How many books are there in the Old Testament? This might seem like a fairly straightforward church trivia night question. But actually the answer can vary depending on which Bible you are reading. The Hebrew Bible has 22 or 24 books. Your English Old Testament probably has 39. Roman Catholic Bibles have 46 Old Testament books. Eastern and Russian Orthodox Bibles have even more. I find this discrepancy often comes up in dialogue with atheists and Muslims about the reliability of the Old Testament.
Your English Old Testament probably has 39. Roman Catholic Bibles have 46 Old Testament books. Eastern and Russian Orthodox Bibles have even more.
Why the difference? If you believe the YouTube sceptic channels it all comes down to shady backroom deals, like the Jewish Council of Jamnia in AD 90, or the fourth session of the Catholic Church’s Council of Trent (April 1546). Powerbrokers decided what was in and what was out based, we assume, on politics.
They make it sound like a big conspiracy. But is the Bible really as up for grabs as all this sounds? I’ll let you make up your own mind on that, and before you do let’s slow down take a closer look at the story of how we arrived at the canonical books of the Old Testament.
The key word here is ‘canonical’. Canon comes from a Hebrew meaning ‘reed’ (hence our English word ‘cane’). People used reeds as measuring rods back then, and that’s the idea behind the Canon: it’s a guide, an official reference listing all the books of the Bible, keeping our churches on the straight and narrow.
Before leather bound books were invented, each individual part of the Old Testament had its own scroll. How then do you make sure that you have read all the Scriptures? People started making lists: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and so on. By the fourth century AD these came to be referred to as the Canon: a reading plan of authoritative works of Scripture for you to tick off as you go.
But here’s the big question: did the people who made these lists get to decide which books were Scripture, or were they just recognising the books that were already considered authoritative Scripture?
Think of it in terms of the Harry Potter novels. Say I wanted to update the Wikipedia page listing all the official Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling. The page currently lists seven books, from The Philospher’s Stone to The Deathly Hallows. The first version of the page was made on 8 October 2001 by some Wikipedia user called ‘Belltower’. Did Belltower choose which books were worthy of being included in the list of authoritative Harry Potter Canon?
Of course not. The Harry Potter novels did not suddenly become Harry Potter novels when Belltower made a list. The novels’ status and authority come from their being written by J. K. Rowling, and their story being part of the Harry Potter universe.
Obviously there are some differences between Scripture and Harry Potter, but this does illustrate something important about how canonical lists work. The Book of Jeremiah, for example, did not become authoritative Scripture when some council put it on the list. It was authoritative all along, because God called Jeremiah and appointed him as a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:4-5). Whether we recognise this authority is on us. (As it happens, King Jehoiakim decided he didn’t like what Jeremiah had to say and burnt the original version of the book—but that didn’t stop Jeremiah’s warning that Jerusalem would fall from coming true!)
The people at the Council of Jamnia never thought they were making books into Scripture, by the way. The debate was over whether two books, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, should be recognised as Scripture in the same way as Genesis or Jeremiah. The fact that they were even debating this question shows that they already recognised a fixed collection of Scripture, which they distinguished from other devotional material.
The Law, Prophets and Writings
Which books did first-century Jews, including Jesus, consider Scripture? We have good evidence from the end of the first century for a Canon of 22 books. Jewish historian Josephus talks about 22 books, which he says were fixed way back in the time of Ezra (Against Apion, AD 100ish). He assumes everyone knows which ones he means, so unfortunately for us he doesn’t name them. He just mentions that there are:
- five books of Moses,
- thirteen books in the prophets, and
- four books ‘containing hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of human life’.
This is important, because these three collections of books—Law, Prophets and Writings—keep showing up in some form or another, going back as early as 132BC in a preface to a translation of the Book of Sirach.
Jesus himself refers to the three groups of books in Luke 24:44 as the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms (‘Psalms’ probably referring to the Writings as a whole). So when the New Testament writers talk about ‘The Scriptures’ they mean an authoritative collection of books, divided into the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings, and these books seem to have been fixed and accepted for some time already.
How do we know these books are the same books as in our Old Testament? A good clue is to look at the Scriptures quoted in the New Testament. Genesis? Yes. Exodus? You bet. Leviticus? Lots. What’s more, we’re not talking about here’s-an-interesting-idea kind of quotations, we’re talking this-is-Scripture-so-do-what-it-says. ‘Away from me Satan’ says Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy, ‘for it is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’ (Matthew 4:10). Apart from a handful of books that are not quoted like this (including Ezra, Nehemiah, Song of Songs, Esther and Ecclesiastes) we can be very confident that the vast majority of Old Testament books were accepted as Scripture by Jesus and the New Testament writers. In contrast, other contemporary Jewish texts never get quoted like this (except maybe 1Enoch and the Assumption of Moses which show up briefly in the letter of Jude, but they’re probably not being quoted as authoritative Scripture).
The Different Lists
So why, then, do our different Bibles have different numbers of books?
Partly it’s just about numbering. In the English the Minor Prophets are counted as an anthology of twelve individual books, whereas in the Hebrew Bible they’re counted as one book in twelve parts. Likewise, 1 & 2 Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1 & 2 Chronicles are single books in the Hebrew but divided into two books in English versions. Plus, sometimes Ruth gets appended to Judges, and Lamentations goes on the end of Jeremiah. All that brings the total for the English Bible from 22 up to 39: they’re the same books, just counted differently.
The Catholic Bible is a little bit more tricky. It includes twelve extra books that are not in the Hebrew or the English Bible. These are Greek texts which are called ‘Deuterocanonical’ or ‘Old Testament Apocrypha’. They come from a later period than the Old Testament, and so are written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic like the original Old Testament books (one obvious reason they’re not found in the Hebrew Bible).
Unlike the New Testament’s apocryphal books (which are basically fan-fiction of dubious quality) some of these extra Old Testament texts are actually pretty useful and interesting. They just were never thought of as Scripture by Jews, and aren’t ever treated as Scripture by the New Testament writers.
What’s in them? A handful are historical works that cover events after the end of the Old Testament, like 1 & 2 Maccabees. These are useful sources for understanding what went on between the time of Nehemiah and the time of Jesus. Other works like Judith and Bel and the Dragon are a bit like what you might find in the Young Adult fiction section of Koorong—works of fiction designed to inspire and teach good Godly values. Then there’s some B-side prophecies and wisdom texts thrown in for good measure.
While these Greek texts weren’t considered Scripture in Jesus’ time, they were sometimes written in the back of copies of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). When Christians in the West translated the Septuagint into Latin they included some of these devotional texts because … well, why not? However Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin Bible for the Catholic Church, knew they weren’t Scripture and clearly distinguished them as interesting but not authoritative. Despite this, people got used to seeing them there, and so one thing led to another and by the Council of Trent they are included in the Catholic church’s official list of Scripture.
Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin Bible for the Catholic Church, knew they weren’t Scripture and clearly distinguished them as interesting but not authoritative.
All this to say: the story is more complex than the conspiracy theory YouTube clips suggest. Sure, human councils were absolutely involved in drawing up the official lists, and these lists do vary in interesting ways between Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox communities. Yet, at the same time, we can also be highly confident that we know what Jesus and his followers meant when the spoke about ‘The Scriptures’. What they recognised as authoritative Scripture is the same living and active Word of God that confronts us in our English Bible today.