Composition of the New Testament
Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox share the same New Testament canon. The New Testament begins with the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Immediately following is Acts of the Apostles, an account of the activities of the early Church, particularly the apostles Peter and Paul. It was written by the evangelist Luke as a companion to his Gospel.
Following these are the letters of Paul in order of decreasing length, beginning with books written to a community: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
After Paul’s letters comes Hebrews, traditionally (but with doubts beginning in the early Church) ascribed to Paul due to references to Timothy in Heb 13:23, but whose authorship is a mystery, and the so-called catholic (universal) or general letters: James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude. Unlike most of Paul’s letters, these are not identified with any particular Christian community. The New Testament closes with Revelation (traditionally known as Apocalypse), the most cryptic book in the Bible.
Beginning and Ending with Jesus Christ
One of the most famous quotations on the Bible in Catholic tradition comes from St. Jerome, the Church’s first great translator of the Bible: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
When I was in college, I took a course on Catholicism in which the priest ended the first session with the statement, “Roman Catholicism begins with Jesus Christ,” followed by a lengthy pause. I expected him to continue by mentioning the sacraments, saints, Mary, the popes, bingo (just kidding), etc., but instead, he continued in a solemn and steady manner, “and it ends there, too.”
In that spirit, Catholics view the Bible as an opportunity to encounter Jesus both individually and as a community through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In so doing, we discover the love and will of our heavenly father.
St. Teresa of Ávila emphasized that we come to God through the human Jesus. The New Testament is that story, and the Old Testament prepares us for such. In the next chapter, we will refine our understanding of a fundamental biblical term for itself and Jesus, the word of God.
What Does It Mean?
The term apocrypha (Greek for “hidden”) is used by Protestants to describe the disputed writings. Catholics refer to these as the deuterocanonical (second canon) books because they were composed later than the rest of the Old Testament. Unlike the Protestant tradition, Catholics consider these to be as authoritative and inspired as the rest of the Old Testament.
Catholics use the term apocryphal and Protestants use pseudepigrapha (Greek for “false writings”) to describe books universally excluded from the canon.
What Does It Mean?
You will encounter references in Bible footnotes to the biblical “canon.” Canon originally meant reed, and also referred to a standard or measuring stick. It became the term used to describe the list of books in the Bible.
The Bible Says What?
Some passages in the Bible make reference or contain parallels to the apocryphal writings. For example, Jude (probably the least read New Testament book) contains an allusion to 1 Enoch, and refers to a legendary dispute between the archangel Michael and Satan over Moses’ body that is described in the Assumption of Moses.
The New Testament-related apocryphal writings are the sole source of non-biblical details that have become part of Catholic tradition. These include Peter’s request to be crucified upside down, the names of the thieves on the cross (Dismas and Gestas), the names of Mary’s parents (Joachim and Anna), and Veronica’s wiping of the face of Jesus.
Signs of the Times: The Bible Today
Familiarity with the purpose and context of the Septuagint, the first important translation of the Bible, alerts us to a parallel with modern life. Like the Jews of Jesus’ time and the centuries immediately before, most Christians know the Bible only in translation. Like the Diaspora Jews, we live far from the Holy Land in a highly secular culture that is smitten with tantalizing philosophies (in our day, secular humanism and New Age spirituality), and are subject to discrimination or even persecution from persons both within and outside of our faith community.
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