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Catholic Apologetics

Chapter 4 -- Origins of the Canon of Scripture


The Greek word for "the books" is "biblia", from which we get the English name Bible. The Bible is divided into two parts. Those books written in and about several old covenants we call the "Old Testament". Those books written in and about the New and Everlasting Covenant we call the "New Testament".

Old Testament

Around 600 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered the Jews. Many of them were taken to Babylon as slaves , but some remained in Israel, and some fled to Egypt. When the Babylonian captivity ended, many Babylonian Jews returned to Israel, but also, many others continued on to Egypt. By then, there was a substantial Jewish population in northern Egypt.

Alexander the Great conquered the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Israel. He built the city bearing his name, Alexandria, in northern Egypt in 332 B.C. Greek was the predominant language in the region, and Jews living in Alexandria translated the Scriptures into Greek. Around 250 B.C., six scholars from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, or a total of 72 of them, purportedly worked on the translations. This work became known as the Septuagint (Greek for 70).

The 'canon' is the list of books included in Scripture. The Jewish canon was unsettled at the time of Christ. The Sadducees, Pharisees and mainstream Jews honored different canons of Scripture. Sadducees believed only the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, all written by Moses, were divinely inspired. For them, the rest of the Old Testament was interesting, and maybe even historically accurate, but not the Word of God. The Pharisees accepted much more than the Sadducees, but felt all inspired scripture ended with the Babylonian exile, thus they rejected anything written since then. The Septuagint version of the Scriptures accepted more than the Pharisees. It included all the works considered inspired by the mainstream Jews of that day, which included some works written after the Babylonian exile. Jews had strong feelings about all three versions, and there was no fixed canon for all Jews.

Both the Pharisees' and Sadducees' canons were written in Hebrew. At the time of Christ, Hebrew was practically a dead language. It was used then much like Latin is used today, for rituals and religious events. Aramaic was the primary language spoken in Israel (a carryover from Babylonian captivity), and Greek was spoken everywhere. Possibly because of this, the Septuagint was the most popular canon of Scriptures at the time. Christ and the twelve Apostles used the Septuagint, as did Paul in his journeys through the Greek lands.

After the death of Christ, Christianity swept through the Jewish nation. In 70 A.D., their temple was destroyed, and Jews were losing their identity. Jewish leaders felt the need to unify under a common canon-one that was not so Gentile-oriented. At the Council of Javneh in 90 A.D., they settled on a more orthodox and conservative collection of books written in Hebrew only, which closely resembled the Pharisee canon. This collection, called the Palestinian canon, omitted the entire books of Tobit, Judith, Baruch, Sirach, 1&2 Maccabees and Wisdom, and parts of the books of Esther and Daniel, which were found in the Septuagint. In addition, the translation of some of the common books (found in both the Septuagint and Palestinian versions) were distinctly un-Gentile in the Palestinian canon.

Most Jews of today still accept the Palestinian canon. Christians uniformly accepted the Septuagint canon, until the Reformation in the 1500s, when Martin Luther et al rejected the canon used by Christ and the Apostles, in favor of the Palestinian canon. Today, most Protestant faiths continue to follow the Palestinian canon, while Catholic faiths still adhere to the Septuagint.

Thus, from the time of Christ's death until the time of Luther, about 1500 years, the Septuagint canon of the Old Testament was the inspired Word of God for Jesus, the Apostles and all Christians. Luther and his Protestant offspring removed several books from the Bible, rejecting the canon Christ used in favor of the canon used by the Pharisees.

New Testament

Up until the Reformation, in the early-1500's, all Christians were Catholic. There were 'Eastern' Catholics and 'Roman' Catholics, but all were Catholic. There were no Protestants.

There were many writings in the early Church that some considered inspired. They included "The Acts of Peter", "The Acts of Paul", "The Gospel of Peter", "The Gospel of Thomas", the "Didache" and many others. Also, there were New Testament writings that were not considered inspired by some, including "2 Peter", "2&3 John", "Jude", and "Revelation".

The early church held regional councils for confirming matters of faith and morals and proposing various disciplines. The Council of Hippo (in northern Africa) in 393 A.D. proposed a canon for both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament Canon they proposed was the 46 books* of the Septuagint version in its entirety. The New Testament Canon they proposed was the 27 books** both Protestants and Catholics accept today. The Council of Carthage (also in northern Africa) in 397 A.D. concurred on both counts. The Pope agreed, and that settled the matter. All Christians still accept the Pope's edict on the New Testament canon.

The Relationship Between Church and Scripture

Most Christians don't give a second thought as to the origins of the Bible. Most readily accept that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but they don't know how or why they came to believe-they just do. Some Protestants who thought about it declare the Holy Spirit led the early Christians to determine which writings were inspired and which were not, and that's all there is to it. Other Protestants claim the Holy Spirit "convicts" them when they read Scripture; they know it is the Word of God because they "feel" it.

The Catholic Church decided what writings were inspired, both Old and New Testaments. Individuals could not collectively agree on a New Testament canon, so the Holy Spirit worked through the Catholic Church to declare what books would be included. All Christian faiths, Catholic and Protestant, honor that same New Testament canon today. That same Catholic Church (during the same council meetings) declared what was included in the Old Testament canon, and yet Protestants challenge that truth. It is almost as if they accept the Holy Spirit was at work during that part of the council meeting where the New Testament was discussed, but not that part of the council meeting where the Old Testament was discussed.

To accept the authority of the Bible is to accept the authority of the Church that gave us the Bible. If you do not accept the authority of the Catholic Church, then you have no basis to accept the authority of the Bible; you can only revert back to the early church writings and consider for yourself what is inspired.

Parting Comment

The Bible is a Catholic book. We gave it to the world. There is nothing in Scriptures that is contrary to anything in the Catholic faith, and there is nothing in the Catholic faith that is contrary to the Scriptures. If you keep this in mind the next time you are challenged by a protestant evangelist, you will have the confidence to know there is a defense for the Catholic position. You might not know what that defense is, but you know it exists and you will be able to find it.

*Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther , 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees , Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Sirach, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
**Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation

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