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Choosing A Bible? Understand the History of the World’s Most Famous Book

Source: Samantha Sophia via Unsplash

I recently had lunch with a friend who is a Christian and the topic of what version of the Bible is the “correct version” came up. She is a non-denominational Christian, meaning she is not affiliated with a particular denomination. I am a Catholic.

She just assumed the King James version was the best and I just smiled and thought: "I should know this answer." I already knew that most “non-Catholic” bibles had 7 books removed at some point, so I figured the King James version must also be missing those. I also knew that Henry VIII left the Catholic Church and started the Church of England because he wanted to divorce his first wife to marry another woman and the pope wouldn’t give him permission. Not a great reason to leave the Church in my opinion, but it’s one of many examples of the Church splintering into different parts throughout history because an individual decided to change the rules to fit their own ideas. This made me question any decision making about the Bible that may have come from England or anyone else for that matter. By what authority does someone have the right to do this and why would followers acknowledge that authority?

I wanted to go back to “the beginning” to figure out where the Bible came from and how it may have been altered over the centuries. I decided to do some research on how the Bible came to be. Here is what I found:

We have to understand initially that the word “Testament” is defined by Webster's Dictionary as “a tangible proof or tribute; an expression of conviction.” The word expression already stood out to me because words can be expressed both orally and in writing.

These “expressions of conviction” would have started off as oral tradition and later written down, especially the Old Testament. This is an important point because many Christians who are not Catholic believe very strongly in “Sola Scriptura” which means “by scripture alone” meaning that all teaching comes only from the Bible. Catholics recognize that teachings come from Sacred Scripture as well as Apostolic Tradition which can also be called oral tradition.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Gospel as being handed down in two ways: orally, “by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received —whether from the lips of Christ, from His way of life and His works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit;” and in writing “by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing.”

St. Paul even states in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.”

The Early Church had to answer the question of which books were suitable for liturgy. The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek leitourgia which means “public service.” The liturgy was the public worship of the people of God. It’s important to understand this point because this goes all the way back to the book of Genesis where God puts man to work in the Garden of Eden to “till it and keep it clean.” Man, from the very beginning was created for the sacred service of worship. Liturgy is the principal means of ratifying, renewing, and maintaining the covenants between God and His people in the history of salvation.

In answering the question of which books were suitable for the liturgy, we find the answer to be the “canon.” According to the Catholic Church and the early Christian leaders, the Biblical canon must be “divinely inspired.”

The canon of the Bible is defined as the authentic list of inspired writings that are recognized and received by the Church and that make up the Old and the New Testament. The Old Testament includes writings before Christ. The New Testament includes the writings about the life of Christ and the time after His death and resurrection which includes the work of his Apostles and letters to the early Christian churches that were being formed.

Old Testament

There was no fixed Jewish canon of the Bible in the period before the Christian Church. There was a collection of sacred books, but the overall collection of books was still in question. Modern Jewish scholars rely upon the list of 24 books in the Masoretic Hebrew text. These are: The Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; The Prophets: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings; The Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekial; The Twelve Prophets Counted as One Book: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi; The Writings: 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Ruth, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Daniel.

The Alexandrian collection, translated into Greek as the Septuagint, also included 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Wisdom, Baruch, and some additions to Esther and Daniel. These are also known as the Deuterocanonical books from the Greek for “second canon” as their inclusion in the canon was disputed at one time.

The Septuagint was the Bible for most early Christians, and in general they accepted all the books in it as Scripture. The Deuterocanonical books were not accepted in Palestinian Judaism, however, they were apparently accepted among the Greek-speaking Jews of the dispersion.

Early Christians, on the other hand, embraced the Septuagint rather than the shorter Palestinian collection. Christ and the Apostles did not provide any kind of authoritative statement as to what books might be consulted, but throughout the New Testament there are some 350 quotations from the Old Testament writings, the majority of them in agreement with the Greek of the Septuagint. This leads the reader to believe that if Christ and the Apostles are quoting scripture from the Old Testament in the New — whatever they are quoting would be considered accepted Scripture.

Christian writings of the first centuries assume the canon of the Septuagint. Multiple affirmations of this canon were affirmed over the centuries and the Council of Trent issued an official decree supporting it in the mid-1500s against the founders of Protestantism, who rejected the deuterocanonical books and accepted only the books of the Hebrew canon. By what authority did these “protestors” have to reject books that had been widely accepted for centuries?

New Testament

This covers the Old Testament, but what about the New Testament? How were these books chosen? The Gospel message that Jesus entrusted to the Apostles was carefully preserved, transmitted, and written down while the events of Christ’s ministry were still living memory. It was still relatively easy to verify what was true by appealing to eyewitnesses, including the Apostles themselves.

The beginnings of a canon of the New Testament already appear in the first century, and the four gospels and over a dozen Pauline letters have evidence dating back to the second century.

There were some early disputes about seven books from the New Testament — Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation — but they were ultimately accepted. Some passages in the Gospels do not appear in older manuscripts. (Mark 16:9–20; Luke 22:43; John 5:4, 8:1–11) These, also, were ultimately included.

Various lists appeared in succeeding years but by 350 A.D. the canon in the West was set in the form we know today, which includes 27 books. In the East, there was still some doubt as to the canonicity of 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation which led the Syrian churches initially to adopt a canon of only 22 books.

In the 1500s Martin Luther questioned Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, but he kept them in his German translation of the Bible. Other reformers questioned various books in the New Testament also, but ultimately all Protestants embraced the traditional New Testament canon.

However, early Protestants raised questions about the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament and soon rejected them.

At the Council of Trent in 1546, the Council Fathers gave a formal definition of the “Canon of the Bible” accepting the list that had always made up the Christian Bible until the questions raised by the Reformation. This canon included the 46 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament.

Note: Translations of the Bible

The original languages the books of the bible were written in included Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Latin translations were produced very early on but around 383 A.D. Pope Damascus commissioned St. Jerome to begin the revision and correction of the Latin version from the original Greek and Hebrew. Jerome’s translation took about 22 years and became the most widely used Latin text for centuries. Because of its authoritative character, it became the basis for many translations into other languages.

Jerome’s translation became known as the Vulgate and was the first printed book in Europe — known as the famous Gutenberg Bible. The Council of Trent endorsed the Vulgate as the official Latin translation of the Roman Catholic Church in 1546.

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