The Canon of Scripture

Cathal Barry takes a look at the Church’s teaching on the Scriptures

It was by the apostolic Tradition, according to the Catechism, that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.

This complete list is called the Canon of Scripture. It includes 46 books for the Old Testament and 27 for the New Testament. 

The Old Testament is an indispensable part of Sacred Scripture. Its books are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value, for the Old Covenant has never been revoked.

Principal purpose

The Church teaches that the "principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom".

Admitting they contain matters "imperfect and provisional", the Catechism states that the books of the Old Testament bear witness to the whole divine pedagogy of God's saving love.

According to the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum: "These same books, then, give expression to a lively sense of God, contain a store of sublime teachings about God, sound wisdom about human life, and a wonderful treasury of prayers, and in them the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way. Christians should receive them with reverence."

The Church teaches that Christians venerate the Old Testament as the true Word of God. "The Church has always vigorously opposed the idea of rejecting the Old Testament under the pretext that the New has rendered it void," the Catechism says.

However, it also states that the Gospels "are the heart of all the Scriptures", because as Dei Verbum says, "they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our Saviour".


Church teaching distinguishes three stages in the formation of the Gospels:

the life and teaching of Jesus

the oral tradition

the written Gospels

Church teaching also advises Christians to read the New Testament in the light of the Old. As an old saying goes, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.

The Catechism maintains access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful and encourages them to come to know Christ through the Sacred Word. As St Jerome insisted; Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.