I. A Good Order for Reading the Bible
The One-Year Bible that my wife and I are reading doesn’t just divide Scripture into 365 (or 366) equal parts and then plow through them, one per day. Rather, it more or less divides the Old Testament (minus the Psalms and Proverbs) into 365 equal parts; divides the New Testament into 365 equal parts; and then does the same with Psalms and Proverbs, respectively. Then it takes one reading from each of the four groups every day. Thus, each morning my wife and I read a passage from the Old Testament (we started with Genesis) and a passage from the New Testament (we started with Matthew), and have a Psalm reading and a Proverb or two each day, too.
One obvious advantage for this approach is that, if instead you had just divided the whole Bible into equal parts and started from the beginning, you wouldn’t start reading anything from the New Testament until October 8. That’s a long time for a Christian to have to wait. And there’s less monotony for a reader with the four-rather-than-one approach, too.
But there is another advantage to our One-Year Bible‘s approach that I’d point out: It front-loads more of the most readable parts of the Bible, so that a reader — particularly someone new to the faith — is more easily drawn in. I’ve noted elsewhere that it’s good for drawing in readers that the Bible begins with the intriguing stories of Genesis, acknowledging that alas not all Bible passages are equally intriguing.
When you think about it, the books of the Bible can be put into six categories: the Torah, Hebrew history, the Wisdom books, the prophets (major and minor), the Gospels and Acts, and the New Testament’s letters (Pauline and non-Pauline, and including Revelation). Incidentally, in terms of the proportion of the Bible that each category makes up, they are: 18 percent (Torah), 23 percent (history), 14 percent (Wisdom), 22 percent (prophets), 14 percent (Gospels/Acts), and 10 percent (letters).
It’s all Scripture, and so it’s all important, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all equally interesting to read, especially for an initiate. And I think that the prophets and New Testament letters are, in general, less riveting than the other four categories; and I would add that the Hebrew history is a mixed bag, with both exciting and not-so-exciting material.
So look how well it works out if you adopt the approach our One-Year Bible takes: We front-load the three most interesting groups of books (that is, the Torah, Gospels/Acts, and the Wisdom books), postpone the less interesting groups of books (prophets and letters) for the end, and have the mixed bag (Hebrew history) in the between.
And you still end up with the appealing and logical prospect of beginning on January 1 with Genesis’s “In the beginning,” and with reading Revelation in the closing days of the year.
II. The Good Order of the Bible’s Books
While I’m at it, let me also note here also the logical order of the books of the Bible themselves.
The arrangement of the books in the Old Testament is largely chronological. Of course you have to start with Genesis and the rest of the Torah; and then we continue with the rest of the Israelites’ history (Ruth inserted appropriately and Esther more or less so, as discussed below).
You could follow this with the Wisdom books or with the prophets. I think the reader is ready for a broader focus than Israel at this point, which the Wisdom books better provide; besides, I think you’d have to say that the Wisdom books precede the prophets chronologically. The five Wisdom books then start with the Bible’s oldest book, Job, and longest book, Psalms, whose most prominent author was David; and then follows with the three books all authored by David’s son Solomon (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon). The ordering of the prophetic writings into major and minor — that is, long and short — is practical even if it is not profound, and is chronological within those two groupings.
One could argue that, strictly as a matter of chronology, Esther should be placed between Ezra and Nehemiah rather than after them. But splitting the latter two books is itself problematic since apparently they were at one time considered one book, and may have had a common author.
There is also great logic in the order of books in the New Testament: Gospels, Acts, and letters (including Revelation).
You have to start with the Gospels. Within them, it makes sense to have the three synoptic Gospels together, and it also makes sense to start with Luke or Matthew, with the shorter Mark (that the two longer synoptics likely draw from) in between. There’s logic to beginning with Matthew (the most Jewish of the Gospels) rather than Luke (the Bible’s only Gentile author), since Jews-then-the-Gentiles was the sequence God used and since, after all, Jesus was a Jew and Christianity is deeply rooted in Judaism. Finally, it makes sense to have John come after the synoptics, since it was written a little later — and since its author assumed the readers’ knowledge of at least some of the synoptic accounts and therefore did not include some information that would have been duplicative.
Acts has to come next: It picks up with the aftermath of Jesus’ Resurrection, and its overarching historical narrative discusses the establishment of some of the churches that Paul will be addressing in his letters. Acts also tells us who Paul was, and gives us more information about the letter-writers James, Peter, and John, too.
On to the New Testament letters. I’m not sure it was intentional, but having Hebrews as the bridge between the Pauline and non-Pauline letters works since that book might have been written by Paul, even though that is now a minority opinion. I won’t discuss in detail the ordering of the Pauline letters, except to say that having the long and theologically-heavy-hitting Romans come first is not a bad idea (and that reason might likewise justify having Paul’s many other letters come before the non-Pauline letters), nor is grouping together his letters written to individual churches first and then those written to individuals.
The ordering of James, Peter, John, and Jude among the non-Pauline letters reflects the authors’ relative authority in the early church, although I’m not sure that was the actual rationale. I also rather like having James right next to Paul’s letters.
But let me note here my one possible quibble — that, on the other hand, there would be something to be said for moving Jude so that it comes right after James. That way Jesus’ two earthly brothers are together, followed by the two apostles; this would also keep the four Johannine letters together (counting Revelation among them). And this way you would have the two non-Pauline authors together who wrote only one book (three, if you count Hebrews), followed by the two who wrote more than one; that will help people trying memorize the order of all the Bible books. Write your Bible publisher today!
Finally, and in any event, of course you have to end the New Testament — and the Bible — with Revelation.