The Proper Numbering of the Books
The original number of books comprising the Tripartite Divisions was 22, to equal the number of Hebrew letters. This corresponded to the contents of the Protestant canon today, yet the originals were arranged and numbered differently (not as the present count of 39 books). Our modern way of counting the books is easy to explain. Whereas the 12 Minor Prophets (from Hosea to Malachi) were formerly written on one scroll and counted as one book, 1 each of the 12 is now counted separately. This makes the sum to be 33, not 22 books. But the re-counting did not end there.
The one Book of Chronicles is presently divided into two, as is Ezra/Nehemiah. This brings the sum to 35. But more dividing has been done. The four books we call 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings were once reckoned as only one book. A relic of this single book is found in the King James Version. Look at the introductions to those four books, and you will notice that the secondary titles (as they are presently reckoned) were First, Second, Third, and Fourth Kings, These designations are the remnant names of the one composition called “The Book of Kingdoms.”
“The Greek collection of Samuel-Kings as one book with its division into four volumes was followed by all the ancient versions. The Greek title ‘The Kingdoms’ appeared in early titles of the Latin Bible: the Arabic as well as the Ethiopic, followed the Hebrew with ‘Kings;’ the Syriac used both titles, varying with the books. In the Latin Bible ‘Kings’ came into current use.”
Montgomery, Commentary on the Book of Kings, p. 2 2
Melito about 170 C.E. and The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 200 C.E.) also affirmed that our four books of Samuel and Kings were once acknowledged as one book. 3 The literary evidence within those sections sustains the unity of this section of scripture. As Montgomery states, our present two books of Kings are “a continuation of the books of Samuel, but without clearly marked literary distinction” and that the modern partitioning was “divided for arbitrary convenience.” 4
The truth is, there is no need to divide the one Book of Kingdoms into 4 separate books. But when this is done (with the other divisions mentioned above), it increases the original 22 books to 38. The King James Version (and most other versions) divide one other ancient book which was once a single entity, and this raises the original 22 books to our present 39 for the Old Testament. What was the remaining book that was divided? It was what we now call Joshua/Judges.
Originally, the historical account from the death of Moses until the rise of Samuel the prophet (which we call Joshua/Judges) was accounted as a single book. Later people, however, divided it into the separate books of Joshua and Judges. These books introduced the “Prophets Division” and recorded the singular time when Israel had NO kings in contrast to the next Book of Kingdoms which recorded the history of Israel when they HAD kings. Internally, Joshua/Judges represent a single literary composition, and they both have the earmarks of one author (whom the Jews recognized as Samuel), and even the apostle Peter referred to Samuel as the one who commenced the “Prophets’ Division” of the Old Testament (Acts 3:24).
Thus, the original 22 books of the Tripartite Divisions were numbered in the following fashion:
- THE LAW
- 1. Genesis
- THE PROPHETS
- 6. Joshua/Judges
7. The Book of Kingdoms
11. The Twelve
- THE WRITINGS (PSALMS)
- 12. Psalms
15. Song of Songs
22. The Book of Chronicles
Josephus does not mention the official Tripartite Divisions of the Old Testament in his account concerning the divine scriptures. He does, however, refer to the canon as being reckoned as 22 books. Notice what he says on the matter.
“We have not a countless number of books, discordant and arrayed against each other; but only 22 books, containing the history of every age, which are justly accredited as divine. Of these, FIVE BELONG TO MOSES, which contain both the laws and the history of the generations of men until his death. This period lacks but little of 3000 years. From the death of Moses, moreover, until the time of Artaxerxes, king of the Persians after Xerxes [to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah], THE PROPHETS, who followed Moses, wrote down what was done during the age of each one respectively, in thirteen books. The remaining four contain HYMNS TO GOD, and RULES OF LIFE for men. From the time of Artaxerxes, moreover, until our present period, all occurrences have been written down but they are not regarded as entitled to the like credit with those which precede them, because there was no certain succession of prophets. Fact has shown what confidence we place in our own writings. For although so many ages have passed away, no one has dared to add to them, nor to take anything from, nor to make alterations. In all Jews it is implanted, even from their birth, to regard them as being the instructions of God, and to abide steadfastly by them, and if it be necessary, to die gladly for them.”
Contra Apion 1.8 ¶¶38–42, emphasis mine
Josephus in this writing says that the Jewish people late in the 1st century believed the Old Testament had been put together and completed in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. It might be said that Josephus is bringing to witness some 8 million or so Jewish people since he was writing in the capacity as a priestly spokesman for his people. Note also that of the works written after the time of Ezra (including all the books of the Apocrypha) none was reckoned as being inspired of God since no one with the prophetic spirit had come on the scene after Ezra canonized the Old Testament. It was a cardinal belief at the time that no one could write inspired scriptures without the person having a prophetic commission to do so.
It is significant to note that the Jews had a high regard for the official canon. They would not think for one moment of adding to, subtracting from, or altering in any way the sacred books. This shows the firm confidence the Jews had for the inviolability of the Old Testament canon. Yet with all this, there seems to be an apparent discrepancy between Josephus’ order of the Old Testament books and the traditional one accepted by Jews today. Josephus supposedly supports a canon of 5 Mosaic books, 13 of the Prophets, and 4 of Hymns and Precepts. In giving this enumeration, is Josephus presenting an order of books in which he disregarded the Tripartite Divisions? Without doubt. For example, the Prophets’ Division never had 13 books within it, nor has the Psalms’ Division been limited to 4 books.
Josephus was not referring to the actual Tripartite Divisions at all. But why did Josephus mention this odd (and quite unique) arrangement of the canonical books? The matter can became clear when we recall to whom Josephus was writing in this section.
There are several reasons why Josephus avoided a precise reference to the Tripartite Divisions and the proper order of the Old Testament books.
(1) He was writing to Gentiles — people who knew little about, or were unable to appreciate, the significance of the true arrangement of the canonical books.
(2) His main intention for writing this passage, as is evidenced from the context, was only to demonstrate the antiquity of the Jewish nation. Notice his emphasis upon the age in which things occurred. His immediate subject was the demonstration of the national longevity of the Jews, not to give the Gentiles a disquisition on the proper order of the books within the sacred canon.
(3) Gentile scholars of the 1st century were great encyclopaedists in their manner of classifying literary documents. Much as we do today in our modern libraries, it was common among them to arrange books according to subject matter. There was nothing wrong in this, of course (such classification has the advantage of facilitating the teaching process), but if a true Greek were to look at the arrangement of the Old Testament books in the Tripartite Divisions (particularly to that of the Third Division), it would have been looked at as showing little rhyme or reason.
True enough, the Third Division is harmonious in every way, but the arrangement is not in the Greek manner. We will see that the books were positioned for liturgical purposes for readings in the Temple (or in an area associated with the Temple). To explain this factor would have taken Josephus away from his intended design of showing the antiquity of the Jewish race and into another subject which the Greeks would not have easily understood. It is precisely because of this that he was not prepared to risk bewildering his Gentile readers by discussing the canonical arrangement. Instead, he himself went over to the common Greek manner of classifying documents according to the chronological time periods to which they referred.
Indeed, this is exactly what he tells us about his 13 books which he said were written by prophets. They “wrote down what was done during the age of each one respectfully” (Contra Apion 1.8, ¶40). Josephus then reckoned the sacred scriptures according to chronological composition, not the official canonical arrangement. As a matter of fact, when later Christians in the early 3rd century placed the Septuagint Version of the Old Testament into a codex form, they did the same thing by subjectivizing the books as most normal Greeks would have expected.
Once it is realized that Josephus was not attempting to reproduce the actual canonical order of the Old Testament books for his Gentile readers, it is possible to deduce what were the actual books of which he was speaking. There is hardly any doubt that Josephus’ last 4 books of Hymns and Precepts were (1) Psalms, (2) Song of Songs (the two books of the hymns); followed by (3) Proverbs and (4) Ecclesiastes (the books of moral teaching). 5 The 13 prophetical books written “down what was done during the age of each one respectfully,” were arranged chronologically by Josephus. They were (1) Job, (2) Joshua/Judges, (3) Ruth, (4) Book of Kingdoms, (5) Isaiah, (6) Jeremiah, (7) Lamentations, (8) Ezekiel, (9) The Twelve, (10) Daniel, (11) Esther, (12) Ezra/Nehemiah, (13) Book of Chronicles.
Thus we have Josephus arranging those 13 books into a basic chronological order without reference to their actual canonical arrangement.
One other point needs to be made. It is a common assumption among some biblical scholars to say that Josephus arrived at his 22 numbering of the Old Testament canon by attaching the Book of Ruth to Judges, and the Book of Lamentations to Jeremiah. There is not the slightest proof that this was the case. Indeed, that particular method of re-counting the books was not used until the 3rd century C.E. when the Septuagint (Egyptian/Greek) Version of the Old Testament was finally placed by Christians into a codex form of book. Before that time, the various scrolls of the Old Testament books were apparently not arranged in any official order by Egyptian Jews or Christians (unless in the official Palestinian Tripartite manner).
The finalized Septuagint arrangement is a result of codexing the books by Egyptian Christians, rather than leaving them as independent and separate scrolls. This positioning of Ruth and Lamentations is thus late and is no proof that Josephus (a hundred or so years earlier) combined Ruth with Judges, and Lamentations with Jeremiah. With this conclusion, scholars agree.
“It seems to me unwarranted to suppose that Josephus attached Ruth to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah without counting them. It is a conjecture without sufficient evidence to sustain it.”
Briggs, Study of the Holy Scripture, p.128 6
It certainly is unwarranted. For one thing, this guessing transfers two books out of the Third Division of the Old Testament and places them in the Second, thereby upsetting the story flow in both divisions (to be explained in the next chapter). This procedure destroys the unique characteristics of the Tripartite Divisions and should never be clone. Even some 400 years after Christ, when the rabbis who compiled the Jewish Talmud spoke of the order of the sacred books, the suggestion was made that Isaiah (perhaps for liturgical purposes) could best be positioned after Ezekiel (Baba Bathra 15a) — a suggestion which had no lasting effect on the canon itself but only concerned a transfer within a tripartite division, not a re-positioning from one division to another.
Isaiah certainly does not belong after Ezekiel. In 180 B.C.E., the Book of Ecclesiasticus gave a chronological rundown from Genesis to the close of the Old Testament. Significantly, Sirach discussed in proper canonical order Isaiah (48:22), Jeremiah (49:7), Ezekiel (49:8), and then “The Twelve” (the Minor Prophets) (49:10). Not only were the Major Prophets positioned by Sirach in their normal order, Prof. R.H. Charles called attention to the fact that “The Twelve” were also in the precise order as the present Hebrew canon. 7 Sirach was referring to a canonical order of “The Twelve” as it existed some 200 years before Christ began to preach. His reference was not for chronological reasons because some of the prophets making up “The Twelve” lived before Isaiah. This is a clear indication that Sirach was referring to a canon of divine scriptures which he had in front of him. It should also be pointed out that Sirach in 180 B.C.E. did not place the Book of Daniel right after Ezekiel as our modern Old Testaments have it.
This is powerful evidence that the Prophets’ Division of the canon was established in the present Jewish arrangement over 200 years before Christ. Josephus would have been well aware of this official order. In the next chapter we will see why this arrangement must be maintained for the sake of orderly teaching.
1 As Luke considers them as one book in the New Testament — see Acts 7:42, cf. 13:40.
2 James A. Montgomery and H.S. Gehman, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Kings, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1951).
3 George Rawlinson, The Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records (Boston : Gould and Lincoln, 1860), p. 325.
4 Montgomery and Gehman, Commentary on the Books of Kings, p. 1.
5 Ryle, The Canon of the Old Testament, p.176.
6 Charles Augustus Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of the Holy Scripture (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899).
7 R.H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, vol 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), p. 505.
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