Monday, March 09, 2020

Anonymous Asks (83)

“Why isn’t the Bible in chronological order?”

If the Bible were nothing more than a history text, organizing it chronologically would be perfectly sensible. But when you have a book that contains history, law, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy and moral teaching that interprets history for us, the question becomes considerably more complicated.

Unpacking the Complications

For example, how should we date each book of Bible history: by the estimated date of the first incident in the book, by the date on which the last editor appears to have made his final notation about it (assuming that can even be determined), or by some other formula?

Putting a firm date on more than a few books of the Bible is an inexact science. Which historian’s chronology should we trust most? Some books of the Old Testament span lengthy periods, and some overlap with one another. How do we organize those? And what do we do with the books of poetry and wisdom literature, which were compiled over centuries? Should the prophetic books be added when the prophets actually lived, or after the books of history that tell us about their lives?

Ordering the Bible chronologically sounds entirely sensible. In reality, it would be a formidable task, and perhaps an impossible one.

What Would God Say?

Our task would be easier if God had even once weighed in with an opinion about how the Bible should be organized, but he has not done so. The Bible is God-breathed, no doubt, and Jesus taught that even its oldest books are to be considered reliable, but making a coherent case that the order of the Bible’s entries has been providentially controlled throughout the course of history would be very difficult indeed. The various English and foreign-language versions of the Bible arrange its contents differently, and this has always been the case.

We can only speculate as to why God has expressed no interest in how we order the books of the Bible. One possible reason is that there is no perfect reading order. The most effective approach to divine revelation varies depending on one’s cultural background, knowledge and interest. A Jew in the 3rd century A.D. would have done best to start in Genesis and work forward. His cultural background would have made that easiest and most logical, and the NT’s introduction of Israel’s Messiah more understandable. However, a young Christian today with little familiarity with Bible history is best advised to start in the gospels, work his way through the New Testament, then work back through the Old to develop a deeper understanding of the things found in the New, rather than becoming bogged down in genealogies and historical details that don’t appear to have anything to do with his newfound faith in Christ and his immediate need for practical teaching. At least, that would be my recommendation.

The Canon of Scripture

The short explanation for the current order of our English Protestant Bible is something like this: a group of devout men assembled it in a way that seemed logical to them at the time. The history of that process is a long and interesting read, if you’re ever inclined to look it up. F.F. Bruce’s The Canon of Scripture goes into it in great detail, and there are other good books on the subject to be found.

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