Why Does the Bible Look the Way It Does? by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch

If we compared the table of contents of all the Bibles at a bookstore, we would find that many of them contain different books arranged in a variety of orders. This is because different religious communities have adopted different canons. This term, derived from the Greek word kanon (meaning “rod” or “measuring stick”), describes a closed collection of writings that has been set apart by a given community and recognized as having the authority to shape its identity, beliefs, values, and practices. Canonical status often goes hand in hand with claims that these writings are somehow inspired by God or possess divine authority, although it would be very misleading to say that all Jews and Christians understand such claims in the same way. It would also be misleading to say that all Jews and Christians read the same Bible. So before we can talk about why Bibles look the way they do, we must specify whose Bible is under discussion.

One obvious difference is that Christian Bibles include the New Testament, a collection of writings from the early church that is not part of the Jewish canon. The older and larger section of Christian Bibles overlaps with Jewish Scripture and is generally called the Old Testament. Christianity affirms the equal canonical authority of both testaments, a point that was unsuccessfully challenged by a man named Marcion in the second century C.E. Marcion claimed that what he saw as the vengeful, bloodthirsty God depicted in Jewish Scripture could not be the same deity as the loving, merciful God portrayed in his favorite Christian writings. This argument was successfully refuted and Marcionism was declared a heresy, but the belief that the Old Testament is outdated or has been superseded by the New Testament unfortunately persists among many Christians. For that reason, some scholars suggest relabeling the two sections of the Christian canon as the First and Second Testaments, but these more neutral titles are not widely used.

However, the differences among Bibles do not end there. Not only do Jewish and Christian Bibles differ, not all Christian Bibles look alike either. When the Jesus movement first arose within Judaism, early Christians naturally adopted the Jewish Scriptures as their own. This movement quickly spread into the Greek-speaking world, meaning that most early Christians read these scriptures in the popular Greek translation known as the Septuagint (LXX). Because at that point the Jewish canon was not yet finalized, the contents of the Septuagint diverged in important ways from what would eventually become the Jewish Bible.

For example, the LXX contained a much shorter version of Jeremiah. It also included several additional books, such as Baruch, Tobit, and Judith. Various movements within Christianity have assigned different canonical weight to the Septuagint’s “extra” books. Eventually the church described them as deuterocanonical, suggesting that they have a secondary status within Christian Scripture. Sixteenth-century Protestant reformers rejected them altogether as part of their canon, leading the Roman Catholic Church to respond by reaffirming their full canonical status at the Council of Trent (1545–63). So today, Catholic and Orthodox churches recognize these books as part of their canon, whereas Protestant churches do not.

All Christian canons, however, follow the Septuagint’s order by arranging the Old Testament’s narrative books to form a more-or-less chronological storyline and grouping together other books that are believed to share the same author or literary genre. The collection begins with what seem to be historical books that tell a story extending from creation in Genesis to the restored postexilic community in Nehemiah. In Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, this story continues through the Maccabean revolt. Next come poetic books intended for use in worship (such as Psalms) and instruction (such as Proverbs). Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs appear together here because of their presumed (but historically unlikely) authorship by Solomon.

Finally, the Christian canon ends with prophetic books, although the poetic book of Lamentations is also included in this section because of its traditional (but historically unlikely) connection to Jeremiah. This section also includes the book of Daniel, which many Christians read prophetically even though scholars consider it an apocalyptic book. Overall, the Old Testament begins with what Christians traditionally read as a “fall” story in which a breach is created between God and humanity (Gen 1-3). It closes with what Christians traditionally interpret as predictions of John the Baptist (Mal 4:5-6; John is identified with Elijah in Matt 17:12), who is the Gospel forerunner of Jesus, the one destined to restore the relationship between God and humanity. This provides an easy transition to the Gospels at the beginning of the New Testament.

Though Greek-speaking Jews and Christians in the first century read the Septuagint, Aramaic-speaking Jews read their scriptures in Hebrew. The developing Hebrew canon excluded the LXX’s extra books and eventually confined itself to three collections of books represented by the consonants of the acronym Tanakh: Torah (“Instruction” or “Law”), Nevi’im (“Prophets”), and Ketuvim (“Writings”). The Torah was the first of these collections to gain canonical status in Judaism, perhaps as early as the fifth century B.C.E. It tells a story that extends from creation (Genesis) to the death of Moses (Deuteronomy). Because the five books of the Torah would each have been written on a separate scroll in antiquity, sometimes it is also called the Pentateuch (derived from Greek words meaning “five scrolls”).

The Prophets include narrative books (called the Former Prophets) that continue the Torah’s story through the devastating destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and poetic books (called the Latter Prophets) that contain divine pronouncements attributed to particular individuals. There are three long books among the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) that are designated the Major Prophets because each constituted a separate scroll. The remaining twelve short books in this section are called the Minor Prophets or the Book of the Twelve, because they could be written together on one scroll.

Both the Torah and the Prophets had attained canonical status by the second century B.C.E., when both are mentioned by name in the Greek prologue of the deuterocanonical book of Sirach. The writer of this prologue also vaguely alludes to a third collection of texts (called simply “the other books”) that would eventual solidify into the Writings. The varied collection of books in this third section of the Jewish canon reflects the early Judaism of the Persian and Hellenistic periods. For Jews, the Bible is a story of the tumultuous but always continuing relationship between God and Israel. It ends with the edict of Cyrus (2Chr 36:22-23) calling upon Jews to return to Jerusalem.

The Tanakh exists in its present form as a result of the efforts of Jewish scholars known as Masoretes who meticulously copied and recopied biblical manuscripts for centuries. These Hebrew texts were originally written only with consonants, which readers would vocalize from memory by providing appropriate vowels. Different ways of reading these texts inevitably developed over time. The Masoretes developed a written system of vowels, which they added to biblical manuscripts to standardize their pronunciation. The oldest complete manuscript of a Masoretic Text in existence today, the Leningrad Codex, dates from 1009 C.E. and serves as the textual basis of modern Jewish Bibles and of many Christian Old Testaments. An older and much better manuscript, the Aleppo Codex (circa 920 C.E.), is today stored in Jerusalem. However, it has been the center of modern controversy due to the circumstances under which it was obtained by the Israel Museum and the mysterious disappearance of about two hundred of its pages. Even today pages of this codex continue to surface.

The canonization of Jewish and Christian Bibles was a long and gradual process that extended over several centuries. At no point did some elite and powerful group make this decision once and for all. Rather, books emerged as authoritative as a result of their enduring popularity, claims about their authorship, historical accidents, and opinions expressed by religious leaders. Many books that circulated widely in ancient Israel and the early church were ultimately excluded from the official canons of church and synagogue. Jewish and Christian leaders vigorously debated the status of several books (namely Esther, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Ezekiel) that would ultimately be included in the Jewish Bible and Christian Old Testament.

Aside from the contents and order of biblical canons, another key visual feature of Bibles today is the inclusion of chapter and verse numbers within the text. These numbers allow readers to easily locate a particular passage but often appear in awkward places, with stories beginning or ending in the middle of a verse (for example, Gen 2:4). It is important to remember that these numbers were not an original part of biblical manuscripts but were added in the late Middle Ages. Slight differences exist in the chapter and verse citations of Jewish and Christian Bibles. In addition, many modern Bibles surround the text with footnotes, explanatory articles, and devotional materials. Because these features can exert a lot of influence on how readers interpret the text itself, it is important to be aware of their source and their theological/ideological slant.


Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, "Why Does the Bible Look the Way It Does?", n.p. [cited 5 Dec 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/tools/bible-basics/why-does-the-bible-look-the-way-it-does


Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch

Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
Professor, Eastern University

Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch is a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University. She has authored and edited several works including the textbook Studying the Old Testament (Abingdon), the forthcoming The Bible in MotionA Handbook of Biblical Reception in Film (de Gruyter), and many chapters and articles. She serves as the film editor for the multivolume reference work Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (de Gruyter).

one of the oldest (ca. 930 CE) and most important, but no longer complete, existing examples of the Masoretic Text

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

Trustworthy; reliable; of texts, the best or most primary edition.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

An abbreviated reference to the source of a piece of information.

A text of pages bound leaf style, like a modern book—as opposed to a scroll, which has no discrete pages.

A gathering of Catholic church leaders in Trento, Italy; in dozens of sessions between 1545 and 1563 bishops debated doctrinal points and set off the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Literally, "second canon"; refers to texts accepted by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as sacred scripture, but not included in the Hebrew Bible. Not to be confused with Apocrypha, which include noncanonical works.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

The historical era of Judaism spanning the periods of Persian and Roman rule, from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century CE.

an official command

A designation for the five shortest books of the Hagiographa (Heb. Ketuvim): Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther.

The books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, which form the first half of the Prophets, the second of three sections of the Hebrew Bible.

A category or type, often of literary work.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and sometimes also includes Ezra-Neh and Chronicles.

Of or relating to systems of ideas and commitments, often social and political in nature.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Shorthand title for the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures fabled to have been completed by 70 translators (LXX is 70 rendered in roman numerals).

An uprising led by the priest Mattathias against the Hellenizing agenda of Aniotchus IV Epiphanes. It turned into full-scale war with Judah Maccabee taking the reins and paving the way for the Hasmonean dynasty.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

The leader of an early Christian group that came to be considered heretical.

A group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text and developed the system of vowel markings that eventually were added to the consonantal text.

Relating to the Masoretes, a group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text of the Bible. Or, the Masoretic Text itself, an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible.

The historical period generally spanning from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. in Europe and characterized by decreases in populations and the degeneration of urban life.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Those biblical books written by or attributed to prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

The world's largest Christian church organization administered by hierarchy made up of a single pope and a network of cardinals, bishops, priests, and renunciates (such as nuns and monks).

An acronym for the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), comprising Torah (Law), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Gen 1-3

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Mal 4:5-6

5Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts ... View more

Matt 17:12

12but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suf ... View more

2Chr 36:22-23

Cyrus Proclaims Liberty for the Exiles
22In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred ... View more

Gen 2:4

4These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Another Account of the Creation
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.