What is the Catholic Understanding of the Bible?

Many people think of the Bible as one book. But it’s actually more of a library.In fact, the word bible literally means little library. So if you set out to read the Bible like a novel, you’ll probably grow frustrated, because it would be like trying to get through all the books in the local library. And, as in any library, the Bible has many different kinds of writings, including prayers, genealogies, histories, poetry, letters, short stories, love songs, historical narratives, dramatizations, parables, and on and on.

What the Bible actually contains are the records of 4,000 years of Judeo-Christian history and culture. Even before writing materials were invented, the many stories included in our Bible were handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. We call this the oral tradition.

As time passed, the ancient Israelites began to write down their stories about God and God’s people. We have some writings that date back 1,000 years before Jesus. But most of the Old Testament was written between 300 and 500 years before the time of Jesus. Whenever he himself referred to the Scriptures, he meant these writings. The first biblical writings were put on scrolls made of papyrus. Papyrus is a type of paper that’s made from reeds that grow by the Nile River.

The oldest scrolls we have date from the century before Jesus was born. They were discovered in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea. Papyrus isn’t very durable, but the Dead Sea scrolls were sealed in stone jars that preserved them. They contain many of the books that we now know as the Old Testament.

The stories of Jesus and the apostles that we call the New Testament were also first written on papyrus scrolls. The oldest copies of these scrolls date to the third century. We actually have only a few fragments of these early scrolls, but we know that they existed. The oldest fragment we have is just a scrap from the Gospel of John. It was found in Egypt, and dates to about 130 years after Christ. Written on this tiny papyrus fragment is Pilate’s infamous question, “What is truth?”

Almost 300 years after Jesus, a new way of making books was invented. It was called acodex. A codex consisted of manuscript pages made of animal skins and held together by stitching. Several books could be bound together in this way. The Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest such codex, and it was found preserved in the monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Desert in the 19th century. At the time it was discovered, the monks there were using it as a platform for their lectern.

Why Isn’t There Just One Bible?
Once people began collecting various manuscripts into a codex, they had to determine which of the stories were to be accepted as the true revelation of God’s word and which were to be rejected. The books that were accepted became part of the canon of Scripture. The word canon means rule, and it originally referred to a measuring rod. So, the books in the canon are those that measure up to some standard.

For example, there were a lot of sacred books circulating in the early centuries after Jesus. Nearly everyone wanted to tell the story of Jesus in their own way, with their own slant or purpose. Eventually, Church authorities had to decide which books contained the authentic message of Scripture.

For a long time the canon was kind of flexible. In fact, it actually varied from group to group in the early Church. In the first four centuries there was no formal canon and people were often confused as to which books to use.

In the year 150, for example, a prominent theologian named Marcion came up with his own canon. He hated the Jewish people, so he decided to throw out the Old Testament. He believed that Jesus, the Word of God, had sprung from the head of God. He accepted the letters of Paul in his canon, but he rewrote the Gospel of Luke. And he even included some books of his own!

Marcion’s canon brought a reaction from other leaders in the church. St. Ireneus of Lyon, who discovered that many of the women in his congregation who had fallen under Marcion’s influence were leaving their husbands, wrote five volumes against heretics. Then he came up with his canon, which included the four Gospels we now have. But his criteria for having four Gospels was rather curious: he carefully explained that there could be only four gospels since there were four corners of the world and four winds!

At Rome, the canon included the four Gospels, the thirteen letters of Paul, the letter of Jude, 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Book of Revelation and something called the Apocalypse of Peter.

Other canons in other churches included the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Acts of Paul. At Alexandria, they used the letters of Clement of Alexandria. Several churches (including the churches at Alexandria and Antioch) would not include the Book of Revelation. The Letter to the Hebrews was accepted in the East, but not in the West. And there were many gospels.

The word gospel actually means God-story. One of these God-stories is the gospel of Thomas. It consists of sayings attributed to Jesus. But because it wasn’t included in the original canon, it was lost to us until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. At that time, archeologists and scholars were amazed to find 54 other titles, including the infancy narrative of James, the gospel of Peter, the gospel of Philip, the gospel of Mary, the Acts of Paul and Techla and a host of others. While there’s no question that these texts are as old as the Scriptures we have in our canon, they were not and still are not included in our canon. The reason is that they presented a theology that was and continues to be opposed to the theology of the mainstream Church. And because they were written by groups of people who were in opposition to the mainstream Church, they were buried by the writers when church authorities finally agreed on a canon at the beginning of the fourth century.

At that time, the pope commissioned St. Jerome to translate both the Old and New Testaments into Latin. The books to be included in the New Testament canon were only those that were actually connected to the apostles and those which conformed to the faith of the Church. Those books in the first official canon were the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Book of Revelation, 13 letters attributed to Paul and eight other letters. Although they were subsequently disputed, these books are still known to us as the New Testament. What Jerome produced (after 25 years’ work) was called the Vulgate (a word which means the language of the people) and it contained not only the New Testament, but a version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint.

What is the Septuagint?
The earliest versions of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew. But many Jews spoke Greek and wanted to read the Scriptures in their own language. So, a couple centuries before Christ, the sacred scrolls were been translated into Greek.

Legend has it that 70 Jewish scholars went from Jerusalem to Alexandria, a great center of learning, and spent 70 months translating the texts. The resulting Greek version was called the Septuagint, which means 70. This translation also included seven books originally written not in Hebrew but in Greek: First and Second Maccabees, Judith, Baruch, Tobit, Sirach and Wisdom.

Having a Greek as well as a Hebrew version of the sacred books wasn’t a problem until the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Jews were scattered from their homeland, carrying their sacred scrolls with them.

In an attempt to return some kind of order to the Jewish community, scholars gathered at Jamnia in 90 C.E. There they formed a canon of 39 books of Scripture, chosen from the Hebrew collection. This created a problem for Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria because they wanted to keep the Greek books that hadn’t been included. So two Old-Testament canons were in circulation at the time Saint Jerome made his Latin translation, the Jamnian or Hebrew canon and the Alexandrian  or Septuagint canon. Since the New Testament books had all been written in Greek, and so many early Christians had relied on the Septuagint when they wanted to read the sacred Scriptures from their Jewish heritage, St. Jerome used the Septuagint in the Latin Vulgate.

When Was the Bible First Translated into English?
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Latin Vulgate was used by the entire Church. But, as Christianity spread throughout Europe, fewer and fewer people understood Latin. So scholars produced translations from the Vulgate into the language of the people around them. That meant that they were working from translations that were, by that time, several times removed from the original language: from Hebrew into Greek into Latin into whatever language came next.

An English version of the entire Bible was produced by John Wycliffe between 1380 and 1382. By that time, the Vulgate had been used for almost a thousand years. Wycliffe’s translation was condemned by the Church, and its copies were burned. In 1525, William Tyndale completed a translation of the New Testament. He had the audacity to work not from the Latin Vulgate but from the original Greek text. His version was suppressed and Tyndale was put to death.

When English Protestants requested an English-language translation of King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Cromwell officially approved an English translation made by Miles Coverdale. It was based on the work of Tyndale.

On February 10, 1604, King James I of England ordered that a new and better translation of the Bible be made, and a group of scholars was named to begin the work. This “new” Bible was to be translated directly from the Hebrew and Greek. The result was the most influential English translation used by Protestants and Anglicans, the King James Version of 1611.

But English-speaking Catholics were not to be denied. When Church authorities discovered what the protestants were doing, they arranged for an English translation of their own. It was made from the Latin Vulgate, and was completed by George Martin, an Oxford biblical scholar, under the sponsorship of William (Cardinal) Allen. Cardinal Allen was forced by the Protestants to leave England in 1565. He established a college in Douay, France, to train Catholic missionary priests for the conversion of England. The English translation appeared in two French cities, Douay and Rheims, at almost the same time as the King James Version of 1611. This English version is known as the Douay-Rheims Bible. This translation was used by English-speaking Catholics for over 350 years, until the New American Bible replaced it gradually in the early 1970s!

By the 20th century, nearly every biblical scholar and translator relied on the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts for new translations into modern languages. Today, we can find several English translations from the original texts. They are all accurate translations and the meaning is the same, but the English phrasing varies.

Weren’t Catholics Discouraged from Reading the Bible?
While personal interpretation that departed from Church tradition was discouraged, the Church has always encouraged the reading of Scripture, and has even provided for its reading. The Church instructed people from the Scriptures through readings and singing in the liturgy, through mystery plays, through artworks, through altarpieces and stained-glass windows that depicted scenes from the Bible.

Throughout the Middle Ages, monks hand-copied the entire Bible. Some of the most beautiful copies were made in Irish monasteries. Ireland, in the Middle Ages, was at the edge of the known world, and literate people fled there when barbarian hordes raced through the rest of Europe, burning and looting everything in their path. The most renowned copy is the Book of Kells, which was produced in the ninth century.

But hand-copying Bibles was a lengthy and demanding task. It often taking many years to complete, and only the very rich could afford such expensive books. A German inventor by the name of Johannes Gutenberg changed the world in 1460 when he invented movable type for the printing press. Bibles could not only be mass-produced, but could also be made available, less expensively, to anyone who could read.

What’s the Difference Between Protestant and Catholic Bibles?
In the 16th century, a Catholic priest and Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther protested against the Church over 95 different things he didn’t like. He loved the Scriptures, and thought that the Church had long-neglected its relationship to God’s word. When he left the Church, he had a German translation of the Bible made, and even did some of the translation himself. But it was a selective translation. What Luther did was to actually establish his own canon. He left out books of the Bible he didn’t agree with. In addition to that, he used the Hebrew version of the Old Testament, rather than the Greek. He may have deliberately done this so that he could exclude the Second Book of Maccabees, on which the Catholic Church founded its doctrine of purgatory. One of Luther’s major criticisms of the Catholic Church was the practice of buying and selling indulgences, an abuse of the teaching on purgatory.

Luther omitted from the New Testament the Letter to the Hebrews and the Letter of James. The Letter of James is that book which states that faith without good works is dead, and Luther claimed that faith alone was necessary for salvation. The Letter to the Hebrews emphasized the priesthood of Jesus.

The New Testament letters were restored to the Protestant canon in 1700, but Protestant Bibles still exclude those seven books from the Greek Old Testament (although many print them in a separate section called the Apocrypha, a word that means of dubious value).

For Catholics, the Council of Trent (1545) wanted to protect the Bible from further depletion or abuse, so it formally closed the canon and forbade the reading of translations not approved by the Church. The Douay-Rheims English translation was approved and circulated from 1635 on. Catholics used this translation until the mid-20th century. Translations into other European languages were likewise approved.

Today, Catholics and Protestants accept the same 27 inspired books as making up the New Testament, but not the seven disputed books of the Old Testament. Even Catholics call Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch and 1 and 2 Maccabees, and some sections of Esther and Daniel deuterocanonical. Essentially, that means they are sort of canonical.

How Do Catholics Interpret the Scriptures?
Reading the Bible today not only raises problems of language and culture, but also ofscience and history and even morality. The Bible can be accurately quoted to promote war and domination of one race over another, to endorse slavery and anti-Semitism, to prop up patriarchal structures and blatant sexism. All of these problems beg for interpretation.

Unfortunately, too many Catholics, in their enthusiasm for Scripture, are attracted by a fundamentalist approach that is familiar to some charismatic Protestant denominations. Fundamentalism claims that the Bible is literally the word of God, that every word of the Bible was virtually dictated by God to the sacred authors in much the same way that a boss would dictate a letter to a secretary. Therefore, it is to be taken literally as completely free of any kind of error and it has absolute authority. This kind of approach requires no interpretation.

Equally unfortunate are other Catholics who are attracted by a kind of radical liberalism associated with secular studies. They tend to look at the Bible as only a book just like any other book. Faith and Church tradition are essentially irrelevant to them. They fail to see in the Bible an encounter between God and humanity, it and becomes nothing more than a source of historical knowledge about ancient Israel and the first Christian communities.

Fundamentalism so overemphasizes the divinity of the Bible that it denies the text’s real human character. Liberalism so overemphasizes the human character of the Bible that it empties it of all divine revelation. The Catholic Church, by contrast, holds that the Bible is like the Word of God made Flesh in Jesus…it is both fully human and fully divine. Yes, the Bible is a witness to divine revelation. But it’s also a human text. It is not divine dictation.

Most of the Old Testament texts were composed gradually, often over centuries, by generations of people who wrote and revised material they first received as oral tradition. The New Testament texts were composed over a much shorter period of time, but they also began as oral traditions about Jesus told and retold in the first Christian communities. These traditions were gradually written down amid specific circumstances that determined what was included, emphasized or reshaped in the telling.

The biblical texts, then, bear all the marks of human composition: historical conditioning, prejudice, factual error and moral limitation, as well as deep theological and religious insight into the mystery of God’s relationship with humanity. It is this twofold character of the biblical text, its mysterious divine depths expressed in humanly fallible language, which makes interpretation necessary.

Why is There So Much Disagreement About the Bible?
Remember, both the Old and the New Testaments developed only gradually and after much debate among both Jews and Christians. Once the canon was determined, squabbles over translations followed. Believe it or not, today there is far more agreement over the Biblical texts than at any other time in history.

While Christians agree on the composition of the New Testament, we do not agree on how to interpret these texts. There will always be tension between extremists. Most Catholics strive to stand in the middle.

There’s no question that we find in the New Testament four portraits of Jesus in the Gospels, a vision of the emerging Church in the Acts of the Apostles, keen insights into the development of Christian identity in 21 letters from St. Paul and others, and a Book of Revelation that presents, in fantastic and sometimes unimaginable images, that which awaits us all. Christians have always believed that, in the Old and New Testaments, God has completely revealed everything that is necessary for our salvation.