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?

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    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 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 at 19:24
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    It is not likely you will find such a source. – Dr. Shmuel Apr 12 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 at 17:52
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    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 at 7:30

The Hebrew alphabet contains twenty-two letters, of which five possess a double form, so grouping the biblical books in a similar fashion has been a very popular mnemonic among Jews since ancient times, the first historical reference to such a memorization scheme being found in the writings of Josephus, as already mentioned in the comment section above. But in Hellenistic times, due to the fact that the Greek alphabet1 consists of twenty-four letters, a slightly modified version was used, obtained by splitting Ruth from (the rest of) Judges, and Lamentations from (the rest of) Jeremiah. This has the advantage of creating five megillot, similar to the number of books in the written Torah.

1 Similar influences from the same era also include, for instance, the term Sanhedrin, derived from the Greek Synedrion, as well as the popular afikoman, from epi komon.

From the Jewish Encyclopedia:

It is scarcely by accident that this number coincides with that of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The same tendency that led poets to write alphabetic psalms prompted scribes to arrange the canon so as to make the total twenty-two.

If an additional reason for counting twenty-four books were needed, the twenty-four priestly families (I Chron. xxiv.), or the twenty-four celestial representatives of Israel (Rev. iv. 4), would readily supply it (if not the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet).

A far lengthier and more informative discussion on this particular topic, placing things into their proper historical context, can be found on Academia.edu, pages 221-238, in an article by Guy Darshan, a professor of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, entitled The Twenty-Four Books of the Hebrew Bible and Alexandrian Scribal Methods.

Though Jews themselves apparently never made the alphabetical connection overtly explicit in their own writings, (almost) all ancient and medieval Christian sources mentioning the number of twenty-two canonical Hebrew books explicitly point out such a connection, most likely because the former have no need of being explicitly told what they already implicitly know, whereas the latter, being largely unacquainted with Judaism in general, stand in need of some basic introduction to an otherwise foreign culture or civilization. (It would seem somewhat far fetched to believe that the division of the Masoretic text into 22 + 5 books mirrors the ordering of the Hebrew alphabet into 22 + 5 letters by mere chance; the five books are Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Jeremiah-Lamentations, and the five letters being K, M, N, P, and TS).

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    This answer seems to be really interesting, but it fails to give any evidence for its claims. – Kazi bácsi Apr 13 at 5:21
  • @Kazibácsi: What do you mean ? – Lucian Apr 13 at 5:55
  • Where did Josephus say that? Where did you find this Hebrew-Greek alphabet hypothesis? – Kazi bácsi Apr 13 at 6:45
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    Josephus gave 22 as the number of books (Against Apion 1.38 / 1.1.8), but makes no connection to the alphabet (as far as I know), as you imply – b a Apr 13 at 9:40
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    @ba: I have provided a scholarly quote on the topic. – Lucian Apr 13 at 16:38

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