I’m still not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point during my later College years I became an avid reader. And it was around the same time that I wanted to start my own personal library. My collection at the time boasted of the handful of theology and history textbooks that I decided to keep. Things grew from there at a slow pace, and they were growing alongside my interest in reading.
Fast forward a bit: during my doctoral program (and just before, if I remember correctly), my library began also went digital. I started gathering books that were open to the public (via InternetArchive and GoogleBooks) as well as journal articles–many of which had to be obtained via Seminary/University access. The digital book collection, to date, stands at just over 2000; the digital article collection, to date, stands at just over 5500.¹ All of that to say, I’ve got some reading to do and I’m slowly working through it. And that also means I’m a little behind in my reading, but oh well.
This morning I decided to tackle some of the articles, and one them was by Mark D. Chapman called, “The Shortest Book in the Bible” (ExpT 118.11 : 546-58). While the article itself was interesting, I could not get past the title. “Why not?” Because it’s simply wrong. “Why is wrong?” Simple: the article dealt with Paul’s letter to Philemon. “Why is that wrong?” A few reasons.
First, the text that Chapman uses for his article is a letter, not a book. Sure, many of us are accustomed (unfortunately) to calling the texts of the Bible “books” regardless of their specific genres. But this custom or tradition–like all customs or traditions held without good cause–needs to be taken out back and buried. A bit harsh, sure. But there it is. So, that being the case, the title of the article should have said, “The Shortest Letter in the Bible.” But even that leads us to the next problem.
Second, Chapman’s focus text (i.e., Philemon) is not the shortest letter. Yes, it is certainly the shortest of Paul’s letters–coming in at 25 verses, 334 words. But just because its the shortest of Paul’s letters, that does not make the shortest. Because, and as much as I love Paul’s writings, there are other writers in the NT; so at best, we could say Philemon is one of the shortest letters. The honor of the shortest letter/text goes to…well, it depends. If we go by verse numbers, then the prize goes to 2 John, which weighs in at 13 verses, with 3 John coming in second place at 15 verses. Or if we go by word count, then the honor goes to 3 John, which finishes at 219 words, with 2 John coming in second at 245 words. Either way, Philemon is only the third shortest letter.
Third, someone might come back at me and say, “Well, Prof Chapman does qualify himself by saying it’s a short letter written to a person.” Okay, fine: that might rule out 2 John, which is ostensibly written to an entire congregation of believers (despite it having a specific addressee [Ὁ πρεσβύτερος ἐκλεκτῇ κυρίᾳ καὶ τοῖς τέκνοις αὐτῆς, οὓς ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ]), but that does not rule out 3 John, which is addressed to an elder named, Gaius (Ὁ πρεσβύτερος Γαΐῳ τῷ ἀγαπητῷ, ὃν ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ). So, no dice. Philemon is still not a contender for the title of the shortest.
Fourth and finally, the title asserts a focus on the “shortest book in the Bible”, but the article never once focuses on the specific text that might fit that precise criteria. Because when one says, “Bible” that brings to mind at the very least the usual 66 texts of the Old and New Testaments–73 if we use the Catholic edition. Chapman’s focus was ultimately a NT text. Moreover, when one says, “book” that brings to mind a (more or less) specific kind of genre. As we’ve seen, Philemon does not fit that genre. And when one says, “shortest” that, as we’ve also seen, allows for a touch of ambiguity–i.e., it could be based on number of verses or words. But even with that ambiguity, there is only one text that better fits the description of “the shortest book in the Bible”, and that is the OT text of Obadiah: one chapter, 21 verses, 440 words.
So again, while Prof Chapman’s article was an interesting read, the title is an unfortunate gaffe.
¹ The real numbers are 2148 books and 5746 articles, but I’m rounding down because of the possibility of duplicates. Hey, I’ve been collecting them since c.2006 (for the books) and c.2004 (for the articles), and I’m still trying to name/label them properly, so it’s possible that I’ve forgotten which one’s I’ve already downloaded and thus have copies.