When Was the Content of the Bible Established?
“THE Catholic Church,” wrote a priest to a woman studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Christian witnesses, “settled once and for all the content and interpretation of the word of God.” His statement was in full agreement with the New Catholic Encyclopedia, which states: “According to Catholic doctrine, the proximate criterion of the Biblical canon is the infallible decision of the Church. This decision was not given until rather late in the history of the Church (at the Council of Trent).”—Vol. 3, p. 29.
The Council of Trent was held in the sixteenth century. Did the settling of the contents of the Bible really have to wait until that late date?
Jesus Christ and his first-century disciples certainly had no problem in determining what books were inspired of God. Like his fellow countrymen, Jesus Christ accepted the three basic divisions of what is today commonly called the “Old Testament”—the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms—as the Word of his Father. After his resurrection, for example, he said to two of his disciples: “These are my words which I spoke to you while I was yet with you, that all the things written in the law of Moses and in the Prophets and Psalms about me must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44) The Christian Greek Scriptures (or, “New Testament”) use such expressions as “the Scriptures,” “the holy Scriptures” and “the holy writings.” (Acts 18:24; Rom. 1:2; 2 Tim. 3:15) These were obviously designations that had a specific meaning for people then living. Just what those “holy Scriptures” were certainly did not remain in question until such time as clergymen claimed to define them in the sixteenth century.
It is noteworthy that the Council of Trent did not go along with Jesus Christ and his early disciples in accepting only the books of the established Hebrew Scripture canon. That council accepted apocryphal books. These were books of which the learned Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, wrote to a certain woman in connection with the education of her daughter: “All apocryphal books should be avoided; but if she ever wishes to read them, . . . she should be told that they are not the works of the authors by whose names they are distinguished, that they contain much that is faulty, and that it is a task requiring great prudence to find gold in the midst of clay.”
In declaring that certain apocryphal or deuterocanonical books formed part of the Bible canon, the Council of Trent also disregarded the words of the apostle Paul: “The Jews are the people to whom God’s message was entrusted.”—Rom. 3:2, Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
What about the Christian Greek Scriptures? The writings making up this section of the Bible were accepted as inspired from the start. At that time there were Christians who had the miraculous gift of discernment of inspired utterances. (1 Cor. 12:10) The apostle Peter could, therefore, classify the letters of the apostle Paul with the rest of the inspired Scriptures. We read: “Our beloved brother Paul according to the wisdom given him also wrote you, speaking about these things as he does also in all his letters. In them, however, are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unsteady are twisting, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”—2 Pet. 3:15, 16.
This early settling of the canon for the Christian Greek Scriptures is also confirmed in listings of the inspired books dating from the second to the fourth centuries C.E.
In the final analysis, then, each book of the Bible was accepted as inspired by believers from the very beginning. When Bible writing ended in the first century C.E. nothing about canonicity remained to be determined centuries later.