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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Arrangement

The arrangement of the New Testament, like its contents, is now standardized among Christians. But it is interesting to note that the current arrangement was not the usual one in the first few Christian centuries. Modern Bibles group together all the narratives—the four Gospels and Acts. But Christians in the early centuries linked Acts with the so-called catholic epistles. “Catholic” here means “addressed to all Christians,” and in practice the catholic epistles are the letters which are neither by Paul nor attributed to him. His letters each had a specific Christian church in mind, whereas the letters of the other apostles (James, Peter, John, and Jude) seem to envisage a wider group, rather like later papal encyclicals. Early Christian Bibles put Acts, the story of what the apostles did, at the beginning of the section containing the letters they wrote. The Gospels form a section on their own, and so do the letters of Paul (usually taken to include Hebrews). Revelation is the only member of a fourth category. So an early Christian Bible does not have quite the pattern we traced above, and the parallel drawn above with the Old Testament breaks down.

The Old Testament once again offers a more complicated case. Christian Bibles of all sorts usually have the shape described above, with histories followed by poetic books followed by prophets. As we have seen, what is included in each section varies. Catholic Bibles include Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Protestant Bibles exclude them. But the big difference in the arrangement of the Old Testament lies between Christian and Jewish Bibles.

The Hebrew Bible, as we saw, contains only the books that Protestants now accept as Holy Scripture. This does not mean that Jews follow Protestants! It results from the fact that, at the Reformation, Protestants decided to follow the Jewish canon for the books of the Old Testament. But the internal arrangement of the Hebrew books is strikingly different from that of Christian Bibles. There are still three sections, but their logic is a completely different one. The arrangement can be seen by looking at modern Jewish translations of the Bible into English, such as that of the Jewish Publication Society.

The first section of the Hebrew Bible is called the Torah, sometimes translated into English as “the Law.” However, Torah has a wider meaning than the English word “law” Though Torah includes the sense of law, it also means teaching, instruction, and guidance. By calling the first section of the Bible “Torah,” Jews are signalling that for them it forms the heart of Scripture, the books which are the supreme authority in matters of faith and life. The Torah consists of the Pentateuch or five “books of Moses”—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Christians often think of these simply as five “historical books,” running on without a break into Joshua. But in Judaism they are see not primarily as history but as instruction. They do of course contain historical narratives, but the purpose of these is to guide the life of their Jewish readers, not simply to record information about the past.

The second section of the Hebrew Bible is called the Prophets. This contains all the books called prophets in Christian Bibles (except Daniel), but it also includes the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Since the Middle Ages these historical books have come to be known as the “Former Prophets,” with the books that are prophetic in the ordinary sense (for example Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos) described as the “Latter Prophets,” but this is not seen as a very important distinction. Why the histories were included under the same heading as the prophecies no-one knows: perhaps they were thought to have prophets as their authors. (Jewish sources tend, for example, to regard Samuel as the author of the books of Samuel, and Jeremiah of the books of Kings.) The Prophets section is important in Jewish worship. After the weekly reading from the Torah, there is a second reading, and it always comes from the Prophets, whether Former or Latter. There is a tendency to think of the Prophets as a kind of second tier in Scripture, of slightly lower status than the Torah though still, of course, highly authoritative.

For the third section the rather bland name Writings is the official term—sometimes modern writers use the Greek form Hagiographa, meaning “sacred writings.” This is the section to which everything in Scripture that is not Torah or Prophets is assigned. Such an organization of the texts causes some surprises to those used to the Christian Bible. Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, which Christian Bibles treat as histories and place after Kings, appear in Hebrew Bibles in the Writings section. What is more, they are usually arranged out of chronological order: Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles. Daniel is also reckoned among the Writings, not with the Prophets. Here appear also the five books that were read at Jewish festivals: Lamentations, Ruth, Esther, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. The order of books in the Writings is not regarded as very significant: ancient and medieval manuscripts sometimes have different orders. The Writings are sometimes thought of as somewhat lower in status than the Prophets, though for practical purposes it is the distinction between the Torah and the rest that is really important. Early rabbis sometimes lumped Prophets and Writings together as “Qabbalah,” or tradition.

There has never been a Christian Bible that followed the Jewish arrangement, and this perhaps is puzzling. When Protestants decided to remove the deuterocanonical books from their canon, leaving only the same Hebrew books that were also accepted by Jews, they did not rearrange what remained to make it follow the Hebrew order. They simply extracted the deuterocanonical books, and left everything else as it was. Consequently we could say that the Protestant “Old Testament” is the Hebrew Bible arranged in the Christian order—something of a hybrid Scripture.

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