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The Bible From Square One

by Elizabeth McNamer

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 book—and 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 Desert—date 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 of Hermes.

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 Catholic Bibles?

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 who aren't."

Elizabeth McNamer holds an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University and a Ph.D. in adult education/religious studies from Montana State University.



Living the Scriptures

The Bible has influenced the moral and legal system in our country. In the next few weeks, notice examples of this, for example in discussions of controversial political issues. In light of this, reflect on why it's important to understand the contents and context of the Bible.



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