We can't begin a study on the divisions of the books of the Bible without first clarifying the term canon. The canon of Scripture refers to the list of books that are officially accepted as "divinely inspired" and thus rightfully belonging in the Bible. Only the canonical books are considered the authoritative Word of God. The process of determining the biblical canon was begun by Jewish scholars and rabbis and later finalized by the early Christian church toward the end of the fourth century.
More than 40 authors in three languages during a period of 1,500 years contributed to the books and letters which make up the biblical canon of Scripture.
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The Bible is divided into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Testament
refers to a covenant between God and his people.
- Jews and Protestant Christians recognize 39 inspired books of the Old Testament.
- Protestant Christians recognize 27 inspired books of the New Testament.
- Roman Catholic and a few Orthodox translations contain additional books, recognizing a portion of the Apocrypha.
Both Jews and early church fathers agreed on 39 divinely inspired books as comprising the Old Testament canon of Scripture. Augustine
(400 A.D.), however, included the books of the Apocrypha. A large portion of the Apocrypha was officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church
as part of the biblical canon at the Council of Trent in A.D. 1546. Today, Coptic
, Greek and Russian Orthodox churches also accept these books as divinely inspired by God. The word apocrypha
means "hidden." The books of the Apocrypha are not considered authoritative in Judaism
and Protestant Christian churches.
The 39 books of the Old Testament were written over a period of approximately 1,000 years, beginning with Moses
(around 1450 B.C.) until the time when the Jewish people returned to Judah from exile (538-400 B.C.) during the Persian Empire
. The English Bible follows the order of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), and thus differs in order from the Hebrew Bible. For the sake of this study, we will consider the divisions of Greek and English Bibles only. Many English Bible readers may not realize that the books are ordered and grouped according to style or type of writing, and not chronologically.
Written more than 3,000 years ago, the first five books of the Bible are called the Pentateuch. The word pentateuch
means "five vessels," "five containers," or "five-volumed book." For the most part, both Jewish and Christian tradition credit Moses
with primary authorship of the Pentateuch. These five books form the theological foundation of the Bible.
The next division of the Old Testament contains the Historical Books. These 12 books record the events of Israel's history, beginning with the book of Joshua
and the nation's entry into the Promised Land until the time of its return from exile some 1,000 years later. As we read these pages of the Bible, we relive incredible stories and meet fascinating leaders, prophets, heroes and villains.
The writing of the Poetry and Wisdom Books spanned from the time of Abraham
through the end of the Old Testament. Possibly the oldest of the books, Job
, is of unknown authorship. The Psalms have many different writers, King David
being the most notable and others remaining anonymous. Proverbs
, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are primarily attributed to Solomon
. Also referred to as "wisdom literature," these books deal precisely with our human struggles and real-life experiences.
There have been prophets throughout every era of God's relationship with mankind, but the books of the prophets address the "classical" period of prophecy—during the later years of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel, throughout the time of exile, and into the years of Israel's return from exile. The Prophetic Books were written from the days of Elijah
(874-853 B.C.) until the time of Malachi (400 B.C.). They are further divided by Major and Minor Prophets.
- Major Prophets
- Lamentations - Scholarship favors Jeremiah as the author of Lamentations. The book, a poetic work, is placed here with the Major Prophets in English Bibles because of its authorship.
- Daniel - In English and Greek Bible translations, Daniel is considered one of the Major Prophets; however, in the Hebrew canon it is part of "The Writings."
- Minor Prophet
For Christians, the New Testament is the fulfillment and culmination of the Old Testament. What the prophets of old longed to see, Jesus Christ
fulfilled as Israel's Messiah and the Savior of the World. The New Testament tells the story of Christ's coming to earth as a man, his life and ministry, his mission, message, and miracles, his death, burial, and resurrection, and the promise of his return.
The four Gospels recount the story of Jesus Christ, each book giving us a unique perspective on his life. They were written between A.D. 55-65, with the exception of John's Gospel, which was written around A.D. 85-95.
The book of Acts, written by Luke, provides a detailed, eyewitness account of the birth and growth of the early church and the spread of the gospel immediately after the resurrection
of Jesus Christ. It is considered a New Testament history book about the early church. The book of Acts supplies a bridge connecting the life and ministry of Jesus to the life of the church and the witness of the earliest believers. The work also constructs a link between the Gospels and the Epistles.
The Epistles are letters written to the fledgling churches and individual believers in the earliest days of Christianity. The Apostle Paul
wrote the first 13 of these letters, each addressing a specific situation or problem. Paul's writings constitute about one-fourth of the entire New Testament.
- The General Epistles
- 1 and 2 Peter
- 1, 2 and 3 John
The Book of Revelation
This final book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, is sometimes called "The Revelation of Jesus Christ" or "The Revelation to John." The author is John, the son of Zebedee, who also wrote the Gospel of John. He penned this dramatic book while living in exile on the Island of Patmos, around A.D. 95-96. At the time, the early Christian church in Asia faced an intense period of persecution.
The book of Revelation contains symbolism and imagery that challenge the imagination and bewilder the understanding. It is believed to be a culmination of end times prophecies. The interpretation of the book has posed a problem for Bible students and scholars throughout the ages.
Although a difficult and strange book, no doubt, the book of Revelation is certainly worthy of study. The hope-filled message of salvation in Jesus Christ, the promise of blessing for his followers, and God's ultimate victory and supreme power are the prevailing themes of the book.