THE CANON OF SCRIPTURE
"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ" - St. Jerome
"Knowledge of Church history is the death of Protestantism" - John Henry Newman
The most difficult thing for a non-Catholic to know, whether that person be an atheist, an agnostic, or a Protestant, is surety of the truth. The central issue is authority. None of the three classes of non-Catholics necessarily recognize a legitimate authority outside of themselves. The Protestant may insist that s/he recognizes the authority of Jesus Christ, and is led by the Holy Spirit, but, given the 23,000 Christian denominations extant today, the Holy Spirit appears to be agreeable to a number of different interpretations of Scripture. Essentially, it is understandably difficult to distinguish being led by the Holy Spirit from being led by personal tastes. We cannot conclude that a Protestant reading Scripture is not led by the Holy Spirit. It is simply the case that, apart from internal conviction (which may well be inspired by the Holy Spirit), the Protestant has no established authority with whom to test the spirit and verify the correctness of his/her interpretation.
The Evidence of Ancient Texts
The following information comes from the Navarre Bible, Acts of the Apostles volume, introduction:
All the books of the New Testament were written in Greek, with the sole exception of the Gospel of Mark, which was originally probably written in Aramaic (or possibly Hebrew). Unfortunately, the original text of Mark has not survived. The oldest version of any New Testament book extant is a papyrus fragment of St. John's Gospel (18:31-33,37-38) which dates from approximately 125 A.D. According to a 1976 survey, there are over 5,000 texts extant:
New copies are continually being discovered. A 1963 catalogue (K. Aland) lists 4689, while a 1976 count was 5366.Over 4000 ancient (100-400 A.D.) translations exist, composed variously in Latin (from 2nd century onward, many prior to St. Jerome's translation), Syriac (2nd to 3rd century), Coptic (3rd century), Armenian (4th century), Ethiopian, Slav, Gothic (4th century), and Arabic. Furthermore, many ancient writers (e.g. Eusebius) quoted Scripture liberally - it is possible to reconstruct virtually the entire New Testament on the basis of these quotations, and the ancient texts from which these quotes come are generally older than the manuscript versions of the Scripture books which have come down to us. Nearly 100 New Testament papyri have survived, all of them Egyptian. Their time of writing was approximately between 100 to 200 AD.
In comparison, we have only two extant copies of accounts that Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants, and only one line which indicates that Alexander reached India during his conquests, yet both of these events are undisputed by historians.
PROVING THE BIBLE AND THE CHURCH TRUSTWORTHY
Assume neither is trustworthy.
The first document written in many modern languages was the Bible. In fact, the need to proselytize forced the Church to invent written Slavonic, Gaelic and German. The oldest German document in existence is a translation of Scripture done in 381 by a monk named Ulfilas. There were over 1000 years of manuscript translations done in German between the time of Ulfilas and Martin Luther, with at least 21 printed (i.e., not manuscript) German editions of Scripture in existence at the time Luther made his translaton. In short, Luther was not the first to translate Scripture into the language of the people.
So why didn't more people have Bibles prior to Luther's time? In medieval times, a new Bible cost a community about as much as a new church building, it required the slaughter of 400 animals for the vellum which made the pages, years of work by hundreds of scribes who lettered, gilded, and illuminated the text by hand, and it generally merited an ornate, sometimes gold- or jewel-encrusted binding. Given the material and workmanship necessary for the construction of any book, much less the word of God, one Bible was easily worth an entire manor. This, taken in conjunction with the fact that most people were illiterate, precisely because the text materials required for teaching literacy was so expensive, made "a Bible in every house" economically and culturally impossible. It should be noted that despite the high price of the book, churches often kept the Bible on public display in the building, secured only by a chain, so that all who could read might have access to the Scriptures.It should also be noted that Gutenburg, a Catholic, printed copies of Holy Scripture as his very first job. (Why Do Catholics Do That? p. 24-25).
Martin Luther simply happened to undertake his translation of Scripture at a time when the price of printing had begun to fall drastically, and thus literacy had begun to become affordable, due to the invention of the printing press. Luther's sola scriptura theology resulted from new technology. This theology was economically impossible prior to the invention of the printing press, and would have condemned all but the rich to ignorance of Christ and hellfire if it had been promoted prior to that invention.
Finally, realize that chapter and verse divisions were added to Scripture well after Scripture was written. Chapter divisions were introduced around the year 1206 A.D., by Stephen Langton (d. 1228), a professor at the University of Paris and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury and a cardinal, into the Parisian Bible in that year. The chapter divisions were subsequently added to all editions of the Bible. Chapters were split into verses in the sixteenth century, with Robert Etienne (Stephenus) providing the final form in 1551. The verse divisions are not always consistent (minor variations between translations), and in some instances the chapter divisions arbitrarily chop a contiguous story or theme up into artificially separate pieces (Guide to the Bible, Robert and Tricot, Paris: Desclee, 1960, I:5), as with chapters 2, 3, and 4 of John's Gospel.
How the Canon was Established
In Christ's time, the canon of Old Testament Scripture was not fixed. A large number of books were considered holy by all Jews, and there were a lesser number of books which some, but not all, Jews considered holy. However, a Greek translation of Scripture, knows as the "70" (i.e., the Septuagint, now also called "the Alexandrian canon") was in wide use by both Hellenistic Jews and Jews in Palestine.
89% of the time the apostolic epistles and the Gospels quote from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew), not the Hebrew original. The Septuagint includes the deuterocanonical Old Testament books.
The temple in Jerusalem was razed by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the Levitical priesthood was wiped out. By 70 AD, the Jewish faith was hemorrhaging followers to the rapidly spreading belief that Old Testament prophecy had been fulfilled in the person of Jesus. The "Christians" were as likely to be Gentile as they were Jew, and the Greek Septuagint was in wide use among Christians. This source of opposition, along with disputes within Judaism itself, began a wide-ranging debate among Jews and Christians about what constituted a sacred book. When the church was in its formative period and was using the sacred books of the Jews, there was no closed canon for the church to adopt, apart from that implicit in the Septuagint. Even there the New Testament writers made allusions to books which were not in the Septuagint. There is no indication that all Christians agreed on the canon of either the Old Testament or New Testament Scripture in the first two centuries of the Church's existence. There was continued rivalry between the canon being slowly defined in Palestine by the Jews and the canon being defined by Christianity.The Church councils listed below defined the canon of Old and New Testament Scripture, though awareness of the shorter Palestinian canon, which was eventually settled on by the Jews, was maintained, especially in the Eastern parts of the Church. In addition to adopting a shorter canon, the Palestinian Jews "corrected corruptions" which they felt had crept into the text - e.g., they corrected Isaiah 7:14 from the word meaning "virgin" to the word meaning "young woman".
The disagreements among early Christians allow us to designate two classes of writings: protocanonical and deuterocanonical. Protocanonical books are books which all early Christians agreed belonged to the canon of Scripture. Deuterocanonical books were not universally agreed to be part of the canon of Scripture - some of the members of the Church said they were holy, others said they were false books, and should be ignored. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament contain deuterocanonical books, i.e. books whose canonical status was unclear for some time.
The Old Testament deuterocanonical books are: Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, parts of Esther, parts of Daniel (3:24-90 and 13, 14). Protestants refer to these books with the somewhat derogatory designation "apocrypha". This is an incorrect designation. The Apocrypha are actually the class of ancient writings which were composed either about the same time as the books of Scripture or only shortly thereafter, but which were ultimately rejected by the Church as non-canonical. Examples of such books include the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Pontius Pilate, the Gospel of Mary, etc. Luther did not entirely discard the deuterocanonical books from his translation of Scripture, rather, he relegated them to an appendix situated between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The deuterocanonical books stayed in the appendix of all Protestant translations for 300 years. Indeed, the Protestant kings of England imposed the death penalty on anyone who omitted the deuterocanonical appendix from Scripture. The books were completely dispensed with only within the last 150 years, after a revision of the King James version in the early 1800's.
The New Testament deuterocanonical books are: Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. While Luther seriously considered "throwing Jimmy into the fire" because it contradicted his faith-alone theology, he ultimately was unable to bring himself to do so.
Athanasius and Jerome were aware of the Jewish unwillingness to accept Old Testament deuterocanonical books, and informed others of this distaste on the part of Jewish scholars. Both, however, readily bowed to the decrees of Rome and accepted the canonical status of the deuterocanonical books, both in the Old and the New Testament, when the decision to include them was made.
Councils and papal decrees which defined or re-iterated the canon
1100 years after the Second Council of Carthage, Martin Luther would argue that the Jews knew what parts of the Old Testament were considered Holy Scripture better than the Church did, and would adopt the "canon of Jamnia", the Protestant canon of this day, in contravention to over a millenia of Septuagint use by all Christians. This conveniently allowed him to deny the existence of purgatory, on the grounds that the newly adopted canon had no scriptural references to prayers for the dead. Oddly, Luther chose to ignore the Jewish tradition of praying Q'addish, the prayer for the purification of the recently deceased. It is prayed for eleven months following the death of a relative, on the grounds that it is an insult to think the dead so unclean that s/he would need a full year of purification.
The councils listed above were not ecumenical councils. Protestants argue that the ecumenical council of Trent added the deuterocanonical books. However, they are apparently unaware that the Second Council of Niceae (787 AD) formally ratified the African Code, which contained the canon and that the Council of Florence (1335 AD) also ratified the canon of Scripture. The Council of Trent (1545) was, therefore, not the first but the third formal (and identical) definition affirming the canon in ecumenical council, and the seventh affirmation overall.
The New Testament Canon Christ did not command his Apostles to write books, nor is there any example of Him writing anything (except in the sand). His Apostles were commanded to preach and to baptize. (Matthew 28:19- 20). There is no verse which lists the canon of either the Old or the New Testament.
table taken from the Navarre Bible, St. Mark, p. 28
The Old Testament Canon
Dating the books of the Old Testament is somewhat problematic, as the writings often existed for quite some time before they were formally collected together into a book, and histories were sometimes written (long) after the fact. The datings below come from the New Jerome Commentary. They are roughly the times when a historical or prophetic book was collected together, not necessarily the times addressed by the original writer (which might have been some years earlier). The years given are rough estimates only. There are many caveats to these dates.
12th-8th Century B.C.
7th and 6th century - Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk , Jeremiah. Isaiah is collected together.
Babylonian Exile (Israel - 722, Judah --586) - Ezekial, Lamentations
Post-Exile (6th - 4th centuries) - Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Jonah, Joel, Obadiah, 1 and 2 Chronicals, Ezra, Nehemiah
6th century - Haggai, Zecheriah
5th Century - Malachi, Obadiah, Nehemiah, Ezra
4th - 3rd Century B.C. - Jonah, Joel, Daniel, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs. Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) edited. Psalms collected.
2nd Century B.C. - Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, Esther, Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, Greek parts of Daniel,
100 B.C. - 2 Maccabees, Wisdom
The Palestinian Canon included 22 books, corresponding to the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Jewish scholars reached this number by combining the following pairs of books into one book: