Why isn’t Galatians Paul’s first letter in The Books of the Bible?

Q. If you’re trying to place Paul’s letters in chronological order in The Books of the Bible, why isn’t Galatians first?  I was taught it was the earliest of Paul’s epistles, written around AD 49

Actually, scholars disagree about when Galatians was written.  The date depends on how the visits to Galatia and Jerusalem that Paul describes in the letter correlate with the ones described in the book of Acts.  A related issue is what Paul means by “Galatia.” If he’s speaking of Galatia simply as a province, the letter was probably written to people he visited in the southern part of the province on his first journey, or even from Tarsus before going on any of his journeys.  But if he’s referring to Galatia as the home of an ethnic group, the Galatians or Gauls, who lived in the center and north of the province, then the letter was likely written later, to people he visited on his second journey (when, as Luke tells us in Acts, “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia“).

After considering all of the evidence and arguments, our Bible Design Group, which created The Books of the Bible, agreed that a date towards the end of Paul’s second journey made the most sense to us.  Our “Invitation to Galatians” explains:

“It’s difficult to know exactly when and where Paul wrote his letter to the churches in Galatia. He doesn’t say where he’s writing from, as he does in his letters to Thessalonica and Corinth. And while he says he’s writing on behalf of all the brothers and sisters with me, he doesn’t say who these ‘brothers and sisters’ are. Many interpreters believe that Galatians may actually be the earliest of Paul’s letters. However, its themes and language are so close to the letter he sent to the church in Rome that it is quite probable Galatians was written about the same time as Romans. This would mean he wrote it from Corinth around 56–57 AD while arranging for the offering to be sent to the poor in Judea.”

In my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, I offer this fuller explanation:

“The scholarly conversation about when Paul wrote this letter continues. But this study guide will follow the interpretation that it was written in Corinth, when Paul was preparing to travel to Jerusalem with the collection. Many interpreters believe that Galatians was actually written several years before this. However, certain details in the letter arguably correspond best with this particular moment in Paul’s life:
• Paul writes in Galatians that the apostles in Jerusalem asked him to ‘remember the poor,’ and that he was ‘eager’ to do this. It’s unlikely he would bring this up years before he’d actually done anything about it, but it makes sense for him to mention it in the middle of the collection.
• Paul’s language of being ‘eager’ is identical to his reference in 2 Corinthians to the ‘earnestness’ [‘eagerness’] of the Macedonians in their giving.
• Paul’s encouragement to ‘do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’ may similarly refer to the collection.  (The Galatians were taking a collection of their own at this time.)”

The study guide also notes the similarity between the language and themes of Galatians and those of Romans—for example, the discussions of what it means to be dikaios (righteous or justified) by faith; the appeals to the example of Abraham; and the believer’s relationship to the law.

While it is possible that Galatians was written at an earlier time (this is a respected position among scholars), a setting in Corinth while Paul was arranging for the offering provides a reasonable and cohesive account of the letter that is consistent with its contents.  This is what persuaded me and my fellow editors of The Books of the Bible to place Galatians just before Romans as we worked to put Paul’s letters in their likely chronological order.

The Roman province of Galatia stretched from near the Black Sea almost to the Mediterranean Sea. One issue in dating Paul’s letter to the Galatians is whether he was writing to people in the south or the center/north of the province.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Didn’t the Holy Spirit place Luke with the other gospels, and not with Acts, as the Bible was taking shape?

Q.  Didn’t the Holy Spirit, in His wisdom, intend for Luke and Acts to be separated?  Since the biblical canon in its final form was designed with them separated, aren’t we violating inspiration if we put them back together?

Q.  I think your decision to place Luke and Acts together is misguided. While other books were split because of their length (1 Samuel through 2 Kings), or were ordered with no regard for their content (the Pauline epistles), Luke and Acts were separated in order to place the gospel of John as the last gospel.  If you have any faith in the efficacy of the Scriptures that have guided the church for centuries, you have to trust that God was at work in the construction of the canon. If you’re going to re-order the gospels, you’re starting to question the construction of the canon–in which case you have bigger problems than separating Luke from Acts.

Q.  It seems to me that we must respect the tradition of the church, believing that the Holy Spirit continued to work through his people as the books God inspired were recognized, put in the category of Scripture, and organized in a certain way. The “four-fold gospel” is a significant indicator of God’s intentions in the NT. Acts placed between the gospels and epistles is a significant indicator of movement within the NT. The church itself has not been unanimous on how the NT books should be ordered, but neither was it unanimous about which books should be included. Without tradition, how would we even know which books to include in the NT?

All three of these questions suggest that if we put Luke-Acts back together as a 5807single work, as they are presented in The Books of the Bible, and as they are treated in the Luke-Acts study guide, we are overlooking and perhaps even resisting the role that the Holy Spirit played in the preservation, recognition, and collection of the biblical books—a role that may have extended to their ordering.  And so, on the authority of centuries-long church tradition, which presumably reflects the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t Luke and Acts be kept as separate books, and all the gospels kept grouped together?

It is true that church tradition exerts significant authority over our understanding and treatment of the Bible.  However, I think most of us would agree that the Spirit’s hand is not evident in every single aspect of tradition as it relates to the Bible.  Many of us would be prepared to dispense, for example, with the chapter and verse divisions, even though these are the aspect of tradition that certainly influences contemporary readers of the Bible the most.  (By frequently running paragraphs run right through badly-placed chapter breaks, many modern publishers show openly that they don’t adhere to this part of the tradition.)

How, then, can we determine which aspects of tradition reflect the Spirit’s hand, and which ones don’t?  I think that most people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God would agree that the determination of the contents of the canon reflects the Spirit’s influence, while the placement of chapter and verse divisions does not.  But what about something in between, like the order of the books in the canon?  I think some would see the Spirit’s hand in this, and others wouldn’t.  In other words, this is a matter of individual conviction, not of doctrine.

That being the case, I think it’s reasonable for resources such as The Books of the Bible and the Luke-Acts study guide to be made available for those whose convictions about the Spirit’s role in the presentation and transmission of the Scriptures permit them to explore what additional perspectives and further insights can be achieved when the books are placed in new orders.  Putting Luke and Acts back together as volumes 1 and 2 of a unified history, whose overarching structure and unfolding message then become much more evident, can open up great vistas into the meaning of the life of Jesus and the story of his early followers.  I think that by making this possible we’re working with, not against, the Holy Spirit.

Russian icon of St. Luke from around AD 1400
Russian icon of St. Luke from around AD 1400

Indeed, The Books of the Bible seeks to draw upon the best in the church’s tradition of the biblical book ordering even as it arranges the books innovatively and creatively.  As its New Testament introduction explains, “The order of the New Testament books in this edition seeks to express the ancient concept of the fourfold gospel in a fresh way.  The traditional priority of the stories of Jesus is retained, but now each Gospel is placed at the beginning of a group of related books.  The presentation of four witnesses to the one gospel of Jesus the Messiah is enhanced by a fuller arrangement that will help readers better appreciate why the books of the New Testament were written and what kind of literature they represent.  The four sets of books, each headed by a  Gospel, form a cross, as it were, around the central figure of Jesus.  Each sheds its light on his story in a unique way.”

One final observation.  It’s a demonstrable fact that the Scriptures that have guided the church for centuries have done so in a great variety of orders.  (I document this in my book After Chapters and Verses.  In fact, as Bruce Metzger notes in The Canon of the New Testament, “While the gospels . . . are always kept together, they are found in nine different sequences, including two in which Luke is placed last and followed immediately by Acts, possibly out of a desire to keep the two volumes of this historical study together.”)  Even if we assume that this great variety of orders simply reflects a stage on the way to the ultimate emergence of the Holy Spirit’s chosen order, how do we know whether we’ve arrived there yet?  How do we know that The Books of The Bible, for example, isn’t instead part of the Holy Spirit’s effort to keep shuffling the books until they get into the real “God-intended” order?

In other words, if you prefer a particular book order because it’s the outcome of a long historical process, how do you determine the end point of that process?  On what basis do you pick 1500, when the order we know today was established basically by printers?  Who’s to say that the process isn’t still continuing?  Or that it didn’t end in A.D. 240?  The real problem here is that authority is being divided between Scripture and tradition, that is, between fixed texts and an ongoing historical process.  My commitment is to the authority of Scripture, and in treating Luke-Acts as a single work, my goal is to keep the Bible’s interpretation from being limited to what is implied by the historical shaping the Bible has received to date—because I believe, as John Robinson said, that “the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth out of His Holy Word.”

Will the signs at football games just read “John”?

Q. If The Books of The Bible has the desired impact, in the future will we see the guy at the football game holding up a sign that just reads, ‘John’?

John316

I’m sure we’ve all seen the “John 3:16” signs on televised football games. There may even be some signs like this at the Super Bowl on Sunday.

This question provides a great illustration of how The Books of the Bible, the version these study guides are designed to be used with, encourages referencing not by chapter and verse, but by content and context.

The word count is pretty limited on those signs, but if you had the chance to speak with someone at slightly more length, think of how much more meaningful it would be to refer contextually to “what Jesus told Nicodemus when he came to see him early in the gospel of John,” rather than to use the chapter and verse shorthand.  Or, by content, you could refer to how the Bible tells that that “God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son,” summarizing the message rather than just giving its address.

Along these lines, instead of reading simply “JOHN,” a sign at a football game might say something like this:

GOD LOVED THE WORLD – GOD GAVE HIS SON.

Or, in bigger letters:

GOD LOVED
GOD GAVE

I bet that would get the attention of the television cameras.

Hezekiah and the 130-proverb collection: does it really add up?

To justify your organization of the book of Proverbs in The Books of the Bible, you claim that the collection of proverbs “compiled by the men of Hezekiah” has 130 sayings in it because this is the value of Hezekiah’s name in Hebrew.  But his name is actually spelled different ways in the Bible, so the value could be 136, 140, or 146 instead.  Besides, there are 138 verses in this section of Proverbs, or 137 if you don’t count the heading; neither of those match any possible value for Hezekiah’s name.

Hebrew, like several other languages, uses letters for numbers, so every word has a total numerical value that can be employed for symbolic purposes.  The argument I’ve made in the introduction to Proverbs in The Books of the Bible and in my study guide to Proverbs/Ecclesiastes/James is that the compilers of this collection put exactly 130 sayings in it as a way of honoring their royal patron.

It is true that the name HezekiaHezekiah130h is spelled different ways in the Bible, resulting in different totals. In the book of Kings, for example, it’s typically Hizqiyahu, which adds up to 136.  In the title to the book of Isaiah, it’s Yihizqiyah, which totals 140. And in Chronicles, it’s usually Yihizqiyahu, totaling 146.

However, the issue when it comes to appreciating the design of the book of Proverbs is how the name is actually spelled in the heading in that book that introduces the second collection of Solomon’s proverbs.  There it is Hizqiyah, which adds up to 130.  If the compilers of the book are using the value of Hezekiah’s name to determine the size of this collection, then 130 is the value we must consider them to be using.

And while it is true that the traditional verse divisions typically do correspond one-to-one with the individual sayings in the book of Proverbs, this is not the case in every part of the book.  In this second collection of Solomon’s proverbs specifically, there are several longer sayings that make up more than one verse, for example:
Remove the dross from the silver,
and a silversmith can produce a vessel;
remove wicked officials from the king’s presence,
and his throne will be established through righteousness.
(This is Proverbs 25:4-5 in the traditional numbering.) So there will be something less than 137 actual proverbs in this collection.

It would not be difficult to propose a division of the material that would result in a total of 130 discrete sayings.  However, it would be just as easy to dispute this division and suggest a different one that would yield another total.  I don’t think it’s possible for us to establish today exactly how the compilers of Proverbs intended for this material to be divided up.  However, the way they use, to all appearances, the value of Solomon’s name, 375, to determine the size of the first collection, which clearly contains 375 discrete sayings, strongly implies that the same thing is going on in the second collection of Solomon’s proverbs, the one “compiled by the men of Hezekiah.”  This is particularly true since a few proverbs are repeated from the first collection (e.g. “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts,” 18:8 = 26:22), suggesting that the compilers were trying to get up to a particular total.

A reader of this post has asked, “But how does knowing about Hezekiah and the 130 proverbs help me to be more like Jesus?” To see my reply, click here.

Did you know that Ezra has two beginnings in The Books of the Bible?

You probably already knew this, but in case you didn’t, in The Books of the Bible (the edition you recommend using with your study guides), the book of Ezra has two beginnings, with the first beginning truncated in the middle of Cyrus’s decree (pages 1401-1402).

This apparent “double beginning” is actually caused by the repetition of the Edict of Cyrus at the end of Chronicles and the beginning of Ezra. This is how ancient scribes showed that the parts of a book that was too long to be contained on a single scroll belonged together: They would copy some of the material from the start of the second scroll onto the end of the first scroll, to “stitch” them together.

In our English Bibles we see this only where Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah, originally one long work, has been broken up between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah.  But in various manuscripts of the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Bible), there is similar “stitching” between 1 and 2 Samuel, 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.

Because Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah is presented as one continuous work in The Books of the Bible, and because it’s formatted according to its natural literary divisions, the Edict of Cyrus, in abbreviated and then full form, appears twice at the start of a major division that coincides with the place where scribes originally divided this long work into Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah.

This repetition of material created a very interesting question for us on our project team as we were developing The Books of the Bible.  It’s virtually certain that Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah, as originally written, didn’t contain the abbreviated  material at the end of Chronicles.  This was added by scribes who put the book on scrolls.  So should this duplicated material be eliminated?  Or should we now consider it to be divinely inspired Scripture, something that God wants to be part of the Bible?  As you can see, we left it in.  Our hope was that the duplication (more striking in The Books of the Bible format) would lead people to ask about what was going on, as you just have.

Incidentally, in the latest update to the NIV, the word order has been changed to make the abbreviation at the end of Chronicles less abrupt.  In the 1978 and 1984 editions of the NIV, and in the 2005 TNIV, the translation followed the Hebrew word order. The TNIV, for example, said, “Any of his people among you — may the Lord their God be with them, and let them go up.”  (Go up where? To do what? Read on . . .) But the latest update to the NIV says, “Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them.”  A better sense of closure, but less obviously abbreviated material that signals a “stitch” between scrolls.

Why do you take up Paul’s letters in a different order?

Q. You say at the start of your study guides that they won’t jump around in the Bible. But your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters begins in First and Second Thessalonians, then jumps back to First and Second Corinthians and Galatians, and then jumps even farther back to Romans.  What’s going on?

The guide to Paul’s Journey Letters takes up his first six letters, the ones he wrote while on his missionary journeys, in the order in which he likely wrote them. This allows groups to understand these letters within the course of Paul’s life and journeys and to appreciate how they express the development of his thought.

In traditional Bibles, Paul’s letters are placed in order of length, from longest to shortest. This makes it difficult to catch the flow from one letter to another as Paul travels from place to place and interacts with different communities of Jesus’ followers.

Someone once told me that they’d been to seminary and taken a New Testament background course, but they still didn’t “get” Paul until they read his letters in The Books of the Bible, where they’re placed in the same chronological order as in this study guide. (The just-published guide in this series to Paul’s Prison Letters takes up the rest of his letters in chronological order.)

If we’re used to the traditional order of the books of the Bible, we may indeed feel that we’re jumping around when we move “backwards” from Thessalonians to Corinthians and Galatians to Romans. But it’s important to realize that a fixed order of the books of the Bible is a relatively recent phenomenon. The order we know dates to the advent of printing a little before 1500. Prior to that, the books of the Old and New Testaments appeared in a great variety of orders.  (You can read more about this in chapter 2 of my book After Chapters and Verses.)

So we’re really not locked into any particular order and can use other orders to reach important goals. Reading and discussing Paul’s letters in the order he wrote them expresses respect for the way the word of God came to us in place and time as God inspired the Scriptures. It helps us appreciate how these God-breathed documents took form amidst the real-life experiences of flesh-and-blood people.

So even if this guide takes you through Paul’s letters in an order you’re not used to, let the newness of that experience help you develop a fresh appreciation for this man of God who became a powerful instrument to bring us the word of God.

How to get a copy of The Books of the Bible

To follow up on the previous post, here’s how you can get a copy of The Books of the Bible.

Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society) developed the edition, but it is now available through Zondervan, the commercial publisher of the NIV. The Books of the Bible is now being published in four volumes, which you can order  through this site.

If you have more questions about how we can read, study, preach, and teach the Bible without using chapters and verses, you can find out much more in my book After Chapters and Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations.

Do we need to use The Books of the Bible with these guides?

Q. I have a Bible I like and am used to using. I’d prefer not to have to buy a new one to use these studies. And I am fairly certain the members of my small group might feel the same. How can I use your studies with a traditional Bible?

Your concern is perfectly understandable. We anticipated it, and that’s why we designed these guides so that they can be used with any kind of Bible. Each session is typically devoted to a natural section of a biblical book, and as the instructions at the beginning of the guides explain, “You’ll be able to identify these sections easily because they’ll be indicated by their opening lines or by some other means that makes them obvious.”  In fact, since the sessions go sequentially through biblical books, in each new session you can just pick up where you left off the last time.  So even with a traditional Bible, you’ll get much of the benefit of approaching the biblical books through their own natural structures rather than through the later artificial additions of chapters and verses. You don’t need to get a whole new Bible just to use these guides.The Books of the Bible

That much said, you will definitely have the best experience with these study guides, and in your small group discussions, if you do use The Books of the Bible.  Without chapters and verses, the Bible reads like the collection of books it really is.  I invite you to to give this way of reading Scriptures a try–I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised!  (You can find out more about The Books of the Bible by reading this Wikipedia article.  You can download and preview several biblical books from the edition here. To find out how to order a copy, see this post.)

I think you’ll quickly adjust to reading and discussing the Bible without using chapter and verse references. You’ll find that this is much closer to the way you’d discuss any other book, for example, in a book club.  You’ll discover that you can refer to places in the passage descriptively (“When Nicodemus first arrives . . .”) or by quoting short phrases (“When he says, ‘We know that you are a teacher who has come from God . . .'”). It doesn’t take long to catch on.

I wish you and your small group a great experience, whatever Bible you use with these guides. (But I definitely encourage you to check out The Books of the Bible!)