If you watched the History Channel’s The Bible series, you might not have noticed that there was something missing in the last episode. The Apostles were spreading the Gospel far and wide even as they encountered much persecution and opposition. The number of Christians was growing substantially. Paul of Tarsus was shown disrupting Christians as they participated in The Lord’s Supper (Mass), and inciting the crowds to murder Saint Steven. After his conversion, Paul was shown visiting various parts of the world and preaching to them. What was not shown were Christians carrying Bibles around. That’s because the Bible did not yet exist (only Old Testament scrolls existed). Nevertheless, the Gospel was being preached and people were being converted.
It is ironic that, when people start new churches and make attempts to recreate the environment of the first Christians, they bring their Bibles with them. The first Christians had no Bibles and most could not even read. “Faith came by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). The Word of God was preached by the Apostles and the men they appointed. One did not need a Bible. All that was needed were ears to hear.
Eventually, some things were written down and letters were sent to various Christians. Over time the Church gathered up quite a bit of written material. But even then, people did not generally know how to read. And the written materials were not handed out for everyone to bring to the service with them. People still had to be read to and come to faith by hearing, not by reading.
The Church carried on in this manner for about 400 years until it was decided that the inspired writings needed to be compiled into one collection of books. The Bible is a collection of writings, a library (from Koine Greek τὰ βιβλία, tà biblía, “the books”). The Catholic Church had to decide which writings were inspired by God, and which ones were not. They did this through the authority given by Christ 400 years earlier and under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Hence, we were given the Bible.
However, Christians still were not carrying Bibles to services with them. They still could not read. There were only a limited number of copies of the Bible. The Bible was copied by hand over centuries. Were it not for Catholic monks bending over tables in monasteries and protecting the copies we might not have Bibles today. A congregation was blessed to have even one copy of the Bible. It was so valuable it had to be protected from theft and damage. Still, the people came to faith by hearing, not by reading.
The invention of the printing press made it possible for more folks to have Bibles. Even then, it took years before Bibles were household possessions. It was a mixed blessing. More people had Bibles, but there was more confusion about what was in the Bible. Suddenly, everyone that could read became a Bible interpreter. Rather than being good for the Church, this phenomenon fragmented the Church. People began to think they knew better than the Church that had written, compiled and preserved the writings for hundreds of years. Today we have a Bible in every hand, but we also have 30,000+ ways of interpreting the Bible. The Church is weakened in her mission to the world by such division. People took the Bible away from the Church and started thousands of other “churches.” This is not the Christian unity that Jesus and His Apostles had in mind. People hijacked the Bible from the Church and coopted the name “Christian.”
Today Catholics are still listening to the Word of God being read to them (although they can certainly read along from their Bibles or the Catholic Missal if they want to). If a Catholic goes to daily Mass, he/she will hear nearly the entire Bible over a three year period. Literate Catholics are also encouraged, even exhorted, to read and learn the Bible outside of the Mass. We are offered Bible studies and have access to all sorts of educational materials about the Bible. We can even interpret the Bible as we read it, as long as we don’t come up with ideas that contradict the apostolic teaching of the Church.
The Catholic Mass is divided into sections. One section is the Liturgy of The Word. This is where we hold up the Bible (literally hold it up to honor and reverence it), read from it, and preach about it. However, The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the high point of the Mass. This is where we do what Jesus told us to do in remembrance of Him. Even throughout the entire Mass there are words from Scripture integrated into the service. For most Bible-Christian churches, the high point of the service is typically singing, the reading of the Bible and preaching. Catholics also do these things, but we have preserved Christ’s emphasis on the Eucharist, His life-giving flesh and blood.
Most Bible churches have communion, but it tends to be a lesser emphasis and is only symbolic in nature. Some churches only have communion once a quarter. Mostly they focus on the Bible and preaching. The Apostles would not recognize such services. They would be looking for the Eucharist, not the Bible. Churches that emphasize the “Bible alone” are a relatively new phenomenon, but most people are not aware of the history. They just assume that Christianity has always been based on the Bible. But, the reverse is true. It is more accurate to say that the Bible is based on the Church. The Church did not always have the Bible. The Church came first.
So, Catholics don’t usually carry Bibles to church with them, even though the Bible is actually a Catholic book. It’s not that we don’t believe or teach from the Bible. For 2000 years our Faith has come by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God whether written down or not. Catholicism is original, authentic Christianity in its fullness. We love the Bible. We teach and preach from the Bible. We read and listen to the Bible. It is a Catholic book. It is part of us. We carry it in our hearts wherever we go.