Our Lady of the Rosary
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Who determined the books of the Bible?
[ Q&A ARCHIVES ]
"Catholic" or "Roman Catholic"?
Question: What is the correct name for the Church? Catholic or Roman Catholic?
Centuries ago there would have been no question. The Church is named for
one of Her attributes; namely that She is the Universal Church to which all
must belong to ensure their salvation. The Greek word for
“universal” is “catholic,” hence the name of the Church is the
Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is head-quartered at Rome, under
the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope—but not all of the Pope’s
subjects are correctly called Roman. The Catholic Church includes
substantial numbers of people who do not have Latin for their official
liturgical language (Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, and Coptic, among others are
used in some of the churches under the Pope’s jurisdiction), and who do not
live in the territory of the former Roman Empire or Western Civilization (the
Church is strong, for example, in Africa and parts of Asia).
might speak correctly of the Roman Church in order to distinguish the Latin
using Catholics from other groups within the Catholic Church. That would
distinguish them from Byzantine Catholics who offer Mass in a number of
languages other than Latin, or from Maronite Catholics who use the Syriac
language—but all of these Catholics are still subject to the Pope and
members of the one Catholic Church.
1054, the Great Schism divided the Church into factions, more or less
geographically between East and West, or Constantinople and Rome. Those
who remained loyal to the Pope in Rome are generally called Catholics, even if
they live in Eastern countries. Those loyal to the Patriarch of
Constantinople are generally called Orthodox, even if they live in the West.
But some of the Orthodox refer to themselves as :Greek Orthodox Catholics.
From this point in history, the adjective “Roman” became more closely
associated with “Catholic” in naming the Church.
the Protestant Reformation, the Church of England retained much more of
Catholic worship and doctrine than most other Protestant churches. They
are wont to refer to themselves as “Anglo-Catholics” and it is they who
most successfully introduced the name “Roman Catholic” for the Church
which they see as just another Catholic Church among several. After Vatican I
(1869-70), those who did not accept papal infallibility founded a church which
they call “Old Catholic,” thus increasing the utility of distinguishing
(1962-5) created a Modernist schism in the Church, from which traditional
Catholics have distanced themselves, employing names like “Traditional
Catholic,” “Tridentine Catholic,” “Old Roman Catholic,” or
identifying with one of the traditionalist religious orders.
Canon of Sacred Scripture?
Question: How did the Church determine the books in the Bible? I was told it was
done at the Council of Jamnia, but I can’t find that council in any of the
books I have.
Jamnia, if it actually took place, (and there is doubt among modern
historians), in AD 90, was a Jewish Council that determined to close the
Canon of the Jewish Bible. It had no standing with the Catholic Church.
But let us begin at the beginning.
first five books of the Bible are attributed to Moses. He received the
oral traditions that came down from the time of creation, and which are
recorded in Genesis. He lived through the events of the other four
books; Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books are
referred to as the Law or Torah, and form the core of the readings of
Samuel, and Jeremias are credited with writing the early prophetic books,
which include Josue, Judges, the four books of Kings. These books
reflect the relationship of God with the Jewish people, from their entry into
the Promised Land, until their captivity in Babylon. Isaias, Jeremias,
and Ezechiel and twelve others Minor Prophets wrote the prophetic books of the
exile, foretelling the future of the Jewish people. The prophetic books
are referred to as Nebiim.
set of writings, called Kethubim, included books like Psalms, Proverbs,
Job, Daniel, Esther, and so forth. Many of these were not directly bound
to a period of Jewish history, or were more allegorical than historical.
scholarship sometimes claims that some of the books of the Bible have multiple
authors, and authors different from those traditionally credited. This
will have to be the topic of some future article, but for the moment, suffice
it to say that the authorship is independent of the divinely inspired nature
of the Scriptural texts. The Scriptural text is the word of God, whether
it was written by Moses or by someone else, or several someones else.
earliest books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew. But after
the Babylonian Captivity, the language of Israel became Aramaic, so that few
could speak or read Hebrew. Many Jews did not return to Palestine, and
could speak neither Hebrew nor Aramaic. For this reason, a Greek
translation of the Scriptures, known as the Septuagint, was made in
Alexandria, two or three centuries before Christ. It contained books
that were written outside of Palestine, and books that were not originally
written in Hebrew. The Septuagint (styled “LXX”) became the Jewish Bible
in the Diaspora and in Palestine itself, for its koine Greek was the
universal language of the time. At least two thirds of the Old Testament
quotations found in the books of the New Testament are from the Septuagint
rather than the Hebrew text.
our Lord’s Ascension, and after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70,
the Sanhedrin was reconvened at Jamnia, a town just in from the Mediterranean
coast, to the west and slightly north of Jerusalem. Whether there was a
council there or not, the Rabbis were very concerned that the Hebrew language
was becoming less and less well known, and that Jews were attracted to
Christianity by the doctrine of eternal life as it was expressed in the New
Testament and in the later books of the Septuagint. Wisdom, for example,
said that martyrs would be glorified and “judge nations and rule over
peoples”—II Machabees held that it was a “holy and wholesome thought to
pray for the dead that they might be loosed from their sins.”
remedy these two “problems,” the Rabbis proposed to close the Jewish Canon
of Scripture, eliminating any book that was not originated in Hebrew and
written in Palestine before the time of Esdras.. Baruch (including the
Epistle of Jeremias as its sixth chapter) was not written in Palestine.
Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Sirah) and the First Book of Machabees were written
after the time of Esdras. The Book of Tobias, and parts of Daniel and
Esther were composed in Aramaic and probably outside of Palestine.
Judith was written in Aramaic. Wisdom and Second Machabees were written
in Greek. So all of these were removed from the Jewish Canon by the
Rabbis. Their choice is somewhat disingenuous, for the Jewish Canon
includes books like Esther, Job, and Ezechiel which were set in locations
foreign to Palestine.
after Pentecost, the Church was competent to deal by Itself with the Canon.
It certainly was not going to be influenced by those who were trying to stop
converts to Christianity and who added a curse “Birkat
against Christians to the “Eighteen Benedictions” central to the Jewish
The first official decree on the Canon is found in
Saint Peter’s second Epistle. In 3:15-16 the first Pope refers to the
writings of Saint Paul as being Scripture. He also dismisses the idea of
biblical prophecies as being subject to private interpretation, and briefly
speaks of the work of the Holy Ghost in the inspired writers in 1:19-21.
But the Church did not immediately set out a list of
the entire Canon of Scripture. There was no sense of urgency. Very
likely no one expected the Rabbis to remove books from their Canon.
Indeed, the concept of a Canon defined by decree rather than tradition was
something new. The New Testament Canon was still being written—the
date for Saint John’s Gospel is usually given as AD 96. Some
early writers excluded New Testament books now known to be canonical, or
simply didn’t comment on them at all. The Muratorian fragment dated to
AD 170 is probably the oldest extant example.
Scripture texts were hard to come by. One couldn’t just go to a
book store and buy a Septuagint. It existed only as individual papyrus rolls—as did the
writings of the apostles and evangelists, except that these latter had been in
circulation for a far shorter period of time and existed in very few copies.
Roman persecution occupied most peoples’ thoughts a lot of the time—and the
persecutors often destroyed the Scripture holdings of the persecuted,, making
a scarce commodity even more scarce.
The persecutions did give some immediacy to defining
which books were Scriptural. One wouldn’t want to be martyred for
refusing to surrender some piece of profane literature to the Romans.
Yet, the Canon was not officially proclaimed until the Church had become legal
in the Empire.
An early attempt to define the Canon is that of Saint
Athanasius of Alexandria, well known as a defender of the Catholic Faith
against the Arian heresy. It was Athanasius’ custom to give a sermon
each year on Easter—these are preserved and are referred to as his “festal
sermons.” In the sermon for AD 367, number 39, Athanasius
outlined a Canon of Scripture for his people. He included the books approved
by the Jewish authorities of his time (but, curiously, he includes Baruch and
excludes Esther). He listed those which Christians accept as the
canonical New Testament. And he indicated that the Church accepts
several other books of the Jews (including Esther)—those of the Septuagint
as canonical; and the Didache and the Shepherd as valuable. It is
the Church that has determined Her canonical books, and not the Synagogue.
Athanasius omitted I & II Machabees from his list—it is not
clear why, but subsequent lists formulated at Carthage and Rome would include
all of the books as we have them today.
have the list of Pope Saint Damasus in AD382, the Council of Hippo in
393 and the third Council of Carthage in 397, both subject to confirmation by
Rome, and a letter of Pope Saint Innocent I in 405.
The Eastern Council in Trullo in 692 ratified the enumeration of Carthage.
The Ecumenical Councils of Florence (1442) and Trent (1546) confirmed the same
sometimes object that the reception of the Canon was not unanimous on the part
of the Fathers of the Church. Some of the Fathers accepted other books,
and some rejected books that would later appear on the canonical list.
In particular they point to Saint Jerome, the great translator of the Bible
into the Latin of his time, the “Vulgate.” Until roughly AD 391,
Jerome accepted the Septuagint Greek translation as inspired. But Jerome
became heavily dependent on the Rabbis in Bethlehem where he translated the
contemporary Hebrew text into Latin. Nonetheless, at the insistence of
the bishops, Jerome did furnish translations of the disputed books, and seems
to have accepted them toward the end of his life, at least by obedience if not
lesser light than Jerome, Origen of Alexandria is sometimes said to have
rejected the Septuagint books. He is quoted as referring to the
“twenty-two books of the Hebrew tradition ... there are twenty-two books
according to the Hebrews.” But
stating what the Hebrews accept is not the same thing as saying what the
Catholic Church accepts. In fact we have a writing by Origen in which he
upholds the canonicity of the passage about Susanna in Daniel, saying that
“it has been received by the Church,” and quoting Proverbs 22:28 “Thou
shalt not remove the ancient landmarks which thy Fathers have set.”
contemporary, Saint Augustine of Hippo, was of the mind to accept the
Septuagint books simply because that is what the Church did. Asked about
the book of Wisdom, he replied that “it was found worthy to be read from the
lector’s pulpit in the Church of Christ for so long a course of years, and
of being heard with the veneration due to divine authority by all Christians,
from bishops even down to the lowest laity, the penitents, and the
Augustine was a major mover in the authoritative definition of the Canon.
He was the force behind the Councils at Hippo and Carthage.
letter of Pope Innocent I (20 February AD 407) was to Exsuperius,
the Bishop of Toulouse, a friend of Jerome’s, who was looking for papal
guidance as to which side of the discussion was supported by the Church.
The letter contained the standard list, as well as a warning about some
apocryphal books then in circulation.
Ecumenical Council of Florence reproduced the standard list in its Decree for
the Jacobites (4 February AD 1442).
The Florentine decrees are interesting, for the Council was to form a reunion
of Rome with the Greeks, Armenians, and Jacobites. The decrees were
essentially statements of what the participants already believed—the
Scriptural Canon included—and formed the basis of the reunion.
Council of Trent, of course, was called to deal specifically with the heresies
of Luther. The decree of 8 April AD 1546
was a reaffirmation of the traditional Canon—necessary because Luther
had called into question not only the books of the Septuagint, but also a
number of books in the New Testament! Admittedly, he was not the first,
but his objections were based on his rejection of the Church’s teachings.
Luther disliked Machabees and Wisdom for the same reasons as the Rabbis—they
demonstrated the existence of Purgatory, and the exalted state of the Saints.
Hebrews was probably too sacrificial. James he considered “an epistle
of straw,” for it seriously challenged his notion of salvation by faith alone.
Jude, he claimed, plagiarized Saint Peter, and “cites saying and incidents
that are found nowhere else in the Scripture.”
(So what?) Luther rejected the Apocalypse, “for the apostles do not
deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words....”
(Apparently Jesus Christ should have consulted Dr. Luther before revealing!)
where did we get the books of the Bible? From God, of course, because
they were the product of His divine inspiration. They were written by
men of the Church, including prophets, apostles, and evangelists. They
were accepted by the Church because they were accepted by Jesus Christ and His
Apostles, and handed down through the Church as the inspired word of God.
the Vatican Council explained in AD 1870:
Now this supernatural revelation, according to the belief of the universal
Church, as declared by the sacred Council of Trent, is contained in written
books and unwritten traditions, which were received by the apostles from the
lips of Christ himself, or came to the apostles by the dictation of the Holy
Spirit, and were passed on as it were from hand to hand until they reached us
[Trent, Sess. IV, decree 1].
The complete books of the old and the new Testament with all their parts, as
they are listed in the decree of the said Council and as they are found in the
old Latin Vulgate edition, are to be received as sacred and canonical.
These books the Church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she
subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by
unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without
error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church.