The sequence of the books of the Bible


The Bible is a sacred book to Judaism and Christianity alike, but its contents and composition differ between the two religions, added to which there are canonical differences between certain Christian denominations, e.g. Catholics and Protestants.

The Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible is traditionally divided into three main groups according to the religious significance of the texts, namely the Law (Torah in Hebrew), the Prophets (Neviim) and the Hagiographa or Writings (Ketuvim), making thirty-six books in all. The initial letters of the parts form the designation of the whole Bible, vocalised as TaNaKH (the Hebrew letter ‘kaf’ in Ketuvim being pronounced ‘kh’ at the end of a word).
The Torah, corresponding to the five Mosaic books of the Pentateuch, is the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible. The Prophets, which is the next part, comprises both the earlier prophets (Joshua, Judges and Samuel), with four Books of Kings, and the later ones, viz three Major (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) and twelve Minor Prophets (the reference here being to length of text), from Hosea to Malachi. The Hagiographa have the least religious importance. This comprises the biblical books which are either regarded as wisdom writings or else contain symbolic narratives, e.g. the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, the five Megillot (‘rolls’) which are read out on festivals (Ruth, the Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Esther), and, finally, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and the Books of Chronicles.

The tripartite division of the Hebrew Bible probably goes back to ancient times. Its canon, i.e. the list of acknowledged, authoritative scriptures, was finalised at the end of the first century AD. Medieval manuscripts seldom include all three parts of the Bible together.

The Greek translation

The Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, presumably in the third century BC, for the benefit of Hellenic Jews. The translation was known by the Latin name of Septuaginta (seventy), after the number of scholars who, legend had it, produced the translation. It contains a number of deuterocanonical books which are not included in the Hebrew Bible (Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Syrach/Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, I-II Maccabees).

The Septuagint is the foundation of the Christian Bible, enlarged by the addition of the Christian scriptures, i.e. the New Testament. In 397 AD the Third Council of Carthage drew up an authoritative list of New Testament books, totalling twenty-seven – the same number as now. The New Testament comprises five historical books (four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles), twenty-one Epistles and the Book of Revelation. Altogether the Latin Bible has seventy-three books (forty-six in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New).

The sequence of the Latin Bible

For a long time the sequence of Old Testament books in the Latin Bible remained variable, the only stable part being the Pentateuch (from the Greek penta, five, and teuchos, book). The Pentateuch is usually accompanied by Joshua, Judges and Ruth. Together these eight books form a group commonly known as the Octateuch (from the Greek okta, eight). The study of the sources is beset with the difficulties as very few early biblical manuscripts have survived. Our information for the period between the fourth and sixth centuries rests mainly on other written sources. The Bible was often made up of about ten volumes. Bibliotheca, the name commonly given to it in medieval times, telling us that the work was made up in several volumes. Bibles containing all the various books in a single volume – pandectes (from the Greek pan, all, dekhesthai, to receive) – are rare, and single-volume Bibles did not become usual until the thirteenth century.

Jerome’s translation

When the Church Father Jerome set about translating the scriptures of the Old Testament into Latin at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, he ordered them in compliance with the Hebrew tradition. In his Prologue to the Books of Kings and in one of his letters he refers to the four sequences of the Bible – three identical to those of the Hebrew Bible (the Law; the Prophets, with Ruth and Lamentations added; the Hagiographa), and a fourth comprising the apocryphal scriptures (Baruch, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus/The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Syrach, I-II Maccabees, Tobit and Judith). Few manuscripts conform exactly to Jerome’s grouping of the scriptures, and the boundaries between the four orders frequently crossed.

The structure of the Alcuin Bible

The structure of the Latin Bible was influenced decisively by Alcuin (c. 735-804), a scholar, theologian and teacher from York who became counsellor to Charlemagne. When, in 796, he became abbot of St Martin’s Tours, he took the initiative in producing a number of Bible manuscripts. Production continued after his death and well into the ninth century. The biblical manuscripts have a great deal in common regarding both their appearance and contents. They constitute a particular type of Bible known as the Alcuin or Tours Bible. Many of these Bibles are in one volume. They belonged mainly to French, Italian and English monasteries.

The basic structure of the Alcuin Bible is strongly reminiscent of Jerome’s, but the deuterocanonical books do not form a separate group. Daniel, moreover, comes at the end of the Prophets, and Job either after Ruth or after the Prophets (not after the Pentateuch). The book of the Minor Prophets comes after the Major Prophets, not before them, and Esther does not come after the Wisdom of Solomon. Subject to certain variations, the structure of the Alcuin Bible is as follows: Genesis – Ruth, I-IV Kings, the Prophets, the poetical books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus) and finally the historical books (Chronicles I-II, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Tobit, Judith and I-II Maccabees).

The New Testament in the Alcuin Bible begins with the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The Acts of the Apostles and the Catholic Epistles (James, I-II Peter, I-III John and Jude) follow together with the Book of Revelation, which can also come at the end of the New Testament. The Pauline Epistles precede or follow the Catholic Epistles. The Epistle to the Hebrews and the apocryphal [Gloss] Epistle to the Laodiceans come last after the Pauline Epistles.

The Paris Bible

A new type of Bible, known as the University or Paris Bible, came into being at the beginning of the thirteenth century. This was greatly influenced by the Alcuin Bible, but its books were arranged in a somewhat different order. The Paris Bible achieved a very great impact and is the basis of modern editions of the Latin Bible.

Codex Gigas

The Codex Gigas conforms essentially in its structure to the Alcuin Bible, except that the books of Samuel and Kings come in between Job and the Psalms, which is a deviant and very unusual feature. The manuscript also includes Baruch, which is not in the Alcuin Bible. It forms part of Jeremiah, from which it is distinguished only by having slightly bigger decorated initials. Otherwise Job comes after the Prophets and Esther after Judith. In the New Testament the Book of Revelation comes after the Catholic Epistles.

The main structure is accentuated partly with the aid of full-page initials. The first leaf is missing, and so is the beginning of Genesis, which probably opened with a full-page initial to indicate the start of the first biblical group – the Pentateuch. The next group, the Prophets, begins with a decorated full-page initial for Joshua. The Books of Kings have an ornamented full-page initial and in this way make up a separate unit. The poetical books and Hagiographa, on the other hand, are without full-page initials. Of the New Testament books each of the Gospels has full-page initials, in addition to which the initials for Matthew and Mark are embellished with gold.