Friday, January 28, 2011

Bible Basics, Day 5: The Canon of Scripture

Ummm.....not this kind of cannon!

The Canon of Scripture

I.  The Authority of the Church

       Well, dear readers,  you may have had a chance to read this Bible verse over the last few days:

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that,  if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of
            God, which is the church of the living God, the  
             pillar and bulwark of the truth. 1 Timothy 3:14-15 

From Merriam-Webster:
 bulwark: 1a: a solid wall-like structure raised for defense
                     2: a strong support or protection

This verse very clearly describes for us the role of the defend and uphold the truth.  And how does the Church know the truth?  Jesus made this profound promise to His disciples on the night He was betrayed:

And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever,  even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.  John 14:16-17
 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. John 14:26  

In promising the Holy Spirit would be with the Church and guide it, Jesus was sending Truth Itself to indwell His Holy Church.  This Spirit of Truth will never abandon the Church, and it remains with the Church throughout all the ages. It is this indwelling Spirit of God that gave the Church the knowledge and the authority to determine which books were inspired by God and therefore worthy of being included in the Canon of Scripture.

It is important to note that I said the Church determined "which books were inspired"...not that the Church took some books and by choosing them for the Bible somehow caused them to become inspired.  God had already inspired the authors of these books at the time they were written, so the role of the Church was not to create inspired writings, but simply to identify them.
     It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.  This complete list is called the canon of Scripture.  It includes 46 books for the Old Testament and 27 for the New.--CCC120

II.  Why a canon?
       In the very early days of the Church, all of the converts were Jewish.  Even after they joined "The Way", as the Christian sect was called, they continued to be considered Jews and to attend the synagogue services.  During these services,  a rabbi (or even a visiting dignitary) would read the Old Testament Scripture designated for that day and then comment on it.  This is exactly what was happening when Jesus read to the people in the synagogue at Capernaum in Luke 4:16-21 and then applied it (shockingly!) to Himself:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day.  And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah.  He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
                                "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,       
                                  because he has anointed
                                  me to preach good news to the poor. 
                                  He has sent me to proclaim release to 
                                  the captives and
                                  recovering of sight to the blind, to set at
                                  liberty those who
                                  are oppressed, to proclaim the
                                  acceptable year of the Lord."
                     And he closed the book, and gave it back to the
                     attendant, and sat down;  and
                     the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on
                     him.  And he began to say to them, "Today this 
                     scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
         The first Christians attended such services and listened to the readings from Scripture on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday).  Then, very early Sunday morning (even as early as midnight), they would meet in homes to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus and participate in the Holy Sacrifice.  So the two parts of the Mass we have today, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, naturally arose out of these two celebrations. 
     When the Christians were forced out of the Jewish synagogues, they continued the custom of reading the Scriptures before the celebration of the Eucharist.  As time passed, the gospels and letters of the Apostles began to be read in these assemblies as well as the Old Testament writings, and so they began to be considered as "Scripture", too.  Unfortunately, not everything written was worthy of this distinction.  Heresies arose and false gospels began to be composed that distorted the true Faith in one way or another.  So, it became necessary for the Church to state authoritatively which gospels and letters could be read during the Liturgy of the Word and which could not. 
 III.  The Councils that set the Canon

     The Church considered this question at several councils.  The canon of Scripture Catholics use today, listed at the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D.,  was officially decreed by the Church at the Council of Carthage and confirmed by Rome in 397 A.D. This ancient list is the same list of books that are in the Catholic Bible today.  It was accepted and in use throughout both the Eastern and Western Church by the 5th century. 
This list of inspired books would be re-stated at the 2nd Council of Nicea in 787 A.D. and at the Council of Florence in 1441.  It was solemnly defined at the Council of Trent in 1546 A.D. in response to Martin Luther's efforts to eliminate several of the inspired books. 

IVThe Books in the Bible Today

     By the authority given to her by her Lord and by the indwelling Spirit of Truth which He sent to guide the Church,  we can be SURE that the books which the Church has decreed to be inspired are in fact and truth inspired and without error.  The authority of the Bible rests solidly on the authority of the Church, which Jesus promised to preserve from error and to lead into all truth.  If the Church is fallible, then we have only a "fallible collection of infallible books", as one Protestant scholar declared.  If our collection of books is fallible, then how can we know with certainty anything Jesus taught or did?  How can we trust the words of Scripture if there is no authority that can assure us that these words and no others are the truth?  Why shouldn't we just take the parts that we like and ignore the rest?  Indeed, without the authority and infallible teaching office of the Church, we find exactly such an approach being taken to Divine Scripture in many places today.  The Church and the Bible stand or fall together.

The original "books" of the Bible were written on paper made from papyrus or on parchment skins and stored as scrolls.  Each "book" was an individual scroll.  Sometimes a long work, such as Isaiah, would take up two scrolls.  When Jesus sat down to read in the synagogue in Luke 4:16-20, the book He was handed was not a book as we think of it, but a scroll.

     I put together a one-page chart listing the names and abbreviations of the Old Testament books according to the Revised Standard Version, as well as the Douay-Rheims Version names, which you can download  here.
The New Testament canon with abbreviations is here for you.
These lists are also to be found on one of the first pages of your Bible, along with their page numbers.  This is very handy, I have found!  I always have to use the page numbers to find the teeny, tiny books like Obadiah and Haggai!

I recommend for further reading a brief excerpt from "Where We Got the Bible" by Henry Graham.  The entire book is available free online or you can purchase it here:  Where We Got the Bible.

Your Assignment

1.  Why do you think the Old Testament was written?
2.  Is the Old Testament still important for us today?  Why?
3.  Read CCC 121 and 122.
4.  Read Matthew 5:17-20

Main Idea:  The Catholic Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, authoritatively established the canon of Sacred Scripture as the true and inspired Word of God for the benefit of the faithful of all times. 

Next lesson:  The Old Testament


  1. I greatly appreciate what CCC 122 has to say. I copied it to read it for a ponder it. My first reaction was that it got to the essence of the Old Testament's importance, because it is highly important.

    Yet again, you have written a very insightful and thought provoking post. There is much for me to digest...thank you.

  2. Thank you, ibeeeg! Your comments are a true encouragement to me!