What do Catholics believe about the Bible? Well, there’s a lot to say here (and a rich history of Biblical scholarship to go with it!)
Along with Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium (the Pope and Bishops who act as the teaching body of the Church), Scripture is one of the three primary sources of Revelation. Catholics believe that scripture really is God’s word (which is why at Mass we say “The Word of the Lord”), we believe that it is true, and that it makes up an irreplaceable part of the whole of our faith. Another way to explain this is to say that the Bible is inspired, the Bible is innerant, and the Bible is canonical.
The teaching of the Church on inspiration speaks of the way that God’s grace influences the human author in the writing of the scriptures. While it is God who inspired the scriptures they speak with His authority, but these books also have the fingerprints of their human authors. Each of these wrote with their understanding of God and the world around them: “Indeed the words of God, expressed in human language, are in every way like human speech, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the weak flesh of human beings, became like them” (Dei Verbum 12). This means that the scriptures are both a divine work and a human work. A proper reading of scripture keeps both dynamics in mind: reading the Bible in the same Spirit as it was written (most easily done in prayer), and with an awareness of the context of the human author (who they were, why they were writing, and well as the type of literature that they wrote).
The Church also believes that these books are inerrant, meaning that everything recorded in the Bible is true. A shallow reading of the Bible reveals multiple scientific and historical inaccuracies, in addition to inconsistencies within the scriptures (things like Matthew and Luke’s differing descriptions of the death of Judas in Matthew 21 and Acts 1.) The wars and bloodshed of the Old Testament also seem morally problematic when compared to the teaching of Jesus. Finally, since most of us do not read or speak Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, we are all reading translations of Scripture – which bring with them the limitations of language or potential errors in translation (which is why the Church is so picky on approving Biblical translations. The Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version (used in the Canadian Lectionary – the readings we hear at Mass), New American Bible, and Jerusalem Bible are all approved translations, and I always recommend my students get a good study Bible with good notes). By claiming that the contents of the Bible are without error is not an act of ignorance. The Church doesn’t ignore these difficulties but instead starts with a deeper question: why did God inspire human authors to write these books? What was God trying to communicate to us? It should be clear that God wasn’t trying to give us a textbook to explain history or science, but was primarily seeking to reveal Himself to us. This revelation took place at times provisionally through imperfect instruments – both the people who wrote and the language they used. In my experience, the reading and study of scripture is, at its heart, a search for truth. With that in mind, difficulties become an invitation to investigate further and to enter more deeply into our faith as answers can be found by peeling back the many layers of Scripture.
Determining what exactly belonged in the scriptures (which books are canonical or true) may be as important a question as what the scriptures themselves reveal to us. The index (or “Canon”) of Sacred Scripture varies across denominational lines, yet the Church’s decision at the end of the fourth century to define the seventy-three books of our Bible as canonical was a decision of faith. The scriptures were written in the context of a lived faith: the Old Testament in the life of Israel as God intervened with them and promised a saviour, and the New Testament in the life of the Church which grew following the resurrection of Christ. The canonical nature of scripture points to a sense of unity throughout the Bible, from verse to verse, from book to book, and even on a larger scale: the Old Testament points to the New Testament, while the New Testament enlightens what we read in the Old. Ultimately, the key is to read Scripture “in context” – in context with the verse that comes before it, with the whole book that a verse is found in, with the whole of Scripture, and with the lived Tradition and Church that pre-dates Scripture.
With all of this in mind – knowing what the Bible is, where it came from, and with a glimpse to the way in which Catholics read it – keep in mind that the beauty of Scripture is that this is a place we not only READ a story, but that Scripture is a place we ENCOUNTER a person. One of the earliest scholars of Scripture, St. Jerome, could claim that “ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” As you delve into your Bible (New Year’s resolution or not), I pray you would allow Him to reveal Himself to you, so that your reading of Scripture would be a place where you learn to know and love Christ better than you do today.