The Bible is one book with one main message and one basic storyline, and at the same time a library of 66 books written by about 40 authors over approximately 1500 years. The Bible is a beautiful book. But it is not a random collection of books. It is an orderly and purposeful collection. Most people who read their Bibles are familiar with the general layout of the Bible but give very little thought as to how and why it was put together the way it was. The layout of the Bible is more than a curiosity. It is a key to unlock the treasure inside.
The most basic layout of the Bible is in two unequal parts, the Old Testament (OT) with 39 book and the New Testament (NT) with 27 books. The two testaments can be further divided to reveal their message. The really interesting thing is that the OT has two different and meaningful ways in which the books are ordered.
The Dual Layout of the Old Testament
When most people open their Bibles they find the first book is Genesis and the last book in the OT is Malachi. This is the traditional order of the OT books. In this layout there are four divisions of the books.
(1) The Torah or the Pentateuch, which are the first five books (Genesis – Deuteronomy)
(2) The Historical books that tell the history of God’s people Israel (Joshua – Esther)
(3) The Wisdom & Poetic books (Job – Song of Songs)
(4) The Prophets, the Major Prophets (Isaiah – Daniel) and the Minor Prophets (Hosea – Malachi)
The traditional order of the OT comes from the Greek translation of the OT in about the third century before Christ. This translation is called the Septuagint and is abbreviated LXX. Greek was the lingua franca (common language) of the Greco-Roman world just as English is the common language today. Jews were spread out all over the Roman Empire and needed a Scripture translation that all the people could read. Later, Jerome, the fourth century AD Church Father, translated the Bible into Latin and used the order of the LXX for the OT.
The second way the OT is ordered is that of the Hebrew Bible.The modern Jewish Bible and the Hebrew Scriptures in the time of Jesus and the Apostles was different from the traditional OT most of us are familiar with. Though the Apostles primarily used the LXX after the resurrection of Jesus, they also had the Hebrew Scriptures. The Scriptures at the time of Jesus (our OT) was comprised of three sections which Jesus called, the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44-45). In Luke 11:51 Jesus referred to the blood of Abel from the first part of the first book in his Bible, Genesis, and the blood of Zechariah from the last part of the last book in his Bible, Chronicles. Today the Hebrew Bible is referred to as the TaNaK, using the first letter of each of the three sections. The three sections of the Hebrew OT are:
(1) The Torah (Law), Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy
(2) The Neviim (Prophets) which is comprised of two sub-sections
1) Former Prophets = Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings
2) Latter Prophets = Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve (Hosea –
(3) The Ketuvim (Writings) which have three sub-sections
1) The Book of Truth = Psalms, Proverbs and Job
2) The Megilloth (Five Scrolls) = Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and
3) Other Sacred Writings = Daniel, Ezra – Nehemiah (which is one book) and Chronicles.
God allowed these two ways of ordering the OT for a reason. Both emphasize the general chronology of the OT, they both prioritize the Law of God, and they both reveal that the OT is incomplete. The traditional layout ends with Malachi 4:5-6 where the Lord promises to send Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord. This refers to John the Baptist before Jesus comes on the scene. The Hebrew OT ends with Chronicles 36:22-23 and the proclamation of Cyrus the Persian authorizing the Jews to return to the land. This ended the OT with the Jews in the land but none of the promises of the Messiah fulfilled. After 400 years of prophetic silence Jesus appears to fulfill all the promises of God.
The Layout of the New Testament
While the OT is the promise of redemption, the NT is the fulfillment of that promise. The NT tells that story in three sections.
(1) First we see the birth, ministry and passion of Jesus the Messiah (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).
(2) Then we have the Church (Acts, the Letters of Paul (Romans – Philemon) and the General Letters (Hebrews – Jude)).
(3) The final section is the future consummation of all things in the book of Revelation.
The layout of the NT is just as significant as the OT. It begins with the coming of Jesus after the long wait for the Messiah. A new and fresh work in the plan of God bursts on the scene in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He overturns all the old ways of looking at the things of God and brings salvation to the world. After the resurrected Jesus Christ returns to heaven the Church comes into being and grows and spreads as Jesus promised. Now the NT brings completion to the Bible in the book of Revelation. When the work of the gospel is done on earth Jesus returns to establish the Kingdom of God. The new heaven and the new earth come and with them the eternal state. Sin, death and Satan are defeated. The plan of God is finally consummated in Jesus Christ when all things are made new.
The layout of the Bible may seem like an unimportant issue, but getting a good handle on the layout of the Bible is important in understanding what God is saying to us as well as navigating the many stories and books we find in the Bible. It becomes, therefore, a crucial key we must not overlook in unlocking the treasures of the Bible.