Why do we call it a ‘Bible’ anyway?

By | November 14, 2010

Our modern Bible grew out of many books

Why do we call it “the Bible?”

Think papyrus reeds swaying along the Nile River.

The word “Bible” comes to us from Latin, which derived from Greek, which may ultimately have come from the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians ruled the seas of the ancient Middle East from the 16th century B.C. until they were conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.

The Latin word biblia is short for biblia sacra or “holy book,” which is the Latin phrase for what the Greeks called ta biblia ta hagia, meaning “the books (plural) of wisdom.”

The Greek word biblia came from byblos, which was the Greek word for Egyptian papyrus, but was also the name of the Phoenician port city, in what is now called Jubayl in Lebanon, from which papyrus was shipped from Egypt to Greece.

What we now know as the Bible was not originally written in one form — which is probably why the Greeks originally called it “the books of wisdom.”

The oldest part of the Bible is the canon of the Hebrew Bible, which was originally an oral compilation. In fact, the first collection of what we might call “the Old Testament” (though with some variations) is correctly called the Hebrew Tanakh, or the Miqra. And it was not compiled in one text until shortly before the birth of Christ.

The Greek translation of that Hebrew text occurred about the third century B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt. This version is called the Septuagint because of the tradition that 72 scribes compiled it in 72 days. It is also referred to as “LXX.”

The Septuagint was the reference tool used by many early Christian writers, even though today the authoritative text of the Hebrew Scriptures is the Masoretic Text (which was the definitive text of the Miqra.) The Masoretic Text, begun in the centuries just before Christ’s birth, was not completed until around the 10th century after Christ.

Turning to the books of the New Testament, we find that these were first written in Greek; Koine Greek, which was the everyday language. Most scholars today agree that the earliest of these New Testament writings were some of the letters of Paul, dating to around 50-54 A.D.

As the Christian faith spread, various translations of the Scriptures — both the Hebrew and Christian – developed, including Syriac, Coptic and Latin. There is also some evidence of Aramaic texts. The Vetus Latina was the most common name given to the Latin biblical texts that existed before St. Jerome sat down to compile his famous Latin Vulgate. Jerome’s task took place under the order of Pope Damasus I and the Council of Rome in the fourth century.

Various translations of the Bible continued — especially during the Protestant Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries. In response, the Council of Trent, in 1546, declared the Vulgate to be the official text. Its best known English translation was the Douay-Rheims version, done in France, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

The current number of books in the Catholic Bible consists of 46 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. Protestant bibles contain only 39 books in the Old Testament. (The Hebrew Bible’s 24 books correspond to these 39 Protestant texts, but are not divided in the same manner.)

The “extra” seven books that are found in Catholic Bibles are: Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach and Baruch (and additions to the books of Esther and Daniel). Dr. John Craghan, retired Scripture scholar from St. Norbert College in De Pere, explains that Catholic tradition calls the seven books “deuterocanonical” which means “second canon,” because they were accepted “only after a period of hesitation and debate.” The other books of the Bible are called “protocanonical” — meaning “first canon.” (“Canon” in this case generally refers to a group.)

Protestant tradition calls these “second” books “apocryphal” meaning “hidden or secret.” They can appear in Protestant Bibles, but only as a separate section and using the title “Apocrypha.”

Today, the Catholic Bible used by the bishops of the United States is the New American Bible, first published in 1970. It is derived from the original texts — Greek for the New Testament and Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic for the Old Testament.

Sources: Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The Catholic Encyclopedia; catholic-resources.org; the Encyclopedia Britannica; and Online Etymology Dictionary at etymonline.org

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