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

Don Stewart

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. In an effort to discuss 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. 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 Extent Of Scripture Was Discussed At Jamnia

According to ancient sources, one of the subjects discussed was the Hebrew Scriptures. It seems 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. However, this does not seem to be the case.

Was The Third Stage 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. Yet the evidence does not support this contention.

Why Was The Book Of Ezekiel Debated?

If there had been a threefold canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures during three different periods of history, then why was 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 Christ. There would have been no need to debate its canonicity for the issue would have been long settled.

The Disputes Imply These Books Were Already Considered Canonical

The fact that certain books were discussed implies that they were already considered 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.

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.

There Is Some Evidence That Only Two Books Were Debated

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

Ecclesiastes Was Recognized As Authoritative

Those at Jamnia made the following conclusions regarding Ecclesiastes.

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 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 records 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.

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 14:44-48).

According to this claim, 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.

The evidence leads us to believer that no authoritative council at Jamnia made any final decision as to which books belonged in the Old Testament canon of Scripture.

Summary

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. 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. The discussions confirmed that which had long since been believed - each of the twenty-four books of the Hebrew canon was part of Holy Scripture.

The statement from the Apocryphal book of First Esdras, written in A.D. 100, 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.

CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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