How Many Books are in the Bible? Qualitative Numbers, or Math for Biblical Scholars

Josephus, the Jewish historian writing in Greek after the Jewish revolt in 70, tells us that the Jews have 22 sacred books—although he doesn’t say precisely which ones. And the apocalypse Fourth Ezra mentions a revelation of 24 books. The numbers 22 and 24 also appear in later patristic Christian lists, and 24 is indeed the number of books in the rabbinic Bible…. Did Josephus have 22 specific titles in mind? Maybe. We cannot know. Either way, he, like the later writers, is working with an iconic number that exists prior to a particular catalog. To ask what exactly the 22 books were may not be the most interesting question. It’s the number itself, not any specific list, that tells us more about the scriptural imagination of some Jews in antiquity.

See Also: The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

By Eva Mroczek
University of California, Davis
July 2016

Many scholars of early Judaism agree that we cannot speak of a “Bible” as such before at least the first century CE. Jewish communities collected and revered many different authoritative texts, including most of the books that are now in the Bible, and several others, such as Enoch and Jubilees. But these writings were not yet collected into, or imagined as, one definitive corpus with set contents and boundaries. The idea of a scriptural canon—a specific, fixed collection, understood to be complete—is foreign to this literary culture.

But something changed by about 100 CE. For the first time, we see evidence that some people were thinking of scriptures in terms of a specific number of books. Josephus, the Jewish historian writing in Greek after the Jewish revolt in 70, tells us that the Jews have 22 sacred books—although he doesn’t say precisely which ones. And the apocalypse Fourth Ezra mentions a revelation of 24 books. The numbers 22 and 24 also appear in later patristic Christian lists, and 24 is indeed the number of books in the rabbinic Bible.

How do we interpret these numbers? It might seem straightforward: by the 1st-c. CE, Jews had a closed canon, a precise set of books that made up Scripture.

After all, as theorist of religion Jonathan Z. Smith writes, a canon is “the arbitrary fixing of a limited number of ‘texts’ as immutable and authoritative.” This list is “held to be complete.”[1]

But is this what the 1st-c. numbers really point to? I suggest that these numbers might tell another story, and that asking precisely which books they were counting might not be the most fruitful question about how Jews imagined Scripture in antiquity.

We usually think of numbers as objective statements about the world: they quantify a set of objects. But numbers do more than just count things. Sometimes, numbers also communicate ideologies and ideals, and are used poetically and rhetorically. In other words, numbers are not always quantitative. They can be qualitative as well.

Before we look at the ancient numbers, we can consider a modern analogy: the scriptures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In 1961, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, commissioned a new translation and edition of the Bible. He pronounced this edition “the complete Bible of Ethiopia”—a claim that is more significant than it might seem. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is known for having a larger collection of scriptural books than other Jewish and Christian communities—including, for instance,Enoch and Jubilees—but in the long history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Selassie was the first ever to pronounce any biblical collection “complete.”[2] Did Selassie, who claimed to be the messianic descendant of David and Solomon, finally close the Ethiopian canon?

Maybe—but maybe not. Selassie’s pronouncement about the 1961 Bible was never binding for the Church, and ecclesiastical authorities did not follow his lead. And yet, Ethiopian Christians agree: there are eighty-one books in the Bible. This is the consensus across the board today. A key official statement is a 13th-c. canon law code, The Law of the Kings, which claims to trace its authority to the apostles. This code is clear: the “Divine Books which must be accepted by the Holy Church are Eighty-One in Number.” A catalogue of these books follows. It lists only seventy-three.

What do we do with such a discrepancy? How do we resolve the conflict between a non-negotiable number and a list that does not match it?

Later Ethiopic commentaries solve this problem by listing additional texts and dividing others into separate books. There are two major lists: a “narrower canon”— printed in the Bibles Selassie commissioned—and a “broader canon”—listed in Amharic commentaries. For example, to get to 81, some narrow canon lists divide Proverbs into two, and count Susannah as a separate book. One version of the broader canon arrives at 81 by counting four ecclesiastical rulebooks as part of the New Testament; but another version reaches the total by counting the eight parts of an Ethiopic book of Clement as eight separate works.

Which list is right? Which books really make up “the Bible”? No church council has ever decided. Instead of competing, these incompatible lists coexist. Maybe all of them are correct: after all, don’t they reach the right number?

This shows that it is possible for a religious community to have a fixed number of books, a strong sense of Scripture, but not a single list of its precise contents. The number 81 is iconic. It is not a secondary description of a pre-existing set of texts. Instead, different texts are arranged under the scaffolding of a pre-existing number—switched out, divided, and regrouped to fit this structure.

With this different way of using numbers in mind, we can return to the first century. Josephus criticizes Greek history-writing as broken and unreliable. But the Jews, he claims, can trace their history further, through unbroken records by prophetic eyewitnesses:

38 Among us there are not myriads of discordant and competing volumes, but only twenty-two volumes containing the record of all time, which are rightly trusted.

39 Five are those of Moses, which comprise both the laws and the tradition from human origins until his passing; this period falls short of 3000 years.

40 From Moses’ passing until Artaxerxes…the prophets after Moses wrote up what happened in their times in thirteen volumes. The remaining four comprise hymns toward God and advice for living among humanity. (Against Apion 1.38–40, Trans. S. Mason)[3].

Scholars have noted that the number 22 is symbolic: it’s the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. It represents completion and coherence.

But scholars have also debated exactly which books Josephus meant. The five books of Moses seem clear enough. Other genres—prophets, hymns, and instruction—bring the count to 22, but Josephus isn’t interested in telling us exactly what they are. The number and its ideology seems more important to him than the precise list. So scholars have tried to work out an exact list of titles, how they relate to the normative three-part Jewish canon, and how Josephus counted and divided them to reach 22. The diverse scholarly lists are somewhat reminiscent of the different Ethiopic catalogues, which regroup and re-divide get to 81 (but with less tolerance for coexistence).

Josephus gives neither the symbolic significance of his number nor a specific list of books. We find both in later Christian writings about the Old Testament. Origen reports 22 books, mentioning that it corresponds to the Hebrew alphabet. Jerome also mentions 22, but he knows the number twenty-four as well, where Lamentations is separate from Jeremiah and Ruth from Judges. He links that number to the 24 elders in the book of Revelation. Jerome and Epiphanius know another alternative: the Hebrew Scriptures can also add up to 27 books. This is alphabetic as well: five Hebrew letters have different forms if they appear at the end of a word, and if those final forms are counted separately, the alphabet has 27 letters. The actual contents of patristic canonical lists vary.[4] Even in the work of a single writer like Epiphanius, the books can be rearranged and re-divided to create various meaningful numerical patterns.

One purpose of the numbers, then, is not so much to report how many books there are as to mentally manipulate titles to fit iconic numbers—rearranging them aesthetically to imagine Scripture in terms of structured, satisfying symmetry.

Did Josephus have 22 specific titles in mind? Maybe. We cannot know. Either way, he, like the later writers, is working with an iconic number that exists prior to a particular catalog. To ask what exactly the 22 books were may not be the most interesting question. It’s the number itself, not any specific list, that tells us more about the scriptural imagination of some Jews in antiquity.

The number 22 is rhetorically and poetically powerful in several ways. For instance, the 2nd-c. BCE book of Jubilees, it structures both creation and Israel’s origins using this number:

There were twenty-two chief men from Adam until Jacob, and twenty-two kinds of works were made before the seventh day. The former is blessed and sanctified, and the latter is also blessed and sanctified. One was like the other with respect to sanctification and blessing. (Jubilees 2:23-24).

This number structures alphabetic writing, but it is also built into nature and history. If 22 represents divine wholeness—a perfect symmetry of time and nature—it is an appropriate cipher for Josephus’ claim about the records of Jewish history. They are ancient, complete, exact records, and sacred—identical “to the highest and oldest matters” revealed by God, “containing the record of all time” (Ag. Ap. 1.38).

The number also helps Josephus argue that Jews fulfill Greek values better than the Greeks themselves. Josephus caricatures Greek literature as sprawling and contradictory, and his insistence on accuracy and antiquity reflects Alexandrian scholarly values. The idea of 22 books is a rhetorical move. It signifies accuracy and coherence, a quantitative reference with a qualitative meaning.[5]

Yet Josephus’s own literary imagination is far broader than a mere 22 book, and he draws on many extra-biblical traditions and texts in writing about Israel’s history. In 1 Kings, Solomon “spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were one thousand and five” (5:12), but Josephus redefines this as a written corpus of epic proportions. He says that Solomon wrote three thousand books of “parables and similitudes” and one thousand and five books of “odes and songs” (Ant. 8.44). As for David, he “composed songs and hymns to God in varied metres; some he made in trimetres, and others in pentameters” (Ant. 7.305). There are multiple books of Daniel (Ant. 10.267). Josephus’ literary landscape is densely populated with texts—even if many of them are only imagined.

How do we reconcile all these other books—like Solomon’s 4,005—with the more modest and more famous 22? We don’t have to say that Josephus is simply inconsistent (thought that might be true as well). The irreconcilable numbers can co-exist if we recognize that numbers have poetic and rhetorical functions: they don’t only count objects, but also communicate values. Twenty-two means completion, organization, symmetry with creation, and coherence with Greek ideals. But 4,005 means a profusion of revelation, the impressive productivity of an ancient inspired sage. They’re aesthetic and poetic, not technical bibliographic claims. They don’t need to “add up.” They signify different ideals about writing, which coexist in the mind of a single author.[6]

Beyond Josephus, we can find other examples where numbers are doing such aesthetic work, particularly in traditions about the Psalms. The Psalter in the Hebrew Bible contains 150 compositions, but we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that this normative shape and number was not yet fixed in the 1st-c. CE. There was no specific “book of Psalms” yet. Instead, there were a variety of different collections of Psalms, of various inventories and sizes. In one Qumran manuscript, we find a composition that gives us one example of how Psalms were imagined through a different set of numbers:

2 And David, son of Jesse, was wise, and luminous like the light of the sun, and a scribe,

3 and discerning, and perfect in all his paths before God and men. And

4 YHWH gave him a discerning and enlightened spirit. And he wrote psalms:

5 three thousand six hundred; and songs to be sung before the altar over the perpetual

6 offering of every day, for all the days of the year: three hundred

7 and sixty-four; and for the Sabbath offerings: fifty-two songs; and for the offerings of the first days of

8 the months, and for all the days of the festivals, and for the Day of Atonement: thirty songs.

9 And all the songs which he spoke were four hundred and forty-six. And songs

10 to perform over the possessed: four. The total was four thousand and fifty.

11 All these he spoke through prophecy which had been given to him from before the Most High.

The writer celebrates David as a writer of 4,050 psalms, divided according to the liturgical year. This reckoning does not enumerate specific texts. Nobody will ever find a scroll of 4,050 psalms. Instead of counting things, the numbers communicate two ideals: overwhelming vastness, and cosmic precision. These numbers reflect the solar calendar followed by many Jews in the second temple period, and they inscribe David into the earlier tradition about Solomon’s 4,005 sayings and songs: David, with 4,050 compositions, comes out ahead.

Here, like the 22 created things and 22 patriarchs in Jubilees, numbers reflect the structure of the cosmos and the history of Israel. The number communicates an idea of a huge imagined repertoire, never available in one place—a number that stands for innumerable songs.

This 1st-c. text conceptualizes psalms as an enormous, imagined collection. But over time, the Psalms coalesced into a real collection of 150. Between Qumran and medieval Hebrew manuscripts, our evidence comes from 4th/5th-century Greek codices, which reveal a firmly established collection of 150 compositions. That number—unlike 81, 22, or 4,050—corresponds directly and clearly to particular compositions, numbered in the margins.

And yet, even this number does not simply count the existing Psalms. Though 150 marks a fixed boundary, every Greek codex actually contains 151. Psalm 151, found at Qumran but not in the Masoretic Bible, is ascribed to David in the Greek manuscripts, but its heading tells us that it is “outside the number.” It is authentic, Davidic, worthy of copying—but outside the pale. In the Syriac tradition, Ps 151 and four more compositions are authentically Davidic, but outside the number. The Psalter is understood as a collection of 150 psalms. Yet it is not complete: the number of authentic, inspired, Davidic psalms is at least 155.

Numbers, then, rarely give straightforward information. The 81 books in the Ethiopic canon; the 22 books of Josephus; the 24 books of Fourth Ezra, patristic, and rabbinic texts; the idea 4,050 Psalms of David at Qumran or the canonical 150 in the Psalter—each number comes with its own ambiguities. Rather than simply counting texts, each communicates ideologies and values. Paying attention to this function of numbers may not give us the precise answers we are looking for about the development of the biblical canon. But it does help us understand more about how ancient writers conceived of Scripture, and it reminds us that they were not trying to answer our modern questions.


[1] J.Z. Smith, “Sacred Persistence,” in Imagining Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 48.

[2] See Bruk A. Asale, “Mapping The Reception, Transmission, and Translation of Scriptural Writings in the EOTC: How and Why Some ‘Pseudepigraphical’ Works Receive ‘Canonical’ Status in the Ethiopian Bible,” Journal of Semitics 22, 2 (2013): 371–372, Leslie Baynes, “Enoch and Jubilees in the Canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” in A Teacher for All Generations: Essays in Honor of James C. VanderKam, ed. Eric F. Mason et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 799–820, and an older work, R.W. Cowley, “The Biblical Canon Of The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Today,” Ostkirchliche Studien, Vol. 23 (1974): 318–323.

[3] See S. Mason, “Josephus and His Twenty-Two Book Canon,” in The Canon Debate: On the Origins and Formations of the Bible, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002).

[4] On these canonical lists, see the forthcoming volume by E. Gallagher and J. Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2017).

[5] It may also be linked to the practice of dividing up Homeric texts into 24 books to reflect the Greek alphabet; see, e.g., Guy Darshan, “Twenty-four or Twenty-two Books of the Bible and the Homeric Corpus,” Tarbiz 77 (2007): 1–22.

[6] For an excellent discussion with a somewhat different conclusion, see Jonathan G. Campbell, “Josephus’ Twenty-Two Book Canon and the Qumran Scrolls,” in The Scrolls and the Scriptures: Proceedings of the Seventh Meeting of the IOQS in Helsinki, ed. George J. Brooke et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 19–45.

Comments (1)

Great essay on the qualitative-symbolic significance of number in biblical and post-biblical literature. Reminded me of rabbinic calculations of the 39 av melachot -- major categories of forbidden work om Sabbath. Thanks.

#1 - Alan Levenson - 08/22/2016 - 20:19

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