by Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D.
6 January 2005



Our Bible is divided into two main sections -- the "Old Testament" or Hebrew Bible, and the "New" or Second Testament.

 The Old Testament can be divided into four segments:

  1. the Torah
  2. the Prophets
  3. the Historical Books
  4. the Wisdom Literature.

PLUS the Deutero-canonical writings (those accepted by Catholics and the Orthodox but not by most Protestant Christians)

    The Torah is composed of the first five books of the Bible, sometimes called 'the five books of Moses' or the Pentateuch. These are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. When Christian or Jewish writers refer to "the Law," they are referring to the Torah. These books begin with the story of creation, and go on to relate the call of individuals who gradually formed the Israelite people. This narrative recounts their escape from slavery in Egypt, the formation of a special relationship with their God, Yahweh, the requirements which God placed upon them because of this special relationship, and how these were worked out in the life of the community during their journey to the land which Yahweh had promised to give to them.

    The Prophets include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations (which were attributed to Jeremiah), Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum,, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. (The Hebrew Bible also includes the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as part of the prophetic literature, though Christian bibles put them in the category of Historical Writings.) These books record the voices of those who called Israel to account for their sins and to return to faithfulness to their relationship with Yahweh. Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi are considered the Minor Prophets because the books are quite short. The Hebrew Bible calls them "the Twelve" because all twelve books fit on one scroll, whereas a scroll is required for each of the books of the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel).

    The Historical Writings include Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther and I and II Maccabees. These books relate the story of the people of Israel from the entrance into the promised land, through the rise and fall of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel. The Babylonian Captivity, the return to Palestine, and finally the history of the Israelites under the Roman Empire. The Historical Writings, then, cover a span of roughly 1250 years, from 1300-1250 BCE to 37 BCE.

    The Wisdom Literature includes Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth), the Song of Songs, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus (or the Wisdom of Ben Sirach). The question of the nature and destiny of the individual is the main preoccupation of these works, excluding Psalms and the Song of Songs. The book of Psalms is a collection of song-prayers used in liturgy. The Song of Songs is a poem written for a royal wedding.

Deutero-canonical Books.  There are seven books which Roman Catholics consider part of the Old Testament but which are not part of the Jewish Bible or of the Protestant Old Testament: Baruch, Tobit, Judith, I and II Maccabees, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Ben Sirach. While all the other books of the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew, these seven are found only in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish Bible. There are also 10 sections of the books of Esther and Daniel which fall into this category.
    The Catholic and the Orthodox Bibles differ only in that the Orthodox Bible does not include the book of Baruch.
    Protestant Bibles, since the discovery of the Qumran scrolls in the early 1950's, have begun to print these seven books, but in a separate section from the rest of the Old Testament. This section they call the "Apocrypha" (which means, "rejected books"), since they are not considered part of the "canon" (the set of normative books). Catholics call these books the Deuterocanonical writings (i.e., books of the "second canon"). This is to distinguish them from the "Protocanonical" ("first canon") books which are considered, by Jews, Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox alike, to be part of Sacred Scriptures.

The New Testament also can be divided into four sections:

  1. The Gospels
  2. The Book of Acts
  3. The Epistles or Letters
  4. The Apocalypse or Book of Revelation
    The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) set forth the story of Jesus' life and preaching as seen through the eyes of the early Christian believers. The word "Gospel" comes from the Greek word "evangelion" which means "Good News", and from which we get the word "evangelist." The early Christian communities (and, hence, the Evangelists) saw themselves as having experienced, in a unique and powerful way, the reality of God present in Jesus. The Easter experience led them to want to share this experience with others by proclaiming the Good News, the message of Jesus. This involved recounting Jesus' stories and other sayings, and also sharing the disciples' stories about what Jesus did.
    This message of Jesus began to be spread through public preaching and teaching. Especially in the worship of the early Church, the disciples told Jesus' sayings and the stories about him. Some communities preserved different stories and sayings of Jesus because they were particularly appropriate to their circumstances. All of them preserved the core of the Gospel message: the reality of the Cross and Resurrection. For some twenty years after Jesus' death, this is how the Good News was spread.
    Though the Gospel message was not written down until many years after the death of Jesus, we know that oral transmission of religious teachings was a very common and a very accurate means of spreading a message. The witnesses of the early Church sought to preserve what Jesus had taught in the form in which he had spoken it. But, in the light of their experience of the Resurrection and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they had an entirely new realization of who Jesus was. This gave them a new perspective, and caused them to interpret his sayings and actions in a new way. This new perspective is what made the news of Jesus' life and death "Good News" to the disciples, and to those who heard the Christian message.
    Eventually, as the witnesses of Jesus' life began to grow old, and as the various Christian communities became more established, they began to collect the different stories and sayings of Jesus and to put them into writing. People also began to add the stories about what Jesus had done, and the explanations for things that Jesus had said but which they had not understood until after the Resurrection. These written records are what we have in the New Testament Gospels.
    One of the requirements for including a book in the New Testament canon was that it have the authority of an apostle behind it. Thus, each of the Gospels is named after the Apostle whose teaching and example had the greatest influence upon the Christian community in which the Gospel was finally recorded.
    The four canonical Gospels, in the form in which we have them today, have been dated between CE 67 to around 95 or later. The earliest one is the Gospel of Mark, CE 67. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are dated right around 90 (or perhaps 125 for Luke), with the Gospel of John being about CE 95. If you are interested in learning more about the development of our four Gospels, I strongly recommend John Reumann's book, Jesus in the Church's Gospels (Fortress, 1968).

    The Book of Acts presents the story of the early Christian community as they begin to preach the message of Jesus. It begins this story of the early Church where the Gospel of Luke ends; with Jesus' Ascension into heaven and the command to spread the Gospel to all the ends of the earth. This is why the Book of Acts is attributed to the same Christian community as the Lukan Gospel.
    Acts shows the early Christians as exercising the same power in word and deed as the Gospel says that Jesus had. And it relates the story the preaching of the Good News about Jesus, starting from Jerusalem and going all the way to Rome, the head of the Roman Empire and the center of the civilized world. It is dated between CE 90-125.

    The Epistles are the earliest written record of early Christian preaching and teaching, some of them dating to within 20 years of the death of Jesus. As with the other books of the Bible, they are not given in chronological order. Thus, I Thessalonians, not the Letter to the Romans, is the earliest of the Epistles. The various letters are attributed to Paul, John, Peter, or James, with the Letter to the Hebrews having no author named. Most of the NT letters date between CE 50-90.

    The Apocalypse or Book of Revelation to John is the last book of the Bible. In very vivid and figurative language, it recounts a vision of the final coming of the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, and what will be the reward of those who have been faithful to the Gospel message. Because of its late date, it is more likely that the written work comes from a community influenced by John, the Apostle, rather than from the Apostle himself. The Apocalypse is dated somewhat after CE 90.


    Canon is a Greek term meaning "measure, rule or norm."  The English term "ruler" or "yardstick" is a related concept.  The Scriptural Canon is the list of divinely inspired writings recognized as such by the Church (at the Council of Trent, ca. CE 1550).  They form a "canon" in the sense of a "rule for life," a yardstick against which to measure one's behavior (ethical, social, political and religious).

    Canonicity is the act of the Church in deciding which books are inspired.  This is not the same thing as revelation (which is the process of the self-gift of God, by word and deed, to which we respond in faith).  Nor is it inspiration, i.e., the act upon the writer(s) by which God is "author" of these writings.  Even further, it needs to be distinguished from the issue of authenticity, which is the scholarly pursuit of determining who wrote these books.

    Types of Canonical Books:


Our very name for the Bible expresses the fact that we see it as a special book; "ton biblion," the Greek term from which we derive our word "bible," means THE books. What is so different about this collection of books? We believe, as it was in II Timothy 3:16, that the Bible is "inspired."
    Inspiration means "in spiriting" or "breathing into." Thus, the word "inspiration" tries to express the idea that the Spirit of God was active in the formation of the Biblical text. The Spirit "breathes" the idea into the person and/or community, and the person or community then expresses the idea (under the guidance of the Spirit) in the language, symbols, and style of that particular time and culture.
    An image which may be helpful in understanding this idea is that of the musician and instrument. Neither can sound a note without the other yet, by working with the instrument, the musician can make music. The sound of the music depends upon the instrument -- what kind it is, how well it is made, etc. -- and also upon the musician's knowledge of the instrument and level of expertise. The phrases which will be played are the choice of the musician, but the exact form of the resulting music depends as much upon the instrument as upon the one who plays.
    As it says at the opening of the book of the prophet, Jeremiah: "The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah . . . the word of Yahweh was addressed to him in the days of Josiah son of Amon, king of Judah . . . until the deportation of Jerusalem . . . ." The words of the prophet (or evangelist, psalmist, or sage), conditioned by patterns of language, thought, and culture, are the vehicle though which the Word of Yahweh is made known to the community.


The idea of the infallibility of Scripture (that it is free from error) is very closely related to the idea of inspiration. If God cannot deceive, then the word of God must be true. Scripture, as the inspired word of God, is a true guide to faith and holiness. As it says in II Timothy 3:15-16, "from these (scriptures) you can learn the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and can profitably be used for teaching, for refuting error, for guiding people's lives and teaching them to be holy."
    We can see, in the quote from II Tim. 3:15f, that the idea of Scriptural infallibility is meant to apply to "the wisdom that leads to salvation." Scripture does not purport to be a scientific account of the creation of the world, or a text in Middle Eastern geography, or a strictly accurate historical account of the origins of the nation of Israel. For example, the Gospel of Luke sometimes makes errors in geographically locating where Jesus preached. This factual error does not bear upon the question of infallibility, because geography is not part of "the wisdom that leads to salvation." The important part of the Gospel is not where Jesus preached, but who he was and what he said and did.
    The quote from II Timothy also points out that "all Scripture" can be used to learn the wisdom leading to salvation. The idea of infallibility, like the idea of inspiration, applies to all of the Bible, taken as a whole. The entire Bible is a record of the word God wanted spread among us.
    Yet, because of the specific purpose which God had for each of the human authors of the Scriptures, each of the books of Scripture complements the others. No passage can be understood properly apart from the rest of the Scripture. We must be careful to seek to understand the shorter passages of the Bible in the context of the message of the whole of Scripture. It is in this sense that Scripture is infallible, normative in the areas of faith and morals.


According to Catholic tradition, most recently expounded in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum on Divine Revelation, only the person of Jesus Christ is truly "the Word of God."  Any other use of this phrase is derivative.
    The phrase "the Word of God" has four basic meanings in Catholic tradition:
    1. Jesus the Messiah, the Word of God Incarnate, who lived in human history as Jesus of Nazareth and lives still through His resurrection from the dead
    2. The words and deeds of Jesus (which convey God's word to us)
    3. The words and deeds of Jesus as handed down from the apostles (i.e., oral tradition which remains faithful to that message)
    4. The Sacred Scriptures, which contain the record of the apostolic and prophetic tradition
    Hence, it is more proper to say that the Bible "contains" or "attests to" the word of God, rather than to say that the Bible itself "is" the word of God.


Talking about reading the Scriptures in context naturally leads to the question of interpretation, for "interpretation" means 'to take from between' the text. That is, interpretation is finding the meaning of the text by reading the words and lines between (or among) the others, with the other lines always in the back of your mind.
    Historically, the Church has seen the Scriptures at three levels of meaning: the literal, the analogical, and the anagogical or mystical levels. The "literal" level of interpretation is understood in the sense of the biblical author's original, intended meaning -- not in the sense of what a modern reader might think by merely reading the text (e.g. the Creation account in Genesis 1) without any knowledge of the author's intention or cultural setting.
    The same Holy Spirit who inspired the sacred authors to put God's word in writing, and who worked through the early Christian communities as they grew in their understanding of Jesus and of the Gospel, continues to work through the Church to help us understand God's word in the Scriptures. This does not mean that each individual Christian who reads the Bible can come to "the truth" apart from the rest of the Church. Just as the oral traditions of which preceded the scriptural writings were developed among a community of faith, written down by a few representatives of the community, and then accepted as normative by the community if they were a true reflection of their faith, Scriptural interpretation today must proceed through the same process of communal approval.
    This idea of "communal approval" involves not only the agreement of present-day Christians. It also means that we must interpret the Scriptures in light of what was taught and believed by those Christians who have gone before us. Through the Creeds, liturgical prayers, hymns and practices, the decrees of the councils of bishops, and the writings of scholars and Church leaders, we learn how other Christians have understood the Scriptural message. The Church believes that we can grow in our understanding of the Scripture only by having our roots in this Sacred Tradition.
    This is why the Catholic Church teaches that isolated individuals cannot "interpret" Scripture. The role of interpretation belongs to the whole Church through the people's "sense of faith" when they are in agreement with the rest of the community of faith. The role of interpretation specifically belongs to the teaching office of the Church (the Magisterium) because of their special gift and responsibility for guiding their brothers and sisters to a deeper understanding of the Gospel message.


The fact that the Bible was developed through communal religious life and formed through communal approval of the text has an important impact upon the ways in which Scripture is used.
    The primary use of Scripture is in the public worship of the Church -- whether during the Mass, as part of the Liturgy of the Hours, or during a celebration of any of the other Sacraments. Passages from the Bible are read aloud for the community's reflection. Sometimes there is a reflection on how this passage speaks to the life of the community members (e.g. during the Homily of the Mass). Always the act of public proclamation of the Scriptures calls the members of the community to remember who they are (i.e. a community of faith). It reminds them that, because God speaks to the community as a whole, but in different ways to different members of the community, they are an integral part of God's message to their sisters and brothers. If they do not share their part of this message, then everyone loses.
    A second very significant use of the Scriptures is for lectio divina, praying and meditating on them in private or small groups.  Even when individuals read and pray the Scriptures, they do so as persons of faith, as members of the community of faith. Their understanding of the Scriptures must still be brought to the community for approval or correction. The Spirit does lead each individual to learn from the Scriptures. But neither the Spirit nor the Bible is given for private use. When one community member gains a new insight into the Scriptures, this affects how the person lives in community. Both the Spirit and the Scriptures are given to build up the community of faith. Thus, even personal reading of the Scriptures can be viewed as a communal event.
    The Second Vatican Council reminds us that "prayer should accompany the reading of sacred Scripture, so that a dialogue takes place between God and man. For, 'we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles.'" (Dei Verbum VI, 25). In a very real sense, prayer and meditation on the Scriptures can never be private events. Prayer opens up a dialogue not only between God and the individual, but also affects the community. By prayerful reading of the Scriptures, the individual becomes transformed. Because the person is part of the community of faith, this also transforms the community. Praying the Scriptures enlivens the faith community and strengthens it, making it the vehicle through which God's word is made active in and reaches out to transform the whole world.


This page has been accessed  times since 01/01/2000

Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
John Carroll University
Last page update: 19 January 2000

This site designed and maintained by Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D..
1999, 2000 Sheila E. McGinn

Return to Dr. McGinn's home page


Return to JCU Religious Studies home page