How the Bible Was Created

The Old Testament, drawn from the Jewish tradition, is a collection of Hebrew and Aramaic writings that Jews of Jesus' day used to guide their devotional life. The version the early Christians used was the Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek by scholars of the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt, around A.D. 250. By the end of the fourth century, St. Jerome made another translation from Hebrew into Latin. This version is known as the Latin Vulgate. Later editions of the Vulgate continued to be used for the next thousand years.

The writings compiled into the New Testament were composed in the first and second centuries, as the new Church was growing and expanding through the Mediterranean region. These writings included the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — as well as epistles and other writings in Greek. At the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the gathered bishops re-affirmed which of these devotional writings would be accepted as sacred.

The Catholic Bible is a collection of poems, history, literature, and letters. The Church believes the Holy Spirit guided the bishops at the Council of Trent as they chose the writings that would be deemed sacred. The complete list is called the Canon of Scripture.

The Old Testament

Jesus was a Jew, and many of his earliest followers, including Paul, were also Jewish. They saw their belief in Christ's death and resurrection as a continuation of the Jewish tradition. Through their forefathers Abraham and Noah, the Jews had established a covenant with God. Part of this covenant was the promise of a Messiah who would save mankind. Jesus' birth and death fulfilled the message of the prophets and established a New Covenant between God and man. The ancient writings that foretold a Messiah and gave the history of the people are thus part of the Christian tradition.

At the time the Bible was compiled, letters were laboriously copied by hand onto parchment scrolls. Many sacred writings may have been lost, and other works may have been considered too incomplete to include. At the Council of Trent, the Church named forty-six Old Testament books that must be considered “as sacred and canonical,” seven more than are included in most Protestant Bibles. In addition, the Catholic Bible contains portions of the books of Esther and Daniel that do not appear in the Hebrew Bible.

The first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch (Greek for “five books”), recount the stories of Creation, the covenant between God and Noah, and the law delivered by God to Moses. Following the Pentateuch are the historical books. These end with the books of Tobias, Judith, and Esther, which occupy the last places because they relate personal history. Following the historical books are the books on law, arranged by the Council of Trent to reflect their order of writing. Then come the books of the Prophets: The first four are known as the Major Prophets, and the last twelve are Minor Prophets, arranged in chronological order.

Christians read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen. But the Old Testament retains its own intrinsic value as revelation reaffirmed by the Lord himself. Jesus quoted frequently from books of the Old Testament.

The New Testament

Early Church fathers divided the New Testament into the Gospel and the Acts — works that occurred in the lifetime of Jesus and the apostles and the later didactic writings. The New Testament begins with the four Gospels written by Jesus' followers in the years after his death. The Gospels hold a unique place in the Church, as they are the heart of all the Scriptures and the center of the liturgy. The didactic writings are a series of letters from Paul to scattered Christian groups struggling against a hostile world; the later Catholic epistles are additional letters on Church life. All of the writings were completed around the year 100.

Catholics believe the New Testament has to be read in the light of the Old. Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament. As an old saying put it, “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” When Church scholars seek biblical interpretation, they may consult additional Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek writings of the period, including earlier versions of the Bible and works such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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