P. Breen, O.Carm.
Most of the world’s religions and creedal groups have a collection of texts which they regard as sacred and as foundational for their faith. The Catholic Church has its sacred writings or sacred scriptures which are contained in one collection commonly known as the Bible. The writings trace the relationship of God with his people from the moment of creation until after the Resurrection of Christ. The Bible is shared by many people but they do not all hold the same number of books as being canonical. For example, in the Old Testament, some books are left out and only included in a section referred to as the Apocrypha (marked below with an *) while the Catholic Church accepts these books as part of the canon of scripture.
The Christian Bible is divided into two main categories. The first is the largest section and is known as the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures, and these chronicle the time from creation to the time of Christ. While the books record historical events they were not all written at the time that the events took place. For many centuries the people’s history was passed on by word of mouth before eventually being preserved in writing yet much of what is recorded has been verified by historians and archaeologists. For this reason, not everything that is written in the Old Testament is taking as being literally true and exactly how it happened but what is important is the message that is to be found in them. For example, in the Book of Genesis we find two different accounts of Creation in the opening chapters of the book and because they are different then one or both must be wrong. What is important from the Creation story is that God is the author of creation and it is to him that we owe our homage and our thanksgiving.
The Old Testament can be further subdivided into the following categories:
This refers to the first five books of the Bible in which are found the Law of Moses and which form the most important writings for the Jewish people. They are attributed to Moses himself though they were probably written in their present form between 800 – 400 BC and during the time of the Exile in Babylon. These books are:
The Historical Books:
These books trace the history of the Jewish people and were written between 1,000 – 100 BC:
- 1 & 2 Samuel
- 1 & 2 Kings
- 1 & 2 Chronicles
- 1 & 2 Maccabees*
The Wisdom Books:
These books do not trace the history of the time but are books which offered a recipe for successful living and were written from 950 – 50 BC. They are:
- Song of Songs
These books chronicle the lives of the some of the most important prophets in the history of Israel and its people. These were people who were chosen by God to speak to the people on his behalf and who forged covenants with the people and God. They were written between 750 – 150 BC and are:
The New Testament
The New Testament is the smallest of the two main sections and is the most recent in date. They record the birth of God as a man and his life on earth, his death and resurrection. It also contains writings on the works of Christ’s apostles as well as letters by some of his apostles. The final book is a prophetic book. This section too can be divided into sections.
The Bible contains four books known as Gospels because they record the life of Christ. The first three are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they give a synopsis of Christ’s life and deeds and are very close in content. The last is often known as “the Fourth Gospel” and is given to very high theology by comparison to the other three. The Gospels are:
It is generally agreed that the first to be written was Mark’s Gospel and he is believed to have been a disciple and companion of St Peter and that what he has written are Peter’s memories of Christ. The second is Matthew who is thought to have been a direct disciple of Christ. Luke was a doctor who was writing to a friend to persuade him of the Good News. John was the “Beloved Disciple” and while it is attributed to him it was probably a disciple and companion of his who wrote it as John taught his people. The Gospels were not written during Christ’s lifetime because the people thought that he was returning in their lifetime and saw no need to write anything down. However, as the apostles grew old and began to die their memories of Christ were recorded. They were written from 68 – 81AD.
The Acts of the Apostles:
This book was written by the Evangelist Luke who wrote the Gospel and it records the time immediately after Christ’s death and the early work of the apostles. It was written about 70AD.
- Acts of the Apostles
The Letters of St Paul:
St Paul was formally known as Saul who was a Jew of Roman birth. He began by persecuting the early Christians but converted to Christianity after a vision on the road to Damascus which is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul travelled throughout the Mediterranean region and preached the Good News wherever he went. After he had left each town and group of people he often wrote letters of encouragement to the people he had left and to their leaders who had accompanied him on his travels. They were written between 51 – 63AD.
- 1 & 2 Corinthians
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
The Letters to All Christians:
These letters were written by some of Christ’s closest twelve apostles. They are addressed to the Christian Church at large rather to a particular group as were Paul’s letters. They were written between 58 – 83AD.
- 1 & 2 Peter
- 1, 2 & 3 John
The last book in the Bible was written by John the Evangelist about 80AD. It is an account of a vision which John had in which he was taken up to heaven for a time. It is a prophetic book and is therefore not as easy to interpret as the other books found in the Bible.
- The Book of Revelation or the Book of the Apocalypse
While the books were written by humans they are taken as sacred and given special place in the Catholic Church as one of the two pillars of Church teaching – Scripture and Tradition. It is our belief that they were inspired by God and therefore for faith and morals are without error. Scripture forms a special part of our sacramental worship and liturgies.