The Order of the Books of the New Testament

Chances are you haven’t given much thought to why the New Testament books are arranged as they are in your Bible. We haven’t been trained, nor have we trained our congregations, to think that way when we read the scriptures. If we consider context, it is typically the immediate, and if we consider the canonical context it is usually in reference to quotations and allusions to other individual books. I can’t think of a time prior to seminary when I thought, “What difference does it make to my reading of Romans that it comes between Acts and 1 Corinthians?” But this is an important question, and one that I am convinced we need to ask for at least three reasons.

First, Old Testament scholarship has recognized for years that the differing orders of the Hebrew Bible provide the reader with differing interpretive emphases. Notably among evangelical scholars, both John Sailhamer and Stephen Dempster have made this point. Dempster’s popular Dominion and Dynasty[1] is a prime example of biblical theology done with an eye to the order of the canonical material, and Sailhamer has been at pains for almost two decades to show how the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible affects interpretation. For instance, in his Introduction to Old Testament Theology,[2] Sailhamer argues that Proverbs and Ruth are juxtaposed in the Hebrew Bible partially because of the intertextual connection between Prov. 31:10, 31 and Ruth 3:11 in the Hebrew text, as well as the thematic continuity of the virtuous woman. New Testament scholarship is increasingly asking the question, could this be the case in the second testament as well as the first? Of course, it is true that the OT was written over a much longer period of time than the NT, and thus there was a longer period of time to reflect on the order and to even produce those intertextual links in later books. This does not mean that it is a legitimate question for NT scholarship, though. At this point, work in this area in NT studies is minimal, and what is out there typically comes from more moderate or liberal circles rather than from within evangelicalism. Jonathan Pennington is a happy exception here, as he argues that the Gospels are placed at the head of the NT canon to serve as an archway to the entire Bible.[3] In my opinion, evangelicals have an even better reason to follow OT scholarship’s trend, because of the latter two answers to the initial question of why we should care about the order of the books of the NT.

The second of these three reasons for seeing the importance of the canonical order comes from church history. The history of interpretation demonstrates that patristic and medieval theologians thought this issue was key to interpretive practice. Irenaeus famously argued for the legitimacy and primacy of the fourfold Gospel corpus, and also rooted his hermeneutic in the economy, or structure, of biblical revelation. A central concern for Irenaeus here is that the canonical order promotes a reading that emphasizes a Christological narrative. Late in the medieval period, G. R. Evans notes that Peter Lombard, Matthew Poole, and Thomas Aquinas asked why Romans comes first in the Pauline corpus.[4] These are but four examples, but the structure of revelation was important for interpreters throughout the pre-modern period. This changed with the Enlightenment and modernity’s piecemeal reading of the Bible, where the goal was no longer to have a unified interpretive approach but instead to chop the Bible up into “historically located” bits.

An additional way that church history helps us here is that the church’s interpretive approach is actually implicitly seen through changes in the canonical order of material. For instance, there is a strong manuscript tradition in the early church of placing the General Epistles after Acts and before the Pauline Epistles, and of placing Hebrews within the Pauline corpus after the Corinthian letters.[5] But it also appears that this order was changed to (or perhaps even paralleled by) the order we see today very early in church history.[6] This difference in order provides us an opportunity to ask what varying reading strategies are presented by each order. In other words, what interpretive difference does it make if James-Jude comes after Acts instead of Romans-Hebrews? Finally, in regards to church history, this shift in order not only shows us an interpretive history of our brothers and sisters in Christ but also, therefore, gives us a history of the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination within the body of Christ. While the history of interpretation is not inspired or infallible, it does provide us with a history of the Holy Spirit’s work in believers’ interpretive practices. Because the ordering of canonical material is a part of that interpretive practice, we ought to pay attention to it.

Third and finally, evangelical hermeneutics is grounded in theological methods and practices that promote paying attention to the order of material. First, general hermeneutics recognizes the importance of context and the ordering of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters within a book. In any work of literature, how the author arranges the material is important. In the Harry Potter novels, for instance, if J. K. Rowling had placed Severus Snape’s memories at the beginning of book 6 instead of the end of book 7, that would have had a major impact on how readers understood the events between Snape and Dumbledore at the end of book 6. Or think of the recent discussion about how to read The Chronicles of Narnia – as Trevin Wax has pointed out, reading order affects interpretation. This is no less true in Scripture, and should be no less true for our understanding of why the order of the canonical books matters. The Spirit did not inspire the canonical order, but it is still a literary arrangement, and thus affects how readers interpret the material. Second, evangelical readers do acknowledge that the Spirit inspired every word of Scripture, and many times the Spirit inspires the biblical authors to connect their book with previous books of the Bible. Scholars refer this to as intertextuality or inner biblical allusion, and it is important for the canonical order. Many times these textual connections weave together not only individual books but whole sections of Scripture.[7] Finally, Scripture is ordered narratively, highlighting the plotline of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation.[8] Reading individual books within this grand narrative assists the reader in understanding that individual book’s material.

So what difference does this make in our reading of the New Testament? Some would argue that the NT is arranged primarily on chronology or length of the book, but neither of these play a prominent role in every part of the canon. If the NT canon were ordered by chronology, at least some of Paul’s letters ought to come before the Gospels. Mark, assumed to be the earliest Gospel by many, is not first, nor is the Gospel corpus ordered by length. The General Epistles are not ordered by chronological priority or length either. Length does seem to be somewhat of a factor in the Pauline letters, but it is not dominating, as the movement of Hebrews to the end attests (Hebrews was originally included with the Pauline letters after 2 Corinthians in codices). Further, Matthew, with its strong link to the OT, comes at the beginning, and Revelation comes at the end. While this may seem obvious, it at least helps us to see that there is intentionality in the order at the beginning and the end.

To give one example of why this matters in your interpretive practice, think of the fact that the Gospel of John comes between what we typically refer to as the two-book unit of Luke-Acts.[9] If Luke and Acts are intended to be a literary unit, why would the early church arrange the canon in a way that splits them? Another way to ask this question, without getting into the psyche of the early church, is to ask what emphases arise through reading Luke, John, and Acts in this order. My own answer to this question begins with the fact that John explicitly emphasizes Jesus as the new Adam and also the one who restores creation in his Gospel through the prologue, the restorational seven signs (and especially the raising of Lazarus), the replacement motif in which he restores and even re-creates Judaism’s symbols, and ultimately his Passion that starts in a Garden, moves to a cry of “it is finished” on the cross, and culminates with the new Adam in a Garden with a woman.[10] After rising from the dead as the new Adam, Jesus then goes into the Upper Room and “breathes life” into his disciples, an allusion to Gen. 2:7 and the creation of Adam.[11] In Gen 2:15, after Adam receives the breath of life, he is given the cultural mandate to cultivate and keep the Garden, and he has already and will once again receive the command to “be fruitful and multiply” with his wife Eve. John has left his readers with an anticipatory note in John 20:22: the new creation has been given life, but the cultural mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” has yet to be fulfilled. This is where the book of Acts steps into the scene.

As John’s narrative ends, the reader should naturally expect for there to be a cultural mandate that sounds like something similar to, “be fruitful and multiply and fill all the earth and subdue (i.e. cultivate and keep) it” (Gen 1:28; 2:15). This is exactly what we find in Acts 1:8. Jesus commands his disciples to go into, “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth” in this verse, one that clearly harkens back to Gen 1:28 and God’s command for Adam and Eve to fill all the earth. The disciples are to do this through “the power of the Spirit” given to them by Jesus’ breath, just as Adam was to do it by the power of God’s breath in Genesis 2. Perhaps most importantly, the commission to Adam to, “be fruitful and multiply and fill all the earth” (Gen 1:28; cf. Gen 2:15) is echoed at important points in the Acts narrative. Acts 1:8 could be classified as a theological fulfillment of that command to Adam. Throughout the rest of the book, when the church expands, Luke says that “the Word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly” (Acts 6:7; cf. 12:24; 19:20). Thus when Luke in his narrative tells of the Gospel being promulgated in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth”, he explicitly ties it to the command of God to Adam in the Garden to be fruitful and multiply.[12] This informs the reader that part of the canonical function of Acts, coming after the ending of John with its explicit ties to the creation story and presentation of Jesus as the New Adam who breathes life into his disciples, is to show how the church, the bride of Christ, the New Eve, is to obey the command that the first Adam and Eve failed to follow. They are to fill all the earth with worshippers of Yahweh, not through physical population but by spiritual awakening through the power of the Gospel.

Thus the order of John à Acts highlights this emphasis on new creation, both Jesus’ accomplishment of it in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension and the church’s participation in it as Christ’s agents sent throughout the earth by the power of his life giving Spirit. Here are a few other ways we see the significance of the order in the NT canon:

  • Matthew’s Gospel begins with “son of David, son of Abraham,” which may provide a strong link back to the genealogies of the last and first books of the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles and Genesis.
  • Romans following Acts highlights the ethnic Jew-Gentile issue which trails the growth of the church throughout Acts and that was a fundamental concern in the gospel proclamation and explanation of the early church.
  • Romans-Colossians emphasize the past work of Christ, namely his death and resurrection, and its transformation of the Christian life into one of new creation.
  • 1 Thessalonians-Jude emphasize the future coming of Christ and use it as motivation for Christians to live righteously until he returns, both in their individual lives and in the life of the church (the Pastorals).
  • Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter, spanning the end of the Pauline letters (Hebrews is included with Paul’s letters in the manuscripts) and the beginning of the General Epistles, highlight the sojourning, exilic nature of the Christian life and urge believers to press on towards the heavenly city to come.
  • Revelation comes at the end!
  • Beyond the obvious for Revelation, there seems to be an inclusio for the whole Bible here, as Genesis 1–2 tell of protology, the creation of God’s image-bearing people who rule in God’s place, in which he dwells with them, followed by the entrance of sin through the serpent. Revelation 20 tells of the defeat of the serpent, followed by the eternal dwelling of God with his restored people in his restored place.


[1] Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).

[2] John Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005).

[3] Jonathan Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 229–58.

[4] G. R. Evans, The Language and Logic of the Bible: The Earlier Middle Ages (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 44 n. 66 and The Language and Logic of the Bible: The Road to the Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 2 n. 1.

[5] See, for instance, David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[6] For these shifts, see, D. C. Parker, An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 225–347, esp. 283, 285.

[7] See John Sailhamer’s discussion of OT “seams” in Introduction to Old Testament Theology, 101.

[8] See, for example, Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 62–65.

[9] Much of what follows was presented at the 2011 meeting of the Evangelical Society in San Francisco, CA in my paper, “Christ and the New Creation: The Shape of the Fourfold Gospel Corpus and Acts.” That paper and this post are based off my book, Christ and the New Creation: A Canonical Approach to the Theology of the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013).

[10] For these new creational motifs in John, see Andreas Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), chs. 7, 8, and 10.

[11] Ibid., 721.

[12] See G. K. Beale, The Temple and The Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 266.

Old Testament Law and Living Biblically

Christopher Wright has an article over at Christianity Today on reading Old Testament law and the Christian life. The starting place for his article are two recent books: A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood which show how clueless many of us can be when thinking about how Scripture speaks today. In his article, Wright provides some helpful ways for us to think about how law still functions as Christian Scripture. My favourite line from the article:

The idea that all the imperative statements in the Bible should be taken literally, as if they all apply to me, is a nonsensical way of handling Scripture.

You can read the whole article here.

The Johannine Split

If you were to walk into a bookstore or library with a section on the New Testament, and if you were to look for the books that discussed Luke, chances are you’d find a large number of volumes combining Luke and Acts under whatever topic. So “A Commentary on Luke-Acts,” “A Theology of Luke-Acts,” “The Spirit in Luke-Acts,” and so on. This is true also of NT Introductions, which often discuss Luke and Acts together. On one level this makes sense; Luke is the author of both books, the introduction to Acts calls it the second part of a two part work, and there are a myriad of linguistic, narrative, and theological points of continuity.

But on another level, the canonical one, it makes little sense. The fact is that John almost always comes at the end of the Fourfold Gospel corpus (see Metzger, The Canon of the NT, 296), and there are only three cases of Luke coming at the end, each of which are late (6th, 14th cents.) and regionally isolated.

Why don’t we follow the overwhelmingly dominate order of the NT in our interpretive practice when discussing Acts? While I would not go so far as to say we should start having “John-Acts” monographs, we ought to consider seriously the fact that Luke almost never comes immediately before Acts in any of our available lists, codices, or MSS. The arrangement of material matters in interpretation, even on a canonical level, and John splitting Luke and Acts ought to give NT readers pause in how the interpret the NT exegetically, narratively, and theologically.

Typology in Chronicles

Image via Amazon.com

Image via Amazon.com

I’m currently reading Scott Hahn’s masterful work on Chronicles, The Kingdom of God as Liturgical Empire: A Theological Commentary on 1-2 Chronicles (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012). Hahn so far has exhibited exegetical acumen (working both the MT and LXX), historical awareness, and theological brilliance. I realize this glowing description may seem to be so positive that it loses it’s value, but in my opinion it’s just that good. It’s worth its weight in whatever currency you currently carry.

One interpretive tool that Hahn uses par excellence is typology. Although the quotes below are lengthy, I think that his descriptions here may be the best descriptions of typology I’ve read. They take into account not only the historical pattern of events divinely orchestrated by YHWH, but also the conscious intertextual links between the OT authors’ descriptions of these events throughout the biblical canon.

The Chronicler’s history represents a deep reading of the canon of Israel’s scripture. Beginning in the Torah and continuing through the historical and prophetic books of the Nevi’im, as well as the liturgical and Wisdom literature of the Ketuvim, the Hebrew canon is filled with examples of inner-biblical exegesis. Later texts rewrite, comment upon, or reinterpret earlier ones; new situations and people are understood and characterized by analogy to earlier texts.

. . . Like any good historian, the Chronicler provides a record of past figures, places, and events; but his accounting is written in such a way that these figures, places, and events often appear as types – signs, patterns,and precursors – intended to show his readers not only the past but also their present reality from God’s perspective (6).

And again, reflecting on Paul’s note in 1 Cor. 10:11 that OT history “was written down for our instruction”:

“. . . the entire tradition of scripture was written for the instruction of [the Chronicler’s] audience. Indeed, the Chronicler’s patterns of inner-biblical interpretation made perfect sense to Jesus and the apostolic church; Chronicles might even be read as a workshop in biblical theology for the New Testament writers: we find operative in Chronicles many of the interpretive principles that become normative for the New Testament writer’s use of the Old Testament (64).

Hahn seems to me to be exactly right. Typology correctly understood is not an a-textual phenomenon, but instead a (the?) method the OT writers used to interpret contemporary events in light of previous Scripture. This method was used again by the NT authors, and it is especially seen in the Gospels, where Jesus is presented as a new Moses, David, Elijah, and Adam (among others). Thus, as Hahn continues to note throughout his commentary, the Chronicler uses Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moriah, Sinai, the ark, Moses, and other OT people and events to help his readers understand his subject, namely David and God’s covenant with him. And, as he points out through continually demonstrating inner-biblical allusions, this is a textually warranted approach.

Scripture and Science

The relationship between science and Scripture is a hot topic today. I am of the opinion that, too often, Scripture is asked to accommodate to the positivist rationalistic assumptions and conclusions of modern scientific inquiry. Here are Vos’ insightful words on the subject:

“At present many writers take exception to [death entering the world through Adam’s sin], largely on scientific grounds. With these as such we have here nothing to do. But, as is frequently the case, strenuous attempts are made to give such a turn to the Biblical phrases as to render them compatible with what science is believed to require, and not only this, some proceed tot he assertion that the Scriptural statements compel acceptance of the findings of science.

Attempts of this kind make for poor and forced exegesis. Scripture has a right to be exegetes independently from within; and only after its natural meaning has thus been ascertained, can we properly raise the question of agreement or disagreement between Scripture and science.”

Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012), 36-37.

 

Francis Watson on the Biblical Story

. . . a book that begins with the assertion that ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ establishes, through the comprehensiveness of its scope, the expectation that the narrative will lead eventually to an equally comprehensive goal – as indeed it does, in the creation of new heavens and a new earth at the close of the book of Revelation. The universal horizons of this narrative do not permit the extraction of ‘the story of Jesus’ to serve as the legitimation-myth of a small community in its self-imposed exile from the world. Over against the apolitical parochialism of some postmodern narrative theology, the story of Jesus must instead be interpreted as the midpoint of time, deriving from the universal horizon of the creation of the world and of humankind in the likeness of God, and pointing towards the universal horizon of an eschaton in which the human and non-human creation together reach their appointed goal.

Francis Watson, Text, Church and World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 153.

Storied Typology

Over at Euangelion, Joel Willitts has written a couple of posts on doing Biblical Theology. I think Joel’s intuitions are correct that a typological approach tends to exalt “fulfilment” to the neglect of the “type.” Willitts wants to show the meaning and the significance of the “new” is profoundly shaped by understanding the “old.” He writes:

The new event is in the shape of the archetype and thereby embodying its importance. The idea is that the new event’s significance is dependent on the significance of the old event. The new event is “another manifestation of the basic archetype”. The new derives significance in relation to the old.

Be sure to read his whole post here.

Holy War in the Bible


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I’m really excited that another resource has come out from my friend Heath Thomas. Heath is Associate Professor of Old Testament and PhD Director at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. His latest publication is an edited volume (along with Jeremy Evans of Southeastern and Paul Copan of Palm Beach Atlantic University) on Holy War in the Bible. I’m sure this will be a welcomed resource on an important theological and ethical topic. You can order the book here.