Sabas on The Twenty-Two Greek Letters and Their Significance

I had heard of a number of authors who testify to the fact that the Jewish canon is (and has for millenia been) twenty-two books. It was interesting to see confirmation of this fact in “Mysteries of the Greek Alphabet.” The surprising thing about this is that the author chalks up the canon of the Jews as being twenty-two books, not based on the Hebrew Alphabet, but based on the Greek alphabet (claiming that two of the Greek letters are later additions). The author writes:

Among them are twenty-two letters, apart from the xi and the psi, added by philosophers
at the end. In this way, I am speaking of twenty-two letters: they correspond to the
number of the twenty-two works made by God in the creation, which are as follows.
The first: the first heaven.
The second: the earth below the abyss.
The third: the water on the face of the earth and below it.
The fourth: the other earth, which is the void.
The fifth: the spirit on the face of water, which is the air.
The sixth: the darkness upon the face of the abyss.
The seventh: the light that is called fire.
The eighth: the firmament called sky
The ninth: the separation of the two waters, above the firmament and below it.
The tenth: the emergence of the earth from the depths of the water.
The eleventh: the appearance of plants upon the face of the earth.
The twelfth: fruit-bearing trees with seeds on them.
The 13th: all beacons that bring light.
The fourteenth: the sun and the moon.
The fifteenth: their emplacement in the firmament of heaven.
The sixteenth: the fish in the waters.
The seventeenth: the birds of the air.
The eighteenth: all sea creatures that are large and those in the waters.
The nineteenth: all the animals.
The twentieth: all the poisonous reptiles
The twenty-first: all the beasts upon the earth.
The twenty-second: man of reason, the perfection of the entire world.
These are the works which God that came into being in the creation of the world, twentytwo of them.
For this reason there are twenty-two books counted in the Old Testament by the Jews.
For this reason, twenty-two thousand cattle were slaughtered by Solomon in dedicating the

(Anthony Alcock, English translator, Roger Pearse, Publisher)

The manuscript itself is late 14th century (interesting to me given my recent review, its date is in relation to the “Age of the Martyrs,” dating the beginning of the age to beginning of the reign of Diocletian, 284), but apparently is based on a much older original. If we accept the authorship identified with the manuscript it is apparently the work of St. Sabas (439-532). The main objection to this date is the fact that the third section of the work mentions the Arabic alphabet. Alcock seems to think that this reference makes Sabastian authorship impossible, although he notes the possibility that the references to the Arabic may be a later addition. This is possible, of course, since the Sahidic Coptic that we have is a translation from the Greek original, the Coptic people had interaction with the Arabic-speaking people.

I’m more optimistic that the references may possibly be original. The modern Arabic alphabet was just beginning to be developed in the 4th and 5th centuries, but there were Arab (broadly defined) peoples who used an alphabet (the Nabataean alphabet) before then. Moreover, the author refers to the fact that Alif is used for “1000,” which was presumably true of Arabic before the positional number system was introduced to the Arabs (around 500 and increasingly used thereafter). Moreover, unlike Hebrew and the author’s ancient Greek (according to the author), modern Arabic has 28 letters (based on 18 basic symbols, or rasm, plus various dottings). This argues for an earlier date for the work, from my point of view. I’m not aware of any scholarly study of the work aside from the notes provided with the text in Le Muséon.

I mention above that we have the Coptic translation of the text. Apparently Joseph Paramelle found a Greek copy of the text (per this entry). Unfortunately, I cannot tell what happened to that Greek copy since its discovery in 1989. Paramelle has come before his maker, so I cannot ask him. I wonder if it is one of the works in “Extraits hermétiques inédits dans un manuscrit d’Oxford” Mahé, Jean-Pierre • Para Melle, Joseph . (1991) in Revue des études grecques vol. 104 (1991) p. 109-139.

In any event, I simply add this reference to the already-existing pile of references from the patristic era that confirm a short Jewish canon.


Update: Apparently there is a German translation of the original Greek (here). The relevant portion of the text is substantially the same in Greek (regarding the twenty books) and the Greek also seems to make the reference to the Arabic, which seems to undermine my Coptic-Arabic suggestion.


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