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Benjamin Smith

As someone who has just started to learn Biblical Hebrew, this is fascinating. What did Jerome mean by 'non-final' and 'final' elements, though?


Hi Benjamin,

You almost have to know Hebrew to catch Jerome's drift. The five Hebrew letters he refers to are written one way in non-final position, another in final position. Compare sigma in Greek if you know Greek.

Doug Chaplin
it would also prove to be true, as a general rule, that not only Jews but Christians have taken precisely said “twenty two” books, and no others, as the alphabet of the doctrine of God.
I'm not sure what you mean by this, John. Clearly your meaning isn't entirely straightforward for the way your "no others" excludes the NT corpus, but it is a Protestant solipsism (and you know it) to claim an (Old Testament) canon of 22 books is also a "general rule" for Christians. Neither historically nor numerically is this true, only dogmatically within the Protestant tradition.

Hi Doug,

Thanks for the pushback.

I am doing my best to honor the sense in which Jerome speaks of these 22 books, and no others, as the alphabet of the doctrine of God.

Jerome thinks of these books as exordia, not as the final word. Like all Christians, he works within a prophecy-fulfillment framework; he also thinks in terms of the Old Law and the New Law, the lex Christi on his understanding.

This is not that different from the point of view of the Sages, for whom the Oral Torah is a renewal/ revision of the written Torah.

For Jerome's views in context, go here:

I remain convinced that the content of the church's teaching and preaching has for the most part been forged on the anvil of precisely the 22 books Jerome lists - only Esther might be called into question, or could have been, before the events of the Shoah.

The situation becomes clear once one examines which books in antiquity were commented on, what patterns of citation are discoverable, and the combined witness of Jerome, Rufinus, and before them, Melito, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

I am very much in favor of seeing the deuterocanonical writings read and understood. But even those who claim to want them treated on a par with the protocanonical writings rarely if ever produce commentaries on them, or integrate them into the heart of their preaching and teaching.

The difference between Protestants and non-Protestants on this score is, so far as I can seem, rather overblown.

Let me reword things slightly. With the possible exception of the book of Esther, it has been the general rule that the 22 books listed by Jerome have functioned canonically across a full range of contexts in a way the deuteros have not. I hope that helps.

On the other hand, if you know of evidence that suggests otherwise, please tell.


Hi John,

Thanks for this - interesting stuff. I am wondering, however, if there could not be a link somewhere with the notion that the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are also considered the means by which God created the world. See e.g. Sefer Yetzirah. Since I don't have the info off hand as to its purported age (but some think it dates from around the time of the codification of the Mishna - which would predate Jerome), I am not sure whether such traditions were circulating in his time. But it would be an interesting thought.

Doug Chaplin

I note that Melito includes Wisdom, and Athanasius Baruch. I also think it fairly likely that the non-Hebrew speaking / reading Christian, which afaik includes Athansius among many other early Christians, would have meant Greek Daniel by their references, and so included additions like the Song of the Three.

I continue to maintain the picture is more complex than the one you suggest. Jerome was effectively the only father the reformers could appeal to without one or another problem. I personally tend to the view that Christian use of Sirach (at least) may have been one reason it became excluded from the Hebrew Bible.

At least in your revised contention that "it has been the general rule that the 22 books listed by Jerome have functioned canonically across a full range of contexts in a way the deuteros have not" you are not far from the 39 articles! :-)


Hi MokumAlef,

It it clear from the witness of Josephus that the number 22 and therefore the alphabet was associated with the extent of the canon in the first century of the current era at the latest. That said, the alphabet is not endowed in this trope with powers; rather, the books of a canon are thought to cover all the elements of a system just as the elements of the alphabet do.



I maintain that there is far more continuity and unity in diversity in the set of texts that have normed discourse and practice in the church down through the ages than debates about whether Esther, Baruch, or Song of Solomon are in the canon would suggest.

The texts and tropes of biblical literature which have normed discourse and practice over the centuries trace, I submit, a bell curve.

The bulk of the bell consists of texts and tropes derived from the center as opposed to the periphery of the two Testaments however defined on the outer margins.

The effective core of the Old and New Testaments is *less* than the Athanasian canon - your example, Baruch, is in effect peripheral.

A simple way of arriving at the effective core: identify the canonical books in common among the Greek, Syriac, and Latin Fathers of the second to fourth centuries.

Even if my supposition that the bulk of the bell curve of the norming texts and tropes can be determined by the above procedure were to prove incorrect, the procedure remains in accord with Augustine's dictum: “among the canonical scriptures [the skillful interpreter of the sacred writings] will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive” (De Doct. Chr. 2, 8, 12).

But Augustine was not in a position to apply his dictum in a historically responsible manner. We are.

On the other hand, whereas the catholic canon in Augustine's sense, with catholic understood as embracing Greek, Syriac, and Latin Christianity through the end of the 400s, would exclude Esther, Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation at a minimum, this is no longer the case.

The effective catholic canon is now broader, inclusive of everything in, precisely, Jerome's canon.

Still, I think it is of great interest that an early catechetical work, Testimonia ad Quirinum, norms its discourse according to three different effective canons, depending on whether the subject was self-definition over against Jewish tradition, Christology, or the correct comportment of believers. Go here:

Another route to the same conclusion is a reappropriation of the three-way distinction noted in that post. Cardinal Cajetan, before things got hot and heavy, went down this path. I don't have a link handy but can find it if the reference is obscure.

Doug Chaplin

I don't have any problems with the idea of core and periphery, John, as expressed in your bell curve idea. In fact I rather like it, and think the earlier post you reference one of your best on the topic. Here it seemed to me that you were being more definite about the 22 than the situation warranted, which was why I pushed back! And shall no doubt continue to do so from time to time.



As I understand things then, this is how matters stand. Please correct me if I am wrong.

What you have trouble with is the (1) three-way distinction (which is paradoxical, since Jerome, whose views you oppose, also put it aside) and (2) Augustine's directive on which books to prefer, understood "col senno in poi," on the basis of sound data.

A commitment to (1) and (2) makes room for a solution in large continuity with effective practice down through the ages, including our own.

In the context of that commitment, a description of the 22 book canon of Jerome as the effective alphabet of the doctrine of God, not only by Jerome's lights, but by those of Athanasius and an updated Augustine, is both fitting and meaningful.

Outside of the twofold commitment noted, one is left with an exclusive emphasis on the fuzziness of it all, an emphasis however that I consider to be the opposite of illuminating and constructive.

The "committed" solution I offer interprets even as it comprehends the nearly universal practice of the church. It will not please those who think of the deuteros as, first and foremost, a quarry of prooftexts for unsavory doctrines. On the other hand, it takes away a club anti-evangelicals like to hit evangelicals over the head with.

Given how hard it is to call to mind a cogent modern use of Wisdom of Solomon for the good of church faith and practice - just an example - I can't help noting how aridly theoretical the call for a broader effective canon is.

Here's a prediction: in the future it will be evangelicals and Catholics who appropriate the relevant passages in Baruch, ben Sira, and Wisdom for the purposes of Christology, without granting those passages canonicity (normativity) on a par with Proverbs 8.

It will be evangelicals and Catholics (and orthodox Jews I would hope) who appropriate the exempla of Judith and Tobit and the Maccabean literature for the purposes of renewing piety, but again, without putting those exempla on a par with the ones we have in the alphabet, from Abraham to Jacob to Joseph to David, Elijah, and Elisha, and beyond.

I don't see liberal Anglicans and Protestants with enough kick in them to pull that off. The Bible however defined has relatively little claim on their thought, piety, and practice. That's the real problem, the elephant in the room, which I don't see you addressing in a serious manner.

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I think it is of great interest that an early catechetical work, Testimonia ad Quirinum, norms its discourse according to three different effective canons, depending on whether the subject was self-definition over against Jewish tradition, Christology, or the correct comportment of believers.

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