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Where does the name of each book come from?

(I am not a Christian and this should be treated like a novice question.)

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3 Answers 3

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The various books get their names in different ways. Most of the Old Testament books are named for their theme. For example, the book of Genesis tells of the beginning (or genesis) of the world, and human history. The book of Exodus tells of the story of the Israelites' exodus out of Egypt. Psalms and Proverbs, are collections of, respectively, psalms (songs) and proverbs (wise sayings). The books of Samuel, Ruth, Job, and many others, tell the stories of the people after which they are named.

In the New Testament, there are three main naming conventions. Many books are named after their authors, such as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, along with a few other letters (also called Epistles), which are named after their authors, such as James, and First Peter and Second Peter (he wrote two letters that are in the Bible).

Some of the other books in the New Testament are also letters, and are named after the recipient. First Corinithians and Second Corinthians are the first and second letters written to the church in Corinith, for instance. And Romans is a letter written to the church in Rome. First Timothy and Second Timothy are both letters written to Timothy (who was a church leader at the time).

And finally, a few of the New Testament books are also named after their theme. Acts portrays the "acts of the Apostles", and Revelation is a revelation of new insight (although the exact theme of Revelation is somewhat of a disputed issue--some say it's a revelation about the future, others say it's historical in content).

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It is not my area of speciality, but I've also seen it cited that Mathew, Mark, Luke and John are not so much the authors, but simply convenient reference names for different versions; for example: twopaths.com/jintro.htm - "All four Gospels are anonymous in the sense that none includes the author's name. The traditional names - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - did not become associated with these writings until the second century.". If accurate, it would be incorrect to claim they are "named after their authors". –  Marc Gravell Sep 26 '11 at 10:31
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@MarcGravell: Perhaps, although I think these particulars are a bit of a tangent for this self-proclaimed novice question, no? I also didn't bring up many of the alternate names for some of the books (Song of Solomon vs Song of Songs, etc, etc). –  Flimzy Sep 26 '11 at 10:34
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@MarcGravell: It seems to me that the point you're bringing up is really a question of authorship, which belongs in another question. The reason the "Gospel According to Matthew" is called "The Gospel According to Matthew" is because it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as told by Matthew. If the attribution is wrong, that's worthy of discussion, but the reason it's called Matthew is still the same--it is (or was) believed to have been authored by Matthew. If you would feel better if I edit my answer to say "named after their commonly accepted authors", I would be willing to make that change. –  Flimzy Sep 26 '11 at 10:41
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@Flimzy no, no; I suspect there's enough here (more than enough) to cover it; all I was saying is "it gets even more interesting". –  Marc Gravell Sep 26 '11 at 10:44
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@Flimzy, you might consider saying that e.g., the books are attributed to so-and so. @MarcGravell; yes, the more precise claim is generally that the books were not so much written by these men themselves, but rather that it is the account according to each one's testimony. –  Ray Sep 27 '11 at 10:31

The book names take a variety of formats, largely related to the kind of book they are.

The first set of books in the Bible are historical books (although the first 5 are usually considered as a separate set from the rest) - they give accounts of events that have happened - and they are usually named after key events they describe: Genesis includes the story about the genesis of the universe, Exodus includes the story of the Jews' exodus form Egypt. Later on, the two books of Kings (referred to as 1 Kings and 2 Kings) tell of various kings of Israel. Then there are several books that are named after the key people in them, such as 1 and 2 Samuel, Ruth, Esther, etc.

Some of these histories overlap considerably, so the books aren't in exact chronological order in the sense of each one following on from the next, but they are roughly in chronological order.

After the histories come a set of "wisdom" books, generally named after the nature of their contents (Psalms = poetry/songs, Proverbs). Then come the prophets - these read as histories but instead of concentrating on recording historical events as such, the focus is on revelations God made to key people. These books are named after the prophets they relate to.

Then we enter the New Testament, starting off with the four gospels. These are contemporary accounts of the life of Jesus, named after the person who wrote each one - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Then comes effectively a sequel to the book of Luke, which details events that happened after the life of Jesus - the book of Acts.

After Acts come a series of letters, which are either named after the people they were addressed to (often the church in a whole city rather than individual people) or the person who wrote them. Then, finally, there's the book of Revelation, which is effectively a New Testament prophecy, "revealing" much about Heaven and how the world as we know it will end.

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The other answers are great, but for those that like comprehensive lists...

Book Name - Reason for naming

Old Testament

  • Genesis - The genesis (beginning) of the world
  • Exodus - The exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt
  • Leviticus - The stating of Levitical laws (probably named after the tribe of Levi)
  • Numbers - The census (numbering) of the Israelites
  • Deuteronomy - The retelling of the law
  • Joshua - The protagonist/author of the book
  • Judges - The account of the various Judges of Israel
  • Ruth - The protagonist/author of the book
  • 1 Samuel - The protagonist/author of the book
  • 2 Samuel - The protagonist/author of the book
  • 1 Kings - The first account of the various kings of Israel
  • 2 Kings - The second account of the various kings of Israel
  • 1 Chronicles - Various chronicles, genealogies, and stories of the people from Adam to Abram to the Israelites.
  • 2 Chronicles - Various chronicles, genealogies, and stories of the people from Adam to Abram to the Israelites.
  • Ezra - The protagonist/author of the book
  • Nehemiah - The protagonist/author of the book
  • Esther - The protagonist/author of the book
  • Job - The protagonist/author of the book
  • Psalm - Various psalms (songs) of David and others
  • Proverbs - Various proverbs (wise sayings) of Solomon and others
  • Ecclesiastes - The Ecclesiastes (teachings) of Solomon
  • Song of Solomon - A song of Solomon about his betrothed.
  • Isaiah - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Jeremiah - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Lamentations - The lamentations (sad, remorseful writings) of Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Daniel - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Hosea - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Joel - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Amos - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Obadiah - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Jonah - The protagonist/author of the book
  • Micah - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Nahum - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Habakkuk - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Zephaniah - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Haggai - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Zechariah - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies
  • Malachi - The protagonist/author of the book and their prophecies

New Testament

  • Matthew - The protagonist/author of the book and their telling of the gospel
  • Mark - The protagonist/author of the book and their telling of the gospel
  • Luke - The protagonist/author of the book and their telling of the gospel
  • John - The protagonist/author of the book and their telling of the gospel
  • Acts - The various acts of the Apostles
  • Romans - The group of people being written to in the form of a letter
  • 1 Corinthians - The group of people being written to in the form of a letter
  • 2 Corinthians - The group of people being written to in the form of a letter
  • Galatians - The group of people being written to in the form of a letter
  • Ephesians - The group of people being written to in the form of a letter
  • Philippians - The group of people being written to in the form of a letter
  • Colossians - The group of people being written to in the form of a letter
  • 1 Thessalonians - The group of people being written to in the form of a letter
  • 2 Thessalonians - The group of people being written to in the form of a letter
  • 1 Timothy - The person being written to in the form of a letter
  • 2 Timothy - The person being written to in the form of a letter
  • Titus - The person being written to in the form of a letter
  • Philemon - The person being written to in the form of a letter
  • Hebrews - The group of people being written to in the form of a letter
  • James - The protagonist/author of the book
  • 1 Peter - The protagonist/author of the book
  • 2 Peter - The protagonist/author of the book
  • 1 John - The protagonist/author of the book
  • 2 John - The protagonist/author of the book
  • 3 John - The protagonist/author of the book
  • Jude - The protagonist/author of the book
  • Revelation - The prophetic revelation of John on the Island of Patmos
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