Which Came First, The Bible or the Church?

The Holy Bible is the most popular book of all time.

Where did it come from?

Why do some people believe that it is the very word of God, while others believe that it is just a collection of antiquated myths and fables?


The Bible is far more than a random conglomeration of rules and sayings.

The word Bible comes from the Latin word “biblia” which means book.  The Bible is a library of sacred books, letters, poetry, and prophecy written by over 40 authors over the course of 1000 years.  What sets this book apart is the Christian claim that it contains the inspired word of God.  (2 Timothy 3 v 15 – 17)  By the term inspiration the Church means that the principal author of scripture is God because He moved human authors to write all those things and only those things that He wished to be written.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that God is the author of sacred scripture because He inspired its human authors.  He acts in them and by means of them.  He thus gives assurance that their writings teach without error His saving truth even though the author makes use of his own language, writing style, and skill.  The power of inspiration keeps the Bible free from error.


“The Bible is not merely a literary work.  It differs from all human books for it is an inspired book containing and transmitting divine revelation.”  – Pope Paul VI


The bible is divided into two main sections.  First, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament written before the coming of Christ and the New Testament written after His ascension into heaven.  The Old Testament shows mankind’s need for God’s special help and the desire for a redeemer.  The New Testament relates the life of Christ and His teachings centered around His passion and death, His great acts of love for mankind.  The word testament is used in the sense of agreement or covenant.  So the Old Testament is an agreement between God and His chosen people the Hebrews.  It describes from the beginning how God was preparing His people for the coming of the Messiah.  (Isaiah 42 v 1 & 6)


There are three basic categories of writing in the 46 books of the Old Testament – history, wisdom literature, and prophecy.  The first five books of the Old Testament are referred to as the Pentateuch or in Hebrew the Torah which means law.  These books are traditionally believed to have been written by Moses.  They present the laws of God and narrate the history of mankind and the actual history of God’s chosen people.  In all the Old Testament contains 21 historical books, 7 wisdom books including (Proverbs and the Psalms), and 18 prophetic books.  The Old Testament is quoted by writers of the New Testament 350 times.  Christians venerate the Old Testament as the true word as God, an indispensable part of sacred scripture; its books are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value as the old covenant has never been revoked.  In the Old Testament book of Psalms (119) is found the longest chapter in the Bible.  176 verses that are a magnificent hymn to God’s revelation and an indication of Old Testament believers value of God’s holy word.


In the New Testament, the process of revelation begun in the Old Testament reaches its fulfillment in the life and the teachings of Jesus Christ.  (Hebrews 1 v 1 & 2)  Like the Old Testament, the New begins with five historical books – the four Gospels and the Book of Acts.  Gospel means “good news”.  The Church affirms that the Gospels are the heart of all scriptures because they are our principle source for the life and teaching of the Incarnate Word – our Savior Jesus Christ.  The Gospel of Matthew forms the connecting link between the Old and New Testaments because of its emphasis on the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.  Matthew’s purpose was to present the clear evidence that Jesus is the Messiah – the Promised Savior. (Matthew 5 v 17)  Mark’s Gospel shows most significantly the connections between the passion of Jesus and His lordship showing that the Son of Man had to endure the cross before attaining His glory as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant.  (Mar 10 v 45)  Luke is the only known Gentile author in the New Testament.  His Gospel was intended to present an accurate account of the life of Christ to Gentiles and people everywhere.  Luke stresses the humanity of Jesus and His relationships with people.  He emphasizes prayer and miracles and gives a prominent place to women. (Luke 1 v 1 – 4)  Because of the similarities in these first three books they are often referred to as the Synoptic Gospels.  The Gospel of John is the most theological and reveals the deity of Jesus in every chapter.  (John 20 v 30 & 31)


Like the Old Testament, the New contains not only historical books, but also wisdom or teaching books, the letters or epistles as they are sometimes called, and a book of prophecy (Revelation).  The Old Testament and the New Testament work together to reveal the saving plan of God in Jesus Christ.  (Luke 24 v 27 & v 44 – 48)) The Church teaches that the New Testament must be read in light of the Old.  “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.”  – St. Augustine


All Christians affirm that the Bible is the inspired word of God.  Some denominations believe that the Bible should be the sole “rule of faith” (sola scriptura).  However, scripture alone does not tell us which scriptures belong in the Bible.  For that we must turn to the tradition of the Catholic Church.  Sacred Tradition is divine truth given to the Church by the oral testimony of Jesus or the apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, not all tradition was committed to writing in the form of the inspired books, yet it still has the same force and value as the written word contained in the inspired books as it too contains God’s revelation to man.  The Second Vatican Council confirmed that sacred scripture and sacred tradition form one sacred deposit of the word of God committed to the Church.

2 Thessalonians 2 v 15 states, “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by oral statement or by letter of ours.”


The Church produced the New Testament, not vice versa.  The Bible is the Church’s book.  The New Testament did not come before the Church, rather from the Church.  Peter and the apostles were given authority to teach and govern before the New Testament was written.  The first generation of Christians had no New Testament at all, though they were as much a part of the Church then as we are today.  “Being faithful to the Church means resolutely finding one’s place in the mainstream of the great tradition that assured of the Holy Spirit’s special assistance has recognized the Canonical writings as the word addressed by God to His people and has never ceased meditating on them and discovering their inexhaustible riches.” – Pope John Paul II


The authoritative list or table of contents of the inspired books of the Bible is called the canon of scripture.  The word canon comes from a Greek word meaning a standard of measure.  How was it determined which books should be included in the Bible?  The early Church generally accepted without question the four Gospels and the thirteen epistles of St. Paul.  St. Peter writing as early as 63 AD refers to the writings of Paul as scripture.  After about 170 AD, these books were placed at the same level as those of the Old Testament.  Many other writings falsely claiming apostolic origin called apocrypha were also circulating by this time, as well as, patristic (of or pertaining to the fathers of the Christian Church or their writings) writings that were not considered inspired.  This made it necessary for the Church to assemble an authoritative list of the inspired books.  The complete list of 73 canonical books (46 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books) was given by the Fourth Council of Rome in 382 AD and confirmed by the Council of Hippo in 393 AD and by the Council of Carthage in 397 AD.  However, the Jews at this time no longer accepted the 46 book canon of the Old Testament.  Around the end of the first century after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem a group of Jewish rabbis met in the town of Jamnia in Palestine and established the Palestinian canon.  Perhaps as a reaction to the Church they excluded books from their canon that had not been written in Palestine in Hebrew and before the time of Ezra (circa 400 BC).  Therefore, they rejected seven books –  Wisdom, Sirach, Judith, Baruch, Tobit, and 1st and 2nd Macabees as well as portions of Daniel and Esther principally because they did not have copies in Hebrew.  However, Jesus and the New Testament authors like most Jews of their time recognized a canon called the Alexandian Canon.  Of the 350 Old Testament quotes in the New Testament, about 300 come from this version and so the Christian Church continued its use of the Alexandrian Canon.  The 39 books are referred to as the Protocanonical (early and universally accepted without doubt), while the 7 disputed books are called deuterocanonical because they were included later.  For 1100 years (from the 4th century to the 16th) the Catholic Canon of the Bible was a matter of unquestioned faith for all Christians.  “I would not believe in the Gospel had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.” – St. Augustine


In the 16th century the Canon underwent a serious challenge from a disgruntled ex-priest by the name of Martin Luther.  In 1517 he nailed his notorious 95 objections to the Catholic faith on a church door in Wittenburg Germany and the Protestant Reformation was born.  By 1529 as a justification for removing biblical texts that ran contrary to the new Protestant doctrines, Luther proposed the use of the Palestinian canon for the Christian Old Testament using as his basis for this position that there were no versions of the books in question in Hebrew.  Recently, research in to the Dead Sea Scrolls has uncovered copies of the ancient books in Hebrew rendering this argument invalid.  Luther was not content to stop there.  He also rejected the book of James and Revelation.  While most publishers of Protestant Bibles include all 27 of the New Testament books, they also exclude or reference as apocryphal (false or of doubtful authorship or authenticity) the seven books in question from the Old Testament.   The doctrine of Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) was given its life by Luther and other reformers as the sole rule of faith.  This is a proposition that would have been virtually impossible before introduction of modern printing or the first 1500 years of Church history.  Even memorization of scripture on the basis of chapter and verse would have to wait for centuries for although the canon was established in the 4th century, it wasn’t until 1226 that Stephen Langton divided the text of the Bible into chapters.  He was professor at the University of Paris and later the Catholic archbishop of Canterbury.  These chapter divisions are still in use today.  In 1551 printer Robert Stephen inserted the numbering scheme to the verses.  Original versions had no such divisions and were copied by hand often without punctuation or even spaces between words.  These early versions were transcribed on to long rolls of papyrus which would perish over time.  These scrolls were delicate and cumbersome as it took many scrolls to make on copy of the Bible.  In the Middle Ages the scroll was exchanged for the Codex Sinaiticus which was many single pages bound together like a book.  The use of papyrus gave way to parchment which was made from the skins of sheep.  This was a long lasting though costly substitute.  Scholars estimate that it took as many as 425 sheep skins to produce one Bible.  Many of these originals are still in existence today.  Prior to the invention of the printing press all copies were made by hand with the Church vouching for the accuracy and integrity of each volume individually.  Monks and clerics spent countless hours making these copies often times illuminating them with colored illustrations and precious gold leaf.  As a result, in these early years complete copies of the Bible were rare and were very valuable.  The cost of the parchment alone represented the equivalent of ten years wages at the time.  As a result, common people’s exposure to the scriptures was hearing them read aloud at Mass.  In addition, most people at this time were unable to read.  This is another reason why sola scriptura would not exist until the 16th century.  So the Church spread the word of God in many different ways throughout the ages.  Firstly, by the preaching of priests and monks.  By faithfully duplicating and preserving intact the books themselves and also by medieval culture (popular prayers and devotions, sacred music, church architecture and master works of art on biblical themes).  While the Church sought this type of exposure for the gospel message, many myths from the era of reformation still exist today.  Such as that the Church’s teachings are refuted by the Bible, that the Church chained and even burned the Bible, and that the Bible was kept in a dead language so as to keep it out of the hands of the common people.


The history of Bible translations goes back all the way to the days before Christ.  In the centuries between the testaments Hebrew became a dead language and was no longer spoken by the common person.  Therefore, Palestinian Jews required an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible and Hellenistic Jews a version in Greek.  The targums were biblical paraphrases made from Hebrew to Aramaic in the synagogue services so that the people could understand what had just been read.  In this way the entire Old Testament was translated into Aramaic.  A Greek translation was previously made at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt between 250 and 100 BC.  Legend has it that seventy scholars undertook the project and so it is called the Septuagint from the Greek word for seventy.  This Septuagint was the version used by Hebrews during the time of Christ along with the apostles and New Testament writers.  It is still the official text of the Greek Church.  However, there was another language that was becoming the common tongue of the western world – Latin.  Near the end of the 4th century when the canon of the Bible was being framed the genuine need for a translation in this language came to the attention of Pope Saint Damasus I.  Around 382 AD he commissioned his secretary, a pious priest and gifted linguist named Jerome, to undertake the task of preparing a Latin translation.  In 384 AD Pope Damasus I died and Jerome made his way into seclusion in Bethlehem to finish this work.  By the 405 AD the Latin translation was complete.  The Latin Vulgate (common or popular) was declared the official version in Latin and remains so today.  This work was a major step in making the Bible available to all of the faithful by placing it in the common tongue of the western world.  While some accuse the Church of placing the text in a dead language, history shows that at this time there were those who could read Latin and those who could read nothing.  As the national languages of Europe began to appear, vernacular versions of the Bible also began to appear.


While many believe that it was Luther with his German version of the Bible or the King James Version of the Bible that were the first vernacular versions of the Bible, history shows that some 600 Catholic Bible editions with 200 in the vernacular existed before the first Protestant version ever appeared.  Some of these were in German when Luther published his version in 1522.  In fact, the very first book to be published on the printing press was the Catholic Guttenberg Bible of 1456.  While the first English translation is attributed to Wycliffe and his disciples (circa 1380) most Protestant scholars now state that little of the translation can be attributed to Wycliffe and rather were based upon earlier translated Catholic versions.  The next English translation is the Douay version published between 1582 and 1610.  This translation based upon the Vulgate was the work of Catholic scholars who were driven from England by religious persecution.  All of these were in existence prior to the publishing of the King James version in 1611.  If partial restrictions were placed upon the distribution of Bibles in England in the 15th century it was because of the works of those like Wycliffe who issued an unauthorized translation that contained a decidedly anti-clerical (opposed to the influence and activities of the clergy or the Church) commentary.  Because the Catholic Church believes the Bible to be the true word of God, it has always taken to heart Jerome’s words “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  This is why the Church has made great efforts to make the word available to faithful in every country.  The Church as guardian of the faith considered within its right and duty to keep corrupted translations from spreading.  So yes, Catholics did have these corrupted versions burned, as did some Protestants.  While the word of God is free from error, that does not extend to printers, editors, or their apprentices.  For example, the King James version of 1717 is referred to as the “vinegar” Bible because the chapter heading that should read the parable of the vineyard reads the parable of the vinegar.  The King James version of 1795 was called the “wicked” Bible because the word not was omitted from Exodus 20 v 14 leaving it to read “Thou shall commit adultery.”  There were still others.  It has been documented that many early Protestant translations like Tyndale’s version were corrupted with willful and deliberate mistranslations directly aimed at those doctrines and practices of the Church which the reformers were most anxious to undermine. Sir Thomas More said “Finding errors in Tyndale’s bible is like studying to find water in the sea.”  Even King Henry VIII issued an edict preventing the Tyndale Bible in 1531.


It is also true that the Church chained the Bible in the Middle Ages usually to a lectern by a window so as to be available to anyone who could read or so the illiterate could benefit from the beautiful illuminations.  Because they were rare and valuable they were chained to keep them from being stolen not to keep them from being read.  The Church encourages the reading of scripture along with prayer so that God and man may talk together for we speak to Him when we pray, we hear Him when we read the divine word.


While many versions exist today, Catholics are encouraged to look for one that carries a bishop’s Imprimatur (Latin for let it be printed) which signifies the approval by a bishop for the publication of a religious work.  This Imprimatur can usually be found in the front of a book along with a Nihil Obstat which is the approval of a diocesan sensor to publish a manuscript dealing with faith or morals.  Currently only three versions of the Bible are approved for use in the liturgy in the United States.  They are the 1970 version of the New American Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, and the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition.  Many others such as the Douay-Rheims is approved for private reading.  “Read assiduously (constantly and/or attentively)and learn as much as you can.  Let sleep overtake you with the Bible in your hands and when your head nods let it be resting on the sacred page.” – St Jerome


No matter which version is being used, to understand the Bible one must consider the serious matter of interpretation.  (2 Peter 3 v 15 & 16)(Acts 8 v 30 & 31)(2 Peter 1 v 20)  Given these passages, the Church has always maintained the necessity of an official interpreter of the Bible.  It is the scandal of Chrysostom that Protestantism has divided into thousands of rival sects each teaching its own set of doctrines while claiming to follow the Bible alone.  The Church reminds us that many passages of the Bible are not to be understood according to our modern manner of expression since they contain certain figures of speech and literary forms used by the people of ancient times.  Rather one can know the true meaning of the Bible through the proper interpretation of the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church which has received from Jesus Christ the right and duty to teach and explain all that God has revealed.  Vatican II asserted all that has been said about the manner of interpreting scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the word of God.


For many today, the question is not what is the history of the Bible, rather is the Bible history?  This is a crucial question given that the New Testament is the primary historical source for information about Jesus.  To determine the accuracy of any piece of ancient literature, historians apply three basic principles of historiography.   The first is the bibliographical test.  With no original copies in existence, historians ask how reliable are the existing copies with regard to the number of available manuscripts and how close to the original is the oldest copy?  Over 20,000 manuscripts of the Bible exist along with early papyrite fragments that bridge the gap between the oldest complete manuscripts and the eyewitness period.  The next test is of the internal evidence.  This test asks if the author of a work has the ability to tell the truth about his subject based upon his geographical and chronological proximity.  Here the New Testament proves to be reliable.  (1 John 1 v 3)  (2 Peter 1 v 16) (John 19 v 35) The apostles were teaching and writing within the lifetime of those who were alive at the time of Jesus and could refute them if their claims were untrue. (Acts 2 v 22)  Third is the external historicity test.  Do other historical sources confirm or deny the contents of the documents in question.  For the New Testament there is not only agreement between the books contained within it, but also a wealth of information obtained from ancient historians such as Eusebius (lived from 260 to 340 AD, a Roman historian who became bishop of Ceasarea in Palestine) and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (lived from 37 AD to 101 AD)  “None can doubt but what has been written took place.” – St. Jerome  “These things are true.  They are faithfully and truthfully written of Christ so that who so ever should believe His gospel may be thereby instructed in the truth and misled by no lie.” – St. Augustine  The quotation of biblical documents by early Christian writers is so extensive that the entire New Testament  could be reconstructed without the use of manuscripts.  While the Bible is clearly an historic book, it is also much more than just history.  To keep the Bible from becoming a “dead letter” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that we should read scripture within the living tradition of the whole Church.  Sacred scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records for the Church carries in her tradition the living memorial of God’s word and it is the Holy Spirit that gives her the spiritual interpretation of the scripture.


The Church unceasingly offers the bread of life in the Mass in the form of Christ’s word and His body.  A Catholic who attends Mass on Sunday for three years is exposed to over 7,000 verses of scripture.  A Catholic who attends daily Mass for two years is exposed to over 14,000 verses of scripture.  Each and every part of the Mass is soaked in scripture.  The liturgy of the word prepares one to receive the body, blood, sole, and divinity of Jesus in the liturgy of the Eucharist. (Luke 22 v 19 & 20)  The reception of the Eucharist goes all the way back to the Last Supper.  In fact, the prayers, vessels, vestments and actions of the Mass are so thoroughly biblical that it is said that even if one of the twelve apostles were to walk into a Catholic Mass today, he would know exactly what was happening.


The faithful are encouraged to privately read and study scripture outside of the public worship of the Church.  When reading the Bible the Church recommends that special care be taken to discover the literal sense of every passage.  Reading introductions, footnotes, and making use of approved commentaries, Church documents, and other Bible study aids can be very helpful.  We must also realize that the Bible is God’s word to us today.  It has been said that we speak to God in prayer and He answers in the scriptures.  Reading His word is one way of listening to God.  When one opens the Bible God is truly present in a special way.  From the word of Jesus we know His presence, always current and alive in time and history by means of the Church willed and founded by Him, which gives us certainty about the truths to believe and to practice and offers to us the Eucharist, a mystery of faith and a manifestation of love.  (Matthew 24 v 35)


In the final analysis, perhaps the best evidence for the Bible is the life of the Church which gave the Bible to the world.  Throughout history even bitter opponents of the Catholic Church have recognized the genuine good that through that same Church God’s word has brought to the world.  Literally billions have benefited from those who choose to live the Bible’s message of love, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption.