The Expository Files


The Bible's Format and Organization

There are several things that are necessary to understand the Bible. We need to approach the Bible with the right motive. Developing a general knowledge of the Bible is important in understanding particular passages.

It is also helpful to note how the Bible is organized if we are to better understand its message. As an example, a dictionary would be quite difficult to use if one had never learned it was organized alphabetically. I might know it was a book that told me the definitions of words, but I'd be hard pressed to look up a word if I had never caught on to its being alphabetically arranged.

In many ways, the Bible is written like any other book. But in other ways, it is very much unlike them. One of the ways it is unlike any other book is the length of time and the manner in which it has come into existence. This led to its being organized in a way that may seem a little strange and confusing.

If you pick up a book of history, you generally read it through from earlier periods to later periods. If it were a history of our own nation, Chapter one might be about The voyage of Columbus while chapter six might be about the Revolutionary War with Great Britain. But the Bible is not generally laid out in strict chronological order. If you read the Bible "from cover to cover" you will not read it chronologically. (i.e. you won't read of Job until after Moses, but he probably lived before. You'll read of King Hezekiah way before you read the book of Isaiah, but they lived at the same time. You'll read about the birth of Christ, the death of Christ, and then the birth of Christ again. The epistles are not in chronological order. While individual sections of the Bible are in chronological order (i.e. the book of Genesis, the book of Acts) the whole Bible is not.

How The Delivery of God's Word Effected the Bible's Organization

The Book is from God (1 Peter 1:20,21; 2 Timothy 3:16,17). God delivered His word through the centuries of inspiration and employed various means of delivery. (Hebrews 1:1-3). In fact, the Bible is not really a single book, but a collection of sixty-six books. At one time, these were all separate books, all recognized as Scripture, but not under a single book cover or in a single scroll (Luke 4:14-19).

The whole centuries long delivery process was completed before all the Scriptures were brought together under one cover.

To combine the whole work in progress during the Old Testament period was impossible.. or at least not expedient. Such a huge scroll would have been difficult to use. But some of the separate works were brought together. The first five books were combined and referred to as "The Law", all written by Moses. Sometimes these are called "The Pentateuch" . The books of poetry were all combined under the heading "the Psalms." There were also "the prophets" and the histories. Jesus refers to some of these groupings (Luke 24:44).

As men compiled all Scripture under one cover (which only became feasible when books with pages and bindings began to replace scrolls), they had to add these books in some order. Early compilations did not all share the same order, though all of them put the books of Moses first.


So, what would be the order of the books? The modern Hebrew Bible: (No NT books of course) is arranged this way:

LAW - first 5 books
PROPHETS - Former prophets: Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings
LATTER PROPHETS: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The book of the 12
WRITINGS - Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Eccl. Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, 1&2 Chronicles.

Though the order is different, these are precisely the same books as in our OT (non catholic versions). Neither the Hebrew Bible nor the "Christian Bible" is in chronological order, but books are grouped according to type. Our Bibles are arranged this way:

Old Testament
LAW - first 5 books
12 BOOKS OF HISTORY (Joshua to Esther
5 BOOKS OF POETRY (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Eccl, Song of Solomon
PROPHETS - major prophets (Isaiah Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel,12 minor prophets

New Testament
HISTORY - gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
EPISTLES - Paul's to churches, Paul's to individuals, Hebrews, Minor Epistles (James, Peter, John, Jude)
PROPHECY - Revelation

Understanding the Bible Order

While there is great benefit in reading the Bible through (becoming more generally familiar with it) that is not a good way to come to an understanding of a particular topic. If I wanted to study baptism, and started with Genesis and read the Bible through, in one Bible I have I would have read 1208 pages before coming to the first mention of the word. This would be sort of like wanting to know the definition of the word "trouble" and picking up a dictionary and start reading with the "a's". A part of being a good workman is to learn how to use his tools (2 Timothy 2:15). A carpenter needs to know which end of the hammer to use to drive a nail, and which to use when pulling one.

Subject Matter

If I wanted to study repentance, I need to know that the information I need is not found in just one verse, or chapter, or book. The information is not progressive (i.e. simple things about repentance do not appear on early pages, then more complex issues later.) We must not isolate a passage from the rest. We must look at repentance in light of all the Bible says about it.

An understanding of how the Bible is organized will help us in searching out truth within its pages. The Bible was written by inspiration of about forty individuals over a period of about fifteen hundred years. These writers discussed topics and events as they happened according to the present need. The Old Testament dealt with its present circumstances and foretold of the coming of a Savior. The New Testament tells us He has arrived and accomplished His task. Because of that, we can use the word of God to extend to the world the gracious invitation of Christ: He said, "Come to me." He has told us how to do so. By all means, take Him up on it.

By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 15.4; April 2008