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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Introducing the Bible

Although it is bound under one cover and bears a single title, the Bible is not a single, unified book. It is, in fact, a collection of some seventy‐three different works by different authors, using very different styles and perspectives, composed over a span of several centuries, and in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). Most of the Old Testament (forty‐six books) was written in Hebrew, but parts of the books of Daniel (2, 4–7, 28), Ezra (4, 6–6, 18; 7, 12–26), and one verse from Jeremiah ( 10, 11) were originally composed in Aramaic, a Middle Eastern language related to but different from Hebrew. All twenty‐seven of the New Testament books were composed in Greek.

The rich diversity of the Bible is one of its glories because it allows the story of God's people to be told from various perspectives. It also presents a challenge to the reader who should be aware of the different cultural, historical, and literary contexts of each biblical book. But there is a deeper unity to the Bible that binds together these individual pieces of literature. Through the many biblical books flows the continuing saga of God's love for Israel and for the church. Each of the biblical authors, no matter how much separated in time, culture, and literary style, shares a conviction that God's presence is felt in human history and that God invites the human family to respond with faith and integrity.

The Writing of the Bible

As its diverse makeup implies, the Bible was not written at a single point in history. The events covered in the Old Testament span nearly two thousand years of history, from the time of Abraham and the patriarchs (around 1800 BC) to the period of the Maccabean wars (140 BC). If one includes the epic accounts of the creation and prepatriarchal stories such as Noah and the flood, then the reach of the biblical saga goes back to the beginning of time. But the actual formulation of the biblical accounts, although making use of earlier stories and traditions, is confined to a narrower period of time, probably beginning with the monarchy (around 1000 BC) and concluding in the century before the birth of Christ.

The New Testament books were all written during the latter half of the first century AD. The letters of Paul were probably the earliest New Testament works to be put in writing, dating mainly from the decade of the fifties. The sayings of Jesus and the many stories about his ministry circulated in the Christian community all during these early decades of the church but were probably not put in writing until shortly after AD 70, with Mark the first Gospel to be written. Matthew, Luke (and his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles), and John follow, with the compositions of their Gospels taking place sometime during the last quarter of the first century. The other non‐Pauline letters and writings, including the book of Revelation or the Apocalypse, also date from this period.

Forming a “Bible” from Diverse Books: The Story of the Canon

The gathering of these diverse writings into a single collection or “book” (the literal meaning of the word Bible) was itself a long‐term and laborious process. The technical term for designating which books belong to the Bible is the canon (measurement). Both Judaism and Christianity had to make choices about which books to include and which books to exclude from their respective Bibles. Judaism would not make any official decision about which books belonged to its Bible until the end of the first century AD, but that does not mean it was without a Bible for so much of its history. There was little or no dispute about the major books of the Old Testament, books which were constantly used in Jewish liturgy and teaching, but there was debate about the inclusion of later and less central works such as Tobit or the Wisdom of Solomon.

The Jewish or Hebrew canon ultimately recognizes thirty‐nine books, divided into three major categories:

  • 1. The Law (sometimes referred to as the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

  • 2. The Prophets: Subdivided into the “Former Prophets”: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings; and the “Latter Prophets”: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the “Twelve” (=Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi).

  • 3. The Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra‐Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles.

As we shall explain below, not included in the official Jewish or Hebrew canon are seven other books that Roman Catholics (and Orthodox Christians) consider part of their Scriptures. Judaism reverences these books and considers them sacred, but they are not part of their canon or official list. These books are: Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach/Ecclesiasticus, and Baruch. There are also some additional passages in the books of Daniel and Esther.

The formation of the Christian canon also took place over a considerable period of time. In fact, the official Roman Catholic decision about the canon did not come until the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, but by that time the choice of which writings were to be included in the Bible was well established. There were many sacred writings in the early decades of the church that presumably could have been included in the Bible. We cannot always tell what criteria or decision‐making processes were used to establish the canon. Some “gospels” evidently portrayed Jesus in a way unacceptable to the vast majority of Christians and so were not included. Other early writings, however, such as the Didache (Greek for “teaching”)‐a short handbook of moral behavior and church practice‐seem perfectly acceptable in content and tone but were still not included. Probably the early church considered a work's content, its authorship, and the frequency of its usage in the liturgy and teaching of the churches as important criteria for judging if a sacred writing was inspired by God and worthy of inclusion in its official canon or Scriptures.

All Christians agree on the twenty‐seven books to be included in the New Testament, but there is a dispute about some of the books in the Old Testament. As noted above, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians agree on the forty‐six books that make up the Old Testament (the Orthodox include additional books in their canon: 1 and 2 Esdras; the Prayer of Manasseh; Psalm 151; 3 Maccabees). Judaism and Protestant Christians hold for the shorter list of thirty‐nine books sketched above; the remaining seven are designated as the “apocryphal” books.

The reason for this divergence is that earliest Christianity used an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) as its Bible. This Greek version of the Bible included forty‐six books. Since most of the early Christians were Greek‐speaking, this is the Bible they preferred. But when Judaism officially set out to determine its canon at the end of the first century, it drew up a shorter list of thirty‐nine books: those written in Hebrew. In the Reformation period, Protestants went back to this shorter, Hebrew canon, considering it more authentic.

Today, many of the doctrinal tensions that separated Catholics and Protestants have eased. Some Protestant editions of the Bible include the seven apocryphal (what Roman Catholics call deuterocanonical) books in an appendix of their Bibles or in a special section between the Old and New Testaments. Following usual Catholic practice, the New American Bible integrates the deuterocanonical books into the order of the Old Testament canon.

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