Thursday, February 24, 2005

Scripture Structure Savvy

guidance for Bible readers

The Holy Bible is a Book of books, a divinely inspired anthology written over the span of millennia by many authors in several genres, sort of a one-volume library. Most New Testment books are "epistles" -- letters to congregations or individuals.

Ezra the scribe is credited as the compiler of the writings we call the Old Testament, while the apostle John is credited for the final compilation of the writings we call the New Testament. But traditions of arrangement haven't honored their compilations! For reading or study it helps to know the original sequence of the books in their original divisions, and the original composition of some larger books which later were divided into smaller books.

In traditional English Bibles the books aren't arranged the same as they are in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts – but rather are somewhat scrambled! And several larger Old Testament books are divided into smaller ones. The original sequences and divisions are thus obscured. A thoughtful study of this issue, with insights into purposes for the original sequences and divisions, is Restoring the Original Bible by Ernest L. Martin, Associates for Scriptural Knowledge, 1994.

Two English Bibles with Old Testament books arranged in original manuscript order are: Tanakh, a new translation of the Holy Scriptures according to the traditional Hebrew text, by The Jewish Publication Society, 1985 and Complete Jewish Bible, An English Version of the Tanakh (Old Testament) and B’rit Hadashah (New Testament), by David H. Stern, by Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1998. Stern's Old Testament follows the original manuscript order of the books but his New Testament does not, following post-apostolic tradition.

The Roman Catholic Church rearranged the New Testament to put Romans and other letters to Gentiles following Acts, launching a tradition of ordering its books differently from the original anthology of the Greek manuscripts. In the original manuscripts the general epistles come first! The general epistles are from men who were with Christ longer, all but 2 and 3 John addressed to larger audiences. James, Peter and John were esteemed as most authoritative among the apostles, and Jude, like James, was Christ's brother. Their epistles address basic issues of the faith. Peter and Jude warn about Paul's words being twisted to justify disobedience to God.

Paul's epistles, which in the original manuscripts come after the general epsitles, each originally went to a particular congregation or person, and may be harder to understand. Hebrews is an unsigned scholarly essay, but the author is thought to be Paul.

An English New Testament reflecting the original manuscript order is The New Testament In Its Original Order--A Faithful Version With Commentary, by Fred R. Coulter, York Publishing Company, Hollister, CA, 2003.

What we call the “Old Testament” Scriptures were known to Jesus and his disciples by their three major divisions: the Law, or Law of Moses (also known as the Torah --“teaching”), the Prophets, and the Holy Writings (often Psalms, after its largest book). In Luke 22:44, Christ refers to “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms”.

The "Old Testament" Scriptures as known to Jesus and his disciples are arranged in only 22 books! Much later some of those larger books were divided into smaller ones to produce 39 books as we know them. “Joshua and Judges” is one book. “The Book of Kingdoms” was divided to become four books: 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. “The Twelve” – one book -- was divided into Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. “Ezra-Nehemiah” is one book. “The Book of Chronicles” was divided to become 1 & 2 Chronicles.

Old Testament Books in their original order, in their three major divisions and 22 books:

THE LAW, or Law of Moses -- “the Torah” (anciently opening words are “names” for these books)

Genesis -- “in the beginning” or, less commonly “book of the righteous”
Exodus – “and these are the names”
Leviticus – “and he called”
Numbers – “in the wilderness”
Deuteronomy – “these are the words” or “words”


Joshua and Judges
The Book of Kingdoms [1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings]
The Twelve [Hosea to Malachi – “the minor prophets”]

THE HOLY WRITINGS, commonly called THE PSALMS after its first and largest book

The Psalms
The Proverbs
Song of Songs
The Book of Chronicles [1 & 2 Chronicles]

New Testament Books in their original order:

GOSPELS -- "good news" -- narratives of the life of Jesus Christ


ACTS -- of the apostles and early church



1 Peter
2 Peter
1 John
2 John
3 John

PAULINE EPISTLES -- letters from Paul

1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy



Following the sequential canonical order of the original manuscripts yields 49 (7 X 7) books for the complete Holy Bible.

Aside from changes that were made in the order and division of the books in the original anthologies, it's also useful to understand the nature of ancient Hebrew and Greek as opposed to modern English writing.

The original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts are not punctuated! The only sort of punctuation in the original manuscripts are larger or smaller gaps between portions of solid text, portions varying from verse to many chapters in size. Their writing has no capitals, no commas, no colons, no semi-colons, no parenthesis markings, and no periods. There are not even spaces between words! Instead one finds one letter after another, packed on the pages. This form of writing makes it natural to read out loud … to “sound out” sequences of letters on the page in order to discern words and sentences! It is good to read the Scriptures aloud, the only way it could be done when they were written.

Our traditional chapters and verses were added many centuries after the original compilations of the Old and New Testament manuscripts as divisions of convenience for reference! At times one needs to ignore these divisions to see the full context! Though mostly the same, there are differences in chapter divisions and versification between Jewish and Christian versions of the Old Testament. Malachi 3 is much longer in Jewish versification, and there is no Malachi chapter 4. The Jewish Deuteronomy 13:5 is the Christian Deuteronomy 13:4.


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