The Catholic Church and the Bible
The word "Bible" comes from the Latin and Greek word "biblia;" the plural of "biblion" which means book. The name comes from the city of Byblos where papyrus was produced to make scrolls and later codices from which our modern books developed.
The Bible is divided into two major sections or books: the books of the Old Testament and the books of the New Testament. The word "testament" (Latin = testamentus, Greek diatheke, and Hebrew = berit) means "covenant" or oath. Moses wrote the first 5 books of the Old Covenant. He began writing these books at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24:7). As time went by other men, divinely inspired by God, added to the books of the Old Covenant. In addition to the Pentateuch (first 5 books by Moses) were added the books of the Prophets and the Writings (poetry and wisdom texts). No official list of holy books was set until Ezra set the canon of the Old Covenant books circa 444 BC (some scholars date 425BC others 458BC). After Ezra set the text of the Old Covenant with the return of the Children of Israel after the rebuilding of the second Temple, other books were added to the Sacred Scripture: 1 & 2 Maccabees, Tobit, etc. Some were written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic and others in the Greek language which became the international language after the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332BC (Alexander died 323BC).
In 250 BC the Hebrew Old Covenant was translated for the first time into Greek. This translation was called the Septuagint (named for the 70/72 Hebrew scholars who worked on the translation). 1 & 2 Maccabees were added after this first Greek translation. All 46 books that we have in our modern Old Testament translations were the same 46 books that Jesus read and studied. Saint Peter and the first century Church adopted the Septuagint translation and the 46 books of the Old Testament (Covenant) as the official Bible of the New Covenant Catholic (Universal) Church. In the early years of the Catholic Church, the Apostles began to write letters back and forth to the various churches but no New Testament, as such, existed. The writings, the Gospels which were an account of the life, ministry and mission of Jesus the Messiah, St. Paul's letters, and the letters of St. Peter, St. James, St. John, and St. Jude which gave instruction in the New Covenant faith, began to be copied and shared between the churches. I believe that all the Gospels and Paul's letters were written before 70AD. None of these documents mention the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem which occurred in 70AD, an event prophesized by Christ and an event the Apostles would surely have pointed to as proof of the powers of Jesus as the ultimate prophet of Yahweh. I believe that the four Gospels and the letters of Paul were written between years 35-45AD and that The Catholic Letters, James, Jude, Peter, John and John's Revelation, were written before 68AD. Many scholars place these dates as much later but I believe these later dates, which became popular within this century, are in error.
Shortly after they were written, these books were read in the assembly of the Eucharist, just as they are read today at Mass. Other documents from the first century show that the unsurpassed quality of the fourfold Gospel was already recognized, and only these four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were accepted as inspired. However, a number of other books were also read during the worship service on the Lord's Day, different ones in different places, at the discretion of the local bishop. There was evidently some standard of doctrinal purity imposed, but nobody saw much need to work up an official "canon" or exclusive list of books acceptable for reading at Mass in the earliest years of the Church. Then in about 140AD, a controversy arose which illustrated the need for an official New Covenant canon. A priest named Marcion began interpreting Scripture outside the traditions passed down by the Apostles; he started teaching that the Apostles had misunderstood Christ completely. He relied on his private interpretation of Scripture aside from the teachings of the universal, Catholic Church, the name by which the Church was already known at this time. Marcion taught that he understood exactly what Jesus taught and Paul understood a little. To support his heresy, he told his followers to use only 10 of the Epistles of Paul and to each of these he added his own commentary. He allowed St. Luke's Gospel which he considered for some reason the only acceptable Gospel but he rewrote it to suit himself. St. Irenaeus [martyred c. 200AD] says that Marcion's corrections to Luke's Gospel resulted in his "removing all that is written about the generation of the Lord; and he removed much of the teaching of the Lord. He convinced his followers that he himself was more truthful than the Apostles who have handed down the Gospel; and he furnished them not with the Gospel but with a small part of the Gospel." Marcion's teachings, of course, scandalized the faithful Bishops and laity within the Church. Bishop St. Polycarp (a disciple of St. John) was so enraged by Marcion's teachings that he denounced him to his face as "the first-born of Satan." To set up an acceptable standard in response to Marcion's heresy the Church Fathers developed a universal list or "canon" of the New Testament, including 22 or 23 of the 27 books now in the New Testament. The formulation of this first approved list occurred in approximately 140AD but it was acknowledged that is was not a definitive list approved by the entire body of the universal Church. Persecution by the Roman Empire made the possibility of forming such a world-wide assembly too dangerous.
The problem continued as the debate increased over books like the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. Some bishops accepted them as sacred Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, but others while accepting them as works of genuine value for study but did not believe them to be "God breathed" and therefore not eligible for inclusion into the canon of sacred texts. Just as the Church was working to address these issues another great persecution under the Emperor Diocletian broke out in 303AD. Diocletian saw Christianity as the one single greatest treat to the continuation Roman Empire and decided to wage a war to stamp out Christianity. Assuming that anybody who founded a new religion spread that religion most effectively through the written word, Diocletian ordered that all the books of the Christians that could be found must be destroyed. He used torture and the execution of priests and the faithful to find and destroy the works of faith produced by the early Church. He was ruthless but he was not successful.
As soon as the persecutions died down in 313AD with the Emperor Constantine's declaration that Christians were no longer to be persecuted (Edict of Milan), the debate began again over which books to include in the New Testament (Covenant) canon. The Church decided to settle the issue once and for all. All of the greatest Catholic scholars concentrated on the question and by 367AD St. Athanasius of Alexandria published for the first time the definitive list, including all 27 books that we know today. These are the ones, he said; "let no one add to them or take anything away from them." St. Athanasius's canon was greeted with enthusiasm and was accepted with the approval of the Church. It was adopted by Pope St. Damasus I in the Decretal of Gelasius in 382AD, and it was confirmed by every subsequent council that took up the question of the official canon. Finally in 419AD, Christian scholars from all over the world came together at the Second Council of Carthage and again confirmed the canon. Pope Boniface adopted it officially by papal decree. It is, therefore, the Catholic Church and no other church which has given us the 27 book canon of the New Testament which all Christian Churches recognize as the Testament of Jesus Christ.
While the Hebrew Bible was divided into books and sometimes into verses for readings in the Synagogue before the Christian era, it was Stephen Langton (circa 1228) who had been a professor of Biblical studies in Paris before he became the great Archbishop of Canterbury who gave us the modern divisions and numbered chapters. (Langton is also believed to be the principal author of the Magna Charta 1215). Others over the years would improve upon Langton's system but he deserves the credit. For over a thousand years these 73 books of the Old and New Testament which form the Catholic Bible, were the accepted books until the Catholic priest Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic Church and founded the Lutherans. Like Marcion before him, Luther had decided that only he and Paul really understood Jesus and like Marcion, he often thought that he knew better than Paul. Luther translated the Bible himself, altering it substantially to suit his own views on theology. He published his Bible in 1523 and 1534. The Council of Trent in 1546, prompted by this heresy, gathered together in a world-wide council to define and clarify to the world what was sacred Scripture and the doctrine of the Body of Christ and what wasn't. As time went on, however, other Protestant Churches published their own Bible versions, altering sacred Scripture to suit their beliefs and following Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages who reset their Hebrew Testament canon by dropping the 7 books and parts of the books Daniel and Esther which were either written between Ezra's canon and the 1st century or which had not been written in Hebrew. Even Luther didn't dare do that. He simply placed those books between the Old and New Testaments and called them the "Apocrypha," which means hidden. We call them Deuterocanonical or second canon: the sacred scripture added after Ezra set the Old Testament canon in the 5th century BC, just as the book of Deuteronomy is the "second" book of laws of Moses.
What is the Catholic Church's position on the inerrancy of the Bible? The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, issued by the bishops at Vatican II, says: "Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted to put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation." This means that when the Bible says Jesus performed a certain miracle, the Church believes He genuinely performed that miracle which cannot be explained by our understanding of nature of by modern science. The Church has always maintained that the Bible is trustworthy and true, written without error for all generations of Christian believers. This is a teaching that has been consistent throughout the history of the Church beginning with the New Testament writers who regularly quote an Old Testament text with the introduction, "The Holy spirit says", as in Hebrews 3:7; and as Jesus Himself testified in Matthew 5:18 that "not an iota, nor a dot" would pass away from the Law of Moses and the prophets before it was fulfilled. Nor has the modern Church stepped away from this established commitment to belief in the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture. Pope Leo XIII [1878-1903] stated in the document Providentissimus Deus, 20: "it is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred." In addition to Pope Leo condemnation those who viewed difficult passages in Scripture as an indication that some of the text was Holy Spirit inspired while other parts of the text were not when he wrote that the Church condemned, "the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond." Continuing the doctrine that Sacred Scripture is without error the great council of Vatican I  affirmed in De Fide Catholic, 2:7 that "the canon of the Bible is sacred and canonical, not because having been composed by human industry they were afterwards approved by her [the Church's] authority; nor only because they contain revelation without error; but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author." Pope Pius the XII [1939-1958] in the document Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1, citing this passage from Vatican I in De Fide Catholica, stated that this passage was a "solemn definition of Catholic doctrine. By which such divine authority is claimed for the entire books with all their parts as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever." He condemned those who would dare to "ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals" thereby limiting the accuracy of the entire body of Sacred Scripture. Vatican II, the most recent Great Council of the Universal Church reaffirmed the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture in the document Dei Verbum, 11 which teaches: "In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things that he wanted. Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth that God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 1998, revised 2005 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.