Organizing the Bible
I’ve explained the basic organization of the Christian Bible and the special organization of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) used in Jewish circles. However, there is a final topic which I alluded to in my original post: the Deuterocanon/Apocrypha.
The Deuterocanonical books make discussing the organization of the Bible tricky, since they can be put several places, depending on the tradition and the specific Bible. They appear between the Old and New Testaments, after the New Testament, or woven into the Old Testament itself. Many Protestant Bibles don’t contain these books at all, though some (especially Anglican) Bibles do. Roman Catholic Bibles and Eastern Orthodox Bibles contain most of these books, but there is disagreement between them (and even between various Eastern Orthodox traditions like Greek, Russian, etc.) about which books should be included.
Why are there inconsistencies among Christian groups about which books belong in the Bible? And why these books, in particular? After all, nobody is still bickering about what to include in the New Testament. The process of canonizing these books may have been complex, but the reason why is actually quite simple: they appear in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint), though not the Hebrew version (the Masoretic text).
Many think the additional books in the Septuagint were originally written in Greek, while a few may have simply not survived in their Hebrew form. Either way, they were composed later in Jewish history, and since some decided there were no truly inspired Scriptures after the time of the Jewish exile, these later books became suspect. (It should be noted that a few Old Testament books may have been composed on the late side, as well, but because they discussed earlier periods, they were “safe.”) For this reason, soon after the time of Jesus, Jews decided these additional books did not belong in their canon. Christians kept them around for a while—though in various locations, various books were accepted.
They weren’t always given the same status as the books of the Old Testament, however. When most Christians spoke Greek—the language of both the New Testament and Septuagint—it was easy to simply accept the Septuagint’s canon. However, the church inevitably faced a decision about the inclusion of these books when the everyday language of the people switched to Latin and a new translation was needed.
Jerome, a Christian who translated the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) in the late fourth century CE, felt strongly that it was appropriate to translate the Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew manuscripts rather than the Septuagint. While he did use the Septuagint to translate the Deterocanonical books, as well, he added prefaces noting their special status. Throughout history a minority made a similar distinction, but because Jerome’s prefaces were left uncopied in many Latin Bible editions, a majority of people accepted the Apocrypha without question.
The real controversy over these books came with the Reformation, when Protestants decided these books should not be considered authoritative. This was partially because the Jews had already rejected them from their own canon, but the theological content of some of the books was also a factor. For example, parts of 2 Maccabees were traditionally used to support the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of prayers for the dead, which Reformers like Luther and Calvin thought were theological mistakes on the part of the Roman Catholic Church.
Protestants decided these questionable books should either be noted in the Bible as non-authoritative or they should be left out of it completely. Today, the latter is more common, though some Protestants acknowledge the usefulness of these books for understanding Second Temple period Judaism (the time between the construction of the second temple in 515 BCE and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE). Indeed, there are some interesting developments of Jewish thought evidenced in these books, such as reflections on “original sin,” discussion of angels and demons, and the hopes of the Jewish people for the awaited Messiah, as well as the resurrection of the dead. While I don’t consider the Deuterocanonical books to be Scripture and haven’t gotten to read them all yet, I look forward to incorporating them into my future study for this reason. It’s exciting to learn more about Judaism from around the time of Jesus and the role these books have played in shaping Christian thought in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the Hebrew Bible is organized differently than the Christian Old Testament. Instead of the Pentateuch, books of History, books of Wisdom, the Major Prophets, and the Minor Prophets, the traditional Jewish organization has only three major parts: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim.
Torah is often translated “law,” but it can also simply mean “guidance,” “teaching,” “instruction”—that sort of thing. Jews typically use the name Torah, while many Christians use Pentateuch, which comes from the Greek word for “five.” Both, however, contain the five books of the law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are sometimes called the books of Moses, because traditionally, Moses was taught to be the author. The books themselves, though, do not specify who wrote them and were probably compiled over time. They are the core of the Jewish faith because they tell the story of the beginning of the Jewish people, as well as listing important laws about how to worship God, set themselves apart from surrounding peoples, and treat one another fairly.
Nevi’im means “prophets,” but these books include more than just the “major prophets” and “minor prophets” of the Christian Bible. Some of the Christian Bible’s books of history also belong in this division: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. Notice, the books of Ruth, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are not included here, even though Christians include them in the “history” section. We will deal with them later! Also, there is no division of “1 & 2” for Samuel and Kings in the Hebrew Bible, but simply the book of Samuel and the book of Kings. Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are known as the “former prophets.”
Most of the major and minor prophets of the Christian Old Testament are sometimes called the “latter prophets” in the Hebrew Bible. These include the big books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as “the twelve,” which are shorter: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Notice that two of the other Christian major prophets are not included here: Lamentations and Daniel.
Lastly, there is the Ketuvim, meaning “writings.” These books include the wisdom books, but also the Christian “history” and “major prophets” books that we skipped earlier. First, there are three books of poetry: Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Next come the five megillot (“scrolls”), which were traditionally grouped together and are read by the Jewish community on special days throughout the year:
- Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), which is often read for Passover, though also at the beginning of each Sabbath in certain communities.
- Ruth, which is often read for Shavuot, a festival commemorating the giving of the Torah, as well as celebrating the wheat harvest, occurring 50 days after Passover and therefore also called “Pentecost” (from the Greek word for “five”).
- Lamentations, read on the Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av, a Jewish month), which commemorates the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Jewish temple.
- Ecclesiastes, which is read on Sukkot (the “festival of booths/tabernacles”) in some communities.
- Esther, which is read on Purim, the day celebrating Esther’s saving the Jews from genocide during the time of the Persian empire.
The last books of the Writings are not grouped together in a special way like these first two sets and include Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (grouped together!), and Chronicles (the Christian 1 & 2 Chronicles). The Writings are considered important Scripture, inspired by God like the Torah and Nevi’im, but most of its books were written later and included in the canon later than the Law and the Prophets.
This series is continued in Pt. 3.
I went to a lot of different schools growing up, but a large chunk of my early education was spent in Christian schools of one sort or another: Catholic, Wesleyan, and fundamentalist Baptist. I am not a big fan of most Christian schools, but there were a few advantages to such environments, one of them being my increased familiarity with various Bible-related things. At the fundamentalist Baptist school, for example, I had to memorize the order of all the books of the Bible, as well as their spelling. While obviously not as important as knowing the content and heart of the Bible’s message, as a teenager I was still a little surprised to first realize that many adults didn’t know these things I’d learned in middle school.
Whether or not you know where to turn to read Luke or Isaiah or Leviticus, however, really has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence. Instead, it reflects simple exposure to the Bible and the level of emphasis placed on learning such information—and precise memorization of book order is only marginally relevant, anyway, when you have a table of contents!
Still, I think it is helpful to have some general idea of what sorts of things come where in the Bible. Here, then, is a basic summary of the Protestant Bible’s contents:
The Old Testament/First Testament/Hebrew Bible
- Pentateuch/Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy)- The first five books of the Bible, containing the story of Israel’s beginning and the Jewish law.
- Historical Books (Joshua-Esther)- These books continue to tell the story of Israel via narrative.
- Wisdom Books (Job-Song of Songs, also called Song of Solomon)- There are a few different genres here (poetry, proverbs, etc.), but what holds it all together is the wisdom emphasis.
- Major Prophets (Isaiah-Daniel)- Books attributed to Israel’s prophets which are longer in length.
- Minor Prophets (Hosea-Malachi)- Books attributed to Israel’s prophets which are shorter in length.
The New Testament
- Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)- Four biographies of Jesus with a good deal of focus on his death and resurrection (though some teaching of Jesus remains in all).
- History (Acts)- This is really Luke, Part 2. The majority scholars accept that Luke and Acts have the same author writing to the same audience. (There is a dissenting minority, however.)
- Pauline Epistles (Romans-Philemon)- These are the epistles (letters) attributed to the apostle Paul, written to various churches under his care.
- General Epistles (Hebrews-Jude)- These are the epistles attributed to authors other than Paul, written to various churches.
- Apocalypse (Revelation, also called the Apocalypse of John)- There are some brief more personal letters to churches in Revelation, but a large part of it is based on a vision, expressed with lots of violent imagery, dualism, and other interesting literary devices. Revelation belongs to a genre called apocalyptic literature (apocalypse simply means “revelation”), which will have to be discussed another day.
If you’re less familiar with the Bible’s content and organization, I hope this list provides a starting point for your explorations of Christian Scripture. In future posts, I will try to give an overview of these various sections to give a sense of what all 66 books of the Bible have to offer.
Before that, though, it is important to note two things:
(1) Jews divide the Hebrew Bible differently than Christians divide the Old Testament, and hence, there is a different order to the same books. Personally, I’ve come to really appreciate the Jewish way of ordering things. But again, that’s for another post…
(2) Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians use all of these books, but they also include some other books in their Old Testament. These books are called the Apocrypha (from a Greek word meaning “hidden”) or Deutero-canonical books (also from Greek, meaning “second canon”). Since these books are considered Scripture for some Christians but not others, we will also deal with them separately.
This series is continued in Pt. 2.