For those within the Christian faith, the Bible is a text of profound significance. A rich book, full of insights and lessons on what it means to live one’s life the way God intends, the Bible is known as God's word. It is composed of many different books and includes a vast array of literary styles such as short stories, letters, poetry, and historical accounts combined to form a unified whole.
But how many books are in the Bible? And how did the current list of books come to be? We’ll offer a brief overview of the Bible’s composition and some insights into the history of how the Bible as we know it was established.
How is the Bible Organized?
The Bible is composed of two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is made up of 39 individual books; the New Testament is made up of 27 books, giving the Bible a total of 66 books.
The Old Testament documents everything from the creation of life up until the birth of Jesus. Its 39 books tell the ancient history of Israel and serve as the moral teachings and basis of the Christian and Jewish faiths. The Old Testament can be further divided into subcategories known as the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Wisdom Books, and the Prophetic Books. The Pentateuch contains the first five books of the Hebrew Bible which are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books document the history and the beginnings of the world as well as the creation of the people of Israel.
The next two sections of the Old Testament are the Historical and Wisdom Books. As the name suggests the Historical and Wisdom Books share the history of the time and also share the wisdom of God's teachings. The Historical Books recount events spanning from Israel’s conquest of Canaan to the dissolution of the Kingdom of Israel and its people’s exile. Here we find the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, Ezra, and Esther. The Wisdom Books consist of the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. These are a collection of books made up of poetry, narratives, and moral sayings and teachings.
Finally, there are the Prophetic Books, including Isaiah and Jeremiah among others. Like in the Tanakh, the Biblical prophets can be split into two groups: the major and minor prophets. The Prophetic books mainly consist of history told by the different prophets, or messengers sent to the people by God. They not only document the events of ancient Israel but also explain the lasting significance of the events that occur during this time. The Prophetic books offer accounts of the messages God commanded the prophets to share with the people.
The New Testament of the Bible is the second major section and covers a period of time after the Old Testament. It is believed to have been written around 50-100 AD. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is also broken down into sections: The Gospels and the Epistles. The four Gospels, which make up the first section of the New Testament, tell the story of Jesus Christ in the book of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These four accounts each emphasize or highlight different parts of Jesus’ life and mission to better help people to understand.
The second section of the New Testament is the made up of the Epistles, or letters. These letters, written by the apostles to various early Christian communities, were meant to provide advice for church leaders on how to best commit to Jesus’ teachings. Finally, the New Testament ends with the book of Revelation which contains different letters to the churches and also interprets the meaning of life from the beginning to the end of the world.
History of the Books of the Bible
As mentioned, the Bible as most mainline traditions know it consists of 66 books. But some traditions include more books of the Bible. The Catholic Bible, for example, contains 7 additional books. So how and when was it decided which books to include and which to leave out? To answer this, we’ll briefly consider the history of canonization, or the formal decision of which books, letters, and text are considered authoritative parts of scripture.
The Old Testament
The decision over which books would be included in the Old Testament was based in part on the long history of Jewish canonization with regards to the Tanakh. Sometimes referred to as the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh is the compilation of scriptures considered authoritative within the Jewish faith. The Tanakh has its own history and distinction organization but it does form the basis for what came to be the Christian Old Testament. The authority of most of these ancient texts was agreed upon by Jewish teachers and communities almost from the time they were written.
The Torah and other important Jewish texts were passed down and studied for many generations. Around the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE, these key Jewish texts were translated by Jewish scholars from their original Hebrew into Greek, the increasingly common language of the day. This translation is known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint included all the books of the Tanakh as well as several other later Jewish texts of cultural significance. Some of these additional books include Tobit, Judith, and Sirach.
In the early days of the Christian church, the Septuagint was used as the primary basis for the Old Testament. All major Christian traditions recognize the key texts (the ones found in the Tanakh) as Old Testament canon. However, there is less uniform consensus with regards to the later additional books.
These additional books are believed to have been written primarily in the intertestamental period, that is, the period between the events of the Old and New Testaments. In addition to full books, there are also additional sections of some books of the Tanakh that appear to have been added in later. The books of Daniel and Esther, for example, both have added sections. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions include many of these books in the Old Testament canon of their Bibles. In Protestant traditions, these books are considered deuterocanonical or Biblical Apocrypha. This just means that while these texts can offer insight into the life and times in which they were written, they are not considered an authoritative part of the Protestant Bible.
The New Testament
The decision over which books ought to be included in the New Testament was also one of some debate. In the days of the Early Church, many of the epistles and books now considered a part of scripture were still being written. And as they were written, many other additional letters and accounts were being penned as well. Texts like the Didache or the letters of 1 and 2 Clement were considered valuable sources of teaching with regards to the Christian faith.
Many of the Early Church fathers would have considered them to be New Testament canon. However, all of these additional texts are now considered to be Biblical Apocrypha and are not included among the New Testament books. There are also some books that were considered by some traditions not to be canonical which are now included in our Bibles. Books like 2 John and 3 John and 2 Peter are among these. Unlike with the Old Testament, none of the New Testament era deuterocanonical books are included in Bibles of any major Christian traditions.
The New Testament canon of the Catholic Bible was finalized at the Council of Trent in 1546. For many Protestants, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 serves as a touchstone for the accepted Biblical canon. In both cases, the Bible is considered by Christians to be a closed canon. This means that it cannot be opened to include new texts down the line.
As we have seen, the answer to the question, "How many books are in the Bible?" is steeped in fascinating history and tradition. The Bible is God's Word and as such the decision over which books ought to be included and which ought to be excluded was not undertaken lightly. Scripture is intended to point us to God and to reveal to us the truth of the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it. Christians from the time of the early church have studied these texts closely.
Understanding which books make up the books of the Bible helps us to get a better idea of the messages God's Word is trying to convey. For more ways to deepen your faith and continue your education, take a look at Alabaster’s beautifully designed collection of Bibles and other supplemental material to help you along your journey.