Mary decided that she was going to read the Bible
straight through, but by the time she finished the Book of Genesis,
she lost interest. Tom read an article about the Dead Sea Scrolls
and wondered how these scrolls connected with the Bible he used
in his Scripture study group. Joan went to the bookstore to
get a Bible. She couldn't understand why there were so many
different versions. Isn't there just one Bible? Daniel wanted
to join a parish Scripture study group, but he had always heard
that Catholics weren't allowed to read the Bible.
Bob's wife, a Lutheran, didn't have the same books
in her Bible that Bob did. When she asked him what the other
books were, he didn't know. Jane's daughter was taking a college
class on biblical criticism. Jane was afraid the professor would
say the Bible wasn't really true. What is biblical criticism?
People have concerns like these when they are just
getting to know the Bible. To appreciate the Bible as the inspired
word of God and the meaning it can have in our lives, we need
to look at the book itself. It hasn't always been printed and
bound, written in clear modern English, 73 books in a set order.
Where has it come from and how did it get from there to here?
A Little Library
We think of the Bible as one bookand a
big, formidable book at that! Mary approached it like a novel.
But setting out to read the Bible is more like trying to get
through all the books in your local library. In fact, the word
bible literally means "little library." Our Bible has
many different kinds of writings between its covers, including
prayers, genealogies, histories, poetry, letters, short stories,
love songs and so on.
The Bible contains the records of four thousand
years of Judeo-Christian culture. Even before writing materials
were invented, the many stories included in our Bible were handed
down from generation to generation by word of mouth. We call
this "oral tradition."
As time passed, the ancient Israelites began to
commit their community's stories to writing. The earliest written
stories told about the deeds of the kings. The people also began
to write down their songs (psalms) as far back as the tenth
century B.C.E. (Before Common Era). But most stories were written
down between the fifth and the third century B.C.E.
What About the Dead Sea Scrolls?
When the books of the Bible were first written,
the text was put on scrolls made of papyrus, a type of early
paper made from reeds that grew by the Nile River. The oldest
scrolls we have date from the century before Jesus was born.
Known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, they were discovered in 1947
in caves near the Dead Sea. Although papyrus was not very durable,
these had been preserved in sealed stone jars. These scrolls
were written between 180 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. (Common Era), and
they contain many of the books of what we now know as the Old
Testament. Each scroll contained one book.
The stories of Jesus and the apostles were first
written on papyrus scrolls, too. The oldest copies of these
scrolls preserved in the monastery of Saint Catherine
in the Sinai Desertdate to the third century. We do, however,
have one scrap from John's Gospel, which was found in Egypt
and dates to about 130 C.E. On it is written Pilate's question,
"What is truth?"
In the late second century, a new way of making
books was invented. The codex consisted of manuscript pages
made of animal skins and held together by stitching. Several
books could be bound together in this way.
Isn't There Just One Bible?
Once people discovered how to collect the books
of Scripture in a durable form, other questions arose. One had
to do with which books contained true revelation important for
the life of the community. We say these accepted books of Scripture
are in the "canon." The word canon means "rule," and
originally referred to a measuring rod. So, the books in the
canon are those that measure up to some standard.
For example, numerous "sacred" books were circulating
in the early centuries after Christ. Everyone wanted to tell
the story of Jesus with a slightly different slant or purpose.
Eventually authorities in the community had to decide which
contained the authentic message of Scripture.
For a long time the canon was somewhat flexible,
varying from group to group in the early Church. Irenaeus of
Lyons insisted that only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John could
be used. He argued what seems remarkable to us today: There
could only be four Gospels because there were only four corners
of the world and only four winds! The Church in Syria happily
used a compilation of the four. In Rome, Church leaders used
the same four Gospels, but they also included favorite writings
such as the Wisdom of Solomon and the Letter of the Shepherd
Eventually the Church cleared up the resulting
confusion and set a criterion or rule: Only books that were
connected to the apostles and conformed to the emerging faith
of the Church could be used. By the end of the fourth century,
only 27 books had survived the test: the four Gospels, the Acts
of the Apostles, the Book of Revelation, 13 letters attributed
to Paul and eight other letters. These books are now known as
the New Testament.
The earliest versions of the Old Testament were
written in Hebrew. But many Jews spoke Greek and wanted to read
the Scriptures in their own language. So, a couple centuries
before Christ, the sacred scrolls had been translated into Greek.
Legend has it that 70 Jewish scholars went from
Jerusalem to Alexandria and spent 70 months translating the
texts. The resulting Greek version was called the Septuagint,
which means 70. This translation also included seven books originally
written in Greek: First and Second Maccabees, Judith, Baruch,
Tobit, Sirach and Wisdom.
Having a Greek as well as a Hebrew version of
the sacred books wasn't a problem until the temple was destroyed
by the Romans in 70 C.E. Jews were scattered from their homeland,
carrying their sacred scrolls with them.
In an attempt to return some kind of order to
the Jewish community, scholars gathered at Jamnia in 90 C.E.
There they formed a canon of 39 books of Scripture, chosen from
the Hebrew collection. This created a problem for Greek-speaking
Jews living in Alexandria because they wanted to keep the Greek
books that hadn't been included. Keep them they did, so two
canons were still in circulation, the Jamnian (Hebrew) canon
and the Alexandrian (Septuagint) canon.
The New Testament books had all been written in
Greek, and early Christians also tended to rely on the Septuagint
when they wanted to read the sacred Scriptures from their Jewish
heritage. But by the third century, Latin replaced Greek as
the common language of the Roman Empire. In the fourth century,
the pope asked Saint Jerome to translate the Scriptures into
Latin. Jerome went off to a little cell in Bethlehem and spent
the next 25 years happily creating what came to be known as
the Vulgate (meaning "the language of the people") Bible.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Latin Vulgate
was used, but as Christianity spread throughout Europe, fewer
and fewer people understood Latin. So scholars produced translations
from the Vulgate into the language of the people around them.
In the 20th century, scholars began going back
to original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts for new translations
into modern languages. Today, we can find several English translations
from the original texts. They are all accurate translations
and the meaning is the same, but the English phrasing varies.
May Catholics Read the Bible?
The rumor has been spread at various times that
Catholics were forbidden to read the Bible. This is not true.
While personal interpretation that departed from Church tradition
was discouraged, the Church has always sanctioned the reading
of Scripture or provided for its reading. The Church instructed
people from the Scriptures through readings and singing in the
liturgy, through mystery plays, through artworks, through altarpieces
and stained-glass windows that depicted scenes from the Bible.
Throughout the Middle Ages, monks in their cold
monastery scriptoria diligently and lovingly copied and
recopied the Bible. The most beautiful copies were made in Irish
monasteries. Ireland was at the edge of the known world, and
literate people fled to this safe haven when barbarian hordes
raced through the rest of Europe, burning and looting everything
in their path. The most renowned copy is the Book of Kells,
produced in the ninth century and seen today at Trinity College
Library in Dublin.
But hand-copying Bibles was a lengthy and demanding
task, often taking many years to complete. Only the rich could
afford such expensive books. Gutenberg's invention of the printing
press in 1460 made the Bible less expensive and more available,
at least for those who could read.
What's the Difference Between Protestant and
Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer
of the 16th century, had a translation of the Bible made, and
even did some of it himself. But it was a selective translation,
leaving out books Luther didn't agree with. He used the Hebrew
version of the Old Testament, rather than the Greek Septuagint.
Some say he did this deliberately to exclude the Second Book
of Maccabees, on which the Catholic Church founded its doctrine
of purgatory. One of Luther's major criticisms of the Catholic
Church was the practice of buying and selling indulgences, an
abuse of the teaching on purgatory.
Luther omitted from the New Testament the Letter
to the Hebrews and the Letter of James. The latter states that
faith without good works is dead, and Luther claimed that faith
alone was necessary for salvation. The Letter to the Hebrews
emphasized the priesthood of Jesus.
The New Testament letters were restored to the
Protestant canon in 1700. Protestant Bibles still exclude seven
books from the Old Testament, although many print them in a
separate section called the Apocrypha (a word that means
"of dubious value").
For Catholics, the Council of Trent (1545) wanted
to protect the Bible from further depletion or abuse, so it
formally closed the canon and forbade the reading of translations
not approved by the Church. The Douay-Rheims English translation
was approved and circulated from 1635 on. Catholics used this
translation until the mid-20th century. Translations into other
European languages were likewise approved
What Is Biblical Criticism?
The centuries after the Reformation were turbulent
times for the Bible. Secular intellectuals, particularly in
France, attacked it for being outdated. They held it up to the
dazzling mirror of the Enlightenment and it didn't look very
good. Then Darwin's theory of evolution, which appeared in 1860,
caused a dither over the Book of Genesis. With regard to the
Bible, the end of the 19th century was, as Scripture scholar
Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., puts it, "a time of fog and whirlwind,
of hysterical fright and rash conclusions."
At this foggy time, modern biblical criticism
was born. Criticism in this sense doesn't mean saying negative
things about the Bible. Rather, scholars began to look critically
at the Bible to better understand it. In 1902 the pope set up
a biblical commission to develop rules for biblical matters.
The Biblical Institute was founded in 1909 to prepare scholars
to come to grips with problems raised. In 1943 Catholic scholars
were given the green light for their studies when Pope Pius
XII issued his letter Divino Afflante Spiritu.
Although modern biblical criticism is only about
a hundred years old, we can find examples of critical and intelligent
examination of the Bible throughout the centuries. As early
as the third century, the Church father Origen asked, "How could
the devil take Jesus to the top of a high mountain and show
him all the kingdoms of the world when there is no such mountain?"
Bible readers have long been aware of things that can't be taken
literally. Jonah in the belly of the whale is hard to swallow.
And the idea of living to the age of Methuselah, 969 years,
is enough to make one's heirs stand on end.
Biblical criticism is no threat to our faith.
Rather, it enhances our faith by giving us a better understanding
of the Scriptures.
Back to Square One
So where does all this lead? Back to square one,
looking at the Bible itself. Our friend Jerome said, "Ignorance
of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." We can't understand the
source of our faith if we do not read the Bible.
I can't think of a better time for you to begin
reading the Bible than right now. Pick it up, dust it off if
you have to, and turn to the Gospel of Mark. Once you've started,
just keep going. The cover will soon lose its gloss, it may
become tattered and you will learn the truth of another old
saying: "Bibles that are falling apart usually belong to people