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Why Does the Bible Look the Way It Does?

It is more accurate to speak of many Bibles rather than one, as religious traditions have different views of order and canonical status.

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If we compared the table of contents of all the Bibles at a bookstore, we would find that many of them contain different books arranged in a variety of orders. This is because different religious communities have adopted different canons. This term, derived from the Greek word kanon (meaning “rod” or “measuring stick”), describes a closed collection of writings that has been set apart by a given community and recognized as having the authority to shape its identity, beliefs, values, and practices. Canonical status often goes hand in hand with claims that these writings are somehow inspired by God or possess divine authority, although it would be very misleading to say that all Jews and Christians understand such claims in the same way. It would also be misleading to say that all Jews and Christians read the same Bible. So before we can talk about why Bibles look the way they do, we must specify whose Bible is under discussion.

One obvious difference is that Christian Bibles include the New Testament, a collection of writings from the early church that is not part of the Jewish canon. The older and larger section of Christian Bibles overlaps with Jewish Scripture and is generally called the Old Testament. Christianity affirms the equal canonical authority of both testaments, a point that was unsuccessfully challenged by a man named Marcion in the second century C.E. Marcion claimed that what he saw as the vengeful, bloodthirsty God depicted in Jewish Scripture could not be the same deity as the loving, merciful God portrayed in his favorite Christian writings. This argument was successfully refuted and Marcionism was declared a heresy, but the belief that the Old Testament is outdated or has been superseded by the New Testament unfortunately persists among many Christians. For that reason, some scholars suggest relabeling the two sections of the Christian canon as the First and Second Testaments, but these more neutral titles are not widely used.

However, the differences among Bibles do not end there. Not only do Jewish and Christian Bibles differ, not all Christian Bibles look alike either. When the Jesus movement first arose within Judaism, early Christians naturally adopted the Jewish Scriptures as their own. This movement quickly spread into the Greek-speaking world, meaning that most early Christians read these scriptures in the popular Greek translation known as the Septuagint (LXX). Because at that point the Jewish canon was not yet finalized, the contents of the Septuagint diverged in important ways from what would eventually become the Jewish Bible.

For example, the LXX contained a much shorter version of Jeremiah. It also included several additional books, such as Baruch, Tobit, and Judith. Various movements within Christianity have assigned different canonical weight to the Septuagint’s “extra” books. Eventually the church described them as deuterocanonical, suggesting that they have a secondary status within Christian Scripture. Sixteenth-century Protestant reformers rejected them altogether as part of their canon, leading the Roman Catholic Church to respond by reaffirming their full canonical status at the Council of Trent (1545–63). So today, Catholic and Orthodox churches recognize these books as part of their canon, whereas Protestant churches do not.

All Christian canons, however, follow the Septuagint’s order by arranging the Old Testament’s narrative books to form a more-or-less chronological storyline and grouping together other books that are believed to share the same author or literary genre. The collection begins with what seem to be historical books that tell a story extending from creation in Genesis to the restored postexilic community in Nehemiah. In Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, this story continues through the Maccabean revolt. Next come poetic books intended for use in worship (such as Psalms) and instruction (such as Proverbs). Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs appear together here because of their presumed (but historically unlikely) authorship by Solomon.

Finally, the Christian canon ends with prophetic books, although the poetic book of Lamentations is also included in this section because of its traditional (but historically unlikely) connection to Jeremiah. This section also includes the book of Daniel, which many Christians read prophetically even though scholars consider it an apocalyptic book. Overall, the Old Testament begins with what Christians traditionally read as a “fall” story in which a breach is created between God and humanity (Gen 1-3). It closes with what Christians traditionally interpret as predictions of John the Baptist (Mal 4:5-6; John is identified with Elijah in Matt 17:12), who is the Gospel forerunner of Jesus, the one destined to restore the relationship between God and humanity. This provides an easy transition to the Gospels at the beginning of the New Testament.

Though Greek-speaking Jews and Christians in the first century read the Septuagint, Aramaic-speaking Jews read their scriptures in Hebrew. The developing Hebrew canon excluded the LXX’s extra books and eventually confined itself to three collections of books represented by the consonants of the acronym Tanakh: Torah (“Instruction” or “Law”), Nevi’im (“Prophets”), and Ketuvim (“Writings”). The Torah was the first of these collections to gain canonical status in Judaism, perhaps as early as the fifth century B.C.E. It tells a story that extends from creation (Genesis) to the death of Moses (Deuteronomy). Because the five books of the Torah would each have been written on a separate scroll in antiquity, sometimes it is also called the Pentateuch (derived from Greek words meaning “five scrolls”).

The Prophets include narrative books (called the Former Prophets) that continue the Torah’s story through the devastating destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and poetic books (called the Latter Prophets) that contain divine pronouncements attributed to particular individuals. There are three long books among the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) that are designated the Major Prophets because each constituted a separate scroll. The remaining twelve short books in this section are called the Minor Prophets or the Book of the Twelve, because they could be written together on one scroll.

Both the Torah and the Prophets had attained canonical status by the second century B.C.E., when both are mentioned by name in the Greek prologue of the deuterocanonical book of Sirach. The writer of this prologue also vaguely alludes to a third collection of texts (called simply “the other books”) that would eventual solidify into the Writings. The varied collection of books in this third section of the Jewish canon reflects the early Judaism of the Persian and Hellenistic periods. For Jews, the Bible is a story of the tumultuous but always continuing relationship between God and Israel. It ends with the edict of Cyrus (2Chr 36:22-23) calling upon Jews to return to Jerusalem.

The Tanakh exists in its present form as a result of the efforts of Jewish scholars known as Masoretes who meticulously copied and recopied biblical manuscripts for centuries. These Hebrew texts were originally written only with consonants, which readers would vocalize from memory by providing appropriate vowels. Different ways of reading these texts inevitably developed over time. The Masoretes developed a written system of vowels, which they added to biblical manuscripts to standardize their pronunciation. The oldest complete manuscript of a Masoretic Text in existence today, the Leningrad Codex, dates from 1009 C.E. and serves as the textual basis of modern Jewish Bibles and of many Christian Old Testaments. An older and much better manuscript, the Aleppo Codex (circa 920 C.E.), is today stored in Jerusalem. However, it has been the center of modern controversy due to the circumstances under which it was obtained by the Israel Museum and the mysterious disappearance of about two hundred of its pages. Even today pages of this codex continue to surface.

The canonization of Jewish and Christian Bibles was a long and gradual process that extended over several centuries. At no point did some elite and powerful group make this decision once and for all. Rather, books emerged as authoritative as a result of their enduring popularity, claims about their authorship, historical accidents, and opinions expressed by religious leaders. Many books that circulated widely in ancient Israel and the early church were ultimately excluded from the official canons of church and synagogue. Jewish and Christian leaders vigorously debated the status of several books (namely Esther, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Ezekiel) that would ultimately be included in the Jewish Bible and Christian Old Testament.

Aside from the contents and order of biblical canons, another key visual feature of Bibles today is the inclusion of chapter and verse numbers within the text. These numbers allow readers to easily locate a particular passage but often appear in awkward places, with stories beginning or ending in the middle of a verse (for example, Gen 2:4). It is important to remember that these numbers were not an original part of biblical manuscripts but were added in the late Middle Ages. Slight differences exist in the chapter and verse citations of Jewish and Christian Bibles. In addition, many modern Bibles surround the text with footnotes, explanatory articles, and devotional materials. Because these features can exert a lot of influence on how readers interpret the text itself, it is important to be aware of their source and their theological/ideological slant.

  • Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch

    Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch is a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University. She has authored and edited several works including the textbook Studying the Old Testament (Abingdon), the forthcoming The Bible in MotionA Handbook of Biblical Reception in Film (de Gruyter), and many chapters and articles. She serves as the film editor for the multivolume reference work Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (de Gruyter).