Council of Jamnia

Did the Council of Jamnia really took place and if so, what took place there?

I understand that it has been posited as a theory that the Jewish canon was changed there after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a theory that is now discredited. Yet I have come across pretty detailed accounts of its deliberation.

Was it that it took place but was not a forum for the determination of the Jewish canon? If the Hebrew Jewish canon was not determined there, was there an explicit decision by some authorities to supplant the Greek canon with the Hebrew one or was it a gradual change which over time became an accepted canon? Was the reason for the change due to an attribution of the destruction of the Temple to turning away from the original Hebrew scriptures

Check this out.

Canon of the Holy Scriptures

Thanks, it is certainly most useful.

However, I am looking at the development of the Jewish canon (as opposed to the Catholic canon) from LXX until the current protocanonical books only. I assume this change took place in the few centuries or so after Jesus.

It is highly questionable whether there was actually a council at Jamnia. Ever.

And to call it a “council” suggests some sort of correlation with a Catholic Ecumenical Council. The Jewish faith has never had (and still does not have) any concept of earthly authority comparable to the Catholic Church. There’s no such thing as a Jewish ecumenical council. If this “council” was held, it was merely a meeting of local rabbis who lacked any sort of authority to define anything (including the Jewish canon).

The Christian Scriptures were all written within a short time frame (within the Apostolic Age), but the Jewish canon was written over several centuries, and writings were included (or not) at the discretion of local rabbis. Over time (centuries) a consensus developed, and certain writings were recognized as “canonical” by a consensus of rabbis.

Following the Babylonian Captivity (and including the Apostolic Era) the large majority (perhaps 90%) of Jews spoke Greek as their first language (these were the “Hellenistic Jews”). Hebrew (Aramaic, etc) was uncommon beyond the Holy Land.

From the Fourth Century BC, additional writings were gradually incorporated into the ever-evolving Jewish “canon.” Since most Jews spoke Greek, these writings were originally written in Greek. Since there was no actual Jewish authority to define the “canon,” there were regional variations. This is why there are variations between the OT in the Western and several Eastern Catholic Churches. Early Christian Churches simply adopted whatever OT was in use by the Synagogue down the street, but it was possible that no two Synagogues had the same idea of “scripture.” Thus, Christian Catholic Churches have some disparity regarding the OT. But this has NEVER been a source of contention.

Jesus came and went. Most Jews hardly noticed.

But, in 70 AD, the Second Temple was razed by the Romans. Jews noticed that.

Here’s where the “council of Jamnia” comes in. According to the myth, the Jews were shocked by the destruction of the Temple, and met together in AD 90 to figure out what they had done wrong to deserve such wrath from God. According to the myth, the “council” decided that they had become too pagan, especially by incorporating scriptures written in a pagan language (Greek). According to the myth, they threw out all of the Greek stuff and closed the canon to include only the Hebrew writings composed before the Babylonian Captivity.

There is SOME truth here, but the idea that the Jews convened any sort of ecumenical council has no historical basis whatsoever. The Jewish “canon” continued to evolve well past 90 AD, but there’s no doubt that the Greek writings were falling into disfavor and were gradually (over several centuries) excluded.

Around the Seventh Century (and continuing for another three centuries) an influential group of Jewish rabbis known as the Masoretes compiled their version of a Jewish “canon.” This became known as the Masoretic Text (commonly cited as MT). This “canon” excluded all Greek OT writings.

Over the next few centuries, the MT was gradually adopted by most Jewish communities. By the Thirteenth Century it would have been difficult to find a Jewish community that did not regard the MT as somehow “authoritative.” This version of the Jewish “canon” is still regarded as authoritative" in our time.

Even IF the Jamnia myth was true, it would have no bearing on any Christian Catholic Church (East or West). Jesus endowed the Catholic Church with actual authority (something that God never did for the Jewish faith). What Jews did (or did not do) in 90 AD would have been irrelevant to the Catholic Church. What Jews actually did in the Seventh Century is equally irrelevant. Catholics have no problem with Scripture that was originally written in Greek, since ALL of the New Testament was originally written in Greek (except, perhaps, the Gospel of Matthew).


I should add that the idea of a ‘Council of Jamnia’ determining the OT canon pretty much comes from a reference in the Mishnah where some Rabbis in the early 2nd century tackled the issue of whether Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs (and Esther) ‘defile the hands’, i.e. have a sort of sacredness/authority. Some rabbis argued that one or the other of them doesn’t, apparently because their content is pretty much hardly ‘sacred’ at first glance: Song of Songs are love poems that almost border on the erotic, Ecclesiastes is too skeptical (“Ecclesiastes does not defile the hands since it is the wisdom of Solomon (i.e. just human wisdom, not divinely inspired)”, a rabbi named Simon ben Mennasiah said), and the Hebrew version of Esther doesn’t really directly refer to God anywhere in the text.

FWIW, this is EXACTLY what the protestants did when they compiled their own Bibles. Just like the Early Church Fathers, the “early” protestants simply adopted whatever OT was in use by the Synagogue down the street. But, by the Sixteenth Century, the Jewish faith had largely standardized their canon based on the Seventh Century MT. This is the real reason why protestant Bibles omit the Greek OT books and why protestant Bibles are in agreement about the exact composition of the OT (they don’t have the minor variations found in Catholic OT canons).

I get really annoyed when Catholic apologists accuse protestants of “throwing out” books of the OT. Protestants did no such thing! They did EXACTLY what their Catholic forefathers had done - they used whatever OT was being used by the Synagogue down the street. But they did it many centuries later, and the “canon” in Sixteenth Century Synagogues was MUCH different than it was in the Apostolic Age.

All Holy Scriptures defile the hands. Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes defile the hands. Rabbi Judah says, “Song of Songs defiles the hands but there is a dispute regarding Ecclesiastes.” Rabbi Jose says, “Ecclesiastes does not defile the hands, and there is a dispute about Song of Songs.”

Rabbi Simeon says, “[The status of] Ecclesiastes is one of the lenient rulings of the School of Shammai, and one of the strict rulings of the School of Hillel.” = The School of Shammai opines that Ecclesiastes is not sacred - ‘does not defile the hands’; the School of Hillel on the other hand does.]

Rabbi Simeon ben Azai said, “I have a tradition from the seventy-two elders (of the Sanhedrin) that on the day when Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was appointed head of the Academy, it was decided that Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes defile the hands.” (This is pretty much where the idea of a ‘Council of Jamnia’ came from: the Rabbis supposedly finally determining the status of the two books on the day Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (post AD 70-early 2nd century) became the head of the academy at Yavneh (Jamnia). Though as you might notice, the actual reference is pretty vague. And of course, there’s also the issue of whether the tradition Rabbi Simeon received is accurate/factual.)

Rabbis Akiva said, “God forbid! No one in Israel disputed about Song of Songs, saying that it does not defile the hands. For all of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies. And if they are disputed at all, they disputed only regarding Ecclesiastes.”

Rabbi Yohanan ben Joshua the son of Rabbi Akiva’s father-in-law said, “As according to Ben Azzai, so did they dispute and so did they determine [that both Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are included in the canon].”

  • Mishnah, Yadayim 3.5

Thanks David, your explanation is thorough and comprehensive as always. I understood it that way, but of course not with such detail! Fully agree with your frustration about Catholics ‘adding’ books and Protestants ‘deleting’ books.

Would I be right to say that there was a meeting in Jamnia in AD90 and they did discuss the canon but not with a view of establishing canonicity? I can’t seem to find any conclusion/definitive decisions from academic papers on the meeting - I think the technical aspects are intellectually beyond me.

It would also seem to be that Catholic (and here, I presume Orthodox as well) and Protestant original reasons for establishing a canon are different. At the risk of oversimplifying a stereotype, would I be right to say that Catholics are more interested in qualification for liturgical use (because the liturgy is central to Catholic life) whereas Protestants are more interested in establishing authority from which doctrine is to be derived (because of sola scriptura). So, in a turn of normal stereotypes, Catholic canon tends to be bottom-up (practice precedes confirmation by authorities), being derived by liturgical practices in local churches. Protestant canon was confirmed centrally top-down early before anything else, to establish an authoritative text from which doctrines are developed. Was that why the theory of an authoritative council of Jamnia emerged - to provide an authority for the OT canon similar to Protestant’s (and later Catholic centralisation of doctrines)?

There’s no conclusive evidence that such a meeting ever took place, or who was there, or what they talked about.

would I be right to say that Catholics are more interested in qualification for liturgical use (because the liturgy is central to Catholic life) whereas Protestants are more interested in establishing authority from which doctrine is to be derived (because of sola scriptura).

Sola Scriptura definitely makes the Canon of Scripture more important for protestants. If you’re gonna say “only the Scriptures,” it would be nice to know what “Scriptures” are.

But the Scriptures are also an important source of authoritative teaching for the Catholic Church. They form one leg of the “three legged stool” of Catholic teaching (the other two being Magesterium and Divine Tradition).

Was that why the theory of an authoritative council of Jamnia emerged - to provide an authority for the OT canon similar to Protestant’s (and later Catholic centralisation of doctrines)?

If that were the goal (to establish authority) there would be a much better way to go about it. Namely, use the Catholic Canon.

Why reach back to an alleged council of Jews 60 years after Our Lord’s death, after the Apostolic Age? A council which allegedly threw out all of the non-Greek books (whereas the NT was written in Greek)? I’m not sure why anyone would consider this “council” authoritative or of interest to Christians. By accepting their authority to prop up the OT Canon, you wind up undermining the NT Canon (because it’s Greek), and the NT is obviously more important for Christians.

Sticking with the Catholic Canon is much less problematic. It was the Canon that was in-use during Our Lord’s life (and throughout the Apostolic Age). Nobody questions that, and that fact alone lends a lot of credibility to the Catholic Canon. The Greek version of the OT (the Septuagint, or LXX) was widely used (when the NT quotes the OT, 2/3 of the quotes are lifted right from the LXX), so Greek was important. And by using the Catholic Canon, nobody accuses you of throwing out books that had been in every Christian Bible for 1500 years.

I think it really was as simple as using the OT from the Synagogue down the street. Luther wanted to do an original translation from the original languages, so he went to the local Jews to get his source material. I just don’t think he thought it through.


Thanks David. Two pretty seemingly well researched papers seem to indicate that some sort of discussions took place in Jamnia, not necessarily in AD90 though.

From Robert C. Newman , ref Conclusion section.

From his more detailed paper, page 17 of the pdf.

I find this paper very fascinating as the truth is more complex than a simplistic centralised council that made a definitive decision, which appeals to Protestant’s need to authoritatively define the canon and the Catholic idea of centralised authority. But neither was the mindset of Judaism of AD90.

If that were the goal (to establish authority) there would be a much better way to go about it. Namely, use the Catholic Canon…

I was referring to the Protestant need to establish authority. Sorry I wasn’t clear. The Catholic Church was less interested in establishing authority for the OT canon compared the Protestants. The Catholic mindset was probably that it was never a problem through all these centuries even with the differences in canon vis Orthodox. After all, Florence gave only broad guidance on what constitute canon, and that guidance was centred on liturgical use. Catholic canon was only established at Trent, only as a response to the Protestant canon.

From what I can see, the Protestant need to establish authority for the canon was more urgent. So, did this theory of the Council of Jamnia emerge to satisfy this need?

But, again, SO WHAT? Why would Christians be interested in such a “council?” Suppose there was really such a council, and it did everything that protestants dream about. SO WHAT?

Suppose a bunch of rabbis TODAY got together and decided to toss out Isiah. Would Christians start reprinting their Bibles? Of course not! No Christian would care.

If Christians TODAY would not care, why should any of us care what some Jews did in 90 AD (or whenever)?

When I see “Council of Jamnia” appear in a discussion of the formation of the canon, 99% of the time, it’s an excellent indication that the author just has no idea what they are even talking about and hasn’t bothered to do their homework.

The most you could say about Jamnia/Yavneh with any relative certainly is that there was a rabbinic group/school/yeshivah that formed there in the early common era. This group was no more or less authoritative than any other similar group that existed around the Mediterranean or in Mesopotamia or Persia. Anything beyond that is historical speculation.

I think I would agree with you and I think Newman’s article (if I understand it correctly) deals such speculation, confirming your point.

It is also interesting that Muslims uses the ‘Council of Jamnia’ as the point of when we Christians changed the Bible that we received from God.

Or they did do their homework, but unfortunately the stuff they managed to get their hands on turned out to be outdated.

The most you could say about Jamnia/Yavneh with any relative certainly is that there was a rabbinic group/school/yeshivah that formed there in the early common era. This group was no more or less authoritative than any other similar group that existed around the Mediterranean or in Mesopotamia or Persia. Anything beyond that is historical speculation.

In a way you could also chalk it up to scholars being misled by the sources themselves.

The thing about Rabbinic literature is that you should really take it with a grain of salt whenever it talks about past events or customs: you can’t simply treat the halakhic texts as history books (which admittedly, many scholars in the past did). See, the Rabbis were very nostalgic about the past that they have a rather idealized view of it. While in some stuff, the Rabbinic literature does seem to preserve authentic material, occasionally what you encounter is the Rabbis indulging in a sort of revisionist history - “this was how things should have been” rather than “this was how things were.”

One example of this is the picture you see in the Rabbinic works of “the Great Sanhedrin” being an independent Rabbinic institution that pretty much governed Judaism and made rulings on Jewish law since the time of the Exile, in fact even during the time of Moses. But when you go to earlier sources (Josephus, the gospels), you get a different picture. In these sources, there is a synedrion (a ‘council’), but it was hardly independent or Pharisee-dominated. In facr, it doesn’t seem to have been a permanently-standing religious institution as the Mishnah or the Talmud portrays it to be, instead it comes off as being more of an ad hoc political advisory council that were convened by the high priest or any other leading official whenever they needed them, usually whenever they needed to determine a course of action (consultative) or when there’s someone to be judged (judicial). In which case, we probably shouldn’t be speaking of a permanent ‘Sanhedrin’ or ‘council’, but temporary ‘councils’.

Actually, I don’t think we should be speaking of a ‘canon’ in the context of the time of Jesus. There was no fixed ‘canon’ back then. Or rather, while two out of the three traditional categories of the Hebrew Scriptures were already more or less fixed (the Law or Torah and the Prophets or Nevi’im), the third category - the ‘Writings’ or Ketuvim - was still in a fluid state. So in the case of the Ketuvim at least, we probably shouldn’t speak in terms of ‘canon’ (which kinda implies a determined, closed category of books). In other words, it was all really a gray area. There was a lot of similar or related literature at that time (the seven deuteros are but a small sample).

Of course, in its final (Jewish) form, the Ketuvim only encompassed the poetic books (Psalms, Proverbs, Job), the ‘five scrolls’ (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), plus Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and 1-2 Chronicles. Not coincidentally, some of the books that made it into the Ketuvim also seem to have been some of the last books of the Bible to have been written / reached a final version of text. For example, quite a number of contemporary scholars date works like Daniel or Esther to the last three or four centuries BC, just roughly contemporary with the deuteros. (While that late dating may and does prove problematic for some non-Catholics out there, IMHO it isn’t necessarily so with Catholics - I mean, we’ve no trouble accepting ‘late’ works like 1 or 2 Maccabees or Sirach into the OT canon. ;)) In the case of the Psalms, it apparently went through a state of fluidity before the number of 150 Psalms became fixed, just before or around the time of Jesus.)

Maybe it is ‘canons’. As in different localities have a slightly different canon or rather a different set of canons, each one being a different layer depending on usage: liturgical, scriptures, commentary, inspired reading, etc.

The “Council” of Jamnia
By Gary Michuta

Objection: “At the end of the first century, the Jews gathered together at the Council at Jamnia (also known as Jabneh or Yabneh) to discuss the canon of Scripture. From this Council, the rabbis drew up an authoritative list of sacred books which is identical to the Jewish / Protestant canon.”

Answer: Unfortunately, this short objection suffers from so many inaccuracies and overstatements that the best way to respond is to provide here a description of the real “council” of Jamnia.

After the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD, Rabban Jonathan ben Zakkai asked the Roman General Vespasian, who was well disposed to the Rabbi since it was known that he supported peace with the Romans, to spare the city of Jamnia and its rabbinical scholars.1 Permission was granted and the school set up in the “vineyards of Jamnia.”2 The problems that faced the new school were serious. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem made it impossible to continue the prescribed sacrifices required in the Old Testament. Judaism needed to make a radical change from a cultic (sacrifice and Temple centered) religion to a “religion of the Book.” This change, combined with the growth of Christianity (especially its use of the Jewish Greek Old Testament for evangelism) provided Judaism with the occasion to address the question of the canon of Scripture.3 The information that has come down to us about this canonical activity is fragmentary and certainly open to conjecture.

Note that our objector called this body the “Council of Jamnia”. Jamnia was not a council, in the sense of the Council of Trent or the Council of Nicaea, it was rather was an on-going rabbinical school. The idea of a “council” crept into everyone’s vocabulary via the writings of the famous Jewish historian H. Graetz who was the first to call Jamnia a “synode.”4 Christians interpreted Graetz’s synode to mean council. However, the word council implies quite a few features that Jamnia did not possess. For example, unlike a Christian council, there were no ballots cast, nor did this body promulgate formal decrees. Rather, Jamnia lasted for a number of years, and its significant opinions is persevered in piecemeal fashion in later Jewish writings. It is difficult to ascertain exactly what Jamnia had for Judaism as a whole. In some ways it acts much like the authoritative body of the Sanhedrin although it never took for itself that name.5 Therefore, it is inaccurate to speak about the council of Jamnia. It is more accurate description would be a rabbinical school.6

Jamnia never published or promulgated a list the list of books of the canon nor did it discuss the canon as a whole. Most of the debates surrounded the Book of Ecclesiastes and possibly the Song of Songs.7 Even so, there is no evidence that the decisions of this school were binding upon the Jewish popular at large.8 In fact, rabbinical disputes over the inspiration of certain books (e.g. the fringe books and Sirach) persisted throughout the first three Christian centuries. For this reason, the Protestant scholar F.F. Bruce wisely warns against stating that the assembly at Jamnia “laid down the limits” of the Old Testament canon.9

Like the two-canon theory, the Jamnia theory has fallen on hard times. As the Jewish scholar Sid Leiman concludes:

“The widespread view that the Council of Jamnia closed the biblical canon, or that it canonized any books at all, is not supported by the evidence and need no longer be seriously maintained.”10

If there were a candidate for an authoritative closing of the Old Testament canon in the first century AD, Jamnia would probably be it. However, there is no evidence that such a closing occurred this early in the life of this school.

Thanks Randy. Good to know how the confusion arose.

Would anyone know how the LXX canon gave way to the MT canon? I presume it was due to a belief that having a Greek scripture was to be blamed for the destruction of Jerusalem and there was a gradual adoption of Hebrew books in synagogues (much like how the NT canon evolved) and there was no intermediary Hebrew versions of the non-MT books in the LXX.

Why was there a re-evaluation of the canon - was it liturgical or doctrinal? Was it a wholesale re-evaluation or was it just those few books?

I heard that the Falashas in Ethiopia were still using an LXX based canon when discovered but in Hebrew.

I don’t think you should be speaking of “the LXX canon [giving] way to the MT canon,” as if the Hebrew canon is a subtracted version of the Greek canon. For one, it’s highly doubtful that there was even a fixed Greek canon.

Properly speaking, the term ‘Septuagint’ really only applies to the Greek translation of the Torah/Pentateuch made during the 3rd century BC (according to an early legend by a group of seventy-two Jewish elders commissioned by a Greco-Egyptian king). Where it gets confusing is the early Church Fathers (who also came up with the term ‘Septuagint’) twisting this legend a little bit, so that now all the sacred Jewish literature, not just the Torah, was supposedly translated into Greek by these seventy-two (or seventy) translators.

Thanks in part to the Church Fathers’ rather broad use of the term, what ‘Septuagint’ or LXX precisely means nowadays is a little fuzzy. Depending on the context or even who you ask, it could either be:

(1) The 3rd-century Greek translation of the Torah only. (The oldest Greek translations of the other biblical books would be called ‘Old Greek’ or OG. A few nitpicky scholars prefer this term.)
(2) The oldest Greek translations-versions of OT books as a whole. (The OT was translated into Greek a number of times; sometimes these translations could have multiple versions or revisions. Unlike (1), this version doesn’t distinguish between the Greek Torah and the OG versions, applying the same label to them both.)
(3) The version/s of the scriptural books favored and used by early Christians, no matter whether they were the oldest versions made or not. (For example, early Christians tended to favor the so-called Theodontic version of Daniel than the ‘Old Greek’/‘LXX’ version.)

The problem with speaking of an ‘LXX canon’ is that it kind of assumes that the earliest Greek translations (LXX/OG) were already compiled into a fixed collection, what some people call the ‘Alexandrian canon’. But this theory really has some fatal flaws in it: (1) while this theory rests on the assumption that Hellenistic Jews were kind of disconnected from Palestinian Judaism - where the 24/39 book canon was becoming the de facto standard - and so came up with their own idea of the canon, that doesn’t really seem to be the case. In fact, Hellenistic Jews are probably more conservative than Palestinian Jews.

(2) There’s the fact that early biblical manuscripts are really just of single books (say, a scroll of Isaiah, a scroll of Deuteronomy) or single categories of books (a Torah scroll, a scroll of the Minor Prophets). In the case of the LXX/Old Greek versions, one should probably think not of a fixed collection of translations, but independent translations and versions circulating around. It would be Christians in the 4th-5th century who would come up with the idea of putting all these (translations of) books considered authoritative into a single volume together. It’s really telling that it’s Christians who have produced these ‘LXX’ manuscripts.

It actually could turn out that this supposed ‘LXX/Alexandrian canon’ (which became the foundation of later Christian canons - with the exception of the Protestant one) is not actually Jewish, but a Christian invention. In other words, we should probably be thinking of Christians taking the 24/39-book Hebrew canon - which was accepted as a de facto standard both by Palestinian Jews and Hellenistic Jews - and adding further books into them. What Protestants did then is drop out those ‘extra’ books that early Christians have added into the canon.

So it pretty much all boils down to: ‘did the early Church have the authority to determine the canon of Scripture (to include* books as seen fit)’?

  • Whenever you speak of the canon in an early Christian context, it’s pretty much always about ‘addition’ or ‘inclusion’. Only people considered heretics like Marcion really ‘subtracted.’ :wink:
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