THE BIBLE: THE LIBRARY FOR
JEWS & CHRISTIANS
by Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D.
6 January 2005
I. THE STRUCTURE OF THE
Our Bible is divided into two main sections -- the "Old Testament" or Hebrew
Bible, and the "New" or Second Testament.
The Old Testament can be divided into four
- the Torah
- the Prophets
- the Historical Books
- the Wisdom Literature.
PLUS the Deutero-canonical writings (those
accepted by Catholics and the Orthodox but not by most Protestant Christians)
The Torah is composed
of the first five books of the Bible, sometimes called 'the five books of Moses'
or the Pentateuch. These are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
When Christian or Jewish writers refer to "the Law," they are referring
to the Torah. These books begin with the story of creation, and go on to relate
the call of individuals who gradually formed the Israelite people. This narrative
recounts their escape from slavery in Egypt, the formation of a special relationship
with their God, Yahweh, the requirements which God placed upon them because of
this special relationship, and how these were worked out in the life of the community
during their journey to the land which Yahweh had promised to give to them.
include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations (which were attributed to Jeremiah),
Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum,,
Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. (The Hebrew Bible
also includes the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as part of
the prophetic literature, though Christian bibles put them in the category
of Historical Writings.) These books record the voices of those who called
Israel to account for their sins and to return to faithfulness to their
relationship with Yahweh. Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum
Habakkuk Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi are considered the Minor
Prophets because the books are quite short. The Hebrew Bible calls them
"the Twelve" because all twelve books fit on one scroll, whereas a scroll
is required for each of the books of the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah
The Historical Writings
include Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles,
Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther and I and II Maccabees. These books relate
the story of the people of Israel from the entrance into the promised land,
through the rise and fall of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel. The
Babylonian Captivity, the return to Palestine, and finally the history of the
Israelites under the Roman Empire. The Historical Writings, then, cover a span
of roughly 1250 years, from 1300-1250 BCE to 37 BCE.
The Wisdom Literature
includes Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth), the Song of Songs,
the Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus (or the Wisdom of Ben Sirach). The
question of the nature and destiny of the individual is the main preoccupation
of these works, excluding Psalms and the Song of Songs. The book of Psalms is
a collection of song-prayers used in liturgy. The Song of Songs is a poem written
for a royal wedding.
There are seven books which Roman Catholics consider part of the
Old Testament but which are not part of the Jewish Bible or of the Protestant
Old Testament: Baruch, Tobit, Judith, I and II Maccabees, the Wisdom of
Solomon, and the Wisdom of Ben Sirach. While all the other books of the
Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew, these seven are found
only in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish Bible. There are
also 10 sections of the books of Esther and Daniel which fall into this
The Catholic and the Orthodox Bibles differ only
in that the Orthodox Bible does not include the book of Baruch.
Protestant Bibles, since the discovery of the Qumran
scrolls in the early 1950's, have begun to print these seven books, but
in a separate section from the rest of the Old Testament. This section
they call the "Apocrypha" (which means, "rejected books"), since they are
not considered part of the "canon" (the set of normative books). Catholics
call these books the Deuterocanonical writings (i.e., books of the "second
canon"). This is to distinguish them from the "Protocanonical" ("first
canon") books which are considered, by Jews, Protestants, Catholics and
Orthodox alike, to be part of Sacred Scriptures.
The New Testament also can be divided into four sections:
The four Gospels
(Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) set forth the story of Jesus' life and preaching
as seen through the eyes of the early Christian believers. The word "Gospel"
comes from the Greek word "evangelion" which means "Good News",
and from which we get the word "evangelist." The early Christian communities
(and, hence, the Evangelists) saw themselves as having experienced, in
a unique and powerful way, the reality of God present in Jesus. The Easter
experience led them to want to share this experience with others by proclaiming
the Good News, the message of Jesus. This involved recounting Jesus' stories
and other sayings, and also sharing the disciples' stories about what Jesus
The Book of Acts
The Epistles or Letters
The Apocalypse or Book of Revelation
This message of Jesus began to be spread through
public preaching and teaching. Especially in the worship of the early Church,
the disciples told Jesus' sayings and the stories about him. Some communities
preserved different stories and sayings of Jesus because they were particularly
appropriate to their circumstances. All of them preserved the core of the
Gospel message: the reality of the Cross and Resurrection. For some twenty
years after Jesus' death, this is how the Good News was spread.
Though the Gospel message was not written down until
many years after the death of Jesus, we know that oral transmission of
religious teachings was a very common and a very accurate means of spreading
a message. The witnesses of the early Church sought to preserve what Jesus
had taught in the form in which he had spoken it. But, in the light
of their experience of the Resurrection and under the influence of the
Holy Spirit, they had an entirely new realization of who Jesus was. This
gave them a new perspective, and caused them to interpret his sayings and
actions in a new way. This new perspective is what made the news of Jesus'
life and death "Good News" to the disciples, and to those who heard the
Eventually, as the witnesses of Jesus' life began
to grow old, and as the various Christian communities became more established,
they began to collect the different stories and sayings of Jesus and to
put them into writing. People also began to add the stories about what
Jesus had done, and the explanations for things that Jesus had said but
which they had not understood until after the Resurrection. These written
records are what we have in the New Testament Gospels.
One of the requirements for including a book in
the New Testament canon was that it have the authority of an apostle behind
it. Thus, each of the Gospels is named after the Apostle whose teaching
and example had the greatest influence upon the Christian community in
which the Gospel was finally recorded.
The four canonical Gospels, in the form in which
we have them today, have been dated between CE 67
to around 95 or later. The earliest one is the Gospel of Mark, CE
67. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are dated right around 90 (or perhaps
125 for Luke), with the Gospel of John being about CE
95. If you are interested in learning more about the development of our
four Gospels, I strongly recommend John Reumann's book, Jesus in the
Church's Gospels (Fortress, 1968).
The Book of Acts presents
the story of the early Christian community as they begin to preach the
message of Jesus. It begins this story of the early Church where the Gospel
of Luke ends; with Jesus' Ascension into heaven and the command to spread
the Gospel to all the ends of the earth. This is why the Book of Acts is
attributed to the same Christian community as the Lukan Gospel.
Acts shows the early Christians as exercising the
same power in word and deed as the Gospel says that Jesus had. And it relates
the story the preaching of the Good News about Jesus, starting from Jerusalem
and going all the way to Rome, the head of the Roman Empire and the center
of the civilized world. It is dated between CE 90-125.
are the earliest written record of early Christian preaching and teaching,
some of them dating to within 20 years of the death of Jesus. As with the
other books of the Bible, they are not given in chronological order. Thus,
I Thessalonians, not the Letter to the Romans, is the earliest of the Epistles.
The various letters are attributed to Paul, John, Peter, or James, with
the Letter to the Hebrews having no author named. Most of the NT letters
date between CE 50-90.
or Book of Revelation to John is the last book of the Bible. In
very vivid and figurative language, it recounts a vision of the final coming
of the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, and what will be the reward of
those who have been faithful to the Gospel message. Because of its late
date, it is more likely that the written work comes from a community influenced
by John, the Apostle, rather than from the Apostle himself. The Apocalypse
is dated somewhat after CE 90.
II. THE SCRIPTURES AS NORMATIVE: THE IDEA OF
Canon is a Greek term meaning "measure,
rule or norm." The English term "ruler" or "yardstick"
is a related concept. The Scriptural Canon is the list of divinely inspired
writings recognized as such by the Church (at the Council of Trent, ca. CE
1550). They form a "canon" in the sense of a "rule for life,"
a yardstick against which to measure one's behavior (ethical, social, political
Canonicity is the act of the Church in deciding
which books are inspired. This is not the same thing as
revelation (which is the process of the self-gift of God, by word and deed,
to which we respond in faith). Nor is it inspiration, i.e., the act upon
the writer(s) by which God is "author" of these writings. Even
further, it needs to be distinguished from the issue of authenticity, which
is the scholarly pursuit of determining who wrote these books.
Types of Canonical Books:
Protocanonical or Homologoumena: the four Gospels and the
books of the Torah and Prophets; their status as canonical was never doubted
Deuterocanonical, "Apocrypha" or Antilegoumena: the
books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, ben Sirach, Baruch, I and II Maccabees,
James, Hebrews, Jude, II and III John, II Peter, and the Apocalypse; their
status as scripture was doubted by some Christians until the fourth century
Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha is the name given to those books
omitted from the canon; these include writings such as the Gospel of
Thomas, the Ascension of Moses, I Enoch, and many others.
III. WHY ARE THE SCRIPTURES NORMATIVE? THE IDEA
Our very name for the Bible expresses the fact that we see it as a special book;
"ton biblion," the Greek term from which we derive our word "bible,"
means THE books. What is so different about this collection of books? We
believe, as it was in II Timothy 3:16, that the Bible is "inspired."
Inspiration means "in spiriting" or "breathing into."
Thus, the word "inspiration" tries to express the idea that the Spirit
of God was active in the formation of the Biblical text. The Spirit "breathes"
the idea into the person and/or community, and the person or community
then expresses the idea (under the guidance of the Spirit) in the language,
symbols, and style of that particular time and culture.
An image which may be helpful in understanding this
idea is that of the musician and instrument. Neither can sound a note without
the other yet, by working with the instrument, the musician can make music.
The sound of the music depends upon the instrument -- what kind it is,
how well it is made, etc. -- and also upon the musician's knowledge of
the instrument and level of expertise. The phrases which will be played
are the choice of the musician, but the exact form of the resulting music
depends as much upon the instrument as upon the one who plays.
As it says at the opening of the book of the prophet, Jeremiah:
"The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah . . . the word of Yahweh
was addressed to him in the days of Josiah son of Amon, king of Judah
. . . until the deportation of Jerusalem . . . ." The words of the prophet
(or evangelist, psalmist, or sage), conditioned by patterns of language, thought,
and culture, are the vehicle though which the Word of Yahweh is made known to
IV. HOW ARE THE SCRIPTURES NORMATIVE? THE IDEA
The idea of the infallibility of Scripture (that it is free from error) is very
closely related to the idea of inspiration. If God cannot deceive, then the word
of God must be true. Scripture, as the inspired word of God, is a true guide to
faith and holiness. As it says in II Timothy 3:15-16, "from these (scriptures)
you can learn the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ
Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and can profitably be used for teaching,
for refuting error, for guiding people's lives and teaching them to
We can see, in the quote from II Tim. 3:15f, that
the idea of Scriptural infallibility is meant to apply to "the wisdom that
leads to salvation." Scripture does not purport to be a scientific account
of the creation of the world, or a text in Middle Eastern geography, or
a strictly accurate historical account of the origins of the nation of
Israel. For example, the Gospel of Luke sometimes makes errors in geographically
locating where Jesus preached. This factual error does not bear upon the
question of infallibility, because geography is not part of "the wisdom
that leads to salvation." The important part of the Gospel is not where
Jesus preached, but who he was and what he said and did.
The quote from II Timothy also points out that "all
Scripture" can be used to learn the wisdom leading to salvation. The idea
of infallibility, like the idea of inspiration, applies to all of the Bible,
taken as a whole. The entire Bible is a record of the word God wanted spread
Yet, because of the specific purpose which God had
for each of the human authors of the Scriptures, each of the books of Scripture
complements the others. No passage can be understood properly apart from
the rest of the Scripture. We must be careful to seek to understand the
shorter passages of the Bible in the context of the message of the whole
of Scripture. It is in this sense that Scripture is infallible, normative
in the areas of faith and morals.
V. HOW ARE THE SCRIPTURES "THE WORD OF GOD"
According to Catholic tradition, most recently expounded in the Dogmatic Constitution
Dei Verbum on Divine Revelation, only the person of Jesus Christ is
truly "the Word of God." Any other use of this phrase is derivative.
The phrase "the Word of God" has four basic meanings
in Catholic tradition:
Hence, it is more proper to say that the Bible "contains"
or "attests to" the word of God, rather than to say that the Bible itself
"is" the word of God.
Jesus the Messiah, the Word of God Incarnate, who lived in human history
as Jesus of Nazareth and lives still through His resurrection from the
The words and deeds of Jesus (which convey God's word to us)
The words and deeds of Jesus as handed down from the apostles (i.e., oral
tradition which remains faithful to that message)
The Sacred Scriptures, which contain the record of the apostolic and prophetic
VI. INTERPRETATION OF THE SCRIPTURES
Talking about reading the Scriptures in context naturally leads to the question
of interpretation, for "interpretation" means 'to take from between'
the text. That is, interpretation is finding the meaning of the text by reading
the words and lines between (or among) the others, with the other lines always
in the back of your mind.
Historically, the Church has seen the Scriptures
at three levels of meaning: the literal, the analogical, and the anagogical
or mystical levels. The "literal" level of interpretation is understood
in the sense of the biblical author's original, intended meaning -- not
in the sense of what a modern reader might think by merely reading the
text (e.g. the Creation account in Genesis 1) without any knowledge of
the author's intention or cultural setting.
The same Holy Spirit who inspired the sacred authors
to put God's word in writing, and who worked through the early Christian
communities as they grew in their understanding of Jesus and of the Gospel,
continues to work through the Church to help us understand God's word in
the Scriptures. This does not mean that each individual Christian who reads
the Bible can come to "the truth" apart from the rest of the Church. Just
as the oral traditions of which preceded the scriptural writings were developed
among a community of faith, written down by a few representatives of the
community, and then accepted as normative by the community if they were
a true reflection of their faith, Scriptural interpretation today must
proceed through the same process of communal approval.
This idea of "communal approval" involves not only
the agreement of present-day Christians. It also means that we must interpret
the Scriptures in light of what was taught and believed by those Christians
who have gone before us. Through the Creeds, liturgical prayers, hymns
and practices, the decrees of the councils of bishops, and the writings
of scholars and Church leaders, we learn how other Christians have understood
the Scriptural message. The Church believes that we can grow in our understanding
of the Scripture only by having our roots in this Sacred Tradition.
This is why the Catholic Church teaches that isolated individuals
cannot "interpret" Scripture. The role of interpretation belongs to
the whole Church through the people's "sense of faith" when they are
in agreement with the rest of the community of faith. The role of interpretation
specifically belongs to the teaching office of the Church (the Magisterium) because
of their special gift and responsibility for guiding their brothers and sisters
to a deeper understanding of the Gospel message.
VII. USES OF THE SCRIPTURES
The fact that the Bible was developed through communal religious life and formed
through communal approval of the text has an important impact upon the ways
in which Scripture is used.
The primary use of Scripture is in the public worship
of the Church -- whether during the Mass, as part of the Liturgy of the Hours,
or during a celebration of any of the other Sacraments. Passages from the Bible
are read aloud for the community's reflection. Sometimes there is a reflection
on how this passage speaks to the life of the community members (e.g. during
the Homily of the Mass). Always the act of public proclamation of the Scriptures
calls the members of the community to remember who they are (i.e. a community
of faith). It reminds them that, because God speaks to the community as a whole,
but in different ways to different members of the community, they are an integral
part of God's message to their sisters and brothers. If they do not share their
part of this message, then everyone loses.
A second very significant use of the Scriptures is for lectio
divina, praying and meditating on them in private or small groups.
Even when individuals read and pray the Scriptures, they do so as persons of
faith, as members of the community of faith. Their understanding of the Scriptures
must still be brought to the community for approval or correction. The Spirit
does lead each individual to learn from the Scriptures. But neither the Spirit
nor the Bible is given for private use. When one community member gains a new
insight into the Scriptures, this affects how the person lives in community.
Both the Spirit and the Scriptures are given to build up the community of faith.
Thus, even personal reading of the Scriptures can be viewed as a communal event.
The Second Vatican Council reminds us that "prayer should
accompany the reading of sacred Scripture, so that a dialogue takes place between
God and man. For, 'we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read
the divine oracles.'" (Dei Verbum VI, 25). In a very real sense,
prayer and meditation on the Scriptures can never be private events. Prayer
opens up a dialogue not only between God and the individual, but also affects
the community. By prayerful reading of the Scriptures, the individual becomes
transformed. Because the person is part of the community of faith, this also
transforms the community. Praying the Scriptures enlivens the faith community
and strengthens it, making it the vehicle through which God's word is made active
in and reaches out to transform the whole world.
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Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D.
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John Carroll University
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