The Original Number of Old Testament Books
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First century Jews believed there were 22 holy books that comprised the complete number of their divine scriptures. But in almost all modern versions it is common to numerate the Old Testament as 39 books. This at first glance might give the impression that modern scholars have added extra books which the early Jews did not accept as divinely inspired. This, however, is not the case. It can be shown that our present versions have simply divided the official books of the Old Testament divergently than those who originated the canon.
There can be no doubt that we possess today the exact books of the Old Testament that Christ and the apostles accepted as the Holy Scriptures But, true enough, the early Jews numbered the books differently than we have them in our Bibles today, and the early numeration ought to be maintained. When we do retain the ancient order, significant symbolic teachings emerge that can make us appreciate that we do indeed have the complete Old Testament scriptures. We must learn to accept the early Jewish viewpoint, and not our modern way of looking at things, which our society adopted by heeding the opinions of Jerome in the early 5th century. Thus, the original 22 numbering should be retained in all versions of the Bible today.
In the New Testament we consistently read that the Jews possessed THE Scriptures. Observe the definite article that I place before the word “Scriptures.” This is the manner in which the definition is shown on numerous occasions in the New Testament. It was taken for granted in New Testament times, without argument or qualification, that a commonly understood body of books was in existence which the Jews recognized to be the sacred and authorized scriptures. There is a good deal of contemporary testimony to substantiate this. Josephus, who was a priest and thoroughly conversant with Jewish affairs in the 1st century, referred to the standard copy of the Holy Scriptures which was deposited in the archives of the Temple and under the supervision of the priests. 1 Among the Jews this copy was known as “The Book of the Court” because all official synagogue scrolls were based on the text of this approved archetype. 2 The Book of Deuteronomy had long before stated that such a standard copy should be retained by the priests in the sanctuary of the Tabernacle and later the Temple (Deuteronomy 17:18; 31:9–12).
In regard to the canonization of the Old Testament, these special Temple scrolls were important. They represented nothing less than the basic “constitution” governing all political affairs in Judaea, and the religious life of Jews everywhere. Though the Romans were in supreme command in Palestine, they nonetheless permitted native kings or rulers, for certain periods, to govern the people in a direct sense. Those administrators (even an autocrat like Herod the Great) found it necessary to heed the principles of the Mosaic legislation and the precedential laws that developed over the years. There was no way for any Jew to escape an expression of reverence for the law books of Moses and the teachings of the Prophets. All Jews accredited the Temple scrolls as divinely inspired.
These sacred books were looked on as the “constitution” of the Jewish people. They not only recorded religious duties for Jews to perform (but more important to our discussion on the canonization), they were also the basis for all civil, financial, agricultural, and social activities. In a word, the Jewish state in Palestine (no matter who was governing it) was reckoned a theocracy and the heart and soul of its government had to rest, by popular demand, squarely upon their understanding of the words in the sacred scriptures.
This point is vital in comprehending matters concerning the canonization of the Old Testament because the Temple scriptures not only contained religious teachings, they provided laws and principles involving human politics — laws pertaining to the daily living of all Jews. Such basic “constitutional” documents would have been well known and of necessity they must have been kept with a purity of contents. It is a foregone conclusion that people are keenly aware of laws that govern their daily affairs. Let us note how this fact can testify to the reliability of the Temple scrolls.
There were probably 8 to 10 million Jews in the world in the 1st century, and about 3 million were in Judaea. Just like our own legislative or judicial systems, there were by the time of the 1st century countless codified laws based upon the “constitutional” laws of the Temple. With hundreds of professional lawyers in daily practice constantly involved in disputes and/or other matters of law, are we to imagine that it was possible for a single letter or syllable of the basic laws of Moses to be changed? Such a belief would be absurd. Indeed, there were also a battery of precedential laws which developed over the years, supposedly based upon the scriptures, and even those could not be changed without due process. But certainly, no “constitutional” laws could be altered unless it was done in a legal manner.
That would be like American politicians trying to change the United States constitution without the due process of law as allowed in the constitution itself. If such changes were done outside of public approval, a revolution would develop among all peoples in the state. It would not make any difference if someone secretly tried to modify the original text of the constitution a hundred times over, there are literally thousands of copies in city and school libraries alone of what the original stated. If a single syllable of intended meaning in the constitution were tampered with, without due process of law, there would be a public outcry (even revolution). Surely the Jews in Judaea (and throughout the world) would have reacted in the same way if the standard copies of their “constitution” would have been corrupted by unscrupulous persons. True, constitutional laws can be changed, but not without the knowledge and approbation of the people.
This is an important point in regard to the canonization of the standard texts of the Old Testament. The fact is, the Mosaic laws represented the teaching which dominated the civil government, as well as the societal and religious rituals and/or ceremonies that thoroughly ruled the lives of all Jews everywhere. Since matters of money, property and daily social activities were governed by those laws embodied in the Holy Scriptures (or the many precedential laws in existence based upon biblical legislation), we can be certain that all copies the “constitution” were the same throughout the country of Judaea, and even throughout the entire Jewish world. No priest or king could (or would) have revised the basic words of the Temple scrolls. Even if this were remotely possible at the capital in Jerusalem, there were scores of copies of the scriptures the synagogues located over the land. All these combined Scriptural scrolls rendered some good checks and balances for the continued purity of the Temple scrolls and the synagogue writings based on them.
Another point needs to be made. Ancient synagogues in Palestine were not simply places in which to worship on the Sabbaths and holydays. They were nothing less than the Superior and Local courts of the nation. Are we to imagine that the synagogues (which were courts) had basic constitutional laws (and even precedential laws) which differed from one another? Hardly. This fact has a great bearing on the matter of Old Testament canonization. This means that one should look to Palestinian Judaism as maintaining proper manuscripts of the Old Testament because in Judaea their writings were not simply religious documents; they were also a part of the civil and government codes of Jewish national life.
The manuscripts of the Old Testament were under constant scrutiny by professional lawyers who would see to it that no word was changed. True, there might be a score of ways to interpret the words, but the words themselves could not be tampered with. For example, to give clients every advantage of winning any legal case, Jewish lawyers could not pass what we call today the bar exam unless they could “prove” a hundred ways that pork was proper to eat, 3 yet no lawyer could change the words of Moses to say that swine was now permissible. Interpreting the law to one’s advantage was one thing, but to change the actual words of the law was quite another. This was impossible without due process.
This guarantee of purity would not extend to those texts of sectarians who wished to reside outside mainline Judaism, or if they lived under the jurisdiction of Gentile governments in Egypt, Rome, Parthia, etc. Take for example the Dead Sea sects. Their documents show that they did not agree with many Temple regulations or its priesthood. And though some of their scrolls did match remarkably with later Masoretic texts which reflected the early (and official) synagogue versions of the Old Testament, they also allowed into their libraries a mixture of “non-mainline” books (some agreeing with Samaritan or Egyptian Versions). Those Jews who joined such private communal societies outside normative Judaism were prone to adopt their own rules and regulations. That’s why they could use unauthorized texts to govern their activities.
The same could be said of the manuscripts of the Law maintained by the Samaritan communities. Those texts were indeed legal documents (as were those in Jerusalem) but they governed Samaritan society, not Jewish! It is said that Ezra the priest, back in the 5th century B.C.E., deliberately copied every Old Testament manuscript in his possession into the square Aramaic script, rather than maintain the old Hebrew form of the letters. Ezra did this in order for all people in Judaea to recognize the official Jewish texts from those of the Samaritans who refused to accept the Aramaic letter styles for their holy books.
Also, the early translations of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek (intended only for the literary curiosity of King Ptolemy II of Egypt) were never used as legal documents for the functioning of the theocratic state in Judaea. Since this was the case, it is not to be expected that they would have as much professional scrutiny applied to their accuracy as those retained by the Palestinian courts (synagogues). When later Hellenistic Jews, who had lost much of their Hebrew language abilities, wished to consult the scriptures in Greek, this was possible, but this was done only for curiosity or for private religious devotions. In no way could such unauthorized translations be used in matters of court. Imagine Jews in Judaea having to rely on a Greek text in law matters when the Hebrew was easily available and it was the original. No citizen of Judaea would think of placing his legal rights affecting his daily life on some Greek translation — especially an Egyptian one translated only for purposes of information. The only texts which those in Judaea would naturally accept were the original Hebrew ones deposited in the courts (synagogues) and the Temple. We must look to Jerusalem for the authorized Old Testament books and not resort to versions created outside of Judaea.
The Old Testament books today are usually reckoned as being 39 in number. But the earliest records show the official numeration among the Jewish authorities was 22 books. We will later see that the symbolic meaning to the number 22 affords a significant symmetrical balance to the Old Testament, and when those books are combined with those of the New Testament, the number 49 (7 times 7) is reached. This latter number figuratively indicates “completion” and “finality.” We will see, however, that even the number 22 has a ring of “completion” to it when it comes to matters involving the Hebrew language. Note that Josephus, as a spokesman for his people, said the divine scriptures of the Old Testament were 22 in number.
“We have not a countless number of books, discordant and arranged against each other; but only two and twenty books, containing the history of every age, which are justly accredited as divine.”
Contra Apion 1.8 ¶38
To Josephus, who was an Aaronic priest, the Old Testament scriptures contained only 22 books. These were the official books which were deposited in the Temple and represented the religious constitution of the Jewish people. In no way was Josephus speaking of a canon different from the normal Old Testament books that are normally recognized today. 4 The main difference centered on the manner in which the books were counted. For example, the early Hebrews reckoned the books of the twelve Minor Prophets (from Hosea to Malachi) as one book in the canonical number of books, not twelve separate ones as most versions count them today. In addition, our two books of Chronicles, and other historical books, were not divided as they are in most modern Bibles. There was anciently only one Book of Chronicles. But church leaders after the canon was established, to please various Gentile peoples, divided many of the early books into two (or even four) divisions. This procedure resulted in the original numbering of 22 books being reckoned as our modern (and erroneous) 39 books.
There were only 22 books to the standard Old Testament. This numbering can be traced back at least two hundred years before the time of Christ. It is found in the Book of Jubilees. Though Jubilees apparently represents the theological opinions of some Jewish sectarians of the Dead Sea community (or those in sympathy with them), the information in the book still reflects a great deal of normal Jewish sentiment. This is especially true when the author made a simple statement that the Old Testament canon was reckoned as 22 books in number. Indeed, there was a special reason why the books had to be 22 as far as the author of jubilees was concerned.
Annotated to the restored text of jubilees 2:23 is the remark that God made 22 things on the six days of creation. These 22 events paralleled the 22 generations from Adam to Jacob, the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and the 22 books of the Holy Scripture. Professor R.H. Charles maintained that this information concerning the 22 books should be retained in the text, even though it has fallen out of a few manuscripts. 5 Thus, as early as the year 150 B.C.E., it was common for Jews to reckon the Old Testament books as being 22 in number. Josephus must have been stating a well-recognized numerical canon prevailing among the Jewish people of Palestine.
The 22 numbering is most interesting and fits in well with the literary and symbolic meaning of “completion” as understood by early Jews. The Book of Jubilees put forth that the number represented the “final” and “complete” creations of God. Adam was the last creation of God (being the 22nd). Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, was the 22nd generation from Adam; and Jacob was acknowledged as the father of the spiritual nation of God. Also the Hebrew language became the means by which God communicated his divine will to mankind. It had an alphabet of 22 letters. And, finally, when God wished to give his complete Old Testament revelation to humanity, that divine canon was presented in 22 authorized books. The medieval Jewish scholar Sixtus Senensis explained the significance of this matter.
“As with the Hebrew there are twenty-two letters, in which all that can be said and written is comprehended, so there are twenty-two books in which are contained all that can be known and uttered of divine things.”
Green, General Introduction to the Old Testament 6
There can really be no doubt that the number of Old Testament books canonized by Ezra the priest was reckoned as 22 in number, Indeed, there is an abundance of evidence from later Christian scholars that this official number of books was certainly correct.
While early Jews have stated that the Old Testament was officially reckoned to be 22 books in number, they were even outdone by Christian scholars. It will profit us to view the list the evidence for these well-known opinions.
1) Melito (170 C.E.), in agreement with the original Jewish reckoning, gave the number of Old Testament books as 22. 7
2) Origen (210 C.E.) also gave the same numbering: “It should be stated that the canonical books, as the Hebrews have handed them down, are twenty-two; corresponding with the number of their letters.” 8
3) Hilary of Poitiers (360 C.E.): “The Law of the Old Testament is considered as divided into twenty-two books, so as to correspond to the number of letters.” 9
4) Athanasius (365 C.E.): “There are then of the Old Testament twenty-two books in number ... this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews.” 10
5) The Council of Laodicea (343–391 C.E.): Twenty-two books. 11
6) Cyril of Jerusalem (386 C.E.): “Read the divine scriptures, the twenty-two books of the Old Testament.” 12
7) Gregory of Nazianzus (390 C.E.): “I have exhibited twenty-two books, corresponding with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrews.” 13
8) Epiphanius (400 C.E.): Twenty-two books. 14
9) Rufinus (410 C.E.): Twenty-two books. 15
10) Jerome (410 C.E.): “That the Hebrews have twenty-two letters is testified ... as there are twenty-two elementary characters by means of which we write in Hebrew all we say ... so we reckon twenty-two books by which ... a righteous man is instructed.” 16
11) Synopsis of Sacred Scripture (c. 500 C.E.): “The canonical books of the Old Testament are twenty-two, equal in number to the Hebrew letters; for they have so many original letters.” 17
12) Isidore of Seville (600 C.E.) said the Old Testament was settled by Ezra the priest into twenty-two books “that the books in the Law might correspond in number with the letters.” 18
13) Leontius (610 C.E.): “Of the Old Testament there are twenty-two books.” 19
14) John of Damascus (730 C.E.): “Observe further that there are two and twenty books of the Old Testament, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.” 20
15) Nicephorus (9th century C.E.): “There are two and twenty books of the Old Testament.” 21
16) Jesudad, Bishop of Hadad, Syria (852 C.E.) recognized a canon of twenty-two books. 22
17) Hrabanus (9th century C.E.) said the Old Testament was formed by Ezra into twenty-two books “that there might be as many books in the Law as there are letters.” 23
18) Moses of Chorene the Armenian historian (c. 1000 C.E. or perhaps as early as the 6th century) “speaks of twenty-two books of the Old Testament. This was clearly the Jewish Canon.” 24
19) Peter of Cluny (1150 C.E.): Twenty-two books. 25
20) John of Salisbury (1180 C.E.): Twenty-two books. 26
21) Hugh of St. Victor (12th century): “As there are twenty-two alphabetic letters, by means of which we write in Hebrew, and speak what we have to say, so twenty-two books are reckoned, by means of which ... the yet tender infancy of our man is instructed, while it yet hath need of milk.” 27
22) Richard of St. Victor (13th century): Twenty-two books. 28
These testimonies supply ample evidence that over the centuries (whether in Hebrew circles, or in Greek Orthodox, Syrian, Armenian or Roman Catholic ones) the knowledge of the original number of Old Testament books was recognized as being 22. 29 However, no extra books were added to the canon. Since five of the Hebrew letters, when used at the ends of words, take on different shapes, some early scholars divided the original 22 books into 27. This procedure can be dismissed as an oddity of a few writers which was really based on the original 22 letters. The significance of the number 22 (as we will soon see) was too ingrained in their consciousness to be lightly cast aside.
There is a literary device found in the Old Testament which is both a poetic method for expressing a unified design in biblical composition as well as a technique of arrangement which emphasizes completion and perfection. It is called the acrostic.
The acrostic is a feature in which the first letter of a sentence begins with the first letter of the alphabet; the second sentence begins with the second alphabetic letter; the third sentence with the third letter, etc. In complete Hebrew acrostics, there are always 22 sentences, or multiples of 22, each beginning with the first letter aleph and successively going through the entire alphabet until tau, the last letter, is reached. If all the letters are utilized in a proper and consecutive fashion, then the psychological feeling that this literary device provides is one of accomplishment and fulfillment — a feeling of wholeness, flawlessness, and perfect symmetry.
This is one of the reasons the early Hebrews saw that Adam, being the 22nd creation of God, represented God’s prime and perfect physical creation, and that Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) was the 22nd spiritual creation of God. The symbolic significance of the number 22, as found in the Old Testament acrostics, was recognized as emblematic of a perfect state of affairs. Let us now notice some of the biblical acrostics that demonstrate this point.
The longest chapter in the Bible is Psalm 119. It is an excellent example of a complete biblical acrostic. Note that it is divided into 22 sections, each having 8 verses. In its Hebrew original, the first 8 verses all commence with the first Hebrew letter aleph. The second set of 8 uses the second letter bet. And so it goes all the way through the Hebrew alphabet.
It should be apparent that there must be a purposeful design that the author was trying to convey by the use of such a literary arrangement. When all 22 letters are employed either with single verses or with consecutive verses in a series, it is obvious that the author intends to put an accent of perfection on the subject of his text. Psalm 119 is a discourse on all the faculties of God’s law. The application of a perfect and complete acrostic is an emphasis used by the author to highlight the perfection and completeness of that law.
Another complete acrostic is found in Psalm 111 and also Psalm 112. These Psalms show that God will thoroughly and permanently redeem his people, and the acrostic sequence means to show this. Look also at the acrostic emphasis that is used for the virtuous woman (Proverbs 31:10–31). In this example every verse begins with each of the Hebrew letters in a perfectly consecutive manner. The author is stressing through this acrostic usage his portrayal of the complete and perfect woman. There is also an acrostic accentuation in the literary design occurring in the first four chapters of the Book of Lamentations. The prophet Jeremiah implemented this acrostic pattern to reinforce the completeness of God’s destruction upon the Temple and the kingdom of Judah.
In one way, it is to be regretted that these alphabetical refinements are not normally distinguished in English versions. Of course, it is nearly impossible to adhere to these alphabetic patterns within the Hebrew and still give a faithful English translation. Nevertheless, the King James Version, though it does not retain the acrostics in translation, has shown its readers where the acrostic design belongs in Psalm 119.
There is in the Bible, however, an acrostic which is deliberately deficient. This occurs when there are certain letters left out at particular intervals. When an acrostic is complete, the impression produces a feeling of perfection and completion, but when an acrostic is employed with some letters missing in sequence it gives the feeling of frustration, letdown, or incompletion. When such incomplete acrostics are used, a feeling of discomfiture is intended to be conveyed to the reader.
An incomplete acrostic is found running through Psalms 9 and 10. Seven letters are purposely omitted within these two psalms (which are actually one composition divided into two psalms). The author obviously determined these psalms to be noticed by the reader as a broken acrostic. If the arrangement of the alphabetic letters is sequential in a perfect sense, such a complete acrostic gives the reader a feeling of precision and completeness, but if the acrostic style is broken and irregular, the subject that the composition is supposed to describe is also emphasized as broken and irregular. And look at Psalms 9 and 10. The Psalms are connected pair that describe the same historical or prophetical theme. Both of them refer to a time of great tribulation on Israel (9:9; 10:1), and a time when a man of sin will be at work (10:18). It seems certain that the author intended to emphasize the chaotic state of affairs that will prevail in such circumstances. So, with his use of a broken acrostic, the thrust of imperfection is given a decided stress, while with full and perfect acrostics the keynote is that of perfection and faultlessness. The 22 books of the Old Testament, of course, are a full and complete acrostic.
In regard to the Old Testament canon, which was originally written in Hebrew characters, it can be seen why the ancients looked on the 22 books of the Hebrew Bible as corresponding to the 22 alphabetic Hebrew letters. When one realizes the significance of the acrostic style for emphasizing a completeness and perfection, it is an easy step to acknowledge that the 22 books of the Old Testament canon represent (in a symbolic sense) a complete and perfect canonical acrostic. Once the 22 books of the Hebrew canon were authorized and placed by Ezra the priest within the archives of the Temple as the ordained scriptures for Israel, no other books could be canonized in the Hebrew language. Figuratively, all the Hebrew letters have been used up. If any further revelation were to be forthcoming, it would have to be in another language. The next addition to the divine canon was of course the New Testament which was written in the Greek language.
It is remarkable that by the time of the apostles, they were accustomed to refer to the Jewish scriptures (whether found in Palestine, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece or Home) simply as “the Scriptures” or “the Holy Scriptures” (e.g. John 7:39; 2 Timothy 3:15). And when the 27 books of the New Testament were canonized, it became even more evident that the original number of 22 books for the Old Testament was a divine and inspired number. Why is this the case? The answer is simple. When one adds the 27 New Testament books to the Old Testament 22, the number 49 is realized. What a significant number! This represents a figure of 7 times 7, or, in the symbolic way the Jews looked on the number 7 in the 1st century, it expressed a sense of a double or emphasized completion. Notice how the Jews and Christians would see this.
The number 49 was the sum of seven sevens, or a multiple of seven times seven. Recall that the figurative meaning of the number 7 was that of completion. Prof. W. Taylor Smith said:
“Seven often expressed the idea of completeness. So in 7 churches, 7 parables of the Kingdom, the 7 Beatitudes, etc. Even in Assyrian texts it denotes ‘totality,’ or ‘whole’.”
Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Vol. II, p. 248
All students of the Bible have long realized the significance of the number seven in relation to the symbol of completeness. It should not appear strange that the same number (or its multiples — especially the sum of seven sevens or seven times seven, which equals 49) would surround the sacredness of the divine canon of Scripture. It is because of this that I do not apologize for stressing the fact that the 49 books represent the full and complete canon.
This biblical theme involving the number 49 strongly implies that the whole of the Bible is now finalized when one combines the original 22 books of the Old Testament with the 27 books of the New Testament. We are thus given a numerical design which suggests (by the use of the symbolic numbers of scripture) a complete and final revelation from God.
When one counts the number of books in our present Protestant canon of the Bible (which normally excludes the extra apocryphal books) the number of books amounts to 66. This is an interesting number. It is arrived at by dividing various Old Testament books into a numerical pattern corresponding to the early Greek Version of the Old Testament and placed in an arbitrary codex form in Egypt about the 3rd century C.E. No Hebrew manuscript follows this Greek Version.
Look what happens when one pursues its enumeration of 66 books. The number of man is found all over the book. The Bible makes it clear that the number 6 is one squarely centered on man (or mankind). Note that the first man was created at the end of the 6th day (Genesis 1:24–31). Throughout the Bible we have 6 associated with man (as distinct from God). The number 666 is found in the Book of Revelation as a number denoting man or a wicked person to appear at the end of the age (Revelation 13:18). Not only that, when Daniel described the great image which began the “Babylonian phase” in ancient religion, its measure was 60 cubits high (6 times 10) and 6 cubits wide (Daniel 3:1). Indeed, E.W. Bullinger said that all the letters in Daniel 3:1 describing the Babylonian image when added up (and all Hebrew letters had numerical values) come to 4662 which is 7 times 666. 30
From these indications alone, it does not seem proper to divide the Holy Bible into the 66 books, which Jerome was responsible for giving to the Christian world. This even becomes clearer when we read what McCormack said:
“But has the number  no significance? Unquestionably it does, for six is man’s number. We find then, that the Bible, according to the Protestant Canon, and also that of the Orthodox Eastern Church, contains 49 books, if we take the reckoning current when the last portion of it was written, or 66 books if each one be counted separately. The latter number, in which 6 is plainly and emphatically seen, denotes that outwardly it is a human book and in human dress.”
Heptadic Structure, p. 145 31
This is a proper observation. The 66 numbering shows it as “a human book and in human dress” as McCormack relates. But the original 49 numbering shows it (as it should be reckoned) as a “divine book in God’s dress.” Indeed, the number 66 does not look good from a biblical point of view. In order to arrive at a different (and more attractive number) the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in the 16th century officially accepted 11 of the 14 apocryphal works into their new canon for their church. They added these 11 books to the Protestant canon. Among other things, one of the reasons this was done was to take away the odium attached to the number 66, which symbolically smacks of “man” (not God). The addition of 11 extra books made a much more appealing number, 77. However, this addition by the Roman Catholic Church was still a modern refinement and did not reflect the significance of the original numbering. In fact, if one adds 11 apocryphal writings to the 49 books of the original, one arrives at 60 books (a number that also reflects a human symbol). What ought to be retained, as I will show throughout this book, are the original 49 books without the addition of any part of the Apocrypha.
Sometime in the last part of the 1st century or the beginning of the 2nd, the Jewish authorities decided to re-divide the books of the Old Testament into 24 books rather than maintain 22. It appears that the Jews in Babylon were the first to devise this new number. 32 This Babylonian influence in theological matters among the Jews is well known. In fact, it can be said that the Judaism that survived the 1st and 2nd centuries became, in time, decidedly “Babylonian” in orientation. The reason for this is simple. Palestinian Judaism (especially after 235 C.E.) ceased to have major prominence because the Romans restricted the Jews in this region from exercising their normal supremacy in religious matters. After all, the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. and after 135 C.E. no Jews were normally allowed within twenty miles of Jerusalem.
After the Rabbi named Judah (who codified the Mishnah in the early 3rd century — a little before 235 C.E.), the region of Mesopotamia became an area of importance among the Jewish community. But the influence of the Jews in Babylon was felt very early in Judaism — even with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and certainly after the Jewish/Roman War ending in 135 C.E. And it was within the Babylonian environment that the Jews began to re-number the books of the Old Testament to 24. It is not to be supposed that they added two extra books. They simply divided two of the original ones and arrived at a new 24 numbering. At some point in the 2nd century, the Babylonian number of 24 began to obtain popular status. The practice certainly had become current among the Jews by the time of Jerome (about 400 C.E.).
There may well have been political and religious reasons why the Jewish authorities made the change when they did. When the New Testament books were being accepted as divine literature by great numbers of people within the Roman world, all could see that the 27 New Testament books added to the original 22 of the Old Testament reached the significant number 49. This was a powerful indication that the world now had the complete revelation from God with the inclusion of those New Testament books. Since Jewish officials were powerless to do anything with the New Testament, the only recourse they saw possible was to alter the traditional numbering. The Babylonian schools simply divided two of the original books and made the total to number 24. They most likely divided the single book of Joshua/Judges into being two books, and the single Book of Kingdoms into what we call today Samuel and Kings. Adding these to the 27 New Testament books gave a sum of 51 books — a wholly insignificant number.
The excuse given for re-numbering the books is amusing. Since it was recognized that the original 22 books equaled number of letters of the Hebrew alphabet, it was felt that an alphabetic relevance had to be maintained. The medieval Jewish scholar Sixtus Senensis gave the normal explanation for the change. Since there was only one yodh among the 22 letters, and because the Jews started a peculiar habit of writing the unpronounceable name YHVH with three yodhs, it was necessary, so Sixtus tells us, to re-number the Old Testament books by the addition of two extra yodhs. 33 Such a procedure is clearly an artificial literary device of late invention and could hardly have any relevance to the original numbering of the books of the Old Testament. One thing this contrivance does demonstrate is the longstanding respect that the Jewish people held for the concept that each book of the Old Testament equaled one of the Hebrew alphabetic letters.
There is one book from the late 1st or early 2nd century, however, which could be used as a witness that the change by the Jews from 22 to 24 took place as early as 90 C.E. or 110 C.E. That book is Second Esdras. This work states that there were 94 books which were canonical: 70 were esoteric or mystery books and 24 were public ones. It has often been stated that this reference to 24 books refers to the official Jewish canon which was probably, by this time, reckoned as authoritative. On the surface this might appear to make sense, but there are major problems with the information.
First, there was the direct testimony of Josephus (who also wrote about 90 C.E. and was a Jewish priest of first rank) who said that official Judaism accepted only 22 books — the normal number of books going back all the way to the Book of Jubilees (c.150 B.C.E.). If an authorized change of the number had taken place by 90 C.E., why did not Josephus simply inform his readers about it? Indeed, Josephus insisted in his reference that the Jews were stable and consistent with the appraisal of their Holy Scriptures. 34 If they had recently made such a change, then the very thing Josephus was trying to prove would have been suspect.
But there is another reason that shows that Second Esdras [14:44–46] is not all that reliable a witness. The section about the canon has been called into question by textual critics because of the variant readings of the numbers. Some texts instead of 24 have 94, some 204, others 84, and still others 974. 35 The fact is, one can take 24, 84, 94, 204, or 974 as Second Esdras’ witness to the number of canonical books. Do not all have equal authority? It seems much safer to take the testimony of Josephus as more authoritative than a book which has variant renderings of its numbers.
There can be no serious doubt that the early numbering of 22 books for the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament are indeed the correct enumeration. This provides a divine canon of 49 books. When one looks at the symbolic significance of this number, one can observe the theme of completion and perfection. We can also be assured that the external and internal historical evidence demonstrate that the Protestant canon of the Bible (as to content) is the proper one which illustrates the complete and final biblical revelation. But we will also find that the books within the original canon were positioned very differently than is shown in our Protestant canon today. In the next chapter we will see that the original Old Testament of 22 books was divided into three distinct divisions, and that Christ recognized this tripartite arrangement.
1 Josephus, Wars of the Jews, VII.5,5 ¶150.
2 Mishnah Moed Katan 3,4: Palestinian Talmud Sanhedrin II 200.
3 Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Literary Transmission Beliefs and Manners of Palestine in the I Century B.C.E.–IV Century C.E. (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1950), pp. 62–64.
4 H.E. Ryle, The Canon of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (London: 1904), p. 178.
5 See R.H. Charles’ note on Jubilees 2:23 in The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, vol 2 (Oxford, 1913). p. 15. Cf. Kaufmann Kohler, “Book of Jubilees,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 7 (New York: 1907), p. 302. See also the note on Jubilees 2:23 in J.H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 57.
6 William H. Green, General Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon, vol. 1 (London: Murray, 1898), p. 87.
7 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4.26.14. See also G.M. Hahneman, The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 78–79.
8 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6.25.
9 “Tractate on Psalms,” prologue, 15–17 in Patrologia Latina, ed. J.-P. Migne, vol. IX (Paris: 1844), p. 241.
10 Athanasius, “Letter 39.4” in NPNF, 2nd Series, vol. IV, p. 552.
11 “The Canons of the Synod Held in the City of Laodicea,” Canon 60, in NPNF, 2nd Series, vol. XIV, p. 159.
12 Cyril of Jerusalem, “Catechetical Lectures” 4.33–36 in NPNF, 2nd Series, vol. VII, p. 26.
13 Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmina Dogmatica, Book I, Section 1.12 in Patrologia Graeco-Latina, vol. 37 (Paris: 1862), p. 471.
14 Epiphanius, De Nensuris et Ponderibus, 4 in Patrologia Graeco-Latina, vol. 43 (Paris: 1864), p. 243.
15 Rufinus, “A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed,” 37, in NPNF, 2nd Series, vol. III. Latin version, Commenbtarius in Symbolum Apostolorum, 37 in Patrologia Graeco-Latina, vol. 21 (Paris: 1878), pp. 373–374.
16 Jerome, “Preface to the Books of Samuel and Kings,” in NPNF, 2nd Series, vol. VI, p. 489.
17 Quoted by Moses Stuart, Critical History and Defense of the Old Testament Canon (Andover, MA: 1827), Appendix X.
18 Isidore of Seville, Liber de Officiis, Patrologia Latina, vol. 82 (Paris, 1862), p. 305.
19 Leontius, De Sectis, in William F. Whitaker, A Disputation on Holy Scripture Against the Papists, Especially Bellarmine & Stapleton (London: 1839), p. 62.
20 John of Damascus, “Concerning Scripture,” in An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 4.17 in NPNF, 2nd Series, vol. IX, p. 89.
21 Nicephorus, Stichometry in Whitaker, A Disputation on Holy Scripture, p. 64.
22 See John E. Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies, vol. I (New York: 1941), p. 80.
23 See W.F. Whitaker, Disputation on Holy Scripture, p. 64.
24 Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies, vol. I, p. 81.
25 Edward Reuss, History of the Canon of the Holy Scriptures in the Christian Church, (Edinburgh,: 1884), p. 257, 2nd ed. (R.W. Hunter, 1891).
26 Reuss, History of the Canon, p. 258.
27 Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicae Eruditionis 4.80, in Patrologia Graeco-Latina, vol. 176 (Paris: 1879), p. 739.
28 Richard of St. Victor, Tractatus Exceptionum, 2.9, in Patrologia Graeco-Latina, vol. 177 (Paris: 1879), p. 210.
29 While the order of the books sometimes varied among these early Christians (due to their attachment to the Septuagint Version), they still persisted in retaining the proper numbering. On some occasions they would increase the number to 27. Epiphanius stated the Old Testament as having 22 books, but in two other places he increased the number to 27. See Epiphanius, De Nensuris et Ponderibus, 22–23 (see note 14 above) and in his Adversus Octaginta Haereses, 8.6.
30 E.W. Bullinger, Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode [Bible Warehouse], 1921) p. 285.
31 R. McCormack, The Heptadic Structure of Scripture (London: Marshall Brothers Ltd., 1923).
32 Julius Fuerst, Der Kanon des Alien Testament (Hamburg: 1850), p. 4.
33 Green, General Introduction to the Old Testament, vol. 1, p. 87.
34 Josephus, Contra Apion, 1.8 ¶38.
35 Ludwig Blau, “Bible Canon” in Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), vol. III, p. 142.
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