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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.


The New Testament contains twenty-seven books, and all Christians agree on which these are. They fall into three categories. First, there are the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, which contain the story of Jesus and of the earliest days of the Christian Church. Secondly, there are a number of letters or “epistles,” some written to churches and others to individuals. The bulk of the letters are, or claim to be, by Paul. One of these is to the church in Rome, two to Corinth, one to Galatia, one to Ephesus, one to Colossae, and two to Thessalonica, together with personal letters to Timothy (two), Titus, and Philemon. Other letters claim to be by James, Peter (two), and Jude. Tradition ascribes three letters to John, though the name does not appear in the text itself. In addition there is the Letter to the Hebrews, which does not tell us who wrote it, though some people since ancient times have thought it was by Paul. Thirdly, we have the book of Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse. This begins with letters to churches, but consists mostly of a series of visions of the end of the world and the creation of a “new heaven and new earth.” All these books were written in Greek.

Things are more complicated where the Old Testament is concerned, because here Christians do not agree. We will begin by discussing the books about which there is no disagreement, which are also regarded as Holy Scripture by Jews. If we follow the order presented in the NRSV (and there are others), we can say that, as in the New Testament, there are basically three kinds of books.

First, there are books of narrative or history. Together these amount to about half of the Old Testament. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings tell the story of God and his people from the creation of the world down to the exile of the people of Israel from their own land to Babylon, after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. This story is then repeated, but with enormous differences, in the two books of Chronicles. Following Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah relate the return of some Israelites to their land and the establishment of the Jewish state once again during the time of the Persian empire. The Old Testament does not take the story any further than this. The book of Esther tells us of some events at the Persian court which affected the safety of the Jews.

Secondly, the Old Testament contains books of poetry and wisdom. Job presents the problem of innocent suffering through a story about a righteous man whom God allows to suffer severe trials. Psalms contains many of the hymns that may have been used in Israel's worship. Proverbs includes collections of wise sayings. Ecclesiastes (also known by its Hebrew name, Qoheleth) provides a sceptical reflection on the teachings of other wise men. The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is a collection of love poetry. None of these books is connected to any particular event in the history of Israel, and it is difficult to date them precisely.

The third part of the Old Testament consists of the books of the prophets. Three of these (Isaiah, Jeremiah together with Lamentations, and Ezekiel) are very long, and along with a fourth, shorter book—Daniel—are known as the major prophets. Last come the twelve minor prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. (“Major” and “minor” here refer to length, not to importance.) The prophetic books consist of the prophets' oracles, which offer comments on contemporary society and predictions of the future, together with some stories about the prophets' lives.

Thus there is a certain parallel between the shape of the Old and New Testaments as they have come down to us—though as we shall see it is partly accidental. Both start with history (Genesis–2 Kings, Gospels and Acts), continue with books of teaching (poetic and wisdom books, letters) and conclude with prophecy (prophetic books, Revelation):

1. Histories 1. Gospels and Acts
2. Poetry and Wisdom 2. Letters
3. Prophecy 3. Revelation

Remembering this (rough) parallel can be useful as an aid to remembering how the Old and New Testaments are arranged in our Bibles.

All the books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew, with the exception of a few chapters in Ezra and Daniel which are in Aramaic, a related language spoken across wide areas of the ancient world.

The Old Testament canon thus contains a wide variety of books. In fact the variety is even greater than indicated so far. Among the narrative or “historical” books there are wide variations in content. For example, whereas Genesis consists almost entirely of stories about the beginnings of the world and the early Hebrew ancestors, Exodus contains both history and law. It starts with the story of the exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, but once the escaping Israelites reach Mount Sinai, the narrative pauses while we hear of the laws that Moses received from God. These begin with the Ten Commandments (Ex 20 ) but go on to include detailed rules for social life and the right ordering of worship. The laws continue all the way through Leviticus and the first half of Numbers, and it is only at Num 20 that continuous narrative resumes. Deuteronomy also consists mostly of laws.

In the same way the books of the prophets are far more varied than people often expect. Alongside oracles about the future (both optimistic and pessimistic) there are also stories, poems, passages that read like sermons, and denunciations of the state of society. It is often difficult or impossible to understand how the prophetic books are organized, with the result that they present a muddled appearance to the reader.

As well as the Old and New Testaments, many Bibles contain a section headed The Apocrypha (NRSV: The Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books). This consists of books whose authority as Scripture is accepted by some Christians but not others. Some Christians regard them as authoritative, but on a lower level from the books of the Old Testament; no Jews regard them as scriptural. The ancient texts of these books are available only in Greek (or certain other languages) rather than Hebrew. Although we know that some of them were originally written in Hebrew, for the most part the original Hebrew text is lost. (A partial exception is the book called Ecclesiasticus. Large portions of this book in Hebrew were found in Egypt at the beginning of the twentieth century.)

There is a traditional way of listing these additional books, but the NRSV prefers to collect them in sections according to which Christian communities accept their authority.

  • 1. There are some books found in all Greek, Latin, and Slavonic Bibles, and are consequently accepted by Catholics, and by Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians. Tobit and Judith, two stories about the adventures of pious Jews, are in some ways rather reminiscent of Esther. Esther itself exists in a short form in the Hebrew Bible, but in Greek, Latin, and Slavonic Bibles it appears in a longer form with additional incidents, speeches, and prayers. Protestant Apocryphas usually print simply the parts that are additional under the heading “Additions to Esther.” But these make no sense on their own, so the NRSV has translated The Greek Esther in full. Then there are two wisdom books that stand in the tradition of Proverbs: the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach (sometimes Sirach or Ben Sira). The book of Baruch combines further wisdom with prophetic teaching about the future glory of Jerusalem. Its sixth and final chapter, known as the Letter of Jeremiah, is sometimes printed separately, as it is in the NRSV. Additions to the book of Daniel follow: the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, which belongs in the story of the burning fiery furnace (Dan 3 ), and the stories called Susanna and Bel and the Dragon. Then there are two history books, 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tell the story of Israel in the second century BCE.

  • 2. Christians in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches recognize four other works beyond even those in the Latin Bible. One is 1 Esdras, a narrative book—the Slavonic Bible calls it 2 Esdras, and Latin Bibles sometimes print it as an appendix under the name 3 Esdras. The Prayer of Manasseh, a penitential text, is also found in an appendix in some Latin Bibles. Psalm 151 and 3 Maccabees are peculiar to the Greek and Slavonic Bibles and not found in Latin Bibles.

  • 3. The Slavonic Bible alone recognizes a work which it calls 3 Esdras, but which in the Latin Bible appendix is called 4 Esdras. This was originally written in Latin, and may be dated to the early Christian era. It is basically a Jewish work, but contains some Christian insertions. So it is later than many books in the New Testament. In Protestant Apocryphas it is usually called 2 Esdras. The titles and numbers of the books said to be composed by Ezra (Esdras in Greek) seem designed to baffle the memories of most readers!

  • 4. Finally, the Greek Bible too has an appendix, which contains a further narrative book called 4 Maccabees. This is found in no other Bibles.

Whereas in Protestant Bibles, and in the NRSV, the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books are thus kept in a special section, in Greek, Slavonic, and Latin Bibles they are mingled in among the other books of the Old Testament, usually placed next to those they are most like. Thus Tobit and Judith stand next to Esther, and Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus next to Proverbs.

This overview demonstrates that the Old Testament and Apocrypha is a much more complex body of material than the New Testament. All Christians agree on the contents of the New Testament, but the Old Testament—though it obviously has a fixed core, the books that exist in Hebrew and are regarded as Scripture in Judaism—is much fuzzier at the edges. If one asks a well-informed Christian in a Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Russian Orthodox church what the books of the Old Testament are, one will get four different answers, though they will all agree in including the books which Jews recognize as their Bible.

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