Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Twenty-Four Elders - Twenty-Four Books

People sometimes see what they want in allegory. If a modern Protestant sees the number 66 in an allegory, he naturally thinks of the 66 books of the Bible.  If the chapter divisions in Isaiah were original, we would be tempted to place significance on that point.  If a modern Protestant sees 27 or 39 he might (less obviously) see the number of books in the New and Old Testaments respectively.

The book of Revelation has a reference to "twenty-four elders" as well as "four beasts" or "four living creatures." A very ancient tradition (dating back at least to Irenaeus) links those four beasts to the four gospels. What is interesting to discover is that there is a very old Western tradition associating the twenty-four elders with the twenty-four books of the Old Testament.

Why 24 instead of 39? There were different ways of numbering the books then. For example, the 12 minor prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) were counted as a single book.  See some more discussion by Jerome, below.

The earliest Greek commentators on Revelation that I found did not make any mention of this twenty-four elder to twenty-four Old Testament books correspondence, possibly because in the East, the way of counting the Old Testament books was twenty-two, not twenty-four (due to making a couple less combinations).

The earliest Latin commentators, however, provide the correspondence.

Victorinus of Petovium (died c. A.D. 303):
The four animals are the four Gospels. "The first," he says, "was similar to a lion, the second similar to a calf, the third similar to a man and the fourth similar to an eagle in flight. And they had six wings all around and eyes within and without, and they did not cease to say, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.'" And there were twenty-four elders who had twenty-four tribunals. These are the books of the prophets and of the law, which give the testimonies of the judgment. However, these twenty-four fathers are also the twelve apostles and the twelve patriarchs.
(Victorinus of Petovium, Commentary on Revelation 4 at section 4, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 7)

(Alternative translation from ANF07: The four living creatures are the four Gospels. “The first living creature was like to a lion, and the second was like to a calf, and the third had a face like to a man, and the fourth was like to a flying eagle; and they had six wings, and round about and within they were full of eyes; and they had no rest, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord Omnipotent. And the four and twenty elders, falling down before the throne, adored God.” The four and twenty elders are the twenty-four books of the prophets and of the law, which give testimonies of the judgment. Moreover, also, they are the twenty-four fathers—twelve apostles and twelve patriarchs.")
The wings [the six wings each of the four beasts] are the testimonies of the Old Testament, that is, of the twenty-four books, the same number as the elders on the tribunals. For just as an animal cannot fly unless it has wings, neither can the preaching of the New Testament acquire faith unless its testimony is seen to correspond to those foretold in the Old Testament, through which it rises from the earth and flies.
The books of the Old Testament that are received are those twenty-four that we find in the epitomes of Theodore. However, as we have said, the twenty-four elders are the patriarchs and apostles who will judge the people.
(Victorinus of Petovium, Commentary on Revelation 4 at section 5, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 8)

(Alternative translation from ANF07: “Six wings.” These are the testimonies of the books of the Old Testament. Thus, twenty and four make as many as there are elders sitting upon the thrones. But as an animal cannot fly unless it have wings, so, too, the announcement of the New Testament gains no faith unless it have the fore-announced testimonies of the Old Testament, by which it is lifted from the earth, and flies.

And the books of the Old Testament that are received are twenty-four, which you will find in the epitomes of Theodore. But, moreover (as we have said), four and twenty elders, patriarchs and apostles, are to judge His people.)
"The twenty-four elders and the four animals had harps and bowls and were singing a new song." The preaching of the Old Testament joined with the New reveals the Christian people singing a new song, that is, the proclaiming of their public confession.
(Victorinus of Petovium, Commentary on Revelation 5 at section 3, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 10)

(Alternative translation from ANF07: “Twenty-four elders and four living creatures, having harps and phials, and singing a new song.”] The proclamation of the Old Testament associated with the New, points out the Christian people singing a new song, that is, bearing their confession publicly.)

Apringius of Beja (6th Century):
He says that he had seen this Lamb in the midst of the throne, that is, in power and in divine majesty. "And among the four living creatures." This is because he is known in the fourfold order of the Gospels. "And among the elders." By this he indicates the chorus of the law and the prophets, or of the apostles.
(Apringus of Beja, Explanation of the Revelation at Revelation 5:6, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 44)

Caesarius of Arles (c. A.D. 470 – 542):
"Each of the living creatures had six wings all around." In the living creatures we recognize also the twenty-four elders, for the total of six wings on each of the four creatures is twenty-four wings. Moreover, he say the living creatures around the throne, where he said that he had seen the elders. But how can a creature with six wings be similar to an eagle that has two wings, unless the four creatures, who have twenty-four wings and in whom we recognize the twenty-four elders, are one creature, that is, the church, which is like an eagle? We may also interpret the six wings to be the testimonies of the Old Testament. For just as a creature cannot fly unless it has wings, so also the preaching of the New Testament cannot produce faith unless it has the prophetic witness of the Old Testament by which it rises from the earth and flies.
"And they never rest." The living creatures are the church that never rests but praises God without ceasing. We may also interpret the twenty-four elders to be either the books of the Old Testament or the patriarchs and the apostles.
(Caesarius of Arles, Exposition of the Apocalypse, Homily 3, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 70)

Bede the Venerable (c. A.D. 673 – 735):
And each of them had six wings. The wings lift the church into the heights by the perfection of their doctrine. The number six is said to be perfect, because it is the first number to be completed by the sum of its parts. For the number one is one-sixth of six; the number two is one-third of six; and the number three is one-half of six,; and together they make six. There is another interpretation. The six wings of the four living creatures make twenty-four wings, the same number as there are books in the Old Testament, by which the authority of the Evangelists is supported and the truth of the Evangelists is verified.
(Bede the Venerable, Exposition of the Apocalypse, at Revelation 4:8, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 126)(there is, I believe, a new translation of this work forthcoming)

Primasius (died. c. 560):
In one way, fore and aft, because the Church everywhere bearing fruit is broadened; it walks in the light of the face of God, and, his face revealed, gazes on the glory of God. In another way, fore and aft, he implies that the six-fold wings, which number twenty-four, are the books of the Old Testament, which we take up on canonical authority of the same number, just as there are twenty-four elders sitting above the thrones.
(Primasius, Commentary on the Apocalypse of John, Book I, Chapter IV. Translation by Benjamin Panciera, The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame)

Ambrose Autpert (c. A.D. 730 – 784):
The Church can be signified in the twenty-four elders under a different interpretation on account of the perfection of six which is completed in the four books of the holy Gospel. For the number six is held as perfect, for this reason that in six days God is thought to have completed all his works and in the sixth age of the world it is told that he reformed man. And so since the Church fulfills the works of the Fathers of the Old and New Testaments completed in the six ages of the world, just as in six days, and the four books of the holy Gospel, it is all correctly described in twenty-four elders. For four times six makes twenty-four. Or certainly, since it uses twenty-four books of the older Testament which it accepts with canonical authority in which it also recognizes that the New Testament was revealed, the Church is therefore figured in twenty-four elders. For this reason, the preaching of the New Testament is fruitful since strengthened from the Old, just as the Church takes the number from these same [books], by which it is perfected in sanctity.
(Ambrose Autpert, Expositionis in Apocalypsin, Libri III (4, 4). Translation by Benjamin Panciera, The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame).

This Western patristic view continued in the West throughout the middle ages:

Haymo of Halberstadt (died c. 853):
The same Church could also, according to another interpretation, be figured in the twenty-four elders. For this number is composed of the number six and the number four, because four sixes make twenty-four. The number six refers to works, because Almighty God completed His work in six days, and on the sixth day, at the sixth hour, redeemed man. The number four, however, refers to the four books of the Gospels. Because, however, the Holy Church, whether in the Old Testament or in the New, recalls and venerates the works of God, and preserves the books of the Holy Gospels, it [i.e. the Church] is also rightly understood in the twenty-four elders, or certainly according to the twenty-four books of the Old Testament, which are used according to canonical authority, in which the New Testament, and those things that are brought to fulfillment in it are acknowledged to be foretold. Whence also the Evangelist says of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ: this was done, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, which says, 'And he was classed among the wicked…'

And each of the four animals had six wings. The wings of the animals signify the two Testaments, by which the Church is carried up to the Heavens. However, while there are two Testaments, the spiritual wings of the same Church, on account of this twin testament, which is found in the twelve tribes of Israel, or in the twelve apostles, these wings are multiplied, two by twelve, and they give twenty-four wings. For two twelves are twenty-four. In another way, the number twelve consists of the parts of the number seven, that is, of the number three and the number four. We can say either four threes or three fours make twelve, which is a sacred number, the number of the twelve Apostles. In the number three, faith in the Holy Trinity is understood, and in the number four, the four parts of the world. Twelve is thus multiplied by two, and we get twenty-four. The number of the elect is expressed in terms of this number, by whose preaching the faith of the Holy Trinity is spread to the four corners of the world, and the whole world is raised to Heaven. We can also understand these wings in another way. The natural law is understood in the first wing, the Law of Moses in the second wing, in the third the prophets, in the fourth the Gospels, in the fifth the Epistles of the Apostles, in the sixth Canonical authority, or the doctrine of Catholic men such as Jerome, Augustine and other holy Fathers.
(Haymo of Halberstadt, Exposition of the Apocalypse of S. John, Book 7, Book I, Chapter IV. PL 117:1007, 1010. Translation by Catherine Kavanaugh, University of Notre Dame).

Rupert, Abbot of Deutz (c. 1075–1129):
Around the throne are twenty-four thrones and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders dressed in robes with golden crowns on their heads. Just as on the seat the kingdom of God, so on these seats we understand the judicial power of the saints, about which is has been written, the saints will judge the nations. But why are the elders sitting on the seats shown to be twenty-four in number? On this matter the explanations of the Fathers diverge. For some (of whom St. Jerome is one and the most notable) wish the elders displayed throughout here to be understood as the twenty-four books of the old law. Some others understand in these same elders the Church born through the twin testaments of the patriarchs and the apostles, or certainly those who brought about the work's perfection, which is commended to six-fold number, by clear preaching of the Gospel. For four times six makes twenty-four. But we judging neither interpretation to be useless, nevertheless dare to bring forth something certain from the majesty of the scriptures.
(Commentary of Rupert, Abbot of Deutz, On the Apocalypse of John, Book III, Chapter IV. Translation by Benjamin Panciera, The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame).

Peter Cellensis (c. 1115-1183):

And so, concerning the field of the belly of Jesus, in which all storehouses of wisdom and knowledge have been hidden, just as from a mound of wheat surrounded by lilies, twenty-four loaves (according to the number of twenty-four elders standing in the sight of the Lamb) in order to curb all hunger, cleanse all disease, and remove all weakness, with however much care I have been able to gather in this little book by breaking asunder the battle lines of overflowing cares. For this number both of the sons of Jacob and of the apostles of Christ signifies twice the number twelve. And so under this number are contained the books of the Old Testament. And so the complete instruction of souls is offered from this number of books and no less full refreshment is taken from this number of loaves. And so running from the east and west and north and south to the sign of Abraham that they not fail on the way, they refresh themselves from the loaves of the compassion of the Lord and they show the perpetual refreshment to their flaws.

(Peter Cellensis, De Panibus. Cap 2, PL 202:935-936).

Peter Blensensis (c. 1130 - 1203):
The Old Testament is so called because with the coming of the New, it ceased, which the Apostle also recalls, saying, 'Certain things passed away, and behold! All things were made new.' So the New Testament was so named because it makes new. For those who made this statement were none other than men called out of the Old [dispensation] by grace, and belonging now to the New Testament, which is the Kingdom of Heaven. The Hebrews accept the Old Testament as authorized by God in twenty-two books, according to the number of their letters, dividing them into three orders, that is, the Law, the Prophets and the Holy Writings…Five and eight added to nine make twenty-two, as is understood from the above. Some also add Ruth and Cinoth, which is called in Latin the Lamentations of Jeremiah, to the Hagiographies. These make twenty-four volumes of the Old Testament, just like the twenty-four elders who sit before the Face of God. The fourth [order?] is of those books accepted by us in the order of the Old Testament which are not in the Canon of the Hebrews. The first of them is the Book of Wisdom, the second Ecclesiasticus, the third Tobias, the fourth Judith, the fifth and sixth the Books of the Maccabees. The Church of Christ proclaims these and honors them as divine books, even though the Jews separate them as Apocrypha…The Book of Wisdom is found nowhere among the Hebrews, as a result of which it is far more redolent of Greek style than of Hebrew eloquence. The Jews affirm this to be Babylonian. Therefore they call it Wisdom, for in it the coming of Christ, who is the Wisdom of the Father, and His Passion, is evidently expressed. Now the Book of Ecclesiasticus was definitely composed by Jesus, son of Sirach and grandson of the great priest (high priest) Jesu, which Zacharias also mentions. This book is mainly known among the Latins by this title on account of its similarity to the sayings of Solomon. Indeed the statement of Ecclesiasticus is to be studied with great care, for it deals with the discipline of the whole Church and of religious discourse. This book is found among the Hebrews, but as Apocrypha. Judith, however, Tobias and the books of the Maccabees which were written by their author are the least established. They take their names from those whose deeds they describe…These are the writers of the holy books, who speaking by the Holy Spirit, have written in collaboration with him the rule to be believed and the precepts to be lived by for our erudition. Beyond these, other books are called Apocrypha, for 'apocrypha' are sayings, that is, secret sayings, which are doubtful. For the origin of them is hidden, nor does it appear to the Fathers, from whom the authority of the truth of Scriptures comes down to us in most clear and certain succession. Although some truth is found in these apocrypha, a great deal is false, nothing in them has canonical authority, and they are rightly judged by the wise not to be among those things to be believed, for a great deal is put out by heretics in the name of the Prophets, and more recently is the name of the Apostles. All that is called apocrypha has been removed following the diligent examination of canonical authority.
(Tractatus Quales sunt. De Divisone Et Scriptoribus Sacrorum Librorum. PL 207:1051B-1056. Translation by Catherine Kavanaugh, The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame).

Glossa Ordinaria published 1498:
There are, then, twenty-two canonical books of the old testament, corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, as Eusebius reports, in book six of Ecclesiastical History, that Origen writes on the first Psalm; and Jerome says the same thing more fully and distinctly in his Helmeted Prologue to the books of Kings: All the books are divided into three parts by the Jews: into the law, which contains the five books of Moses; into the eight prophets; and into the nine hagiographa. This will be more clearly seen shortly. Some, however, separate the book of Ruth from the book of Judges, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah from Jeremiah, and count them among the hagiographa in order to make twenty-four books, corresponding to the twenty-four elders whom the Apocalypse presents as adoring the lamb. These are the books that are in the canon, as blessed Jerome writes at greater length in the Helmeted Prologue to the books of Kings.
In the first place are the five books of Moses, which are called the law, first of which is Genesis, second Exodus, third Leviticus, fourth Numbers, fifth Deuteronomy. Secondly follow the eight prophetic books, first of which is Joshua, second the book of Judges together with Ruth, third Samuel, i.e. first and second Kings, fourth Malachim, i.e. third and fourth Kings, fifth Isaiah, sixth Jeremiah with Lamentations, seventh Ezekiel, eighth the book of twelve prophets, first of which is Hosea, second Joel, third Amos, fourth Obadiah, fifth Jonah, sixth Micah, seventh Nahum, eighth Habakkuk, ninth Zephaniah, tenth Haggai, eleventh Zechariah, twelfth Malachi. Thirdly follow the nine hagiographa, first of which is Job, second Psalms, third Solomon's Proverbs, fourth his Ecclesiastes, fifth his Song of Songs, sixth Daniel, seventh Paralipomenon, which is one book, not two, among the Jews, eighth Ezra with Nehemiah (for it is all one book), ninth Esther. And whatever is outside of these (I speak of the Old Testament), as Jerome says, should be placed in the apocrypha. 
(Biblia cum glosa ordinaria et expositione Lyre litterali et morali. Basel: Petri & Froben, 1498. British Museum IB.37895, vol. 1. Translation by Dr. Michael Woodward. See also Walafrid Strabo, Glossa ordinaria, De Canonicis et Non Canonicis Libris. PL 113:19-24).

William Webster also identified Richard of St. Victor, John of Salisbury, and Alphonsi Tostati, who identified the number of books of the Old Testament as twenty-four, apparently apart from a discussion of Revelation.

But of course, the key witness in the Western tradition is the great patristic advocate for excluding the apocrypha, Jerome (c. 347 - 420):
The first of these books is called Bresith, to which we give the name Genesis. The second, Elle Smoth, which bears the name Exodus; the third, Vaiecra, that is Leviticus; the fourth, Vaiedabber, which we call Numbers; the fifth, Elle Addabarim, which is entitled Deuteronomy. These are the five books of Moses, which they properly call Thorath, that is law.
The second class is composed of the Prophets, and they begin with Jesus the son of Nave, who among them is called Joshua the son of Nun. Next in the series is Spohtim,that is the book of Judges; and in the same book they include Ruth, because the events narrated occurred in the days of the Judges. Then comes Samuel, which we call First and Second Kings. The fourth is Malachim, that is, Kings, which is contained in the third and fourth volumes of Kings. And it is far better to say Malachim, that is Kings, than Malachoth, that is Kingdoms. For the author does not describe the Kingdoms of many nations, but that of one people, the people of Israel, which is comprised in the twelve tribes. The fifth is Isaiah, the sixth Jeremiah, the seventh Ezekiel, the eighth is the book of the Twelve Prophets, which is called among the Jews Thare Asra.
To the third class belong the Hariographa, of which the first book begins with Job, the second with David, whose writings they divide into five parts and comprise in one volume of Psalms; the third is Solomon, in three books, Proverbs, which they call Parables, that is Masaloth, Ecclesiastes, that is Coeleth, the Song of Songs, which they denote by the title Sir Assirim; the sixth is Daniel; the seventh, Dabre Aiamim, that is, Words of Days, which we may more expressively call a chronicle of the whole of the sacred history, the book that amongst us is called First and Second Chronicles; the eighth, Ezra, which itself is likewise divided amongst Greeks and Latins into two books; the ninth is Esther.
And so there are also twenty-two books of the Old Testament; that is, five of Moses, eight of the prophets, nine of the Hagiographa, though some include Ruth and Kinoth (Lamentations) amongst the Hagiographa, and think that these books ought to be reckoned separately; we should thus have twenty-four book of the old law. And these the Apocalypse of John represents by the twenty-four elders, who adore the Lamb, and with downcast looks offer their crowns, while in their presence stand the four living creatures with eyes before and behind, that is, looking to the past and the future, and with unwearied voice crying, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who wast, and art, and art to come.
This preface to the Scriptures may serve as a 'helmeted' introduction to all the books which we turn from Hebrew into Latin, so that we may be assured that what is not found in our list must be placed amongst the Apocryphal writings. Wisdom, therefore, which finally bears the name of Solomon, and the book of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, and Judith, and Tobias, and the Shepherd are not in the canon. The first book of Maccabees I have found to be Hebrew, the second is Greek, as can be proved from the very style. Seeing that all this is so, I beseech you, my reader, not to think that my labors are in any sense intended to disparage the old translators. For the service of the tabernacle of God each one offers what he can; some gold and silver and precious stones, others linen and blue and purple and scarlet; we shall do well if we offer skins and goats hair. 
(NPNF2, Vol. 6, St. Jerome, Prefaces to Jerome's Works, The Books of Samuel and Kings, pp. 489-490).

(see also this summary of the work of William Webster regarding the canon)

How comprehensive is the survey above?   Francis X. Gumerlock has identified 21 patristic era (i.e. 2nd to 8th centuries) commentaries on Revelation. We have cited seven of the authors of the list namely Victorinus (3rd), Jerome (4th), Caesarius (8th), Primasius (9th), Apringius (10th), Bede (17th), and Ambrose Autpert (18th).

Additionally, we have reviewed the commentaries of Andrew of Caesarea and Oecumenius, whose commentaries does not make the association between the twenty-four elders and the twenty-four books (possibly because of the twenty-two book tradition).

Thus, within the 21 extant commentaries we have found seven that favor the 24 elders representing the Old Testament, and two that do not make any mention of this view.

If Hippolytus' works originally had any interpretation of the significance of the twenty-four elders, it seems that they have been lost. The single mention he makes in his commentary on Daniel is too vague to say that he's making any numerical association. Moreover the fragments of his commentary in Andrew of Caesarea do not pertain to this particular section of the text.

The main work attributed to Origen is not his, but a compilation of the works of other (later) authors. I'm looking forward to the forthcoming publication and translation of this work by Dr. Panayiotis Tzamalikos, who is the premiere authority on these scholia, which have sometimes been mistakenly attributed to Origen.

Didymus the Blind's commentary is in fragments, and should be included with the Scholia mentioned above.  Dr. Tzamalikos has kindly informed me that the Scholia do not directly analyze the question of who the twenty-four elders are, but that contextually they seem to be "the saints" in general in Scholion 29.  I look forward to the publication of this work (the oldest commentary on Revelation) hopefully in April of this year (2013).

The only fragments of Tyconius I found translated are in the Revelation volume of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture collection, at pages 60, 66, and 136. In each of the fragments, he refers the 24 elders as corresponding to the whole church. The fragments are taken from Primasius, however, whose view we have discussed above. Moreover the second fragment appears to connect the twenty-four wings with the twenty-four elders and also with Scripture. Some of the difficulties in identifying Tyconius in Primasius are hinted at in the discussion of recovering Tyconius at page xxx of that same volume.

I have not checked Cassiodorus PL 70:1405-1418, which is basically a brief abstract. Cassiodorus' use of the passage in the psalms (at psalms 24 and 117) does not make any mention of twenty-four books.

I have not checked Pseudo-Jerome, Pseudo-Isidore, and the other unknown patristic era authors that .Gumerlock identified.  I suspect that when review of the extant commentaries are complete, we will find that the Western authors for the most part favor the teachings of Victorinus and Jerome in making the association, whereas the Eastern authors will have no such tradition, particularly since the number of books in the Eastern canon was twenty-two.  Jerome provides a bridge between the two sides, in that he recognizes and approves of both ways of counting and reconciles them, as noted above.

As a final note, there are a number of additional commentaries on Revelation from the medieval period.  Joachim of Fiore, for example, produced a significant and controversial Exposition of the Apocalypse, which I briefly skimmed without finding any discussion of a relationship between the twenty-four elders and the twenty-four books.


P.S. A few more notes:

1. Obviously, this is one of many strands of Western tradition that Trent broke in treating the Apocrypha as Deuterocanonical.  I'm not aware of any evidence that Trent considered this issue or addressed it.  Certainly, Trent's canons and decrees do not explain the appropriate interpretation of the twenty-four elders.

2. I'm not adopting this western tradition regarding the twenty-four elders.  While it is an interesting view, and one of several meanings assigned to the text in the West, I doubt that the 24-book enumeration goes all the way back to the 1st century (the 22-book enumeration does, as evidenced by Josephus).  Therefore, I doubt that the 24-book association was one that was originally intended.

3. Nevertheless, if one trusts in the reliability of tradition when it comes to interpretation of Scripture, one cannot really accept Trent.  Or, alternatively, if one can cast off a venerable and widespread Western tradition dating to the 3rd century simply because Trent says something that conflicts with it (without any explanation or discussion of the matter), what's the point of calling tradition an authority?

4. Furthermore, compare this tradition in terms of weight and popularity with the novel interpretations of the woman of Revelation 11 as some kind of evidence for a bodily assumption.  This tradition is widespread and nearly universal amongst early Western commentators on Revelation, whereas the interpretation of the woman of Revelation 11 as evidence of a bodily assumption is something Mr. Albrecht couldn't identify even one instance of in the history of the church up to the Reformation.

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