People sometimes see what they want in allegory. If the chapter divisions in Isaiah were original, we would be tempted to place significance on the fact that the number of chapters in Isaiah is equal to the number of books in the canon. If we see the number 27 or 39 in an allegory, we 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 (dating back to the 3rd century) 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. (In a more full version of this post, I get into more detail.)
The earliest Greek commentators on Revelation that I read did not make any mention of this twenty-four elders 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 fewer combinations).
The earliest Latin commentators, however, provide the correspondence. The Western fathers or writers who mention this include Victorinus of Petovium (died c. A.D. 303); Apringius of Beja (6th Century); Caesarius of Arles (c. A.D. 470 – 542); Bede the Venerable (c. A.D. 673 – 735); Primasius (died. c. 560); and Ambrose Autpert (c. A.D. 730 – 784)
This Western patristic view continued in the West throughout the middle ages: Haymo of Halberstadt (died c. 853); Rupert, Abbot of Deutz (c. 1075–1129); Peter Cellensis (c. 1115-1183); Peter Blensensis (c. 1130 – 1203); and Glossa Ordinaria published 1498 based on earlier writings.
William Webster (see the fuller discussion here) 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), who not only made the twenty-four elders to twenty-four books association, but also identified the relationship between the twenty-two book canon and the twenty-four book canon (based on counting Ruth and Lamentations separately rather than with other books).
How comprehensive is the survey above? As I detail in the more complete version of this post (see this link), the view represents a major portion of the identifiable Western commentators on Revelation (at least in the patristic period), with the Eastern commentators being entirely silent on this point.
These observations lead me to a few points of interest:
1. Obviously, this is one of many strands of Western tradition that Trent broke in treating the Apocrypha as part of the canon of the Old Testament. 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(s) 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 by Jesus when he revealed this to John.
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. The tradition of the twenty-four book canon as one of the meanings of the twenty-four elders is widespread 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.
5. And please note that the tradition of a short canon goes beyond those who viewed it as a twenty-four book canon. I have not included above the various other authors who taught that the canon is twenty-two books in length – a view that is represented not only in Josephus but in a variety of early Christian authors.