What order would you put the books of the Bible in?

You walk in to your adult group at church and the leader gives you a collection of paper strips with the names of the books of the Bible written on them.  “What order would you put these in?” the leader asks.

A friend of mine actually did this in the group he leads, and he got some interesting responses.

One person said immediately, “Well, THE order, of course!”  For that person, custom and use had already fixed the books of the Bible in THE order, and there could be no deviation.

But others felt freed by the exercise to think about some possible alternatives.  One person put books like John and James first and the “hard stuff” last.  Why?  They said they were thinking about people who were new to the Bible; they wanted to make it more accessible to them.  Another person put the books in chronological order so a reader would progress sequentially through time when going through the Bible.  And someone else tried to put books together that spoke to the same audience, so readers could see how they addressed similar situations and concerns.

There’s nothing improper about doing an exercise like this.  Book order was actually quite fluid for the first three quarters of the Bible’s history.  “THE order” that we know today only appeared around 1500 with the advent of printing.  Before that, a variety of orders were used, in pursuit of different literary, historical and liturgical goals.  So there’s nothing that says various orders can’t still be used today.

The non-traditional order of the biblical books in The Books of the Bible, it should be specified, is not intended to create a new fixed order, another version of “THE order” to replace the conventional one.  Rather, that order was chosen because it served the goals of the edition, which were to encourage the reading of whole books with an appreciation for their historical and literary contexts.  But other orders could legitimately serve other goals, such as the ones just described.

How about you?  What order would you put the books of the Bible in?

A “periodic table” of the books of the Bible created by Tim Challies. Note that if you go from top to bottom and read straight across from left to right, rather than reading down the left column and then down the right column, you get a non-traditional order that helps you appreciate books of similar literary genres in both testaments.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

5 thoughts on “What order would you put the books of the Bible in?”

      1. Luk 24:44 Then he said to them, “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.”

        The Tanakh is an acronym for Torah, Prophets, Writings in Hebrew as these are the names for the 3 sections, as I am sure you know, but other readers might not.

        I see Jesus giving a ref. here to the whole Tanakh, as the Psalms is the largest of the Writings (third) section. But it also directly names the first 2 sections in phrases that they were called. But if you reorganize the Bible including changing the names of sections (as the typical prot. Bible does), you may not figure this out.

        Luk 11:51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.
        2Ch 24:20-22 Then the Spirit of God clothed Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, and he stood above the people, and said to them, “Thus says God, ‘Why do you break the commandments of the LORD, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has forsaken you.'” But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the LORD. Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah’s father, had shown him, but killed his son. And when he was dying, he said, “May the LORD see and avenge!”

        If you do not use the ordering of the Tanakh, the ref. to Zechariah could be confusing as he certainly was not the last one killed in faith in the books of the OT. But if you order the books as in the Tanakh, then Zechariah is the last person killed in faith in the Tanakh book order, so the Luke ref is from first to last person killed in faith, as given in the Tanakh book order. So the idea is those killed in faith throughout the whole Tanakh, but this would be next to impossible to figure out using the prot. book order.

      2. Thank you very much for this helpful explanation. It shows that the accustomed book order may actually make it more difficult for us to understand how the New Testament uses and interprets the First Testament.

  1. I made a chronological chart for my class when I taught Bible Survey earlier this year. IIt’s how I like to think of the books because it helps me visually the entire story of the Bible from beginning to end and see at a glance which book goes where:

    Literary Chronology of the Bible

    I like Don’s comment about how the books are arranged differently in the Tanakh, sometimes in very significant ways. In my opinion, perhaps the most significant difference is the progression Proverbs-Ruth-Song of Songs in the Writings section. By putting the books in this specific order, the compilers of the Tanakh specifically draw attention to certain literary and thematic characteristics of Ruth and Song of Songs. The last chapter of Proverbs celebrates what a “worthy wife” is like, then immediately gives us the example of a “worthy wife” in the story of Ruth, which has a strong underlying theme of romantic love. Immediately following this comes Song of Songs, which further develops this theme of romantic love, specifically in the realm of sexuality. In addition, Song of Songs builds on the “worthy wife” (although the term is not used specifically like it is in Ruth) theme by portraying a woman who follows the sexual guidelines of Torah and is praised within the community for it.

    Thanks for sharing the periodic table of biblical literature. It’s cool.

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