The Old Testament checks in at about 580,000 - 590,000 words (depending on the translation), and the New Testament has about 180,000. That means the 66 distinct books combined have a total of about 770,000 words.

For purposes of comparison, the Lord of Rings Trilogy (just 3 books!) is 525,000, Atlas Shrugged (1 book!) is 645,000, and L. Ron Hubbard's Mission Earth is over 1.2 million words.

The book of 2 John has only 245 words, and the book of 3 John has 219 words - again for comparison, Dr. Suess' Cat In The Hat 1629 words. Indeed, 12 of the 66 books are all shorter than that!

The longest book in the Bible - the Book of Psalms, has about 42,000 words, which is not too much more than 1/2 of the first Harry Potter book (80,000).

According to Write Mindset.com, 60,000 is about the minimum for a novel, and no book in the Bible comes close. Indeed, only two of the Gospels exceed the normal maximum length of a short story by being just over 20,000.

With all of these comparisons, the point is pretty simple - the Bible is short. The question is, Why?

Source: http://www.biblebelievers.com/believers-org/kjv-stats.html

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  • 14
    Because brevity is the soul of genius? :-) – Audio Sancto Feb 3 '12 at 18:51
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    I gotta say, if you asked 100 believers if the Bible was too short, 99 would say that it's way too long. (To my shame, I've probably read the Lord of the Rings as many times as the Bible and it takes weeks rather than months.) – Jon Ericson Feb 3 '12 at 19:22
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    The author of Lord of the Rings didn't imbue the content with such profound significance and wisdom that one could spend their lives studying a single chapter and still not extract or understand all of the possible meaning that was put there (and which survives translations and mis-translations without losing the essential meaning!). – Audio Sancto Feb 3 '12 at 19:29
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    @Audio "possible meaning" is not the same as "meaning". There is a risk of over-interpretation too. It is also dangerous to assume translations are somehow "sound"... (adulterer's bible, anyone?) – Marc Gravell Feb 3 '12 at 20:01
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    @AffableGeek when comparing lengths, you might also keep in mind that many parts of the Bible are (essentially) repeated. This reduces the effective size further. – Marc Gravell Feb 3 '12 at 20:02

How long a particular text should be depends entirely on what type of text it is. As you probably know, the Bible contains many different types of texts. Words of wisdom and poetry generally takes up a lot less space than descriptions of events, person, places and actions.

It's not really fair to compare the historical books of the Bible with long novels like the Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series, since the Bible is not a novel. When you write a novel you can make up all events and descriptions and details and it's generally good to make detailed descriptions of certain important things. In a historical account, on the other hand, it's impossible to know the exact details (unless you are a first-hand witness and you write it down shortly after the event) and to describe them accurately. In addition to this, it's not important to know all those details (it might be fun, but not important).

Let's take an example: If I were to write a historical novel about the murder of Julius Caesar, I would use several pages to cover just the actual murder (I would describe in detail how the murderers did it and their feelings before and after the deed), while the historical accounts would use just a few sentences -- as would the Bible. The Bible doesn't really go into details and it uses very brief descriptions. Take Samson as an example. He performed incredible demonstrations of strength, but his entire life is covered in a few pages, whereas a modern novel would probably span hundreds of pages, if not more.

In short, the Bible is not a novel and should not be compared to novels.


There are several reasons, but one of the most interesting to me is the cost of available materials. We take cheap paper for granted, but even in the days of Paul, the raw materials for writing would have been expensive. In his Introduction to the New Testament, Raymond Brown calculated that the cost of a paper and ink alone would have cost Paul the equivalent of about US$3000 in today's money just to write the Book of Romans. That would not have necessarily even covered the cost of an Amanuensis to physically do the writing.

With prices like that just for the raw materials, one can understand why John would say in John 21:25

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written

The truth is, he probably couldn't have afforded it!

  • 3
    Not that he didn't have the money, but the Rev Know it All says Constantine would have paid 30,000,000 dollars for his bible! – Peter Turner Feb 3 '12 at 19:06
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    There is also the habit of wisdom literature to compile a lot of learning into simple phrases that are individually hard to understand. This habit probably comes from a similar source; the cost of materials for writing, but not entirely. – user304 Feb 3 '12 at 21:50
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    As an other answer pointed out, portability was a great issue, especially in the early Church when the New Testament was written and Christianity was persecuted. Imagine smuggling a number of books containing more text than all the Harry Potter / Lord of the Rings and other books the QA mentioned! – vsz Feb 5 '12 at 10:17

In addition, a surprising amount of content is repeated:

Then there are the genealogies, repeated sacrifices, land allotments, and other lists that give us, modern readers very little extra content. (Not that we should contemplate removing or ignoring those bits. They just make the question that much more pressing.)

Personally, I have not plumbed the depths of God's Word and I don't know of anyone who has. There is a richness there that I have never tasted anywhere else. How can I complain that I don't have enough of something that satisfies me and more?

And I'm nobody compared to the Psalmist who is looking forward to an eternity with the Torah alone:

Psalm 119:41-48 (ESV)
41 Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD,
   your salvation according to your promise;
42 then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me,
   for I trust in your word.
43 And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth,
   for my hope is in your rules.
44 I will keep your law continually,
   forever and ever,
45 and I shall walk in a wide place,
   for I have sought your precepts.
46 I will also speak of your testimonies before kings
   and shall not be put to shame,
47 for I find my delight in your commandments,
   which I love.
48 I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love,
   and I will meditate on your statutes.

  • 1
    Nope, no duplicate Psalms. – user304 Feb 3 '12 at 21:47


(As a note, the tl;dr is at the end, in the conclusion)

I don't want to get into an argument about Sola Scriptura here, but that is in part because there were a lot of things which simply were not written down and were passed by word of mouth. This was both because it was cheaper and faster (people without books are better at memorizing), but also because a person was far less likely to be confiscated and burned (yes, Christians were arrested, but they could often go for some time before they were actually put to death and over that time they could continue teaching, documents were destroyed immediately).

The same is true for the Old Testament. Life in ancient Judah was far from stable and when the Babylonians came in and exiled the majority of the educated populous, it got far worse. In fact, at the time of Esdras, he established a school of Hebrew which enshrined the knowledge and teachings of YHWH[1]. You may know their intellectual descendants as Scribes and Pharisees. (This is also why Christ refers to them as sitting in "Moses's seat".

And the Bible also isn't everything which has been written about Judaism/Christianity, and I am not talking about what was in the Deuterocanon ether. There are apocryphal books like III Maccabees, and the books of Enoch (both fascinating, but not worth your time IMHO) from the days before Christ and then there are extra-apostolic works, some of which were written while the Apostles were still alive (and possibly by their instruction) (Immediately, I can think of the Didache).

So, what happened?

The Old Testament

Back in the day, back when Christ walked the earth, there was no canon of scripture. Some groups included Enoch, some included Maccabees, some included books like the Apocalypse of Moses. Quite frequently, different copies would have extra pieces of books or entire chapters missing (Comp. Esther with and without the Deuterocanon). Most deferred to a collection in Greek called the Septuagint. Whether Christ used that collection or not is disputable, but it is undeniable that it was quoted from and used by the Apostles (remember that quote, "a virgin shall conceive", that is the Septuagint version of the verse, the Hebrew is rendered, "A young woman shall conceive").

The Septuagint remained the primary source of Old Testament knowledge for some time.2 Predominantly, this is because it was so clearly used by the Apostles (in fact, the very fact that it was used by the Apostles gives it particularly high prominence in the Orthodox and Oriental Churches), but just as importantly, it was 1. already translated to the common tongue, and 2. it was ubiquitous. There was some questioning of this practice when the Vulgate was being written, but the practice remained in place until the Protestants switched to the Hebrew canon in the 16th to 17th century. It was at that point that the Deuterocanon was removed from the KJV (1611?) and it was "officially recognized" by the Catholics (Council of Trent).

As an interesting side note, one of the primary reasons for the exclusion, originally, was that there were no existing copies of the deuterocanonical books in Hebrew. In recent years, however, a Hebrew copy of Sirach has been found.

2. There was a rumor at one point that a council took place at Jamnia in the latter half of the first century. That is now believed to be false.

And the new

The New Testament was even less cut and dry. There a great deal of quasi-apostolic and pseudepigraphical texts (people wrote under the name of an Apostle as a tribute to them). There were also letters and instructions from the administrators the Apostles left in charge of the Church (Ignatius and Polycarp being the earliest). And then there were quasi-Christian groups (like the Gnostics) who were trying to get their documents recognized too.

A group in Asia Minor might have had the Gospel of Luke, the three letters to the Corinthians by Paul, the writings of John, and the letters of Ignatius. Another group, say from Egypt, might have had the Gospel of Matthew, the Epistles of Peter and Jude, and the entire collection of the works of St. Paul.

In order to standardize both worship and sources of theology (intrinsically linked topics), the Church realized that some things needed to be kept, and others discarded. And so it decided on the standard of, "If we can be reasonably sure that it is from the Apostles, we will include it." To be honest, they got a lot of it wrong, meaning we have things like the story of the woman caught in adultery, which may or may not have been a part of the New Testament — was that part of John, Luke, or was it not even in the canon to begin with?

And the rest?

There actually are quite a few documents out there which were not only Christian, but were used in the services and held on par with Apostolic documents for some time. And I am not talking about questionable documents like, say, the gospel of Thomas (notice the small "g"). There are some which can only be counted as true Christian treasures which all believers would benefit from. Remember, just because we know that scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, that does not mean that it is the only thing which is God-breathed and the only thing profitable for teaching.

My personal favorites are the writings of Ignatius, "Episcopai" (biblical title which translates to "administrator" but is also properly rendered "bishop") of Antioch, who wrote the words, "I am God's wheat, about to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts into the bread of Christ." But there is also the letter of Clement, one of the first Roman episcopai, who wrote to the Corinthians (guess what, 20 years after Paul was dead in the grave, the Corinthians were STILL fighting). There is Polycarp, who is a great study in martyrology, and then there is Justin Martyr, whose martyrdom is rather dull, but he writes some wonderful things about the Gospel. And, of course, there is the gallic Irenaeus.

Conclusion (tl;dr)

My, I have said quite a bit, and I suppose I will end with this, if all of Jesus's actions were written down, the entire world could not hold them (last verse of Gospel of John). This means that any collection of books will necessarily be insufficient. The books we do have are books which were known to be reliable and were known to be the most essential documents of the early Christian era. And, more importantly, we have the advocate, the Paraclete who is to guide us on our way.

So, go with the Spirit. Read scripture and know it. And, if you have time, check out the other writers too, they're definitely worth something.


The bible, when thought of as a single book, is not short. It's the individual "books" that make up the bible that are short. Here, I think the confusion is that "books" within the bible are called books under a different, older meaning of the word that is more akin to "volume". Indeed, several of the books are really just letters from one person to another.

  • Even so taken as a whole it still does seem short as a narrative of the world from creation to Christ to the new earth and all the important interactions between God and man. – Caleb Feb 24 '12 at 16:53

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