Scripture and Tradition: Text and Meaning

I’ve been listening to some lectures by Dr. Silviu Bunta, scripture professor at the University of Dayton, which have gotten me thinking about the relationship of Scripture to Tradition, or in other terms, the relationship of text to meaning.

 If we look at the Canon of Scripture of the Jews, we come to realize that pretty much the Jewish Scriptures have come to us not as text carved into stone (as much as some want this to be true), but really as a living and lived Tradition.  We can’t really separate the official, canonical Scriptures from the Tradition which shaped them, interpreted them, and gave them the meaning which then shaped the people of Israel.  (Even the meaning isn’t carved into stone – it was supposed to be written on the hearts of the people – Jeremiah 31:33)

 Of course there is the Hebrew text, the scriptures of the Jews.  However, inasmuch as the original text lacks vowels, punctuation, capitalization or any spaces between words, any attempt to read it is by definition an interpretation.   Additionally, the text is ancient and in a language that fell out of use in history, and so requires interpretation and explanation even if one is able to form words from the stream of consonants which make up the text.  

For example imagine trying to read and understand Genesis 2:7 if it appeared as:




This text in the Revised Standard Version reads:  “then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

How would anyone be able to figure that out?  Because we don’t just have the text, we also have the Tradition which preserved the text and interpreted it through history giving it both context and meaning.   Thus the received text, is received within a context – both a community and a rich body of literature which endeavored to interpret the text (and even  preserved debates about the meaning of the text).

The ancients looked at the text for its meaning, which in turn determined which texts became part of the Scriptures of the Jews.    To put it another way, it is because of the meaning found in the text that the text came to be considered as Scripture.   Thus the process by which this happened – the context, community and Tradition – are as important as the text itself for interpreting, understanding and deriving meaning from the text. 

For the ancients the text cannot be separated from its meaning, and so the context, the community and the Tradition must be preserved in order to keep both the text and its meaning together.  Thus Scripture and Tradition are inseparable. 

I want to take these ideas one step further and use them to help us understand Matthew 5:43-48, where Christ says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Some Christians might be surprised to learn that Jesus did not make up his teachings on love, but actually brings forth commandments given to Israel in the Torah, in this case Leviticus 19:18 which reads: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

What is more interesting is that the words of Jesus that people would have heard “to hate their enemies” occur nowhere in the Old Testament.  What Jesus appears to be quoting is a Tradition which has Scripture in it, but with additional interpretation.  Jesus does not parse the statement and say you will find in Scriptures “love your neighbor” and you will hear in Tradition “hate your enemies.”  Christ does not separate Scripture from Tradition even though He disagrees with the Tradition; He still treats Tradition and Scripture, text and meaning, as one reality.    He then rejects this stated Tradition, and offers a new understanding of the Torah, calling us to love not just neighbors and brothers, but even our enemies!   This too is not a teaching of the Old Testament, but is something new which Christ is offering.   Christ takes the teaching of Leviticus 19:18, and expands it and offers a new rational for keeping it in a new way:  we are to be children of God which means we are to be like God who gives both rain and sunshine to the evil people as well as the good ones.  God does not limit His love and goodness only to those who love and obey Him.  Christ does not in the end separate Tradition and Scripture, but He does give it a new meaning.

Christ is moving away from the meaning which some Jews had derived from Scriptures; He offers the values of God’s “upside down” Kingdom which are quite different from human ideas of justice.  The Torah teaches us to love neighbor and brother, but Jesus says even sinners do that, so that can hardly be a value of God’s kingdom for it is nothing more than a sinful human value.  We are to love as God loves, which is in a most amazing, unconstrained, unlimited, unconditional and graceful way.

Christ challenges not the divine Scriptures but the human tradition which had evolved around them and which limited their meaning and purpose so that they no longer transformed Israel, but rather kept the Jews being like any sinners.    The Scriptures which were to deify us had been reduced to preserving our fallen humanity, to a human affirmation of the values which sinful humanity endorses.

Tradition though humanly essential for preserving Scripture and its meaning is challenged by the Kingdom of God.   We need Tradition in order to preserve and understand the Scriptures (to give context to the text), but we also need the Holy Spirit to make God’s Word be that living and active sword which discerns our thoughts and intentions (Hebrews 4:12).

Though the Scriptures by themselves are not sufficient for our understanding God’s revelation (the Scriptures must be interpreted, given meaning and lived), there are limits to the Tradition which interprets them.  Not all interpretations are correct, nor is all tradition helpful for our sojourn to God’s Kingdom.

And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  (Revelation 21:5)