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So... where does the Bible come from?

Last week, we were joined by our friend Angelo Nwigwe. He shared with us his ideas about how modern Christians can take their faith into the workplace, and we explored a few things Catholics can learn from non-Catholics to help us witness to our faith.


We also discussed how all Christians are called to share the Gospel. This isn’t just the job of clergymen! And that can be a very scary thought for the rest of us (i.e., the laity). But that is what the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 emphasised. The laity have a responsibility to engage with secular culture.


An important document from the Council (Lumen Gentium) states (IV.31):


“[T]he laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within.... In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity.”


The message is clear: we are all called to make Christ known, to make the Church present, and to share the Gospel. Even in our secular professions and occupations!


Our conversation with Angelo kept coming back, unsurprisingly, to Sacred Scripture (i.e., the Bible) and how important it is for Christians to study it. But... what is the Bible? Where did it come from? When did it appear? Even many Christians barely know the basics. So here is a brief “crash course”...


“Bible” is derived from Koinē Greek (τὰ βιβλία) and Latin (ta biblia) and means “the books,” likely named for the city of Byblos where papyrus was produced.


The Bible is divided into two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word “testament” (from the Latin testamentus) means covenant (i.e., oath). Think of the Old Testament as pre-Jesus and the New Testament as post-Jesus.


The initial canon (i.e., universal list) of books in the Old Testament was set by Ezra (an important Jewish priest and scribe) ~444 BC. These books were written during the previous ~1,000 years. In 250 BC these books were translated into Greek in what is known as “the Septuagint.” 7 other books were added after this first Greek translation, totaling 46. These 46 books are almost certainly the ones Jesus Himself studied. We know this from the New Testament writings about Jesus’s life, for example:

  • Matthew 2:16: Herod’s decree of slaying innocent children was prophesied in Wisdom 11:7

  • Matthew 7:16 and 20: Jesus’s statement “you will know them by their fruits” follows Sirach 27:6

  • Matthew 9:36: the people were “like sheep without a shepherd” follows Judith 11:19

  • Matthew 22:25, Mark 12:20 and Luke 20:29: the Gospel writers refer to the canonicity of Tobit 3:8 and 7:11

  • John 5:18: Jesus claiming God is His Father follows Wisdom 2:16

  • Luke 21:24: Jesus’s usage of “fall by the edge of the sword” follows Sirach 28:18


Peter the Apostle and the early Church adopted the Septuagint translation and the 46 books.


In the earliest years after Jesus was crucified (sometime between 30 and 33 AD), His Apostles and early believers began to record the events and teachings of His life and wrote letters to various regional churches. These writings, including critically the four Gospels (i.e., the written accounts of the life, ministry and mission of Jesus), began to be copied, shared, and read aloud when Jesus’s believers gathered (hence why we read them aloud at Mass even today).


At some point during the second or third century AD, the Jews declared that the 7 books added to Ezra’s canon were not to be considered scripture. The Hebrew Masoretic texts which excluded these 7 additional books were ultimately established as Jewish scripture centuries after Jesus. This is because the 7 additional books were being used widely by Christians and employed by Jesus's followers to convert Jews (i.e., the ancient Jewish writings were actually working against the Jewish religion). Thus, Jewish scripture comprises the current Protestant Old Testament (more on that below...). It is worthwhile to read more about the history of this difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.


In ~140 AD, a priest named Marcion began interpreting Sacred Scripture outside the Apostolic Tradition. Relying on his own private interpretation beyond the teachings of the universal Catholic Church (the name by which the Church had become known, as the word “catholic” is from the Greek katholikos which means “universal”), he claimed that only he understood what Jesus truly taught.


In response to Marcion, influential Christian theologians developed a canon of the New Testament including 22 or 23 of the 27 books Christians have in modern New Testament translations. But the persistent persecution of Christians by the Romans throughout their Empire made approval of a definitive New Testament canon practically impossible.


In 303 AD a terrible persecution under the emperor Diocletian began. He ordered all Christian books be destroyed, using torture and the execution of both priests and laity to find them.


In ~313 AD the (new) emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians and declared Christianity a state-approved religion, and the debate began again over which books to include in the New Testament canon.


In 360 AD the Council of Laodicea listed a canon that had 26 of the 27 books of the New Testament.


In 367 AD a priest and theologian named Athanasius added the book of Revelation to the list of books in his Easter letter. These are the 27 books we know as the New Testament.


In 382 AD Athanasius’s list was adopted by Pope Damasus I at the Council of Rome. He then encouraged a theologian named Jerome to look at the Gospels and revise the Latin translations using the oldest Greek manuscripts. After completing the Gospels, Jerome began a new translation of the Psalms. Then he traveled to Jerusalem to translate the entire Old Testament using the original Hebrew texts. It took Jerome ~16 years to complete his attempt, although he didn’t translate every single book (skipping Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and Maccabees I and II, which were translated in the decades to come).


In 386 AD the Council of Hippo settled on the canon of 46 Old Testament and 27 New Testament books.


In 397 AD the Council of Carthage confirmed the same canon.


In 405 AD Pope Innocent I listed the same canon in a letter.


In 787 AD the Second Council of Nicaea accepted the decrees of previous Councils, confirming the same canon determined in 397 AD.


In 1441 AD the Council of Florence confirmed again the same canon.


Note: what follows may make Protestant readers uncomfortable (it made me uncomfortable). I ask readers to proceed with a spirit of humility and an openness to the truth and beauty of Christian history. I also encourage all readers to fact-check and to avoid confirmation bias. Seek sources that lead you to truth, not which echo back to you what you want to hear!


In the early 1500s AD, a Catholic priest and university professor (Martin Luther) broke from the Catholic Church and translated the Bible himself. Luther relegated 4 New Testament books to an appendix (this change did not stick) and placed the 7 additional Old Testament books into a separate section referred to as the apocrypha (“hidden” in Greek) between the Old and New Testaments (but Luther did not remove them from the Bible entirely). Additionally, and controversially, he added the word “alone” (allein in German) to Paul’s Letter to the Romans (3:28) so that it read: “So now we hold, that man is justified without the help of the works of the law, alone through faith….” The word “alone” doesn’t appear in the original Greek. Luther acknowledged this but argued it was needed for clarity in German and that it was Paul’s intended meaning…. Interestingly, years after breaking from the Catholic Church and translating his own version of the Bible, Luther said the following during a sermon on the gospel of John:


“We concede — as we must — that so much of what they [the Catholic Church] say is true: that the papacy has God’s word and the office of the apostles, and that we have received Holy Scriptures, Baptism, the Sacrament, and the pulpit from them. What would we know of these if it were not for them?”


Luther himself then, even after modifying the Bible to suit his German-speaking audience and his concerns (or preferences) about the canon of Sacred Scripture, acknowledges that it is only through the Catholic Church that Christians even have the Bible at all.


In 1546 AD the Council of Trent confirmed again the same canon as all prior Church Councils.


Over time, other groups formed other breakaway churches. Some published their own versions of the Bible. Some dropped the 7 additional Old Testament books entirely.


Hence the difference today between Catholic Bibles and Protestant Bibles! And even among Protestant Bibles…


Many Protestant Biblical arguments ignore how Protestant Bibles are even more different from Orthodox Christian Bibles than from Catholic Bibles. The (Eastern) Orthodox Christian churches have a slightly different canon from Catholics: everything in the Catholic canon is included plus some additional parts. But, interestingly, Orthodox Christianity has no universally-approved Biblical canon! Indeed, there is some confusion among Eastern Orthodox Christians as to which books properly constitute the Bible’s canon. It is always bigger than the Catholic canon, but we don't know how much bigger. So when the common refrain is made by some Protestants that “Catholics added books to the Bible” they should be saying “Catholics added books to the Bible and the Orthodox added even more!” 🤣


So the (Eastern) Orthodox Christian Bible is the biggest, the Catholic Bible is ever so slightly smaller, and the Protestant Bible is the smallest.


But who cares?


Well, the Bible is a foundation of the Christian faith. It is not the sole foundation of the faith though. Why? Because the Bible simply didn’t exist for the earliest Christians. And the vast majority of the first Christians were illiterate anyway (i.e., they couldn’t read it even if they had it). Were they lesser Christians than we are? Of course not. Many were murdered (martyred) for their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, yet most of them had access to either none or just a few of the Biblical writings. Many of us take this for granted today. These early believers were prepared to die for a faith that was largely shared orally. The fact that we Christians in the 21st century have the benefit of both oral and written lessons should empower us to learn and share our faith boldly in the world.


Which leads us to the topic of this week’s episode: Artificial Intelligence (AI). We will be discussing AI’s risks, rewards, and potential to help (or hinder) the Christian believer in strengthening their faith. Rigel will tell us about one application of AI that ties to the Bible and gives him reason for optimism about how this emerging technology might empower the Christian to come to know Sacred Scripture and share it more confidently in the world. We hope you’ll tune in!


God bless you,


Travis


P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Bible, I highly recommend this book from Jimmy Akin which is extremely easy to read. And if you'd like more information on the sources used for my research here (which are mostly from my theological studies at the University of Toronto), please reach out!

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