Here is a quick rundown of some common questions about the Bible and where it came from.
The Bible is one of the most influential books of all time, yet many of us are not familiar with its history or development.
The Bible didn’t simply appear out of nowhere, or come down from the sky.
The Bible is a written account composed by various individuals who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to record what they experienced.
It was compiled over many centuries and has been in its current form since the 4th century.
Below is a brief overview of the Bible and its development. You can click on the links below to learn more.
What Christians refer to as the “Old Testament” is essentially an ancient compilation of the Jewish Sacred Scriptures, the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. These holy texts (the Torah, the books of the Prophets, and the “Writings”) developed over time and were at first handed over orally from one generation to the next until they were finally written down and preserved.
When it comes to the “New Testament,” various writers wrote down in the years following Jesus’ death the many stories circulating about the Messiah. These writers were either apostles, or friends of apostles who knew Jesus very well. They witnessed the events or interviewed people who had, and sought to preserve the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in written form.
As time passed by, copies of these works were shared and various Christian communities gathered them to be read during the Sunday celebration of the Mass. Copies of St. Paul’s letters were also disseminated and were regarded by the communities as inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Roughly 200 years before the birth of Jesus, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures was developed that became widely accepted as a legitimate (even inspired) translation.
Tradition relates how King Ptolemy II of Egypt established a vast library at Alexandria. Yet, it wasn’t complete, and he wanted to have a copy of the Hebrew scriptures in it. Ptolemy then sent representatives to Jerusalem and invited Jewish elders to prepare a new Greek translation of the text. Seventy-two elders, six from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, arrived in Egypt to fulfill the request.
They were led to the solitary island of Pharos, where at the end of 72 days, their work was completed. King Ptolemy was pleased at the result and placed it in his library.
Most Bibles used by Protestants have only 39 books in the Old Testament, while Catholic Bibles have 46. The seven additional books included in Catholic Bibles are Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, and Baruch. The Catholic canon also includes sections of the Books of Esther and Daniel that are not found in Protestant Bibles.
Protestants call these books “apocrypha,” while Catholics traditionally call them “deuterocanonical.” This word is translated as “second canon” and has a more positive connotation, since those books are not deemed non-canonical in the Catholic Church.
Catholics typically refer to other early Christian writings as “apocryphal.” These include such writings as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache (Teaching) of the Twelve Apostles, and the Apostolic Canons and Constitutions, which were nearly bundled together with the New Testament.
One of the books that was quite revered was known as the “Shepherd of Hermas,” which received acclaim from some of the most influential Church Fathers.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Shepherd of Hermas was “a work which had great authority in ancient times and was ranked with Holy Scripture. Eusebius tells us that it was publicly read in the churches, and that while some denied it to be canonical, others ‘considered it most necessary.’ St. Athanasius speaks of it, together with the Didache, in connection with the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament, as uncanonical yet recommended by the ancients for the reading of catechumens.”
It was sometimes put at the end of various collections of the New Testament, or even after the Acts of the Apostles, before the books were officially sorted out in the 4th century.
Pope Damasus I commissioned St. Jerome in 382 to take a look at the Gospels and revise the Latin translations based on the oldest Greek manuscripts.
He did exactly that, but after completing the Gospels, St. Jerome’s curiosity was piqued and he began a new translation of the Psalms. Then he traveled to Jerusalem and once in the Holy City he embarked on an ambitious project to translate the entire Old Testament, based on the original Hebrew texts.
It took him around 16 years to complete his attempt, but he didn’t translate every book, skipping Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and Maccabees I and II.
Jerome took great lengths to translate the Hebrew text and to render it into a Latin equivalent that would make sense, yet was faithful to the original. He was one of the first “scripture scholars” to take such care in translating the Bible that his work eventually became known as the vulgata editio (the “common edition”).
While various revisions were made in the subsequent centuries, the Church always looked back to St. Jerome as a standard. By the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the Latin Vulgate had become the official translation of the Bible in the Roman Catholic Church.
It took until the 13th century for a Catholic cardinal in England to divide up the sacred text into the chapters we are familiar with today. Prior to that, the Bible was copied on individual scrolls. The Old Testament was already separated into paragraphs and sections, but did not have a specific numbering system. Also, traditionally both the New and Old Testaments were transmitted orally. In particular, chanting sacred scripture was an ancient way of passing on the words of Divine Revelation to the next generation. Christians learned this method from the Jewish people, who have been chanting the words of scripture for thousands of years.