The Church teaches that the Bible is the core foundation of the Catholic faith because God reveals the truth through scripture and the Church. But it’s hard to believe today that reading the Bible was once discouraged in the Catholic Church.
“Since the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, we have certainly rediscovered the importance of direct or more direct use of the Bible,” says Father Felix Just, S.J., director of Loyola Institute for Spirituality and the Catholic Bible Institute Program in the Diocese of Orange.
The Church has always used the Bible in the liturgy; the Mass and all the sacraments are based on the Bible. It has included readings from the scriptures for the last 2,000 years and yet before the Second Vatican Council, those readings were proclaimed in Latin.
“Because of the use of Latin, most people wouldn’t understand the readings and many Catholics unfortunately were told, don’t read the Bible,” explains Father Just. “That was unfortunately the general mentality although never the official teaching of the Church. The general mentality passed on was that the Bible was too dangerous to read on your own therefore don’t bother reading it. Whereas since the 1960’s, we have said no. Everybody should be reading it.”
There are several stages in the formation of the Bible. The first is the events themselves that make up the Old and New Testament periods, involving the patriarchs, prophets, Jesus and the apostles. The second stage is oral tradition, in which the teachings of Moses and Jesus and the stories of events were first passed on in an oral form for several decades or even centuries.
Father James Heft, S.M., president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at University of Southern California, says he is often asked how can we be confident that the gospels and other scriptures are accurate?
“Because it came out of an oral culture. We don’t have any oral culture today,” Father Heft explains. “We look things up on the Internet. We don’t have to remember. Whereas people at that time didn’t have any Internet or a library, so they found ways to tell stories that were quite memorable and they could be repeated generation to generation with a great deal of more continuity and accuracy than we can imagine in our own culture.”
The third major stage is when the individual writings were first composed. The final stage is when all of those writings were collected in two big books – the Old Testament and New Testament. The Old Testament was collected much earlier, in the few centuries before Jesus, while the books and letters of the New Testament were written in the last half of the first century; and yet it took another few centuries for the Church to decide which early Christian writings would be considered biblical. The result is the New Testament collection being added to the Old Testament collection to create the complete Bible as the Church has now had for centuries.
“What’s interesting is that the rabbis and the Christian leaders felt the same need at about the same time in history to make an official collection,” says Father Heft. “In the middle-second, early-third century the leaders of the Church were facing various heresies, mainly Gnosticism, and what the leaders of the Church felt a need to do is to say ‘these are the authentic books, these are the ones that really represent what Jesus taught and who Jesus is about.’ And that’s how eventually the canon, the collection that makes up the New Testament was formed, out of a necessity to protect the authentic teaching.”
“There is no known written criteria that would explain how the early Church leaders determined which books to include,” says Father Just. “But scholars would say there were four main criteria that the early Church leaders seemed to have used.”
First is apostolic origin in which all of the New Testament writings are somehow connected to the first-generation apostles of Jesus. The second is that they have liturgical use.
“They weren’t just writings that were read by individual scholars or bishops,” explains Father Just. “But they were actually proclaimed when the church got together for their weekly liturgies.”
The third criteria is universal acceptance, in the sense that all the churches in and around the Mediterranean Sea of the late third and fourth century eventually came to agree on which books should be included. So the 27 books of the New Testament were eventually accepted by everyone in the late fourth century. The fourth criteria is consistent message, which meant that they present Jesus in somewhat the same way.
“There are many other early Christian writings that present Jesus as so divine that he’s not really human, and others that present Jesus so human that he’s not really divine,” says Father Just. “Whereas all the 27 writings that were accepted into the New Testament really present Jesus as both human like us but also the divine Son of God. The New Testament is exactly the same for all Christians throughout the world, with the exception of maybe some cults here and there, but 99 percent of Christians accept all 27 books of the New Testament.”
The Bible can be a complicated read for the untrained person. There are things in the Bible that are very hard to understand or easy to misunderstand if one does not know ancient languages and cultures.
“We need to read the Bible carefully involving study,” recommends Father Just. “We need to read the Bible prayerfully with the help of God’s spirit to help us understand what God is trying to say to us through the scriptures. And we need to read it humbly. The Bible belongs to the whole Church and a person shouldn’t be so proud to think that they have the one and only correct interpretation, better than anybody else. We need to read the Bible together with the community that we call the Church.”