Why do Jewish and Christian Bibles put the books in a different order?

GORDON’S QUESTION:

Why is there a different order of the books of the Hebrew Bible in Jewish and Christian editions?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

As we’ll see, there’s revived debate about this. For starters, one key fact is that the contrasting lists did not result from conflict between Judaism and Christianity but rather the varied sequences used by Jews.

Overview: The Jewish Bible and Protestant Old Testament have the same contents, but list the books in different order. Catholicism’s ordering is similar to Protestants’ but its “canon” (recognized Scriptures) includes “deuterocanonical” books not found in the Jewish and Protestant Bibles, while the Orthodox add further deuterocanonical materials.

Jews organized the biblical books into categories in this order: 1) Law, or Torah, the first five books with specially revered status. 2) Prophets or Nevi’im, a confusing label since this sections begins with books of history, followed by prophets ending with Malachi. 3) Writings or Kethuyim, a variegated collection dominated by the Psalms, including books accepted as Jewish Scripture later than the Law and Prophets. The initials T, N, and K produce the acronym Tanakh that Jews use for the Bible.

With ordering, the chief issue is where to fit Chronicles (or 1 and 2 Chronicles) and whether it properly concludes the Hebrew Bible. Chronicles, which repeats much of the history covered in the colorful Samuel (or 1 and 2 Samuel) and Kings (or 1 and 2 Kings) was compiled round 400 B.C.E., many centuries after the events.

Unlike Samuel and Kings, the “Harper Study Bible” observes, Chronicles omits most “references to the defects and the sins of David and Solomon,” emphasizes “the Temple and the Davidic line,” virtually ignores the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and warns and encourages future generations.

Early on, Christianity adopted the sequence from Jews’ pre-Christian translation from Hebrew into Greek, known as the Septuagint. Chronicles typically followed Samuel and Kings with their similar history, and the Bible concluded with the 12 “minor prophets” ending with Malachi, as in today’s Catholic and Protestant Bibles (or sometimes added deuterocanonical 1 and 2 Maccabees after Malachi).

A second Jewish option was rabbis’ consensus around 200 C.E. documented in the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate Baba Bathra (14b), which put Chronicles at the end of the Writings to conclude the Hebrew Bible.

A third pattern appeared with the medieval Masoretic Text, the basis for subsequent translations. The major surviving manuscript with the complete Hebrew Bible, the 11th Century Leningrad Codex, put Chronicles first in the Writings section instead of Psalms, and the Bible concluded with the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah in line with chronology.

This question becomes pertinent because the German Bible Society’s forthcoming fifth edition of the standard Hebrew text (Biblia Hebraica Quinta) will restore the Masoretic order and begin the Writings with Chronicles, despite centuries in which major printed editions put Chronicles at the end of the Hebrew Bible.

Modern Christians often say ending with Malachi is the appropriate bridge to the New Testament, for instance because the prophet hoped for the coming era when God’s greatness is recognized “beyond the border of Israel” among all nations.

But in 2014, Edmon Gallagher of Heritage Christian University in Alabama argued in Tyndale Bulletin that, contrary to Christian practice, “good reasons exist” to conclude the Hebrew Scriptures with Chronicles, which was an “intentional design” among ancient Jews.

That was challenged by Gregory Goswell, academic dean of Christ College, a Presbyterian seminary in Australia, in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. He said it’s certainly appropriate to conclude with Chronicles, which spans all history by starting with the genealogy of Adam. Also, Chronicles ends with promise of the rebuilt Temple and “looks for a more ultimate return of God’s people,,” concluding  Jewish Scripture “on a note of eschatological expectation.”

But Gosnell argued against dogmatism about any order. He said of Chronicles is placed immediately after Samuel and Kings that interprets those history books from a more prophetic stance. And if Chronicles appears first among the Writings instead of Psalms, that sets up the wisdom and liturgical flavor of the succeeding books.

Then Gallagher got a boost in an online article last December by Presbyterian Church in America minister Zachary Garris. He contended that Christians should switch to the Talmud plan and end with Chronicles. His major point was that Jesus Christ himself endorsed that order, based on his statement in Luke 24:44 regarding “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.” To Garris, that’s the traditional three-part division of Torah, Prophets, and Psalms as the lead-off book that symbolizes all the Writings, so Chronicles comes at the conclusion.

Garris said Chronicles properly culminates the Hebrew Scriptures by summarizing Judah’s history and ending with Cyrus’s edict that the Jerusalem Temple will be rebuilt. From his Christian standpoint, “the people were left waiting for the true temple proclaimed in the Gospels, Jesus Christ.” Chronicles begins with a genealogy and so does the first New Testament book, Matthew, with the family line of the awaited messiah and savior.

Jewish scholarship generally proclaims no doctrinal significance in the order of the Writings. The Talmud list is mainly chronological while the Masoretic Text mostly follows the size of the books (as with Islam’s non-chronological Quran).

Further resources on this:

Background on new Hebrew edition:  http://www.emanueltov.info/docs/papers/13.review-bhs.2008.pdf?v=1.0

Gallagher article: www.tyndalehouse.com/Bulletin/65=2014/02_Gallagher-20.pdf

Goswell article: www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/58/58-1/JETS_58-1_15-30_Goswell.pdf 

Garris article: https://knowingscripture.com/articles/why-we-should-use-the-hebrew-order-of-the-old-testament

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.