The Bible

"'Assemble the people for me; I will have them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me as long as they live in the land and may so teach their children.'" Deuteronomy 4:10

Open bible book with cloth book mark

Traditionally, Catholicism has been misinterpreted as failing to put enough importance on the Bible.  Catholics have been seen as knowing nothing about the Bible. Our Protestant brothers and sisters tend to have much better knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures.  Catholics should and do value the Bible as foundational to our faith.  The difference with our Protestant brothers and sisters is that we also value the importance of Tradition.  Tradition in this sense does not mean specific customs and rituals but rather the ongoing developing doctrines and understandings of Scripture that have arisen over time.

That being said, we, as Catholics, need to grow in our understanding of the Bible and all it has to offer.  The Bible is foundational to our faith.  It tells the story of God's people throughout time (Salvation History), the teachings of God including the Law and the Ten Commandments, and the ministry and teachings of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  It gives us insight into how the biblical writers saw the presence of God in the lives of the people and their own lives.

Thus, the Bible is of immense important for those who seek to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

The Catholic Church was slow to embrace scholarly study of the Bible.  Holding to the understanding of inspiration of the Bible as literally the Word of God dictated to the author, scholarly study was unnecessary.  The Bible could be taken at face value.  In 1943, Pope Pius XII wrote his encyclical on scripture studies, Divino Afflante Spiritu, calling for true scholarly study of the Bible.  Since then, Catholic biblical study has grown tremendously.

Inspiration of the Bible
For centuries the Bible was understood as dictated word for word by God, written by human hands.  This was what was meant by inspiration.  The difficultly here is how do resolve differences between scripture passages, scripture and documented history, or scripture and science (cf. Evolution).  We still hold that the Bible is inspired by God.  However, our understanding of how scripture is inspired has changed.  By inspiration, we now mean that God inspired the human author with the concepts and ideas but allowed the authors to choose their own words based on their cultural understanding of the bible.

Authorship of the Bible
For centuries, each book of the Bible was believed to have been written by the biblical character that it is named after (with the Pentateuch understood to be written by Moses).  Responsible scholarly study  now understands this is not always the case.  For instance, we now know that the Pentateuch, once attributed to Moses was not written till centuries after his death.  This DOES NOT mean we believe that Moses had nothing to do with the Pentateuch or lead us to think the stories are made up.  Oral Tradition was very important for the Israelites.  The stories of the Pentateuch were handed down for generations orally and, of course, whoever wrote the various books did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The same can be said for the New Testament.  Many of the Letters of Paul were written by him but not all.  Three of the gospels were likely not written by the apostle whose name they bear.  Luke is understood to be written by Luke himself but he was not a direct apostle of Jesus.  He joined the Christian faith after the Resurrection, likely under Paul's influence.  The gospels were not written until thirty or more years after the Resurrection.  Mark is understood to be written between 60-70 A.D., Matthew and Luke between 70 and 90 A.D. and John around 100 A.D.  This does not mean the gospels could not have been written by the original apostles themselves but giving the time frame, it is more likely that members founded by each of the Apostles wrote the gospels attributed to them.

This should in no way devalue the Bible.  In fact, in the time of the biblical authors, it was considered a sign of honor to name a book after a person.  For an understanding of who wrote a particular book of the Bible consult a good commentary or if your Bible has an introduction to each book of the Bible, it probably includes some discussion of who wrote the book.

Translations of the Bible
There are many translations of the Bible into English available today including the New American Bible Revised Edition, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the King James Bible, and the New International Version.  The New American Bible Revised Edition is the official Catholic translation in the United States.  The Lectionary (cf. The Mass Explained - readings) as used as Masses comes from the New American Bible translation.  It is a relatively new translation authorized by the USCCB and approved by Rome.  The Preface to the New American Bible provides some of the background.  The King James Bible and the New International Version and several other translations are available at

Why are there so many translations into English?  As was discussed above, there has been a great increase in biblical scholarship in the last century.  This has led to different interpretations and translations.  Most of the original Old Testament was written in Hebrew (some Greek) while the New Testament was written in Greek.  Around the third century A.D., St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin and this became known as the Vulgate.  Translations into local languages became common during the Protestant Reformation.  The official Catholic translation remained as Latin until the 20th Century. The many different translations reflect different understandings.  The translations listed above are all considered as literal translations, meaning they attempt to translate the original scripture as closely as possible.  Other translations paraphrase the texts, attempting to modernize the text.  It is good to help people understand what the original text means today but it is another to paraphrase the text without allowing the reader to see the original texts for themselves.

A key difference between Protestant and Catholic Bible. Catholic Bibles include seven books of the Old Testament called Apocrypha by Protestants. They are written in Greek and not seen as part of the original Hebrew Bible. They may be included as an appendix in Protestant Bibles. Protestant Bibles that include these seven books see them as holy writings but not inspired by God. The seven books are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and First and Second Maccabees.

Commentaries and Bible Dictionaries
Given everything said above, it becomes necessary to have reference material to help people understand the Bible.  Two important types of reference material for scripture study are commentaries and biblical dictionaries.  Commentaries are books that help us understand what the original authors of the passages meant and what it means for us today.  Biblical dictionaries take key words found in the Bible and explain the origin of the term and its use in various books of the Bible.  Perhaps the most common Catholic commentary is The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.  In one volume, it offers a concise summary of all the books of the Bible.  However, it can be a bit technical to read.

Models of Revelation
Lastly, I would like to briefly introduce the book, Models of Revelation, written by Avery Dulles, S.J. (subsequently Cardinal Dulles) (Avery Dulles, S.J., Models of Revelation, Maryknoll, NY:Orbis Books. 1992).   In his book, he proposes his "Models of Revelation" to help us understand how we view revelation.  There is an important distinction to be made here.  So far, we have been discussing the Bible.  Dulles' book takes a broader view.  Revelation is not limited to the Bible.  Revelation includes any way that God reveals himself to us, publicly or privately.  Nonetheless, I believe his "Models of Revelation" are helpful in our discussion of the Bible and what it means to us.

In this book he lays out five models for how we understand revelation.

  1. Revelation as Doctrine - In the doctrinal model, faith becomes a series of propositions given by God to be believed.  The Bible contains these propositions.  Thus, one can say I believe this because that is what the Bible says.  Today, this model is favored by Evangelicals who take the Bible literally and Conservative Catholics who believe because the Church says so.  The advantage of this model is that it gives us something definitive to believe in.  However, it makes ecumenical dialogue difficult.
  2.  Revelation as History - In the historical model, God is revealed to us through historical events.  The Bible is the collection of "Salvation History," telling us how God has been present to his people throughout the ages.  This model fits nicely with the Pentateuch and books like Joshua, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings which are written to tell the story.  However, we should not limit ourselves to seeing it as historical fact but rather, the point is to point us to God's presence to his people throughout time so that we can be assured that God is present for us too.
  3. Revelation as Inner Experience - In the inner experience model, God is revealed to us through our own personal (inner) experiences.  This model is more individualistic, a matter of personal experience.  In this model the Bible becomes a collection of individual experiences.  Thus, a disadvantage of this model is that it neglects the communal aspects of our faith and how are God's people.
  4. Revelation as Dialectical Presence - The dialectic model is concerned with the extraordinary spiritual experiences of our lives.  Thus, this model looks beyond the details of the stories of the Bible and seeks to examine what those experiences tell us about God and help us to experience God today.
  5. Revelation as New Awareness - Honestly, this model is the most difficult for me to understand.  In simplest terms, in this model we use our spiritual experiences to bring us to new levels of awareness of our faith.

In reality, no one of these models can totally explain our view of Revelation and the Bible.  We are called to understand that the Bible does indeed include instructions (doctrine) from God, it tells the history of God in the world, speaks of how people have experienced God in their lives, and calls us to look beyond the "physical details" and transcend to the spiritual of what all these means for us.

This short introduction does not do justice to Dulles' Models of Revelation but I hope it helps you to think about how you view the Bible and revelation.

For Further Reading