What is the Bible?
The word ‘Bible’ comes from the Greek noun ta biblia, which means ‘the books.’ The Bible is a collection of 73 different writings in one volume which tells the story of God’s relationship with the human race.
Where did the Bible come from?
There are three ways to answer this question.
1. Each writing from the Bible came from different authors or groups of authors. These authors were human beings who were inspired by God to write stories, poems, or letters. Therefore we can say that the Bible came from all of the authors who wrote each of the writings found therein.
2. Because the writings of the Bible are inspired by God, we can say that the Bible comes from God. In the Catholic Church, it is traditional to say that God is the author of the Bible because God inspired or moved the different authors to write.
3. Since the 73 writings in the Bible were written by different people at different times, it was not collected into one volume until around the third or fourth century A.D. by the authority of the Catholic Church. Several synods (= special meetings of bishops and Church experts) across the Mediterranean world decreed which writings were ‘accepted’ and which were rejected. Therefore it is correct to say that the Catholic Church gave us the Bible.
In summary, the Bible had both God and its human writers as their authors and the authority of the Catholic Church as the arbiter of which writings came from God.
When was the Bible written?
The Bible was written over a period of 1,000 years. The oldest parts of the Bible (especially parts of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers) were written between 900 B.C. and 550 B.C. However, the stories were already passed down orally from generation to generation long before they were written, perhaps around 1400 B.C.
The youngest parts of the Bible, such as the Apocalypse of John (also known as Revelation), were written around 110 A.D.
Between these two dates, different parts of the Bible were written during different times. It was only later that they were all collected into one volume. This ‘collection’ into one volume or book is known as the canon.
What is the canon?
The word ‘canon’ comes from the Greek noun kanon which means ‘rule’ or ‘measure.’
Shortly after the Holy Apostles died, there were many writings in circulation which pretended to have been authored by these apostles. How were Christians to determine which writings were authentic and which were fraudulent?
Since Jesus Christ, who founded the Catholic Church, promised that the powers of hell would never prevail against it (Mt 16:18), that the Holy Spirit would guide it into all Truth (Jn 16:13), and that synods of Church leaders was the way to discern God’s will (cf. Acts 15:2-29), several synods of the Catholic Church decreed which writings were inspired.
When did the Church’s authority decree which writings of the Bible were canonical?
There have been several examples of the Church exercising its teaching authority in decreeing which writings were canonical. Some of these were issued by local councils of bishops. At least one was issued on the authority of Pope Innocent I. Only two times, however, has the Church exercised an authority that was binding upon the whole Church, during the Ecumenical Councils of Florence and of Trent.
The Synod of Rome in A.D. 382, under the authority of Pope Damasus I is probably the earliest synod that gave us the canon that is still in use today.
Later, other local synods issued similar decrees. Even before the Council of Rome, a local council in Laodicea decreed the canon around A.D. 360. In A.D. 367, St Athanasius of Alexandria, who was a metropolitan archbishop, issued his 39th Festal Letter and listed the writings of the New Testament. He is an important authority because the Church of Alexandria–which was near the centre of science and astronomy–had the duty of announcing the date of Easter each year. Therefore St Athanasius’ letter was circulated far and wide and brought the Church into uniformity with respect to the New Testament canon.
Later, in North Africa, the Council of Hippo Regius in A.D. 393 and again at the Third Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, the canon of the Bible was again decreed.
In the year A.D. 405, Pope Innocent I responded to a letter by Bishop Exsuperius of Toulouse and listed the canon of the whole Bible.
However, none of these local councils or synods were binding on the entire Church. It was sufficient for the authority of the local bishop to decree which writing
s were authentic and inspired, and therefore canonical. It was not until the Seventeenth Ecumenical Council, called the Council of Florence, that the canon was infallibly defined and thus binding on the entire Church. The decree was issued by the authority of Pope Eugene IV.
Once again, at the Eighteenth Ecumenical Council, called the Council of Trent, the Church declared the canon of the Old and New Testaments. This decree was issued by the authority of Pope Paul III.
But why are Catholic Bibles different than Protestant Bibles?
Our Protestant brothers and sisters, who love Jesus Christ and the Bible very much, unfortunately have a truncated canon. Whereas there are 73 writings in the Bible, Protestants removed 7 and are left with only a canon of 66 writings.
The very first Protestant group, known as the Waldensian Church (or Chiesa Valdese), translated the Vulgate–which was the official, Latin translation of the Bible–into Italian and kept the 7 books that were later removed.
When the King James Version (properly known as the Authorised Version), it included these 7 books in its first printings. In fact, one can still purchase a copy of the “King James Bible” with the entire canon intact.
The 7 books, known as the deuterocanon, was formally suppressed from the English Bible by the Puritans at the Westminster Assembly of Divines in 1649.
What is the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
Very simply, the Old Testament tells the story of God’s relationship with the human race before the conception and birth of Jesus (= Incarnation and Nativity). The New Testament tells the story of God’s relationship with the human race during and after the life of Jesus.
It is called the Old and New Testaments because the word testament is another word for ‘covenant.’ A covenant is an exchange of persons (whereas a contract is an exchange of properties). In the Old Testament, we read stories of the covenant God made with Adam and Eve, the Patriarchs, and especially the children of Israel. With the advent (= coming) of Jesus Christ, there is a new covenant between God and the human race because Jesus is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” and only through Him can we meet the Father. The relationship between God and the human race, brought about by Jesus, was entirely new.
What are the different Eras or periods in the Bible’s history?
The storyline through the Bible from beginning to end is called salvation history. It is generally divided into seven eras.
The first era is called Primeval History (Gen 1-11), which deals with the creation of the world, the story of Adam and Eve, of Noah and the flood, and the beginnings of God’s relationship with the human race.
The second era is known as The Patriarchs (Gen 12-50) and covers the story of the founders of the Israelite Nation: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the beginnings of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The end of the Era of the Patriarchs opens the story of how the Hebrews became enslaved in Egypt.
The third era is known as The Exodus (Ex, Lev, Deut), beginning with the story of the prophet and lawgiver Moses, who liberated the Israelites from slavery into Egypt, received the Law on Mount Sinai (or Mount Horeb), and near the edge of the Promised Land.
The fourth era is called The Judges (Jud), when the Israelites were governed by elders in the community and were politically vulnerable.
The fifth era saw the rise of The Monarchy when the children of Israel asked God to replace the Judges with a king, beginning with Saul, David, and Solomon. During this time the First Temple was constructed in Jerusalem.
The sixth era was the period of The Divided Kingdom when ten northern tribes went into schism and separated themselves from Temple-worship and established a king without God’s authorization. This “Northern Kingdom” was the “Kingdom of Israel”; the “Southern Kingdom” or the “Kingdom of Judah” preserved the Temple-worship and the monarchy.
In 722 BC, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded by the Assyrians and its society collapsed. The so-called “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” are the people who were dispersed by the Assyrians.
Later, in 587 BC, the Babylonians captured the Southern Kingdom of Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, carrying the Judeans into exile in Babylon. It was during this time that the children of Israel became identified as ‘Jews.’ In 539 B.C., Cyrus II of Persia, who captured Babylon, permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple, known as the Second Temple. This was the era of the Restoration, the seventh period.
The eighth period is called the Intertestamental Period during which the Jews remained faithful to the Law after the conquest of Alexander the Great. This period lasted up to the time of St John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.
After this came the period of Jesus Christ and the Apostles, from about 6 B.C. until 110 A.D.
A detailed timeline of the Bible’s entire narrative or salvation history can be found here.
Why is the Bible so important in the Catholic Church?
In the Catholic Church, great veneration (= respect) is shown to the Bible. It is often covered with precious metals and gems. For many centuries, monks copied the Bible with a beautiful script and illuminations in the margin. When the Gospels are read during the liturgy, the assembly is required to stand. In many hearing parishes, and especially during pontifical liturgies, the Bible is not read out loud but sung. We incense the Book of the Gospels and enthrone it on the altar. The Bible is often kissed after being proclaimed.
In every liturgy of the Catholic Church, there is a Bible reading. The first half of the Mass is used to proclaim parts of the Bible’s text. During the Liturgy of the Hours, the Psalms are read very frequently, along with canticles from the Old and New Testaments.
Obviously, the Catholic Church has great veneration for the Bible. This is because it continues to remind us of what God has done for the human race. It also tells the grand narrative of the preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ, then the story of the life of Jesus Christ, and finally letters reflecting on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
It is a special book because it is, really, a love letter from God to the human race. When we read the Bible, we are receiving the words of God telling us how much God loves us, how we are to behave, and how we can get to heaven.
The Catholic Church venerates the Bible because it is a gift from God.
Kelly, J. N. D. “Tradition and Scripture” and “The Holy Scriptures.” In Early Christian Doctrine, rev. ed. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1978.
Nichols, Aidan. “Scripture as a Source of Theology.” In The Shape of Catholic Theology. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991.
Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Neuner, Jacques and Jacques Dupuis. “Tradition and Scripture.” In The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th rev. and enlarged ed. Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 2001.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2005.