The order of New Testament books (part one)

NT

Why do the New Testament books appear in the order they do in the Bible? Was this a random arrangement? Is there a reasonable explanation?

Naturally, the New Testament opens with the Gospels, featuring the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This forms the basis for the rest of the NT. Revelation comes at the end because its subject matter was still future (and it was likely the last book written). Important note: the last book of the Bible is spelled R-e-v-e-l-a-t-i-o-n (there is no “s”).

But there are four Gospels. Why are they arranged as they are?

Early Christian tradition held that Matthew was the first Gospel to be written. Then Mark, then Luke, then John. Voila! That’s the order that these books appear in the manuscripts as early as the third century. [Most scholars today think that Mark was the first Gospel written].

This traditional order also makes sense based on contents. As a result of Matthew’s placement at the beginning, the NT starts with a genealogy of Jesus. Also, the Synoptic Gospels are grouped together, leaving John’s unique Gospel to round out the list.

Other early manuscripts of the New Testament contain the Gospels in the so-called Western order. This arrangement places the two Gospels written by apostles (longer book first) before the two Gospels written by non-apostles (longer book first). The result: Matthew-John-Luke-Mark.

The drawback to both of these arrangements is that the Gospel of Luke is separated from its sequel, the book of Acts. So since the order of the NT books is not an inspired arrangement, I’d like to propose my own preferred order for the Gospels.

John-Matthew-Mark-Luke

This arrangement has several advantages. First, it keeps the Synoptic Gospels together and in their traditional order. Second, it keeps Luke-Acts together as the two-volume work they were intended to be. Finally, it ties the Old and New Testament together with identical starts: “In the beginning.” Matthew may begin his story with the genealogy of Jesus, but John begins long before time.

In either arrangement, the book of Acts serves as a fitting bridge to the apostolic letters. Biographical background on many NT writers, especially Peter and Paul, is supplied by Acts. It is the earliest window into the life of the church.

Next time we’ll consider the arrangement and names of Paul’s letters (including Hebrews) and the General epistles.

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2 responses to “The order of New Testament books (part one)

  • The Devotional Guy

    Did the traditional order come about because the early church Fathers thought Matthew was written first and John was written last (and was also different than the 3 Synoptic Gospels)?

  • Jeff Miller

    Exactly. And not only that Matthew was written first, but also that it was originally written in Aramaic (sister language of Hebrew and the common first century language of the Jews). Many scholars today dispute both of those claims.

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