5 basic Bible facts

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Fall means the beginning of a new school year, and even if you’re no longer a student, it’s always a good time to get back to basics! So let’s explore a few facts that will give you some knowledge and confidence when it comes to understanding your Bible.

1. How many books are in the Bible? Although the word bible means “book,” the Bible is actually a library of books gathered together into one sacred volume. The Bible consists of 73 books — 46 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. As you may know, Protestant Bibles only include 39 Old Testament books. 

Catholics recognize seven books as canonical (part of our sacred body of Scripture) that Protestants do not consider canonical: Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, and Baruch. These books were included in the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in the early Church. At the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Protestants decided to follow the Hebrew canon, which does not include these seven books, while the Catholic Church continued to retain all the books that were included in the Greek Bible and read at the time of Christ.

“Judith Beheading Holofernes” by Caravaggio, circa 1598-1599. Photo: Public Domain

2. When was the Bible written? The ancients were not particularly interested in keeping meticulous track of dates. Books of the Bible were not dated at the time they were written, and their authors were often not named. The composition of the Old Testament was a long and complicated process that began with oral traditions that were eventually written down. Many of these stories and traditions were then edited and arranged over a matter of centuries until they eventually took the shape they have today. 

Dating the books of the Old Testament is difficult, but most scholars give a range from the 10th to the second century B.C. The composition of the New Testament is much more straightforward. Though we don’t have exact dates for these books either, we can be confident that they were composed between A.D. 50 to 110. 

3. In what language was the Bible written? The simple answer is that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. There are a few exceptions to this in the Old Testament. Portions of Daniel were written in Aramaic, and the seven deuterocanonical books discussed above, as well as portions of Esther, were also written in Greek. 

By the time the New Testament was written, Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire — among Jews and Gentiles alike — so the New Testament was composed entirely in Greek, aside from the occasional Aramaic word or phrase.

Fresco of the prophet Daniel. Photo: Ivonne Wierink/Shutterstock

4. Who decided which books would be included in the Bible? The final, authoritative set of Scriptures that we have in the Bible is called the “canon.” But how was the canon formed? What we now call the canon of the Old Testament was fairly settled at the time of Jesus. Jews at that time had access to their Scriptures in both Hebrew (the original language) and Greek (a Greek translation was prepared in the third century B.C.). 

The content of the New Testament canon took several centuries to firm up, but it was essentially agreed upon by the fourth century. Each book of the New Testament canon had a strong link with one of the apostles, was used consistently in the early Christian liturgy, and was judged to authentically convey the Good News of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the Church did not officially declare which books were included in the canon of Scripture until the Council of Trent in the 16th century. 

5. What do we mean when we say Scripture texts are “inspired”? The faithful believe that the words of Scripture are, as Vatican II explained, the words of both God and human beings. This means that God truly speaks to us in the sacred Word, but he does so in every case through a human being, each with his own history, culture, personality, and ideas. God did not control the minds and writing hands of the authors of Scripture as though they were robots or puppets. Inspiration is not dictation. 

Rather, God’s Spirit filled the minds and hearts of biblical authors with the truth that God wanted to communicate, and this truth was then faithfully communicated by a human author with his own words, style, and abilities. Inspiration means that the words of Scripture are vastly unlike regular books in both their authority and their attraction. The words have a freedom that comes from having their source in God. Even the oldest word in the Bible is as new as the morning. Scripture is a living Word. 

God truly speaks to us in the sacred Word.

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