Facts About the Catholic Bible

These excerpts are taken from “The Holy Family Bible”, introductory chapter titled “Facts about the Catholic Bible”, published in 1956.

HUMAN AUTHORS OF THE BIBLE

In writing under the influence of inspiration, the human writers did not become mere secretaries, taking word for word dictation from God.  Each wrote in his own personal style and language, as we know, for example, from the difference between the language of Saint Paul’s letters and Saint Luke’s Gospel. God adapted His inspiration to the person he was using as an instrument.  Thus, He inspired Moses to write like Moses, Isaias to write like Isaias, Saint John to write like Saint John.  However, God may at times have supplied the human author with the words or phrases.  When expressing a mystery, a writer may have been unable to phrase it exactly.  God may have supplied, in addition to the idea, exact words in which to express it.  Certainly God prevented the selection of misleading or erroneous expressions throughout the Bible.

NO ERRORS IN THE BIBLE

God cannot make a mistake.  Therefore, since God is its author, the Bible can contain no errors.  If there were the slightest error in the Bible, God would not be perfect.  Of course, it is only the ideas and thoughts expressed in the Bible as they were originally written that are absolutely true.  Modern copies of the Hebrew or Greek texts of the Scriptures are without error only in so far as they are the same as the original.  For centuries before the invention of printing, the only way to duplicate the text of the Bible was to copy it by hand.  Copyists could have made mistakes.  However, such errors, while they are possible and certainly have occurred in some instances, must not be too readily admitted.  For copyists took more care with Scripture than with any other book.   Moreover, God in His Providence has faithfully protected His Bible from any serious corruption.  Translations of the Bible are absolutely without error only in so far as they accurately express the ideas as written by the inspired writer in the original language.

IS THE BIBLE INSPIRED?

The Bible itself speaks of inspiration.  Referring to the Old Testament, Saint Paul says that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16).  Saint Peter, speaking of the prophets, says: “No prophecy of Scripture is made by private interpretation. For not by the will of man was prophecy brought at any time; but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:20-21).  According to the Bible itself, some New Testament books are no less divine and authoritative than the Old Testament books.  Saint Paul prefaces both with the phrase, “The Scripture says” (1 Tim 6:18).  Saint Peter classes the Pauline epistles with “the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:15-16).

The earliest Christian writers recognized the divine authorship of the Bible.  Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who lived in the first century, and Saint Justin Martyr, who lived in the second century, both spoke of the Bible as “inspired by God”.   Throughout the centuries the divine origin of the Bible has been given as the reason for its infallible truth, and God has been named as its author.  The human authors of the various books have been called instruments of God, and God is said to have spoken through them.  

The best and only adequate proof for the fact that the Bible was written under the inspiration of God is the infallible word of the Catholic Church.  On April 8, 1546, the Council of Trent declared that God is the author of both the Old and the New Testaments.  The Vatican Council, on April 24, 1870, stated that the books of the Bible, “having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have God for their author, and as such were handed down by the Church herself”.  Pope Pius XII repeated these words of the Vatican Council in 1943 in his Encyclical Letter on the promotion of Biblical studies.

WHICH BOOKS BELONG IN THE BIBLE

The list of books that belong in the Bible is called the canon.  Only those books are canonical (that is, in the canon) which are inspired.  Since inspiration is an invisible and supernatural action of God, it can be known only by those to whom God reveals it.  Christ and the Holy Ghost revealed to the Apostles which books are inspired.  Since the Apostles did not leave a written list of these books, the oral tradition they handed down is the only source from which we can learn which are the canonical books.

The Church alone, which has been appointed by God to guard the tradition of the Apostles, can tell us with certainty which books are inspired and consequently belong in the canon according to apostolic tradition.  Up to the end of the fourth century, conflicting Jewish and Christian traditions led to some uncertainty in listing the canonical books.  However, the Council of Hippo in Africa in 393 listed them; and the Council of Trent and the Vatican Council reaffirmed the canon of Hippo.  The books found in this Bible are those listed by the Catholic Church in the Councils at Hippo, Trent, and the Vatican.

MANUSCRIPTS OF THE BIBLE

None of the original manuscripts of the inspired writers (autographs) have come down to us.  However, there are some very ancient copies of the originals.  There are in existence today about six thousand manuscripts of the Bible, or parts of the Bible, written before the invention of printing in the fifteenth century.  Three of the most important are described here. 

The Mount Sinai Manuscript [Sinaiticus], written in the early part of the fourth century, contains a Greek translation of the Old Testament and the original Greek text of the New Testament.  It was discovered in the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai.  The Tsar of Russia obtained the manuscript from the monks and transferred it to Saint Petersburg.  In 1933 the British Museum, its present owner, bought it from the Soviet Government for more than $400, 000. 

The Vatican Manuscript, also written in the early fourth century, contains the complete Bible in Greek with a few omissions.  This manuscript has been in the Vatican Library in Rome for at least four and a half centuries. 

The Alexandrian Manuscript, written in the fifth century in Egypt, contains the whole Bible except for a few passages.  In 1627 it was brought from Alexandria in Egypt to England, where it is now one of the treasures of the British Museum in London.

FAMOUS TRANSLATIONS OF THE BIBLE

The Septuagint is a famous Greek translation of the Old Testament, made at Alexandria in Egypt, between 250 and 100 B.C.  Many Jews in Egypt, having adopted the Greek language, needed a Greek version of their Scriptures.  According to a legend, seventy scholars sent from Jerusalem translated the first five books of the Old Testament.  Septuagint, which means “the work of seventy”, is now commonly applied, not only to the first five books, but to the complete Greek translation of the Old Testament.

The Vulgate is a Latin translation of the Bible, made almost completely by Saint Jerome.  Dissatisfied with the many defective Latin texts then current, Pope Saint Damasus I (366-384) asked Saint Jerome, his secretary, to make a new Latin translation.  Saint Jerome’s translation, on which he spent a large part of his life, became by degrees the only Latin Bible in common use.  Hence, it was called the “Vulgate”, which means, “in common use”.  

INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE

The purpose of interpretation is to grasp the meaning intended by God, who is the chief author of the Bible.  Since the Scriptures were written centuries ago in ancient languages, they are often difficult to understand.  Moreover, the ideas proposed in the Bible are frequently above our limited human understanding.  Even Saint Peter confessed that in Saint Paul’s letters there “are certain things difficult to understand, which the unlearned and the unstable distort, just as they do the rest of the Scriptures also, to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16).  Therefore, special rules of Scripture interpretation are necessary.

RULES OF INTERPRETATION

1. The Bible is a religious book given to man by God Himself.  Therefore, the reader should prepare his soul for reading and understanding its meaning by prayer and a holy life.

2. The Bible, because God is its author, it is absolutely free from all error.  Therefore,

  • No interpretation can be admitted that supposes an error in the Bible.
  • No interpretation can be admitted that supposes a contradiction between one inspired writer and another, or between two inspired passages of the same writer.
  • No interpretation can be admitted which contradicts a truth clearly and certainly demonstrated by science.

3. The Bible has been given to the Church to be guarded and explained.  Hence, it must be interpreted according to the mind of the Church.  Therefore,

  • Whenever the Church officially declares the meaning of a particular text, it must be understood in that sense.
  • No interpretation can be admitted which has been condemned by the Church.
  • An interpretation must be admitted if it is the unanimous teaching of the Fathers in a matter of faith and morals.
  • No interpretation can be admitted which would teach anything contrary to true and certain doctrines of the Catholic Church.

THE CHURCH, GUARDIAN OF THE BIBLE

Catholics are allowed to read and to keep only those translations of the Holy Bible which are issued with annotations and with the approval of the pope or a bishop.  Since the Church is the guardian of the truths of faith, it must protect its members from versions of the Bible that have been truncated by those who do not accept the full truth as revealed in the Scriptures.  The present-day Protestant Bible omits seven complete books and parts of two others in the Old Testament.  The modern Protestant Bible retains the full twenty seven books of the New Testament, although Martin Luther rejected four of them.  He called the Epistle of James “an epistle of straw” because it did not teach justification by faith alone.  

SHOULD CATHOLICS READ THE BIBLE?

Catholics are urged to read the Bible, as the following official statements demonstrate:

  • Our one desire for all the Church’s children is that, being saturated with the Bible, they may arrive at that all-surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ….And none can fail to see what profit and sweet tranquillity must result in in well-disposed souls from such devout reading of the Bible (Pope Benedict XV; Sep. 15, 1920).
  • The same veneration (for the Bible) the Bishops should endeavour daily to increase and perfect among the faithful committed to their care, encouraging all those initiatives by which men filled with apostolic zeal, laudably strive to excite and foster among Catholics a greater knowledge of and love for the sacred books (Pope Pius XII; Sept. 30, 1943).

SHOULD CATHOLICS OWN A BIBLE?

The archbishops and bishops of the United States answered that question in 1884:

  • It can hardly be necessary for us to remind you, beloved brethren, that the most highly valued treasure of every family library, and the most frequently and lovingly made use of, should be the Holy Scriptures….We hope that no family can be found amongst us without a correct version of the Holy Scriptures (The Third Council of Baltimore; Dec 7, 1884).

This article consists of selected sections taken from “The Holy Family Bible”, introductory chapter titled “Facts about the Catholic Bible”, pages viii- xii, published in 1956 by Virtue and Company Limited, London.  The New Testament is the Confraternity Version and the Old Testament is the Douay Rheims Bible.