The Order and the Ordering of Biblical Books

How did the Bible end up in the order it's in today?

Reprinted with permission from JPS Guide: The Jewish Bible.

For the many centuries before Jewish scribes published books in codex form, they preserved books in the form of separate scrolls. In certain cases, the scribes put several books in a single scroll–and in a particular order. This was true of the Torah, which needed to be ordered because Jews read it ritually in order, as part of their worship. Similarly, the scribes grouped Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings in sequence since they tell a more or less continuous story in chronological order. However, for the rest of the Bible, even in Rabbinic times, there was a varying order of the Prophets (except for the “Minor Prophets“) and the Writings.
Certain people and groups (especially professional scribes!) love order. Mesopotamian scribes often copied series of cuneiform tablets in standard orders. The resulting predictability made it easier for readers to find what they were looking for, no matter which copy they consulted. Similarly, perhaps ancient Israelite librarians may have kept biblical scrolls in ordered cubbyholes, so that they could locate the right text easily. This may be the original function of ordering the books of the Bible.

The Bible shows evidence of ordering at both the macro and the micro level. On the micro level, its text is divided into books- typically, what can fit on a scroll. (Thus the 12 Minor Prophets constitute a single book or scroll, even though it is made up of many books.)

On the macrolevel, this large collection comprises smaller collections. Exactly how and when this was done are subjects of intense current debate: How early is tile three-part division of the Bible into Torah, Nevi’im, and Kethuvim? When and why did this tripartite division develop? Rabbinic sources–though not any of the earliest such sources–do attest to a three-part (what scholars call a “tripartite”) Bible. Scholars have found allusions to this structure in the New Testament and among the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, these references do not decisively prove that the Bible was organized into three parts as early as the 1st century C.E. Indeed, Jews clearly employed a variety of orders and ordering schemes in the Second Temple period.

The tripartite ordering was likely one of the early ordering schemes, for its classifications a re not obvious ones. Daniel properly belongs with the Latter Prophets; Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, and perhaps some other books belong with the Former Prophets. Thus their present classification seems to reflect an evolution: by the time those later books were composed, the set of books known as Prophets had already been determined, so they could not be included in that section. That is, over time the Torah became authoritative first, then Nevi’im, and finally Kethuvim.

This hypothesis for the evolutionary development of the tripartite canon would also explain the stability–and lack of stability–of order within each section.

The Torah–authoritative first–is fully stable: all manuscripts have the order as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus , Numbers, Deuteronomy. (Of course, given the contents of these books, their order is not really flexible.) Within Nevi’im, the same is true for the Former Prophets. Concerning the order of the Latter Prophets, there is more flexibility; most manuscripts do not follow the Talmudic order. Within Kethuvim, manuscripts show a tremendous variation in the order of its books. Quite surprisingly, the ancient sources do not indicate what the last–culminating–book of the Bible should be!

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