How the Books of the Bible Are Organized

A quick look at how the Bible's 66 books have been arranged

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Back when I was a kid we used to do an activity called "sword drills" every week in Sunday school. The teacher would yell out a specific Bible passage -- "2 Chronicles 1:5," for example -- and we kids would flip furiously through our Bibles in an attempt to find that passage first. Whoever was the first to arrive at the correct page would announce his or her victory by reading the verse out loud.

These exercises were called "sword drills" because of Hebrews 4:12:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

I think the activity was supposed to help us children practice finding different spots in the Bible so that we'd become more familiar with the structure and organization of the text. But the whole thing usually devolved into a chance for us Christian kids to be competitive in a spiritual way.

In any case, I used to wonder why the books of the Bible were organized the way they were. Why did Exodus come before Psalms? Why was a little book like Ruth near the front of the Old Testament while a little book like Malachi was at the back? And most importantly, why didn't 1, 2, and 3 John come right after the Gospel of John, instead of being thrown all the way to the back by Revelation?

After a bit of research as an adult, I've discovered there are perfectly legitimate answers to those questions. Turns out the books of the Bible were intentionally slotted into their current order because of three helpful divisions.

Division 1

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 written after Jesus' life and ministry on earth are collected in the New Testament.

If you're keeping score, there are 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament.

Division 2

The second division is a little more complicated because it's based on styles of literature. Within each testament, the Bible is subdivided into specific genres of literature. So, the historical books are all grouped together in the Old Testament, the epistles are all grouped together in the New Testament, and so on.

Here are the different literary genres in the Old Testament, along with the Bible books contained within those genres:

The Pentateuch, or the Books of the Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

[Old Testament] Historical Books: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.

Wisdom Literature: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.

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

And here are the different literary genres in the New Testament:

The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Epistles: 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.

Prophecy / Apocalyptic Literature: Revelation

This division of genre is why the Gospel of John is separated from 1, 2, and 3 John, which are epistles. They are different styles of literature, which means they were organized into different places.

Division 3

The final division occurs within the literary genres, which are grouped by chronology, author, and size. 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, with Job being the oldest book in the Bible.

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 larger than the others. Therefore, those 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 larger books written by Paul coming before the smaller epistles from Peter, James, Jude, and others.

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