Wednesday, May 04, 2005

How the Bible came to be--a primer

Catholic, Orthodox and Protestants all believe the Bible is the Word of God. Yet, Protestants have a 66-book Bible, Catholics have a 73-book Bible and Orthdox have greater than 73 books in their Bible.

Catholics have seven OT books not found in most Protestant Bibles (1 and 2 Maccabees, Sirach, Wisdom, Baruch, Tobit, and Judith), as well as more chapters and verses in the Books of Daniel and Esther. Catholics refer to these as deuterocanonical not apocryphal. Catholics use the term apocryphal to refer to other Christian writings that were not canonized in the 4th century (e.g. 3 & 4 Maccabees) but have historical value. It's important to understand these terms from a Catholic perspective because Protestants use this term differently. For Protestants, the term apocryphal often includes the apocryphal books from a Catholic viewpoint, plus the Catholic deuterocanonical texts.

Orthodoxy holds all the Catholic Bible to be the inspired word of God. Thus, only Protestantism differs with the rest of Christianity on this point.

Here's how I understand how the Bible came to be ...

In the first century, sacred scripture was not standard throughout the Jewish communities. The Samaritans and Sadduccees held to only the 1st five books--the Torah. These Jewish sects were "scripture only" in their practice. The Pharisees held to scripture and tradition. Consequently, their list of sacred texts was larger (and continuing to grow) compared to the Samaritans and Sadduccees. The Essenes had some sacred texts in common with the others, however, they had some sacred texts that was unique to only their sect as well. The Alexandrian Jews (and other Greek speaking Jews) had a list of sacred texts which included books that differed from the above sects as well--called the Septuagint. This text was written and collected from the 3rd centuries BC to the 1st century BC. However, it contained many more books than were canonized by the Catholic Church in the 4th century. So, the often asserted claim that "they were really only included as Christian Scripture because they were included in the Septuagint" is not accurate, in my opinion. Some of the books were included, some were not. This shows evidence of discernment (and no doubt, much prayer) before the definitive Christian canon was established.

Most Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox scholars agree that the text used by the first century Christians was most likely the Greek translation--the Septuagint. This is because most of the literate world at that time, where east met west, used Greek as their written form of communication. The nations which were to be evangelized by the apostles would respond better to sacred writings which were in the vernacular (at least written vernacular) of a large part of the world--Greek.

It is important to note that the Christians of the first century were not "scripture-only" Christians. Like the Pharisees, the 1st century Christians held to scripture and tradition (see Paul's writings, a Pharisee convert to Christ). There's also other biblical evidence for this, however, one example is Jesus' participated in Feast of Dedication (aka Hannukah; Jn 10:22-23). This feast is nowhere described in the Hebrew bible, but is found described in 2 Maccabees. Also, take a look at this verse Matt 2:23. The prophecy "He shall be called a 'Nazarene'" can be found nowhere in the Old Testament. I doubt Matthew made it up, either. He is likely to be including oral tradition, presumably known to his audience (as he finds no need to explain where this prophecy came from). There are other examples. However, I won't go into detail here.

While the Christians were evangelizing the world in the first century (rather successfully), they used the Jewish Greek translation to do so, supplemented with the oral Christian tradition of of the 1st century written and/or translated into Greek. The Jews didn't like this very much. After the Jews got there butts kicked by the Romans about 70 AD, it looked rather obvious to all that Judaism was finished. However, a group of Pharisees relocated to Jamnia and set out to reform Judaism. About 98 AD, they declared what was definitively (in their opinion) to be the Hebrew canon and what was not. Probably due partly from a spirit of reform and partly from the desire to oppose Christianity, the Pharisees decided to only include sacred books which they believed were originally written in Hebrew prior to 400 BC. The Pharisees rejected the books found in the Alexandrian canon, as well as the Christian books being "passed off" as the word of God in the first century. However, even among Jews, disputes continued as to the true canon (especially among Alexandrian Jews).

Ironically, many Protestants often cite Jamnia as the authority for their canon of the Old Testament. Why would Christians use the authority of this Council of Pharisees as their authority over the tradition of the ancient Christian Church? This is especially ironic since the decision of the Pharisees was likely to have been at least partly motivated by their opposition to Christianity. Catholics tend to favor the tradition of the ancient Christian Church over the council of Jamnia in determining canonicity of the Old Testament.

The 1st century Christians, obviously, DID NOT recognize the authority of the Pharisees. This didn't change when it came to the Council held in Jamnia ~98 AD. The ancient Christian Church continued to use the Septuagint--the sacred texts accepted by the apostles--as the word of God. However, each Christian Church began to develop their own unique notion of what was considered sacred text (much like the Jews of the Diaspora). Additionally, as Christianity expanded, various Greek translations were being used which did not have the same books.

By About ... 95 AD - Paul's epistles were used in public worship along with Book of Acts

65-100 AD - Oral tradition of Christ, written in the Gospels. Subsequently became widely used by Christians community.

110 - 105 AD - Epistles written by other Apostles (such as James, Peter, John, Jude) also read at public worship.

150 AD - Gospels gathered together, standardized.

180 AD - Gospels, Epistles combined into one collection

From the 2nd to the 4th centuries, many other Christian Gospels and letters were written to attempt to supplement and revise what the canonical gospels tell us of Jesus' birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection. Examples include "The Gospel of Hebrews," "The Gospel of Mary," "The Gospel of James," "The Gospel of Peter," and "The Gospel of Thomas."

From the 2nd to the 4th century, this lack of standardization within the Old and New Testaments became problematic with regard to doctrine.

140 AD Marcion, an influential Christian teacher, published heretical ideas with his list of "sacred" books that rejected all Jewish scriptures as having nothing to do with Christianity. This made church leaders aware of the need for a church-authorized list. 180 AD - Muratorian Fragment - a fragment of a list of inspired books which included Gospels, Paul's letters, Acts, Jude, John and Revelation. This fragment, mutilated at the beginning and end, was discovered and published in 1720. This 85-line Latin manuscript is considered to have come from the Church in Rome around the end of the 2nd century. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark are not mentioned, although the "third book of the Gospels" comes from Luke, the "fourth book" from John. The list does not include a third letter of John, but does include the Book of Wisdom.

200 AD - Gnosticism, a heresy which used Christian terminology to gain acceptance, threatened orthodox Christian beliefs. These Gnostics wrote Gospels and other texts of their own which have similarity to the sacred writings, however, were quite twisted to support their heretical claims. To guard against it, the Church called sacred only those books 1) written by Apostles or those close to them and 2) used in public worship. However, there still existed disputes as to what book should be recognized as falling into these two criteria.

early 3rd century - Origen, a priest and scholar, and early bishop of Alexandria, discussed the issue; listed books as 1) acknowledged (universally used and accepted), 2) disputed (but accepted by some), and 3) rejected (declared ordinary vice God-inspired). Origen described the Shephard of Hermas as "a work which seems to me very useful, and, as I believe, divinely inspired" (Comm. in Rom. 10.31, written about 244-6). He also included Baruch and the Maccabees in his Old Testament, and accepted the larger Book of Daniel, contrasting it to the one used by the Hebrews of his day. In his letter to Africanus, Origen stated: "I paid particular attention to the interpretation of the Seventy [i.e. the Septuagint, which contain all the deuterocanonicals] , lest I might to be found to accredit any forgery to the Churches which are under heaven" (Origen, To Africanus, 5 (ante A.D. 254), in Philip Schaff's ANF, IV:387).

In the early 3rd century, many other Church leaders in addition to Origen also began to offer their opinion as to what was apocryphal (Greek for "hidden" or "not genuine") books as separate in significance as compared to other books considered inspired by God.

Prior to the end of the 4th century, many faithful Christians still considered various texts as sacred scripture in one part of the Christianized world which was not considered sacred scripture in other parts. For example, the letters to Corinth from Clement I, Bishop of Rome (~80 AD) were considered sacred scripture and read as such in the Corinthian liturgy. Likewise, the Didache (~70 AD) was listed as sacred scripture by at least two heads of the Catechetical School in Alexandria (2nd and 3rd centuries), and presumably by the Christians of that region. For more info on this, see references below.

382 AD - Pope Damasus decrees for the universal Church, what books are in the Bible. This papal decree stated:

The Decree of Pope St. Damasus I, Council of Rome. 382 A.D....

"It is likewise decreed: Now, indeed, we must treat of the divine Scriptures: what the universal Catholic Church accepts and what she must shun. The list of the Old Testament begins: Genesis, one book; Exodus, one book: Leviticus, one book; Numbers, one book; Deuteronomy, one book; Jesus Nave, one book; of Judges, one book; Ruth, one book; of Kings, four books; Paralipomenon, two books; One Hundred and Fifty Psalms, one book; of Solomon, three books: Proverbs, one book; ecclesiastes, one book; Canticle of Canticles, one book; likewise, Wisdom, one book; Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), one book; Likewise, the list of the Prophets: Isaiah, one book; Jeremias, one book [included Baruch]; along with Cinoth, that is, his Lamentations; Ezechiel, one book; Daniel, one book; Osee, one book; Amos, one book; Micheas, one book; Joel, one book; Abdias, one book; Jonas, one book; Nahum, one book; Habacuc, one book; Sophonias, one book; Aggeus, one book; Zacharias, one book; Malachias, one book. Likewise, the list of histories: Job, one book; Tobias, one book; Esdras, two books; Esther, one book; Judith, one book; of Maccabees, two books.

Likewise, the list of the Scriptures of the New and Eternal Testament, which the holy and Catholic Church receives: of the Gospels, one book according to Matthew, one book according to Mark, one book according to Luke, one book according to John. The Epistles of the Apostle Paul, fourteen in number: one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Ephesians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Galatians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy, one to Titus one to
Philemon, one to the Hebrews. Likewise, one book of the Apocalypse of John. And the Acts of the Apostles, one book. Likewise, the canonical epistles, seven in number: of the Apostle Peter, two Epistles; of the Apostle James, one Epistle; of the Apostle John, one Epistle; of the other John, a Presbyter, two Epistles; of the Apostle Jude the Zealot, one Epistle. Thus concludes the canon of the New Testament. "

This is the first canon of Christian history that explicitly decrees the books that are to be accepted as divine Scripture for the universal Catholic Church. This same canon is what the Catholic Church continues to use today.

When examining the question of what books were originally included in the Old Testament canon, it is important to note that some of the books of the Bible have been known by more than one name. Sirach is also known as Ecclesiasticus, 1 and 2 Chronicles as 1 and 2 Paralipomenon, Ezra and Nehemiah as 1 and 2 Esdras, and 1 and 2 Samuel with 1 and 2 Kings as 1, 2, 3, and 4 Kings—that is, 1 and 2 Samuel are named 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Kings are named 3 and 4 Kings. The history and use of these designations is explained more fully in Scripture reference works.

This decree of Pope Damasus to the universal Church was more than just a canon of a local synod. It established what ought to be accepted by the "universal Catholic Church." It was not definitive but it was binding. "Definitive" in Catholic lingo means "immutable." Binding means it was canon law, and as such, you were obliged to obey it. This list was subsequently affirmed by several local synods and Ecumenical (General or worldwide) councils in the past 20 centuries. This canon list is the same list used by the Catholic Church today. Because it was not difinitive, Catholics could disagree with the canon without charge of heresy, yet they were bound by it. Despite the opinion of some, the consistent judgment of the Church was that the above canon were to be included as Sacred Scritpure.

According to the Protestant source, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd ed., edited by F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone, Oxford Univ. Press, 1983, p.232):

"A council probably held at Rome in 382 under St. Damasus gave a complete list of the canonical books of both the Old Testament and the New Testament (also known as the 'Gelasian Decree' because it was reproduced by Gelasius in 495), which is identical with the list given at Trent."

This same Bible was canonized in Hippo (393) and Carthage (397).

According to Protestant scholar Philip Schaff,

"The council of Hippo in 393, and the third (according to another reckoning the sixth) council of Carthage in 397, under the influence of Augustine, who attended both, fixed the catholic canon of the Holy Scriptures, including the Apocrypha of the Old Testament.... The New Testament canon is the same as ours. This decision of the transmarine church however, was subject to ratification; and the concurrence of the Roman see it received when Innocent I and Gelasius I a.d. 414) repeated the same index of biblical books. This canon remained undisturbed till the sixteenth century, and was sanctioned by the council of Trent at its fourth session." (Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, Ch 9)
Ironically, many Protestant cite there very Catholic synods as their support for the canonicity of the New Testament. However, these same synods also listed the Old Testament books in the very same canon as accepted by Catholicism, but which are rejected by these Protestant groups.
Shortly after his decree, Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to complete the Latin Vulgate, which includes the same list of books. Vulgate being latin for "vulgar" or "venacular" language, as the Latin was increasingly coming to replace Greek as the written vernacular language of at least the western world.

Middle Ages - Reformation Protestants rejected 7 books of the earlier Canons and called them Apocrypha. Some Protestant actually claim that the Catholics added the 7 books. Even a cursory study of canon history should be sufficient to refute such claims, however.

The reduced canon was no doubt influenced by Martin Luther's writings. However, Luther also considered non-canonical the following NT books: James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelations. For over 100 years, these books were not accepted as God-inspired by Lutherans (however, other Protestant denominations accepted them into their NT). By at least 1700, these NT books came to be accepted as canonical by all Protestants.

Eastern Orthodox Churches - 1672 Synod of Jerusalem, accepted the Alexandrian Canon (Septuagint LXX), which consists of the Roman Catholic Canon, plus additional books depending upon which LXX translation is used. For example, the Russian Orthodox Tradition or the Slavonic Bible includes 2 Edras, whereas the Greek Orthodox Tradition of the Septuagint does not. This lack of uniform use continues to this day.

The Anglican Church - admit reservations over the Deuterocanonical books, but remained committed to retaining them within the general category of Holy Scripture, that is, as both sacred and canonical.

To the fourth century belong the earliest extant Biblical manuscripts of anything but fragmentary size.

The Codex Vaticanus, a fourth century manuscript (fragment), includes all of the Catholic Canon except 1 & 2 Maccabees

The Codex Sinaiticus, another fourth century manuscript, the portions extant are: several verses from Gen., xxiii and xxiv, and from Num., v, vi, vii; I Par., ix, 27-xix, 17; Esdras, ix,9 to end; Nehemias, Esther, Tobias, Judith, Joel, Abdias, Jonas, Nahum, Habacuc, Sophonias, Aggeus, Zacharias, Malachias, Isaias, Jeremias, Lamentations, i, 1-ii, 20; I Machabees, IV Machabees (apocryphal, while the canonical II Machabees and the apocryphal III Machabees were never contained in this codex). The New Testament included the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepard of Hermas.

The Codex Alexandrinus, a 5th century manuscript the portions extant contain the Bible of the Catholic Canon. It also includes III and IV Machabees, and to the New Testament are added the Epistle of St. Clement of Rome and the homily which passed under the title of II Epistle of Clement.

Note that the Church continued to translate, study, and reference apocryphal books as well as the canonical books. However, the Church, consistently upheld as canonical only those books established by the decree of Pope Damasus in 382 AD, and continues to do so today.

What about Bible Translations?

The Church also translated the Bible into other vernacular languages of the world, hundreds of years prior to the Protestant Reformation. Bishop Aldhelm of Sherbourne translated the Psalms into Old English around 709. Venerable Bede, a monk at Jarrow, translated a portion of the Gospel of John. Even on the day of his death (AD 735) the saint was still busy in his attempt.

By 900 AD all of the Gospels and most of the Old Testament had been translated into Old English.

From the 11th to the 14th Centuries, French or the Anglo-Norman dialect took over as the written language among academic circles, while English was confined to the lower classes (most of which could not read). The Bible renderings during the twelfth, thirteenth, and early fourteenth centuries were in French, whether they were made in England or brought over from France.

Before the middle of the fourteenth century the entire Old Testament and a great part of the New Testament had been translated into the Anglo-Norman dialect of the period . As to English work, we may note two transcripts of the West-Saxon Gospels during the course of the eleventh century and some copies of the same Gospels into the Kentish dialect made in the twelfth century.

The thirteenth century is an absolute blank as far as our knowledge of its English Bible study is concerned. The English which emerged about the middle and during the second half of the fourteenth century was practically a new language, so that both the Old English versions which might have remained, and the French versions hitherto in use, failed to fulfil their purpose.

France, Spain, Italy, Bohemia, and Holland possessed the Bible in the vernacular before the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s; in Germany the Scriptures were printed in 1466, and seventeen editions had left the press before the version written by Luther.

You should also read the story of Saints Cyril and Methodius from the year 866 and the period immediately following. St. Cyril is credited with having invented or adapted a special alphabet which now bears his name (Cyrillic) in order to express the sounds of the Slavonic language, as spoken by the Bulgars and Moravians of his day. Later on St. Methodius translated the entire Bible into Slavonic and his disciples afterwards added other works of the Greek saints and the canon law.

Admittedly, there have been attempts by the Catholic Church to suppress the unauthorized translations of the Bible into the vernacular language. The Church was afraid of the proliferation of Biblical inaccuracies with each translation. If you think this is not a valid concern, read about the Jehovah's Witness version of the Bible here:

Stumpers for Jehovah's Witnesses
Are They Awake on the Watchtower

The use of St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate (which in Latin means 'common language') was resisted for many years as being unreliable. Reading from the Vulgate in the ancient Church actually was the source of riots. Over time, the Vulgate gained acceptance and became the standard for the Catholic Church.

So, when you hear someone tell you that Catholics never translated the Bible into the vernacular languages of the world, it is a myth. The world would not have a Bible to read if it were not for Catholics.

Martin Luther himself conceded, "We are obliged to yield many things to the Papists [Catholics]--that they possess the Word of God which we received from them, otherwise we should have known nothing at all about it." (Martin Luther, Commentary on St. John, ch. 16)

God bless,


1. "The Witness of History for Scripture (Homologoumena and Antilegomena)" by Francis Piper (Lutheran Theologian), From Christian Dogmatics, Vol. I [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950], pp. 330-38.)
2. Catholic Encyclopedia:
2. The Canon of the Bible
3. The Old Testament Canon
4. Table of New Testament Books Prior to Canonization
5. Bible Translations Guide
6. 5 Myths About 7 Books (Canonicity of the Deuterocanonical Books)
7. Defending the Deuterocanonicals
8. Patristic Quotations from the Deuterocanonicals (citing a Protestant source). Notice how the Fathers quoted these books along with the protocanonicals.
9. The Old Testament in the Orthodox Church
10. The Canon of Holy Scripture: An Anglican Note
11. Codex Vaticanus
12. Codex Sinaiticus
13. Codex Alexandrinus
14. Septuagint Version
15. Manuscripts of the Bible
16. Muratorian Fragment -
17. Catholic Answers Stumpers for Jehovah's Witnesses Are They Awake on the Watchtower


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