A Brief Overview of Bible History

The Catholic Church was the "inventor" of the Bible as we know it... What does that mean?  In the earliest days of the Christian Church, there came to be literally hundreds, if not thousands, of documents written, all purporting to be "scriptural".  It was the Church, which came to be known as the Catholic ("Universal") Church, that designated which of these writings were to be considered "valid", or as we call it, "inspired canon".  So, in a very real, very valid sense, the Catholic Church "invented" and then protected" the Bible that the entire Christian world knows and loves. This is simply established historical fact.

A lot of Protestants have no idea about any of this. They may, perhaps, know that the Catholic Bible is somehow "different", but they may not be quite sure in exactly what way, or may have mistaken ideas regarding how that came to be.  Some even think, amazingly, that the Catholic Church added books during the Reformation, but this is simply not true.  The books of the Catholic Bible are the same books that have been considered official canon since the official list of which books were to be considered holy scripture, and which were not, were first established, back amongst the earliest Christians. Yes, back when there was only One Holy Church. (And if you were Christian, you were Catholic, because there was only one Church, the "Universal" Church - because that's what the word "catholic" means!).

The Protestant Church, and all it's 33,000 different variations that we have today, didn't even exist until the 1500's... prior to that there was only the so-called "Catholic" Bible. Actually, at that point, it was simply "the" Bible... the Christian Bible. There was no other. People forget that. Or they think that somehow the reformers "improved" the Bible! (And if that's what you think - ask yourself - Where in Heaven or on earth would they get that authority to begin with? And if they didn't get that authority from the hand of Christ Himself.... they how dare they do that?)

So, where did the Bible actually come from? We know that there existed a body of Hebrew Scriptures, contained, book by book, on scrolls, which were (and still are today) read in the synagogues. Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth as we can see from Luke 4:16-21. We call that Holy Scripture the "Old" Testament.

There also existed translation of these scriptures in Greek called the Septuagint (from the Greek word for "seventy," a reference to the tradition that seventy scholars all came up with the same translation from Hebrew into Greek). This is the version of the Old Testament from which the New Testament authors get their quotes.Whenever Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John quote the Old Testament, or have Jesus or anyone else quoting Scripture (which when they refer to "scripture" is always the Old Testament), they are always talking about the Septuagint. We can tell this because the Greek translation was different than the Hebrew translation. Not that it differed in form. It differed in that it had extra books! (Sound familiar?)

The Septuagint includes all the writings now included in the Catholic Old Testament. The 7 books - Tobias (Tobit), Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, I and II Maccabees, and three other documents  - the supplement to Esther, from chapter 10:4, to the end, the Canticle of the Three Youths (Song of the Three Children) in Daniel , chapter 3, and the stories of Susanna and the Elders and Bel & the Dragon, forming the closing chapters of the Christian version of the Book of Daniel - are not included in the Hebrew writings. They are also not included in Protestant Bibles! These writings came to be called "deuterocanonical texts".  They were the same books as the Jews of Palestine used, called the Septuagint, the same books that Jesus and the Apostles read.  The same books that the early Christians read. But why did the Hebrews take them  out of their scripture?

Rivalry was sharp and acrimonious amongst the Jews of the time, and different rabbis had followers of their different points of view, with a result that was very close to forming "denominations".  Early Christians were seen as just another "Jewish cult" or denomination, at first.

The Jewish Council of Jamnia in A.D. 90 effectively terminated the disputes between rival rabbinic schools concerning the canonicity of the Jewish books of Scripture.  Since the followers of Christ, who came to be known as "The Christians", used the Septuagint, the Greek translation, there was a movement to ban all the Greek translations for the "purity" of the Hebrew translations, and thus discredit the Christian movement to Jews.

The move to try to solidify the Jewish Canon came to center around the so-called "Masoretic Text", which is in Hebrew. Scriptural books whose only existing editions were "mere" translations  in Greek were considered "less authentic", and were not included in the "official" Hebrew Canon.  So if no copy could be found in Hebrew, they were not allowed in the synagogues. It was thought that by tossing out some of the "Christian" scriptures, it would slow down the spread of this "cult". But even more, this was the one time that Jewish leaders attempted to centralize their canon of scripture. There really is no central authority of Jewish doctrine that states "this" is canon, and "this" is not.

The Council of Jamnia in AD 90 took place three generations AFTER the death and resurrection of Christ, and well after the time of the Apostles.  The early Christian Church used the Greek-language Scriptures as did the Jews of the time of Christ (some of whom spoke no Hebrew), which was the Septuagint, which consisted of the books of what we now call the Old Testament AND the disputed Deuterocanonical Books.  The Council of Jamnia effectively drew the line between Jewish Scripture and Christian Scripture once and for all.

During the early centuries of the Church, there were many documents that claimed to hold "true" Christian teaching.  Due to misinterpretation of various teachings, it became important to identify which were truly canonical and "inspired", and which were not. 

For instance - the very first version of an extremely spurious "New Testament", in AD 140,  was written by an anti-Semite, Marcion, who deleted all references to Jesus' Judaism.  This event convinced the leaders of the Church that there was a dire need to authoritatively decree which books were to be considered truly inspired. 

Selection of New Testament books as canonical was slow, however. It was felt that such a monumental task should not be taken lightly. The present official Canon appeared for the first time in print in the Festal Epistle of Athanasius (A.D. 367).  Pope Damascus I, at the Council of Rome in 382, stated the canon of Scripture, and listed the exact same  books we have today. 

In the Synod of Hippo (A.D. 393) this same Canon was officially stated and adopted for all the Church. This was the entire Church - East and West - there was not yet any split or schism in the heart of Christ yet. All of Christianity had one Holy Book. And it was this scripture that it maintained, whole, and unblemished, until the 16th century.

However, it is evident that the initial canon in the 4th century found many opponents in Africa, since it took three ratifying councils there at brief intervals -  Hippo in A.D. 393, and Carthage in AD 397 and then again in A.D. 419 -  to reiterate the official catalogs. This canon was once again ratified by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787; and then again confirmed and ratified by the Council of Florence in 1442.  But if was first officially declared, for all time, as the official canon of the entire Church at the Synod of Hippo in 393 AD, and has never changed.

 Ironically, it was not the deuterocanonical books that were the stumbling point, initially, but apparently the NT Scripture of the Book of Hebrews.  Once this agreement on Canon was reached in it's final version, all major Christian churches used the same Canon.  Basically, the Canon proclaimed in AD 367 by Athanasius  is the same exact version of the Bible that the Catholic Church uses today. Remember, at the time there WAS only ONE Church, and this was the Bible that all Christians used.

In about the 4th Century CE, as the Greek language began to die out as the trade language of the Western Empire, it became evident that there was a need for translation of the Christian Scriptures into Latin, which, as you may remember, was at that time the tongue of the common people of the West. The scholar Jerome undertook the task. Jerome used the best texts he could find (including Hebrew when available), and produced the so-called "Vulgate" (Common Language) Bible.  Again, these included the Deuterocanonical books, and this Bible was considered the authoritative translation for centuries.  The best known English Catholic version of the Bible, the Douay-Rheims (1582-1609/10), and its revision by Bishop Challoner (1750) were based on the Latin Vulgate. 

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, it was the entire Catholic Bible that he translated. In fact, the composer Brahms set some of Luther's deuterocanonical texts to music in his "Vier Ernste Gesange." Some folks are aware that Luther placed the deuterocanonical books at the end of his Bible, with comments. Luther, however, only later removed the deuterocanonicals from the Old Testament, and put them in an appendix without page numbers - along with Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation.  Initially, he simply transcribed what was accepted by all Christians of the time as the entire Bible. Later, he acted on his own initiative to remove books he felt were "improper".  Other Protestants reacted strongly to Luther's presumption, and replaced the books that Luther rearranged back into the New Testament but felt comfortable with his desecration of the Old Testament, because those were the "Jewish books" - and they felt his logic of following the guidelines of the Jewish elders at Jamnia, made some sort of sense - so they left out the deuterocanonicals from the Old Testament. Today, many Protestants have the completely mistaken impression that Catholics added books to the Bible, when you can see, it was the other way around, Protestants removed them!

Luther was opposed to the OT Deuterocanonical books on the grounds that the Jewish council of Jamnia rejected them.  This was considered a "legitimate" argument by the early Reformers, despite centuries of acceptance by the early Christian Church, until 1947, when the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. When those writings were finally translated, it was found found that they contain writings, in Hebrew, from every Old Testament book (except Esther), including all of the Deuterocanonical books. The Dead Sea scrolls date back to before the time of Christ. This adds to the evidence against the popular argument that the Catholics "added" the Deuterocanonical books to the Bible during the Reformation.  While the Dead Sea scrolls are not considered to add anything to canonical scripture, they do help to verify the authenticity of Deuterocanonical books and the validity of their rightful place in the Bible.  In addition, scripture scholars have no doubt  at all that the early Christians accepted the Deuterocanonical books as part of its Canon of Sacred Scriptures. For instance, Origen  (d. 245)  stated that these books were considered inspired scripture, and affirmed the use of these books among Christians.

The Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant violation of the Bible by deleting the deuterocanonical books, declared an official listing of each individual book, but it certainly did not add those books to the canon. Those who state that there was no official canon until Trent misunderstand. Trent was reiterating the canon for all time. They were amongst the very first accepted books of the Bible. They had been accepted as canon for centuries. And in fact, Martin Luther and the other Reformers accepted the presence of those books for decades before the Council of Trent, but then deleted them, when they left the Church, on their own initiative.

The apparent reason for the dropping of the deuterocanonical texts is that they support certain Catholic doctrines rejected by the Reformers. For instance, in 2 Maccabees 12:41-45 there is a reference to praying for the dead, a Catholic practice rejected by Luther. Because Luther rejected that practice, it was necessary to deny the authority of the Books of the Maccabees, and he also attempted to delete Hebrews as well, because there are references to that text. The reason for Luther's treatment of James had to do with the "faith vs. works" issue.

Nor is it at all true, as some mistakenly think, that the Catholic Church was opposed to the printing and distribution of Bible translations in "native" languages.  Part of the problem was that Bibles were not widely circulated.  They were written by hand, and very, very expensive.  Many of the common folk couldn't read, either.  Bibles, and books in general did not become widely used by the general population until after the invention of the printing press.  

John Wycliffe with his 1382 version of the Bible was not the first person to give English speaking people the Bible in their own tongue, as a popular misguided myth would have it. We have copies of the work of Caedmon from the 7th century, and that of the Venerable Bede, Eadhelm, Guthlac, and Egbert from the 8th (all in Saxon, the prevalent language at that time). From the 9th and 10th centuries come the translations of King Alfred the Great and Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury. Early English versions include that of Orm around 1150, the Salus Animae (1250), and the translations of William Shoreham, Richard Rolle (d.1349), and John Trevisa (c.1360).

Other languages are also represented in the list of "vernacular" Catholic Bibles.  We can find a translation of the Bible from 1290, written in French, a translation into  Dutch (about 1270), and a translation into German (about 1350).  Between 1466 and the onset of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, at least fourteen editions appeared in High German, and five in Low German. From 1450 to 1550, for example, there appeared (with express permission from Rome) more than 40 Italian editions or translations of the Bible and eighteen French editions, as well as others in Bohemian, Belgian, Russian, Danish, Norwegian, Polish, and Hungarian. Spain published editions in Spanish starting in 1478.

It is important to remember, that ALL of these vernacular Bibles were "Catholic" Bibles.  Remember, the Reformation had not yet occurred.  The key issue for the Catholic Church was NOT translating the Bible into vernacular languages, as some say, but simply insuring that the translations were accurate translations.  

The King James version was written much later than any these, in 1611.  So, as you can see, it is most assuredly not  the first Bible written in English.  And sad to say, no matter how accurate or inaccurate it is, by translation - and there are scholars that claim it is seriously flawed in it's translation, while many consider it the "purest" version - be that as it may, it is still missing those aforementioned books, and is therefore, incomplete.

Development of the Old Testament Canon

1000-50 BC: The Old Testament books are written.

200 BC: Rabbis translate the OT from Hebrew to Greek, a translation called the "Septuagint" (abbreviation: "LXX"). The LXX ultimately includes 46 books.

AD 30-100: Christians use the LXX as their scriptures.

AD 90: Jewish rabbis meet at the Council of Javneh and decide to include in their canon only 39 books, since only these can be found in Hebrew.  This "officially" separates Jewish Scripture from Christian Scripture.

AD 400: Jerome translates the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin (called the "Vulgate"). 

AD 1536: Luther translates the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into German.  Initially, his version is exactly the same as the Catholic Bible.  Later, he decides that, since Jews wrote the Old Testament, theirs is the correct canon; he puts the extra 7 books in an appendix that he calls the "Apocrypha." and comments that they are "useful".  Luther also wanted to eliminate, or at least put in his Apocrypha several New Testament books - the books of Jude, Hebrews, James, and Revelations, but his fellow Protestant Reformers are appalled, and these are put back in by other Protestant reformers.

AD 1546: The Catholic Council of Trent, in response to the changes in the Bible by the Protestant Reformers,  re-affirms the canonicity of all 46 books.

Development of the New Testament Canon

AD 51-125: The New Testament books are written, but during this same period other early Christian writings are produced--for example, the Didache (c. AD 70), 1Clement (c. 96), the Epistle of Barnabas (c. 100), and the 7 letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110).

AD 140: Marcion, a businessman in Rome, teaches that there were two Gods: Yahweh, the cruel God of the OT, and Abba, the kind father of the NT. So Marcion eliminates the Old Testament as scriptures and, since he is anti-Semitic, keeps from the NT only 10 letters of Paul and 2/3 of Luke's gospel (he deletes references to Jesus' Jewishness). Marcion's "New Testament"--the first to be compiled--forces the mainstream Church to decide on a core canon: the four gospels and letters of Paul.

AD 200's: But the periphery of the canon is not yet determined. According to one list, compiled at Rome c. AD 200 (the Muratorian Canon), the NT consists of the 4 gospels; Acts; 13 letters of Paul (Hebrews is not included); 3 of the 7 General Epistles (1-2 John and Jude); and also the Apocalypse of Peter. 

AD 367: The earliest extant list of the books of the NT, in exactly the number and order in which we presently have them, is written by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his Easter letter of 367. 

AD 382: Pope Damascus, lists canon of Scripture, both Old and New Testament books in their present number and order at the Council of Rome. This is exactly the same list as written by Athanasius, and the same list as we have today.

AD 300 - 400's:  Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419), again define the same list of books as inspired.  This canon was once again reaffirmed by Pope Innocent I in (405); and again by the Council of Carthage in (419)

AD 787: The second Council of Nicaea is held, which again confirms the list of inspired books.  

AD 1442: At the Council of Florence, the entire Church recognizes the 27 books of the New Testament, though does not declare them unalterable.

AD 1536: In his translation of the Bible from Greek into German, Luther removes 4 NT books (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelations) from their normal order and places them at the end, stating that they are less than canonical. 

AD 1546: At the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church reaffirms once and for all the full list of 27 New Testament books as traditionally accepted.

Resources Used

1. Newman, John Henry Cardinal, *Grammar of Assent,* Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1955 (orig. 1870).

2. Toon, Peter, *Protestants and Catholics,* Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1983,

3. Brown, Robert McAfee, *The Spirit of Protestantism,* Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961,

4. Lindsell, Harold, *The Battle for the Bible,* Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976.

5. Janssen, Johannes, *History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages,* 16 vols., tr. A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 (orig. 1891), vol.1, vol.14

6. Graham, Henry G., *Where We Got the Bible,* St.Louis: B. Herder, 3rd ed., 1939

7. DEVELOPMENT OF THE BIBLICAL CANON - adapted from materials of Professor Paul Hahn of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas, 1995


God bless,

Lisa Alekna
Written August 07, 1999
updated 08/09/2006


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