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 GospelsWithin 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.
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
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 EpistlesThe 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 MoreI’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: