Why is our OT ordered differently from the Hebrew Masoretic text?

This may be a close to (or beyond) the edge of “on topic” for BioLogos. But I think there are subtle implications for the way we approach scripture.

What we call the Old Testament has more or less the same contents as the “Hebrew Bible”. (The precise contents are not the topic of this question. Let’s not divert into “apocryphal” or deuterocanonical details.) But the order of the books in our OT has been changed from the order in the three-volume Hebrew Bible: Torah/Law; Nevi’im/Prophets; Ketuvim/Writings.

How did the Christian church end up with this very different ordering of what is, essentially, the same material? At what point in the transmission of the collection did this difference arise?

Even as a lay reader, I find the fresh juxtapositions of the Hebrew Bible’s ordering quite revealing. For instance “Ruth” ends up very close to “Ezra-Nehemiah”, and the sharp contrast of their almost diametrically opposed viewpoints emerges more strongly from this proximity. If we, in our debates about origins could more clearly see scripture arguing with itself, I suspect it might help us to read it as the “lively oracles”.

And the separation of “Chronicles” from “Samuel-Kings”, and its (frequent) Ketuvim placement as the final word of the entire collection also allows us to read it afresh, with its political, post-exilic, glossing; for us, we might more clearly see the re-creation of the eternal word when in a new societal context.

So by what process did our OT end up in this different ordering?

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Though I don’t know much for the reason for the changing of the order of the OT documents My guess is that they decided to bundle stuff into a category that fits the genre so it would be easier for both minister and layperson to know where to find the book, but that’s my guess.
My guess is that some of the stuff such as Daniel was moved to the prophets due to it having some prophecy in it and Ruth moved to the historical books due to it giving an account on the origin of the House of David. image
For me the changed order of books don’t bother me though the Jewish version of the OT seems really nice and interesting to read.

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Enns talks about that too. He agrees the Jewish format is better organized. I don’t recall if he discussed why or not.

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Thanks for your thoughts. @Sealkin

My question is specifically about the facts, evidence, etc. of why our OT has its different order; about the known history behind the re-ordering. Does the development or subsequent transmission of the Septuagint enter the equation?

This is a very thought-provoking discussion, David. Thanks for coming here and getting it started.

IIRC, the order of OT books in the Christian Bible derives from the order in the Septuagint. The Septuagint was effectively the Scriptures to the Jewish diaspora and to the Gentiles who joined the faith started by the rabbi from Nazareth.

This just pushes the question back further, of course: Why is the order of books different in the Septuagint? I must confess ignorance here.

Best,
Chris Falter

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This is a really interesting convo that I’m also not to sure about. I never studied why the books are organized the way they are. I was always under the impression that for a long time there was no specific order. Different Jewish groups and families had some or all of the stories and they were all individual scrolls.

That it was not until way later that we made them into a book and so I have no idea on why the Hebrew one is ordered the way it is or why ours are.

The reasons are probably too complex to address in a post. I have been reading “The Biblical Canon” by Lee McDonald. He mentions Bruce Metzger’s “The Canon of the New Testament” which has been mentioned by someone else that posts here. Either would probably answer your questions.

Bottom line, Christians took a greater interest in the concept of scripture than the Jews and were the first to begin the process of establishing a canon of scripture. Which was a remarkably fluid development in itself.

Fun fact, the Hebrew canon consisted of 22 or 24 books and it has been suggested these were originally a 23 book collection. Jews used the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet to organize their Bible and had to combine different books to get to 22. So even the 22 volumn list would have had books in different order based on which books were combined.

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We’re digressing into the contents of the canon! Staying on the digression just a little: The 22, 23 or 24 book question certainly involved certain book-groupings. But these were minor and highly localised: “Samuel”, “Kings” and “Chronicles” each being regarded as a single item; the twelve minor prophets a single item; “Ezra-Nehemiah” a single item. But none of those seem materially to affect the radically different ordering of Tanakh vs. the Western Old Testament, do they?

Independent of the canonisation of particular books, what were the stages by which some sort of large-scale ordering across the books emerged, possibly gradually, both in Tanakh and the OT? For instance, I see that in his Hebrew Bible’s footnotes to Ruth (which has a hugely different placement), Robert Alter says “…this initial notice [ch1.v1.] led the Septuagint, and the Christian canon afterward, to place the Book of Ruth in the Former Prophets, after Judges.” So it looks as though the Septuagint did play some sort of role. And yet the Septuagint was quite widespread before Christian times.

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McDonald mentions the development of the HB as a part of the discussion of the development of the canon. The Jews started with the Law and then added Prophets. The category of the Writings wasn’t established until the Christians had separated from the synagogue in the second century. Christians placed their OT into four divisions, Law, History, Poetry, and Prophets but he doesn’t explain (that I can find) why. He says,

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One can tell that the ordering of the books found in the Tanakh/OT as they were used in the Apostolic Scriptures/NT was the Tanakh ordering and not the claimed “Christian” ordering. By using the non-Tanakh ordering, there is some decontextualization of some of the texts in the books of the Apostolic Scriptures/NT as it makes it harder to understand what they are discussing without additional commentary.

The ordering of the Old Testament in Christian Bibles follows the order of the Septuagint, and had more to do with literary style of the book (ie history, poetry, etc) as opposed to the Masoric Text that reflected viewing all of the Hebrew scriptures as a unified whole.

But yes the ordering of the books by the Masoric Test makes a lot more sense of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Torah ends with Deuteronomy saying that we need another prophet like Moses.

The prophets is then devided into 3 sections, early prophetes (Joshua,Judges,Samual,Kings), the later prophets (Isaiaha-Jerememia-Ezekial), and the book of the 12 (what we call minor prophets minus Daniel which is part of the writings).

Early prophets end with needing another King like Hezekia that had a heart like David. Later prophets end looking forward to a new temple in Ezekial, and book of the 12 ends with Malachi looking for the return of Elijah to prepare the way for the Lord.

The writings then are all about looking back and reflecting on the grand story of Israel and ends with Ezra-Nehemia showing Israel back in the land, but it disappointingly still in a sense being in exile, then Chronicles as a bit of a recap of the rest of the story.

it also makes sense why Chronicles and Samuel-Kings cover much of the same material but have very different perspectives. Joshua-Kings is trying to tell the story of why they went into exile, while Chronicles is trying to rally Israel to have hope in the coming fullfilment of all the promises the rest of the Hebrew Scripture looked forward to.

There are also 5 books in the writings, called the Megillot, that correlate to specific Jewish holidays (Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Ester, Lamentations, and Ruth), and a lot of insight can be gleaned from reflecting on why they have traditional been correlated to the particular holiday.

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How does one go about determining this ordering?

At first, all the books in the Tanakh/OT were written on scrolls, and the scrolls were kept and organized as collections of scrolls and then collections of collections. Later these collections of collections of scrolls were put into an ordered book format when the codex was invented. The main 3 collections were/are called Torah, Prophets, and Writings. One can look at the collection and book order on Wikipedia.

TLV Luke 24:44 Then He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you—everything written concerning Me in the Torah of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.

Most scholars think that Jesus is referring to the Tanakh as the Psalms is the first and largest book in the Writings collection. But at a minimum he is referring to the first 2 sections of the Tanakh along with the Psalms.

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As has been correctly noted in previous discussion, the order in Christian Bibles follows the Septuagint order, which is pre-Christian. At least the Septuagint itself is pre-Christian. I’m not sure about the order of the books, since we find this order in the various codices that date from the fourth or fifth centuries AD.

Here a few observations are in order. First, there is the logic of the Septuagint ordering, which ends with the Prophets, specifically Malachi, which ends by predicting the return of Elijah as a forerunner of the coming day of the Lord. This gives a certain eschatological cast to the Old Testament, as it looks forward to fulfillment, something the early Christians found amenable to the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

Second, the Hebrew ordering of Torah, Prophets, and Writings conforms to a pattern noted by George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Lahoff is a metaphor theorist, whose work was so helpful for biblical scholars that there was a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature a few years back on the application of his analysis of how metaphors work to the Old Testament (he was a respondent).

In the above mentioned book, he discusses how humans do classification (it is an illuminating read). One of his points is that it is typical to have two main classifications, with a third category for everything left over. This quite accurately gets at the three-fold categorization of the Hebrew Bible.

After Torah and Prophets (both of which are specific categories; note that Prophets include the Former Prophets and Latter Prophets), we have the generic category “Writings,” which is a catch-all for everything else. The categories of Torah and Prophets were established first, and as extra books were added they found their way into the third category.

One final comment: While the order of the books in the Torah and the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) is always the same, there is some variation in the order of the Latter Prophets and a very high degree of variation in the order of the Writings.

Although Chronicles came to be the final book in the Hebrew Bible (probably because it ended with the encouragement to go up to Jerusalem, which is an eschatological hope for Judaism), it was not always the final book. In some medieval codices, it is the first book in the Writings.

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First we don’t have any record of how someone ordered their scrolls. Also what was written on a scroll was often based on what would fit on one scroll. I have a book around here someplace that went into this in great detail. Very interesting but unless you are a scholar I don’t see the practical use. And the codex format was a Christian innovation.

As I said above the Writings as a category is second century well after Christians were around.

Yes, the Twelve (Minor Prophets) (apparently) fit on one scroll.

Josephus: “For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them.”

The question (for me at least) is how to try to make some set of OT/Tanakh/LXX books fit with what Josephus describes as his understanding of there just being 22 books in his “canon” when the other candidate canons have more. I think part of the solution is to realize that Jews grouped some of the books we think of as separate in collections and referred to the collection as a book. The smallest collection is what is found in the Tanakh, the LXX has many more books and so just makes the challenge of somehow organizing them into 22 books even harder.

Paul in 2 Tim 3:16 thinks there is some set of books that he can refer to as the Scriptures.

2Ti 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
2Ti 3:17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

As believers, we need to try to do our best to try to figure out what he was referring to. There are lots of references to “the Scriptures” or “it is Written” in the NT books and these can be and have been collected to see what they refer to.

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The book I mentioned, “The Biblical Canon” has a long section on Josephus. And in the discussion of the quote you mentioned there is this.

and

No at this time there wasn’t universal agreement on what books made up Scrpture. McDonald provided a story about Bishop Melito of Sardis at the end of the second century trying to determine which books were included in the Jewish Scriptures. You also have the Jews at Qumran who freely added or subtracted from their texts which indicated they didn’t consider them to be in a closed canon.

Obviously Paul is referring to what we call the OT but there was no single list of what could be called Scripture. In fact some writings were added and removed from what was considered authoritative.

You can find books on how the OT was used by the NT writers. Such as " Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament". In general the NT writers quoted the LXX instead of the MT.

You can also dig into the Early Church Fathers use of writings that didn’t make it into the canon.

I saw an analysis of books of the NT quotes of the OT books and he said about 80% were from the LXX, about 10% were from a Hebrew text (in some cases earlier than MT) and about 10% could not be determined.

Jesus and Paul referred to the Law/Torah and the Prophets so I think that those collections meant something to them and that they were at least referring to the first two sections of the Tanakh (and possibly the whole thing). Everything can be disputed by adopting what I think is a skeptical stance, but this is what makes the most sense to me. On the Writings section, I think that the Psalms was at least a part of it and so one looks for other refs in the NT to the other books in the Writings where the claim is that ref is to Scripture or via “It is written …”, etc.

It is true that there were different 1st century sects and each had its own canon.

There are similar discussions about the NT canon. IIRC the vast majority of the books were easily decided to be either in or out, there were only about 5 or so that were accepted that had any significant discussion.

But adopting certainty when there is no evidence for it is also a problem. We just have to accept that there are some things we will never know for certain on this side of the Pearly Gates.

Read the book and see if you can still can hold to this idea. BTW, in general there wasn’t a discussion if a work was in or out. The discussion was who was accepting the work as authoritative. The canon wasn’t set by a council.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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