|Devotion to Our Lady||
Who Was St. Jerome?
St. Jerome, who was born Eusebius Hieronymous Sophronius, was the most learned of the Fathers of the Western Church. He was born about the year 342 at Stridonius, a small town at the head of the Adriatic, near the episcopal city of Aquileia. His father, a Christian, took care that his son was well instructed at home, then sent him to Rome, where the young man’s teachers were the famous pagan grammarian Donatus and Victorinus, a Christian rhetorician. Jerome’s native tongue was the Illyrian dialect, but at Rome he became fluent in Latin and Greek, and read the literatures of those languages with great pleasure. His aptitude for oratory was such that he may have considered law as a career. He acquired many worldly ideas, made little effort to check his pleasure-loving instincts, and lost much of the piety that had been instilled in him at home. Yet in spite of the pagan and hedonistic influences around him, Jerome was baptized by Pope Liberius in 360. He tells us that “it was my custom on Sundays to visit, with friends of my own age and tastes, the tombs of the martyrs and Apostles, going down into those subterranean galleries whose walls on both sides preserve the relics of the dead.” Here he enjoyed deciphering the inscriptions.
After three years at Rome, Jerome’s intellectual curiosity led him to explore other parts of the world. He visited his home and then, accompanied by his boyhood friend Bonosus, went to Aquileia, where he made friends among the monks of the monastery there, notably Rufinus. Then, still accompanied by Bonosus, he traveled to Treves, in Gaul. He now renounced all secular pursuits to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to God. Eager to build up a religious library, the young scholar copied out St. Hilary’s books on and his Commentaries on the Psalms, and got together other literary and religious treasures. He returned to Stridonius, and later settled in Aquileia. The bishop had cleared the church there of the plague of Arianism and had drawn to it many eminent men. Among those with whom Jerome formed friendships were Chromatius (later canonized), to whom Jerome dedicated several of his works, Heliodorus (also to become a saint), and his nephew Nepotian. The famous theologian Rufinus, at first his close friend, afterward became his bitter opponent. By nature an irascible man with a sharp tongue, Jerome made enemies as well as friends. He spent some years in scholarly studies in Aquileia, then, in search of more perfect solitude, he turned towards the East. With his friends, Innocent, Heliodorus, and Hylas, a freed slave, he started overland for Syria. On the way they visited Athens, Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Cappadocia, and Cilicia.
The party arrived at Antioch about the year 373. There Jerome at first attended the lectures of the famous Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea, who had not yet put forward his heresy1 With his companions he left the city for the desert of Chalcis, about fifty miles southeast of Antioch. Innocent and Hylas soon died there, and Heliodorus left to return to the West, but Jerome stayed for four years, which were passed in study and in the practice of austerity. He had many attacks of illness but suffered still more from temptation. “In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert,” he wrote years afterwards to his friend Eustochium, “burnt up with the heat of the sun, so scorching that it frightens even the monks who live there, I seemed to myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome.... In this exile and prison to which through fear of Hell I had voluntarily condemned myself, with no other company but scorpions and wild beasts, I many times imagined myself watching the dancing of Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. My face was pallid with fasting, yet my will felt the assaults of desire. In my cold body and my parched flesh, which seemed dead before its death, passion was still able to live. Alone with the enemy, I threw myself in spirit at the feet of Jesus, watering them with my tears, and tamed my flesh by fasting whole weeks. I am not ashamed to disclose my temptations, though I grieve that I am not now what I then was.”
Jerome added to these trials the study of Hebrew, a discipline which he hoped would help him in winning a victory over himself. “When my soul was on fire with wicked thoughts,” he wrote in 411, “as a last resort, I became a pupil to a monk who had been a Jew, in order to learn the Hebrew alphabet. From the judicious precepts of Quintilian, the rich and fluent eloquence of Cicero, the graver style of Fronto, and the smoothness of Pliny, I turned to this language of hissing and broken-winded words. What labor it cost me, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired and abandoned it and began again to learn, both I, who felt the burden, and they who lived with me, can bear witness. I thank our Lord that I now gather such sweet fruit from the bitter sowing of those studies.”
He continued to read the pagan classics for pleasure until a vivid dream turned him from them, at least for a time. In a letter he describes how, during an illness, he dreamed he was standing before the tribunal of Christ. “Thou a Christian?” said the judge skeptically. “Thou art a Ciceronian. Where thy treasure is, there thy heart is also.”
The church at Antioch was greatly disturbed at this time by party and doctrinal disputes. The anchorites in the desert took sides, and called on Jerome, the most learned of them, to give his opinions on the subjects at issue. He wrote for guidance to Pope Damasus at Rome. Failing to receive an answer, he wrote again. “On one side, the Arian fury rages, supported by the secular power; on the other side, the Church (at Antioch) is being divided into three parts, and each would draw me to itself.” No reply from Damasus is extant; but we know that Jerome acknowledged Paulinus, leader of one party, as bishop of Antioch, and that when he left the desert of Chalcis, he received from Paulinus’ hands his ordination as priest. Jerome consented to ordination only on condition that he should not be obliged to serve in any church, knowing that his true vocation was to be a monk and recluse.
About 380 Jerome went to Constantinople to study the Scriptures under the Greek, Gregory of Nazianzus, then bishop of that city. Two years later he went back to Rome with Paulinus of Antioch to attend a council which Pope Damasus was holding to deal with the Antioch schism. Appointed secretary of the council, Jerome acquitted himself so well that, when it was over, Damasus kept him there as his own secretary. At the Pope’s request he prepared a revised text, based on the Greek, of the Latin New Testament, the current version of which had been disfigured by “wrong copying, clumsy correction, and careless interpolations.”
He also revised the Latin psalter. That the prestige of Rome and its power to arbitrate between disputants, East as well as West, was recognized as never before at this time, was due in some measure at least to Jerome’s diligence and ability. Along with his official duties he was fostering a new movement of Christian asceticism among a group of noble Roman ladies. Several of them were to be canonized, including Albina and her daughters Marcella and Asella, Melania the Elder, who was the first of them to go to the Holy Land, and Paula, with her daughters, Blesilla and Eustochium. The tie between Jerome and the three last-mentioned women was especially close, and to them he addressed many of his famous letters.
When Pope Damasus died in 384, he was succeeded by Siricius, who was less friendly to Jerome. While serving Damasus, Jerome had impressed all by his personal holiness, learning, and integrity. But he had also managed to get himself widely disliked by pagans and evil-doers whom he had condemned, and also by people of taste and tolerance, many of them Christians, who were offended by his biting sarcasm and a certain ruthlessness in attack. An example of his style is the harsh diatribe against the artifices of worldly women, who “paint their cheeks with rouge and their eyelids with antimony, whose plastered faces, too white for human beings, look like idols; and if in a moment of forgetfulness they shed a tear it makes a furrow where it rolls down the painted cheek; women to whom years do not bring the gravity of age, who load their heads with other people’s hair, enamel a lost youth upon the wrinkles of age, and affect a maidenly timidity in the midst of a troop of grandchildren.”
In a letter to Eustochium he writes with scorn of certain members of the Roman clergy. “All their anxiety is about their clothes.... You would take them for bridegrooms rather than for clerics; all they think about is knowing the names and houses and doings of rich ladies.”
Although Jerome’s indignation was usually justified, his manner of expressing it-both verbally and in letters-aroused resentment. His own reputation was attacked; his bluntness, his walk, and even his smile were criticized. And neither the virtue of the ladies under his direction nor his own scrupulous behavior towards them was any protection from scandalous gossip. Affronted at the calumnies that were circulated, Jerome decided to return to the East. Taking with him his brother Paulinian and some others, he embarked in August, 385. At Cyprus, on the way, he was received with joy by Bishop Epiphanius, and at Antioch also he conferred with leading churchmen. It was here, probably, that he was joined by the widow Paula and some other ladies who had left Rome with the aim of settling in the Holy Land.
With what remained of Jerome’s own patrimony and with financial help from Paula, a monastery for men was built near the basilica of the Nativity at Bethlehem, and also houses for three communities of women. Paula became head of one of these, and after her death was succeeded by her daughter Eustochium. Jerome himself lived and worked in a large cave near the Savior’s birthplace. He opened a free school there and also a hospice for pilgrims, “so that,” as Paula said, “should Mary and Joseph visit Bethlehem again, they would have a place to stay.”
Now at last Jerome began to enjoy some years of peaceful activity. He gives us a wonderful description of this fruitful, harmonious, Palestinian life, and its attraction for all manner of men. “Illustrious Gauls congregate here, and no sooner has the Briton, so remote from our world, arrived at religion, than he leaves his early-setting sun, to seek a land which he knows only by reputation and from the Scriptures. Then the Armenians, the Persians, the peoples of India and Ethiopia, of Egypt, and of Pontus, Cappadocia, Syria, and Mesopotamia!... They come in throngs and set us examples of every virtue. The languages differ but the religion is the same; as many different choirs chant the psalms as there are nations.... Here bread and herbs, planted with our own hands, and milk, all country fare, furnish us plain and healthy food. In summer the trees give us shade. In autumn the air is cool and the falling leaves restful. In spring our psalmody is sweeter for the singing of the birds. We have plenty of wood when winter snow and cold are upon us. Let Rome keep its crowds, let its arenas run with blood, its circuses go mad, its theaters wallow in sensuality....”
But when the Christian Faith was threatened Jerome could not be silent. While at Rome in the time of Pope Damasus, he had composed a book on the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary against one Helvidius, who had maintained that Mary had not remained always a virgin but had had other children by St. Joseph, after the birth of Christ. This and similar ideas were now again put forward by a certain Jovinian, who had been a monk. Paula’s son-in-law, Pammachius, sent some of this heretical writing to Jerome, and he, in 393, wrote two books against Jovinian. In the first he described the excellence of virginity. The books were written in Jerome’s vehement style and there were expressions in them which seemed lacking in respect for honorable matrimony. Pammachius informed Jerome of the offense which he and many others at Rome had taken at them. Thereupon Jerome composed his, sometimes called his third book against Jovinian, in which he showed by quoting from his own earlier works that he regarded marriage as a good and honorable state and did not condemn even a second or a third marriage.
A few years later he turned his attention to one Vigilantius, a Gallic priest, who was denouncing both celibacy and the veneration of saints’ relics, calling those who revered them idolaters and worshipers of ashes. In defending celibacy Jerome said that a monk should purchase security by flying from temptations and dangers when he distrusted his own strength. As to the veneration of relics, he declared: “We do not worship the relics of the martyrs, but honor them in our worship of Him whose martyrs they are. We honor the servants in order that the respect paid to them may be reflected back to the Lord.” Honoring them, he said, was not idolatry because no Christian had ever adored the martyrs as gods; on the other hand, they pray for us. “If the Apostles and martyrs, while still living on earth, could pray for other men, how much more may they do it after their victories? Have they less power now that they are with Jesus Christ?” He told Paula, after the death of her daughter Blesilla, “She now prays to the Lord for you, and obtains for me the pardon of my sins.” Jerome was never moderate whether in virtue or against evil. Though swift to anger, he was also swift to feel remorse and was even more severe on his own failings than on those of others.
From 395 to 400 Jerome was engaged in a war against Origenism, which unhappily created a breach in his long friendship with Rufinus. Finding that some Eastern monks had been led into error by the authority of Rufinus’ name and learning, Jerome attacked him. Rufinus, then living in a monastery at Jerusalem, had translated many of Origen’s works into Latin and was an enthusiastic upholder of his scholarship, though it does not appear that he meant to defend the heresies in Origen’s writings. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, was one of the churchmen greatly distressed by the quarrel between Jerome and Rufinus, and became unwillingly involved in a controversy with Jerome.
Jerome’s passionate controversies were the least important part of his activities. What has made his name so famous was his critical labor on the text of the Scriptures. The Church regards him as the greatest of all the doctors in clarifying the Divine Word. He had the best available aids for such an undertaking, living where the remains of Biblical places, names, and customs all combined to give him a more vivid view than he could have had at a greater distance. To continue his study of Hebrew he hired a famous Jewish scholar, Bar Ananias, who came to teach him by night, lest other Jews should learn of it. As a man of prayer and purity of heart whose life had been mainly spent in study, penance, and contemplation, Jerome was prepared to be a sensitive interpreter of spiritual things.
We have seen that already while at Rome he had made a revision of the current Latin New Testament, and of the Psalms. Now he undertook to translate most of the books of the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew. The friends and scholars who urged him to this task realized the superiority of a version made directly from the original to any second-hand version, however venerable. It was needed too for argument with the Jews, who recognized no other text as authentic but their own. He began with the Books of Kings, and went on with the rest at different times. When he found that the Book of Tobias and part of Daniel had been composed in Chaldaic, he set himself to learn that difficult language also. More than once he was tempted to give up the whole wearisome task, but a certain scholarly tenacity of purpose kept him at it. The only parts of the Latin Bible, now known as the Vulgate, which were not either translated or worked over by him are the Books of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and the two Books of the Maccabees. He revised the Psalms once again, with the aid of Origen’s and the Hebrew text. This last is the version included now in the Vulgate and used generally in the Divine Office; his first revision, known as the Roman Psalter, is still used for the opening psalm at Matins and throughout the Missal, and for the Divine Office in the cathedrals of St. Peter at Rome and St. Mark at Venice, and in the Milanese rite.
In the sixteenth century the great Council of Trent pronounced Jerome’s Vulgate the authentic and authoritative Latin text of the Catholic Church, without, however, thereby implying a preference for it above the original text or above versions in other languages. In 1907 Pope Pius X entrusted to the Benedictine Order the office of restoring as far as possible the correct text of St. Jerome’s Vulgate, which during fifteen centuries of use had naturally become altered in many places. The Bible now ordinarily used by English-speaking Catholics is a translation of the Vulgate, made at Rheims and Douay towards the end of the sixteenth century, and revised by Bishop Challoner in the eighteenth. The Confraternity Edition of the New Testament appearing in 1950 represents a complete revision.
A heavy blow came to Jerome in 404 when his staunch friend, the saintly Paula, died. Six years later he was stunned by news of the invasion and sacking of Rome by Alaric the Goth. Of the refugees who fled from Rome to the East at this time he wrote: “Who would have believed that the daughters of that mighty city would one day be wandering as servants and slaves on the shores of Egypt and Africa, or that Bethlehem would daily receive noble Romans, distinguished ladies, brought up in wealth and now reduced to beggary? I cannot help them all, but I grieve and weep with them, and am completely absorbed in the duties which charity imposes on me. I have put aside my commentary on Ezekiel and almost all study. For today we must translate the precepts of the Scriptures into deeds; instead of speaking saintly words, we must act them.”
A few years later his work was again interrupted by raids of barbarians pushing north through Egypt into Palestine, and, later still, by a violent onset of Pelagian heretics, who, relying on the protection of Bishop John of Jerusalem, sent a troop of ruffians to Bethlehem to disperse the monks and nuns living there under the direction of Jerome, who had been opposing Pelagianism with his customary truculence. Some of the monks were beaten, a deacon was killed, and monasteries were set on fire. Jerome had to go into hiding for a time.
The following year Paula’s daughter Eustochium died. The aged Jerome soon fell ill, and after lingering for two years succumbed. Worn with penance and excessive labor, his sight and voice almost gone, his body like a shadow, he died peacefully on September 30th, 420, and was buried under the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. In the thirteenth century his body was translated and now lies somewhere in the Sistine Chapel of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome. The Church owes much to St. Jerome. While his great work was the Vulgate, his achievements in other fields are valuable; to him we owe the distinction between canonical and apocryphal writings; he was a pioneer in the field of Biblical archeology, his commentaries are important; his letters, published in three volumes, are one of our best sources of knowledge of the times.
St. Jerome has been a popular subject with artists, who have pictured him in the desert, as a scholar in his study, and sometimes in the robes of a cardinal, because of his services for Pope Damasus; often too he is shown with a lion, from whose paw, according to legend, he once drew a thorn. Actually this story was transferred to him from the tradition of St. Gerasimus, but a lion is not an inappropriate symbol for so fearless a champion of the Faith.
September 30th, Feast of St. Jerome
St. Jerome's Importance to Bible Study
Wary of Word for Word
While Jerome was an accomplished and careful translator, he was not a dogmatic one. He translated idiom for idiom, and not always word for word. For example, he produced at least three translations of the psalms in his attempt to capture and illuminate these prayers of the Church.
Jerome’s translation grated on the ears of contemporaries like Augustine because Jerome’s idea of translation differed from that generally held in his day. Most translators of the Scripture in the era before Jerome believed that the language of the original must dominate the new language. In part, this attitude reflected the belief that the smallest linguistic detail of the biblical text was divinely inspired and had its particular significance. The translator was expected to preserve this by rendering the original as literally as possible.
Jerome believed that a good translator will give the new language equal weight with the original and will try to make the translation equivalent to the original not just in meaning but also in quality of style. Any translation should reflect the new language used at its best—this Jerome learned from Cicero. The principle that Jerome used as he translated was not “word for word” but “sense for sense.”
While Jerome may have got his idea of what a translation should be from his rhetorical training, he also found a precedent for it in the Bible itself. He remarked on the looseness with which Old Testament passages are cited in the New Testament. Still, he noted that, while the words may differ, the meaning does not. Jerome felt that he had backing from both Cicero and the Bible for avoiding literalism in his translation of the Old Testament.
Narrow Role in a Big Book
The result of efforts to provide a new Latin translation of the Bible is popularly known as the Vulgate, a word derived from the Latin and meaning “common” or “commonly known.” But Jerome was not responsible for the Vulgate as it has come down to us. The only New Testament books he worked on were the Gospels.
It is natural to assume that, after completing his work on the Gospels, Jerome would have then turned to the rest of the New Testament, but there is little evidence that he did. After he published his revision of the Old Latin Gospels, Jerome turned to the Old Testament. In the course of 15 years of work, Jerome translated all the books of the Hebrew Bible.
It is a mistake to identify his work with the Vulgate as it exists today. In Jerome’s time, most manuscripts of the Bible in Latin contained only a few books—not the entire Bible. Assembling manuscripts to make a complete Bible usually meant bringing together manuscripts from a variety of Latin translations. The Vulgate was created by assembling books from a variety of sources, including Jerome. That is how the rest of the New Testament became connected with his work.
As is the case with any new translation, it took a while for people to become accustomed to the new phraseology. They quickly accepted his revision of the Gospels since it had a certain official status. After all, the pope commissioned it. Also, his work on the Gospels was conservative. He did not offer a fresh translation but simply revised the Old Latin translations that were already familiar to readers.
Back to the Beginnings
Translation of the Old Testament was another matter. Jerome undertook translating the Old Testament on his own initiative, so his translation had to achieve acceptance on its own merits. If Jerome had simply revised the Old Latin versions of the Old Testament, his work would have enjoyed more popularity in his lifetime, but Jerome presented an entirely new Latin translation of the Old Testament based on the ancient Hebrew text.
Jerome preferred to base his translation of the Old Testament on the Hebrew Bible with which most Christians were unfamiliar rather than on the familiar Septuagint—at least through the medium of the Old Latin versions. This preference affected not only his translation of Old Testament books but also his view of the Old Testament canon.
The Septuagint contained several books that are not in the Hebrew Bible. The rabbis of Palestine did not regard as inspired the books in the Septuagint that were not also found in the Hebrew Bible. Eventually, all Jews accepted this view and abandoned books like Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), Tobit, Judith, Baruch, and First and Second Maccabees.
Jerome’s view corresponded to that of the rabbis. He believed that, while these “extra books” may edify Christian readers, the Church should not use them as a source for doctrine. Again, Augustine opposed Jerome. In this instance, Augustine’s view prevailed.
Eventually, the Council of Trent opted for the wider canon probably because the Reformers chose to accept only books of the Hebrew Bible. That is why the Old Testament read by Catholics contains seven more books than the Old Testament read by Protestant Christians.
Irascible Biblical Commentary
Jerome was more than a translator of the Bible. He was a gifted interpreter as well. His major contribution was a series of commentaries on the prophets. At first, Jerome followed the approach common in his day. For example, his commentary on Abdias was allegorical. He ignored the historical dimensions of the prophet’s words and focused on a spiritual interpretation that sought to edify readers.
While Jerome never completely abandoned allegorical interpretation, his work as a translator led him to appreciate the historical and literal approach more. He sought to understand the biblical text in its original cultural and historical setting. Many students of the Bible find Jerome’s commentaries still helpful.
Jerome’s commentaries were not esoteric flights of scholarly fancy. The irascible scholar sometimes used his role as a biblical commentator to give his opinion on ecclesiastical controversies of his day, some of which were occasioned by his work. His comments sometimes use personal invective against his opponents that, by today’s standards, seems harsh and sarcastic.
For example, Jerome had a running quarrel with another Christian commentator named Rufinus. In the Preface to his translation of the Book of Ezekiel, Jerome wrote of the recently deceased Rufinus: “Now that the scorpion lies buried....” He once described the heretic Pelagius as the most stupid of persons whose wits were dulled by too much Scottish porridge.
Jerome did not even spare the biblical prophets. He remarked that the quality of their rhetoric made his skin crawl. Reading Jerome’s commentaries and his 117 surviving letters leads to the conclusion that Jerome loved a good argument.
Kind Toward His Friends
As merciless and abusive as Jerome was toward his opponents, he was gentle and kind toward his friends and the needy. Many people sought his advice as they tried to live out their Christian lives. He founded a school for boys at Bethlehem and served as a spiritual guide for the monks and nuns who settled in Bethlehem to be near him. He gave shelter to refugees who came to the Holy Land following the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 410.
It is also clear that Jerome had a great and abiding respect for ecclesiastical authority. He spent some time in Antioch, which at the time of his visit had three rival bishops. Jerome asserted that he would accept the bishop in union with Rome. All three professed loyalty to the See of St. Peter so Jerome waited until the pope chose to support one of the three competing bishops. Jerome accepted ordination to the priesthood from Paulinus, the bishop that Rome approved.
Jerome was among the most learned Christians of his day. He put his learning to the service of the Church and became the greatest biblical scholar of the early Church. He has been considered a Father of the Church since the eighth century and the Council of Trent proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church. His writing style was exceptional and he used it to offer the Church a translation of the Old Testament that was the best available to the Latin-speaking Christians of his day.
The contradictions of his personality may be more apparent than those of others whom the Church honors as saints. Still, no one can read his commentaries without recognizing that the Bible was not simply an interesting literary work but the source of Spirit and life for Jerome.
There is no other person who has had greater influence on the way Catholics read the Bible than St. Jerome. He had worried that his influence would be restricted to aesthetics rather than to Faith. His worries were groundless because Jerome was a sincere believer who used his talent and education to help other believers find, as he did, that the Scriptures are the Word of God—the word of life.
AN INTRODUCTION & BACKGROUND TO HOLY SCRIPTURE
We all want to see God, know God and be with God—or at least that is how it should be! There are two chief areas where this desire can be somewhat (and only partially) satisfied. Those two areas are Holy Scripture and the Holy Eucharist. Both are the Word of God—Holy Scripture being the Word of God announced to certain persons who had to write down God's Word; and the Holy Eucharist being the Word made flesh. Sadly, today, both are neglected by the majority of Catholics. It is only when we fully appreciate and fully participate and fully use these two gifts, that we will draw closer and closer to God, to a point where nothing will be able to separate us from Him.
The purpose of this Bible Study is to bring the mind and heart to a deeper or higher level of understanding Holy Scripture and loving Holy Scripture. That means going beyond the superficial and descending into the depths of knowledge and understanding Scripture, so that we can grasp more of its origins, it growth, its purposes, its truth, its power and its sanctification. Such a Bible Study cannot be mere "cotton-candy" or "candy-floss"—which is light and sweet but with little substance and little or no nourishment. Such a Bible Study necessarily entails work, and work requires effort—which is the same principle for saving your soul. He, who truly labors for his fruit, enjoys that fruit all the more when he has finally grown it. “Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)—and that ‘bread’ is found in Holy Scripture.
1. What is Holy Scripture?
Holy Scripture is the collection of books written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and acknowledged by the Church as the word of God.
This collection of books is called Holy Scripture or Holy Writ (Romans 1:2), because it is holy in its content, holy in its purpose, and holy in its origin. It is also called the Bible, that is, “the Books,” from the Greek word biblia which is the plural of book, that is to say “books” (1 Machabees 12:9; Ecclesiasticus, Prol.). Holy Scripture is eminently the Book, the Book of Books.
The Bible is not the oldest book in the world. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians possessed a rich literature long before the first books of the Bible were written. But no book has been so widely diffused or has exercised such a far-reaching influence on the religion, morality, and civilization of mankind as the Bible. It was the first book to appear in print (Gutenberg Bible, around 1450); before the end of the fifteenth century it was re-printed more than a hundred times, and today it is spread over the whole world in more than three hundred translations. Millions of copies of the Bible are sold every year.
2. How Many Books?
There are seventy-two books of the Bible (73 if you separate the Book of Lamentations from its author, Jeremias), forty-five were written before the time of Christ (forty-six if you separate the Book of Lamentations from its author, Jeremias).
They describe God’s dealings with men and His revelations to them before the coming of Christ and are called the books of the Old Testament. The other twenty-seven books were written after the time of Christ. They record the revelations which we have received through Christ and His Apostles and are called the books of the New Testament.
The word Testament, in this connection, does not mean a written document wherein a person provides for the disposition of his property after his death, but a covenant, agreement, or compact. The dealings of God with His chosen people are called in Scripture the “covenant or testament of God with man.” By metonymy the records containing the agreement between God and the Israelites through the Patriarchs and Moses, and the final pact between God and His creatures through His Son Jesus Christ, came to be known as the Old and the New Testament.
3. The Books of the Bible are not like Other Books.
All other books are the products of human intelligence. They are man’s word to man. The books of Holy Scripture were not composed by mere human industry. The Holy Ghost took such an active part in their composition, that He is their real Author. Their human writers acted under the guidance of God. Hence, though written by men, and in human language, the books of the Bible are the Word of God.
This mysterious working together of God and man, of divine grace and human liberty, in the composition of the books of the Bible is called Inspiration. The Church has not defined where the work of God ceases and the work of man begins. In other words, there is no absolute definition of the ratio or percentage contributed by each party.
Holy Scripture itself, in several places, refers to the divine factor, that is, the divine impulse and direction. Thus, we read in Isaias: “And the Lord said to me: ‘Take thee a great book and write in it with a man’s pen!’” (Isaias 8:1). And in the Book of Wisdom: “God bath given to me to speak as I would and to conceive thoughts worthy of those things that are given me” (Wisdom 7:15).
In other places it speaks, just as emphatically, of the human factor, the human effort that went into the composition. St. Luke writes in the prologue to his Gospel: “It seemed good to me, having diligently attained to all things from the beginning, to write to thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mayest know the verity of those words, in which thou hast been instructed” (Luke 1:3-4).
4. God Inspired the Writers.
How God inspired the sacred writers is explained by Pope Leo XIII in his Encyclical Providentissimus Deus: “By supernatural power God so moved and impelled them to write, He was so present to them, that they first rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth the things which He ordered, and those only.” This explanation distinguishes three main elements in inspiration:
(a) God so influenced the minds of the sacred writers, that they first rightly understood all, and only, the things that He wanted written.
(b) He so influenced their wills that they determined faithfully to write down these things.
(c) He so influenced them that they aptly and inerrantly (without error) expressed these things in writing.
From what has been said, it is clear that a book is either inspired or not inspired, whilst it is being written. If it was not inspired whilst it was being written, no subsequent approval, either by God Himself or by the Church, can make it an inspired book. Such a book would not be the word of God, but the word of a human being.
5. Inspiration Covers the Whole Bible in All Its Parts.
It extends to everything written down originally by the sacred author. “It is absolutely wrong,” says Leo XIII in the Encyclical quoted above, “and it is forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of the Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred ... The system of those, who limit divine inspiration to matters of Faith and Morals, cannot be tolerated.”
Inspiration does not, however, prevent the sacred writer from describing, happenings in the world of nature, in terms current at his time. God did not explain to him the mysteries of nature.
“They [i.e., the sacred writers] described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day even by the most eminent men of science” (Pope Leo XIII). The same cannot be said of historical facts: these must be true if stated as facts.
6. Inspiration Is Not Dictation.
What has been said about the inerrance of the Bible, refers only to the original text of the inspired writings. Later on, those who copied the original text, sometimes made mistakes; these changes are not the work of the inspired writers and hence would not be inspired and might contain mistakes. But the fact that such faulty transcriptions were made, says Leo XIII, must not be too easily presumed. However, unless there is a divinely appointed guardian of the sacred text, there is no positive assurance that, in the course of time, it would not be badly corrupted even in very important matters.
7. The Authority Guaranteeing Inspiration
The Fact of Inspiration is vouched for, above all, by the infallible authority of the Church. The Councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (1545-1563) call God the Author of both Testaments, and in 1870 the Vatican Council declared that the books of the Bible, “having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, have God for their Author, and have been delivered as such to the Church herself.”
Christ and His Apostles confirmed the universal belief of the Jews that the Old Testament is a divine document: “And Jesus began to say to them: ‘This day is fulfilled this Scripture in your ears’” (Luke 4:21). “If they hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they believe if one rise again from the dead” (John 16:31). “The Scripture must needs be fulfilled which the Holy Ghost spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas” (Acts 1:16). “Prophecy came not by the will of man at any time, but the holy men of God spoke, inspired by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21).
The Inspiration of the New Testament Books is proved by the unanimous testimony of Christian antiquity. St. Peter had already placed the Epistles of St. Paul on a level with the “other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). The Fathers of the Church, from Clement of Rome to Gregory the Great, teach that the Scriptures were written by the Holy Ghost and hence are the “letter of God to men” (St. Macarius the Great); that the divine authorship extends to every part of the Bible, even, according to some Fathers, to the very words (St. Irenaeus); that in the Holy Scriptures “God speaks to men in a human manner” (St. Augustine); that both the Old and the New Testament are divinely inspired teaching (Acts of the Martyr Speratus); that whoever does not regard the Scriptures as the word of God is to be looked upon as an unbeliever (Eusebius of Caesarea).
St. Augustine sums up the constant teaching of the Church in the following words: “To the books of Scripture, I have learned to pay such reverence and honor, as most firmly to believe that none of their authors has committed any error in writing. If in these books I meet with anything which seems contrary to truth, I will have no doubt that it is only the manuscript which is faulty, or the translator who has not hit the sense, or my own failure to understand” (Letter 82).