Dear Sister Sunday: Why do Catholics Have a Different Bible?

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Pope Francis carries the book of the Gospels

Dear Sister Sunday,
I had a quick question that will probably require a long answer, but I figured you would be the person to answer it. What is the Catholic position on the inerrancy of the Canon? Is there special weight given to the gospels over the epistles?

I know the Catholic Bible is different from Martin Luther’s, but I have to imagine that the Apocrypha underwent some kind of vetting process!

A Protestant Fellow Traveler

Dear Traveler,

If you’re interested in learning more about how Roman Catholics read the scriptures, take a look at Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible by the Biblical scholar, Fr. Raymond E. Brown. The book grew out of his lectures and the most frequent questions he heard there.

The Book of the Gospels is carried in procession and reverenced as the book passes.

By inerrancy, do you mean that every word of the Bible was dictated by God to those scribes who wrote it down over a period of some 1,000 years, and that there are found therein no inconsistencies, contradictions or mistakes and that every character and event is historical? If so, no, that is not a Roman Catholic approach to Scripture. In 101 Questions, Brown writes,

“…every word in the Scriptures was written down by a human being. A human being thought of the biblical words, and they reflect meaning and experience in the human author’s lifetime. Thus, if I may speak broadly, there is a type of incarnate aspect to the Scriptures: God has conveyed His guidance in and through human words.”

Roman Catholics understand this “combination of the truly divine and the truly human” as the way God has chosen to work in the world, particularly in the advent of Christ, the Word Made Flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, carried in and born of the womb of his human mother.

Brown speaks of the Bible not as a book, but as a library of some 70 books (73 in the Roman Catholic canon and 66 in the Protestant canon). That allows us to consider each book and its place and purpose in the canon. He writes,

“Often it is thought that (divine) inspiration makes everything history. It does not; there can be inspired poetry, drama, legend, fiction, etc. If the Book of Jonah is a parable and not history, then God’s inspiration makes it an inspired parable. The truth that it conveys about God’s desire to convert all nations to the recognition of His Name and to a moral way of life…is a truth that we can accept as God’s inspired word for us. Inspiration does not mean that we have to believe that a historical figure named Jonah was swallowed by a large fish.”

Pope Francis kisses the Gospels

You ask whether Roman Catholics give “special weight” to the Gospels. As is often the case with Roman Catholic belief, go back to the ancient principle, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, that is, the way we pray shows what we believe. The Book of the Gospels is carried into the Mass in procession held high for all to see and reverence by bowing before the book as it passes. We sit for the readings from the Old Testament, the psalm and the epistle, but we stand for the reading from the Gospel. The Book of the Gospels is carried in procession again, reverenced again as the book passes by on its way to the pulpit, from which a portion is read. Before the reading, we sing an acclamation and we cross ourselves on our foreheads, our mouths and our chests, that the Word might penetrate and remain there, in our minds and in hearts and on our lips.

sign of the cross

And, finally, we turn to your question about the Apocrypha (“hidden”), what Roman Catholics call the deuterocanonical, or “second law,” books (Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach and Baruch, with parts of Esther and Daniel, such as the glorious Song of the Three Young Men, also included.) Here’s what Brown writes,

“The issue is quite complex, but overall one may say that these are books that were preserved in Greek, not in Hebrew or Aramaic. (Some of them were originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic…but not preserved in those languages.) They became known to Christians through the Septuagint, that is, the Greek translation made by Jews before Christ which became the commonly accepted Bible of the Early Church.”

The “vetting,” as you call it is in the use of these for more than two thousand years. How did the Septuagint come into use? It’s likely that, in the decades after Christ’s resurrection and as more and more Greek-speaking gentiles entered the Church, the Septuagint, or Greek translation of the Old Testament, became the favored one. It is also likely that, as the breach between Judaism and Christianity continued to grow, the Jews would reject the translation most commonly used in the worship they had formally pronounced anathema by the end of the first century. Protestants made the decision to go with the Jewish canon.

I invite you to read this “second law.” Start with Daniel 3:24-90. This is from my favorite part of the song:

Sun and moon, bless the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.

It goes on, praise upon praise, glory upon glory. And may that be your path, too, Traveler.

Sister Sunday