Roman Catholic Authority
James McCarthy

Significant parallels can be drawn between the authority structure of Roman Catholicism today and that of first century Judaism. Similar to Rome’s pope and bishops, Jerusalem, the central city of Jewish authority, was the base of a "Council of the elders of the people" (Luke 22:66), "the Senate of the sons of Israel" (Acts 5:21), known as the Sanhedrin. The Jewish high priest presided over this body and served as its head (Matthew 26:3, 57, 62-65; Acts 5:21, 27; 7:1; 9:1; 22:5; 23:2-5). With some restrictions, the Roman government allowed the Sanhedrin to function as the supreme political, religious, and judicial body of the Jews in Judaea (Matthew 5:22; John 3:1; 7:26; 7:48; Acts 3:17; 4:5; 4:8).

At least two schools of thought were represented among the membership of the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6-8). The aristocratic high-priestly families and their associates were of the sect of the Sadducees (Acts 5:17). Others were of the party of the Pharisees. Known for their strict and detailed interpretation of the demands of the Law (Matthew 5:20; 23:23), the Pharisees were accustomed to receiving "the front seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places" (Luke 11:43). Closely associated with them were the scribes who copied, interpreted, and taught the Law (Matthew 5:20; 12:38; 15:1; 23:2).

The teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church resides in the bishops and is called the Magisterium, from the Latin word for master. Only the bishops of the Church have the right to judge the true meaning of revelation and to teach it with authority. Much the same as the Roman Magisterium, the scribes and the Pharisees considered themselves to be the authoritative teachers of the Law and sought to dictate to the common people the proper observance of every aspect of the Jewish faith (Matthew 9:11; 12:2; 23:2).

As in Roman Catholicism today, the scribes and the Pharisees also held to the equal authority of Scripture and Tradition. They taught that Moses had handed down the Law received on Mount Sinai in two ways. The first was through his oral teaching. They called this the unwritten Torah or oral Tradition. The second was the written Torah or Scripture. They taught that the written Law and the unwritten Law together made up the complete Torah, the Word of God.

The authority structure of first century Judaism differed significantly from that established by God through Moses. As such it lacked divine approval. Jesus said, "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses" (Matthew 23:2). Nowhere did the Hebrew Scriptures instruct the Jews to set up the Sanhedrin, to submit to the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, or to recognize the authority of oral Tradition alongside Scripture. Nevertheless, in the first century, that is the way it was, and most Jews submitted without question.

Jesus was an exception. He refused to subject His ministry to the Sanhedrin, to the scribes and the Pharisees, or to Tradition. As His popularity grew among the people, a showdown became inevitable.

It occurred during the last year of the Lord’s ministry in Galilee, and is recorded in Matthew 15:1-9 and in Mark 7:1-13. A group of scribes and Pharisees came from Jerusalem to confront Jesus, apparently on behalf of the Sanhedrin. In order to enter into controversy with Christ, they challenged Him with a question: "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?" (Mark 7:5).

Dirty hands were not the issue but the observance of a strict procedure that the oral Law, or Tradition, dictated. Preserved today in the Mishna, the Tradition of the elders specified every detail as to how one’s hands were to be washed before eating. The Pharisees had seen some of Christ’s disciples "eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed" (Mark 7:2). Now the authoritative teachers of the Jewish nation were demanding an explanation.

Jesus was not intimidated. Rather than submitting to their authority as they expected, He rebuked them for their hypocrisy:

Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

"This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.

But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men."  
(Mark 7:6-7)

The scribes and Pharisees appeared devout in their zeal for the proper observance of Tradition, but the Lord knew it was a pious deception. Their hearts were far from God. Their worship was vain, worthless in the sight of God.

The Lord accused the Pharisees of "teaching as doctrine the precepts of men" (Mark 7:7). The Scriptures said absolutely nothing about washing one’s hands before eating. Nonetheless, the Pharisees enforced ceremonial handwashing as if God Himself had ordained it. In this way, they had elevated the teachings of men to the same level of authority as God’s inspired Scriptures.

With intentional sting, the Lord continued His rebuke, labeling the oral Torah as "the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8). Jesus accused them of putting men’s words before God’s Word: "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men. . . . You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition" (Mark 7:8-9). In other words, when the Pharisees disobeyed Scripture, they did it with style. They did it "nicely" (Mark 7:9). Jesus gave them credit for how cleverly they could slip God’s commandments to the side in order to clear the way for strict obedience to their own Traditions. By their Traditions, Jesus said, they were "invalidating the word of God" (Mark 7:13), stamping the Scriptures null and void.

Jesus rejected the man-made authority structure of the first century Jews. He refused to submit to Tradition, the teaching authority of the scribes and the Pharisees, or the ruling authority of the Sanhedrin they represented.

What Jesus rejected, the Roman Catholic Church has now restored. It has elevated Tradition to the same level of authority as God’s inspired Scriptures. Its pope and bishops have laid claim to universal jurisdiction and sole teaching authority.

Catholics should prayerfully read Mark 7:1-13. They, even as the Lord Jesus, should refuse to submit to Tradition and to those claiming authority for themselves that Scripture never gives them. God’s Word, and His alone, should be their standard.

(Adapted from The Gospel According to Rome (Harvest House Publishers, 1995).)

i. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 85, 100, and 939.
ii. Following the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the surviving Jews, realizing that their national heritage was threatened, started a movement to make a written record of their oral Tradition. This was completed about A.D. 200, and is known today as the Mishna.

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