Tell me, quickly, how many books are in the Bible?

In his autobiography, Barefoot Journeying, Father Benedict Ashley (1915–2013) tells a funny story about how he finally learned the correct answer.

The young Ashley was studying at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. At the time, he was an atheist and a Marxist, but he became a Catholic soon after reading Saint Thomas Aquinas in one of his classes.

In 1938, he prepared for his baptism with a Dominican, Father Sylvester Considine. Father Considine would bring a copy of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae to their catechetical sessions.

The young Ashley was able to move quite quickly through these lessons because of his previous readings in Aquinas. What he had earlier read out of curiosity, he now easily reread, firmly convinced of its truth.

He describes Father Considine as a lovable but eccentric priest. Father Considine had a pedagogical technique that involved trick questions, leaving students endlessly striving to give a correct answer.

After converting to Catholicism in 1938, the young Ashley would then discern his own vocation to be a Dominican priest. Before his ordination in 1948, he would go for classes in Scripture under Father Considine at the Dominican House of Studies, including the study of Hebrew.

Father Considine was a Bible scholar who had studied at the Dominican École Biblique in Jerusalem. He was the expert who had translated the Book of Revelation for the first edition of what became the U.S. bishops’ New American Bible for the lectionary. 

Father Considine liked to choose a student in his Scripture class and then ask him the number of books in the Bible. It was a trick question because if the student answered, “73,” then Father Considine would contradict him and say that 71 is the correct answer because the Church Fathers counted Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Baruch as one book.

When it came to these trick questions, there was no way to win in Father Considine’s classroom. If you came to the next class and Father Considine, seeking to test your alertness, asked you the same question – “How many books are there in the Bible?” – and you would now answer, “71,” then he would contradict you, saying, “No, no, 73!”

It seems the young Ashley found this teaching method as frustrating as trying to learn Hebrew (for which he confesses he had no aptitude). Only much later, after he was ordained, did he finally realize the reason for Father Considine’s trick questions. 

One day, as a young priest with the Dominicans, Father Ashley fielded a phone call from a mother who was upset because her daughter was on the verge of losing her faith. Apparently the daughter was caught in some sort of crossfire between the husband and wife. The non-Catholic husband had vetoed Catholic school, insisting they send their daughter to public school, where she was being taught there were 66 books in the Bible.

Now Father Ashley was also caught in the crossfire, as the mother anxiously demanded that he settle the dispute over the phone: “What is the right number?”

As she pressed her demand, Father Ashley could remember from his studies that Protestant Bibles omit seven books, but Catholic Bibles include them. Yet because the phone call had just woken him from a nap, he struggled to remember anything more.

So, he opened up his Bible and, in a hurry, counted 73 books. But then he suddenly doubted himself, because he was still very sleepy and had done the count very quickly.

Surely he didn’t want to embarrass himself (and the Dominicans) by giving an incorrect answer. So, he tried counting the books again, this time more slowly. The result of his second count was 72, and so, panicking, he asked the insistent mother to hold on.

Father Ashley went down the hall to knock on the door of his confrère Father Considine and asked him the embarrassing question, “How many books are there in the Bible?”

Father Considine expressed astonishment that the intelligent young priest had not learned his lesson. “Didn’t I teach you? Depending on how you count, 71 or 73.”

Father Ashley doesn’t tell us how he concluded the phone call with the anxious mother. He may indeed have been able to set her mind at ease by explaining how 66 + 7 = 73.

But surely the lesson intended by Father Considine would have been the most important one for peacemakers: if you insist on thinking there can only be one right answer – the one you happen to have ready to hand – then think again. Because it really depends on how you count.