History of the Catholic Bible
The Making of the Old Testament
How it came to be composed of certain books and no others
Now, looking at the Bible as it stands today, we find it is composed of 73 separate books—46 in the Old Testament, and 27 in the New. How has it come to be composed precisely of these 73 and no others, and no more and no less? Well, taking first the Old Testament, we know that it has always been divided into three main portions—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. (1) The Law, as I remarked before, was the nucleus, the earliest substantial part, which at one time formed the sole Book of Scripture that the Jews possessed. Moses wrote it, and placed a copy of it in the Ark; that was about 3300 years ago. (2) To this were added, long afterwards, the Prophets and the Writings, forming the complete Old Testament. At what date precisely the volume or "canon" of the Old Testament was finally closed and recognized as completed for ever is not absolutely certain.
When was the Old Testament compiled? Some would decide for about the year 430 B.C., under Esdras and Nehemiah, resting upon the authority of the famous Jew, Josephus, who lived immediately after Our Lord, and who declares that since the death of Ataxerxes, B.C. 424, "no one had dared to add anything to the Jewish Scriptures, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them." Other authorities, again, contend that it was not till near 100 B.C. that the Old Testament volume was finally closed by the inclusion of the "Writings." But whichever contention is correct, one thing at least is certain, that by this last date—that is, for 100 years before the birth of Our Blessed Lord—the Old Testament existed precisely as we have it now.
Of course, I have been speaking so far of the Old Testament, in Hebrew, because it was written by Jewish authority in the Jewish language, namely, Hebrew, for Jews, God's chosen people. But after what is called the "Dispersion" of the Jews, when that people was scattered abroad and settled in many other lands outside Palestine, and began to lose their Hebrew tongue and gradually became familiar with Greek, which was then a universal language, it was necessary to furnish them with a copy of their Sacred Scriptures in the Greek language.
Hence arose that translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek known as the Septuagint. This word means in Latin 70, and is so named because it is supposed to have been the work of 70 translators, who performed their task at Alexandria, where there was a large Greek-speaking colony of Jews. Begun about 280 or 250 years before Christ, we may safely say that it was finished in the next century; it was the acknowledged Bible of all the "Jews of the Dispersion" in Asia, as well as in Egypt, and was the Version used by Our Lord, His Apostles and Evangelists, and by Jews and Gentiles and Christians in the early days of Christianity. It is from this Version that Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers and speakers quote when referring to the Old Testament.
But what about the Christians in other lands who could not understand Greek? When the Gospel had been spread abroad, and many people embraced Christianity through the labors of Apostles and missionaries in the first two centuries of our era, naturally they had to be supplied with copies of the Scriptures of the Old Testament (which was the inspired Word of God) in their own tongue; and this gave rise to translations of the Bible into Armenian and Syriac and Coptic and Arabic and Ethiopic for the benefit of the Christians in these lands.
For the Christians in Africa, where Latin was best understood, there was a translation of the Bible made into Latin about 150 A.D., and, later, another and better for the Christians in Italy; but all these were finally superseded by the grand and most important version made by St. Jerome in Latin called the "Vulgate"—that is, the common, or current or accepted Version. This was in the fourth century of our era. By this time St. Jerome was born, there was great need of securing a correct and uniform text in Latin of Holy Scripture, for there was danger, through the variety and corrupt conditions of many translations then existing, lest the pure scripture should be lost.
So Jerome, who was a monk, and perhaps the most learned scholar of his day, at the command of Pope St. Damascus in 382 A.D., made a fresh Latin Version of the New Testament (which was by this time practically settled) correcting the existing versions by the earliest Greek MSS. he could find. Then in his cell at Bethlehem, between (approximately) the years 392-404, he also translated the Old Testament into Latin directly from the Hebrew (and not from the Greek Septuagint)—except the Psalter, which he had previously revised from existing Latin Versions.
This Bible was the celebrated Vulgate, the official text in the Catholic Church, the value of which all scholars admit to be simply inestimable, and which continued to influence all other versions, and to hold the chief place among Christians down to the Reformation. I say the "official" text, because the Council of Trent in 1546 issued a decree, stamping it as the only recognized and authoritative Version allowed to Catholics. "If anyone does not receive the entire books with all their parts as they are accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church, and in the old Latin Vulgate Edition, as sacred and canonical ... let him be anathema." It was revised under Pope Sixtus V in 1590, and again under Pope Clement VIII in 1593, who is responsible for the present standard text.
It is from the Vulgate that our English Douai Version comes; and it is of this same Vulgate that the Commission under Cardinal Gasquet, by command of the Pope, is trying to find or restore the original text as it came from the hands of St. Jerome, uncorrupted by and stripped of subsequent admixtures with other Latin copies.
by The Right Rev. HENRY G. GRAHAM
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur
Rev. John Ritchie, Vicar General, Glasgow.