Isn’t it neat when a child learns to recite all 66 books of the Bible from memory? The look of accomplishment on that little face is exceeded only by the look of pride on the face of mom and dad. What makes this rite of passage possible is the fact that our modern Bibles print the Scriptures in a standard, fixed order. Yet most of us never think about the fact that this order is man-made. We also fail to realize that the way our Bibles arrange these books greatly affects how we read them.
Arranging the Scriptures
Ancient Jews tended to group the Scriptures into two categories, “The Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12); or three categories, “the Law and the Prophets and the other books” (Sirach prologue; cf. Luke 24:44). Jews were aware of the chronological order in which the books of their canon had been written (cf. Luke 11:50-51). But at a time when the Scriptures were available only in scroll format with nearly every book preserved on its own scroll, there was little reason for Jews to think of this corpus of writings having a certain order. It was only when multiple books began to be copied onto a single scroll, and particularly when all of the Scriptures were placed within a single codex (book form), that the concept of a set order for these books began to form in people’s minds.
Even so, there still was fluidity in the way the Scriptures were arranged. Jewish rabbis of the 2nd century standardized the three-part arrangement of the Scriptures. Hebrew manuscripts comprised The Law (the five books of Moses), The Prophets (the historical books followed by the Major and Minor Prophets), and The Writings (the Psalms, wisdom books, and remaining books). Jews of the Greek-speaking world relied upon the Septuagint version of the OT, as did most Christians. Codices of the Septuagint commonly placed the books of the Prophets at the end of the codex (in contrast to the practice of the rabbis), and the Minor Prophets sometimes preceded the Major Prophets. At times the Psalms and wisdom books came at the end. When Jerome produced his Latin translation of the OT (the Vulgate) in the late 4th century, he adopted the rabbinic custom of placing the Prophets immediately after the Law and historical books. But by the time the Vulgate became the official version of the medieval Church, the Prophets had been moved to the end of the OT.
The use of the codex also prompted Christians to assign an order to the NT books. Despite the fact that the Gospels were among the last NT books to be written, Christian codices usually placed them first because they recounted the life and ministry of Christ. Previously, Christians had not tended to speak of the four Gospels in any strict sequence. But as the Gospels began to be preserved in codex form, it became customary to arrange them according to a traditional understanding of their order of composition: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Often, the book of Acts did not immediately follow. It was standard procedure in Greek manuscripts to have Acts introduce the non-Pauline letters, so some codices placed Paul’s letters immediately after the Gospels and before Acts and the non-Pauline letters. The Vulgate followed this procedure too, forcing the writings of James, Peter, John and Jude to the end of the NT. In other codices, Paul’s letters came at the end. Regardless of where the Pauline writings appeared, they were usually arranged not according to chronological order, but according to length—from longest to shortest—as we have them now in our Bibles.
With the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, printed Bibles began to be published and the arrangement of Biblical books stabilized. The Gutenberg Bible reproduced the familiar order of the Vulgate, and subsequent Bibles followed suit (except that Acts was placed between the Gospels and Paul’s letters). By the time the King James Version appeared in 1611, the order of books in printed Bibles was virtually fixed. People now thought of the Scriptures as a single volume containing 66 books in a set sequence, from Genesis to Revelation.
There are Drawbacks
This fixed order has an obvious benefit; it allows Bible readers to quickly locate the particular book they want to read. But the arrangement of the books in our Bibles has negative aspects too. First of all, many novice readers tend to assume that the books of the Bible are arranged in the order they were written; but as we have seen, this is usually not the case. Or, readers may assume that the order of these books indicates the sequence in which they should be read—as if one were reading a book with 66 chapters. Most of the “Daily Bible Reading” schedules that people use today follow this pattern. But the Bible is not a single book with 66 chapters; it is a library of books. Their arrangement is man-made, and it is not necessarily the sequence in which they are most profitably read.
Another problem is that our Bibles divide up Samuel, Kings and Chronicles into two books each—as if, for example, 1 & 2 Samuel were two separate works. But 1 & 2 Samuel were composed as a single document; the same is true of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles. Each of these lengthy books had to be divided and placed on two scrolls when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the second century BC. The Greek language uses written vowel letters (unlike Hebrew), so a single scroll could not contain the entire Greek text of each book. Unfortunately, our modern Bibles continue this practice of dividing up these books. This makes it easy for people to think of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles as if each were two documents instead of one. Recently, I heard of a congregation conducting a Bible class specifically on 1 Samuel—while ignoring 2 Samuel. That would be like doing a study of the first half of Romans, and ignoring the second half!
Where books are located in our Bibles can affect our reading of them. The books of the Prophets, for instance, tend to be the most ignored books of the OT; most Christians do not read them very often. Could a reason for this neglect be the fact that our modern Bibles place the Prophets at the end of the OT? Our Bibles put the Minor Prophets last of all. Is it mere coincidence, then, that these twelve works are the most neglected of the prophetic books? I wonder whether Christians today might not be more familiar with the Prophets if our earliest printed Bibles had departed from the order of the Vulgate and, like the rabbinic manuscripts, placed the Prophets immediately after the Law and historical books.
Along the same line, does the fact that our Bibles place the writings of Paul immediately after the Gospels and Acts cause us to give more attention to his letters than those of the other apostles? As I mentioned above, many ancient codices placed Paul’s letters at the end of the NT. But our modern Bibles, following the arrangement of the Vulgate, place the non-Pauline letters at the back of the Bible. Does this placement cause us unconsciously to give less attention to the writings of Peter, James, John and Jude? I hope not. The apostle Paul was “not in the least inferior to the most eminent apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5)—but neither was he superior to any of them. The letters of the initial ambassadors of Christ are just as important as those of “the one untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8).
Other problems arise because of the way our Bibles arrange the four Gospels. The Gospels are grouped together according to a traditional understanding of their order of composition. This tradition, however, may not be entirely accurate. Also, the fact that Matthew’s Gospel is placed first may give readers the false impression that it is the most important of the four Gospels. Mark’s placement immediately after Matthew’s Gospel may make it appear that Mark is an abbreviation of Matthew, which is not the case at all.
Also problematic is the fact that our Bibles place the book of Acts after the Gospel of John. This means that Luke and Acts are separated—an unfortunate arrangement since it obscures the fact that they were composed as a two-volume set. Luke intended Acts to serve as a continuation of the historical record that his Gospel began (Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1). Therefore, much of the Gospel of Luke anticipates the information that is later recorded in Acts, and much of Acts harks back to what was previously said in Luke. Many modern readers miss all of this because of the way our Bibles position the Gospels and Acts. Church classes on the Gospel of Luke are common among us, as are classes on the book of Acts. But classes on Luke and Acts together are rare indeed. Many Christians never realize that these two documents were designed to be read together.
The next time you hear a child recite the books of the Bible, congratulate him. But as he grows older, teach him that these books of God were arranged in our Bibles by men. If we are not careful, this man-made arrangement can have an adverse effect upon the way we read the Scriptures.