Numbering the Old Testament: 22, 24 , 39, or more?

Numbering the Old Testament: 22, 24 , 39, or more? March 21, 2016

Over the past couple of years my work has often brought me back to the writings of Josephus, and I just wanted to describe one Biblical-related problem that arises there. I claim little originality in what I am writing here, but am rather stating and summarizing a long-running debate. (Jewish readers, please avert your eyes: this will all be painfully obvious).

Briefly, how many books are there in the Old Testament? The standard Protestant answer is 39 books, although Catholics would respond differently, because they also include several Deuterocanonical works, like Sirach, Wisdom, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. So would Orthodox churches. The Ethiopian Biblical canon includes several truly ancient items unknown to churches anywhere else on the planet, including Jubilees and 1 Enoch.

That is straightforward enough, but the Jewish answer would be different again. They would describe the Bible as having 24 books, including all the texts in the Protestant Christian Bible, but structured and divided differently. The Jewish Bible has three sections, the Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim (Law, Prophets and Writings), which gives us the acronym Tanakh. In detail:

TORAH          5 BOOKS

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

NEVI’IM         8 BOOKS

Nevi’im Rishonim: Early Prophets, namely Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.

Nevi’im Aharonim: Later Prophets, namely the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and also a single book including the Minor Prophets.


The Three Poetic Books (Sifrei Emet)

Tehillim/Psalms, Proverbs, Job.

The Five Megillot (Hamesh Megillot)    

Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Qōheleth/Ecclesiastes, Esther.

Other Books

Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah, Chronicles.

The Jewish canon has fewer books because it merges works that are separate in the Christian tradition, eg 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, or Ezra and Nehemiah. That 24-book division goes back at least to the end of the first century AD, when it is recorded in 2 Esdras.

So, the number of Old Testament books is 24 or 39, and that is no great problem. But here we turn to Josephus, also writing around 95 AD in the Against Apion. He divided the books somewhat differently than the later Jewish canon, but also gives us a different total, namely 22:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain all the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death… the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.

The appeal of 22 is easy to understand, as that is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and the highly symbolic figure runs through early Qabalistic texts like Sefer Yetzirah. But how is Josephus extracting it from the Biblical canon? What might he be merging and combining, or even excising altogether?

One theory is that all the books we know are actually there, but attributed differently. For instance, perhaps Ruth is combined with Judges and Lamentations with Jeremiah. Or might some books not even have been canonical at this stage? Ecclesiastes comes to mind as a candidate for non-inclusion, as does Esther.

That would make sense in terms of the recent development of Jewish ideas about canon. The Law and the Prophets were reasonably fixed by the time of Sirach, around 180 BC, but debate continued for some time afterward about the Writings. Sirach probably did not acknowledge the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Esther and Daniel, if he even knew those texts.

I don’t have an easy answer for this, but it is instructive (and sometimes surprising) seeing alternative ways in which other believers structure and approach the Bible.

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  • stefanstackhouse

    The three-fold division of the Hebrew scriptures does make more sense from my perspective, and I wish that our Bibles would be organized that way. Matt 23:35 actually alludes to this and only really makes complete sense when the OT is ordered this way: Adam is the first martyr, mentioned near the beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, while the martyrdom of Zechariah is recorded toward the end of (II) Chronicles.

  • philipjenkins

    I actually did a blog about that Zechariah point:

  • FA Miniter

    Mr. Jenkins notes that the order of the Tanakh is different from that of the Old Testament (Christian style), but does not comment on the reasons for the difference. The Christian OT ends with Malachi, an apocalyptic work which itself ends with a prophecy, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Such words could be used (retroactively) to prophesy the coming of Jesus, and therefore fit as the ending of a Jesus oriented OT.

    On the other hand, the Tanakh ends with Chronicles, and Chronicles ends with the release of the Jewish people from the Babylonian Captivity and the promise of the Second Temple, with the implication that God still resides in Israel, a fitting affirmation of Judaism.

  • FA Miniter

    Has anyone ever considered that Muhammad’s trip to heaven from the rock in Jerusalem could be modeled on Enoch’s trip to heaven in 1 Enoch?

  • Thersander

    This post seems to ignore the fact that it was the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, i.e. the Septuagint, in the 3rd century B.C. in the Jewish Diaspora, i.e. ALexandria, Egypt, that the books took on their individual form. FOr whatever reason, the Greek speaking Jews thought it was necessary to divide up the individual books and give the names to these books by which we know them today (Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy are all Greek, not Hebrew; and Numbers is the translation of the Greek word αριθμοι).

  • Garrett


  • philipjenkins

    excellent point

  • philipjenkins

    Good point indeed. I obviously could have said much more, but this was just a short blogpost.

  • Alan Hoffman

    Actually, it was the Anshe Kennesset HaGadolah, in Bavel (Babylon) that enumerated the Jewish cannon and set the order. Today, while the Christian verse numbering is used for convenient reference, the organization of official readings refers to the Babylonian Jewish organization, even when it splits a chapter or book in liturgical readings. The incident of the Septuagent (a forced translation under Greek rule that imprisoned Jewish scholars to do a Hebrew – Greek translation) came a bit later, when Greece already defeated Babylon by Alexander the Great and ruled Israel.

  • frjohnmorris

    Thus far no one has mentioned the fact that the ancient Church used the Septuagint as its official version of the Old Testament. For Christians that is decisive, because we should look to the ancient Church for guidance on what books to include in our Scriptures. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, we consider the books in the Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew “Readable Books.” That is they are not to be excluded from the canon, but they are not the same level as the books that are found in the Hebrew Canon.

    Fr. John W. Morris

  • Zybysko

    Um, there are NO Jewish books in the “old testament”

  • Bachaya

    What do you mean?


    When one reviews all the known Christian lists and orderings, Malachi is never the last book. The origins of this are likely reformation era translations into vernacular (Paris polyglot). The orders given by ancient sources vary widely, in translational dress (Greek, Latin). The major Uncials and quotations from church fathers, Hexaplaric renderings — all those sources used to reconstruct an Old Greek/LXX–have different orders once one leaves the Pentateuch.

  • Zybysko

    The “old testament” is a Christian document, made up entirely of Christian books in a Christian order and arrangement and translation, with a name Jews find offensive. As in OFFENSIVE.

    There are NO Jewish books in the “old testament”.

  • Bachaya

    “Old Testament” is a Christian term applied to Jewish books. Different Christians have different Old Testaments, but it always refers to Jewish books. Not only that, but most Christian translations of the Hebrew Bible now utilize the Masoretic Text. This means that both Jews and Christians consult the same text when they translate the Bible. They just call it a different name after the translation is completed.

    Is “Old Testament” an offensive term? Totally. Does it being an offensive category change the content of the category? No. Similarly, “deniers of Christ” is a Christian term. Are there Jews included in the Christian term “deniers of Christ”? Yes, because Jews do deny Jesus. The fact that it is an offensive Christian categorization does not change the content of the category.

    The “Old Testament” is a term used by Christians to refer to the Hebrew Bible which is a collection of Jewish books. The fact that “Old Testament” is an offensive term doesn’t change the content of what it is referring to. It is referring to Jewish books. They are Jewish books regardless of what names Christians want to call them

  • Zybysko

    “most Christian translations of the Hebrew Bible now utilize the Masoretic Text.”


    And the order is wrong because of — you know who. Who is not in Hebrew Scriptures.

  • Bachaya

    Five of the top Christian Bibles in the United States: NIV, KJV, NLT, ESV, CEB.

    Five of the top Christian Bibles in the United States that translate from the Masoretic text: NIV, KJV, NLT, ESV, CEB.

    It’s the same list.

    Don’t believe me? Look it up yourself.

    Why are the books in slightly different orders? It has nothing to do with the Christian New Testament. It has everything to do with the fact that originally these were separate texts. They were separate scrolls, not chapters in a single book. It wasn’t altogether necessary to establish an order. Where an order was necessary, it was often self-evident (There’s no reason to put Esther between Joshua and Judges, for example). In the Talmud (Baba Bathra 14b), an order is given which isn’t used by any Jews today. That means that by 500 CE, the order of the Tanakh still was indeterminate. There are even different orders given in copies of the Masoretic text.

  • Zybysko

    Isaiah 7:14.

    NIV “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son”

    KJV “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son”

    NLT “All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child!”

    ESV “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son”

    CEB “Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.”

    THE ACTUAL HEBREW TEXT: ידלָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא לָכֶם אוֹת הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ עִמָּנוּ אֵל:

    THE HEBREW IN ACCURATE ENGLISH: 10 And the Lord continued to speak to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask for yourself a sign from the Lord, your God: ask it either in the depths, or in the heights above.” 12 And Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not test the Lord.” 13 And he said, “Listen now, O House of David, is it little for you to weary men, that you weary my God as well? 14 Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, the young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel. 15 Cream and honey he shall eat when he knows to reject bad and choose good. 16 For, when the lad does not yet know to reject bad and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread, shall be abandoned.” 17 The Lord shall bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house, days which have not come, since the day that Ephraim turned away from Judah, namely, the king of Assyria.

    Your out-of-context Jeezus-is-the-messiah-because-he-“fulfills”-Jewish-prophecy is a load of horsepucky and “virgin” is NOT what the Masoretic text says. Period.

    Never mind that Isaiah is addressing King Ahaz about a particular living woman and the coming Assyrian invasion.

    Based on dollar sales the CEB is 8th out of 10. Based on unit sales it is 6th. Not “top five”.

    Do not ever try to bullshit someone who knows more than you.

  • Bachaya

    Excuse me? Jesus is “my” messiah? What are you talking about? I’m a Jew. I don’t believe in Jesus. I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I believe that God is One. I even teach Hebrew school at a Masorti synagogue! Don’t accuse me of being Christian simply because I think you’re wrong. More importantly, my religion and world views shouldn’t be relevant here.

    I’m not discussing opinions, I’m discussing verifiable facts. I said that most Christian translations translate from the Masoretic text. Then I told you to look for yourself. Did I say that Christian translations are accurate? No. Did I say that Christian translations are authoritative? No. I said they translate primarily from the Masoretic text. Because they do. A translation is not the Bible. A translation is not authoritative. The Bible in its original language in its original text is authoritative. If you ask the translators of the NIV, KJV, NLT, ESV, and CEB what the authoritative Tanakh or Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is, they will all say, “The Masoretic text.” If you ask the Judaica Press translators (whom you quoted) what the authoritative Tanakh or Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is, they will say, “The Masoretic text.” If you ask the translators of the New JPS Tanakh (which I use) what the authoritative Tanakh or Old Testsment or Hebrew Bible is, they will say, “The Masoretic text.”

    They are all pointing to the Masoretic text. They’re not pointing to the Septuagint, the Vulgate, or a Targum. How can you deny this? These are facts. I’m not interested in your opinion, you’re not interested in mine. I’m not interested in your theological background, you’re not interested in mine. We’re not interested in who, as you put it, “knows more.” We’re interested in facts. When you ask these translators to grab hold of the authoritative Hebrew Scriptures, they all grab hold of the Masoretic text. Yet you say that for the mere reason that some of them call it by an offensive name that the Masoretic text suddenly stops being Jewish in their hands? How does that make sense? The Masoretic text is a Jewish text containing Jewish books. It doesn’t matter what name it’s referred to under.

    If you don’t believe me, feel free to go and look it up yourself. Pick up a copy of any of these Bible translations I’ve listed. Look at the preface written by the translating committee. The NIV, for example, will say, “For the Old Testament the standard Hebrew text, the Masoretic Text as published in the latest editions of Biblia Hebraica, was used throughout.”

  • Zybysko


    Four out of five of your “top five” versions translate from a different source than the Masoretic Text. – the Septuagint.. You fail to deal with (or even MENTION) their deliberate incorrect mistranslation of עַלְמָה as “virgin”.

    If you want to “prove” the “Gospel” of Matthew’s notion that Jeezus-is-the-messiah-because-he-“fulfills”-Jewish-prophecy, you aren’t going to do it on MY dime.

    I am done with you. And your Jews-For-Jeezus “facts”.

  • Bachaya

    Seriously? I just told you I’m Jewish. I’m a Rabbinic Ashkenazi Masorti Jew who denies the messianic claims of Jesus. I’m not affiliated with any Messianic organization. In fact, I donate to counter-missionary organizations like Jews for Judaism and Outreach Judaism. Stop with the ad hominems, and try actually reading what I’m saying.

    None of those translators are translating from the Septuagint. They are translating from the Masoretic text. They translate the Masoretic text incorrectly because the verse in Isaiah is misquoted in the Christian New Testament. It has nothing to do with the Septuagint because they’re not translating from the Septuagint. In fact, the Septuagint does not say “virgin” in Isaiah. The Septuagint (like the Masoretic text) uses a word which normally means a young woman. So what’s your point? Your point is that when Christians read and translate the Masoretic text, they do so incorrectly? That’s exactly what I already said. Regardless, they are translating from the Masoretic text. This is indisputable, it’s a verifiable fact.

    You’re wrong. Deal with it. It’s not a big deal, so chill.

  • Zybysko

    The first century Church understood that if Jews were to find their Christian message convincing, they had to assert that the Hebrew words of the prophet Isaiah clearly foretold Mary’s virgin conception. Matthew loudly makes the point that it was specifically the prophet’s own words that proclaimed the virgin birth, not the words of any translator.

    Isaiah, of course, did not preach or write in Greek. Matthew, however, claimed that Isaiah – not a translator – declared that the messiah would be born of a virgin. Therefore, in Matthew 1:22-23, the author of the first Gospel insists that it was “spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child…’”

    Matthew was driven only by his fervid desire to somehow prove to his readers that the virgin birth was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. In order to accomplish this daunting task, verses in the Hebrew Scriptures were altered, misquoted, taken out of context, and mistranslated by the author of the Book of Matthew in order to make Jesus’ life fit traditional Jewish messianic parameters, and to make traditional Jewish messianic parameters fit the life of Jesus.

    It is therefore no coincidence that, with the exception of Paul, no writer of the New Testament mistranslated the Jewish Scriptures to the extent that Matthew does throughout his Gospel.

    — Rabbi Tovia Singer

    גיי פײפן ויפן יאם

  • Bachaya

    You’re completely missing the point. My claim is that the most widely used Christian translations translate from the Masoretic text. You’re claiming that they do not translate from the Masoretic text, but instead from the Septuagint. Your only evidence is that in Christian translations Isaiah 7:14 says “virgin” rather than “young woman.” This is your only evidence.

    Yet the fact of the matter is that the Septuagint itself does not say “virgin” either! If you bothered reading the article by Rabbi Tovia Singer yourself, you’d know this. Translating Isaiah 7:14 to say “virgin” is a mistranslation regardless of whether or not the Masoretic text or the Septuagint is used. The Septuagint uses the word “parthenos” in Isaiah 7:14. On this topic, Rabbi Tovia Singer writes (in the same article you quoted):

    “[The] contention that ‘parthenos does mean virgin’ is incorrect. The Greek word Παρθένου (parthenos) can mean either a young woman or a virgin. Therefore, Παρθένου can be found in the Septuagint to describe a woman who is clearly not a virgin. For example, in Genesis 34:2-4, Shechem raped Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, yet the Septuagint refers to her as a parthenos after she had been defiled. The Bible reports that after Shechem had violated her, ‘his heart desired Dinah, and he loved the damsel (Sept. parthenos) and he spoke tenderly to the damsel (Sept. parthenos).’ Clearly, Dinah was not a virgin after having been raped, and yet she was referred to as a parthenos, the very same word the Septuagint used to translate the Hebrew word alma in Isaiah 7:14.”

    So there you have it. Rabbi Tovia Singer is in agreement with me. The Septuagint does not say “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14, so claiming that Christians are translating from the Septuagint because their translations of Isaiah 7:14 say “virgin” is nonsensical. Your only piece of evidence does not support you.

    The only claim I’m making is that most Christians are translating from the Masoretic text. I’m not saying they’re accurate, I’m not saying they’re authoritative. This is the essence of my claim: “The translators of the NIV Bible were looking at the Masoretic text when they were translating the Jewish scriptures. Unfortunately they made mistakes in their translation.” Do you agree or do you disagree? Yes or no? Just answer that question.

    If you agree, great! Then there’s nothing else to say.

    If you disagree, then you’re ignoring verifiable facts. The NIV translators in the preface of their translation blatantly state, “For the Old Testament the standard Hebrew text, the Masoretic Text as published in the latest edition of Biblia Hebraica, has been used throughout.”

    Don’t accuse me of being Christian, don’t insult me, don’t laud your intellect. Just answer my question: “Did the translators of the NIV Bible use the Masoretic text to produce their translation of the Jewish scriptures?”