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The Canon Wheel

(Chapter 2 of the Bible Wheel Book)

The Protestant Canon of Scripture

But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

Galatians 6:14ff

The list of the sixty-six books of the Bible is called the canon of Scripture, from the Greek κανων (kanon), meaning rule or measuring rod. The ultimate root is found in the Hebrew קנה (kaneh), of the same meaning, which also gave rise to the English word "cane" (a rod or walking stick). Paul used this word above in Galatians 6:16 and again in Philippians 3:16 when he admonished us to "walk according to the same rule (kanon)." Though these verses do not directly refer to the list of sixty-six inspired books, the early Church fathers recognized "canon" as an apt term for that which defines the rule of the Christian Faith given in the Holy Bible. It is of primary importance to remember that the Bible Wheel is a representation of the Protestant Bible. Issues relating to such things as other versions of the Bible and the Apocrypha, while interesting, do not impact any facts presented in this book.

The Protestant Canon possesses an extraordinarily 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 further 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. My favorite is J. Sidlow Baxter's massive six-volume Explore the Book (1960) in which he presented a detailed analysis of the main themes of each of the sixty-six books in the context of the "big picture" of the whole Bible. His work shines with a rare brilliance, being thoroughly enlightened by his full appreciation of the Divine design of the Holy Bible, as is quite evident from the introduction to his book:

Our Bible consists of sixty-six component parts. These are divided into two distinctive major collections, the Old and New Testaments. But each of these two Testaments, the one consisting of thirty-nine books, the other of twenty-seven, is found to be arranged in certain clearly homogenous groups; and in this connection careful investigation reveals the presence of a marvelous Divine design running through the whole. ... This presence of plan and design does not only pertain to the Bible in this general sense; it runs through all the different book-groups considered separately; and the more we follow it through in detail, so the more won-derful it becomes, until all possibility of its being mere coincidence is eliminated by over-whelming abundance of evidence that this is indeed the word of the living God.

Baxter was not alone with this insight. W. Graham Scroggie held an identical view which he described in the introduction to his magnificent synthetic vision of the Bible as whole, The Unfolding Drama of Redemption (1953):

In the Bible, as in biology, the whole is more than the aggregate of the parts. A living body is more than an assemblage of limbs; and the Bible is more than a collection of texts, paragraphs, chapters, or even books; it is a spiritual organism, in which each part is related to, and is dependent on, every other part, the whole being pervaded by spiritual life. ... It has a starting point, a track, a goal. The Temple of Truth is upreared from its foundation to its con-summation by its glorious superstructure, in which are beauty of conception, unity of plan, harmony of parts, and growth towards completion.

Both Baxter and Scroggie followed the ancient Christian tradition that lists the sixty-six books under the three general categories (genres) of History, Prophecy, and Writings, the latter containing the subcategories of 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. Many Christian scholars have used it to a greater or lesser extent over the centuries. It defines the chapter structure of many Bible commentaries such as Adam Clarke's Clavis Biblica (Bible Key) published in 1810 and the more modern Eerdmans' Handbook to the Bible (1973) which color-codes its chapters in precise accordance with the seven divisions outlined below. This review of the large-scale structure of the Bible follows the pattern that Baxter, Scroggie, Clarke, Eerdmans' Handbook, and a host of other Biblical scholars have published in abundance.

The 39 Books of the Old Testament

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 19:7f

The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament fall into three consecutive groups of Seventeen Books of History, Five Books of Wisdom, 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. These are the "homogenous groups" mentioned by Baxter above, and this is part of the "plan and design" that "does not only pertain to the Bible in this general sense" but "runs through all the different book-groups considered separately" to yield an "over-whelming abundance of evidence that this is indeed the word of the living God." Here now is a review the details of the Old Testament portion of this "marvelous Divine design running through the whole" of the Bible.

Five Books of the Law [Category: History]

  • Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

The first Five Books form a group that goes by various names, such as the Law, the Pentateuch, and the Five Books of Moses. The Jews call it the Torah. 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. Both Jews and Christians have recognized this group as a separate canonical division since the earliest times.

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 Jews 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 en-trance 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 we will see below, the Seventeen Books of Prophecy follow exactly the same pattern.

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.

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.

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 (pg 61). 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 contain Five Books by four writers, which is the same pattern seen in the Five New Testament History Books, as discussed below.

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. It is displayed on the Wheel on page 98 where it is shown that all the divisions and subdivisions align on the same sets of Spokes. The table follows the pattern as presented in both Baxter's and Scroggie's comprehensive studies of the Bible as a whole.

The 27 Books of the New Testament

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;

Matthew 1:1

At the highest level of categorization, the structure of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is very simple. It consists of only two main groups; Five Books of History and twenty-two Writings most broadly categorized as Epistles (Letters).

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. This exhibits the same structure as the Menorah (pgs 48, 384).

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 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."

We now have completed a survey of the structure of the Christian Canon as understood by numerous Biblical scholars over a span of centuries. The blazing miracle of God is that the seven canonical divisions reviewed above spontaneously blossom on the Bible Wheel to form a top-level, super-obvious pattern that is nothing less than a Divine revelation of the fully unified sevenfold symmetric perfection of the whole Bible prepared by God before the foundation of the world.

The Seven Canonical Divisions on the Bible Wheel

The image above displays the seven canonical divisions of the Bible in various shades of purple, red, and blue. Symmetrically placed divisions, such as the Five Books of the Law (Genesis to Deuteronomy) and the Five Wisdom Books (Job to Song of Songs) are marked with the same color. Divisions aligned on the same set of Spokes, such as the Law and the Major Prophets (Isaiah to Daniel) which span the first five Spokes, are marked by different shades of the same color. The Canon Wheel on the next page displays the same information in a simplified format, using only the names of the seven divisions.

The Canon Wheel

Next: Chapter 3 of the Bible Wheel book

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