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The Canon Of Scripture

January 24, 2014 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


For several weeks in this series we’ve been examining how God, in His loving Providence, has made Himself known to us. We’ve discussed the twofold means by which His divine Revelation has been transmitted to mankind — Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture — and how the two together are inseparable elements of a single Deposit of Faith. Most recently, we’ve examined how Sacred Scripture is read and interpreted through the eyes of the Church, that is, through the complementary use of the literal and spiritual senses of interpretation. The question we’ll now seek to answer is how the specific content to be included in the Bible was determined. In other words, how did the Canon of Scripture come to be and how are we to be assured of its integrity? After all, versions of the Bible authorized by the Catholic Church contain a different number of books than bibles used by many Protestant denominations.
First, let’s briefly consider what a biblical canon is and why we need it. In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. John Hardon, SJ, defines canon as “an established rule for guidance, a standard, or a list of such rules; in biblical usage the catalogue of inspired writings known as the Old and New Testaments, identified as such by the Church” (p. 78). The Bible did not come complete with a table of contents or an index to tell us which writings, and how many, were divinely inspired and should be accepted as canonically authentic. However, God did leave His Church with the means to accomplish that very thing: The bishops, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, were given the authority to define the Canon of Scripture and the promise of preservation from error in doing so.
Now, let’s consider an erroneous idea many have that is more common than one might think — that the Bible can simply be taken for granted. As Fr. Hardon expresses it, “They assume that it was ‘always there,’ without realizing that the history of the Bible gives a fair cross-section of the history of God’s revelation to the human race” (The Catholic Catechism, p. 43). And as stated in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner by Fr. Henry Wright in his book Where We Got the Bible, “The Bible did not drop down from Heaven ready-made, as some seem to imagine; it did not suddenly appear upon the earth, carried down from Almighty God by the hand of an angel or seraph” (p. 8).
In reality, the Bible, as approved by the Catholic Church, consists of 73 separate books that were penned over a span of approximately 1,500 years by more than 40 different human authors, all inspired by one Divine Author. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us that “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” (CCC, n. 120). In contrast, versions of the Bible used by most Protestants consist of 66 books, only 39 in the Old Testament. What accounts for this significant difference? We’ll look at some biblical history before answering that question.
Since at least the beginning of the Christian era, the composition of the Pentateuch or Torah (i.e., the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) has been credited to Moses. Most scholars now hold that these books are made up of various written documents dating from the ninth to fourth century before Christ. “Nevertheless, given the explicit statements of Christ and the Apostles [e.g., Luke 24:44] about the Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch, the Catholic Church has officially held that the first five books of the Bible are somehow of Mosaic authorship” (The Catholic Catechism, p. 44). The precise dating of Moses’ lifetime is not known, but many sources believe he lived around the 14th century B.C.
Following the composition of the books of the Pentateuch, which are referred to as the Law, two other classifications of books became part of the Old Testament: the Prophets and the Writings (or Hagiographa). According to Fr. Wright, “At what date precisely the volume or ‘canon’ of the Old Testament was finally closed and recognized as completed forever is not absolutely certain” (Where We Got the Bible, p. 13). Some authorities contend it was around 430 B.C. under Esdras and Nehemias; others say it wasn’t until about 100 B.C. when the Writings were added. Fr. Wright asserts, “Whichever contention is correct, one thing at least is certain, that by this last date . . . the Old Testament existed precisely as we have it now” (ibid., p.14).
Thus far, our discussion has been with respect to the Old Testament as written in Jewish Hebrew. As legend goes, however, the third-century B.C. Egyptian king Ptolemy II desired a copy of Jewish law for the Library of Alexandria. At the behest of the Jewish high priest Eleazer, six scholars from each of the twelve tribes of Alexandria (a total of 72) were recruited to do the translation. It came to be known as the Septuagint and derives its name from the Latin versio septuaginta interpretum, or “translation of the seventy interpreters” (often referred to as LXX, the Roman numeral designation for 70). This Greek translation included the full 46-book Old Testament canon. In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. Hardon emphatically describes the Septuagint as “the most important translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek” and goes on to state that “as time went on, it steadily became a Christian possession and Jews lost interest in it” (p. 499).

Praying For The Dead

We now return to the question that was posed earlier: Why do Protestant versions of the Bible have fewer books than versions approved by the Catholic Church? In the centuries prior to the coming of the Messiah, there was a second version of the Old Testament consisting of only 39 books that was used by the Jews in Palestine. Books not present in that version which appear in the Alexandrian Septuagint include: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees (as well as parts of Esther and Daniel). Many contend that it wasn’t until the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD, well after the establishment of the Catholic Church, that the Jews settled upon the Palestinian canon.
The Catholic Church refers to these seven Old Testament books as “deuterocanonical” (second canon) and recognizes them as divinely inspired and part of the biblical canon. On the other hand, Protestants refer to them as “apocryphal” (of doubtful authenticity) and reject them as non-canonical. Fr. Hardon says, “Protestants apply the term improperly to denote Old Testament books not contained in the Jewish canon but received by Catholics under the name deuterocanonical” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, p. 33). It is interesting to note that it wasn’t until the 16th-century Protestant Reformation that the seven books were rejected, the principal reason being that these books were in conflict with new Protestant doctrines. For example, 2 Macc. 12:39-46 supports the Catholic practice of praying for the dead, a teaching rejected by Protestantism.
For their part, the apostles and early Christians accepted the Alexandrian Septuagint from the very time the Church was established. Seemingly incontrovertible evidence of the inspired and apostolic nature of the Alexandrian version is contained in the very text of New Testament books. As Fr. John L. McKenzie, SJ, points out in his Dictionary of the Bible, the longer Alexandrian Septuagint “became the Bible of the Church in the first generation of Christians, and 300 of the 350 citations from the Old Testament in the New Testament are quoted according to the LXX” (p. 787).
Next week we’ll complete our discussion of the Old Testament, consider the canonicity of the books of the New Testament, and examine the process by which the Catholic Church, though her synods, papal decrees, and ecumenical councils, authoritatively defined the Canon of Scripture.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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