How the Books of the Bible Are Organized

Gutenberg Bible
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Children in Sunday school classes sometimes play a game called "sword drills." The teacher yells out a specific Bible passage—2 Chronicles 1:5, for example—and the children flip furiously through their Bibles in an attempt to be the first to locate the passage. Whoever is the first to find the correct page announces their victory by reading the verse out loud.

This activity is supposed to help children practice finding different spots in the Bible so that they become more familiar with the structure and organization of the text. After all, new readers often have many questions about why the Bible is organized the way it is. Why does Exodus come before Psalms? Why is a little book like Ruth near the front of the Old Testament while the little book Malachi is at the back? Why don't the Letters of John come right after the Gospel of John, instead of being near the back by Revelation?

There are perfectly legitimate answers to these questions. The books of the Bible were carefully slotted into their current order in accordance with three divisions.

Old and New Testaments

The first division used to organize the books of the Bible is the division between the Old and New Testaments. This one is relatively straightforward. Books written before the time of Jesus are collected in the Old Testament, while books that were written after Jesus' life and ministry on Earth are collected in the New Testament. There are 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament.

Genre

The second division is a little more complicated because it's based on genres of literature. Within the Old and New Testaments, the books are organized such that all of the histories are together, all of the gospels are together, and so on. The genres of Biblical literature in the Old Testament include:

The different literary genres of the New Testament are:

  • The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
  • [New Testament] Historical Books: Acts
  • Epistles (Letters): Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude
  • Prophetic/Apocalyptic Literature: Revelation

Chronology, Author, and Length

The final division occurs within the literary genres, which are grouped by chronology, author, and length. For example, the historical books of the Old Testament follow a chronological history of the Jewish people from the time of Abraham (Genesis) to Moses (Exodus) to David (1 and 2 Samuel) and beyond. The Wisdom Literature also follows a chronological pattern.

Other genres are grouped by size, such as the Prophets. The first five books of this genre (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel) are much longer than the others. Therefore, these books are referred to as the "major prophets," while the 12 smaller books are known as the "minor prophets." Many of the epistles in the New Testament are also grouped by size, with the longer texts written by Paul coming before the shorter epistles of Peter, James, Jude, and others.

Finally, some of the Bible's books are sub-grouped by author. This is why Paul's epistles are all grouped together in the New Testament. It's also why Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon are grouped together within the Wisdom Literature—because each of these books was written primarily by Solomon.