Posted by: liturgicalyear | October 8, 2011

Teaching Bible Literacy to Catholics: Young and Old

This lesson introduces the Bible at a deeper level of understanding. The Bible is the Church’s sanctioned text that reveals to us Salvation History based on the inspired Word of God. It has a precise structure and history, and it is a set of texts that must be approached appropriately. Learn how to teach the Bible’s structure clearly to students, and enjoy the many activities outlined throughout this article.

Play with the Numbers:

Old Testament

Our Jewish brothers in the faith recognize only 39 books of the Bible, which they identify as the Hebrew Scriptures. Catholics recognize another set of texts, called the Deuterocanonical Books (see list below). Ask the students to do the math – 45 books of, what Catholics identify as, the Old Testament.

  • The Torah (or Pentateuch): 1st 5 books — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This tells the story of Creation and the Fall, the establishment of the Covenant with Abraham, Noah and Moses, and takes the history of the Jewish people through the Exodus and 40 years wandering in the desert, to their arrival in the Promised Land.
  • Historical Books: 16 books in all (see list below). These tell the story of the Jewish people, from Joshua’s conquest through the trials faced in trying to live out the Covenant. This covers an enormous span of history: 1020 B.C. to around 142 B.C.
  • Wisdom Books: 8 books in all (see list below). These often personify wisdom, and approach the topic from a variety of angles. Highlight here are the 150 Psalms of David, which are a collection of song lyrics composed over 500 years: songs of praise, thanksgiving, lamentation, and odes to the kings.
  • Prophets: Major (7)- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and David, 12 Minor prophets (see list below).
  • Note: These works often appear in more than one book, which explains the count.

Copy this comparative chart to show students differences between Old Testament “counts” of the Bible, comparing various Christian denominations and Jews.

New Testament – 4 Gospels + 22 Epistles + 1 Book of Revelation = 27 books total. The Gospels reveal eye-witness accounts to the life and teachings of Jesus. The Epistles trace the beginnings of the Church, through the accounts of Apostles, with St. Paul at the center. The Book of Revelation was revealed to St. John late in his life.

To explain these differences, use these guidelines to teach the students the process of understanding Scripture for Catholics.

Trace the History: How the Bible got to our hands

The Bible emerged out of the living tradition of the Church, in four stages:

1. The Oral Stage: Stories were passed from person-to-person. Activity: Play a game of “telephone,” where you whisper something in one student’s ear, and ask them to pass it along. Compare what you started with and what they ended with. Reinforce the problem of how the story changes over time.

2. The Written Stage: The Old Testament was written over a period of 900 years, and the New Testament was written over a period of some 50 years. The main way texts were copied was by individual scribes, often working together in a Scriptorium. Activity: Dictate a piece of Scripture that is about eight lines long, and compare what the students wrote.

3. The Canonization Stage: The Church has gathered together, first starting in 382 (Council of Rome) and ending in 1563 (Council of Trent) to confirm which books of the Bible were authentic.  It took nearly 1200 years to decide this. The Church preceded the Bible, and did not follow from one set text. This is important to understand in the next section of our discussion.

4. Translation Stage: There were no original copies of the Bible, but piece-meal scrolls of individual texts, many of which were lost to damage. In 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and the work of sorting authentic from inauthentic texts continues. The New American translation of the Bible was finished in 1970, but corrections to translations are on-going. The new prayers that will be added to the Mass, starting in Advent 2011, are examples of corrections in translation. We remain in the translation stage of the Bible.

Importance of Interpretation, in light of Tradition

Given the long process of sharing, gathering and authenticating Scripture, it is clear that the Bible stories have passed through many ears and hands, but have been preserved throughout the living tradition of the Church. As a result, God’s message to us through the Bible requires inspiration. Inspiration is not a self-generated act, but a God-generated process, whereby our awareness becomes enlightened with the help of the Holy Spirit.

For Catholics, interpreting the Bible in light of the Holy Spirit is not an individual process, but a corporate one. We do not approach the Bible simply at random. Instead, the Bible is presented in ordered parts to illuminate the fullness of understanding.  Teleology focuses on studying “the end” to which man is led by God. Our Church understands the Bible teleologically, reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and the New in light of the Old, such that the fullness of truth can be discovered.

This is why the Liturgy of the Word, both for daily and weekly Masses, features an ordered succession of Bible readings: Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel. Each part of the Bible is interpreted in light of the whole, which culminates in Jesus’ message.

For more information on how Catholics understand Bible interpretation, see Pope Benedict XVI on understanding Scripture in light of Tradition.

More activities:

  • Identify all the parts of the Bible. Have students used colored post-it notes to divide their Bible into Old and New Testament, and then consider showing them subcategories within each.
  • Teach the students how to find and create Bible reference numbers:

                                          Book of the Bible   Chapter number :  Verse number(s)

                Students can practice this in several ways: Have them close their eyes and find a random passage in the Bible. Have them identify the Bible “address,” and see if others can find the same passage. Also, assign them to search for parables in the Gospels, and share Bible “addresses” and information, so others can find these for themselves.

  • Use Kevin Vost’s masterful book, Memorize the Faith! You can copy diagrams from the book, and show students how they can memorize all the Books of the Bible, as well as important Catholic prayers and principles.

Catholics are often criticized by Protestants for not knowing the Bible. Remember that we read the Bible daily through Mass readings, but it is also vital to teach students the overall structure, history and method for understanding the Bible, so they can be Bible literate Christians.


More information:

List of Deuterocanonical Texts: Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther (Vulgate Esther 10:4-16:24)[20], Wisdom, Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, including the Letter of Jeremiah (Additions to Jeremiah in the Septuagint), Additions to Daniel: Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children (Vulgate Daniel 3:24-90), Susanna (Vulgate Daniel 13, Septuagint prologue), Bel and the Dragon (Vulgate Daniel 14, Septuagint epilogue), 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees

Historical Books: 6) Joshua: Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel,  1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles,

 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, TOBIT, JUDITH, Esther (longer version), 1 MACCABEES, 2 MACCABEES

Wisdom Books: Job, Psalms (150), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, WISDOM of Solomon,  SIRACH, a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus.

Prophets: Major – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, BARUCH (incl. LETTER of JER.), Ezekiel, Daniel, (14 chapters). Minor – Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi


  1. Barbara, thanks for a great lesson…and great reminder to me to work on my own Bible literacy! There is so much to know and try and understand!! 😉

    God bless!

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