“You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” Jn. 19:11. In the moment of His Final Sacrifice on the Cross, Christ had above His head the epitaph in Hebrew, the language by which God revealed Himself to man: Yeshua haNotzri, Melekh haYehudim. It was also in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, representing authority: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. Finally, it was in Greek, the international language of commerce, representing universality: Iesous ho Nazoraios ho basileus ton Ioudaion. In English, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” Jn. 19:19. Thus our Father in heaven chose this epitaph in the three languages of the Church instituted by his Son, representing revelation, authority, and universality.
In With the New, Fulfilled by Rabbi Yeshua
Rabbi Yeshua, better known by the Greek translation of His name, Iesous, or Jesus, came to fulfill and to complete the Old Covenant, which remains an everlasting part of salvation history. Catholics revere the Ten Commandments as the crown jewels of the Torah, and read from the Hebrew Scriptures during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The new covenant, which calls us to love God and one another, is the distilled essence of the old: “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” Mt 22:40.
In all of the Torah, only ten commandments were written “with the finger of God” Ex. 31:18. The first three teach us how to love God: “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve,” “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” and “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Rabbi Yeshua summarized them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” Mt 22:37. It came straight from the Old Covenant: “… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” Deut 6:5.
The remaining seven teach us how to love one another: “Honor your father and your mother,” “You shall not kill,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s property.” Rabbi Yeshua summarized them, “Love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” Jn. 13:34. It too came straight from the Old Covenant: “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself” Lev 19:18.
Some of the fulfillment consisted of releasing Judaism from burdens no longer needed. The Israelite people had become so deeply conditioned to the Egyptian idols during their 430 years in slavery that their attachment to false gods survived their forty years in the desert (Ex. 16:35). The Egyptians had worshiped a cow-god, and while Moses was up on Mount Sinai the Israelites made a golden calf. To break them of this idolatry, our Father reversed their conditioning by commanding that they sacrifice and eat the animals venerated by the Egyptians as gods, and prohibited the sacrifice of animals that the Egyptians sacrificed. After twelve centuries the Israelites no longer practiced idolatry, and so Rabbi Yeshua released them from the kosher laws. “Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him” Mk. 7:14-15.
Rabbi Yeshua then completed the teaching that the kosher laws had begun. “‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man’” Mk. 7:18.
Sacred Tradition, Oral Torah
Jewish tradition holds that our Father on Mt. Sinai gave Moses additional instruction called the Oral Torah. This Israelite Sacred Tradition, fulfilled in Catholic Sacred Tradition, passed from father to son across the Old Testament centuries, entirely by word-of-mouth. Our Father knew that teaching the Law orally kept fathers in close relationship with their sons, and students with their rabbis. The ancient rabbis considered teachers, not books, the best conveyors of the Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Yeshua said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” Mt 24:35. He taught entirely through the spoken word and the example of his life, embodying Sacred Tradition. From the beginning, the Church followed His example and taught with Sacred Tradition. His disciples emphasized that it was Sacred Tradition: St. Paul, educated by Rabbi Gamaliel, told the church at Corinth, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” 1 Cor 11:23. He made sure the church at Thessalonica understood that, “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. St. Paul used extremely strong language to hand on a direct command in Christ’s name: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you 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.
The Oral Torah was to be written down only if the Israelite people should ever find themselves so fragmented that it might be lost. During the first Jewish revolt of AD 66-70 the Temple was destroyed and a great number of faithful Jews were killed. During the second Jewish revolt of AD 132-135 the leading yeshiva (rabbinic school) together with its students, was wiped out. Rabbi Judah HaNasi (Judah the Prince) saw the decline in the number of knowledgeable Jews and concluded that the time had come to write down the Oral Torah as the Mishna. It was first published about AD 200.
For Sacred Tradition there has to be a Sanhedrin, an authoritative body to interpret the teaching. Moses had established the original Sanhedrin. “So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and placed them round about the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders” Num 11:24-25.
Over time, the ancient rabbis of the Sanhedrin recognized that their interpretations were subject to yeridat hadorot, the decline of the generations. So Hillel, who favored lenient interpretations, and Shammai, who favored strict interpretations, were both recognized as rabbinic interpreters of God’s teaching. Rabbi Yeshua alone “… taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” Mk 1:22.
Rabbi Yeshua established His Sanhedrin when He told us, “I am the good shepherd” Jn 10:11. The Good Shepherd established his vicar on earth by directing St. Peter, “Feed my lambs … Tend My sheep … Feed my sheep” Jn 21:15-17. Rabbi Yeshua gave his shlikhim a worldwide mission and, therefore, successors: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” Mt 28:19. He guaranteed the teaching of the shlikhim and their successors, promising “I am with you always” Mt 28:20. St. Paul documented their authority to appoint successors, and the successors’ authority to appoint other successors: “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders* in every town as I directed you” Tt 1:5. “For a bishop, as God’s steward, must … hold firm to the sure word as taught” Tt 1:7,9. The Apostles enrolled Matthias Acts 1:26 to replace Judas and appointed deacons Acts 6:6 as assistants.
Rabbi Yeshua’s guarantee Mt 16:18 meant that the Sanhedrin of the Redemption would not be subject to yeridat hadorot. In fact, He 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. Vincent of Lérins explained, “It is necessary, therefore, that understanding, knowledge and wisdom grow and advance strongly and mightily … and this must take place precisely within its own kind, that is, in the same teaching, in the same meaning, and in the same opinion.”1 This is the opposite of yeridat hadorot. It is aliyat hadorot, the development of doctrine.
The Holy Spirit had activated the Sanhedrin of Moses—“and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” Num 11:25. That much of the verse is clear. However, RSV2CE continues the verse, “But they did so no more,” while the Douay-Rheims translates the same text, “Nor did they cease afterwards.” The relevant Biblical Hebrew phrase can be read as lo yasafu, not continue, lo yasufu, not cease, or lo yisafu, not die. Whether they continued to prophesy is ambiguous.
The Holy Spirit also activated its fulfillment, the Sanhedrin of the Redemption: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance,” Acts 2:4, and confirmed Rabbi Yeshua’s worldwide mission for the Sanhedrin of the Redemption. Peter and the other Apostles spoke to the devout Jews who had come to Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, yet each man 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 2:7-8.
Sacred Tradition continued across the centuries. St. John the Apostle lived to a great age, remaining in Ephesus, the church St. Paul started, until the time of Trajan (AD 98-117). St. John personally instructed St. Polycarp, whom he ordained Bishop of Smyrna. St. Polycarp also lived to an advanced age. His disciple St. Irenaeus became Bishop of Lyons in Gaul and lived until AD 202. And so on, until Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, completed in AD 324 the massive ten-volume Church History. And so we depend for our truth on Rabbi Yeshua, who said he would be with us always Mt 28:20, and on the oral testimony of men willing to die for their convictions.
The Halakha—“The Way”
Rabbi Yeshua told us, “For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” Mt 5:18. He did not change the Law, but fulfilled and completed it.
Rabbinic interpretation has always been an opinion on what our Father wants. The rabbis have the Torah, written and oral; from it they form as deep and broad an understanding as they possibly can of our Father’s will for us. Due to yeridat hadorot, the early opinions, closest in time to Moses, have always been considered more authoritative, so the rabbis particularly consult them. That body of Written Torah, Oral Torah, and rabbinic interpretation, is the halakha.
The traditional form for Jewish teaching has always drawn the Written Torah into the Oral Torah. Compare “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” Mt 5:21-22, with its Oral Torah counterpart, “Precious is the human being, who was created in the image [of God].”2 Compare “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” Mt 7:21, with its Oral Torah counterpart, “Be strong as a leopard, fast as an eagle, fleet as a gazelle, and brave as a lion, to carry out the will of your Father who is in heaven.”3
Rabbi Yeshua drew the Written Torah into the Oral Torah to reconcile all in Himself. Halakha, literally translated, means “the way,” as in “on a journey.” It applies the Written Torah, the Oral Torah, and the rabbinic legislation and commentaries as God’s will for every aspect of Jewish life. Rabbi Yeshua told Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” Jn 14:6. “I am the Halakha.”
The Most Jewish Jew of All
Rabbi Yeshua was the most Jewish Jew of all. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states § 578, “Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and therefore the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, was to fulfill the Law by keeping it in its all-embracing detail – according to his own words, down to the least of these commandments. He is in fact the only one who could keep it perfectly.”
Now, did Rabbi Yeshua observe all the Torah mitzvot? Once, on Shabat (Sabbath) he allowed his disciples to pluck heads of grain, asserting, “The Son of man is lord even of the sabbath,” Mk. 2:28. Also on Shabat he entered the synagogue and healed a man with a withered hand Mk. 3:5. He allowed His disciples to eat without washing their hands Mk. 7:2. He even told a man to neglect the mitzvah of burying his deceased father Lk 9:60.
So how could He have kept all the mitzvot perfectly? “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” Mt 19:26. Rabbi Yeshua explained, “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. Rabbi Yeshua elevated the second. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” Jn 15:12. If we fulfill these two mitzvot with the highest level of honesty we intend to fulfill our Father’s will for us in all things.
Rabbi Yeshua lived these two mitzvot at the highest level of honesty. His Final Sacrifice on the Cross redeemed us in the greatest possible act of love for the Father and for us. In this he fulfilled in himself the entire Halakha.
The Tradition of Sacrifice
God directly connected every Jewish priest’s authority to sacrifice with His authority. He instituted the Jewish priesthood through Moses, declaring, “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him” Ex 28:1, and, “Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons” Ex 29:9. It was to be a hereditary priesthood. Every Jewish priest was descended from a priest who was descended from a priest who was descended from a priest … who was ordained by Aaron, who was ordained by Moses at God’s command.
“The priesthood shall be theirs by a perpetual statute” Ex 29:9. Rabbi Yeshua fulfilled the perpetual statute by instituting his Priesthood of the Redemption, directly connecting its authority with his authority. He told his shlikhim, 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 Rabbi Kefa. Every Catholic bishop, priest, and deacon was ordained by a bishop who was ordained by a bishop who was ordained by a bishop … who was personally ordained at the Last Supper by Rabbi Yeshua.
Rabbi Yeshua told us, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” Mt 5:17-18. Since the time of Moses, the Shkhina had been present in the Tabernacle. “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” Ex. 40:32. Rabbi Yeshua fulfilled the Shkhina: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us” Jn 1:14.
For the ancient Jews, sacrifice was the highest form of worship. Of the 613 mitzvot, 102 were devoted to sacrifice alone, far more than any other subject. Sacrifices had to be done by a priest at the Temple, and when the high priest went into the Holy of Holies once a year he brought with him the blood of sacrifice. Soon after Rabbi Yeshua’s Final Sacrifice on the Cross, Jewish sacrifices stopped. The Catholic Church continues the obligation of sacrifice as the highest form of worship by re-presenting Rabbi Yeshua’s Final Sacrifice until the end of time in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
“And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes …” Acts 2:46. The Apostles, all religious Jews, went to the Temple every day to participate in the Jewish worship service. After that, they went home and celebrated the Sacrament of Rabbi Yeshua’s Body and Blood, as he had commanded Lk 22:19. To this very day, the Liturgy of the Word is a re-presentation of the Jewish prayer service, which consists of prayers, songs, and readings from the Word of God. And to this very day, the Liturgy of the Eucharist is a re-presentation of Rabbi Yeshua’s Final Sacrifice, by which he brought us all into the New and Eternal Covenant.
The Messianic Jewish Proposition
After the Temple fell in AD 70, the rabbis decided that they needed to remove the Jewish Christians from the synagogues. About AD 80 Rabbi Gamaliel, then head of the house of study at Yavneh, inserted into the Shemone Esrei (Eighteen Benedictions) prayer the birkat ha minim (Benediction of the Heretics). It read:
For the apostates let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the noẓerim and the minim be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humbles the arrogant.
Quite a “benediction.” The Jewish Christians, hearing themselves cursed into eternal fire, withdrew from the synagogues. They retained their Jewish identity and continued with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as their primary worship. Then, in AD132, Emperor Hadrian banned circumcision. Bar Kosiba led a revolt, in which Jews and Jewish Christians fought side-by-side. However, in the middle of the revolt, Rabbi Akiba declared that Bar Kosiba was the Messiah in fulfillment of the Torah prophecy, “… A star shall come forth out of Jacob” Num 24:17. Since the Aramaic word for “star” is kochba, Bar Kosiba’s name became Bar Kochba, son of the star. The Jewish Christians could not fight under the flag of a false messiah, so they withdrew again, this time firmly, and united instead with the Gentile Christians. Since that time, Christians have been culturally Gentile.
However, during the early twentieth-century in the United States, some Jews accepted Rabbi Yeshua as the Messiah but, following Christian life when he walked the earth, retained their Jewish identity. These early Messianic Jewish congregations were fundamentalist, and they today continue in that same vein. The vast majority are charismatic, emphasizing the seven charisms, or gifts, of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation of tongues 1 Cor 12:8-10. Their meeting halls, which they often call synagogues, usually look like synagogues, with an Israeli flag and an American flag at the front on either side, a Star of David, and a menorah. Sometimes, there is also a Torah scroll.
Messianic Jewish congregations do not evangelize extensively. The Jews for Jesus handles much of that work; it is not a religious denomination at all, but rather a service organization that aggressively recruits Jews, teaches them Messianic Judaism, and leads them to the various Messianic Jewish congregations. Believing in sola Scriptura, most Messianic Jews have never considered the Catholic faith and are hostile to it. But, for all Christians, the issue should not be what culture we are accustomed to, but what Rabbi Yeshua asks of us. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” Jn 14:15. To be true to our Jewish heritage, we must seek our understanding of Rabbi Yeshua in the classic Jewish tradition.
In Rabbi Yeshua’s day, what would the Pharisees and scribes have said if someone had proposed that they base their all their interpretations on the Written Torah alone? They would have insisted that the Oral Torah is essential, pointing out that while the Written Torah is perfect our understanding of it is not.
The Sanhedrin of Moses saw the same evidence of Rabbi Yeshua’s divinity that everyone else did. Rabbi Yeshua had told the disciples of John the Baptizer, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” Mt 11:4-5. But when the Sanhedrin stood at the crossroads of salvation history and saw Rabbi Yeshua, its rabbis told Pilate, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Jn 19:15.
Loss of Authority and Growth of Moral Confusion
So it was with the Protestant Reformation. As the Sanhedrin rejected Rabbi Yeshua, so the Reformation rejected the Church that he instituted, and with it most of the Halakha, and eventually, Catholic sexual ethics.
Without Rabbi Yeshua’s authoritative guidance through the Church, the Reformation also experienced yeridat hadorot. The Catholic Church Alone held fast. Protestants, following their ancestors, often changed their understanding of Scripture or moved away from ancient beliefs. For four hundred years, until 1930, every Protestant denomination taught, based on Scripture alone, that contraception was evil. Within just twenty years, most Protestant denominations taught, based on Scripture alone, that contraception was morally acceptable. Before 1960, every Protestant denomination taught, based on Scripture alone, that abortion was evil. Within just twenty years, many Protestant denominations taught, based on Scripture alone, that abortion was morally acceptable.
In a similar way, before 1960 every Protestant denomination taught, based on Scripture alone, that sodomy was evil. Within the next forty years, many Protestant denominations began to teach, based on Scripture alone, that sodomy was morally acceptable. But the words of Scripture are clear. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” Lev 18:22. And, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them” Lev 20:13.
St. Paul told us, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” Rom 1:26-27. St. Paul continued, “Neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” 1 Cor 6:9-10. St. Jude added, “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” Jude 7. Anyone who reads these words and still says, based on Scripture alone, that homosexual behavior is acceptable to God, suffers from yeridat hadorot.
Holy Scripture’s very existence depends on Catholic teaching authority, as Martin Luther admitted.
Messianic rabbis who deny Catholic authority to canonize the books of Sacred Scripture generally acknowledge that they too lack such authority. They have a “fallible collection of infallible books.” However, they rarely admit this to their own flocks. If they did they would have to preface each Scripture reading by saying, “We’re fairly sure this book was inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
Yet today’s Messianic Jewish congregations separate themselves from the continuous tradition of oral teaching that began with Moses and continued in Rabbi Yeshua’s fulfillment. Instead, they refuse Rabbi Yeshua’s Mishna and Gemara—the writings of the Popes, Ecumenical Councils and Church Fathers—and imagine that they can understand the Messiah ’s Halakha through Scripture alone.
Some Messianic Jewish congregations, sensing the loss of Halakha more than Protestants who have never known it, seek solace in the Halakha of Rabbinic Judaism. Some recite the Rambam’s Shloshah-Asar Ikkarim, Thirteen Principles of Faith, in poetic form each day after the morning prayers, beginning with the words Ani maamin (I believe).
But it doesn’t fit. Some of Rambam’s principles clash with the Apostles Creed, which all Christians profess. Rambam’s second principle speaks of God’s absolute unity, yakhid, rather than the compound unity ekhad at Deut 6:4 that is consistent with the Blessed Trinity. Rambam’s third principle, non-corporeality, directly contradicts Rabbi Yeshua’s incarnate life. Rambam’s twelfth principle, that the Messiah has not yet come, similarly contradicts the central proposition of Christian faith. It is fair to ask them Elijah’s question, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions” 1 Kings 18:21.
To answer, some Messianic Jewish congregations try to come up with their own interpretations, as if purely human effort and scholarship could discern the eternal verities. But in the end they lack an authoritative Halakha.
The Catholic Response: Receive the Entire Word
What would any Orthodox rabbi say today if we left him with his Tanakh, Hebrew Scriptures, but took away his Mishna, his Gemara, his sacred interpretations written by Rashi and Rambam and Ramban, and especially his Shulkhan Arukh? He would insist that they are all essential; without them he cannot apply the Halakha. Every Orthodox Rabbi today has a well-worn Tanakh, but when asked to give an interpretation turns first to the Shulkhan Arukh.
In the same way, every faithful Catholic has a well-worn copy of the Holy Scriptures, but when asked to give an interpretation turns first to the Halakha of the Redemption, his sacred interpretations in the Magisterial documents, and his Catechism of the Catholic Church, which explains those documents so well. We receive Rabbi Yeshua’s Word whole and entire in the Halakha of the Redemption, and Rabbi Yeshua himself whole and entire in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. They are one and the same. “I am the Halakha.”