Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

December AD 2007
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

"Catholic" or "Roman Catholic"?
Who determined the books of the Bible?


"Catholic" or "Roman Catholic"?

    Question:  What is the correct name for the Church?  Catholic or Roman Catholic?

    Answer:  Centuries ago there would have been no question.  The Church is named for one of Her attributes; namely that She is the Universal Church to which all must belong to ensure their salvation.  The Greek word for “universal” is “catholic,” hence the name of the Church is the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church is head-quartered at Rome, under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope—but not all of the Pope’s subjects are correctly called Roman.  The Catholic Church includes substantial numbers of people who do not have Latin for their official liturgical language (Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, and Coptic, among others are used in some of the churches under the Pope’s jurisdiction), and who do not live in the territory of the former Roman Empire or Western Civilization (the Church is strong, for example, in Africa and parts of Asia).

    One might speak correctly of the Roman Church in order to distinguish the Latin using Catholics from other groups within the Catholic Church.  That would distinguish them from Byzantine Catholics who offer Mass in a number of languages other than Latin, or from Maronite Catholics who use the Syriac language—but all of these Catholics are still subject to the Pope and members of the one Catholic Church.

    In 1054, the Great Schism divided the Church into factions, more or less geographically between East and West, or Constantinople and Rome.  Those who remained loyal to the Pope in Rome are generally called Catholics, even if they live in Eastern countries.  Those loyal to the Patriarch of Constantinople are generally called Orthodox, even if they live in the West.  But some of the Orthodox refer to themselves as :Greek Orthodox Catholics.  From this point in history, the adjective “Roman” became more closely associated with “Catholic” in naming the Church.

    After the Protestant Reformation, the Church of England retained much more of Catholic worship and doctrine than most other Protestant churches.  They are wont to refer to themselves as “Anglo-Catholics” and it is they who most successfully introduced the name “Roman Catholic” for the Church which they see as just another Catholic Church among several. After Vatican I (1869-70), those who did not accept papal infallibility founded a church which they call “Old Catholic,” thus increasing the utility of distinguishing adjectives.

    Vatican II (1962-5) created a Modernist schism in the Church, from which traditional Catholics have distanced themselves, employing names like “Traditional Catholic,” “Tridentine Catholic,” “Old Roman Catholic,” or identifying with one of the traditionalist religious orders.

Canon of Sacred Scripture?

    Question:  How did the Church determine the books in the Bible?  I was told it was done at the Council of Jamnia, but I can’t find that council in any of the books I have.

    Answer:  Jamnia, if it actually took place, (and there is doubt among modern historians), in AD 90, was a Jewish Council that determined to close the Canon of the Jewish Bible.  It had no standing with the Catholic Church.  But let us begin at the beginning.

    The first five books of the Bible are attributed to Moses.  He received the oral traditions that came down from the time of creation, and which are recorded in Genesis.  He lived through the events of the other four books; Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  These five books are referred to as the Law or Torah, and form the core of the readings of the Synagogue.

    Josue, Samuel, and Jeremias are credited with writing the early prophetic books, which include Josue, Judges, the four books of Kings.  These books reflect the relationship of God with the Jewish people, from their entry into the Promised Land, until their captivity in Babylon.  Isaias, Jeremias, and Ezechiel and twelve others Minor Prophets wrote the prophetic books of the exile, foretelling the future of the Jewish people.  The prophetic books are referred to as Nebiim.

    Another set of writings, called Kethubim, included books like Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Daniel, Esther, and so forth.  Many of these were not directly bound to a period of Jewish history, or were more allegorical than historical.

    Modern scholarship sometimes claims that some of the books of the Bible have multiple authors, and authors different from those traditionally credited.  This will have to be the topic of some future article, but for the moment, suffice it to say that the authorship is independent of the divinely inspired nature of the Scriptural texts.  The Scriptural text is the word of God, whether it was written by Moses or by someone else, or several someones else.

    The earliest books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew.  But after the Babylonian Captivity, the language of Israel became Aramaic, so that few could speak or read Hebrew.  Many Jews did not return to Palestine, and could speak neither Hebrew nor Aramaic.  For this reason, a Greek translation of the Scriptures, known as the Septuagint, was made in Alexandria, two or three centuries before Christ.  It contained books that were written outside of Palestine, and books that were not originally written in Hebrew. The Septuagint (styled “LXX”) became the Jewish Bible in the Diaspora and in Palestine itself, for its koine Greek was the universal language of the time.  At least two thirds of the Old Testament quotations found in the books of the New Testament are from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text.

    After our Lord’s Ascension, and after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Sanhedrin was reconvened at Jamnia, a town just in from the Mediterranean coast, to the west and slightly north of Jerusalem.  Whether there was a council there or not, the Rabbis were very concerned that the Hebrew language was becoming less and less well known, and that Jews were attracted to Christianity by the doctrine of eternal life as it was expressed in the New Testament and in the later books of the Septuagint.  Wisdom, for example, said that martyrs would be glorified and “judge nations and rule over peoples”—II Machabees held that it was a “holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they might be loosed from their sins.”[1]

    To remedy these two “problems,” the Rabbis proposed to close the Jewish Canon of Scripture, eliminating any book that was not originated in Hebrew and written in Palestine before the time of Esdras..  Baruch (including the Epistle of Jeremias as its sixth chapter) was not written in Palestine.  Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Sirah) and the First Book of Machabees were written after the time of Esdras.  The Book of Tobias, and parts of Daniel and Esther were composed in Aramaic and probably outside of Palestine.  Judith was written in Aramaic.  Wisdom and Second Machabees were written in Greek.  So all of these were removed from the Jewish Canon by the Rabbis.  Their choice is somewhat disingenuous, for the Jewish Canon includes books like Esther, Job, and Ezechiel which were set in locations foreign to Palestine.

    But after Pentecost, the Church was competent to deal by Itself with the Canon.  It certainly was not going to be influenced by those who were trying to stop converts to Christianity and who added a curse Birkat ha-Minim” against Christians to the “Eighteen Benedictions” central to the Jewish daily liturgy.[2]

    The first official decree on the Canon is found in Saint Peter’s second Epistle.  In 3:15-16 the first Pope refers to the writings of Saint Paul as being Scripture.  He also dismisses the idea of biblical prophecies as being subject to private interpretation, and briefly speaks of the work of the Holy Ghost in the inspired writers in 1:19-21.

But the Church did not immediately set out a list of the entire Canon of Scripture.  There was no sense of urgency.  Very likely no one expected the Rabbis to remove books from their Canon.  Indeed, the concept of a Canon defined by decree rather than tradition was something new.  The New Testament Canon was still being written—the date for Saint John’s Gospel is usually given as AD 96.  Some early writers excluded New Testament books now known to be canonical, or simply didn’t comment on them at all.  The Muratorian fragment dated to AD 170 is probably the oldest extant example.[3]  Scripture texts  were hard to come by.  One couldn’t just go to a book store and buy a Septuagint.   It existed only as individual papyrus rolls—as did the writings of the apostles and evangelists, except that these latter had been in circulation for a far shorter period of time and existed in very few copies.  Roman persecution occupied most peoples’ thoughts a lot of the time—and the persecutors often destroyed the Scripture holdings of the persecuted,, making a scarce commodity even more scarce.

    The persecutions did give some immediacy to defining which books were Scriptural.  One wouldn’t want to be martyred for refusing to surrender some piece of profane literature to the Romans.  Yet, the Canon was not officially proclaimed until the Church had become legal in the Empire. 

    An early attempt to define the Canon is that of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, well known as a defender of the Catholic Faith against the Arian heresy.  It was Athanasius’ custom to give a sermon each year on Easter—these are preserved and are referred to as his “festal sermons.”  In the sermon for AD 367, number 39, Athanasius  outlined a Canon of Scripture for his people.  He included the books approved by the Jewish authorities of his time (but, curiously, he includes Baruch and excludes Esther).  He listed those which Christians accept as the canonical New Testament.  And he indicated that the Church accepts several other books of the Jews (including Esther)—those of the Septuagint as canonical; and the Didache and the Shepherd as valuable.  It is the Church that has determined Her canonical books, and not the Synagogue.  Athanasius omitted I & II Machabees from his list—it is not clear why, but subsequent lists formulated at Carthage and Rome would include all of the books as we have them today.

    We have the list of Pope Saint Damasus in AD382,  the Council of Hippo in 393 and the third Council of Carthage in 397, both subject to confirmation by Rome, and a letter of Pope Saint Innocent I in 405.[4]  The Eastern Council in Trullo in 692 ratified the enumeration of Carthage.[5]  The Ecumenical Councils of Florence (1442) and Trent (1546) confirmed the same lists.

    Non-Catholics sometimes object that the reception of the Canon was not unanimous on the part of the Fathers of the Church.  Some of the Fathers accepted other books, and some rejected books that would later appear on the canonical list.  In particular they point to Saint Jerome, the great translator of the Bible into the Latin of his time, the “Vulgate.”  Until roughly AD 391, Jerome accepted the Septuagint Greek translation as inspired.  But Jerome became heavily dependent on the Rabbis in Bethlehem where he translated the contemporary Hebrew text into Latin.  Nonetheless, at the insistence of the bishops, Jerome did furnish translations of the disputed books, and seems to have accepted them toward the end of his life, at least by obedience if not conviction.

    A lesser light than Jerome, Origen of Alexandria  is sometimes said to have rejected the Septuagint books.  He is quoted as referring to the “twenty-two books of the Hebrew tradition ... there are twenty-two books according to the Hebrews.”   But stating what  the Hebrews accept is not the same thing as saying what the Catholic Church accepts.  In fact we have a writing by Origen in which he upholds the canonicity of the passage about Susanna in Daniel, saying that “it has been received by the Church,” and quoting Proverbs 22:28 “Thou shalt not remove the ancient landmarks which thy Fathers have set.”[6]

    Jerome’s contemporary, Saint Augustine of Hippo, was of the mind to accept the Septuagint books simply because that is what the Church did.  Asked about the book of Wisdom, he replied that “it was found worthy to be read from the lector’s pulpit in the Church of Christ for so long a course of years, and of being heard with the veneration due to divine authority by all Christians, from bishops even down to the lowest laity, the penitents, and the catechumens.[7]  Augustine was a major mover in the authoritative definition of the Canon.  He was the force behind the Councils at Hippo and Carthage.

    The letter of Pope Innocent I (20 February AD 407) was to Exsuperius, the Bishop of Toulouse, a friend of Jerome’s, who was looking for papal guidance as to which side of the discussion was supported by the Church.  The letter contained the standard list, as well as a warning about some apocryphal books then in circulation.[8]

    The Ecumenical Council of Florence reproduced the standard list in its Decree for the Jacobites (4 February AD 1442).[9]  The Florentine decrees are interesting, for the Council was to form a reunion of Rome with the Greeks, Armenians, and Jacobites.  The decrees were essentially statements of what the participants already believed—the Scriptural Canon included—and formed the basis of the reunion.

    The Council of Trent, of course, was called to deal specifically with the heresies of Luther.  The decree of 8 April AD 1546 was a reaffirmation of the traditional Canon—necessary because Luther had called into question not only the books of the Septuagint, but also a number of books in the New Testament!  Admittedly, he was not the first, but his objections were based on his rejection of the Church’s teachings.  Luther disliked Machabees and Wisdom for the same reasons as the Rabbis—they demonstrated the existence of Purgatory, and the exalted state of the Saints.  Hebrews was probably too sacrificial.  James he considered “an epistle of straw,” for it seriously challenged his notion of salvation by faith alone.  Jude, he claimed, plagiarized Saint Peter, and “cites saying and incidents that are found nowhere else in the Scripture.”[10] (So what?)  Luther rejected the Apocalypse, “for the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words....”[11] (Apparently Jesus Christ should have consulted Dr. Luther before revealing!)

    So, where did we get the books of the Bible?  From God, of course, because they were the product of His divine inspiration.  They were written by men of the Church, including prophets, apostles, and evangelists.  They were accepted by the Church because they were accepted by Jesus Christ and His Apostles, and handed down through the Church as the inspired word of God.

    As the Vatican Council explained in AD 1870:

5. Now this supernatural revelation, according to the belief of the universal Church, as declared by the sacred Council of Trent, is contained in written books and unwritten traditions, which were received by the apostles from the lips of Christ himself, or came to the apostles by the dictation of the Holy Spirit, and were passed on as it were from hand to hand until they reached us [Trent, Sess. IV, decree 1].

6. The complete books of the old and the new Testament with all their parts, as they are listed in the decree of the said Council and as they are found in the old Latin Vulgate edition, are to be received as sacred and canonical.

7. These books the Church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church.[12]


[1]   Wisdom iii,;  II Machabees  xii.

[6]   Origen, Ep. ad Africanus.

[7]   Augustine, Lib de Prædest Sanctorum c.14.

[10]   Luther, Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude (1522)

[11]   Luther, Preface to the Revelation of Saint John [sic] (1522)

[12]  Vatican Council, 24 April 1870, Session 3, Chapter 2, paragraph 7.


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