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The Twenty-Two Books of the Jewish Canon

What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.

Romans 3:1f

Early Christian citations of the 22 Book Jewish Canon
  • Melito 170 AD, cited in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, 4.26.14
  • Origen 210 AD
  • Hilary of Poitiers 360 AD, Tractate on Psalms, Prologue 15
  • Athanasius 365 AD, Letter 39.4
  • Cyril of Jerusalem, 386 AD, Catechetical Lectures 2, 4.33
  • Council of Laodicea 391 AD, Canon 60
  • Gregory of Nazianzus 390 AD, Carmina, 1.12
  • Epiphanius 400 AD, Del Nensurius et Ponderibus, 4
  • Rufinus 410 AD, Commentary in Symbols of the Apostles, 37
  • Jerome 410 AD, Introduction to Samuel and Kings

For those familiar with the history of the Bible, the appearance of the Number 22 as its basic structural number immediately evokes the many ancient testimonies of the Hebrew Old Testament as a collection of 22 books. The famed first century Jewish historian, Josephus, gives the oldest witness :

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 the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine.

These twenty-two books correspond exactly to the thirty-nine books of the Christian Old Testament (see The Christian OT versus the Jewish Tanakh). The numbers differ only because the Jews reckoned certain groups of books as one, such as the two books of Samuel, the two books of Kings, and the Twelve Minor Prophets which were originally written on a single scroll.

Many of the early Christian Church fathers who noted this pattern are listed in the table. One of the most prominent is Origen (185 – 254 AD), aptly described by F. F. Bruce as "the greatest biblical scholar among the Greek fathers." He was a prolific commentator who produced some two thousand works, the greatest being the Hexapla, a parallel Bible with six columns for each verse comparing various Hebrew and Greek versions existing in his day. He explained the appearance of the Number 22 in terms of the number of letters in the Hebrew Alphabet:

Nor must we fail to observe that not without reason the canonical books are twenty-two, according to the Hebrew tradition, the same in number as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. For as the twenty-two letters may be regarded as an introduction to the wisdom and the Divine doctrines given to men in those Characters, so the twenty-two inspired books are an alphabet of the wisdom of God and an introduction to the knowledge of realities.

Origen saw the Hebrew alphabet as more than a mere collection of characters used to write words. He understood it as "an introduction to the wisdom and Divine doctrines given to men in those Characters," that is, in the Hebrew Old Testament. He was not alone in this view. Another linguistically gifted scholar, the Latin Church father Jerome (347-420 AD) who translated the Bible from the original Hebrew into the Latin Vulgate, taught exactly the same idea in his Introduction to Samuel and Kings:

As, then, there are twenty-two elementary characters by means of which we write in Hebrew all we say, and the compass of the human voice is contained within their limits, so we reckon twenty-two books, by which, as by the alphabet of the doctrine of God, a righteous man is instructed in tender infancy, and, as it were, while still at the breast.

Jerome's comment followed immediately upon his review of the Alphabetic Verses. He believed that God designed the whole alphabetic sequence and embedded it in Scripture to symbolically teach fundamental Christian doctrines. His explanation of the letters, given in his thirtieth Epistle to Paula (384 AD), largely coheres with the meanings we shall derive from Scripture and see exemplified in countless Rabbinic writings.

Many Biblical commentators have failed to appreciate the true depth of Divine Wisdom encoded in the Alphabetic Verses. They often suggest the rather mundane idea that they are little more than a literary device designed to help memorization and to express the idea of completeness from Aleph to Tav, from beginning to end. While this view is both valid and important, it is incomplete because it fails to appreciate the fullness of Divine Wisdom that God revealed when He designed them. Scripture declares "Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite" (Ps 147:5), and "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine" (2 Tim 3:16). Both Origen and Jerome maintained this high view of Scripture which naturally prohibits the mundane treatment of passages so clearly well de-signed as the Alphabetical Verses. They both recognized and taught that God created the Hebrew alphabet as more than a mere set of characters to write the words of the Old Testament; He created it also as an ABC of Divine Wisdom, built into the very structure of the Bible itself. The miracle of the Bible Wheel is that this pattern, established within its own text, simultaneously serves as the template for its large-scale structure and the very key to its Divine design.

The power of the alphabet as a compound symbol of Completeness and Divine Wisdom, coupled with the fact that God used it as a structural template within the text of Scripture in the Alphabetic Verses, made it almost inevitable that the Jews would, if they could, cause their canon to conform to its pattern. There was only one problem; the Hebrew canon did not lend itself to a natural or graceful integration with the twenty-two letters! The alphabetic correlation, cited so frequently by the early Church fathers, was destined to fail and the Jewish Old Testament finally settled down as a collection of twenty-four books, and so it remains to this day. The failure was inevitable because the Hebrew Bible alone most definitely is not the complete word of God from Aleph to Tav – this distinction had to wait to be realized in the sixty-six books of the Christian Bible.

In their efforts to force fit the Old Testament Canon into the alphabetic pattern, the Jews had to combine certain sets of books. This was very natural in most cases because some books, like First and Second Kings, were originally undivided. Likewise, the Twelve Minor Prophets, known since ancient times as the Book of the Twelve because they were written on a single scroll, could naturally be counted as one book. But when all such books were combined and the tally taken, the total came to twenty-four. To arrive at the desired set of twenty-two books, they had to combine two more pairs, which turned out to be Judges with Ruth, and Jeremiah with Lamentations according to Jerome in his Prologue to Samuel and Kings This link takes you off the Bible Wheel site and opens a new window. The first pair made some sense because they treated the same time period (whihc is the reason given by Jerome), and the latter pair made some sense because they were written by the same prophet. But the combination just would not stick. McDonald, in his very thorough analysis called The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon This link takes you off the Bible Wheel site and opens a new window, explains the probable reason for its failure:

There are strong reasons to believe that the twenty-four-book list actually preceded the twenty-two-book list and that the latter was fashioned after the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This appears to be more reasonable, since the twenty-four-book collection is more simple than the twenty-two-book collection's awkward and arbitrary combination of Ruth and Lamentations with Judges and Jeremiah. ... The practice of doubling up several books in the list in order to arrive at the number twenty-two suggests that the number, more than its precise contents, was what was considered most important. Perhaps ... the number twenty-two was a holy number and thus all of the scriptures had to fit within that number. Hence we have the doubling up of books that do not naturally belong together (for example, Judges and Ruth).

The failed effort to force fit the Jewish Bible into the alphabetic pattern bears eloquent witness to the incomparable grace and wisdom of God’s hidden hand that guided the long, complicated, and often confused historical process that culminated in what Scroggie called the "glorious superstructure" of the sixty-six book Christian Canon. And now the ancient intuition that the Hebrew alphabet should encompass God's Word as a symbol of the completeness of its Divine Wisdom is effortlessly realized by simply "rolling up the Bible like a scroll" (see Chapter 1 of the Bible Wheel book) to reveal the direct correlation of the twenty-two Letters with the twenty-two Spokes. This is the glory of God's Work in His design of Holy Scripture.

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