The Bible and The Lectionary

The following information was presented by Deborah Stollery to the CFF Catechists.

Bible and Lectionary Basics for Adults

What is the Bible?

  • A collection of books (hence it gets its name from the Greek ta biblia, “the books”)
  • The word of God in human words
  • The name given to the texts Christians consider to be sacred, that is revealing God, God’s truth and God’s ways to us
  •  A compilation of texts believed to contain what God believes humankind needs in order to be saved

What is the difference between the Bible and the scriptures?

  • In everyday use, most people use the two words interchangeably.  However, a bible is the collection of books.  The word “scripture” means sacred writings.  So it would be possible to call other collections of sacred writings “scripture” but they would not also be the Bible.

Where did the Bible come from?

  • The truths of the Bible were first collected by the Jews and then later by the early Christians who collected and preserved them orally.  This oral tradition included stories, sayings of great teachers and leaders, hymns and poetry which were memorized and handed down through the generations.
  • With the availability of writing materials and a more stable civilization, some of these stories were then recorded for the Jewish people in writing.
  • Much of the Gospel material began being preserved and handed on in oral form in venues like liturgy, instruction in the home and in small Christian communities, and even more formally in centers of Christian learning.  The evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) eventually gathered these stories and wrote them down for their particular communities, to apply the oral tradition to the needs of their communities and to preserve what had been handed on to them because Jesus had not yet come again.
  • Paul’s letters and other New Testament texts as well as the Book of Revelation began in written form.
  • No original manuscript from any biblical book exists.

What is a testament?

  • The word “testament” means covenant.  God’s relationship with humankind can be said to be characterized by a series of covenants or testaments.  The Old Testament then gives us God’s saving story in a series of covenant events and then waverings from the covenant.  The New Testament is the story of the covenant struck in Jesus Christ and continuing today in the Eucharist, the new and eternal covenant.

When did the Bible come to be?

  • The various books of the Bible were written over several centuries (it is not possible to know exactly how much time this exactly took but the writing and editing process is believed to have taken around 1300 years).
  • The events in the Old Testament cover nearly two thousand years of historical time, not counting the accounts of creation and the story of Noah.
  • The New Testament books were all written in the latter half of the first century after Jesus’ death.
  • The Council of Trent (1545-1563) declared which books would be included in the Bible.  In Church language, we say the Council set the ‘canon’ of Scripture.  The word canon literally means “measuring stick”.

What is the purpose of the Bible?

  • To reveal who God is to God’s people.
  • To hand on to us the truth God wants us to know for our salvation
  • To enable us to share with God in building God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

What is a Lectionary?

  • For Catholics, the Lectionary is the book that contains the selected biblical texts that will be read for various liturgical services.  This book contains three cycles of readings which are labeled Year A, Year B and Year C.  The Church rotates these cycles in a three-year pattern.  The new cycle of readings always begins on the first Sunday of Advent.
  • The name for the specific texts is “lections”, from the Latin lectio which means the act of reading.

Why do we have a Lectionary?

  • To provide a starting point for planning liturgies and homilies.
  • To provide a sense of unity within the Church.  The predetermined texts are for the use of the universal Church.
  • To lessen the temptation to pick and choose certain texts, avoiding those that are challenging, uncomfortable or hard to accept.

Who created the Lectionary we use now?

  • A committee established by Rome in 1964 created the Lectionary we now use.  The committee consulted liturgical, scriptural and pastoral experts and bishops from around the world.

When did it come to be?

  • The post-conciliar Lectionary for Mass was completed in 1969 and introduced to the universal Church for use on the First Sunday of Advent, 1971.
  • In January, 1981 a second edition of the Lectionary was published with some minor additions and changes and with a new introduction.

Bible Specifics for Adults

How many books are in the Bible?  73 in the Roman Catholic Bible (46 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament).  66 (39 and 27 respectively) in the Protestant Bible

Why are there two versions of the Bible for Christians; a “Catholic” Bible and a “Protestant Bible?”  

  • Early Christianity used an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) as its Bible.  This version included 46 books.
  • When Judaism set out to officially determine its sacred texts at the end of the first century A.D., it drew from those books written in Hebrew.  There were but 39 of them.  The books not written in Hebrew are: Tobit, Judith, 1&2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus and Baruch.  Some portions of Daniel and Esther were also not written in Hebrew.
  • In the Reformation in the 16th century, Protestants went to the Old Testament accepted by the Jews, seeing it as more authentic.
  • Today, as tensions have eased between Protestants and Catholics, many Bible publishers will include all 73 books, holding apart the 7 books not composed in Hebrew in a separate section called the “apocrypha” (hidden) or the “Deuterocanonicals” (second law).

How do I know if the Bible I have is a “Catholic” Bible?

  • A Catholic Bible will have a designation called an imprimatur indicating that a local bishop, usually the bishop within whose diocese the publishing house resides, gives his permission for the book to be published.
  • An imprimatur is found on the copyright page of a Bible.
  • Some Bibles will have “Catholic” in their title.  Check for the imprimatur also.
  • The translation of the Bible from which the US Catholic Bishops have authorized the readings from the liturgy to come is the Revised New American Bible.  Each Bishop’s Conference around the world has the authority to choose the translation from which we hear the readings during liturgy.

What kinds of literature are in the Bible?

  • Apocalyptic literature
  • Epistles (letters)
  • Historical writings
  • Legal code
  • Liturgical Poetry
  • Myths
  • Narratives
  • Parables
  • Prophetic oracles
  • Wise sayings

What language was the Bible written in?

  • Actually, the original biblical texts were written in Hebrew (most of the Old Testament); Aramaic (small portions of the Old Testament within the books of Daniel, Ezra and one verse from Jeremiah), and Greek (all 27 books of the New Testament were written in Greek.)

Who uses the Bible?

  • The Jewish people use the Old Testament for prayer, worship, study and for organizing their relationship with God and with one another
  • Christians of all types use the whole Bible for worship, prayer, study, and for coming to know who Jesus is and how to follow him
  • Some Christian denominations use only the New Testament, believing that once Jesus came, the Old Testament passed away and a New Testament/Covenant was made.
  • Theologians and teachers, especially those who teach Scripture
  • Scripture scholars: those studying the texts with the intent of helping us interpret them
  • The Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church that exists to shed additional light on the meaning and implications of the Scriptures for the Roman Catholic Church

How do you get around in the Bible?

  • Since the Bible is a collection of books, it has a Table of Contents.
  • Some Bibles also have an index to help you find passages or people in the Bible. Publishers differ on the inclusion of an index.
  • The books of the Bible are organized in chapters and verses to help us share the texts and locate passages.  A biblical citation will have the name of the book, then the chapter number followed by either a colon or s semi-colon and then the verse number(s).  Ex:  John 3:16.
  • Bibles also have cross-references to tell you where the same idea in a passage may be found elsewhere in the Bible or when a passage is a direct quotation of another passage. Different publishers have different methods for cross-referencing, so you will need to look in your Bible to see how the publisher decided to do this.
  • Bibles will have footnotes, found at the bottom of the page, to let you know additional information about a passage.  Most publishers place footnotes at the bottom of the page.
  • A Concordance is a list of subject areas (Love, Death, Sin etc.) and all the passages in the Bible that refer to it.  Some publishers will put a concordance at the back of the Bible.  Most do not.  Concordances can be found in separate books and online.  The Vatican provides a free concordance for the New American Bible at
  • Study Bibles will always include maps and glossaries.  Many publishers will include at least one map of the Holy Land and surrounding areas.
  • Red Letter versions of the Bible print what they think are the actual words Jesus spoke in red in the Bible.
  • Bibles always have the Old Testament first and then the New Testament.  Apocryphal books can be found separated, sometimes in the middle of a Bible and sometimes contained at the end.

Is there a specifically Catholic way to read the Bible?

  • Yes.  Actually, there are two distinct approaches to the Bible that are both Catholic.  It is wise to know which approach you are taking.
  • One approach is to “study” the Bible.  In that case, Catholics use what is called the historical-critical method to interpret the text.  This means that Catholics seek to know what the biblical author was trying to say in his place and time before moving to determining what it may mean today.  That search for the first meaning of the text is called exegesis.   The application of that first meaning to contemporary times is called hermeneutics.
  • The historical-critical method makes use of textual criticism, literary criticism, and historical criticism to interpret the texts.  That means to accurately understand what the text meant in its place and time, the reader will need to know something about the type of literature, the time period in which it was written, the intended audience, what was happening to the community and within the community at the time the text was written, the culture from which both writer and original readers came, and the decisions made by translators with regard to word choice, punctuation and capitalization, and sentence structure.
  • The second approach is to use the scripture for personal spiritual growth.  This encourages reading and praying with the texts, listening deeply to their personal meanings and usually just includes knowing the kind of literature it is and the reading of cross-references and footnotes.
  • There are a variety of methods to read the texts for spiritual growth.  Most popular today are Lectio Divina and an imaginative read of the texts using an Ignatian approach.

Can I write in the Bible and underline or highlight it?

  • If the Bible belongs to you, yes, you can use it for this kind of personal prayer and study.
  • If the Bible belongs to the parish or to someone else, do not write in it or highlight.
  • No Bible, Lectionary or Book of the Gospels used for public prayer should ever be written in or highlighted.

Lectionary Specifics

Is there just one Lectionary?

  • The Lectionary is the name given to the texts used for liturgical celebrations.  So in that sense, yes, there is just one Lectionary.
  • However, publishers have created Lectionaries that contain all three years in one book and they have created books that contain just one Year.  In that sense, there is more than one lectionary.
  • There is also a Revised Common Lectionary/the Common Lectionary that is in use in Protestant worship.  It is patterned after the Roman Catholic Lectionary and its lections are often the same as those used in the Roman Lectionary.  Through this Lectionary, there is increasing unity among Catholics and those Protestant denominations that use it.

What’s the difference between the Lectionary and the Book of the Gospels?

  • The Lectionary contains texts from the Old Testament, the Psalms and the Epistles, with some additions from Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation.  Some versions of the Lectionary will also contain Gospel readings.
  • The Book of the Gospels contains the liturgical ordering of Gospel selections intended for proclamation during liturgies.  It can be processed in the Entrance Procession, thus giving the honor due to the most important Scripture text we hear each week.  It can also be enthroned prior to the celebration beginning. Clarity and uniformity around this came about in 2002 with revisions to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (117). The Book of the Gospels is also rightly enthroned on the altar or on a stand created for that purpose, to further give outward sign of our reverence for the Word most specifically about Jesus, the Christ.  It is a sign and symbol of Christ’s active presence in the proclamation of the Word of God.

How is the Lectionary organized?

  • There are two sets of responses to this question.  The first response has to do with the foundational organizational principles that undergird the Lectionary.  The Lectionary is organized in the following foundational ways:
  • To reveal the Paschal Mystery.  The focal point of the whole Lectionary is Jesus Christ.  According to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (#5), further, the Lectionary seeks to reveal His passion, death, resurrection and ascension.  All the texts in the Lectionary, no matter from what part of the Bible they are taken, are then organized to reveal Jesus and the Paschal Mystery.
  • To reveal the Church Year, in order of the importance of the celebrations.  The Temporal Cycle is the section of the Lectionary with which we are most familiar. It contains the readings for Sundays and weekdays throughout the Church Year.  Since Sunday is the most important day of the week, the most important biblical texts are assigned to Sundays.  Likewise, since Easter is the most important celebration of the Christian year, it receives six Sundays worth of readings, plus Pentecost and Trinity Sundays and six Sundays of Lent to prepare.  This is followed by Christmas, which has the four Sundays of Advent to prepare and four Sundays after Christmas that continue the season.  Ordinary time (so-called because the Sundays are ordinal…that is, numbered) follows in terms of importance.
  • To help us encounter the biblical texts as they fit the various Church seasons.  This is called lectio electa, which means choosing texts to suit a theme.
  • To help us encounter semi-continuous readings of some of the books of the Bible.  This is called lectio semicontinua¸ and seeks to help us read fairly continuously through a book of the Bible on contiguous Sundays.
  • To provide readings of suitable length and comprehension for the community’s public worship.  The Lectionary organizers realized that some texts are too lengthy or too difficult (as in requiring previous knowledge, the ability to connect them to other stories, and/or to have a working knowledge of the culture and practices of the time) for worship and so they were not included.
  • The Lectionary is also organized according to Years (a three year cycle, entitled Year A, Year B and Year C), Church seasons, and special occasions.  It is also organized for Sunday use and separately in a two year cycle for weekday liturgical use.  Further, each Sunday’s Lectionary text are organized within the book itself in the order in which they are proclaimed during liturgy: Old Testament/Acts of the Apostles; Psalm; Epistle and Gospel.  “Setting the Lectionary” is moving the marking ribbon to the correct Sunday or Special Occasion Mass.

Want to learn more?

Online course through the University of Dayton on Bible Basics.  Our Diocese partners with Dayton so courses are less than $50.00.  Go to:

The text for the online course: The Bible Blueprint: A Catholic’s Guide to Understanding and Embracing God’s Word by Joe Paprocki

Biblical Literacy Made Easy: A Practical Guide for Catechists, Teachers and Youth Ministers by Brian Singer-Towns

Online resource for Bible Basics:

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston has basic information on the Bible on their website:

An overview of Salvation History audio lecture and PowerPoint™.  Goes through the covenants God has made with humanity, with clever drawings.  Free download of a PDF with the basics also available.  Lecturer is Dr. John Bergsma.  Takes 40 minutes to listen to.

Birge, Mary Katherine; Henning, Brian G.; Stoicoiu, Rodica M.M.; and Taylor, Ryan.  Genesis Evolution and the Search for Reasoned Faith.  Anselm Academic.

Schuller, Eileen.  “The Bible in the Lectionary” in Catholic Study Bible.  Donald Senior, General Editor.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1990.

Updated: October 18, 2013 — 8:23 pm

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