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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Is the Bible the Ultimate Authority?

Don Stewart :: What Is the Jewish View of the Authority of Scripture?

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Question 7

What Is the Jewish View of the Authority of Scripture?

Do Jews view the Old Testament in the same way as Christians? Is it the final standard for all matters of faith and practice? What is the traditional Jewish view of the Bible by those who believe the Hebrew Scriptures are God’s divinely inspired Word for humanity?

It is important to understand the differences between the traditional Jewish view of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian view. The following observations need to be made about this issue:

  1. The Hebrew Scriptures Alone Are God’s Revealed Word

    The traditional Jewish belief is that the Hebrew Scripture, or the Old Testament, is the Word of God. It alone is the sacred Scripture that has been revealed to humanity. They reject the idea that the Hebrew Scripture is the “Old” Testament because they do not accept the New Testament. They also reject the writings known as the “Old Testament Apocrypha.” They understand the Hebrew Scriptures as the only sacred writings possessing divine authority.

    Before the New Testament was written, we find the first Christians holding the same perspective toward the Hebrew Scriptures as the Jews. They believed this limited group of writings, and only these writings, were the sacred Scripture which God had given to the human race. No other written works carried God’s divine authority.

  2. The Early Christians Went to Jewish Places of Worship to Preach Jesus

    We also discover that the early Christians went to the Jewish places of worship; to the temple and the synagogues. They did this to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. We read the following in the Book of Acts:

    Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time for prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. (Acts 3:1 NET)

    Later, we again find Peter and John teaching at the temple in Jerusalem. This episode is also recorded in the Book of Acts:

    And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them. (Acts 4:1 ESV)

    The early Christians went to the temple every day to preach and teach Jesus to the Jewish people. The Bible says:

    And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (Acts 5:42 NKJV)

    Since the Jews and Christians both believed in the divine authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christians used these Scriptures to show the Jews that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.

    We also find that Stephen, the first martyr, was confronted in a synagogue while he was preaching Jesus. We read the following in the Book of Acts:

    But some men from Cyrene and Alexandria were members of a group who called themselves “Free Men.” They started arguing with Stephen. Some others from Cilicia and Asia also argued with him. But they were no match for Stephen, who spoke with the great wisdom that the Spirit gave him. (Acts 6:9-10 CEV)

    The Apostle Paul went to the synagogue to preach the message that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Bible records it this way:

    But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue said to them, saying, “Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.” (Acts 13:14-15 NKJV)

    We are told that it was Paul’s custom to go to the synagogues and preach. Scripture tells us that he went to Thessalonica for three consecutive Sabbaths:

    Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” (Acts 17:1-3 RSV)

    Paul could reason with the Jews from the Hebrew Scriptures because both Jews and Christians recognized the divine authority of these sacred writings.

    Thus we find that the early Christians went to the same places of worship as the Jews, and they used the same Scripture as the Jews. However, each group held a different perspective upon the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scripture. The Christians went to these places to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah; the One whom the Law and the Prophets looked forward.

    Eventually the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, along with His teachings which were carried on by His followers, were put into writing into a “New Testament.” The Jews do not accept the New Testament as divinely inspired Scripture. Thus, while the Jews have only one group of sacred writings, the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scripture, the Christians have two groups; the Old and the New Testament.

  3. The Jews Are Still Awaiting the Coming of the Messiah

    Both Jews and Christians saw the Old Testament as predicting the coming of the Messiah, or Deliverer. Since the Jews have rejected Jesus as the Messiah, and the New Testament as divinely inspired Scripture, they are still waiting for the coming Messiah. They believe the prophecies about the Messiah are still to be fulfilled.

  4. The Jews Have a Long History of Oral Tradition

    While the Jews have only accepted the Hebrew Scripture as God’s divinely inspired Word, they do not limit God’s truth to these writings alone. Along with the written Scripture, the Jews have a long history of non-written, or “oral tradition.” This unwritten tradition deals with all aspects of Jewish belief and practice. From the books of Moses, the Jews have derived rules for daily life. This is known as the halakah which literally means “way of life.” This has become the main source for their beliefs.

  5. The Oral Traditions Were Eventually Put into Writing

    The unwritten traditions were later put into writing. They are known as the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Tosefta. The Talmud, which in its written form comes from the third century A.D., is the comprehensive term for the Mishnah. It is divided into sixty-three parts, or tractates, and consists of customs, proverbs, and folklore. To many Jewish people, these written traditions are given the same authority as the written Word of God—the Hebrew Scriptures.

  6. Traditions Have Equal Value to Scripture

    This brings us to another difference between Judaism and Protestant Christianity. The traditions and teachings of the Jewish sages now have equal value with the Scripture. The Jews believe that the entire revelation of God to humanity in not limited to one book. Unwritten tradition has always been a means to interpret and apply Scripture. Thus, the oral law was assumed to have the same authority as the written law.

    We find this belief among those who opposed Jesus. We read about this when Jesus confronted the Pharisees. Matthew records the following episode:

    Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:1-3 ESV)

    Jesus said that the religious leaders broke the commandments of God on a regular basis. He was referring to the following Old Testament passages:

    Honor your father and your mother so that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12 HCSB)

    In the Book of Deuteronomy, it says:

    Honor your father and mother, as the LORD your God commanded you. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the LORD your God will give you. (Deuteronomy 5:16 NLT)

    Jesus made it clear that all traditions needed to conform to the teaching of the written Word of God. Otherwise, they should not be believed.

  7. Result: Good Works Have Now Replaced Sacrifices for Sin

    There is something else—a different means by which to approach God. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year A.D. 70. Therefore, the Jews could no longer offer sacrifices to the Lord as prescribed in the Hebrew Scriptures. This caused them to rethink how they could fulfill their duty toward God. Over time they decided that the performance of good deeds was the way in which they could offer sacrifices to the Lord. Therefore, good works, instead of sacrifices, became the basis of their faith.

Conclusion: the Scripture Does Not Have the Final Authority in Judaism

The consequence of placing tradition on an equal level with Scripture is that the Scripture is not the final authority where matters of belief and practice are settled. To the contrary, the Scripture is looked at as the foundation of truth, but the written traditions have become as authoritative as, or more authoritative than, written Scripture. This is a major distinction between the Jewish view of where authority rests and the Protestant position.

Summary - Question 7
What Is the Jewish View of the Authority of Scripture?

Judaism believes the Hebrew Scriptures are God’s only written revelation to humanity. The early Christians held the same view until the New Testament was written.

Unlike Protestant Christians, the Jews do not attach authority solely to the Old Testament. In a sense they are like the Roman Catholic Church where there is some other authority outside of Scripture. They believe that from the beginning, God has given oral tradition alongside written Scripture. These oral traditions were eventually put into writing. The writings are known as the Midrash, Talmud, and Tosefta.

In addition, there is now a different way by which God is approached. Instead of sacrifices, God is now pleased through good works alone. These are some of the differences between Judaism and Christianity with respect to the area of authority.

Do We Need an Infallible Interpreter to Properly Understand the Bible? ← Prior Section
What Are Some of the Things That Christians Mistakenly Emphasize in Place of Scripture? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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