Biblical Canon




Anyone familiar with the Roman Catholic Church can attest to the central role the Bible plays in its liturgy.  At every mass two or more passages are read aloud until the entire Bible has been covered in endlessly repeating cycles of two and three years.  Nor is this recitation of scripture a recent tradition as it dates to the first masses held in apostolic times following the form ordained by Christ at the Last Supper.


In order to preserve Christ’s message for future generations, the Catholic Church assembled and canonized the eyewitness accounts of the Apostles into the original Bible.  And at no little cost Catholics have defended the accuracy of this message against a succession of revisionist readings.  The greatest challenge has obviously been the Protestant Reformation.  But what is undeniable is that the Catholic Church was the sole repository of the Christian tradition and sacred scripture for 1,500 years before the first hint of any novel Protestant revisions or alternative religious organizations.


Beginning with Martin Luther in 1519, Protestants rewrote the existing Bible notably altering the theological foundations.  Nor was this merely an intellectual exercise but also a means to political power and personal gain.  Indeed, Martin Luther was the inspiration for several independent German states seeking to expand their territory who in the process murdered tens of thousands of Catholic peasants and Jews for resisting conversion.


On the other hand, rewriting the scriptures to serve individual interpretation and personal preference continues to splinter the Protestant movement, now numbering 30,000 different sects each with widely divergent views.  As the beauty and drawing power of the Christian message becomes hopelessly diluted and further removed from the original text of the Catholic Bible, the Protestant movement continues to dissolve into ever more contentious and less Christian and smaller assemblies with ever more convoluted rationalizations.   Simple concepts were transmogrified into impassioned complication.


The difficulty is that the history of sacred texts is at best a confusing and muddled mess of claims, counter-claims, and variant readings.  Only in the aggregate does a unified and coherent whole emerge.  Judeo-Christian scripture may have been divinely inspired as all Christians wholeheartedly believe but to a certainty it was not dictated.  The mind of God our Creator must be sharper than that.




The Old Testament is at first glance a history of the Jewish people from an oral tradition dating to the founding Patriarch Abraham who migrated to the Holy Land from Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C.   The story was first committed to writing beginning with Moses about 1420-1220 B.C. in the first five books or the “Pentateuch”.   These are recognized as sacred by Samaritans and Jews recorded in their separate alphabets.  Afterwards the Jewish side records a succession of prophets predicting the coming of a Messiah.   But since John the Baptist recognized Jesus, the tradition of Jewish prophets ended almost as if their mission had been accomplished.


In any event, at the time of Christ the commonly spoken language around Jerusalem was Aramaic which had replaced Hebrew in which the Old Testament had been composed and which only the High Priests could read.  On the other hand, Greek culture and colonies had been spread far and wide following the conquests of Alexander the Great from 356-323 B.C.   With a sophisticated culture reflected in extensive literature, Koine Greek was the common language of international trade and was widely understood.


This lead to two schools of Jewish canonical texts, the original Hebrew manuscripts maintained in synagogues especially around the temple in Jerusalem and a Greek translation called the “Septuagint” which evolved from the third to first centuries B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt.   The Greek version contained additional material which may not have been originally written in Hebrew and was composed outside of the area around Jerusalem.  Nevertheless, many copies of the Septuagint were made for scattered Jewish communities all of which spoke and maintained commercial records in Greek.


After the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and its repositories of sacred texts in 70 A.D., the continuing process of canonizing the Old Testament culminated at a Jewish council held in Jamnia in 90 A.D.  In partial reaction against the reliance placed upon it by early Catholics but formally because of language and geographical origin, Jews stopped using the Septuagint entirely.  In particular, the last seven books of the Septuagint called “deuterocanonical” or “apocryphra” which were thought to exist only in Greek, were rejected.  The resulting “Masoretic” text representing the Jewish cannon of the Old Testament consists of 39 books.


But complicating things, in 1947 scraps of some of these deuterocanonical texts in Hebrew were unearthed in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Also there are an additional five books of dubious origins and written up until the first century A.D. in some versions of the Septuagint which are accepted by Greek and Russian Orthodox communities for a total of 51 books.


The final version of the Old Testament consists of 46 books, the last seven of which were written in the second and first centuries B.C.  This was the version most used by Christ and the early church.  Indeed the Septuagint is quoted by Christ and his Apostles 340 times but the Old Testament in Hebrew only 33 times [1].


1.  G. Archer and G. C. Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey, 25-32




The enduring power of the message is not in the history or the surprising truth of its c osmology but in its moral truth. The idea was that the Jewish nation was created to form a cradle for the development of a nation and a moral philosophy that would nurture the person of Jesus Christ who distilled the essential message by example and teaching into the enduring beauty and coherence of a New Testament.


As recounted in the Bible, Christ created a church with Apostles and disciples or priests.  And he anointed St. Peter to be his successor to serve as the first Pope.  From the earliest times, the church created deacons and celebrated the Catholic mass based in no small part on the tradition established at the Last Supper.  And this hierarchy of sacred orders, Pope and Bishop, Priest, and Deacon remains in the Catholic Church today.




In the time of Christ, Greek was the common language of the Mediterranean world and the Greek translation of the Old Testament or “Septuagint” was accordingly read by many Jewish communities scattered beyond Jerusalem.  Indeed Christ quoted scripture from the Septuagint. 


But while the New Testament was written in Greek, after several centuries the common language had shifted to Latin reflecting the influence of the Roman Empire.  In order to make Christ’s message accessible to the masses, Pope Danasys I in 382 A.D. asked his personal secretary, St. Jerome, to translate the New Testament gospels into Latin.  The official position of the Catholic Church was expressed in St. Jerome’s famous quote


            “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.”


The result was the “Vulgate”, in Latin meaning “for the masses”, which was more scholarly and accurate than earlier attempts and gained widespread acceptance.  But it was not officially recognized as “authoritative” until the Council of Trent in 1546.  This was not to mean it should replace the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic sources but rather that it was free from theological error and so could be used for reference within the Latin Church.


St. Jerome lived out the last of his life in Bethlehem learning Hebrew and translating the Old Testament directly from Hebrew into Latin.   He translated all 46 books of the Septuagint but following local tradition expressed doubts as to the last seven books.


Before Gutenberg, literacy was very low and EVERYONE who was taught to read and write was also taught Latin.  That is because priests, monks, and nuns had to be able to read the Bible to teach it to peasants who were illiterate.  Indeed the word for “clerk” comes from the Catholic clergy word “cleric”.  Everyone else, to include the Aristocracy, like kings and Barons and whatnot, were illiterate with notably rare exceptions.


The legal test of literacy in Latin called the “Benefit of Clergy”, was established in 1172, formalized by statute in 1351, and lasting in law until 1706.  The idea was that only clergymen were literate, and so if you could read Latin, it was legal proof that you were a priest or monk. Members of the clergy were outside the jurisdiction of civil courts and could only be tried by the church.


Nor was this circumstance unusual as for instance


1.      Because of the rise of Christianity, ALL religious texts kept by the Jews, e.g. the Old Testament and Talmud, were in ancient Hebrew which ONLY the Jewish rabbis could read.  No one else spoke it.


2.      Under Islam, everyone is compelled to learn ancient Arabic because that is the language of Allah.


3.      Throughout all of Europe of the middle ages anyone who could read also understood Latin.  Indeed all scientific and theological works were published in Latin.  All literate people especially in different countries corresponded in Latin.




Before the invention of the printing press by 1439 by Gutenberg, each Bible took more than 250 sheep skins and several thousand hours of effort to copy.


There are 800 thousand words or more than 3 million letters in the entire Bible.  But Christians use the Greek Old Testament which has more letters than the Hebrew Torah which omits all vowels and has 300 thousand letters and takes about 1000 hours to create.  So the Christian Old and New Testaments would take roughly 10 thousand hours to manually copy.  In ancient times,  a complete manuscript of the Bible would be worth roughly $100,000 to $250,000 in today’s money.  Bibles were rare.


After Gutenberg, in the 1500’s (16th century), the number of books increased exponentially from thousands to hundreds of millions…