What are the origins of the Bible? When was it written? Can we believe what it says?
Have you ever wondered how and when the Bible came to be? Of course, most of us know that the Bible didn’t drop down from heaven as a complete book, but many do not know how the Bible came to be.
The Bible is made up of many books written by many authors. How were the books that make up the Bible chosen? And what were the criteria for including those books?
The Old Testament
The Christian Bible is made up of two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is the Sacred Scripture of the Jewish people and, because of this, it was the only Bible that Jesus, the Apostles, and the early Christians had. Originally written in the Hebrew language, it included books of the history of Israel, the writings of the Prophets, and Wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon).
The Jewish Diaspora began when the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 BC, and the inhabitants were scattered across the Middle East. Later, in 597 BC, Nebuchadnezzar deported many Judeans (people living in the southern part of Israel known as Judea), although some escaped to Egypt. When the Jewish people were dispersed to other nations after these conquests, the Jews began to speak the languages of the people where they now lived. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great people in the conquered areas learned to speak Greek. Even the Jewish Scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek to be read in the synagogues, and this translation is known as the Septuagint. It was the Septuagint translation that was the Scripture (Old Testament) used in the time of Jesus and the early Church.
The New Testament
The New Testament is made up of the four Gospels (Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of St. Paul, St. Peter and St. John, the Revelation of St. John and a letter whose author is unknown (Letter to the Hebrews). The Acts of the Apostles was written by St. Luke. The letters (e.g. Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, I Peter) were circulated to be read in the churches of the Mediterranean area which at that time was part of the Roman Empire.
The canon of New Testament Scripture was set down by Iraneus, a bishop of Lyon, France at the end of the second century (between 100 and 199 AD). He accepted the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) even though two of them had not been written by Apostles (Luke and Mark). Luke was a physician who travelled with Paul. Mark was possibly a nephew of Peter. As there were other letters and gospels circulating at the time, Iraneus’ criteria for the canon were that they were “... the teachings of the churches in the earliest period, meaning whichever of these writings had actually remained in use since that time.” Therefore, the books which today are recognized by Roman Catholics, Protestant, and the Orthodox Church as Scripture, were agreed upon well before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD (the 4th century) when they were formally declared to be part of Scripture.
The Catholic Church was responsible for the canon of Scripture (which books should be included) and the preservation of Scripture. Since it was the only Church until the 15th Century, without the Catholic Church, we would not have the Christian Bible as it exists today.
When scribes (usually monks) copied the manuscripts, errors inadvertently crept into the copies. Textual Criticism is a science which tries to identify and remove errors in transcription in the texts of any ancient manuscript. The objective is to produce a text which is a close as possible to the original. Often, in the case of classical manuscripts, there may be only one or two manuscripts in existence. If there are more than ten, there is a great advantage of knowing what was originally written. In the case of the New Testament, however, there are nearly five thousand manuscripts in Greek in existence as well as quotations from the books in the writings of others! Furthermore, the manuscripts of classical authors usually date only from the Middle Ages, but there are manuscripts of the New Testament Scriptures as far back as the end of the 2nd century. That is, they were written only a century after the original manuscripts had been written. This means we can trust the words of Scripture more than we can trust the words of classical writings.
What are the Gnostic Gospels?
The Gnostic gospels are 13 volumes that were discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. All of these books were written in the Coptic language and are probably translations from Greek. They were believed to have been written in the 2nd century (100-199 AD).
Most Biblical scholars agree that the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were written before AD70, although some put Matthew at 75-80AD. If this is the case, the Canonical Gospels would be more reliable accounts of the life of Jesus than the Gnostic gospels as they were written closer to the time that he lived.
Before AD70, there would have been witnesses still alive who could have protested any errors in them. By the 2nd century (when the Gnostic gospels were written) anyone still living from the time of Jesus would have to be over 100 years old.
Inspiration of Scripture
The Catholic Church, as well as the Orthodox Church and Evangelical Protestant churches, believe that the writers of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit: God is the Author of Sacred Scripture: "The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit," CCC 105 and Dei Verbum 11.
"To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers, that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more," Dei Verbum V 11.
Scriptures in the Church
Before the invention of the printing press, the Scriptures were hand-copied. The pages were often beautifully decorated as well. Individuals did not own copies of the Bible and copies were often chained down in the Church, not to keep people from reading the Bible, but to ensure it would be available when someone did want to read it. In other words, like our telephone books today, 'chaining them' prevented people stealing them.
By this time, Latin was the language used amongst the educated and was the language used in the universities across Europe. Uneducated people could not read Latin nor could they read their own language, so books in English or German were not necessary in the early Middle Ages. However, there are some instances of early translations into the vernacular (common) language of the people. Two examples are: Bishop Ulfilas (318-380) who devised an alphabet for the Goths and translated the Old and New Testaments. In the 9th Century, St. Cyril and St. Methodius invented an alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet, for the Slavic peoples and translated a Bible for them.
Quotations About Scripture
St. Jerome (AD340-420) said, “Not to know the Scriptures is not to know Christ.” St. Jerome translated the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek to Latin, the language in use at that time.
A document from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) states, “Among other things that pertain to salvation of the Christian peoples, the food of the Word of God is above all necessary, because as the body is nourished by material food, so is the soul nourished by spiritual food, since, '...not by bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:4).
And finally, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997): “In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, ‘but as what it really is, the word of God.” (103)
Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York, London, Toronto: Doubleday. 1997.
Pope Paul VI. Dei Verbum: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. The Vatican:1965.
The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent website, accessed October 15, 2010.
The Jewish Virtual Library website, accessed October 15, 2010.