My English Bible is Out of Order!

Several years ago, I listened to a series of lectures on biblical theology. (The transcriptions are available online). Three of those lectures covered the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible. The lecturer titled one of his sections in the first lecture “My Bible is Out of Order.” Essentially, he argued that the order of the books in his Hebrew Bible were the “original order,” the “final form,” and thus the one correct order. He used Scripture to show that Jesus himself held to the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible, and that his Bible ended with Chronicles. Thus, he concluded that we ought to order it in this way.

Is he right? Are our English Bibles out of order?

How would Jesus order them?

There are two Scriptural arguments to be made. One is an argument for the threefold division of the Old Testament, like in our Hebrew Bibles and Jewish Bibles today. The other is an argument that Chronicles is the last book of the Old Testament.

Jesus says in Luke 24:44, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (NIV). According to the argument, this refers to the three parts of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Prophets, and Writings, with Psalm as the first book of the Writings.

But the normal way to refer to the Scriptures in the New Testament is the “Law (Moses) and the Prophets” (cf. Matthew 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; 24:27; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 26:22; 28:23; Romans 3:21). There are no other references in the Bible to a third division of Writings, or Psalms. Those books would be considered among the Law and the Prophets.

So why is Luke 24:44 different? Why did Luke add “and Psalms” here when “the Law and the Prophets” would have sufficed? Why do the other twelve references omit the Psalms/Writings?

I think Jesus mentions the Psalms here because he is discussing Scripture that refers to himself. The Psalms, of course, especially speak about the future messiah, so Jesus is highlighting the Psalms especially. It both explains why Luke 24:44 is different from the other 12 passages that only mention the Law and the Prophets, and it makes a connection to the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible unnecessary.

The other Scriptural argument is from Luke 11:50-51. Jesus says, “Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary” (NIV). The argument is that Abel was martyred in Genesis, and Zechariah was martyred in Chronicles. Therefore, Jesus must have been referring to Genesis as the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and Chronicles as the last book of the Hebrew Bible.

Now, if you already had in mind that Chronicles is the last book, that makes this verse interesting in light of that canonical order. But if you didn’t already have a fixed canonical order in mind, it’s difficult to see why we should necessarily take this as a reference to canonical order at all. The most basic explanation is that Jesus is speaking chronologically. Abel is chronologically the first martyr in the Hebrew Bible, and Zechariah is chronologically the last martyr in the Hebrew Bible, so that’s why Jesus uses their names. There’s no reason to bring the canonical order into the discussion.

But even if we were to consider the canonical order, the placement of Chronicles in the Writings would not affect that Zechariah would be the last recorded martyrdom in the canon. The other books of the Writings record no martyrdoms. So you could have Chronicles placed first in the Writings, like in the Leningrad codex. Or you could even have the English Bible order and place Chronicles after Kings. It doesn’t matter. You’d have the same result: Zechariah is the last recorded martyrdom in the canon. Any way you slice it, chronologically or canonically, and in whatever canonical order, Zechariah is last. So even if Jesus had some other canonical order, it still would have made perfect sense to say “from Abel to Zechariah.” So this verse in no way proves that Chronicles was last in Jesus’ Hebrew Bible.

It’s still possible that Jesus was using a Hebrew Bible that used a threefold division, with Psalms at the beginning of the Writings, and Chronicles at the end. But I’m not persuaded Scripturally that this must be so, and that therefore we ought to use that order.

Manuscripts and the correct Bible order

In a previous post, we looked more in depth at Old Testament Book Order. We discovered that there was a lot of variety in the orderings of the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the Writings. Some manuscripts of the Writings began with Psalms. More of them began with Ruth. Some even began with Chronicles, including the Leningrad codex, upon which our Hebrew Bibles are based.

So whatever order of books Jesus might have been using, it didn’t stick. It wasn’t until we had printed Bibles in the 16th century and beyond that we began to have standardized orders.

The interesting thing is that the “final form” that the lecturer chose as the correct one is the order in his Hebrew Bible: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). But that order only became a standard in 1937, when it was used in Kittel’s third edition of Biblia Hebraica (BHK). It was created from the Leningrad codex order, but with Chronicles moved from the beginning of the Writings to the end of the Old Testament, and the rest stayed the same. So that order is very recent. (The lecturer mistakenly says that it is the same order as the JPS Hebrew Bibles, that is, the Jewish order, which dates to the second Rabbinic Bible in 1525).

Also, the BHS order won’t be the “final form” soon, because Biblica Hebraica Quinta (BHQ) will replace BHS. BHQ will use the Leningrad codex order, with Chronicles at the beginning of the Writings, and Ezra-Nehemiah concluding the Old Testament.

BHSBHQJPS

Psalms
Job
Proverbs
Chronicles
Psalms
Job
Proverbs

Psalms
Proverbs
Job
Ruth
Song of Songs
Ecclesiastes
Lamentations
Esther
Ruth
Song of Songs
Ecclesiastes
Lamentations
Esther
Song of Songs
Ruth
Lamentations
Ecclesiastes
Esther
Daniel
Ezra
Nehemiah
Chronicles
Daniel
Ezra
Nehemiah
Daniel
Ezra
Nehemiah
Chronicles
The order of the Writings in different Hebrew Bible editions

Canonical Order and Interpretation

Although there were many different arrangements of the Hebrew Bible, certain books tended to be grouped together, so the arrangements were not random. Even in the variety, there was some logic behind the ordering.

Some reasons for book order: Common authorship. Chronological order; either chronology of the events in the book, or chronology in terms of when the book was thought to have been written. Common genre. Common themes or purposes. Length, as Paul’s epistles are generally from longest to shortest. Then there’s also liturgical purposes. The five books of the Megilloth are ordered in the Jewish order according to the Jewish holidays.

I’m going to focus on common themes and purposes, as that is what the lecturer focused on to argue for a correct order. The placement of the books of the Bible affects how one reads the books. The lecturer groups the Writings under the heading “Covenant Life.” He notes that Ruth, like the Proverbs 31 woman, is called a “woman of valor.” Thus, Ruth should follow Proverbs because Proverbs 31 is about finding a good wife. Ruth is the illustration of finding a good wife, and the next book, Song of Songs, is about how to treat a good wife. He sees Lamentations, Esther and Daniel grouped together as books about how to live well in the exile. Then, he argues that Chronicles is placed after Ezra-Nehemiah to show that the return from exile is a failure.

Now, I’m not saying that these conclusions are necessarily wrong. Ruth was an exemplary wife who left her people to follow the God of Israel. I married a woman who had already left her home country to serve as a missionary, so I resonate with that. But I think that the books of the Bible are so rich, and diverse, and complement the other books of the Bible so well, that I don’t think we do them justice by limiting their purposes based on where they are correctly placed in the canon.

The book of Ruth is more than simply an illustration of a godly wife. It is about God’s faithfulness to the widow Naomi as well, leading to the birth of David, and ultimately the messiah. Chronologically, it fits in very well between Judges and Samuel, because you have both the period of the judges mentioned at the beginning, and David mentioned at the end. And in terms of genre, it’s probably closer to Esther and Daniel, as a short story of faithfulness rewarded by God.

The same could be said for other books as well. Daniel defies any easy categorization. It could be grouped with Esther in terms of chronology and genre, but those apocalyptic prophetic sections really fit more the other prophetic books.

So, for myself, between the diversity of book orderings that we see throughout history with no consensus, the lack of biblical evidence for a particular order, and the tendency for particular Bible orderings to dictate a particular way of interpreting a book, I don’t think there is just one correct order. In fact, I think it’s better that we don’t have to a correct order. I think we can miss out on the richness of the individual books of Scripture, and the rich variety of ways that the books can be tied together by theme, or chronology, or genre.

So what order should we read the Bible in?

That’s a great question. And there are a variety of answers. There are many, many different Bible reading plans out there. Most of them don’t strictly follow the English Bible order. Many of them are chronological. Many of them have both Old Testament and New Testament readings together. The church over the centuries have also developed liturgical readings of Scripture throughout the year. If we aren’t tied to a “correct” order, we are free to use various reading plans and strategies, and not worried that we are reading it in the wrong order.

In addition to the difference between English Bible order and Jewish Bible order, there have been some other English Bibles that have used different book orders as well. For example, William Barclay ordered his New Testament chronologically, beginning with Mark.

One of the trends in Bible publishing that I am most pleased about is the advent of reader’s editions of the Bible. These Bibles come in nice multi-volume sets, with nice layouts. Single columns and comfortable fonts, and they take out chapter and verse numbers so you can just immerse yourself in reading. I am a big fan, and heartily recommend it to others. It has helped my Bible reading immensely.

Some of these reader’s editions use different book orders. You can see them in the chart below, with Barclay’s New Testament order. As you can see, these reader’s editions use the three-fold division as well. However, they put Ruth after Judges, reorder the Minor Prophets, and group each of the gospels with epistles so you don’t read all the gospels one after another. (I don’t have the Bibliotheca reader’s edition, which also uses the threefold division. If someone has that, please leave a comment with the book order it uses).

Sola Scriptura Bible Project /
The Books of the Bible (NIV)
Immerse Bible (NLT)William Barclay
Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges
Ruth
1-2 Samuel
1-2 Kings
Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges
Ruth
1-2 Samuel
1-2 Kings
Jonah
Amos
Hosea
Micah
Isaiah
Zephaniah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Jeremiah
Obadiah
Ezekiel
Haggai
Zechariah
Joel
Malachi
Amos
Hosea
Micah
Isaiah
Zephaniah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Jeremiah
Obadiah
Ezekiel
Haggai
Zechariah
Malachi
Joel
Jonah
Psalms
Lamentations
Song of Songs
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Job
1-2 Chronicles
Ezra
Nehemiah
Esther
Daniel
Psalms
Lamentations
Song of Songs
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Job
1-2 Chronicles
Ezra
Nehemiah
Esther
Daniel
Luke
Acts
Luke
Acts
Mark
Matthew
Luke
Acts
John
1-2 Thessalonians
1-2 Corinthians
Galatians
Romans
Colossians
Ephesians
Philemon
Philippians
1 Timothy
Titus
2 Timothy
1-2 Thessalonians
1-2 Corinthians
Galatians
Romans
Philemon
Colossians
Ephesians
Philippians
1 Timothy
Titus
2 Timothy
Galatians
1-2 Thessalonians
1-2 Corinthians
Romans
Ephesians
Colossians
Philemon
Philippians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
Titus
Matthew
Hebrews
James
Mark
1-2 Peter
Jude

Hebrews
James
Mark
1-2 Peter
Jude
Matthew
Hebrews
James

1-2 Peter
Jude
John
1-3 John
Revelation
John
1-3 John
Revelation

1-3 John
Revelation

Concluding Questions

So, do you think there is one correct Bible book order? If you were to make your own reader’s edition of the Bible, how would you order the books? Comment below.

2 thoughts on “My English Bible is Out of Order!

  1. Vincent S Artale Jr says:

    I’m terms of the Old Testament, I’d use the Septuagint order including combining Chronicles, Kings, etc. New Testament, Mark, Matthew John, Revelation, Jude, 1&2 Peter, Luke, Acts, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1&2 Corinthians, 1&2 Timothy Hebrews, 1&2 Thessalonians, 1,2,3 John, Philemon, Titus, James, Colossians.

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