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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the Old Testament?

Don Stewart :: Was the Hebrew Canon Determined after the Time of Christ? (The Council of Jamnia)

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Was the Hebrew Canon Determined after the Time of Christ? (The Council of Jamnia)

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 16

The assertion that the canon was officially closed at the council of Jamnia by certain rabbinical authorities is based upon a passage in the Jewish writings, the Mishnah. The background of this assertion is as follows:

The Meeting at Jamnia

After the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D 70, Jewish life took on a different aspect. The holy city was no longer exclusively theirs, and the temple no longer existed. The Jewish people now had to rethink how their religion was to function. The Mishnah says that in an effort to understand how Jewish life would function in the future, a group of Jewish leaders met in the town of Jamnia, or Jabneh, in Israel in the year A.D. 90. They established a school where they exercised legal functions as the Sanhedrin had done before the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.

Led by Rabbi Jonathan Ben-Zakkai, they discussed a number of things pertaining to the state of Judaism after the destruction of the temple. The following questions need to be examined about their meeting and discussion.

Was the Canon Closed at Jamnia

According to some ancient sources, one of the subjects discussed was the Hebrew Scriptures. It has been argued that there was some discussion with respect to the canonicity of five books—Ezekiel, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. The fact that such discussion occurred has convinced some that the Hebrew canon had not been determined until that time. The council of Jamnia, it is argued, determined the boundaries of the Hebrew canon. The Rabbis at Jamnia discussed the canonicity of these five books, found them to be canonical, and then added the third division of the Hebrew Scripture, the Writings, to the canon at that time. Previously, the canon consisted only of the Law and the Prophets. Thus, the Council of Jamnia authoritatively closed the Old Testament canon once and for all.

While this theory has been popular, it is not where the evidence leads us.

Was the Third Stage of the Canon Still Open?

It is argued that only two stages of the canon—the Law and the Prophets—had been accepted as canonical up to this time. The Hagiographa, the writings, were yet to be canonized. If this is true, then the Old Testament was still unsettled.

There Was No Authoritative Decision about the Canon for the Following Reasons:

Yet, the evidence does not support this contention that some type of authoritative decision was made at Jamnia about the canon of Scripture. The following points should be noted:

1. The Mishnah Does Not Speak about Debates about the Closing of the Canon

To begin with, there is nothing in the passage in the Mishnah which says the Rabbis either debated the extent of the canon or were seeking to close it. Indeed, the debate over some of the books of the canon continued for one hundred years after the council of Jamnia! Consequently, there is no evidence whatsoever that they authoritatively closed the Old Testament canon once and for all for the Jewish people.

The passage in the Mishnah merely indicates that the status of two books, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, were under discussion by the religious authorities. The debate was not about the writings in general or which books belonged, or did not belong, in the canon of Scripture.

2. Why Was the Book of Ezekiel Debated?

If there had been a threefold canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures during three different periods of history, as some have argued, then why was the Book of Ezekiel debated at Jamnia? Ezekiel is found among the Prophets ? the second section of the Hebrew canon. According to the accepted theory, this section had been closed for at least three centuries before the time of Christ. There would have been no need to debate its canonicity, for the issue would have been long settled.

3. The Disputes Imply That They Were Already Considered Canonical

The fact that certain books were discussed implies that they were already considered to be canonical. There would have been no need to discuss possible problems or contradictions in writings that were not assumed to be divinely inspired. Hence, there was already the assumption that these works were held to be God’s authoritative Word.

4. There Was No Discussion about Adding More Books

Also, there was no discussion at Jamnia about adding certain books to the canon. No new writings came up for discussion. This was not an issue. The books discussed were the same twenty-two as listed by Josephus.

5. There Is Some Evidence That Only Two Books Were Debated

As we have already mentioned, there is some ancient testimony that only two of the books—the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes were actually debated at Jamnia. According to the Rabbi Akiba, it was only Ecclesiastes that was debated. Regarding the Song of Solomon, Rabbi Akiba said:

Silence and Peace! No one in Israel has ever doubted that the Song of Solomon defiles the hands. For no day in the history of the world is worth the day when the Song of Solomon was given to Israel. For all the Hagiographa are holy, but the Song of Solomon is a holy of holies. If there has been any dispute, it referred only to Ecclesiastes… So they disputed and they decided.

The phrase, “a book that defiles the hands,” is a technical expression that refers to a writing that is part of Holy Scripture. It has the idea that the hands would become ceremonially unclean for touching something holy. Therefore, a person had to wash their hands after touching one of those holy books. This would reinforce the sacredness of the work. Song of Solomon defiled the hands—it was a sacred work.

In addition, it seems the discussions were more concerned on how to interpret the books; not whether they were canonical.

Ecclesiastes Was Recognized as Authoritative

At Jamnia the Book of Ecclesiastes was recognized as being divinely authoritative. Those at Jamnia made the following conclusions regarding this book:

The wise men desired to withdraw the Book of Ecclesiastes because its language was often self-contradictory and contradicted the utterances of David. Why did they not withdraw it? Because the beginning and the end of it consist of words of the law. (Sabbath 30b)

Therefore, the canonical status of Ecclesiastes was upheld.

The Testimony of Josephus

We know from the writings of first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that there was already a sacred list of writings that had been accepted by the Jews for about five hundred years. He wrote:

We have but twenty-two [books] containing the history of all time, books that are justly believed in; and of these, five are the books of Moses, which comprise the law and earliest traditions from the creation of mankind down to his death. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, the successor of Xerxes, the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time, in thirteen books. The remaining four documents comprise hymns to God and practical precepts to men. (Contra Apion 1:7-8)

Since Josephus had been given the sacred scrolls by the conqueror of Jerusalem, Titus the Roman, he would be in a position to know which books were considered sacred and which were not. The issue had long been settled.

The Testimony of the Ezra Legend

There is further evidence that those at Jamnia made no pronouncements about the canon. The Book of Second Esdras, while written in A.D. 100, claims to record revelations made to Ezra after the destruction of the first temple ? some five hundred years earlier. There is an important section in this work that has bearing upon the meeting in Jamnia. The story reads as follows:

So I took the five men, as he commanded me, and we proceeded to the field, and remained there. And on the next day a voice called me, saying, “Ezra, open your mouth and drink what I give you to drink.” So I opened my mouth, and a full cup was offered to me; it was full of something like water, but its color was like fire. I took it and drank; and when I had drunk it, my heart poured forth understanding, and wisdom increased in my breast, for my spirit retained its memory, and my mouth was opened and was no longer closed. Moreover, the Most High gave understanding to the five men, and by turns they wrote what was dictated, using characters that they did not know. They sat forty days; they wrote during the daytime, and ate their bread at night. But as for me, I spoke in the daytime and was not silent at night. So during the forty days, ninety-four books were written. And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, “Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.” And I did so. Five thousand years and three months and twelve days after creation. At that time Ezra was caught up, and taken to the place of those who are like him, after he had written all these things. And he was called the scribe of the knowledge of the Most High for ever and ever. (2 Esdras 14:37-48 NRSV)

According to this claim found in these verses, Ezra had the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Scriptures recopied about 400 B.C. This statement could not have been made if five out of the twenty-four books were only added to the canon in A.D. 90.—some ten years earlier, at the council of Jamnia. The twenty-four books of the Hebrew canon had been long-settled as Scripture.

Conclusion: What Happened or Did Not Happen at Jamnia Is Not Relevant

The evidence from the ancient sources leads us to believe that there was no authoritative council at Jamnia which made any final decision as to which books belonged in the Old Testament canon of Scripture. They did not assign any canonical status to any book that was not previously recognized; neither did they reject any book that had been previously accepted. Neither did they attempt to close the canon in any official sense.

If any discussions did take place, it was probably about only two books—Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. No authoritative decision was made to include or exclude these books, or any other book, from the canon.

One Final Thought

It is important that we do not confuse certain people questioning parts of the canon with the idea that the canon was already closed. The fact that a few people may have questioned a few books in the canon does not mean that the canon was still open or the issue of the extent was unsettled. The great majority of the people received the canonical books as divinely inspired and realized that the canon was closed at a certain time; four centuries before the coming of Christ. Merely because a few voices may have questioned this fact does not indicate that no canon existed or that it was still open.

Summary – Question 16
Was the Hebrew Canon Determined after the Time of Christ? (The Council of Jamnia)

After Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed, the Jewish people had to completely restructure their religious lives. At Jamnia, in A.D. 90, a discussion took place concerning how this could be done. Some discussion may have taken place about the canonicity of certain books—Esther, Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Ezekiel, and Ecclesiastes.

However, there is no evidence that a council in Jamnia determined the extent of the Hebrew canon. What was discussed at Jamnia was the authenticity of only a few of the Old Testament books. No decision was made to ratify the contents of the Old Testament canon at that time. There is every reason to believe that the twenty-four books of the Hebrew canon had been considered canonical for a long time before this so-called council met.

There was really no authoritative council at Jamnia that made binding decisions about the extent of the canon. There was no discussion about adding any new books to the canon. What was held at Jamnia were discussions about the right of certain books to remain in the canon ? Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. The discussions merely confirmed that which had long since been believed —each of the twenty-four books of the Hebrew canon was part of Holy Scripture.

There is further evidence that the canon had been long-closed before any meeting in Jamnia. First century Jewish writer Flavius Josephus testified to the fact that the canon had been completed at the time of Artaxerxes; 400 B.C. This was some five hundred years before Josephus wrote. He stated that nothing had been added to the canon since that time.

In addition, the statement from the Apocryphal book of First Esdras, written in A.D. 100, also shows that the twenty-four books of the Hebrew canon had been considered authoritative for a long time. Therefore, nothing new was accomplished at Jamnia, and whatever did happen is irrelevant as far as determining the extent of the Old Testament canon.

Why Is There a Threefold Division of the Hebrew Canon? (Law, Prophets, Writings) ← Prior Section
Does the New Testament Quote the Old Testament as Authoritative Scripture? Next Section →
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