Why Are the Books of the Bible in the Order They’re In?

Rhyme and Reason

There is a rhyme and reason to the arrangement of the books of the Bible. This is another distinctive of the biblical theology that Andreas Köstenberger and I wrote together. We pay close attention to biblical book order, for it is a nascent form of biblical theology. In other words, when books are placed together, in pairs or in clumps, by those who have read the Bible before us, this is indicating that these books belong together and this assists the proper interpretation of each book. These choices by earlier readers have shaped the very form of the Bible that we have inherited from their hands. It is likely, therefore, that the way we read and understand the Bible today is being shaped (consciously or unconsciously) by the way the Bible is presently arranged. It is important, then, that this be acknowledged and the ordering of the books be studied as one of the features that may assist an exploration of the theology of the Bible.

In Biblical Theology we offer a concise explanation of the factors at work in the ordering of the Bible books. The ordering of books may be due to a number of principles (e.g., their size, storyline thread, or similar themes). These principles need not be mutually exclusive, for there may be more than one possible principle reflected in a particular order. It is left to the Bible reader to surmise what rationale is at work in the ordering of the books and literary blocks. The arrangement of the books that make up the Old Testament varies between the Jewish and Christian communities who share it as Scripture. The Hebrew canon (adopted by the Jews) and the Greek canon (preserved by the Christian church) basically have the same books but not the same order in which books are placed. The aim is not to justify and promote a particular order of books, for the Hebrew and Greek ways ordering of the books of the Old Testament may each contain valuable insights. These alternatives should not be viewed as Jewish versus Christian. Most Christian readers do not realize that the modern Bible follows the pattern laid down by the early Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), nor do they know that the order of books in the New Testament is not exactly the same as in most early Greek manuscripts (e.g., Acts is never followed by Romans).

Biblical Theology

Andreas J. Köstenberger, Gregory Goswell

Biblical Theology provides an essential foundation for interpreting all 66 books of the Bible, identifying the central themes of each text and discussing its place in the overall storyline of Scripture.

Alternative canonical orders remind the reader that book order suggests different, but often compatible, ways of reading the same book. This means that one of the features to notice when studying a book is its position in the canon of the Old Testament or New Testament. In which canonical section is it placed? What are its canonical neighbors? Is it, for instance, among other prophetic books (e.g., the book of Daniel in modern Bibles), or in the midst of a wisdom grouping (e.g., the Psalms between Job and Proverbs)? When a book has more than one location in the Hebrew and Greek canonical traditions (e.g., Ruth, Daniel), it is wise to explore what possible light this may shed on its contents, for more than one key theme or genre may be present in the book, explaining its different locations. Daniel among the prophets puts a focus on the visions of Daniel 7–12, but when it is found with books like Esther and Ezra-Nehemiah (in the Hebrew Bible), this may serve to highlight the court tales of Daniel 1–6. Those studying the Bible can explore how neighboring books in the canon interact and behave as conversation partners, leading to a richer understanding of the meaning of the individual books (e.g. when Esther is put beside Daniel).

Old Testament Canon

An Old Testament canon ending with either Ezra-Nehemiah or Chronicles (as in the Hebrew Bible) shows that God’s purposes await completion, for both books look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom, and so both arrangements prepare for the culmination of salvation history plotted in the New Testament. In modern Bibles, the prophetic books close the Old Testament canon (following the ancient Greek arrangement), and this order of books suggests that the New Testament will describe the fulfillment of prophecy, which of course it does in the coming of Jesus Christ. In Biblical Theology, as Andreas Köstenberger and I work our way through the Bible, book-by-book, we allow that placement of a book to feed into our interpretation of its contents.

As I have been saying, proximity between books indicates that there is a significant connection between books. The reader should look for links of various kinds between neighboring books in the Greek Old Testament canon, for this arrangement has shaped the order of the books in the Bibles we use today. Historical sequence or storyline is the guiding principle of the ordering of the books in the Pentateuch and the Historical Books (Joshua to Esther). This may seem a natural or neutral principle of book order but it still has an influence on interpretation. For example, the position of the book of Ruth between Judges and Samuel suggests that Ruth, ending with a genealogy that culminates in David (Ruth 4:18–22), provides a theological undergirding for the house of David in the good purposes of God for his people. In other words, this canonical position of Ruth highlights the David connection that becomes explicit at the end of Ruth, and in the books of Samuel we discover the importance of David in salvation history (2 Samuel 7). The placement of Psalms alongside other wisdom books shows that some ancient readers viewed the Psalter in that light, namely as a book that teaches the wise way to think, speak (pray), and act. The placement of Chronicles after Kings has contributed to its comparative neglect, for it lives in the shadow of the better known and more often used book of Kings.

Let me give a few other examples. Proverbs next to Ecclesiastes and Job indicates that the three books are compatible in outlook, and we should not read Ecclesiastes or Job as contradicting what is taught in Proverbs. The fact that the books like Ruth and Daniel can be placed in quite different positions in the Hebrew Bible and Greek Old Testament shows that book order reflects perception of what a book is about. The positioning of a book due to thematic considerations means that alternative placements are possible on this basis, for any book is likely to have more than one theme. What this means for readers is that they should be open to looking at a Bible book from more than one perspective. Probably, the different generic character of the two halves of the book of Daniel (Dan.1–6, 7–12) explains its placement alongside other court tales with moral lessons (Hebrew Bible) and its alternate classification as prophecy (Septuagint). When a book is placed in alternative positions, this fact may assist the reader to notice features of the book that are sometimes underplayed, and so assist in refining interpretation.

New Testament Canon

Turning to the New Testament, the wide distribution of the Johannine writings (John is put alongside the Synoptic Gospels; the three little letters of John with other non-Pauline letters; Revelation is the last Bible book) assists in unifying the disparate contents of the canon and promotes a reading of the New Testament as a whole from a Johannine perspective with its high Christology of Jesus as the divine Son of God. The book of Revelation is given special prominence by putting it at the end of the canon. Its placement shows that it is the goal of a narrative trajectory of the preceding books, recapitulating their key themes. Together with the book of Genesis, Revelation forms an envelope around the Bible as a whole, bringing God’s saving purposes to a satisfying conclusion.

When considering the ordering of the books of the New Testament, the factor of genre dominates, resulting in the bringing together of the books that make up the four-Gospel collection (plus Acts) and the corpora of Pauline and non-Pauline Epistles (with Revelation). This shows that genre is the leading factor in the assemblage of New Testament canonical aggregations. However, a storyline thread also plays a part, so that the events of the life and ministry of Jesus are placed first (Gospels), then an account of the post-ascension spread of the message about Jesus (Acts), followed by letters addressed to churches that resulted from that proclamation (Letters), and completed by the final placement of Revelation that encourages a hermeneutic stressing its futuristic orientation. This arrangement shows the progressive fulfillment of God’s saving purposes, starting with the coming of Jesus.

In summary, the positioning of each book relative to other books in the canonical collection, whether in terms of the grouping in which it is placed or the books that follow or precede it, has hermeneutical significance for the reader who seeks meaning in the text. Since book order helps the reader to discover what the text is about, it feeds into a biblical theology that aims to be exegetically grounded.

Gregory Goswell is coauthor with Andreas J. Köstenberger of Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach.

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