the one true orthodoxy

How could so many of the Jews in Jesus’ day not have recognized Him for who He was?

It appears it was due to placing too much confidence in their religious leaders. In Jesus’ day the leadership of the true Church was active, organized, and very much involved in the religious and social life of the Jews. In studying the Sermon on the Mount, I was reminded of Jesus’ direct and open criticism of Church leadership in His day:

“For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

Who were these “scribes and Pharisees”?

In terms of the role they played in the Church, we would most likely consider them the general authorities of their day.

From the LDS Bible Dictionary we learn the following:

“Scribes are frequently mentioned in the N.T., being sometimes called lawyers. It was their business to develop the law in detail and apply it to the circumstances of their time; hence grew up the oral or traditional law side by side with the written law… The scribes never taught on their own authority (contrast with this the Lord’s method, Matt. 7:29). They taught either in houses of instruction or in the temple courtsThey formed an influential part in the supreme court of the Sanhedrin. Rabbi (my Master) was the title usually given them. As a rule they were Pharisees (Mark 2:16Acts 23:9), though there were also Sadducean scribes. In theory they received no pay for their workAs a class they offered a determined opposition to the Lord mainly because he disregarded the ‘traditions of the elders’.

[Pharisees] upheld the authority of oral tradition as of equal value with the written law. The tendency of their teaching was to reduce religion to the observance of a multiplicity of ceremonial rules, and to encourage self-sufficiency and spiritual pride. They were a major obstacle to the reception of Christ and the gospel by the Jewish people.”

I often encounter the orthodox LDS view that General Conference addresses carry the same weight as scripture. The belief is that talks delivered from the pulpit during Conference, particularly those given by apostles, provide authoritative doctrinal interpretations and guidance for our day. If statements from general authorities are in conflict with the scriptures (or with other general authorities), this approach provides a mechanism by which ultimate orthodoxy can be determined based on the chronological recency of competing utterances. In effect, he who speaks last wins. For all intents and purposes it forms an LDS oral tradition; once spoken from the pulpit, teachings become part of the latter-day canon–at least until the next Conference. It is a handy tie-breaking mechanism by which a singular, ultimate orthodoxy can be established.

As mentioned above we are not the only ones to have created such a system. The Jews developed questions around their scriptural canon, the Torah, and its perceived limitations which necessitated the creation of their own oral, orthodoxy-seeking, tie-breaking process. The Jewish Virtual Library describes it as follows:

“The Written Law is another name for the Torah. The Oral Law is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out. Common sense suggests that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to accompany the Written Law, because the Torah alone, even with its 613 commandments, is an insufficient guide to Jewish life. For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, ordains, “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” (Exodus 20:8). From the Sabbath’s inclusion in the Ten Commandments, it is clear that the Torah regards it as an important holiday. Yet when one looks for the specific biblical laws regulating how to observe the day, one finds only injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from one’s dwelling, cutting down a tree, plowing and harvesting. Would merely refraining from these few activities fulfill the biblical command to make the Sabbath holy? Indeed, the Sabbath rituals that are most commonly associated with holiness-lighting of candles, reciting the kiddush, and the reading of the weekly Torah portion are found not in the Torah, but in the Oral Law.

Without an oral tradition, some of the Torah’s laws would be incomprehensible. In the Shema‘s first paragraph, the Bible instructs: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” (see Deuteronomy 6:4­8).

“Bind them for a sign upon your hand,” the last verse instructs. Bind what? The Torah doesn’t say. “And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” What are frontlets? The Hebrew word for frontlets, totafot is used three times in the Torah — always in this context (Exodus 13:16Deuteronomy 6:811:18) — and is as obscure as is the English. Only in the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should bind upon his hand and between his eyes are tefillin (phylacteries).

Finally, an Oral Law was needed to mitigate certain categorical Torah laws that would have caused grave problems if carried out literally. The Written Law, for example, demands an “eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24). Did this imply that if one person accidentally blinded another, he should be blinded in return? That seems to be the Torah’s wish. But the Oral Law explains that the verse must be understood as requiring monetary compensation: the value of an eye is what must be paid.

For these three reasons-the frequent lack of details in Torah legislation, the incomprehensibility of some terms in the Torah, and the objections to following some Torah laws literally — an Oral Law was always necessary.

Strangely enough, the Oral Law today is a written law, codified in the Mishna and Talmud…”

They have the Mishna and Talmud, we have the Ensign and Liahona.

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Lest you think this comparison unfair, remember that considerable effort has been made over the years to clarify the specifics of our doctrine.  Consider Joseph Fielding Smith’s three-volume work Doctrines of Salvation, or some of the official-sounding names of the works by his son-in-law, Apostle Bruce R. McKonkie: Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, and Mormon Doctrine.  By the way, current Church hierarchy is so concerned about the contents of Mormon Doctrine that they, not too long ago, pulled all new copies out of circulation. Try to find one for sale in any of the Church’s bookstores. They are no longer available.

Can a religion, even a “true” religion, ever pose a legitimate threat to one’s salvation?  Cast your mind back to Jesus’ day. Was there an organization on the earth in those days that had possession of, referred to, taught from, and focused on following the teachings of the holy scriptures? Did not this group also legitimately possess priesthood authority, handed down from generation to generation? Is there any reason the Jews in Jesus’ day would not have proudly considered themselves members of the only true Church on the earth at the time?

In Jesus’ day it appears the orthodox approach to Church leadership was to consider them above reproach. The respect with which Jewish religious leaders were held was apparently so high that when Jesus responded to the high priest in a way that was considered disrespectful, the reaction was to violently strike the Savior of the World in the face:

“And when he had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, Answerest thou the high priest so?” (John 18:22)

Do we run the same risk in our day?

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