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Lesson 19: The Bible Is Unique In Its Structure

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What is the Bible’s structure? The Bible is comprised of sixty-six books, consisting of thirty-nine Old Testament books and twenty-seven New Testament books. It was written over a time frame of 1500 years. Scholars believe the first book of the Bible written was Genesis or Job, completed around 1400 BC, and the last book of the Bible written, Revelation, was completed around AD 90.1 The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, with some small parts written in Aramaic. The New Testament was originally written in Greek. We’ll consider the structure of both, starting with the OT.

OT Structure

There are three categories of OT books: history, poetry, and prophecy. The structure of the English OT is very easy to discern: The first seventeen OT books are history. They detail creation, the fall, the call of the patriarchs, Israel’s slavery and deliverance from Egypt, Israel’s conquest of Canaan, their rebellion against God, their exile and eventual return to the land. The next five are poetry. The final seventeen are prophetic books.

Historical Books

What are the seventeen historical books? They include all the books from Genesis to Esther and recount the history of Israel. The first five, Genesis to Deuteronomy, are often called the Law or Pentateuch (“five books”). The following is the list of all the historical books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.

Primary And Secondary Books

Within the seventeen historical books, there are two sub-groups: primary and secondary books. There are eleven primary and six secondary books. The primary books give chronological history, and the secondary overlap with or repeat certain aspects of the chronological history given in the primary books. As examples, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ruth, and Esther are secondary books because their stories occur during the history of the other eleven primary books. Leviticus, which focuses on the priestly functions, happens during the Exodus and Numbers’ period. Deuteronomy happens during Numbers and Joshua. It does not advance historically. Ruth takes place during the book of Judges. First and 2 Chronicles cover David’s life through the Babylon exile, which is a later repeat of 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings.

Poetic Books Or Wisdom Literature

After the seventeen historical books, there are five poetical books, sometimes called wisdom literature. They are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.

Prophetic Books

After the seventeen historical books and five poetical books, there are seventeen prophetic books, which close the OT canon. Within the prophets are two sub-groups called the major and minor prophets. Why are they called major and minor? It has nothing to do with content, but rather the length of the content. The major prophets are larger books and the minor prophets are small books. The major and minor prophets are as follows:

  • Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel
  • Minor Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk,
    Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

In considering the OT structure, if one wants to learn the history of Israel, he or she should read Genesis to Esther, the first seventeen books of the OT. If one wants to read the poetry of Israel, he or she should read from Job to Song of Solomon, the five books in the middle of the OT. If one wants to read the prophetic literature of Israel, he or she should read Isaiah to Malachi, the last seventeen books of the OT.

Hebrew Old Testament

When considering the Hebrew Old Testament (or Bible), it is divided differently than the English one. First, instead of thirty-nine books, most Hebrew OTs have twenty-four books (some have twenty-two) because of how certain books are combined. For instance, in the Hebrew Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah are combined into one book, as are 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. Finally, the minor prophets are assembled together in one book called The Twelve.

Also, instead of the main categories being history, poetry, and prophets as with the English Bible, the Hebrew Bible is divided into the five books of Moses (or Law), Prophets, and Writings.2 This system of organizing the OT Scripture was even in use during Christ’s ministry. In Luke 24:44, Christ said this to his disciples: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Instead of calling the last section Writings, it was often referred to by its largest book, Psalms. Below is the Hebrew OT arrangement:

  • Moses (five books): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • Prophets (eight books): Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve
  • Writings (eleven books): Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemia, Chronicles

NT Structure

The New Testament is also assembled into three categories of books: historical, Pauline, and general epistles. There are twenty-seven books overall: five historical, thirteen Pauline, and nine general epistles. The historical books include the Gospels and Acts—they tell the story of Christ and his disciples, and how the church grew throughout the ancient world. The Pauline epistles include Paul’s letters to various individuals and churches. The general epistles are the writings of other apostles and their associates to various individuals and churches. The book categories are as follows:

  • Historical Books (five): Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts
  • Pauline Epistles (thirteen): Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon
  • General Epistles (nine): Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation

Chapter And Verse Divisions

When the books of the Bible were originally written, they did not include chapter and verse divisions. Early Jews and Christians, when referencing a Scripture text, would refer to it by the book, author, and a textual event, with little further specificity.3 For example, when Christ referenced God’s words to Moses in Exodus 3, he said: “…have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” (Mk 12:26). The current chapters and verses were added for better referencing by various scholars at different periods of time, starting around 900 AD and being completed around 1551. The first English Bible translation to have our current chapter and verse divisions was the Geneva Bible of 1560.4

Reflection

  1. In the reading, which aspect of the Bible’s structure stood out most to you and why?
  2. What are the three categories of the OT books?
  3. What are the three categories of the NT books?
  4. How should the fact that the chapter and verse divisions were not in the original manuscripts affect how we study the Bible?
  5. What other questions or applications do you have from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

BTG Publishing all rights reserved.


1 Accessed 2/11/20 from https://www.gotquestions.org/write-the-Bible.html

2 Accessed 11/4/2019 from https://torah.org/learning/basics-primer-torah-bible/

3 Plummer, Robert L. 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible (40 Questions & Answers Series) (Kindle Location 616). Kregel Publications - A. Kindle Edition.

4 Plummer, Robert L. 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible (40 Questions & Answers Series) (Kindle Locations 640-641). Kregel Publications - A. Kindle Edition.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Bibliology (The Written Word), Kingdom

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