The Bible and the Church – September 10, 2017

No one has an “original” copy of the Bible. The oldest manuscripts that we have of the complete Bible date to the 4th or 5th centuries, with portions of the Old Testament discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls going back to perhaps the 1st century before Christ. What we have essentially are copies of copies, going back many centuries, and in some cases including errors in transmission. So how do we know that we have the right book?

Actually, the Bible is not a book, but a collection of books, with many different literary styles and genres, from poetry to narrative, from epic history to apocalyptic prediction. This “library” came into being over the course of millennia, as the fruit of much debate and discernment. How were these particular books selected?

For the earliest Christians, of course, there was no New Testament! Consider what St. Paul writes in his 2nd letter to Timothy: “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:14-15).

What are the Scriptures to which Paul is referring? When Paul was writing, for example, the 4 Gospel accounts were not yet in existence. So he must be talking about the Hebrew Scriptures – for Jesus and His first followers, this was the  Bible. It had been in the process of development for many centuries, some stories dating back almost 2 millennia. After the Babylonian exile (6th century BC), they began to be codified; it was commonly thought that revelation ended with Ezra (5th century BC). But new books continued to be written (e.g., 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom) and were included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. This was the Bible most early Christians knew. (Variation between the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Old Testament is one reason for the difference between Catholic and Protestant Bibles.)

Over time, various writings circulated among the Christian churches – Gospels, letters, books of “Acts”, prophetic books like Revelation. Different communities accepted different books, but a consensus grew around the 4 Gospels, the letters of Paul, and some other writings. There were questions about some books (2 Peter, Revelation), but lists of approved books began circulating especially in the 4th century, and by 419, with the help of St. Augustine, the matter was settled. Some point to the Council of Trent’s declaration of the approved books of the Bible in 1546 as the first official statement on the matter, but the evidence is clear that the Bible had been fixed relatively early after a process of discernment.

What were the criteria for inclusion in the New Testament? Typically, authorship by an Apostle or a close companion (Mark, Luke) was thought to be essential; in addition, they were proclaimed as part of the Church’s public prayer, and they were in harmony with the apostolic preaching – which came first! Consider the openings of the letters of St. Paul – for example, 1st Corinthians: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God that is in Corinth…” (1:1-2). The church of Corinth was in existence (founded by Paul himself, in fact) long before the letters addressed to them became part of the New Testament. The proclamation of the Gospel began with Jesus Himself, followed by the Apostles and their co-workers, before the written Gospels came into being. The New Testament put into written form what the disciples had experienced in Christ and the community he founded, and what they had witnessed to others in their preaching.

The Bible did not simply drop down from the heavens. It was, in the end, the Church itself which determined, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which books were truly   inspired and meant as a rule (or “canon”) for all Christians. The Church as a whole, under the leadership of the Pope and bishops (the Magisterium), then also has the responsibility for the proper interpretation of the Scriptures.

The Bible is properly understood as a gift handed down to us from the earliest believers, who wished to invite those who came after them to share what they had encountered in Jesus, and to live in response to that encounter. As we welcome the magnificent St. John’s Bible to our parish this weekend, let us give thanks to God for this awesome gift.


Catechism Corner

 Is the Devil Real?

“Deliver Us from Evil”… Evil is not an abstraction but  refers to a person, Satan, the Evil One, the angel who opposes God. The devil (dia-bolos) is the one who “throws himself across” God’s plan and His work of salvation accomplished in Christ. Satan … and the other demons were at first good angels, created naturally good, who became evil by their own doing. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God’s reign. (Glossary and Paragraphs 395 & 2851)