Catholic apologist Gary Michuta has released a new book, Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger. This is a part two of my examination of his interpretation of Romans 3:2. Part one can be found here.
The verse states, “First of all, [the Jews] were entrusted with the oracles of God.” This verse implies a specific set of authoritative inspired writings treated by the Jews as the very word of God. The Jews knew which books were Scripture and which were not. When God gave them the oracles, they knew exactly what He gave them. Catholic apologists maintain the Jews were uncertain as to the extent of their scriptures in order alleviate themselves from the weight of evidence. The evidence shows the Jews knew which sacred books they had, and the apocryphal books were not among them.
Michuta doesn’t have an infallible interpretation of Romans 3:2. I mention this because any time Protestants interact with Catholic material, one must remember to apply the same standards they attempt to hold Protestants to. The charge is usually Protestants rely on their own private interpretation, while Catholics have a unity of theological certainty. Yet, pick up any Catholic book, one will find pages of private interpretation. Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown has said, “To the best of my knowledge the Roman Catholic Church has never defined the literal sense of a single passage of the Bible” [Raymond E. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible (New York: Paulist, 1981), p.40]. As we head further into Michuta’s understanding of Romans 3:2, keep in mind, it’s his understanding, and not the official interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church, because there is not an infallible interpretation of Romans 3:2.
“Secondly, when the Apostles says the Jews were entrusted with oracles of God he uses the aorist passive; he indicates, in other words, that the authority of the synagogue is a thing of the past. Any right to reject a given prophecy or prophetic book had now passed from the rulers of the Jews to the Christian Church (if it were not so, the authority of Paul himself would be null and void)” (p.12).
That’s a fair amount of private interpretation. The use of the aorist passive has nothing to do with the synagogue. Read through Romans 2 and 3, and note the absence of anything to do with the synagogue, the authority of the synagogue, or the future and past of the synagogue. Gary certainly is not interpreting the literal sense of Romans 3:2.
Michuta is grasping for an implied meaning, a meaning that would be coherent within a Catholic worldview: Romans 3:2 is all about the exchange of authority from the Jews to the Church. Earlier, we saw Michuta criticize the notion of an infallible Jewish magisterium, now we find Romans 3:2 refers to some sort of transfer between magisteriums, a transfer of rights to accept and reject prophetic books. Again though, there is nothing within the immediate context to even suggest such a passing.
How best to approach this verse? Why not first read Romans 3:1? Romans 3:1 provides the context of 3:2, which is written in response to the questions in 3:1. The questions ask what advantage the Jew has, and what is the benefit of circumcision? Note also, the question is not, “What was the advantage of the Jews in the past?” Paul answers the Jews have an advantage over the gentiles, having the oracles of God. This verse does not speak of a transfer between national, physical Israel and the physical church. The Jews still have the oracles.
Further, even though the Jews as a whole had received the oracles of God, the oracles of God were and are, always intended for Abraham’s descendants. God’s word has not failed. The children of the promise always receive it (Romans 9:6-8). In each generation, he preserves a remnant, even when a majority of seemingly religious people rejects His word (Romans 11:1-5). Abraham’s genuine children always have God’s word. They do not reject it. Believer in Christ, you and I are Abraham’s descendants, and we have God’s word. The canon baton was not passed from the Jewish leaders to the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, God’s people recognize the voice of God, be they Jew or gentile, during the Old Testament era, and the New Testament era.
Michuta goes on to say:
“It should be remembered that Paul did not literally say that the Jews were entrusted with the inspired books (though that is certainly included in what he meant): what the Apostle actually said was entrusted with the oracles of God- and this category included much more than just the Old Testament writings. The Hebrews, recall, were also entrusted with the Urrim and Thummim (Nm 27:21), and other prophetical devices; and not all the consultations received by these methods were written down. The scope of Romans 3:2 then, cannot be restricted to inspired books alone and cannot, therefore, be a direct reference to a fixed canon” (p. 12-13).
Gary attempts to literally explain the word oracles saying it doesn’t mean inspired books specifically. True, Paul doesn’t launch into an exposition of oracles of God, but he does begin Romans 1, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son….” Paul repeatedly refers to the Jewish Scriptures throughout Romans, and does not make any reference to unwritten prophetical utterances. Thus, the burden is on Michuta to prove oracles includes unwritten content, specifically in Paul’s usage.
For the sake of argument, let’s grant Michuta a wider scope of the term, oracles. On what logical basis must it necessarily be concluded “The scope of Romans 3:2 then, cannot be restricted to inspired books alone and cannot, therefore, be a direct reference to a fixed canon?” The conclusion does not equal the premises. Even if Paul meant to include unwritten prophetical utterances in the term oracles, this does negate a specific set of writings by which the Jews knew and appealed to.