How Did We Get the Bible’s Book Order? And Can We Change It?

Not many of us think about it very often, but the Bible is a library of books, which means it can of course be put together in different ways. We’re all used to a particular order, but it’s interesting to note that this common order only became standardized in the early modern period. The printing press helped “freeze” the order we’re most familiar with. Before this, in the era of hand-made copies, there was more variety in the order of the books. And it’s not like any particular order was inspired by God. The early variety of book orders should make that clear.

So how should the Bible’s 59 books be put together? Is one way better than another? (By the way, we get 59 rather than 66 because some of the original books like Samuel-Kings were later divided into parts, mostly because of how much text could fit on an ancient papyrus scroll.)

A Short History of Building the Bible

When considering the order of books in the Bible, it’s probably best to start by thinking in terms of groups of books rather than simply individual books. And it’s crucial to think in terms of a longer-term process, not simply a moment in time when everything was decided at once.

Early on, the books in the Hebrew Bible (the Old or First Testament) were gathered into three groups: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Besides the five books in the Torah, which were always listed in the same order, the other groups had their books in different orders at different times and different places.

In the centuries before the coming of Jesus, the First Testament was translated into Greek because by then many Jews were dispersed and living in places outside of Palestine. This translation, known as the Septuagint, is different from the Hebrew Bible in several ways, including its arrangement of the book order. The new categories of books were Law, History, Wisdom (or Poetry), and Prophets. Since the Septuagint was the Bible of the early church, this new order was carried over into Christian Bibles as they (slowly) began to come together.

When we turn our attention to the New Testament, again it’s best to keep thinking in terms of groups of books, and then the order of books within them. Here, the four Gospels were gathered into a group (and Luke was separated from Acts), the letters of Paul formed another group, and then the general letters were another group. The Gospels themselves would appear in many varied orders. Revelation, interestingly, would often show up in different places among the other groups. The book of Acts could be placed with the Gospels, and other times before or after Paul’s letters. Hebrews would also jump around, though often it was assigned to Paul and placed with his letters.

Some of this variety of book order was tied to the preferences of churches in different geographical locations. Sometimes it looks like there was an attempted chronological order, and sometimes it was just putting books in order by size. For instance, Paul’s letters were typically in order from largest to smallest.

The key point is that there was a lot of diversity in the Bible’s book order historically, with people feeling free to move things around based on a variety of reasons. Once we realize that the Bible has been entrusted to our care, and that historically the church felt free to put it together in divergent ways, we can be intentional about thinking through what book order might best serve our needs today.

How We Built the Immerse Bible

The Institute for Bible Reading’s new edition of Immerse: The Reading Bible has been intentionally built to make big reading easier and better. If you’re going to read through a big part of the Bible continuously, that’s when the book order especially matters.

Overall, Immerse presents the Bible in six volumes (each volume will eventually have an 8-week church reading program built around it). We begin by generally following the older Hebrew grouping, rather than the later Septuagint order followed in most Bibles today. Beginnings is simply the original Torah, in the usual order. Kingdoms is the next set of historical books—Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, with Samuel–Kings reunified (the four books called “Reigns” in Eastern tradition).

Next up is the Prophets, but this time placed in a more chronological order (rather than sized by major and minor prophets), so they can be read as an ongoing commentary on Israel’s history. The Poets volume follows, and is broken down into two further categories: song books (Psalms, Lamentations, Song of Songs) and wisdom books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job). With books like these, literary genre makes more sense as an organizing principle than chronology.

The last volume in the First Testament is called Chronicles, since it largely gives an account of Israel’s history from a later perspective than Samuel–Kings. The traditional books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are recombined (notice how even in Bibles today the ending of 2 Chronicles overlaps with the beginning of Ezra, showing how they were stitched together). The books reflecting a later historical situation, Esther and Daniel, close out the First Testament.

In the New Testament volume Messiah, we’ve done something a little more creative. In the common book order, the four Gospels are smushed (a technical term in biblical studies) together at the beginning. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, right in a row. But if you’re reading straight through, by the time you get to Luke it’s all starting to sound the same. So we’ve taken the four Gospels and spread them out, putting each Gospel with other New Testament books that naturally fit with it.

Luke–Acts is happily reunited, and then followed by the letters of Luke’s traveling companion, Paul. Paul’s epistles are now placed in the order he likely wrote them, allowing the reader to follow the development of his thought over time. Next up is the short and early Gospel of Mark, and given Peter’s historical connection to Mark, his letters come immediately after. The strongly Jewish Gospel of Matthew follows, alongside its natural partners, Hebrews and James. John is last, joined with the three letters of John. And Revelation closes out the New Testament, allowing each Testament to end with an apocalyptic writing.

The end result is a fourfold New Testament presenting a fresh, multi-faceted perspective on the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah, and its impact spreading throughout the world.

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There is no single right order for the books of the Bible. But once we realize this, it’s worth exploring together what order serves our needs well in this time and place.

2017 Reflections, Looking Ahead to 2018

To our friends and advocates,

Thank you for your support and interest in the Bible Reading Movement. As we move into 2018, we are full of gratitude for God’s favor on 2017, our first year of work at full capacity. People around the world are struggling to read and embrace the Bible. We are pioneering a movement through research, education, and resources that reshape the way they read, so they can become immersed in the Bible’s life-transforming story. This past year has been a great encouragement to us as we’ve seen the Bible come alive to numerous people, perhaps for the first time.

For example, read Chris Chapman’s reflections about Immerse: The Bible Reading Experience after reading through the New Testament with a small group from Saddleback Church:

“Honestly, once I got started reading, it was hard for me to stop.  I’d take it to the office with me, and I actually ended up getting ahead of the 8-week reading schedule.  I was surprised at how easy it was.

The group experience was critical.  I really wanted to engage in the conversations when we got together, so the group really kept me on task.  The book club approach was also helpful.  I’m not looking for more work!  So I’d just read and show up. The discussions were great! People caught things that I’d missed and vice versa, but because we’d all read about fifty pages that week, everyone had a lot to contribute.”

We’re quickly finding that our research is being confirmed – people are ready for a fresh experience with the Bible. With Immerse now there is potential for entire denominations to embrace a new Bible reading rhythm together. In June, the Evangelical Covenant Church introduced Immerse as their official Bible reading program! Here is what Michelle Sanchez, Executive Minister of Make and Deepen Disciples, had to say:

“Our first Covenant affirmation is the centrality of the Word of God – and central to our life and faith it is! As “People of the Book,” we have a long tradition of valuing deep engagement with the whole Bible. We are pleased to introduce the pathway of Immerse: The Covenant Bible Reading Experience in partnership with Tyndale House Publishers and the newly-formed Institute for Bible Reading. This dynamic resource will allow for a congregation to read through the entire Bible together in community over the course of three years. We encourage every Covenant congregation to continue deep, daily engagement with the Word of God – the best discipleship tool there is.”

The Institute for Bible Reading is uncommonly focused on using research, education, and the creation of resources to help people read the Bible well.  We are grateful for advances in 2017:

  • Research – In early 2018, we will publish the results of an initial survey of clergy about their congregations’ Bible reading habits. We listen carefully to both the scholars and the clergy as we develop strategies and resources to help people read and live the Bible well.
  • Education –This past year, we were grateful for many opportunities to share our point of view on Bible engagement. Our team was featured in Bible Gateway, Christianity Today, Outreach, ChurchLeaders.com, and Premier Christianity UK, among others. And there were multiple speaking/training opportunities at ministries like Summit Ministries, Brooklyn Tabernacle, the Q Conference, and Missio Alliance.
  • Resources – Much of 2017 was spent developing resources for Immerse. As we closed the year, Tyndale House Publishers sent the final two volumes of Immerse: The Reading Bible to the printer. This six-volume “reading Bible” available in English and Spanish anchors our signature program, which is reshaping how congregations read the Bible. Along with a free audio edition and free downloadable guides, Immerse is fueling a fresh Bible Reading Movement all across North America and beyond.

As we head into 2018, we are encouraged with our momentum but also aware of challenges and aspirations. This coming year, we hope to host scholars and clergy forums again, after a hiatus while we focused on developing Immerse. We hope to build capacity to fulfill a growing list of invitations to speak and provide training about deep Bible engagement. And we hope to engage in more research about how reading the Bible well enables the church to live the Bible well. Finally, we want to leverage Immerse across North America and then move into more international languages beyond Spanish.

We are grateful for all the support and advocacy of kindred spirits whose imaginations are sparked by joining us in pioneering a Bible Reading Movement. Thank you for all of your prayers and support as we head into 2018. We can’t do this work without you!

What We’re Reading: December 2017

From time to time we’ll share some of the interesting and thought-provoking content from around the Internet that we come across during our work. Enjoy!

*Note: Sharing doesn’t necessarily imply 100% agreement with the article or endorsement of the author.

Don’t Just Read Alone by Brian J. Wright
In this article, Wright (author of Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus) explores the central role communal reading and discussion had within the ancient communities of the Bible. From Exodus to Nehemiah to Acts to Colossians, the people of God came together to read, hear, discuss, and be transformed together by his Word. Wright encourages us to reclaim this practice with our brothers and sisters in Christ, bringing the Bible (and other Christian literature) to the center of our circles to be read together.


Fuller Magazine Issue #8: Reading Scripture Globally by Fuller Seminary
This whole issue of Fuller Magazine is chock-full of good stuff. We especially appreciated the half-dozen articles that explored reading the Bible within other cultural contexts. How might an Ethiopian read the story of Philip and the eunuch? How might a Peruvian read the Gospel of Mark? These essays were a helpful reminder of the Western and American theological bubble we can sometimes inadvertently find ourselves in, and the incredible value found in reading the Scriptures together with people from different backgrounds.


Kingdom Roots Podcast with Scot McKnight: How to Teach the Church to Read the Bible (Part 1 and 2)
In this two-part podcast, Northern Seminary New Testament Professor Scot McKnight fields questions from listeners about how to help congregations read and understand the Bible without necessarily requiring them to become Bible scholars. Scot touches on a number of topics including Biblical narrative, historical context, recommended reading to help people understand Scripture, and more. Oh, and Immerse gets mentioned during one of the podcasts as well! Have a listen below:

Our Interview with Christianity Today on the Museum of the Bible

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the Museum of the Bible, which opens on November 17 in the heart of Washington, DC. The 430,000-square-foot space three blocks south of the Capitol building will be a sight to behold, boasting technological spectacles like a 140-foot overhead LED screen, a performing arts theater with 17 4K resolution projectors, handheld touchscreen “digital docents,” augmented reality games for kids, and more.

The 140-ft LED ceiling displays 5 different scenes (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Christianity Today’s November cover story is on the forthcoming opening of the museum, so they reached out to us and hosted Glenn Paauw on their “Quick to Listen” podcast with assistant editor Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen. They unpack what it means to have a Museum of the Bible, what it means to engage the Bible, and what role our experiences with the Bible play in our understanding of God’s Word.

Check out Glenn’s interview with CT and let us know what you think.

 

Media Favorites 2017

Over the course of the year, IFBR staff have had the opportunity to be featured in a number of different media outlets. So we gathered together a few interviews and articles from 2017 (so far) that we feel best reflect our mission, philosophy, and vision for the Bible Reading Movement.

If you’d like to set up an interview or have us write for you, contact us to set something up.

ChurchLeaders.com Podcast

Glenn Paauw and Paul Caminiti joined Jason Daye at ChurchLeaders.com to talk about the current epidemic of Biblical illiteracy, and how tracing the problems back to their roots 500 years ago can help us create solutions for our churches today.

Interview with the Bible Buying Guide

Randy Brown at the Bible Buying Guide published a comprehensive interview with Glenn Paauw in which they discuss the Institute for Bible Reading and our work to pioneer a Bible Reading Movement. They talk at length about the importance of form and design in our Bibles, and how Immerse reflects many of the changes that are necessary for a great Bible reading experience. If you you want an in-depth look at IFBR and our work, this 4000+ word interview is a great resource.

Backstage at Q Nashville

Paul Caminiti was interviewed during this year’s Q conference in Nashville. He shares IFBR’s story and talks about how we’re working for a better future for the Bible.

Premier Christianity Magazine Article

Glenn Paauw wrote an article for UK magazine Premier Christianity about how snacking on “Scripture McNuggets” is a misuse of the Bible. He then lays out a series of steps we can take to receive the Bible on its own terms and recover deep Bible engagement.