committed simony, the Church’s authority would remain. The Holy Spirit guarantees the Pope’s infallibility (teaching true doctrine), not his impeccability (freedom from sin). Popes struggle against sin; they are human. Only one Man was like us in all things but without sin. He admonished, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick … For I came to call not the righteous, but sinners” Mt 9:12.

The Protestant Reformation separated from the continuous stream of salvation history that had begun in 1900 BC when God planted a seed in the land of Canaan that reached its height at the tree of life, a cross near Jerusalem, from which two great branches sprang. Rabbinic Judaism separated from God’s Messiah but not from his Torah. Catholic Christianity became complete in the Messiah. The first words of the Risen Christ to his apostles were, Shalom alekhem. Shalom means peace, but more important, completion. We find peace when our journey is complete, when we are complete, when we receive the complete deposit of faith. The Protestant Reformation fell from the tree of life, from which the Vicar of Christ through the apostolic succession teaches all Christians, and became a fallen twig.

Interpretation
Without an authoritative interpreter, how would anyone know how to interpret Scripture? Luther’s answered was that Scripture is so clear that even a farm boy behind the plow could understand it as correctly as the most learned theologians in the universities, and further that the Holy Spirit would guide each believer. Today there are thousands of Protestant denominations, each one claiming that the Holy Spirit honors its particular interpretations and that all the rest are wrong. This theological bedlam shows that there is no divine guarantee of infallibility for individual believers. St. Peter taught two thousand years ago, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” 2 Pet 1:20.

Sola Scriptura
Luther’s central doctrine was sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. However, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is trapped in a fatal contradiction. It says that only doctrines in Scripture are authentic, but sola Scriptura itself does not appear in Scripture. If sola Scriptura does not appear in Scripture, on its own terms it cannot be true doctrine. Catholics cite St. Paul, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” 2 Tim 3:16, to show that the Bible is a great source of truth. But St. Paul said all Scripture, not only Scripture.

St. Paul explicitly supports Sacred Tradition. “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” 2 Tim 2:2. “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” 2 Thes 2:15. and “Keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thes 3:6). “Maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” 1 Cor 11:2. St. Paul made sure everyone understood, “When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” 1 Thes 2:13.

Messianic Jews sometimes respond that sola Scriptura is not explicitly stated in Scripture but may be inferred by reading several passages together. Let us examine this claim. When God tells us something of the highest importance, He is very direct and clear. The Ten Commandments are proclaimed clearly in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. Jesus gave us his two great commandments in very clear language: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” Mt 22:37-40. Messianic Jews ask us to believe that God, who spoke the most important truths to his people boldly and clearly, deliberately made this seminal teaching of sola Scriptura so ambiguous that no one in the world noticed it for 1,500 years.

During the first 1,400 years after Rabbi Yeshua was crucified, most Christians did not know how to read. The few who could read did not own a Bible. Each Bible was hand copied by a monk in a scriptorium. Most scriptoria lacked heat and artificial light; the monk sat at a desk all day in a large room, copying in silence from a text spread before him. The monks often lamented, “Two fingers hold the pen, but the whole body toils.” After the work was completed and proofread, the vellum or parchment was given to another monk who illuminated it with beautiful illustrations and decorations. Finally it was sent to a bindery. Each Catholic parish church had a Latin Bible, chained down not to prevent those who could from reading it but rather to assure that it would remain in the church so the priest could read it to the congregation.

In 1455, in Mainz, Germany, Johannes Gutenberg used movable type to print a Latin Bible. Those who have seen the perfect vellum copy in the Library of Congress have noticed that it looks like the work of a manuscript copyist, with no title page or page numbers, its Gothic type both majestic and medieval in appearance. No one knows how many copies were originally printed; some 40 copies remain in existence.

During the first 1,400 years virtually all Christians learned about Rabbi Yeshua from the Catholic Church, not from a Bible that they read on their own. The doctrine of sola Scriptura would have us believe that Rabbi Yeshua would let his covenant family go without true guidance for more than 1,400 years. Rabbi Yeshua, who said, “… This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me …” Jn 6:39, and “I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled” Jn 17:12, did not leave so many of his flock without a Shepherd during all those centuries.

Sola Fide
Luther, translating the Latin Vulgate into German, came upon Romans 3:28. The original Latin reads: Arbitramur enim iustificari hominem per fidem sine operibus legis. “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” Luther, upset because he could not find his personal theory that we are saved by faith alone anywhere in Scripture, brazenly added the word alone after “faith.”

James wrote, “Faith apart from works is dead” Jam 2:26. Luther was so determined to force his own interpretations that he publicly called the Letter of James “an epistle of straw.” If Luther truly believed that James was not inspired by God he could not have compromised by keeping it, because from his perspective he would have been teaching as God’s Word what he believed was not God’s word. If he believed that James was inspired by God then teaching sola fide was knowingly teaching what is contrary to God’s Word. If he was not sure, he had no business changing what he believed was God’s Word. Can anyone trust his understanding of Scripture, his immortal soul, to a man who knew that his teachings were so much in conflict with Scripture?

The Scriptural Cafeteria
All Christendom had accepted the Catholic Sacred Scriptures for 1,500 years when Luther altered Romans 3:28. But Luther altered a lot more Scripture than one word. He removed from his Scriptures the entire books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees as well as Esther 10:4-16:24 and Daniel 3:24-90 and chapters 13 and 14.

The Messianic Jews respond that Luther chose only those Scriptures for the Old Testament that were recognized by the rabbis as the Tanakh, the Palestinian canon, rather than those recognized by the Catholic Church, the Alexandrian canon.

For three centuries before Christ arrived, Judaism used two different versions of Scripture. Jews living in Palestine used the Hebrew Palestinian canon, which did not have these seven books, while Jews who lived outside Palestine used the Greek Septuagint version, called the Alexandrian canon, which did. When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he used the Greek Septuagint because it contained all of the books recognized by the Church as inspired. All Christendom had accepted the St. Jerome Bible for a thousand years when Luther suddenly decided to use the Palestinian canon because he did not accept the doctrine of purgatory implied in 2 Maccabees. Luther, in fact, wanted to delete as well the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Revelation, but was persuaded by the other Reformers to leave them in place. Luther chose for his Old Testament only those books historically accepted by people who did not recognize Jesus, rather than those who did.

The Messianic Jews do not explain how anyone can trust his understanding of Scripture to a man who claims authority to decide which books and passages it contains but also that it has authority over him. That is something like building an idol and then worshiping it.

Luther and the Jews
Messianic Jews in particular can assess Luther’s scriptural insight by reading The Jews and Their Lies, written in 1543. Luther was 60 years old by then, and he arrived at his conclusions about Jews by studying the Bible. An English edition of The Jews and Their Lies, translated by Martin H. Bertram, was published by Fortress Press in 1955.

The Objections
John Milton began his epic poem Paradise Lost, “Of man’s first disobedience …” From Adam, our fallen race has disobeyed its Father in heaven. As a result the land of Israel was divided and then lost, the people were held captive in Babylon, then they were conquered by the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Syrians, and finally the Romans. After Jesus redeemed us on Calvary our fallen race continued to disobey the Vicar of Christ. Today, when Messianic Jews and other Protestants are unable to find in Holy Scripture their core doctrine sola Scriptura they often change the subject by replying, “Yes, but what about the Crusades?” Fair questions, and they deserve fair answers.

The Crusades
At the time of Charlemagne, relations were friendly between Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and the Egyptian Caliphs who ruled it. However, by the eleventh century hostility had set in. In 1071 the Seljuk Turks conquered Jerusalem and made Christian pilgrimages nearly impossible. When the Turks also threatened to seize Constantinople from the Eastern Christians the Byzantine emperor, Alexis I, asked Pope Urban II for help. In the Councils of Piacenza and Clermont in 1095, the pope appealed to the knights of Europe to free the Holy Land. Thousands of Frenchmen, Germans, English, and Italians responded. They wore on their chests a cross of red fabric and rode off toward the Holy Land.

Europe’s Christian nations were not the aggressors. The Christian nations had an affirmative responsibility to defend themselves and prevent future attacks to protect their innocent and helpless citizens. The Crusaders, moreover, never attacked Arabia, the Muslim homeland. They fought only to recover Christian territories conquered by Muslims. Christians had every right to govern the places where Christ, God incarnate, walked the earth, and to protect them from desecration. Muslims to this day exclude non-Muslims from whole cities they regard as holy, as any Jew or Christian who tries to enter Mecca or Medina in Saudi Arabia quickly discovers.

There were two grave abuses during the Crusades. The Sack of Jerusalem occurred during the first crusade. The soldiers had long wanted to re-take the city where Christ saved the world, but the Muslims had poisoned all the wells near the city. Under the burning sun, soldiers had to lick dew from the grass or dig for moist earth to get water. By the time they got to Jerusalem the soldiers, frustrated beyond endurance, looted and killed many innocent people. The Sack of Constantinople was worse. The leaders of the fourth crusade were stranded at Constantinople with no money to pay the Venetians for ships to take them to the Holy Land. A young man named Alexius, whose uncle had forcibly removed his father from the throne, promised to pay for the ships if the Crusaders would help him gain the throne. The Crusaders overthrew the uncle, but Alexius had no money. The angry Crusaders looted and burned and killed, even destroying some beautiful churches. Pope Innocent III excommunicated all who participated. These were two abuses lasting a few days each during a period of two centuries.

Some of the Crusades were more successful than others but, taken together, they were a just war by the criteria in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 2309. Still, the Church concluded from the whole experience that its mission is spiritual rather than temporal war.