Verbum Domini – The Catholic Roots of Sacred Scripture: Part 4
There is another myth widespread among non–Catholics: God had given the books of the New Testament directly to the early Christians, and from the very beginning they were accepted by all of them without a question. But the historical fact is that alongside the New Testament books, there were numerous other writings allegedly written by the Apostles and other Disciples of Christ that were in use among the early Christian communities, and various communities accepted those books as having had divine inspiration and worthy of being use in worship.
On the other hand, some authentic writings were shunned by several Christian communities as suspect, such as, the Gospel of St John, the Apocalypse, the epistle to the Hebrews, the second epistle of St. Peter and the second and third of St. John.
For the first 350 years this situation prevailed, but since the early Christians were Catholic and therefore guided by the Magisterium and not by the Bible alone, no great harm was done. However, after the Church had her freedom respected by the Roman Empire, it was time to put the Sacred Scriptures in order. What was to be done? Among these many documents, who would be able to figure out which of those were in fact written under the inspiration and infallibility of the Holy Spirit?
Remember, inerrancy was a mark of the original writings only, not of the copies of copies of copies. Whenever a non-Catholic says that the Bible is inerrant, how does he know it? The book in his hand is a translation of previous copies, not of the original. Only the Catholic Church has the authority that guarantees that the originals were properly copies and translated. Remember that the originals were lost centuries ago. Yes, the New Testament is a Catholic book!
But before we investigate the historical solution for the issue of the guarantee of inspiration, let us take a look at the titles of the various other books in circulation among the early Christians:
There were sixteen gospels in circulation: Alongside the Gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, there were also the Gospel according to the Hebrews, to the Egyptians and to the Ebionites. Then the Gospels of Peter, James, Thomas, Bartholomew, Nicodemus and Philip; the Arabic Gospel of the infancy, The History of Joseph the Carpenter, and the Assumption of Mary.
There were nine books of Acts: Alongside the Acts of the Apostles that we know in the New Testament, there were also Acts of Peter, John, Paul, Andrew, Thomas, Philip, Matthew, Barnabas and the Preaching of Peter.
There were twenty-six epistles in circulation: Alongside the fourteen of St. Paul, the three of St. John, the two of St. Peter, the one of St. James and the one of St. Jude, there were also Letters of Our Lord and Abgar; Letters of Paul and Seneca; The letters between St Paul and the Corinthians, the Epistle of St. Paul to the Laodiceans and the Epistles of the Apostles, also named the Discourses of Our Lord with the Apostles.
There were also seven Apocalypses, or Revelations: Alongside the Apocalypse of St. John, there were also the apocalypses of Peter, Paul, Thomas, Stephen, John and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
There were also ten other books from the age of the Apostolic Fathers, which were so well-accepted by all early Christians that it was not easy to persuade them that those books were not inspired: The Epistle of Pope Clement to the Corinthians, the seven epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the epistle of Barnabas and the pastor of Hermas.
Total: 68 books on the Lives of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles, as well as prophecies, apocalypses, etc., etc., were in circulation and sometimes used as Scripture by various congregations in divine worship. Some were easily discarded by most because they contained outright errors, others were simply naive stories in a mixture of piety and wishful thinking, and others excellent written material from the early Church.
Now, how could the early Christians distinguish the authentically inspired books from the inauthentic ones? As only comparatively few people could read and write in those days, how could the majority of Christians even find out the contents of all those books? And who had the Authority to discern which books were inspired by the Holy Spirit and which books were just man-made, with either good or bad intentions?
Compare for example, the epistle of Pope Clement to the Corinthians (96 AD) to the Epistle of St Paul to Philemon. Pope Clement’s letter is rich in doctrinal and moral teaching, Gospel quotes, wisdom, solicitude, etc. Looks like a real apostolic epistle. But St Paul’s to Philemon is a short note of only 25 verses encouraging the addressee to receive back a runaway slave. No big deal, really, one could say. And yet the Church defined St Paul’s letter as inspired and St Clement’s as a good Church document, but not divinely inspired.
In the epistle to the Colossians (4:16) St Paul mentions another epistle he wrote to the Laodiceans – which is not in the New Testament. There was indeed an “epistle to the Laodiceans” in circulation among the early Christians, but it is not in the New Testament. Where is it? Was it lost in the days of Roman persecution? Or perhaps the Council of Carthage did not define it as inspired? If so, how did they know it was not inspired?
The conclusion is evident: if we accept the New Testament as we have it today, without the many other books in it, we are accepting the authority of the Roman Catholic Church exercised in the Council of Carthage. That authority came from the Holy Spirit. If not, if it was just a man-made definition and choice of books, and we will never know if the New Testament was ever inspired. And we would be accepting the books of the New Testament by way of Tradition, just as the Jews of old accepted the books of the Old Testament: because our forefathers accepted them.
Without that authority, how can anyone know for sure? Apart from an authoritative guide (the Church), a Protestant nowadays has no way of knowing things like:
How do you know that the books that are in his Bible were written by those people it claims they were written by?
How do you know that the texts of these books are identical to the actual original Scripture? Only the originals were inerrant, but they are lost.
How do you know that there are no mistranslations in your Bible? Do you know Greek or Hebrew?
Without an infallible Church to ensure the accuracy of translations for 1,500 years, how do you know?
Finally, if you accept the list of book of the New Testament that was defined by the Catholic Church, why don’t you accept the list of books of the Old Testament defined by the same Church? Why to accept one list but not the other? Why to stick with the list accepted by the Scribers and Pharisees, and not with the one accepted by the Apostles?
Next article: is the Bible ‘self-authenticating’?
By Raymond de Souza