Tag Archive for: Bible

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.


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.

From “No Bible” to “Know Bible” Part 6: Living the Story

Editors Note: From “No Bible” to “Know Bible” is a 6-part series on the path toward great Bible engagement. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

What does it mean to receive the Bible on its own terms? Dynamic, living Bible engagement happens when a community:

  • has good access to a well-translated text presented in its natural literary forms,
  • regularly feasts together on whole literary units understood in context,
  • understands the overall story of the Bible as centered in Jesus, and
  • accepts the invitation to take up its own role in God’s ongoing drama of restoration through
    the power of the Spirit.

When the Scriptures are received on their own terms like this they can once again become God’s speech act—instructing, revealing, convicting, judging, comforting, healing, and saving with all their intended power

Part 6: The Bible’s Endgame For Us: Living the Story

The first answer to the question What are we supposed to do with the Bible? is to read it well. For this to happen, it’s essential that we go there—into the world of the Bible. Reading big and reading whole will open up this strange new world of the Bible for us. We will have the opportunity to begin receiving the Bible on its own terms. We will read the Bible in all of its contexts—literary, canonical, historical, cultural—and we will read the Bible as God’s great story of the world. Clearly, this is what God had in mind when he decided to give us the kind of Bible he did.

The second answer to our central question, however, has to do with coming back again into our own lives in this present world. The point of the Bible must never be only about then. It must also be about now.

The Bible still speaks a living word for us, in our own time and place and situation.

But how? This is precisely where so many modern strategies for getting meaning from the Bible fall down, and fall badly. Fragmentary ways of reading (or maybe using, since they’re not really based on reading) lead to a fragmentary Bible, unable to do its main work of transforming lives. Reading the Bible as if it is speaking directly to us, as if it is not historical, cannot be the answer. Rather, the answer is in the story.

Or better, into the story.

Yes, that’s what the Bible is trying to do. The way we can most honor the Bible is by living its story in our own lives. In fact, we could say it’s actually the other way around. The Bible wants us to see our own lives as little parts of its own bigger, grander story. The Bible wants us to enter into this judging-then-restoring narrative and work alongside God in his new creation project in our time.

Our job is to know the backstory of God’s decisive work inside and out so we can appropriately improvise it on our own stage

The Scriptures have a saving trajectory—through the world-transforming work of Messiah Jesus—reaching beyond the pages of the Bible into our time and place and beyond. Our job is to know the backstory of God’s decisive work inside and out so we can appropriately improvise it on our own stage.

Really? Improvise? Yes, improvise.

The Bible is not trying to be an instruction book speaking directly to every situation we encounter in our lives, telling us exactly what to do. The Bible tells us what God has already been doing in the world, preeminently in the life and ministry of Jesus. The more deeply we know this story, the more clearly we will know how to bring this story to life in our world today with our 21st century problems and questions. It’s true that history changes, but it’s also true that a lot of things in our human condition stay the same. Sometimes we face challenges similar to those of God’s people in the Scriptures, and we can learn directly from what God told them and how they responded.

But overall, the Bible is not trying to be an answer book. The Bible is a story telling us that we can step into it as a living drama. We can activate the Bible in our own lives by performing it, enacting it anew, as God continues to bring his salvation into our world. Story invites our understanding and insight, while drama invites our faithful action.

So knowledgeably with God’s Scriptures, powerfully with God’s Spirit, prayerfully with God’s help, and together with God’s people, we can discern how to live out the story of God’s redemption. We can live a robust and active Christian life as a work of art, looking for ways to fittingly and faithfully continue the narrative of God’s restoration of the world. We can give beauty back to beauty’s Creator.

The final step of deep Bible engagement is found in discovering the Bible as this drama. We must begin to embody the story. To live it out so others can see our biblical performance and be drawn into its light. This is why it’s so devastating when God’s people perform the story badly. Those watching us are repulsed rather than attracted to the Bible and to the God found within the Bible.

Biblical performance matters. The skill of our biblical improvisation matters.

We of course cannot even begin to enact this story today if we are only barely familiar with the story that’s gone before. Immersion in the Bible is the only way we’ll be able to pull off fresh new extensions of God’s grand narrative in front of this watching world.

Immersion, leading to improvisation. A Bible well played. This is the endgame of engagement with God’s holy Scriptures.

For further reading, see: Scripture and the Authority of God by N. T. Wright; Improvisation by Samuel Wells; and Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer

Saddleback Small Group Loves Immerse

Chris Chapman has been practicing law in Southern California for well over a decade. Recently he created Chapman Sports and Entertainment—a full service sports and marketing agency where Chris is a certified agent with both the NFL and NBA. When I talked to him this week, he was on his way to the Pacific Northwest to scout out two college football players for the NFL.

Chris grew up in pastor’s home in Texas and attends Saddleback Church but had never read the New Testament. So when his small group leader at Saddleback Church recommended the group read through Immerse: Messiah, Chris jumped at the chance.

Tell me about your experience with the Bible before Immerse.
Reading the Bible, especially the New Testament, has always been on my bucket list, but when I tried to read I found it cumbersome and overwhelming. I think part of the problem was that I was reading from an older Bible that I got from church when I was a kid. I even downloaded a Bible app thinking that would help, but I found that overwhelming as well.

So how was your experience reading Immerse: Messiah?
Honestly I was a little intimidated at first. I’m not a big reader—I kind of got burned out reading so much in law school. But I was surprised at how easily Immerse read. I liked the layout, and the more contemporary language of the NLT* really helped—although at first I kept going back to my original Bible to make sure Immerse was getting it right. [Author’s note: This is what lawyers do—right?]

As a busy lawyer who’s in court a lot, were you able to keep up with the reading?
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. I figured I was reading two to three hours a week. The book introductions are brilliant and helped me understand the cultural background and helped put everything in context for the reader.

How important was it that you read Immerse: Messiah with your group?
The group experience was critical. Even though I was enjoying the reading, I’m not sure I’d have kept reading without the group motivation. 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.

What were your group conversations like?
The discussions were great! People caught things that I’d missed and vice versa. A number of times we recalled that Pastor Rick had preached on this before, but now we were seeing it as part of the whole. We actually had one of Saddleback’s pastors in our group, and occasionally we’d pick his brain about something we didn’t understand, but because we’d all read about fifty pages that week, everyone had a lot to contribute.

Where do you go from here with the Bible?
I ordered copies of Immerse and sent them to members of my family. And I’m excited that Immerse: Messiah has come out in Spanish! We have relatives in Mexico and want to send them copies as well. Also, as my sports agency grows, I hope to share Immerse with the athletes I’m working with. I don’t want to cram anything down their throats, but I hope to give them a copy when the time is right.

As a group, we’re talking about starting Beginnings. I definitely want to read the Old Testament.

*This is a typical response for people who read the NLT for the first time. Another person said to me: “With the NLT, I spend more time understanding it and less time trying to understand it.”

From “No Bible” to “Know Bible” Part 5: The Story of God and Us

Editors Note: From “No Bible” to “Know Bible” is a 6-part series on the path toward great Bible engagement. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

What does it mean to receive the Bible on its own terms? Dynamic, living Bible engagement happens when a community:

  • has good access to a well-translated text presented in its natural literary forms,
  • regularly feasts together on whole literary units understood in context,
  • understands the overall story of the Bible as centered in Jesus, and
  • accepts the invitation to take up its own role in God’s ongoing drama of restoration through
    the power of the Spirit.

When the Scriptures are received on their own terms like this they can once again become God’s speech act—instructing, revealing, convicting, judging, comforting, healing, and saving with all their intended power

Part 5: The Heart of the Matter—The Story of God and Us

We’ve been proposing that there are several steps to reaching the goal of great Bible engagement. Everything from the physical presentation to the reading of whole books, and from experiencing the Bible in community to taking note of the Bible’s various contexts. But here’s the single biggest factor: reading the Bible as the grand adventure God made it to be.

All those books in the Bible come together to narrate the world. In concert, they take us through all those ups and downs—big moves forward and devastating setbacks and losses—to disclose the big shape of the story. We learn the beauty and glory of God’s intention in creation, the failure and darkness of human rebellion, and then the long, slow road back to the redemption and flourishing of God’s entire creation.

There are of course lots and lots of messages, big and small, throughout the Bible. We can learn particular truths about all kinds of things—from the proper worship of God to getting along with our neighbors. But overall, the Bible has one exceedingly great goal: to tell us how things are with God and his world.

More than anything else, the Bible is a story.

This has all kinds of implications.

Jesus was once questioned by an expert in the law about what must be done to gain a share in the world to come. Jesus answered the question with one of his own: “What does the Law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

That indeed is the question for us too: How do you read it?

Jesus is teaching us something crucial about the Scriptures right here. The Bible is not some collection of words that simply jump off the page and communicate by themselves. We have to read and interpret them. And we have to read and interpret them well for them to do their proper work in us. Jesus’ question implies there are options.

Unfortunately, many of our current options for reading and interpreting fail to provide the full and compelling meaning the Bible is offering. Too often the Bible is treated in a piecemeal fashion, as if it were a handy reference book for looking up short, infallible answers to all our questions.

We don’t live in information — even good, inspiring, encouraging, or wise information. We always and invariably think of our lives as individual stories within some bigger, overall story.

But there’s a better way: big reading leads to big meaning. Because God created our world and always intended to interact with us as significant actors within it, the revelation in the Bible moves along with God’s people. If the Bible wants to enter human history as part of God’s mission to transform that history, then it has no choice but to be story. Because story is where we live. We don’t live in information — even good, inspiring, encouraging, or wise information. We always and invariably think of our lives as individual stories within some bigger, overall story.

So the Bible enters the fray of all the competing narratives that are trying to tell us they are the true story of the world. These narratives are actively trying to recruit us every day. Nationalist. Consumerist. Narcissist. Pantheist. There are would-be Master Narratives everywhere. If we don’t read and know the Bible’s story of the world, then we will end up reading the Bible for little snippets of information and bits of spiritual wisdom that we then fit into another controlling narrative that we get from somewhere else.

This is why the centerpiece of our recovery of the Bible is the recovery of the Bible as story. The piecemeal Bible fails to capture imaginations because it is simply too small. This is certainly part of the reason why fewer people, especially fewer younger people, are engaging with the Bible.

The upward journey from a minimalist Bible to being immersed in God’s full revelation takes us from bits to full books then all the way to God’s beautiful saga of world transformation. It is precisely as this surprising and redemptive story that the Bible comes into its own to confront, judge, forgive, save, and restore.

This is the Bible God intends for us. A Bible we know deeply. A Bible filled with people and covenants, with dramatic scenes, rising and falling action, and major movements that all fit into a plot that is taking us somewhere. To know the Bible is to know all these smaller stories that fit into the Story.

This, then, is our itinerary: as we continually feast on whole books, the Story will emerge with greater and greater clarity. And with clarity comes both understanding and invitation. We will begin to understand what God is doing, and then the Bible’s endgame for us will emerge. We will be invited to join him.

Continue to Part 6: Living The Story

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: