The modern Bible is a book comprised of 66 individual books. Some are several chapters long, such as Isaiah and Psalms. Philemon, however, is only a few hundred words in length. Each book fulfills a purpose, such as giving prophecy or explaining the law. What is a “book of the bible” and how can we know that each of these books belongs there?
What Is the Purpose of the Bible?
First, it’s useful to understand what the Bible is for. Matt Slick at CARM.org writes, “The purpose of the Bible (...) is to reveal who God is, his will for mankind, and to document the prophecies about, arrival of, and ministry of Jesus.” It is a “history book (...) that conveys the account of God's work from the beginning of creation in Genesis to the end of the world in Revelation.” Each book belongs in the Bible and is an essential part of the whole story of God; however, it was not originally constructed in the form of books. God’s people recorded the Lord’s inspired word over time as they encountered Him. Organizing scripture came later when there was a considerable amount of information to examine.
History of the Bible
The Bible took shape slowly starting with the Pentateuch, recorded by the fifth-century BC, although the exact date is not known. At first, the law and other writings were passed down orally. “It was actually not until AD 367 that the church father Athanasius first provided the complete listing of the 66 books belonging to the canon.”
The texts that comprise the Old Testament are believed to have been written over a thousand-year period until around the middle of the first millennium BC. The Bible contains “the writings of Moses and the writings after Moses.” Dan Stewart explains that “the writings that came from Moses were the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. Moses seems to have used earlier documents to write Genesis.” Moses would not have written books in the way modern readers think of writings bound together with a cover and table of contents.
How Was the Bible Formed?
Instead, there were scrolls and engravings; oral tradition recorded for posterity, and letters preserved. These “books” were made from pieces of animal skins and papyrus. There was no means of reproducing such works except by employing scribes.
Centuries of recording and then copying and recopying the Old Testament have led to many human errors, but the science of textual criticism has enabled theologians to “sort through the various versions of the Old Testament and get as close to the original as possible.”
A number of books known as the Apocrypha are not included in the Bible. Their “questionable origins and doubtful canonicity” relegate them to study for curiosity and literary value, but Bible scholars even in the early church doubted that the Apocrypha was inspired by God whereas “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Apocryphal writings are not necessary for conveying the nature of God, describing God’s story, or explaining the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Bible scholars agree that these books do not serve the purpose set out above by Matt Slick. The Apocrypha includes Maccabees, Sirach, and Tobit.
Athanasius “distinguished [accepted books] from other books that were widely circulated, and he noted that those 66 books were the ones, and the only ones, universally accepted.” These became “canon” or the writings which Christian experts decided were the inspired Word of God.
Division by Style
Most Christian theologians agree as to which works belong in the Bible, but God did not command that Scripture be organized as we see it today. Scripture was not transmitted or transcribed as one whole book, but neither was it transmitted as a series of historical and legal documents, poems, and prophecies neatly organized according to their categories. Many styles were mixed-up in the recorded experiences of Biblical figures such as Solomon and Moses. Why, then, divide the Word in such a way that a story might be interrupted?
Dividing the Word into books fostered more in-depth organization along thematic lines and fostered further division into chapter and verse “for the sake of convenience. There is no authoritative basis for the divisions we find now. For the greater part of human history, there have been no chapter or verse divisions in Scripture” until several centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection. The earliest “English Bible to have both chapter and verse divisions was the Geneva Bible (1560).”
Drawbacks to Division
What was the purpose of these divisions? “They make it easier to find certain statements and accounts in Scripture” but they are “human-made” and “sometimes arbitrary” which means “they sometimes interfere with the sense of the passage.” If one wishes to understand the Bible, “ignore the modern chapter and verse divisions.”
We might say the same thing where the books are concerned if their placement interferes with chronology. For example, “Samuel- Kings and Chronicles- Ezra- Nehemiah” are out of order. The “covenant history” and “royal history” contain some of the same figures, but their stories have been divided to describe God’s covenant with Israel and the rise of a line of kings respectively. We read groupings of books which contain the law, history, prophecy, and poetry. Sometimes, we lose the flow of what happened, when it happened, and the consequences of these events in order of when they happened.
The New Testament letters are not arranged first to last either. Paul’s epistles are organized in “order from longest to shortest.” One can detect thematic organization along the lines of the sufficiency of Christ in Colossians, how pastors should conduct themselves in 1 Timothy, and the evidence of faith in how we treat others (James). One would not use this order of the epistles to establish a timeline for the early church.
Does it Work?
Thematic division has its drawbacks but is often handy for exploring some facet of God’s character and for finding information easily. Besides, when one wishes to see God’s story from a new angle, there are resources available such as a chronological bible and the harmony of the gospels. The Bible we recognize today in its various translations (ESV, NIV, NLT, etc.) persists for good reason: it reads as history, a love letter, as instruction, as epic literature, and at times feels like a fast-paced, thrilling adventure story.
Even though there are 66 books, each of these contains a story within God’s overarching narrative in which Christ is the main character. Those unconvinced that the Bible is organized effectively might want to not. “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”
Candice Lucey lives with her husband and daughters in (mostly) tranquil Salmon Arm, BC, Canada. Here, she enjoys digging into God’s word when not working or taking part in ministry activities. Her prose and poetry have previously appeared in such publications as Purpose and Creation Illustrated, and her short plays were performed at Christmas by Sunday School students for several years. Catch up with Candice’s scriptural studies at her blog Wordwell.ca.