I was asked to identify the original 20 books of the Tanach as they appear in the Masoretic Text but everything I found listed 24 books.

I understand that the collective name for the original books of the Masoretic Text is TANACH, an acronym derived from the names of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (Instruction, or Law, also called the Pentateuch), Neviʾim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).

During my research I found this entry in The Encyclopaedia of World Faiths:

"...some of its books were not declared sacred by the Jewish sages until the first centuries of the Christian era. From that time, however, the Tanakh has consisted of twenty-four books comprising the sacred scriptures of Judaism... The twenty-four books of the Tanakh are -

The Torah (in its original sense) - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

The Neviʾim - Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Book of the Twelve Prophets.

The Ketuvim - Psalms, Proverbs, Job, The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, Chronicles."

The entry in the Encyclopaedia of World Faiths does not say which books were not declared sacred until the first centurys of the Christian era.

My problem is time - my answer to this question is due by Monday 13 April and I simply don't know where to start looking. I need reliable links/sources of information (preferably Jewish) to show what those 20 books were prior to the acceptance of the 24 books. Can you help me, please?

EDIT: This question asks 'What is the timeline of the 24 books of Tanach?' What is the timeline of the 24 books of Tanach?

Very useful information.

  • 4
    I'm venturing a semi-educated guess: Josephus wrote that there were 22 books, but had them as 5 Torah, 13 prophets, and 4 "hymns and wisdom"...which doesn't help at first glance--different academics have different lists of the 22.. Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes were "canonized" last, after Josephus severed himself fm Jewish society, so that might be his 22. But 20? Some academics say Ruth was appended to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah in early scrolls, but there's no surviving scrolls to prove this--but that would make 20.Other folks here probably know more, hope you get a good answer.
    – Gary
    Apr 10, 2020 at 18:01
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    lesley can you share what your source is that initially there were only 20 books? The gemara has numerous discussions about whether certain texts should have been canonized, as @gary mentioned, but I don't recall any mention of 20 books. Esther was the last book written, and the Talmud baba basra (I think daf 16?) lists the authorship of the other works, so perhaps you could find 20 before the last 4 were written. But are you referring to before they were written, or before they were canonized?
    – Binyomin
    Apr 11, 2020 at 19:24
  • 2
    It is not likely you will find such a source.
    – Dr. Shmuel
    Apr 12, 2020 at 3:38
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    ah! The "called" at the end of the question makes it a lot simpler! They were/are called the Tanach, like you have in the OP. No list or number games needed. And the "20" is a typo.
    – Gary
    Apr 12, 2020 at 17:52
  • 1
    Yes, the collective name for all of the books is the Tanach - a simple and elegant answer. It is possible that there was a typo (although, as a touch typist with 50 years' experience, you need your right hand to select zero and your left hand to select two). Then again, some people use the numeric keypad to enter figures. But yes, it could have simply been an error.
    – Lesley
    Apr 13, 2020 at 7:30

1 Answer 1


Midrash Rabba, Shir Hashirim 4:11

רַבִּי הוּנָא וְרַבִּי חֲלַפְתָּא קֵיסָרְיָה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן לָקִישׁ אָמְרֵי, מַה כַּלָּה זוֹ מִתְקַשֶּׁטֶת בְּעֶשְׂרִים וְאַרְבָּעָה תַּכְשִׁיטִין, וְאִם חֲסֵרָה חִסּוּר דָּבָר אֶחָד מֵהֶם אֵינָהּ כְּלוּם, כָּךְ תַּלְמִיד חָכָם צָרִיךְ שֶׁיְהֵא רָגִיל בְּעֶשְׂרִים וְאַרְבָּעָה סְפָרִים, וְאִם חִסֵּר אֶחָד מֵהֶם אֵינוֹ כְלוּם.

The 24 jewels of a bride are referring to a passuk in Yeshaya. So at least in the times of Shlomo Hamelech, according to this explanation of the passuk, there were 24 books of Tanach

  • 2
    You're aware that a number of books of Tanach were written hundreds of years after the time of Shlomo HaMelech?
    – Joel K
    Jul 6, 2021 at 14:18
  • Good point. However, it seems clear that the number 24 was always known as the eventual number of sefarim in Tanach. Therefore it's hard to believe that there were first 20 and then 24
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 6, 2021 at 14:26
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    Maybe it seems clear to you the the number 24 was always known as the eventual number of sefarim in Tanach. Certainly does not seem clear to me.
    – Joel K
    Jul 6, 2021 at 14:30

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