Why Is the New Testament Organized This Way?

by Jimmy Akin

in +Religion, Bible

Why Is It Organized Like This?

Anyone starting to read the Bible for the first time quickly encounters a frustration: Why are these books, which have strange sounding names, organized this way?

It seems maddening. They aren’t organized in any familiar way. It’s not alphabetical. It’s not chronological. It’s not topical. It’s not by author. It’s not any familiar way of organizing books.

Actually, and even more maddeningly, the organization seems to change at different times between chronology, topic, and author, but it won’t stick to any one scheme. And then there are sequences that just seem mystifying.

But there is a hidden plan within the Bible’s Table of Contents. So let’s take a look at why they are organized the way they are.

Here we will look at how the New Testament books are organized.

The Biggest Division

The biggest organizational division in the New Testament is between those books that are of a historical nature–meaning, the have recording historical events as their primary purpose–and those books that don’t.

Into the first category are the Gospels and the book of Acts and into the second category go everything else.

The historical books are placed first in the New Testament because they describe the founding of the Christian faith. All of the other books, which are written in the form of letters, are placed afterward, so that if you are reading your way through the New Testament you will be able to better understand them after you’ve learned about the foundational events of the faith. Plunging into the letters (epistles) without a grounding in the gospel story would be regarded as a serious mistake.

The Historical Books

Among the historical books, the Gospels come first, because they deal with the beginning of the Christian story–the life of Jesus Christ, his ministry, and his death and resurrection.

The book of Acts comes later, because it deals with later historical events, focusing on what happened after the earthly ministry of Christ.

The Order of the Gospels

St. Augustine of Hippo

Within the Gospels, why are they placed in the order they are?

The basic reason is that this is the order that, for much of Church history, this is the order people thought they were written in. In his Harmony of the Gospels, St. Augustine explains:

Now, those four evangelists whose names have gained the most remarkable circulation over the whole world, and whose number has been fixed as four—it may be for the simple reason that there are four divisions of that world through the universal length of which they, by their number as by a kind of mystical sign, indicated the advancing extension of the Church of Christ—are believed to have written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John Harmony of the Gospels I:2:3).

This opinion was not universal in the early Church. Indeed, Eusebius reports concerning Clement of Alexandria:

The Gospels containing the genealogies [i.e., Matthew and Luke], he says, were written first [Ecclesiastical History: 6:14:6].

Clement lived earlier than Augustine, and so his represents earlier testimony, but it was Augustine’s opinion that came to dominate.

Most modern scholars think that the order in which the Gospels were composed was actually different, but that discussion would take us too far afield.

For now suffice it to say that the reason the Gospels are organized the way that they are was because that was historically the dominant view of the order in which they were written.

The Epistles

All of the books after Acts are written in the form of letters, which means that they technically qualify as epistles. How are these organized?

For the most part, they are organized by author, like this:

  • The ones attributed to Paul
  • The one attributed to James
  • The ones attributed to Peter
  • The ones attributed to John
  • The one attributed to Jude
  • The book of Revelation

You’ll notice that Revelation is separated from the epistles attributed to John. You could explain this by the fact that Revelation deals (in part) with the end of the world, making it a fitting end piece for the Bible, but that’s not the whole story.

It would not explain why Jude comes directly before Revelation, separating it from the other epistles of John. Why not just put Jude before the epistles of John and letting them lead directly into Revelation?

The reason seems to have to do with the order in which the books became popularly received by churches in different areas. Revelation, like a few other books toward the end of the New Testament, was not immediately received as Scripture by everyone, everywhere. Some had doubts about it, and it took a while for the Holy Spirit to guide the Church as a whole into recognizing its inspiration.

Things that people were less sure of tended to get put toward the back of whatever collection they were being included in, with the more certain works first. That’s a phenomenon we’ll see again.

The Epistles of Paul

St. Paul: Most Prolific New Testament Author

Why do St. Paul’s epistles come first, right after the book of Acts? It’s because he wrote more epistles than anyone else. The other writers penned fewer, and so theirs go later.

Okay, but why are Paul’s epistles arranged the way they are?

The basic division is between those he wrote to churches (Romans through 2 Thessalonians) and those he wrote to individuals (1 Timothy through Philemon), with the book of Hebrews added on at the end.

Why is Hebrews at the end? Because some disputed its scriptural status early on and, as we said before, things that people were less certain of tended to get put in the back of the collection.

Eventually the Church was convinced of the canonicity of Hebrews, and it was included among St. Paul’s writings because it has some similarities to his thought and because the dominant view came to be that he was the one who wrote it. (More recent scholars, including Pope Benedict, think it was written by someone else, but it is still sacred and canonical.)

That explains Hebrews, but what about the epistles to the churches and those to individuals? Why are these two collections organized the way they are?

Believe it or not: Size.

It’s the length of the book that determines where it goes in the collection. The longest ones go first and the shortest last. There are other collections of ancient works organized like that, too. It was a somewhat common way of organizing things in antiquity.

Here are the books with the number of words they contain in the Greek New Testament:

  • Romans: 7,111
  • 1 Corinthians: 6,829
  • 2 Corinthians: 4,477
  • Galatians: 2,230
  • Ephesians: 2,422
  • Philippians: 1,629
  • Colossians: 1,582
  • 1 Thessalonians: 1,481
  • 2 Thessalonians: 823

There’s a bit of a hiccup in the pattern with Ephesians coming after Galatians, but size is still the overall criterion. The same applies to the epistles written to individuals:

  • 1 Timothy: 1,591
  • 2 Timothy: 1,238
  • Titus: 659
  • Philemon: 335

The Catholic Epistles

Some Mystery Remains

The Catholic epistles make up the remainder of the New Testament (excepting Revelation, which we’ve already covered).

In different periods of Church history these were arranged several different ways, but the current order is largely dominated by length–just like St. Paul’s epistles–only with individual collections being kept together by author. Here’s the breakdown:

  • James: 1,742
  • 1 Peter: 1,684
  • 2 Peter: 1,099
  • 1 John: 2,141
  • 2 John: 245
  • 3 John: 219
  • Jude: 461

The size pattern explains everything here except why 1 John comes after James and Peter instead of first. If the size rule explained everything then you would expect the author collections to be sequenced John (1-3) > James > Peter (1-2) > Jude, but that’s not what we find in a typical modern New Testament.

So . . . there is some mystery after all.

But there’s also more order than at first meets the eye.

Learning More

He has interesting things to say on the Book of Revelation

I’m currently writing a book–titled Secret History of the Bible–which will go into this kind of information and more, revealing fascinating facts that bear on how, when, and by whom the Bible was written.

That’s not out yet, though, so until then you might want to check out my Secret Information Club. In fact, if you join then the very first think you’ll get is an “interview” with Pope Benedict about the book of Revelation. (I composed questions and then took the answers from his writings.) It’s fascinating reading, so I hope you’ll check it out.

You should click here to learn more or sign up using this form:


If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!

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Matt Watkins July 24, 2012 at 7:38 am

So Jimmy, is there a chronological sequence of the books in the NT and what is it?

terentiaj63 July 24, 2012 at 10:46 am

I’ve always thought the New Testament should have begun with the gospel according to St John because of the symmetry between “In the beginning, God,” and “In the beginning was the Word,”

pasisozi July 24, 2012 at 11:22 am

The arrangement of the Books of the NT are no more than mere convention.
Actually, in some Russian Bibles, the Letters of John, Revelation, and then Gospel according to St. John are printed first.
That’s because the Orthodox (and Byzantine Catholic) Eucharistic Lectionary year begins with Pascha (Easter), and John 1 is read on that day.
Orthodox (and Byzantine Catholic) Gospel books put John first for the same reason.

pasisozi July 24, 2012 at 11:23 am

The arrangement of the Books of the NT is no more than mere convention.
Actually, in some Russian Bibles, the Letters of John, Revelation, and then Gospel according to St. John are printed first.
That’s because the Orthodox (and Byzantine Catholic) Eucharistic Lectionary year begins with Pascha (Easter), and John 1 is read on that day.
Orthodox (and Byzantine Catholic) Gospel books put John first for the same reason.

Leo Leo July 25, 2012 at 10:30 am

Fascinating – thanks Jimmy.
It occurs to me that the original manuscripts would probably have been written on separate scrolls by the different authors. There is no obvious sequence for a collection of scrolls. The ‘codex’ or bound book (with spine and pages) in the shape we now became popular later. It seems to have been made popular by Christians as a convenient and portable way of carrying their sacred texts – perhaps useful in times of persecution.
The NT order is also, approximately, the order in which the different books were accepted as being ‘special’ or canonical. All the books of the New Testament were written before about 100AD. By about 150AD the Four Gospels were widely accepted as being more special than the rest.  By about 200AD, about 22 of the 27 books we now include in the New Testament were generally widely accepted as Scripture. At the time of the Council of Nicaea (325AD) the ‘grey areas’ were:
• Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation.
• Shepherd of Hermas (written 100-160AD), two Epistles by St Clement of Rome (written about 100AD) and the Didache (the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) (written 50-120AD).
Note that these books are not heretical. The Gnostic gospels never even made the shortlist because they did not date back to the Apostles and were seen as historically and doctrinally false.
The first list of the 27 New Testament books exactly as we have it today was made in 367 by St Athanasius of Alexandria, but was initially considered to be binding on his part of church only. Over the centuries his exact list became universally accepted. Underlying all of this is the question of who has the authority to decide the canon of scripture – ultimately it was the Church.
In Martin Luther’s translation placed Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation at the end of the NT because he considered them to be of a lower rank than the rest of the NT.

Homeschooling Works July 26, 2012 at 2:02 am

Interesting, thank you!

Jeb Protestant July 28, 2012 at 5:23 am

Pope Benedict doesn’t think that Hebrews was written by Paul (I don’t know anyone who does, except Robert Reymond) but also thinks the Pastoral Epistles weren’t written by Paul.  In Called to Communion he calls them “post apostolic.”
I gather he accepts the liberal line on the dating and authorship of the Biblical books.  He belives, for example, that there are multiple Isaiahs.
-Jeb Protestant

Jimmy Akin July 28, 2012 at 7:45 am

Jeb, what passage are you thinking of in Called to Communion? Can you provide a page number or a brief quotation I could search on? I’ve tried several searches and haven’t found this kind of statement. In his general audiences as pope he acknowledges that most scholars today think the pastorals are post-apostolic, but he is somewhat tentative about it, without endorsing the idea.
He does, though, think that there were multiple contributors to the book of Isaiah.

Jeb Protestant July 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm

 @Jimmy Akin 
Page 67.  Although it isn’t as clear as I had remembered.  He talks about books that stand at the end of the first generation or the beginning of the second and mentions “especially” Luke and the Pastorals.
If he thinks that some of the books of the NT belong the second generation then I’m wondering which books he is referring to.  I guess you could argue that if the Apostle John lived to a ripe old age then his books could have been written in the second generation.
He also believes that Daniel is written centuries after the events (The God of Jesus Christ, p. 62) and also accepts the liberal composition of Genesis (In the Begining).
-Jeb Protestant

Jimmy Akin July 28, 2012 at 3:25 pm

@Jeb Protestant Thanks, Jeb!
I’ve done a careful study of Benedict XVI’s views on the composition of biblical books, but I wasn’t aware of the passage on Daniel. Much obliged!
Re: the pastorals, he notes in his general audiences that many scholars think they were written after Paul’s life, possibly utilizing materials that were written by Paul, and he notes that some passages seem unmistakably by Paul. He thus raises for consideration without giving a straightforward endorsement of the modern critical ideas about them.
You’re certainly correct that he tends to accept the more recent ideas about when various works were written, but displaying some caution about these proposals, and strongly disagreeing with those who would see these as undermining the authority or reliability of the biblical documents.
He may thus think that John’s Gospel was put in its final form by John the Presbyter rather than John son of Zebedee, but he thinks it’s based on the eyewitness testimony of John son of Zebedee and is thus reliable and divinely authoritative as well.

Jeb Protestant July 28, 2012 at 6:21 pm

 @Jimmy Akin  @Jeb 
In his books on Jesus, the Pope praises John Meier’s work A Marginal Jew as “a model of historical critical exegesis.”  Now I don’t imagine the Pope agrees with everything Meier says (Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, Mary wasn’t a perpetual virgin, etc.).  However no one would call Meier a conservative.
 The Pope shows little familiarity with evangelical exegesis.
-Jeb Protestant

Jimmy Akin July 29, 2012 at 9:44 am

Actually, what he says is “This four-volume work by an American priest is in many respects a model of historical-critical exegesis, in which the significance and the limits of the method emerge clearly.”
The phrases “in many respect” and “and the limits of the method” indicate caution both about the work and about the method.
It’s true that Pope Benedict displays little familiarity with Evangelical exegesis. That’s not at all surprising given the time and culture he was educated in–in which Evangelical scholars have not established much of a presence. In part, this is because so little Evangelical exegesis is available in German and the other European languages apart from English.

Jeb Protestant July 31, 2012 at 6:02 am

 @Jimmy Akin 
But most recent members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission would probably be close to Meier.  Raymond Brown said there was no difference between the Catholic and (moderate) Protestant view of the Bible.  One member of the PBC said the opening chapters of Genesis had nothing of history in them and compared them to Little Red Writing Hood.  This guy also said that Ratzinger frequently attended PBC meetings.
I’m not saying that the Pope is a liberal when it comes to the Bible, but his views are probably closer to the middle of the road Protestant position than the historical Protestant or Catholic view.
-Jeb Protestant

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