By Bill Warren, PH.D., NOBTS Professor of New Testament and Greek
Question: Why is our New Testament arranged like it is in the English Bible, and is Hebrews at the end of Paul’s letters or the beginning of the General Epistles section?
Bill Warren responds: Let’s begin by considering how the New Testament (NT) first circulated. The NT books began as separate documents, so they were not bound together originally. The longer books were probably written as scrolls, with the shorter ones being single papyrus sheets or only a few at most, so most likely loose pages not in a scroll form. For example, one early papyrus manuscript from about the year 200, designated as NT Papyrus 66, only contains John. Paul did not send copies of all of his letters to each church, for example to the Thessalonians (most were not written yet when he penned 1 and 2 Thessalonians). If the NT books were originally independent of each other, however, how did they become collected into our NT?
Three major collections of books comprise our NT: 1) the 4 Gospels (collected together near the mid second century); 2) Paul’s Epistles (gathered by the late first to early second century); and 3) the General Epistles (1 Peter and 1 John are gathered early, but the group is not solidified until the late third to early fourth century). Acts is sometimes linked to the Gospels in the early manuscripts, and then later to the General Epistles.
The Gospels occur mainly in two orders in the manuscripts: our current order, and one with Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark (the two written by Apostles, then those linked to Apostles). The order we have was the dominant one and may reflect early beliefs about the order of writing (Matthew first, but in Hebrew, followed by the others in Greek – Mark, Luke, and then John). The Gospels begin the NT because of the chronological order of the events being related and their importance in relating the life of Jesus. Acts forms a bridge by telling the next stage of history, thereby providing a historical introduction to the epistles.
The Pauline Epistles were likely collected by a follower of Paul or perhaps even Paul himself (by keeping draft copies of his letters). From the late second century onward, 14 letters are normally listed, with Hebrews being included in the Pauline collection. Hebrews, therefore, is not part of the General Epistles but, whether written by Paul or not, is associated with the Pauline mission by the early church. The order of Paul’s letters in our Bibles is roughly by length, with the shorter of the dual letters being used in determining this (for example, 2 Corinthians is shorter than Romans even if 1 Corinthians is not, so Romans comes before 1 and 2 Corinthians), but Hebrews is last due to authorship doubts.
This “length” ordering is the case for the General Epistles also, with the same rule mentioned above used for these as well (James is longer than 2 Peter, for example, so James comes before 1 Peter). Revelation is almost always at the end of the manuscripts, just as in our Bibles. Since it was not part of a collection, somewhat naturally it came after the three major collections.
The importance of the order of our NT books can be summarized as follows: We begin with the first coming of Jesus in the Gospels, move to the understanding of the importance of that event in the Epistles, and then conclude with the beautiful vision at the end of Revelation of the victorious Lamb of God, our Lord Jesus, and the new heaven and new earth.