By Joshua Penduck
The Bible – it’s clear, isn’t it? For any Evangelical (or Catholic for that matter – and all good Evangelicals are Catholics, if understood in the right way), the Bible is God’s word. God gave it us, and that should clear things up. End of matter. Full-stop. Except that it’s not as clear as that. After all, how many books are there in the Bible? For most Protestants, it’s simple: 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 in the New. But for Roman Catholics, there are 46 books in the Old Testament. For the Eastern Orthodox there are 51 books. And don’t get me started on the baffling world of the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible (which includes more books in the New Testament as well).
The reason for this is that Protestants tend to use only the books of the Jewish Tanakh (which are all in Hebrew), whereas Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox tend to use the Greek translation of the Tanakh, and with it a few other books called the Apocrypha (and once again, the Ethiopian Orthodox must have been ill on the day the church decided the books of the Bible, as they’ve got books that might as well have been written by John Grisham). But even if Protestants tend to use the Jewish Tanakh as the basis of the Old Testament, they’ve re-ordered it. Here are the books of the Jewish Tanakh and the order they come in:
Book of the Twelve
Song of Solomon
If you pick up your own Bible and look at the Old Testament, it is very different. It’s a different order, and there’s a few more books (which have been merged together in the Tanakh). But why?
Simply put, they’re telling a different story. For the Jews, the Tanakh is the Holy Scriptures. The only thing that comes afterwards is commentary. It ends with the exile of the people of Judah into Babylon, and so it’s making a comment about the nature of the Jewish people: perpetually in exile, separated from the land God gave them because of their disobedience (at least that’s one way of reading it… I’d recommend a lifetime’s study to understand the confusing and varied world of Jewish interpretation of the Bible!). But for Christians, the Old Testament ends with Malachi pointing the way to another figure – who is understood in the New Testament to be John the Baptist. As such, it links the Tanakh to a new set of Scriptures – the New Testament. In short, God’s word doesn’t end – far from it! In fact, the biggest and best story is yet to come: Jesus.
These books have been brought together through a complex history: first the Jews gathered together what was considered the holy scriptures in the centuries before Jesus (the Tanakh). These Scriptures which were viewed as God’s word by Jesus himself, and so the church in obedience followed after Christ in viewing them as God’s word, only now understood in the light of Jesus. Which is why, when a Christian says that they don’t believe that the Old Testament is really God’s word, they are claiming to know God’s word better than Jesus. And if a Christian claims that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament, once again, they are claiming a better knowledge of God than Jesus, who was raised to know his Father through the Jewish Scriptures.
But the New Testament is also complicated. After all, who decided that some books should be included and some not? Quite simply, the Church did. But how did they decide? After all, there were quite a few letters out there which the church initially thought should be in the New Testament (the letters of Clement, for instance). Through deep discernment, the Church as a whole, in what can now be seen as through obedience to the Holy Spirit, felt that certain books should be included, and some should not. As I say, this was in obedience to God’s Holy Spirit: this wasn’t simply the Church choosing what it wanted.
These books became the Old and New Testaments. They form the ‘canon’ (which means ‘rule’ or ‘measuring stick’ – the way in which we can measure God’s revelation of himself to us) through which we understand God. And this collection of books, the Bible, would be arranged in the following way:
The Old Testament
The Law (Penteteuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
The Histories: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
Wisdom and Poetry: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon
The Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations (which is actually a poetical book, but included in the prophets), Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
The New Testament
The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
The Histories: The Acts of the Apostles
The Pauline Epistles: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I and II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy, Titus, Philemon
The Catholic Epistles: Hebrews, James, I and II Peter, I II and III John, Jude
The Prophecies: Revelation