Monday, June 14, 2010

I Was Never Any Good At Math

How many books are in the Bible? The question seems straightforward enough. But, as is often the case with the Bible, this question proves more difficult upon closer examination.

At this point, I suspect that at least someone reading this will suppose I’m going to launch into an article about the differences between the Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant canons. While that might make an interesting discussion – and one I do hope to come back to in the future – for the purposes of this article, I’m strictly referring to a standard sixty-six book Protestant Bible.

…or is it sixty-six books? Let’s take a closer look.

We’ll begin with something easy. We have two books of Samuel, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, Samuel is a single book, and is still treated as such by the Jews today. The idea of “First” and “Second” Samuel is an unfortunate result of the book’s length – it’s so long, that the translators of the Septuagint divided it into two volumes. But a second volume isn’t a second book – it’s simply a second volume of the original book. And so it goes with the books of Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah.

Ah, but there’s more! Next we turn our attention to the twelve minor prophets. Twelve little books? Maybe, and maybe not. In fact, they were considered a single book in ancient times, and continue to be considered a single book by the Jews today: Trei Asar, or “The Twelve.” And yet, clearly, they were written as separate compositions. Surely it’s fair to think of them as twelve individual books, then…right?

Not really. By that same logic, the book of Psalms will become 150 little books! So what shall we do about The Twelve? How should they be numbered?

Perhaps for now, it’s best to think of them as a library of books within the greater library of books we call the Bible. Getting confused yet?

So far we’ve discussed several sets of books that later translators divided into multiple books, but what about the opposite effect – are there examples of times when we’ve combined books? There might be.

The book of Psalms is probably the best example. It is, in fact, five volumes in the Jewish tradition. But are they five volumes, or are they five individual books? The end of the second volume seems to indicate that it’s the latter:

Psalm 72:20: This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.

The book of Proverbs also seems to be a collection of earlier books. Consider its self-imposed titles:

1:1: The proverbs of Solomon.

10:1: The proverbs of Solomon.

22:17: The sayings of the wise.

24:23: These also are sayings of the wise.

25:1: More proverbs of Solomon.

30:1: The sayings of Agur.

31:1: The sayings of King Lemuel.

If all of this isn’t enough to make your head spin, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that many see in Genesis a collection of ten earlier books, perhaps brought together as a single book by Moses. This is not, of course, to be confused with the Documentary Hypothesis, which is a different theory altogether.

Genesis 2:4: This is the account of the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 5:1: This is the written account of Adam’s line.

Genesis 6:9: This is the account of Noah.

Genesis 10:1: This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Genesis 11:10: This is the account of Shem.

Genesis 11:27: This is the account of Terah.

Genesis 25:12: This is the account of Abraham’s son Ishmael.

Genesis 25:19: This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac.

Genesis 36:1: This is the account of Esau. (See also 36:9).

Genesis 37:2: This is the account of Jacob.

So how many are we at now?

Lest I leave the New Testament out of it completely, I will point out that many scholars see 2John and 3John as cover letters for 1John, which could bring our count down by another two. Depending, of course, on how you want to treat a cover letter.

It seems that what we really have, then, is a book that is really a collection of books, some of which in turn contain yet smaller collections of books – collections within a collection – and some of which should actually be thought of as single books, or perhaps multiple volumes of a single book, or perhaps multiple books that were once a single volume, while others may be single books, may be collections of smaller books, or may be single books that resulted from earlier collections of smaller books.

Maybe giving a definite answer to the question, “How many books are in the Bible?” is a lost cause. Maybe, in fact, we would be wise to simply remember that, in one way or another, it doesn’t really matter. It is, by its very nature, one book. It is the Word of God. Does that sound like a cop-out? Perhaps it is. But at this point, I see little other recourse.

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