Where Did the Bible Come From?

It’s Thursday, and that means “Bible Day” at Thoughts and Prayers for the Faithful. Today, we consider the question, “Where Did the Bible Come From?”


The Bible is not a single book. It is a collection of many books, like a library. In fact, the word “bible” comes to us from the Greek ta biblia, meaning “the books.” The books of the Bible were written over many centuries by a host of authors. Most of the Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew, the language of the Jews. The New Testament was written in ancient Greek, the language the people of first century Palestine used when doing business or teaching in schools.

The Old Testament includes stories and histories that were told by word of mouth over many generations. Children would learn these stories at the feet of their parents and grandparents. The purpose of the stories was to give the youngsters a sense of identity with their people, so they could take pride in their accomplishments, and learn from their mistakes. The stories also tried to answer questions about good and evil, the relationship between men and women, the origins of various tribes, as well as laws, rituals and worship practices. Mostly, the stories told about God and His relationship with His chosen people, Israel. As the stories were told, details were added that made the stories more relevant and personable to the listeners. Eventually, the stories took on a fairly consistent, familiar form, so that all the members of the community would know them and feel a connection with the other members of the community through their shared stories. This did not happen just in the case of the Jewish people. It happened with all ancient peoples. As Catholics, however, we believe that the Jewish people hold a special relationship with God as His chosen people, the instrument by which God would make Himself known to all people of the world, and from whom would come the Messiah.

It is to Moses that tradition credits with first gathering together stories and laws of the people of Israel that came to be honored as sacred texts. In later centuries, the histories of kings, songs of worship, the proclamations of prophets and heroic tales would be added, pieced together by generations of scribes from the fragments of written and oral material. Some scholars contend that the Torah was more or less completed prior to the Babylonian Exile, when the Jews were forced from Palestine to Babylon in the sixth century BC. Others hold that it was probably after their return from exile and during the time that Persia ruled Palestine that Jewish scholars first organized an effort to collect and edit the sacred books of Israel, and that this process continued for the next century or more. There is clear consensus, however, that by the middle of the fifth century BC, when Ezra read the Book of the Law to the people (Nehemiah 8:1-3), that the Torah as we know it was a finished work. To these collections would be added the voices of later prophets, the histories of later kings, and even some books written in Greek barely a century or two before the birth of Christ. There are a number of theories about when the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was officially fixed and recognized by the Jews. Some say it was during the reign of the Hasmoneans, while other theories claim it was around the time of the destruction of the second Temple in AD 70, and still others by a council of rabbis closer to the end of the first century. Other scholars reject all of these theories, for a variety of reasons. It is not known with certainty, then, when the Jewish biblical books were finally recognized as canonical, and there may not have ever been a formal recognition. The process began many centuries before Christ and was most likely completed some decades into the Christian era.

As for the New Testament, the letters of Paul are the earliest surviving writings of the Christian era. They were written in the AD 50s and 60s. Most scholars agree that some of the letters of Paul were written by his disciples, though there is some debate as to which. These letters, written by others but attributed to Paul, would have been composed closer to the end of the first century.  The consensus among biblical scholars is that The Gospel According to Mark was the first Gospel written, sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, followed by The Gospel According to Matthew in the decade of the 80s and The Gospel According to Luke, along with The Acts of the Apostles, in the mid-80s. The Gospel According to John was likely the last Gospel written, sometime between 90 and 110, sixty to eighty years after Jesus.

Before the Gospels were written, however, the apostles and those earliest disciples first encountered Jesus Himself and experienced the power of His ministry. Surely, even as Jesus lived and preached, some of His words and actions were written down by those in the crowds. Even more certain, they were remembered and re-told by His listeners in this culture that relied a great deal on passing wisdom along by word of mouth. After Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, the apostles continued this oral tradition, passing on details of Jesus’ ministry, as well as their reflections on His mission and teachings. Finally, as the decades passed, these traditions of teachings, sayings and acts of Jesus were written down in a variety of collections and recollections, then gathered together by the Evangelists into the four Gospels the Church has come to revere as God’s revelation on the life, ministry, Passion, death and Resurrection of her Lord. Each Evangelist, writing from his particular perspective and to his particular audience, felt free to emphasize those teachings and events of Jesus’ ministry that would speak most meaningfully to those to whom he was writing. It is a marvelous testimony to the guidance of divine providence in the development of the Christian Scriptures that the Church places her confidence in no less than four “portraits” of Jesus, each written by a different man under different circumstances, yet each revealing the truth of this one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This three-stage process (the experience of Jesus; the oral tradition; the written Gospels) has been accepted by the Church as a reliable understanding of how the four canonical Gospels took form (CCC, n. 126).

These Gospels and Letters, along with the others now included in the New Testament, were gathered together by local churches in the Christian world, especially in the larger and more important churches of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria and Corinth. Mixed in with them would be other early Christian writings regarded with esteem, such as the Letters of Ignatius, the Shepherd of Hermes and the Didache (also known as The Teaching of the Apostles). These books were used and revered in early Christian worship, and even considered Scripture by some. By the end of the second century, all of the books that are now part of the New Testament were known to the Christian world and accepted as sacred, though there was still some question about other Christian writings and which books of the Old Testament would be recognized as Scripture.

In 382, Pope Damasus I issued a decree that listed all books, both Old and New Testaments, that Catholics today accept as part of the Bible. This decree was followed by the judgments of two local councils, one in Hippo in 393 and another in Carthage in 397 (both cities in north Africa). In 405, Pope Innocent I also provided a list of books of the Bible consistent with what Catholics recognize today. However, it was not until the Council of Florence in 1441 that a universal council of the Church, meaning one that represents the teaching of the entire Church around the world, provided a list of biblical books. Finally, responding to the Protestant Reformers who challenged the canonicity of some of the books of the Old and New Testaments, another universal council, the Council of Trent in 1556, gave the final, infallible word on which books were to be recognized as the sacred and inspired books of the Bible by all Catholics.

The Bible did not fall out of the sky. Rather than speaking of Christianity as “a religion of the book,” it is more correct to speak of the Bible as “the book of the Church,” written by many people over many centuries, finally collected into a definitive form by the authority of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is why we can trust that the Bible contains only those books that God wanted for it to contain, and that those books reveal to us what God intended to reveal for the sake of our salvation. There is an old saying that, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” In the case of the formation of the Bible, that is not far from the truth. The stories, laws, histories, legends, tales, songs, prayers and letters that make up the Bible came to us over a long and circuitous route. Guided by the hand of the Holy Spirit, we have faith that the Word of God in the Bible is God’s Word for us today and for all generations.

Be Christ for all.  Bring Christ to all.  See Christ in all.





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