May 22, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: The inspired word of God

John F. Fink(Fifteenth in a series of columns)

Catholics believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but the Catholic faith is not based on the Bible. That’s because the Catholic Church existed before the Bible.

In fact, it was the Catholic Church that determined what books would be in the New Testament—and even, what books would be in the Christian version of the Old Testament.

We Catholics believe that, through the Bible, God himself speaks to us. Although the Bible has human authors, we believe that ultimately it has only one author—God. He made use of the authors of Sacred Scripture to communicate revelation by means of inspiration from the Holy Spirit.

The earliest book of the New Testament was St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, written about the year 51, roughly 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The four Gospels were written roughly between 70 (Mark’s) and 100 (John’s).

Over the course of several centuries after Jesus ascended to heaven, many other writings about him were composed. In fact, we have fragments of, or at least know about, nearly 80 such writings.

With all these accounts available, it was up to the Church to determine which of them were authentic. It finally selected the 27 books that now appear in the New Testament at the Council of Carthage in 397. Today, all Christians agree on those 27 books.

Meanwhile, near the end of the first century, some Jewish scholars were selecting the writings for their Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. They eliminated any books that were not preserved in Hebrew—even the Books of Maccabees, which gave them their feast of Hanukkah.

The Catholic Church, though, accepted those books as well as Tobit, Wisdom, Judith, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and some additional passages in the books of Daniel and Esther. These were included in the Christian Bible until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century when the reformers went back to the list chosen by the Jewish scholars.

The difference between Catholic and Protestant Bibles, therefore, is not in the New Testament but the Old Testament. There are seven more books in the Catholic Old Testament than there are in the Protestants’ Old Testament.

The Catholic Church also believes that, among the 73 books in its Bible, there are many literary genres. We should not read the Bible as history as we understand that field of study today, and certainly not as a scientific book. There are even four novels in the Old Testament—specifically Jonah, Tobit, Esther and Judith.

Catholics see no incompatibility between recognizing the truth of the biblical witness and the fact that it is expressed in many forms of literary expression. Poetry, hymns, stories, myths and other literary forms can communicate both historical and theological truth. †

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