Have you ever wondered how our Bible originated? Who determined which books would be contained in the Bible and how do we know they’re correct? We ought to be reading from scripture every day, but at minimum, we hear the Word of God spoken at every Sunday Mass in the form of readings, psalms, and liturgical prayer. We rightfully trust that this book we hold in our hands is exactly as it should be because our Church has said that it is so. How did our Church come to this conclusion, though? Let’s examine the history and development of the canon of books contained in our Sacred Scripture.
Let us first establish that Jesus did not hand a book to the Apostles before His Ascension and tell them to use it to instruct the Faith. Rather, Christianity began with Tradition as the Apostles were given the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and set out to convert people through their oral teaching and prescribed actions according to how Jesus instructed them during His time with them. Additionally, the heavy persecutions of the Christians in the second and third centuries made it essentially impossible to come together with the purpose of establishing a canon of scripture. It wasn’t until the fourth century, with the legalization of Christianity, that we begin to see the early Church fathers and ecumenical councils finally discussing a set canon. This is one of the reasons the Catholic Church does not teach the doctrine of sola scriptura, or scripture alone, because the Church existed for hundreds of years before the Bible, as we know it, existed.
Catholic teaching has also maintained that after the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost, it remained with the Church throughout time in order to guide and protect what she teaches as true, so as to not allow human error to enter into it, as Jesus Himself promised, “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” (Mat 16:18). Therefore, when discussions did finally begin to take place regarding what would be contained within what we now know as the Bible, we have faith that those conversations and the resulting development of the canon were taking place within the care of the Holy Spirit.
In the very early Church, Christians still had all of their existing Jewish writings and the existing Old Testament canons, depending on the sect. Additionally, new things were being written that documented things pertaining to Jesus and this new perspective on God and religion. Some of these were written by people who knew Jesus directly, like the Apostles, and some by those who did not. St. Paul’s letters, representing a significant portion of our New Testament, were written between 50 and 58 A.D., with without Paul having any direct access to the human person of Jesus while He was on Earth. So, Paul himself was subject to oral tradition and personal experience, all guided by the Holy Spirit, to write the letters we now look to as authoritative. In other words, there were all sorts of documents being used in the earliest days of the Church, old and new, with no bound and printed book guaranteeing a standard or universal content amongst Christians.
The Councils of Rome (382), Hippo (383), and Carthage (397, 419) are where we begin to see the canon of scripture take shape. In his book De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine), written in 397, St. Augustine provides the criteria for determining the canonicity of scripture which primarily lies in the agreement of the greatest number of individual catholic churches. Remember, there were many documents floating around which meant scripture varied greatly from individual church to individual church. Therefore, Augustine found it a telling sign that a book was in fact the inspired Word of God if a large number of individual churches were referencing it.
You are probably aware that there is a difference between Protestant Bibles and Catholic Bibles, with the Catholic Bible containing seven more books than the Protestant Bible: Tobias, Judith, Baruch, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, and First and Second Maccabees. You may hear it argued that Catholics added these books after the Protestant Reformation, which is why they are referred to as apocryphal (secret) by our Protestant brothers and sisters. The Catholic Church refers to these books as deuterocanonical – “deuteron,” meaning second – because there was a little more debate surrounding their canonicity than the other books. Note, the previously mentioned councils all affirmed the seven books as part of the canon. Additionally, prior to the Reformation, the Council of Florence affirmed the canon of scripture in 1442 saying:
It [the Church] professes that one and the same God is the author of the old and the new Testament — that is, the law and the prophets, and the gospel — since the saints of both testaments spoke under the inspiration of the same Spirit. It accepts and venerates their books, whose titles are as follows.
Five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two of Paralipomenon, Esdras, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Job, Psalms of David, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel; the twelve minor prophets, namely Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi; two books of the Maccabees; the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; fourteen letters of Paul, to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, to the Colossians, two to Timothy, to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews; two letters of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude; Acts of the Apostles; Apocalypse of John.
It wasn’t until the 1500s that the canon, as it had been, was challenged by Martin Luther when he rejected the seven deuterocanonical books. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was held in response to the Protestant Reformation and out of that council came a document called the Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures, in which the canon of Scripture was laid out in a dogmatic fashion. As I have pointed out in other articles, Ecumenical councils typically declare official dogma because a challenge to the already held belief is presented, but it does not mean the teaching has been changed in any way. This decree leads some to the erroneous conclusion that Trent was the official establishment of the canon, which has already been shown not to be the case. As with most things regarding confusion about Church teaching, it is always best to refer back to the early Church fathers and documents. It is not light reading, but there is a book called The Church and the Bible: Official Documents of the Catholic Church, edited by Dennis J. Murphy MSC, in which 178 documents are compiled concerning the Catholic Church and scripture, beginning in the second century. If you read it, you will see there is little to dispute on the origins of the canon when the trajectory of its development is laid out in an organized fashion.
While the canon of scripture was debated and stated by human men over the centuries, let us not lose sight of the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the process. If the canon was affected by human error in any way, we would most certainly be led astray. Jesus promised us that, so long as we abide in His Church, we will not be led astray. Therefore, when all of scripture was written and contained in the format we hold in our very own hands, we know that it is true and that it was all orchestrated by God Himself. This week, explore your Bible and marvel in awe at how the Holy Spirit is interwoven throughout, holding it all together through time and space.
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