In part one, we explored the overall arrangement of the books in the New Testament with special focus on the order of the four Gospels. In this installment we’ll conclude with a look at Paul’s letters and the General epistles: James through Jude (“epistle” is a fancy word meaning “letter”).
Paul’s letters are grouped together in the New Testament, beginning with his letter to the Romans and finishing with his short letter to Philemon. Why this order?
Are they arranged by their date of composition?
Their theological significance?
Alphabetically in Greek?
None of the above.
You may be surprised to learn that Paul’s letters are merely arranged in order by length–longest to shortest. It’s that simple. [Letters written to the same audience are grouped together, and letters to churches appear before letters to individuals].
The letter to the Hebrews was initially thought to be written by the Apostle Paul. In many early manuscripts, Hebrews appears near the front of the collection of Paul’s letters. As doubts regarding Pauline authorship of Hebrews began to grow, the book was displaced to the middle and ultimately the end of this collection. Today, our Bibles include Hebrews after Paul’s short letter to Philemon–still attached to Paul’s collection but not appearing in order by length because of uncertainty of authorship (remember, the letter is not signed by Paul).
The order chosen for the General letters (James through Jude) may have been inadvertently engineered by Paul in Galatians 2:9. There he mentions the three “pillars”: James, Cephas (Peter), and John. During the middle and late first century, these three individuals were considered principal leaders in the church–in that order. Their New Testament letters follow the same arrangement (with Jude closing out the list).
Finally, I’ve always found the traditional names given to these apostolic letters interesting. Paul’s letters (including Hebrews) are named after their intended audience (“the letter to the Colossians”). The General letters, on the other hand, are named after their author (“the letter of James”).
This tradition removes two obstacles:
1) It would be difficult to name the “General” letters after specific recipients because they were, by definition, written to a “general” (= “catholic”) audience.
2) If Paul’s letters were named after their author like the General letters, then Titus and Philemon would be called “Twelfth Paul” and “Thirteenth Paul.” We have enough trouble with First, Second, and Third John. Thirteen letters named “Paul” would prove unwieldy.