The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. — Psalm 19:7-8
THE SEVENFOLD SYMMETRIC PERFECTION of the Canon Wheel is one of the most obvious signs of the divine design of the Holy Bible. It emerges when we simply color and label the seven canonical divisions after “rolling up” the list of sixty-six books like a scroll on a spindle Wheel of twenty-two Spokes, corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is explained in the online version of Chapter 1 of the Bible Wheel book. This article reviews the Biblical evidence for the seven canonical divisions by examining the relation between the traditional divisions with the content of the books they contain as represented by the distribution of key words.
We begin by reviewing the content of the seven divisions. The Protestant Canon possesses an extra-ordinarily coherent and perfectly symmetric structure. It is first divided into two main groups:
- 39 Books of the Old Testament, originally written in Hebrew (and some Aramaic)
- 27 Books of the New Testament, originally written in Greek
These two groups subdivide into seven divisions based primarily on the genre, or type of writing, of each book. This has been thoroughly studied and documented in many Biblical commentaries. The three genres (categories) are History, Prophecy, and Writings, the latter containing the subcategories of Poetry and Wisdom (Didactic) Literature and Epistles (Letters). This tradition probably arose in Judaism, before Christianity was born, with the publication of the Septuagint (ca. 200 BC) which follows this categorical system.
39 Books of the Old Testament
- Division 1: 05 Books of the Torah [Category: History]
- Division 2: 12 Books of Old Testament History [Category: History]
- Division 3: 05 Books of Wisdom and Poetry [Category: Writings]
- Division 4: 05 Books of the Major Prophets [Category: Prophecy]
- Division 5: 12 Books of the Minor Prophets [Category: Prophecy]
27 Books of the New Testament
- Division 6: 05 Books of New Testament History [Category: History]
- Division 7: 22 Books of the New Testament Epistles [Category: Writings]
Many Bible commentaries are structured on this pattern, such as Adam Clarke’s Clavis Biblica This link takes you off the Bible Wheel site and opens a new window (Bible Key) published in 1810 and the more modern Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible This link takes you off the Bible Wheel site and opens a new window (1973) which color-codes its chapters in precise accordance with the seven divisions. The digital photos below show the Seven Canonical Divisions as listed in the introductions to the Old and the New Testaments in my personal copy of Eerdmans’ Handbook (click on the images for a larger view):
Exactly the same pattern is presented online on the BlueletterBible.org with the only variation being that the Epistles are subdivided into three groups called the Pauling Epistles, the General Epistles, and one Apocalyptic Epistle (Revelation). The important point being that the last twenty-two books are all recognized as epistles. See Revelation as an Epistle for more discussion on this point.
In the overview below, I have included graphs of characteristic word distributions that are maximized in each of the seven divisions (taken from Chapter 6 of the Bible Wheel book). These are distributions of specific words that expressly cohere with the division’s traditional name. This is a strong witness of the objective validity of the canonical divisions since they would be discernible by their characteristic word distributions even if we had not received them from the early Church (as discussed in A Complete Categorical View of the Bible). As you scroll over the graphs below, you will see the dominant thematic patterns of the Bible sequentially unfold. It forms a simple outline of the ebb and flow of the Everlasting Story. Note that similar word distributions characterize each of the twenty-two Spokes.
The 39 Books of the Old Testament
The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament fall into three consecutive groups of seventeen books of History, five books of Wisdom and Poetry, and seventeen books of Prophecy. These three groups symmetrically subdivide into five groups which contain either five books or twelve books. Of these, the two groups of twelve books symmetrically subdivide into groups of nine and three. This is shown in the table at the end of the review of the books of the Old Testament below.
Five Books of the Law [Category: History]
- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
These five books are universally recognized as forming a unit that goes by various names such as the Pentateuch, the Law, or the Five Books of Moses. Jews call it the Torah, which is usually translated as “Law” but more generally means “The Teaching.” It chronologically records the history from the beginning of creation (Gen 1:1) through the formation of Israel as God’s Chosen People up to the time just before they entered the Promised Land. It includes major formative events such as the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. This canonical division is universally recognized as a separate canonical division that belongs first in the canon by all Jews and Christians since the earliest times.
The Torah is also known as the “Book of the Covenant” because it records the first covenants God made with Noah (Gen 6:18), Abraham (Gen 17:1), and all Israel (Exo 19:5). The word “covenant” itself is distributed fairly broadly throughout all seven divisions, but the phrase “my covenant” as spoken by the Lord directly to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the children of Israel distinguishes the Torah where it occurs 26 times (48%). It appears in each of the first Five Books, with the maximum in Genesis. The Torah is also clearly distinguished by the words “statute(s)” and “ordinance(s)” characteristic of the Old Covenant established in therein.
Twelve Books of Old Testament History [Category: History]
- Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1,2 Samuel, 1,2 Kings, 1,2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
This group continues the history of the children of Israel from the crossing of the Jordan River and entrance into the Promised Land. It records the rise and fall of the Davidic Kingdom and the many trials and tribulations that befell the children of Israel as they repeatedly disobeyed God’s commandments. The Babylonian Exile, when God drove them from the Promised Land because of their many sins, punctuates this section. The first Nine Books record the time before the Exile, and the last Three record the time after their return. The Bible therefore begins with a sequence of Seventeen Books of History divided into two main groups of Five and Twelve Books which record the events before and after entrance into the Promised Land, punctuated by the crossing of the Jordan River. Likewise, the last Twelve Historical Books are divided into two main groups of Nine and Three, punctuated by the Babylonian Exile. As shown in the table below, the Seventeen Books of Prophecy follow exactly the same pattern.
Precisely as one would expect, the continuous narrative of the Historical Books is naturally distinguished by the phrase “it came to pass.” It appears between 13 and 40 times in each of the Twelve Old Testament History Books except Ruth (3x), 1 Chr (9x) and Ezra where, oddly enough, it is absent. The second greatest concentration appears in the Torah. The third maximum appears, again as expected, in the Five NT History Books. There are no occurrences in the Epistles, so the phrase “it came to pass” clearly distinguishes between the two primary divisions of the New Testament.
Another intriguing distribution is found in the Divine Title “Lord God of Israel” which appears almost exclusively in the Twelve OT History Books. The distribution is quite uniform throughout most of this division. It occurs between six and twenty-one times in all but four Books, and is missing only in Nehemiah and Esther, the latter being expected because of its unique design as a demonstration of God’s Providence when He is acting from behind the scenes (Esther means hidden, see Unveiling the Hidden). Of particular interest is that this distribution distinguishes this division even from the Torah which shares its historical character. There is a mystery as to why this title appears so frequently in the historical record but rarely in the prophets who were writing at that same time.
Five Books of Wisdom and Poetry [Category: Writings]
- Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs
These Five Books form a meditative, prayerful, and philosophical interlude between the Seventeen Books of History preceding them and the Seventeen Books of Prophecy that follow after. As shown in the table below, they reside in the symmetrical heart of the Old Testament and so it is that they teach the heart of every believer the Wisdom of God in Proverbs, the Praise of God in the Psalms, and the Love of God in the Song of Songs.
Again, in precise agreement with what we would expect, the Five Wisdom Books are distinguished by their unique emphasis on the word “wisdom.” Of its 234 occurrences in the KJV, 113 appear in this division. It is missing only in the Song of Songs. The distribution within this division is also instructive. Of its 113 hits, the maximum of 54 (48%) occurs in Proverbs at the exact midpoint of these Five Books. It aligns on the Wheel with the Book of Luke on Spoke 20, which uses the word “wisdom” more than the other Gospels and also contains the most parables (proverbs). This is the basis of many links on Spoke 20 between Proverbs and Luke discussed in the Synopsis (pg 339 of the BW Book).
The Five Wisdom Books are also distinguished by the frequent use of the word “understanding” which is often paired with wisdom, as in the first verse of Proverbs:
The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel; To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding …
Five Books of the Major Prophets [Category: Prophecy]
- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel
Twelve Books of the Minor Prophets [Category: Prophecy]
- Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
The first Five and last Twelve of the Seventeen Books of Prophecy have always been grouped separately because the latter Twelve were small enough to be written together on a single scroll called the Book of the Twelve. Almost all early canon lists attest to its existence as a separate group. The ancient Jewish book, The Wisdom of Sirach (ca. 180 BC) gives the earliest witness to this grouping.
The Prophets, both Major and Minor, speak frequently of the things the Lord was or is yet to do in the future, so they are distinguished by the frequent use of the phrase “in that day.” Though this does set apart the Seventeen Prophetic Books from the other five divisions, it does not differentiate between the Major and Minor Prophets. The distribution is dominant in Isaiah (43x) in the Major Prophets and Zechariah (20x) in the Minor. It appears in all but five of the Seventeen Books of Prophecy. It contrasts well with the phrase “it came to pass” characteristic of the Seventeen Books of History.
A similar phrase, “the day of the Lord”, also characterizes these paired divisions. It is fairly uniform throughout all Seventeen Prophetic Books, appearing in four of the Major and six of the Minor Prophets. The graph looks like it distinguishes between them only because the phrase is particularly frequent in two of the latter (Joel and Zechariah). I present these distributions here because they clearly distinguish the Prophets in terms that naturally illustrate their character. There are other word distributions that distinguish between the two, but space prohibits a detailed review at this time.
Each of the Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are larger than all Twelve Minor Prophets combined and were written on individual scrolls. But there are other important distinctions that set the first Five Books of Prophecy apart from the Twelve that follow them. The Book of Isaiah is without doubt the “first of the Prophets” for many reasons, as discussed in detail below (see pg 61 of the BW book). The New Testament quotes it more than any other prophetic Book because it contains the greatest Old Testament revelation of the Gospel and the Work of Christ (e.g. Isaiah chapters 40 & 53). David A. Hubbard lauded its unique significance when he called it “the Mount Rushmore of biblical prophecy,” and went on to write:
Sculpted on its massive slopes are the major themes of Scripture: who God is, what he has done for his people, and how he expects us to serve him. … No other part of the Bible gives us so panoramic a view of God’s handiwork in Israel’s history nor such clear prophecies of his lordship over the nations. If Beethoven’s nine symphonies loom as landmarks on the horizon of classical music, Isaiah’s sixty-six chapters mark the apex of prophetic vision.
The Books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel are likewise distinct from the Twelve Minor Prophets in scope as well as size. The Book of Lamentations, on the other hand, is not prophetic per se, but has been included with Jeremiah since ancient times because that great prophet wrote it and so it stands with his Book in all Protestant Bibles. The Major Prophets therefore therefore contain Five Books by four writers, which is the same pattern seen in the Five New Testament History Books (see Symmetries of the Bible Wheel).
This coherence of design continues in the Twelve Minor Prophets which subdivide in precisely the same way as the latter Twelve History Books. In both cases, the Babylonian Exile punctuates the subdivision. The first Nine prophesied before the Exile, and the latter Three after the return. The Seventeen Books of Prophecy therefore exhibit exactly the same numerical pattern as the Seventeen Books of History. The table below displays the symmetric structure of the Old Testament, with the Babylonian Exile dividing between the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Books of both the historical and prophetical sections.
This same information is displayed on the Wheel in The Perfect Symmetry of the Christian Old Testament, where it is shown that all the divisions and subdivisions align on the same sets of Spokes.
The 27 Books of the New Testament
Five Books of New Testament History [Category: History]
- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts
These five books consist of four biographies (personal histories) of Christ called Gospels, and one history of the early Church called the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospels cover the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Likewise, Acts begins with the birth of His Church at Pentecost when God sealed His disciples with the Holy Spirit and sent them forth to proclaim the Gospel unto “the uttermost parts of the earth.” Luke is the author of both Acts and the Gospel that bears his name so the New Testament History consists of Five Books written by four authors just like the Five Major Prophets. The Gospels subdivide into a “3 + 1” pattern with three synoptic Gospels presenting roughly parallel accounts of the life of Christ and the Gospel of John which stands alone with its unique revelation of Christ as the Living Word of God.
The Five New Testament History Books record the fulfillment of all the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the First Advent of Christ, and so they are naturally characterized by the word “fulfilled.” It appears in all Five Books of this division, with the frequency in each being Mat (16x), Mark (4x), Luke (8x), John (11x), Acts (9x). Not every occurrence of the word “fulfilled” in the Bible refers to fulfilled prophecy, but most do and so it is a good “rough marker” of the Sixth Canonical Division. A more detailed analysis would yield essentially the same results.
Twenty-Two Epistles [Category: Writings]
- Romans, 1,2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1,2 Thessalonians, 1,2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1,2 Peter, 1,2,3 John, Jude, Revelation
The Seventh Division brings us to the ultimate message of all Scripture, the essence of the Gospel declared in a single word: grace. This word is characteristic of the entire seventh division, which perfectly coheres with the spiritual meaning of the Seventh Day Sabbath that prefigured the rest we have in Christ through grace (pg 49 of the BW book). The word “grace” appears in all but two of the twenty-two Epistles. As would be expected, the word faith generates an almost identical distribution.
The word epistle comes directly from the Greek επιστολη (epistole) which denotes a letter as “something sent.” It is from the same root as “apostle” which appears in the opening salutation of exactly one-half of the Books in this group, such as the first verse of the First Epistle, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1).
The category of Epistle derives from the self-description of Scripture which uses this term in reference to seven of the Books listed above. For example, the First Epistle ends with a note from the scribe who penned it, “I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22). Likewise, Peter called his own writing an epistle (2 Pet 3:1) and referred to Paul’s writings as both epistles and scripture:
… even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. –2 Peter 3:15f
Paul also referred to his own writings as epistles, as when he said “I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren” (1 Thes 5:27).
Each of the twenty-two Epistles except Hebrews and 1 John opens with a salutation from the author, the name of the recipient(s), and a blessing that usually includes grace and peace from God. The opening salutations from the first and last Books in this group serve as good examples of the common style of New Testament Epistles:
- Romans 1:1,7: Paul … to all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Revelation 1:4: John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
Likewise, each of the twenty-two Epistles except James has a closing salutation that typically includes a blessing, a mention of Christ being “with you,” and an concluding “amen.” Again, the first and last Epistles serve as fine examples of the uniformity of the style of the New Testament Epistles, since they are identical:
- Romans 16:24: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
- Revelation 22:21: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
The twenty-two Epistles subdivide sequentially into various groups and subgroups based on authorship and audience as follows:
- 14 Pauline Epistles
- 9 Ecclesiastical Epistles written to Churches in seven cities; Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica.
- 4 Personal Epistles written to three individuals. These divide into a “3 + 1” pattern like the Gospels. The first three were written to the pastors Timothy and Titus, and so are called “Pastoral Epistles.” Paul wrote the fourth to his close friend and convert, Philemon.
- 1 Epistle to the Hebrews. As mentioned above, this Book has no opening salutation so we do not know with certainty who wrote it. The KJV follows the early Church tradition, maintained also by both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, and lists this Book as “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” The question of authorship will be dealt with as the need arises (pg 100).
- 7 General Epistles written by James (1), Peter (2), John (3), and Jude (1).
- 1 Prophetic/Apocalyptic Epistle. There is no consensus on the proper sub-categorization of the Book of Revelation. It has been called prophetic, apocalyptic, historic, symbolic, and allegorical. It is all this and more. It is a Capstone to the Bible that ties together everything that goes before it. Many canon lists overlook its epistolary nature and categorize it as the only prophetic Book of the NT, but this ignores a primary aspect of its true nature, as Roloff well explained in his section called The Epistolary Character of Revelation in his commentary, writing: “In summary, Revelation is a prophetic writing that contains numerous apocalyptic motifs and elements of style, but whose form is chiefly characterized by the purpose of epistolary communication.” David Aune, in his exhaustive three-volume commentary on the Final Book, noted that “The Canon Muratori [2nd-4th century] recognized the epistolary character of Revelation, which is understood to mean that the seven individual churches to whom John wrote, when taken together, represent the universal Church.” Baxter concurred, stating simply that the Book of Revelation “is really an Epistle of our Lord Himself: see the opening verse.”
Conclusion: Sevenfold Symmetric Perfection!
When the Seven Canonical Divisions are displayed on the Bible Wheel, we immediately discover one of the greatest wonders ever seen in the history of Biblical studies. The structure of the Christian Canon is perfectly symmetric, and it looks like the tri-radiant halo – the Sign of Deity – seen in ancient icons of Christ! [See The Tri-Radiant Halo as the Sign of Deity] There can be no conclusion but this structure was designed by the Lord God Almighty before the foundation of the world. Praise His name now and forever! Amen.