The History of the Bible (CCC 105-108)
A very complex and large subject
The history of the Bible is a very large subject and is very complex, involving many dates, councils, people and political events. It is far more complex than can be dealt with in a single article. Saint Michael's Media recommends the book “Where Did The Bible Come From?” by the co-author of this series of articles (available from Saint Michael's Press) as an excellent overview of the subject in greater detail than this article can provide. Also available is the “Where Did The Bible Come From?” Collection which contains the book, DVDs and a timeline – this is also available from Saint Michael's Media.
This article is concerned with the history of the Bible as it relates to Catholic apologetics – particularly the fact that the Bible is historically accurate and that the Bible is inspired scripture. The fact that the human agency which can be called the “author” of the Bible is the Catholic Church is also part of this article – partially because it is the simple truth, but additionally because it directly relates to the argument concerning sola scriptura.
The authorship of the Bible
The Bible does not have a single author – it is a collection of 73 books which were written by many different authors over a long period of time. It is divided into two main sections – the Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament is the Jewish Scriptures which were used by faithful Jews before the time of Christ. The New Testament consists of books and letters written by the early Christians.
The compilation of the Old Testament
The canon (list of books) of the Old Testament was not formally fixed and varied a great deal between different groups of faithful Jews. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans and other groups all had different lists of books which they considered to be Sacred Scripture, although there was agreement on the core of which books were part of the canon.
Christians have the current 46 book Old Testament because this was the canon used by the leaders of the early Christian Church; the apostles and their followers. This canon was found in a Greek translation of the Scriptures known as the Septuagint. This was the version used by very many Jews in the first century.
The Jews were using a Greek translation because very few Jews actually spoke Hebrew any longer. Owing to their capture by the Babylonians and subsequent freeing by the Persians, most Jews no longer spoke Hebrew, but rather spoke Aramaic – a Persian-derived language. The priestly class still spoke Hebrew, but the average Jew did not. In addition, owing to the massive conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon, the Greek language had become the common language of business and culture in the Near- and Middle East. Accordingly, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was very popular.
It can clearly be seen that the Septuagint was used by the early Christians – when the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament over 90% of the quotations are taken from the Septuagint text. Many Protestants will argue that the Septuagint canon is not the correct one – but it is clear that the correct canon of the Bible is the 46 book Septuagint one.
The compilation of the New Testament
The assemblage of the New Testament is a very interesting process and a highly complex one. It can, however, by summarized relatively simply as follows.
Various Christians wrote books explaining the history of the Christian Church (including Gospels about the life of Christ and more general histories such as the Acts of the Apostles) and letters addressed to specific communities and persons (such as the letters of Saint Paul) and also what are best considered to be “open letters” (such as Hebrews). There were hundreds of different documents circulating around, all of them purporting to the authentic Christian teaching and accurate history and doctrine.
However, many of these documents were not what they claimed to be – they were forgeries not written by the people whose names they bore, or were heretical documents advancing novel notions about Christ. Some of these documents have survived today – examples are the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas. Neither of these documents were written by their alleged authors – they are late forgeries designed to cash in on the success and popularity of Christianity.
Out of all these hundreds of documents – many of them forgeries – the current 27 book New Testament appeared. This process took a long time – roughly 300 years went by from the writing of the last book of the New Testament (Revelation) until the list was finalized.
The list was compiled by the bishops of the Catholic Church. Initially, local canons were assembled by individual bishops. These canons were lists of books which could be read aloud in Churches at Mass. Despite the fact that these canons were independently assembled they bore a great deal of similarity to each other – because the Catholic bishops were all using the same criteria to determine which books should be included. They looked to see if the books were written by an apostle or someone who was reporting the words of an apostle. They checked to see how much the book was being used by other bishops and priests in their Masses, and also looked at how often the book was quoted by the Church Fathers in their writings. Only those books which “scored” favorably on all three of these criteria made it into their canons.
In the early fourth century Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire and it became possible for the bishops to meet without being imprisoned or killed by the pagan authorities. Beginning in the late fourth century and continuing until the very early fifth century the Catholic Church met at a number of councils where the canon of the Bible was debated. These councils produced canons which were identical to the current 73 book Roman Catholic canon.
As can clearly be seen the canon of the Bible was produced by the Catholic Church. The Church also existed long before the Bible – it was the early fifth century before the Bible existed as we might recognize it today, and none of the books of the Bible were even written until around 50 AD. But the Catholic Church began 20 years earlier, at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles.
The Christians who wrote the New Testament were Catholic – they were Catholic for two reasons. One, they believed everything which the current Catholic Church (and only the Catholic Church) teaches (as is shown by the writings of the Church Fathers). And they were Catholic because there was no other church at the time. Myths such as the “Trail of Blood” simply do not hold water – the Catholic Church was, quite literally, the only game in town.
Accordingly, the Bible can be considered to be two things – it is younger than the Catholic Church and it is the product of the Catholic Church. This means that the Bible is not the sole rule of faith for Christians, but rather “the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth” as it says in I Timothy 3:15.
The copying of the Bible
The way the Bible was disseminated to the various churches around the world – and the way it ended up being commonly available in virtually every bookstore in the world – is also a very interesting story, but is long and complex and not very relevant to apologetics. There are, however, a number of points which the apologist needs to be able to answer.
Firstly, a commonly-made charge is that the Catholic Church is somehow “anti-Bible”. This is a typical anti-Catholic slander and is totally untrue. If the Catholic Church really wanted to destroy the Bible, why did she not do so when she was the only Church there was and was the sole protector of the Bible? For over one thousand years the Bible was the possession of the Catholic Church alone, as there were no other Christians! The Bible was copied by monks in monasteries – if the Church had wanted to get rid of the Bible she could have done so simply by not copying it!
A number of anti-Catholics say that the Catholic Church’s doctrines are contrary to the Bible – what they mean is that their interpretation of the Bible is at odds with the Catholic Church’s. But if it were truly the case that there were verses in the Bible which were against the Catholic Church’s doctrines, why did she not change them when she had the chance? The Catholic Church could have changed the Bible to remove such embarrassing verses. The fact she did not shows that these verses are, in fact, not embarrassing at all and that the interpretation of non-Catholics must be considered incorrect!
The Bible is generally very historically accurate
A common charge leveled against the Bible by atheists and others is that the Bible is not historically accurate and is simply a collection of myths and stories. This is not the case. Modern archaeology and history have shown that the Bible is generally very historically accurate. The events described in the Bible are supported by secular historians such as Tatian and Josephus.
In order to refute the charge that the Bible is not historically accurate it is necessary to understand something very important about the nature of historical documents and history. Historical documents are not generally assumed to be inaccurate and packs of lies; they are generally assumed to be accurate because people are not assumed to be liars. Additionally, historians do not automatically require there to be two, three or four sources in order to actually believe something.
If historians were very skeptical about all documents and required multiple sources we would not know very much about history – for most of the historical events which humans beings believe to be true and to have really happened, there is only a single source which is not attested elsewhere.
Additionally, historical records which do not precisely agree on all the details are not automatically thought to be inaccurate or flawed. As an example, we only have two accounts of Hannibal crossing the Alps into Italy with elephants. These two accounts cannot be reconciled with each other – yet no historian says that Hannibal did not cross the Alps.
Most historical documents concerning events in the ancient world were written down long after the events they describe, and the copies which have survived are much later than the already late originals. This is true for the histories about Alexander the Great, for example. In comparison it is a simple fact that the documents of the Bible were written within living memory of the events (this is shown by the fact that the Church Fathers are quoting from the documents which make up the Bible very early indeed). Paul’s letters are written during the life of Paul – he was executed around 68 AD. Such temporal proximity to the events means that, firstly, there is less chance of legendary development and, secondly, that any errors would be corrected by the people who were there!
The question of legendary development – that is, the addition of legendary, fantastical elements to a story which turn it into a myth – is one which many atheists raise. They say that the Gospels originally did not contain any supernatural elements and that these were added afterwards – but this is not consistent with legendary development. There is not enough time for legendary development to take place; legendary development takes centuries to occur (it does not occur, for example, with the histories of Alexander the Great until the middle ages).
The people who say that the Bible is historically inaccurate are not historians, or at least are not unbiased historians. They do not understand the nature of historical documents; the fact that there are seeming contradictions or that the documents are not detailed, identical, or supported elsewhere does not automatically mean that the documents are flawed and are lies.
The Catholic apologist should always ask the non-Catholic precisely what about the Bible is allegedly historically inaccurate. Then he should determine if that alleged inaccuracy can be overcome by reading the Bible correctly. Many of these so-called inconsistencies are based on scientific assumptions which have not been proven (a good example is the Genesis creation story – the scientific theories of the creation of the world have never been proven and so cannot be treated as definite fact. In addition many Biblical scholars consider that the Genesis account should not be read literally, but rather allegorically). Historical “evidence” is often flawed, and comes from sources which are opposed to Christianity. The Bible is often the only source we have for information concerning the events described in the Bible – why is the Bible being automatically considered to be unreliable when no other historical document contradicts it and there is no evidence to suggest it is wrong? This is an unfair double standard which shows bias and prejudice against Christianity.
In addition the alleged inaccuracy of the Bible is often simply assumed without any evidence. In many cases the non-Catholic will simply say that “the supernatural does not exist” and so every time a supernatural event is depicted it must be false and a lie. That is simply an assertion without evidence – the non-Catholic must prove that the supernatural does not exist.
But, most importantly, it is not necessary to prove that the supernatural events in the Bible actually happened in order to prove the truth of Catholicism. It is merely necessary to prove that the Bible is generally historically accurate. Provided the person is not an atheist and does not deny the existence of God, that is all that is needed in order to prove that the Bible is divinely inspired and that the Catholic Church has authority. Of course, supernatural events such as the resurrection of Christ can be proven quite easily if the atheist is open-minded and honest.
The Bible is inspired scripture
This particular point of apologetics is relevant to two different groups, and for two different reasons. Firstly, to atheists and others who do not believe the Bible – it is important to show them that the Bible is the inspired word of God and contains accurate information about spiritual matters. Secondly, to non-Catholic Christians who already consider the Bible to be the inspired word of God – by showing them why the Bible is known to be the inspired word of God the authority of the Catholic Church can be supported.
The reason the Bible is considered divinely inspired is because the Catholic Church says so and the Catholic Church has the authority to do so. This is not an argument most people have heard – most people are expecting something along the lines of “The Bible says so” or “I was told so by God”. But this is not the reason. As shown in the article concerning sola scriptura the Bible cannot self-authenticate itself as inspired Scripture; there has to be an external authority which provides not only the canon of the Bible but also accurate interpretation of the Bible and the assurance that it is divinely inspired. This authority is the Catholic Church.
In order to prove the divine inspiration of the Bible to an atheist the Catholic apologist should first show that the Bible is historically accurate, then show that the Catholic Church has authority (based on the existence of God and the accuracy of the Bible) and then explain that the Catholic Church was the authority which put the Bible together and is the only authority which can correctly interpret it and declare it divinely inspired.
Some atheists will call this a circular argument – but this is not the case. It is perhaps best described as a spiral argument. The conclusion is not contained in the premise and an earlier logical step does not depend on a later one; the first point is that the Bible is historically accurate and that means the Catholic Church has authority. The Catholic Church assembled the Bible and then declared it divinely inspired. Because the Church has authority she can declare the Bible to be divinely inspired. Divinely inspired is not the same thing as historically accurate and hence this is not a circular argument.
For a non-Catholic Christian who already accepts the divine inspiration of the Bible the Catholic apologist should ask “Why do you believe the Bible is divinely inspired?” Various answers will be offered – but none of them are logically consistent and satisfying except the fact that the authority of the Catholic Church states that it is divinely inspired. The question which should then be put to the non-Catholic is “Don’t you think that, because the Catholic Church was the organization who put the Bible together and the organization who declared it inspired, the Catholic Church has to have authority in order to do this?” This is not actually the correct order for argument – it is arguing the cause from the effect – but it may convince non-Catholics of the essential truth that the Catholic Church has authority.