There were some in the medieval Jewish world who trod a traditional path. The year is 920 AD, the place is Tiberias, in Palestine. Whereas al-Mokammez, Saadia Ben Joseph, Ibn Daud and others were to allow pagan pollutants into Judaism, Rabbi Aaron Ben Asher was doing his best to protect the very bedrock of their faith, the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible).
The last of a venerable family of scribes known collectively as the Masoretes, their mission since the 7th Century was to create a system to fix the pronunciation, structure and even musical notation for the Hebrew Scriptures and, by doing so, help to preserve the integrity of the words themselves. Christians and Orthodox Jews to this day have a lot to thank these scholars for. One such set of Ben Asher’s manuscripts, known as the Aleppo Codex, has survived a turbulent history to find a home in the Shrine of the Book museum in Jerusalem. It is said to be the oldest and most complete Hebrew Bible in current existence.
Ben Asher was an interesting man and not without his enemies. His greatest opponent was, in fact, Saadia Ben Joseph, the Jewish philosopher. And the reason for this opposition is an interesting one. It appears that Ben Asher was a member of a Jewish sect, known as the Karaites. Although this didn’t stop the Jewish world in general from accepting his work as valid, Ben Joseph took great exception to this. He simply hated the Karaites.
The Karaites are better described as a movement rather than a sect, but you try telling that to Orthodox Rabbis! Their name means “readers of the Hebrew Scriptures” and they were fundamentally a back to basics movement, recognising only Holy Scripture, the Tanakh (Old Testament), and nothing else as their religious authority. No wonder Saadia Ben Joseph considered them a sect, as the Karaites rejected the Oral law, the Talmud and all such writings as authoritative.
For someone who devoted his life to the Holy Scripture, it is not hard to see why Ben Asher embraced this movement. It is also not hard to understand Saadia Ben Joseph’s opposition to it. Ben Joseph also had a reverence for Holy Scripture, but added to that were the “traditions of the Elders”, whether familial, as in the Talmud of the Jewish sages, or alien, as in the writings of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.
And here we come to a vital point, affecting Jews and Christians alike. It’s that word tradition, brimming with cosiness and nostalgia, but full of hidden danger. It implies respect for one’s elders and forbears and provokes the feeling that if it was good enough for those who came before me, it should be good enough for me. This is how it works. You start with a set of central truths agreed by all, then, as time goes by, layer upon layer of opinion, interpretation and commentary are added on, like volcanic strata covering a central core. You eventually arrive at a point where the core, the central truth, is so hidden from view, so divorced from the action, that it just becomes a memory.
Rabbinic Judaism, the most orthodox religious expression of the Jewish faith and historical enemy of the Karaites, has added so much “tradition” to the central truths of the Tanakh (Old Testament) that God’s Word is muffled. But what of the Christian denominations, particularly the historical ones like the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox? What we find is that these Christians have far more in common with Rabbinic Judaism than they would care to realise or admit.
The Rabbis boast a continuous line tracing back allegedly to Moses and his oral law, with countless branches of commentary, representing the various sages and their followers. The Catholics prefer more of a linear approach, with pronouncements from the popes of history to quash any potential budding from the main trunk. But in both cases, the party line for doctrine and practice are the human commentaries, rather than the Word of God, as if the divine mind was just providing discussion starters, as raw material to be mulled over and improved upon by theologians throughout history.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book How the Church Lost the Truth)