Ancient Writings

Why did ancient peoples find it necessary to provide a written record of their religious tradition? The answers to this basic question help us to understand why religions in general and Roman Catholic Christianity specifically possess scripture, namely a written record of their history and teachings. One important reason for such a written record was to preserve the tradition of the community. All communities, large and small, have certain traditions, including routines, celebrations, and rules. These traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. In order to preserve the tradition accurately, ancient peoples came to value writing down these traditions for posterity.

If ancient peoples wished to accurately pass on laws and traditions, why would the texts they wrote be different and open to interpretation?

We must realize that all people write from a particular perspective and bias. They desire to present information in a way to convince others that their ideas are correct. Therefore, one can understand how peoples, writing at different times and from different points of view, can create documents that seem in conflict.

A second reason for the development of ancient scripture texts was the need for law. Contemporary peoples assume the need for some codified set of laws to govern our everyday activities. Without some systematic set of laws societies would live in chaos, whether it be laws that govern highways, operations of government and business, or how families function in society. Similarly, ancient peoples recognized the need for law in their religious traditions and realized that a written record was essential.

Two additional reasons exist for the generation of ancient scriptural writings. One is the need for a permanent record. People today keep permanent records of important events and transactions, such as weddings or baptisms, business deals, or testimony in courts. Ancient peoples, especially in the foundational years of a religious tradition, also realized the need for a permanent record to accurately inform future generations concerning events, teachings, and other significant ideas. Lastly, ancient peoples, through the generation of scripture, better defined the beliefs of the community of faith, thus identifying and differentiating this group from others.

It is important to understand, therefore, that ancient writings are documents of faith, written by people of faith, for people of faith. They are not intended as an historically accurate record of the community but rather serve the essential functions previously described. While, as outlined at the end of this chapter, various academic and intellectual tools can be applied to the study of Scripture, understanding that at its heart Scripture is defined by faith helps one to realize why varied interpretations of the Bible are so common today.

Categories of Ancient Writings

There are three basic categories of ancient writings associated with the Bible: pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, and canon. Pseudepigrapha, false texts written between approximately 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E., are writings that have not been accepted by Biblical scholars as part of canon (official) Bible. There are numerous texts, some complete and others fragments, written by Jews and early Christians that, for reasons described below, are not in the Bible. Nonetheless, these texts have teachings that have become part of accepted Christian and Roman Catholic Tradition. For example, why do Christians accept Saints Anne and Joachim as the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary? There is no information about Mary's childhood in the New Testament. Yet in the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, a pseudepigraphal text, this information is provided. Thus, it is possible to see the usefulness of ancient texts, even when they are not an official book of the Bible. Some of the more popular pseudepigraphal texts are the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of John, the Secret Book of James, and the recently discovered Gospel of Judas.

A second category of ancient writings is the Apocrypha. These documents, referred to as “hidden texts,” were written at the same basic time as the pseudepigrapha. They were often used by Jews but have not been accepted as part of the Torah or Old Testament. Similarly, these texts are not accepted by Protestants, a fact that makes a sharp division in Christianity over the basic issue of Revelation. The “Catholic” Bible contains seven additional books in the Old Testament — Tobit, Judith, I and II Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), and Baruch — that are considered apocryphal by Protestants.

The canon of Scripture refers to the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament (for Roman Catholics the additional above seven books must be added) and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. The canon was developed over time but only came into its present formulation after the Council of Trent (1545–1563). The accepted canon is used as the primary element of Revelation, and is thus used in all liturgical services.

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