Daily Office Stats: Bible & Origins

Christian liturgical communities founded themselves upon the ceaseless and cyclical repetition of Scripture. In the Christian West, our insight into exactly how they intended this to occur is not terribly clear until we move into the first half of the 8th century. The Ordines Romani were the liturgical instructions intended to clarify how the many liturgical books were supposed to relate to one another within monastic communities. Ordo XIII, which appears in several forms until the unifying Romano-German Pontifical in the 10th century, presents a scheme that solidifies a norm in the West: The Psalter is prayed through every week in the Office; the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles are read during Mass in the yearly cycle; the entire rest of Scripture is read each year during the Night Office (Matins).

The listing in the 8th century Ordo XIIIa is rather rough but apportions the various books according to a mix of liturgical seasons and secular months. Thus:

  • The Heptateuch (i.e., Genesis through Judges) is read from Septuagesima (the three week pre-Lenten period) until two weeks before Easter (i.e., Passion Sunday)
  • Jeremiah is read from Passion Sunday until Maundy Thursday
  • The Triduum has its own specific out-of-course readings but includes a lot of Lamentations (this will eventually become the Tenebrae Office…)
  • Easter starts with the Acts of the Apostles, then the 7 General or Catholic Letters of the New Testament, and then the Book of Revelation is read until the Octave of Pentecost
  • From the Octave of Pentecost the Historical Books (the Samuels, Kings, and Chronicles) until the first Sunday of August
  • In August are read the “Books of Solomon”—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and the Wisdom of Solomon (likely Sirach as well?)
  • In September are read Job, Judith, Esther, and Esdras (the ones in the Apocrypha; Ezra and Nehemiah are probably included in the high summer History read)
  • In October are read the books of the Maccabees
  • November is given to Ezekiel, Daniel, and the 12 Minor Prophets
  • In December/Advent the prophet Isaiah is read

This is the kind of pattern that we see in sources throughout the medieval period. For instance, in Ælfric’s Letter to the Monks of Eynsham written around the year 1000 we see this same pattern repeated (LME 70-77). Ælfric, of course, also includes the responsaries that ought to be sung at these times as well. He concludes his rehearsal of this material with the following note:

“And be it known that, in the course of a year, the entire canon [of Scripture] ought to be read in church, but because we are lazy and slothful servants we read in the refectory whatever we do not cover in church (LME 78).”

This is an important note for two reasons. First, all of these lists are very general because the course of reading each year varied due to the placement of Easter and because of the many saints’ days that interrupted the normal course. Second, by placing the rest of the readings during mealtime in the refectory, an outlet was provided if the full amount of reading was not or could not be completed in church during the time allotted for the Office.

And that’s the key piece here: time. Any amount of reading can be covered given time. But—as we’ll see—time is the chief limiting factor that shapes the potential and possibilities of Daily Office lectionaries, especially those that hold to this classical ideal of reading the entire canon in a year.

In order to consider this subject properly, let’s begin with a quick look at the scope of Scripture itself. What exactly is there to be covered?

As we well know, Scripture is divided into books, chapters, and verses. Honestly, using these as statistical measures to look at reading lengths and reading coverage are of limited usefulness… They’re uneven. There is no standardized length to a chapter or a verse. The earlier we go, the more the problem is compounded too since the chapters we are familiar with now were standardized in the 13th century and verses in the 16th. It is far safer, then, to look at word counts rather than chapter or verse counts.

Since the point of this series is to look at the Daily Office lectionary readings now, I’ll use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as a base text. (I can do the same comparisons with the RSV, KJV, and even throw in the Douay-Rheims which we medievalists like to use as an English language proxy for the Vulgate, but I’ll start with the NRSV for now.) A quick glance at the numbers shows why working by chapters or verses yield inaccurate results:


A histogram of the canon as a whole shows that most chapters have somewhere between 15 to 30 verses. (Two outliers, Psalm 119 with its 176 verses and 4 Esdras 7 with its 140 verses have been thrown out…)

A Pareto graph confirms the wide distribution; 80% of biblical chapters are between 11 to 38 verses long which doesn’t give us a great basis for fair comparison.

To say it another way, while the average and the middle number of the set (mean & median ) are pretty close to one another, there’s a significant positive skew to the data set (i.e., there are a lot of big numbers that pull the values around) but the real key is the size of the standard deviation showing us that there’s so much variation in the data set that an average won’t give us the whole story.

We get very similar data when we look at number of words per verse. Again, a strong positive skew with wide variation (standard deviation of 10.5):

At the end of the day, the most appropriate measurement to use is the number of words in the reading. This is a far more reliable metric than chapter or verse because of the wide variation in what those can mean. Furthermore, if we are measuring our biblical readings by the word, we can also associate it to the length of the Daily Office itself which (clearly) has neither chapters nor verses, but is made up of lots of words. Finally, this will also give us a reliable time calculation. Based on a typical speaking speed, we can posit a reading rate of around 150 words per minute—perhaps even dropping it as low as 130 words per minute if we consider a prayerful speed.

So…to jump back to the starting material, what sort of a breakdown does the early medieval period offer? Because we’re working at a general book level, I’m going to break it down in terms of books, chapters, words, and # of days because I’ve always suspected (but never done the math) that’s there some weirdness baked into this system.

Septuagesima to 2nd Week before Easter 49 days
Book Chapters  Verses  Words
Genesis 50          1,533            36,145
Exodus 40          1,213            30,199
Leviticus 27             859            22,780
Numbers 36          1,288            29,896
Deuteronomy 34             959            26,470
Joshua 24             658            17,283
Judges 21             618            17,557
Totals 232          7,128          180,330
Per Day 4.73             145              3,680 24.5 Reading Minutes
2nd Week before Easter to Maundy Thursday 11 days
Book Chapters  Verses  Words
Jeremiah 52          1,364            40,167
Per Day 4.73             124              3,652 24.3 Reading Minutes
Because Triduum/Easter Octave are wacky I’ll skip for now…
Octave of Easter through the octave of Pentecost 49 days
Book Chapters  Verses  Words
Acts 28          1,007            23,393
James 5             108              2,324
1 Peter 5             105              2,468
2 Peter 3                61              1,546
1 John 5             105              2,516
2 John 1                13                  305
3 John 1                15                  313
Jude 1                25                  620
Revelation 22             405            11,405
Totals 71          1,844            44,890
Per Day 1.45                38                  916 6.1 Reading Minutes
Octave of Pentecost to the First Sunday of August 49 days
Book Chapters  Verses  Words
1 Samuel 31             810            23,701
2 Samuel 24             695            19,278
1 Kings 22             816            22,765
2 Kings 25             719            21,845
1 Chronicles 29             942            18,414
2 Chronicles 36             822            24,321
Ezra 10             280              6,596
Nehemiah 13             406              9,727
Totals 190          5,490          146,647
Per Day 3.88             112              2,993 20.0 Reading Minutes
The First Sunday of August until September 28 days
Book Chapters  Verses  Words
Proverbs 31             915            14,236
Ecclesiastes 12             222              5,173
Song of Solomon 8             117              2,520
Ecclesiasticus 51          1,408            26,763
Wisdom 19             436            10,118
Totals 121          3,098            58,810
Per Day 4.32             111              2,100 14.0 Reading Minutes
The First Sunday of September until October 35 days
Book Chapters  Verses  Words
Job 42          1,070            17,240
Judith 16             340            10,312
Esther 10             167              5,329
1 Esdras 9             463            11,483
4 Esdras 16             944            22,304
Totals 93          2,984            66,668
Per Day           2.66                85              1,905 12.7 Reading Minutes
The First Sunday of October until November 28 days
Book Chapters  Verses  Words
1 Maccabees 16             924            21,765
2 Maccabees 15             555            15,907
3 Maccabees 7             228              7,038
4 Maccabees 18             482            10,567
Totals 56          2,189            55,277
Per Day           2.00          78.18        1,974.18 13.2 Reading Minutes
The First Sunday of November until Advent 28 days
Book Chapters  Verses  Words
Ezekiel 48          1,273            36,151
Daniel 12             357            10,891
Amos 9             147              4,017
Habakkuk 3                56              1,334
Haggai 2                38              1,060
Hosea 14             197              4,884
Joel 3                72              1,833
Jonah 4                48              1,291
Malachi 4                55              1,703
Micah 7             105              2,926
Nahum 3                47              1,101
Obadiah 1                21                  612
Zechariah 14             211              5,927
Zephaniah 3                53              1,522
Totals 127          2,680            75,252
Per Day           4.54          95.71        2,687.57 17.9 Reading Minutes
Advent (First Sunday to Christmas Eve Day) 26 days
Book Chapters  Verses  Words
Isaiah 66          1,292            34,661
Per Day 2.54                50              1,333 8.9 Reading Minutes