Sacred Scripture, AKA the Bible, is essential to Christianity. I mean, it’s the #1 bestselling book of all time, so it’s kind of important! For Protestants, it’s the absolute and only foundation for faith – for Catholics, however, Sacred Scripture is only part of the totality of faith. In this beginner’s guide, we’ll walk through the basics of Sacred Scripture.
Want a quick refresher on Catholicism? Read The Beginner’s Guide to Catholicism!
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Table of Contents
What is Sacred Scripture?
Sacred Scripture is the written record of God’s Revelation to humankind.
Revelation: “God’s communication of himself, by which he makes known the mystery of his divine plan, a gift of self-communication which is realized by deeds and words over time, and most fully by sending us his own divine Son, Jesus Christ.” (CCC 50, glossary)
Sacred Scripture tells the history of salvation that God has laid out for humankind. From Creation to the Resurrection, the Bible tells of the fulfillment of God’s salvation plan leading up to fulfillment through Jesus Christ.
The Bible can be broken up into the following sections and subsections:
The Old Testament
- Pentateuch – AKA the Torah. The five books of Moses that details Creation, God revealing himself to the Desert Fathers, and the handing down of the Law.
- Historical books – details historical accounts of the development of the nation of Israel.
- Biblical novellas – biblical short stories that detail legends which explain certain aspects of Jewish history. For example, Esther tells a story of how the Jews came to celebrate Purim, the commemorative festival where the plot to exterminate the Jews by a royal advisor of the Persian Empire was foiled by a Jewish girl who became the Persian queen.
- Wisdom books – wisdom literature with a tendency toward the poetic that is instructive in nature on daily life and human nature.
- Prophetic books – these are the books of the Prophets with prophetic preaching and sprinkled with narratives of the Prophets themselves.
Prophets are called by God and spoke for God during biblical times.
In the most basic sense, the Prophets stood between the past and the future acting as advisors for the Israelites to ensure they stayed on the straight and narrow towards God and their ultimate salvation.
1. The Historical Books, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
2. Wisdom Books, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3. Prophetic Books, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
The New Testament
- The Gospels – there are four Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Gospel means “good news,” and the Gospels detail the Good News of Jesus Christ who sacrificed himself on the Cross for the sins of all.
- New Testament Letters – also known as Epistles, these are letters written by Paul to specific churches in the early days of the Church. At this time, Christianity was spreading rapidly and widely, but needed clarification on doctrine and required apostolic intercession in order to unify the Church – the quickest way to do so was for the Apostles to write letters addressed to these churches to address their specific issues.
- Catholic Letters – these are letters by Peter, John, James, and Jude and are addressed to all Christians rather than any specific church. The essence of the word “catholic” is “all-embracing” and does not necessarily refer to the Catholic Church (you can spot the difference in the capitalization of the “c”).
- Book of Revelation – the end of the world, or the Apocalypse. Ironically, this book is a combination of apocalyptic and prophetic genres, which was very popular at the time it was written but isn’t quite what you think it is: this isn’t meant to be taken literally, but, rather, symbolically.
Covenants in the Bible
The entirety of the Bible is built upon a series of covenants.
Covenant: an agreement, pledge, or promise solidified by an oath.
In this case, God promises Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars for following him. This leads to the development of salvation history through Jesus Christ, through whom God promises salvation to all humankind for placing faith in his son.
You can frequently hear the covenant made between God and the Israelites referred to as the Old Covenant (though there is more than one covenant in the Old Testament), and the covenant established in the New Testament with Jesus Christ as the New Covenant. These covenants were created ultimately so that God’s salvific plan for humankind would be realized: all of humankind could come to know the Lord and the Kingdom of God would return to reign.
How to get started with Sacred Scripture
First things first: get 👏🏽 you 👏🏽 a 👏🏽 study 👏🏽 Bible!
Or, if you’re like me, you can start off with one of the seven Bibles you already have collected in your personal library because you just can’t say no to a Bible.
Or, if you’re on the go quite a bit or don’t mind/prefer reading on a screen, download an app like YouVersion and you’ll always have plenty of different Bibles with you at all times right on your phone.
Looking for a new study Bible? Look at this list of the best Catholic study Bibles!
Also, invest in a couple of great introductory books to each Testament and a solid biblical commentary – I recommend a few in A Catholic Theology Student’s Reading List.
And – perhaps most importantly – just get started. Just do it! I recommend reading through the Ways of Reading the Bible resource linked below to pinpoint what approach you would like to initially take. The most recommended way to start is to begin with one of the Gospels. Or, if you want to proceed in an orderly fashion, simply start with Genesis.
Tips for Success in Learning about Sacred Scripture
Let’s face it: the Bible is massive and there is just so much to consider. Take it in slowly – one book at a time, one chapter at a time, one verse at a time. Even the Church takes three years to read just a good portion of the Bible during Mass!
Consider picking up the spiritual practice lectio divina, which means “Divine Reading.” This spiritual practice is a slow, thorough, meditative, and thoughtful approach to reading the Bible. In combination with prayer, this practice puts the Living Word of God into action and elevates your understanding of the Bible on a whole new level. Give it a try and let me know how you like it! Lectio divina is always encouraged in my Master’s classes – too bad theology students have so much to read to make it almost impossible to do this with all readings!
1. Questions About the Scriptures Used During Mass, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
2. Lectio Divina: Listening to the Word of God in Scripture, Contemplative Outreach
Common Questions/FAQ About Sacred Scripture
How did the Bible become the Bible?
The Bible became the Bible in an incredibly lengthy and perhaps torturous process – over millennia! The Bible as is known today can be referred to as Canon.
Canon: a closed (in other words: set in stone) list of books deemed divinely inspired.
To sum up all those millennia of work in the shortest answer possible:
- The Old Testament was canonized through the painfully slow and gradual acceptance by different Jewish communities. The Torah, the five books of Moses or Pentateuch, was accepted by all Jews; however, the remainder of the books of the Old Testament essentially had to stand the test of time and trust of the majority of Jewish communities.
- The New Testament was canonized through a series of councils in which each book was thoroughly examined to determine if it was the inspired Word of God.
1. The New Oxford Annotated Bible
2. Creating the Canon, My Jewish Learning
3. Canon of the New Testament, Catholic Encyclopedia
4. Protestantism’s Old Testament Problem, Catholic Answers
Is the Bible the actual Word of God? Did God really write the Bible?
The Bible is referred to as the Word of God for a reason!
To put things in the simplest of terms: human hands wrote the Bible at the direction of the Holy Spirit. Definitely read Dei Verbum linked below for the entire scoop from the Church.
Is the Bible inerrant?
Biblical inerrancy: the belief that the Bible contains no error or fault.
Seeing as the Bible is the Word of God: yes, the Bible is inerrant. The Church maintains that God knew what he was doing as the Holy Spirit wrote the Bible with human hands.
1. Is Scripture Inerrant?, Catholic Answers
2. Dei Verbum (Word of God), Pope Paul VI
3. Sacred Scripture, Catechism of the Catholic Church
4. Verbum Domini (The Word of the Lord), Pope Benedict XVI
Is the Bible full of contradictions?
God might be the author, but human hands still wrote the Bible – or, rather, had a hand in translating and ultimately editing the Bible. Once you start studying biblical criticism, you’ll find that a lot of what biblical “writers” actually did was editing.
For example, the Pentateuch has four different “sources”: Y/J (Yahwist/Jahwist), P (Priestly), E (Elohist), and D (Deuteronomist). Think of these sources as schools of thought.
- Y/J focuses on Yahweh and Israel
- P on priestly matters and using the name Sinai
- E on a more abstract concept of Elohim and utilizing the name Horeb instead of Sinai
- D on Law and Covenant.
Following biblical criticism, you will see that scholars point out where a particular source takes over in authorship and even can tell where major or minor editing has occurred by cross-referencing sources. What this means is that a source took the liberty of editing particular passages to fit their narrative. So, when you see a passage focuses heavily on Law, you can tell that the Deuteronomist was at work.
Please note: this is the JEPD (Wellhausen) theory and is simply a hypothesis that Catholics are free to agree or disagree with it (assent or dissent). There is also the GELND theory, which claims that the Pentateuch is a compilation of these five sources: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The GELND theory seems to be more popular in Catholic circles, but so far I have been taught the JEPD theory more extensively in my Master’s program and thus explain it here
1. What is the JEPD Theory and Does it Disprove Genesis?, Catholic Answers
2. The Replies of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on Questions of Sacred Scripture, translated by E.F. Sutcliffe, S.J.
3. Biblical Criticism, Catholic Answers
With that being said, biblical contradictions boil down to two things:
- The Bible covers thousands of years of Oral Tradition and Written Tradition, both of which means biblical teachings have gone through the “telephone” down the line with different traditions of writing, translations, and more.
- The Bible (stemming from the Latin word biblia, meaning “the books” or even “library”) is made up of many books that vary in genre: narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, Gospels, epistles, and apocalypse.
Taking those two factors into consideration, also consider the following: when studying biblical criticism more, you will come across studies of ancient writing techniques and traditions which are vastly different from how we write today – nevermind the fact that we’re utilizing different languages! So, when you come across the same Gospel account with different details and wonder why it’s not a big deal: it’s not a big deal because the accounts share important main details. The ancients didn’t place much importance on exact details; nitpicking biblical accounts simply doesn’t do any good. Obviously, with Oral Tradition playing a huge role in Judaism and the Early Church and the followers of the Apostles (or older biblical figures) finally writing down those accounts, the finer details will, essentially, be lost in translation. But, we still have the main ideas intact.
Considering Oral Tradition, Written Tradition, biblical genres, thousands of years, and multiple languages and translations: it’s pretty difficult to make the assumption that everything will line up absolutely perfectly at the work of human hands.
Despite what many Christians may think or claim, it’s simply an egregious error to consider the Bible a science or history textbook – it’s simply not. I mean, even in my Old Testament class for my Master’s program I learned that much of the OT is just legend, fiction, or historically inaccurate! The Bible records salvific history and, thus, focuses on spiritual/religious truths. As mentioned above, there are many literary genres in the bible; the Catholic Church encourages those completing exegesis to remember to consider those literary genres in which the Spirit inspired the passages being studied, as well as for whom it was written (CCC 105-118).
Exegesis: a critical explanation or interpretation of Bible passages.
1. Is Everything in the Bible True?, Catholic Answers
2. Combating Biblical Skepticism, Catholic Answers
3. How to Resolve Alleged Gospel Contradictions, Catholic Answers
4. The Problem with Prooftexts, Catholic Answers
Another thing to consider is that we must view the Bible as coming to fulfillment through Jesus Christ. Again, the Old Testament and New Testament record the development of salvation history; the Old Testament laid out the groundwork and prompted fulfillment of salvific history. As Christ himself said, he came to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it (Matthew 5:17).
Why are there so many different versions of the Bible?
Simply put: different versions accomplish different purposes.
As mentioned before, there are many different translations of the Bible. Some are a close word-for-word translation. Some summarize general ideas into easier-to-understand, contemporary language that makes it easier to read and comprehend than the more literal counterparts.
On top of different translations, there are a wide variety of Bibles with particular audiences or purposes in mind. There are study Bibles that focus on connecting Catechism to Scripture, or history to Scripture, or even daily living to Scripture.
1. The Best Catholic Study Bibles, Guadalupe Faith Connection
2. Approved Translations of the Bible, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3. Bible Translations Guide, Catholic Answers
In addition to different translations and study Bibles, there are also different Canons that make up the Bible.
Why does the Catholic Bible have more books?
The Catholic Church developed the Bible over many, many, many years into what is known as Canon. The Church established Canon through discernment of the Holy Spirit to determine what books were divinely revealed to ultimately create what we now know as Canon.
The Bible many people are familiar with today is a product of the Protestant Reformation: books in the Old Testament that weren’t originally written in Hebrew and books in the New Testament that weren’t originally written in Greek were both taken out of Canon. The Old Testament editing was due to the status of acceptance in Judaism; basically, if it wasn’t in Hebrew, it wasn’t Canon for them, either.
This is a problem because of the amount of Diaspora the Jews have experienced over millennia. Not all Jews spoke Hebrew as their first language, so there were plenty of manuscripts found in Aramaic, Syriac, and more. The same thing occurred with the New Testament: Christianity spread far and wide (it’s how Christianity became based in Rome, after all!), so it doesn’t make much sense to confine what is considered Sacred Scripture to just these two languages when Judaism and Christianity both spread across lands that did not share the same languages.
Martin Luther (no, not MLK, but the father of the Reformation) removed seven books from his personal Bible, but actually kept these books in a separate section of his Bible for meditation and reflection. Later on, though, these books were determined by Calvinists (Protestants later down the line from the Reformation) to not establish doctrine of any kind, so they were ultimately taken out. These books that were removed are commonly known as the Apocrypha.
The Catholic Church keeps these extra books and “extended versions” of books because it has been determined that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit.
This means the Catholic Bible has 73 books in total, whereas the Protestant Bible has 66.
Fun fact: the Orthodox Church has a commonly-held Canon of 79 books!
Why does the Catholic Church discourage reading the Bible?
This is more of a reflection of history than current fact for the Church.
Way back in the earlier days – think before the advent of any public education system – people were generally illiterate. This is where paintings and stained glass windows and elaborate churches come into play so that others may at least see salvation history if they were not able to read it.
Then, as education became more commonplace and the printing press came along, so did different schools of thought. Protestant Reformation, anyone? There were, of course, issues that have surfaced all throughout Church history, including at the very beginning with Gnosticism and Arianism.
What the Church does by restricting translations and directing doctrine and biblical readings is combat heresy. Seriously, it’s a bigger problem than what many think!
1. Changes in Catholic Attitudes Toward Bible Readings, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
2. Did the Church Ever Ban the Bible?, Catholic Answers
3. Did the Church Forbid People from Reading the Bible?, Catholic Answers
4. The Mass is Profoundly Biblical, Catholic Answers
Many former Catholics may have grown up being told not to study the Bible or ask questions. Walk into a church today and things are vastly different: there are Bible studies galore, devotions, and encouragement to read the Bible daily. Now, people may ask questions, but a huge issue today is even Catholics are, unfortunately, very ignorant of the depth of their religious tradition. Guadalupe Faith Connection’s goal is to be the place you can come to with these questions when you can’t find a satisfactory answer or are looking for more resources to explore on your own.
Do Catholics read the Bible?
Yes, they most certainly do! Catholics listen to Bible readings at every Mass, and the Church encourages daily study of Sacred Scripture. I grew up with my Catholic stepfather reading the Bible at least weekly during weekly Adoration, which he still does to this day!
1. Daily Mass Readings from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
2. Morning Offering from The Catholic Company
3. Daily Devotions from Blessed is She
4. The Mass is Profoundly Biblical, Catholic Answers
Do Catholics believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible?
Simply: no, Catholics do not believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
As referenced in the Catechism earlier, the Church warns against using a literal interpretation of the Bible due to the variety of genres presented in the Bible. If using a literal translation, this leads to the previously explored issue of historical and scientific truths against the Bible and simply circles back to the same issues many people have with the Bible and Christianity today. Plus, it’s irresponsible to use literal translations for allegorical pieces, anyway.
1. Sacred Scripture, Catechism of the Catholic Church
Does the Catholic Church add its own beliefs on top of the Bible?
Actually, the Church considers Tradition alongside Sacred Scripture to expound upon Revelation from God. This means that the Church doesn’t add its own beliefs to the Bible, but with the guidance of the Holy Spirit further explains and explores doctrine directly revealed from God.
“New beliefs are not invented, but obscurities and misunderstandings regarding the deposit of faith are cleared up.”Can Dogma Develop?, Catholic Answers
I touch upon Oral Tradition and Written Tradition in this post and in The Beginner’s Guide to Catholicism. It’s simply fact that oral history has just as much weight as written, if not more so at many points. If you consider Sacred Scripture without Sacred Tradition, that leaves plenty of “holes” in the Bible that otherwise cannot be filled or explained. Again, this leads to that circular reasoning that leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, so Sacred Tradition truly is essential alongside Sacred Scripture!
1. Dei Verbum (Word of God), Pope Paul VI
2. Scripture and Tradition, Catholic Answers
3. What Exactly Does the Church Mean by Tradition?, Catholic Answers
4. Tradition and Living Magisterium, Catholic Answers
The Last Thing You Need to Know about Sacred Scripture
The Bible is a big ol’ book with a ton to digest. But, Catholics do actually read it frequently! When you’re ready to get started in Sacred Scripture yourself, take it slow, but dive in now. The only way to get started is to get started!
If you’re already Catholic, should you attend a non-Catholic Bible study? The short answer is no. Contact your parish to see if there are any Bible studies going on, and if there aren’t, let your priest know – I can guarantee there are others interested in having a Catholic Bible study they can attend at their own church! Maybe you could lead your church’s Bible study?
Need help finding a good Bible? Here’s a list of the best Catholic study Bibles.
Maybe something, in particular, caught your eye in this post and you’d like to know more. Let me know below in the comments! We’ll be exploring plenty about Sacred Scripture, so I probably already have another post in mind to further explore questions you may have.
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