At New Year’s, people of faith will often make a resolution to work their way through the Bible over the course of the coming year. And while these resolutions are sincere, that experience often hits a wall sometime in February or March when these people hit the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy: books of the law which can be for many a difficult read. The reason for this is that the Bible is not like any other book: reading it from cover to cover does give you a clear, narrative story; and as a reference book or textbook it can be difficult to understand. To help with that, I want to explain three basic things about the Bible today.
What is the Bible?
The word “Bible” comes from a Latin word, Biblia, which literally means “collection of books.” There are seventy-three different books in our Catholic Bibles (sixty-six in most protestant Bibles), but fourteen of them tell the story: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 Maccabees, the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles. These fourteen books – and where the other 59 fit into the story – are all explained at length by Jeff Cavins in his Great Adventure Bible Study (or by Mark Hart in the teen version of the same, “Venture”).
This narrative, written over several thousand years tells of two things: first, of a God who piece by piece, brick by brick, is building up His own house of faith, moving through covenants with Adam & Eve, Noah and his family, a tribe under Abraham, a nation under Moses, a Kingdom under David, and finally a universal (Catholic) Church for the whole world under Christ. At the same time as God was trying to teach us who He was, we read about the Hebrew (Jewish) community struggling to know and live this faith in the Old Testament, and both the life of Jesus and the early Christian community in the New Testament. In spite of our failings and our unfaithfulness, it is a story of a God who never gives up on us – a God we can count on in history and still today.
Where did the Bible come from?
The Bible as we know it came into existence through the Church. It’s suspected that the first words of the New Testament were written fifteen years after Jesus rose and ascended: meaning that for fifteen years, Christianity was practised and shared without the New Testament: a community which celebrated the Mass, Baptism, had structure, and proclaimed a saving Gospel. The final Canon of the New Testament (which books would be included in the Christian Bible) wasn’t defined until 397 at the Council of Hippo/Carthage, and ratified in 401 by Pope Innocent. It is those books which were divinely inspired that the Church – under the guidance of the Pope and Bishops – selected the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. These books were chosen from the many others which circulated at that time not because these were the most inspiring or most interesting books, but rather (through prayer) because they best defined and reflected the faith the Church had been living for 3 1/2 centuries. Added to the books which make up the Hebrew Canon – the sacred scriptures of Judaism (which we have in our Old Testament), the Bible took on the shape as we have it today – which has been unfolded by many scholars and theologians for us to discover the rich truths God wanted to tell us in Scripture.