THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA AND THE
OLD TESTAMENT CANON*
ROBERT C. NEWMAN
Among those who believe the Old Testament to be a revela-
tion from the Creator, it has traditionally been maintained
that the books composing this collection were in themselves
sacred writings from the moment of their completion, that they
were quickly recognized as such, and that the latest of these
were written several centuries before the beginning of our era.
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus appears to be the earliest
extant witness to this view. Answering the charges of an anti-
Semite Apion at the end of the first century of our era, he says:
We do not possess myriads of inconsistent books, conflicting
with each other. Our books, those which are justly accredited,
are but two and twenty, and contain the record of all time.
Of these, five are the books of Moses, comprising the laws
and the traditional history from the birth of man down to the
death of the lawgiver. This period falls only a little short of
three thousand years. From the death of Moses until Arta-
succeeded Xerxes as king of
subsequent to Moses wrote the history of the events of their
own tines in thirteen books. The remaining four books con-
tain hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of human life.
From Artaxerxes to our own time the complete history has
been written. but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit
*The abbreviations of the names of tractates in the Mishnah, Tosefta
and Talmud follow Hermann L. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and
Midrash. Other special or unusual abbreviations are as follows:
BT - Babylonian Talmud
M - Mishnah
MR - Midrash Rabbah
SITM-Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (
Atheneum, 1969, reprint of 1931 edn.)
Tos. - Tosefta
I thank Dr. Robert A. Kraft of the
helpful criticisms. Naturally, I assume full responsibility for the final
form of this article.
with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact
succession of the prophets.1
On the basis of later Christian testimony, the twenty-two
books mentioned here are usually thought to be the same as
our thirty-nine,2 each double book (e.g., 1 and 2 Kings) being
counted as one, the twelve Minor Prophets being considered a
unit, and Judges-Ruth, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Jeremiah-Lamenta-
tions each being taken as one book. This agrees with the
impression conveyed by the Gospel accounts, where Jesus, the
Pharisees, and the Palestinian Jewish community in general
seem to understand by the term "Scripture" some definite body
of sacred writings.
Rabbinical literature, though much later, is also in agreement
with this testimony. In the Babylonian Talmud, completed by
about A.D. 550,3 we read: "Our Rabbis taught: Since the death
of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachai, the Holy-
to have ceased long before the beginning of the Christian era.
Among earlier Talmudic material, there is a Baraitha5 (from
about A.D. 2006) which likewise assigns the Scripture to ancient
authors, but also explicitly names the books of the Old Testa-
ment and gives a total of twenty-four books7 by using, the
scheme mentioned above except for treating Judges and Ruth,
Jeremiah and Lamentations as separate entities. As in Josephus,
the books are also grouped in three classes. The first is the
Pentateuch, as in Josephus, but the other two are different:
the second section, called "prophets," contains Joshua, Judges,
Samuel, Kings. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the twelve Minor
Prophets in that order, whereas the third section, called "writ-
ings," contains the remainder of our familiar Old Testament.
1 Josephus, Against Apion, 1,8 (38-41).
2 Ibid., Loeb Classical Library edition, notes ad loc.; Otto Eissfeldt,
The Old Testament: An Introduction, trans. by Peter R. Ackroyd (New
3 SITM, p. 71.
4 BT, Sanh., 11 a.
5 Eissfeldt, op. cit., p. 563.
6 SITM, pp. 4, 20-25.
7 BT, B. B. 1.4b.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 321
Although it is true that the pseudepigraphical work 4 Ezra
(probably written about A.D. 1208) pictures a much larger
number of sacred books,9 it is very significant that it admits that
only twenty-four Scriptures have circulated publicly since Ezra's
In recent centuries, another outlook has arisen which is often
called critical-historical. Denying that claims of God's miracu-
lous intervention in the inspiration of such books are subject to
historical investigation, this view sees the canonicity of the Old
Testament merely as the result of a belief in inspiration which
grew up around each book in the centuries after its publication.
This critical or liberal view also commonly pictures the partic-
ular threefold division of the Old Testament books found in the
Talmud and in our oldest extant Hebrew Bibles (dating from
the 10th and 11th centuries10) as a sort of fossil of the canoniza-
tion process. Thus H. E. Ryle, in his classic liberal work on the
Old Testament canon, distinguishes three canons corresponding
to the three sections in the Talmud: the first is the Law, finally
fixed shortly before 432 B.C.;11 the next is the Law and the
Prophets, established by 200 B.C. (before the critical date for
the origin of Daniel, though after the dates of the excluded
Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Psalms, Proverbs, Lamentations
and Ruth);12 and the last is the Law, the Prophets and the
Writings as we have them today,13 which canon was practically
completed before 100 B.C.,14 but not officially recognized until
about A.D. 100.15
More recent liberal scholarship has modified Ryle's position,
especially in regard to the last two divisions. Thus Eissfeldt
now recognizes that there is historical evidence for Daniel
8 R. H. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old
Testament (2 vols.;
9 4 Ezra 14:44-45.
10 R. K. Harrison,
Introduction to the Old Testament (
11 Herbert Edward Ryle, The Canon of the Old Testament (
Macmillan and Co., 1892), ch. 4, esp. p. 93.
12 Ibid., ch. 5, esp. p. 113.
13 Ibid., chs. 6-8.
14 Ibid., pp. 177-78.
15 Ibid., p. 172.
having been in the second section, but suggests that this means
the Prophets section must have been open until later:
Here too we cannot actually say that at that time, i.e., about
200 B.C., the extent and the text of the books reckoned in the
prophetic canon was already fixed. But apart from Daniel no
new book has since then succeeded in getting into this part of
the canon, and this book could not maintain its place there
but found its final position among the Writings.16
Fohrer departs even further from Ryle, though a "natural
process" view of canonicity is retained. For him there is no
canon in any strict sense until the time of Ben Sira (c. 190
B.C.). Even at the time of Ben Sira's translator-grandson (117
B.C.), Fohrer sees the first two sections of the canon as still
open to change and the third as just beginning to form:17
The canon was therefore completed between 100 B.C. and
A. D. 100, and the so-called synod held at Jamnia . . . ap-
parently made some contribution to the process. Later dis-
putes about individual books made no change in the canon.18
Popular liberal discussions of the canon today speak rather
confidently of the Council of Jamnia. For instance, the United
Although the whole of the Old Testament had been written by
150 B.C., the writings were not declared authoritative until
90 A.D. by a council of rabbis at Jamnia. It was this group
which decided which of the later writings should be included
in the Old Testament.19
Alice Parmelee, in her popular-level Guidebook to the Bible,
speaks of the Writings as not being "clearly defined" until "the
Council of Jamnia drew up a definite list of the sacred Scrip-
tures."20 Going into more detail, she says:
It was at Jamnia
in the famous
16 Eissfeldt, op. cit., p. 565.
17 Georg Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament, trans. by David
E. Green (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968, from German, 1965), p.
19 Carl E. Berges, How the Old Testament Came to Be: Script for
Adults (Philadelphia: Christian Education Press 1958), p. 10.
Brothers, 1948), p. 138.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 323
that the council met about A.D. 90 to decide which books
belonged to the canon. Pointing, no doubt, to the actual rolls
brought from the
council argued the merits of the various books. At length,
they established the Hebrew canon in which the Writings
were included, but the Apocrypha was left out.21
Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica sounds a rather certain
note on this subject:
After the destruction of
Jamnia became the home of the Great Sanhedrin. A meeting
of Rabbis held there c. A.D. 100 discussed and settled the
final canon of the Old Testament.22
Somewhat more cautiously:
The name canon may properly be applied to the books that
seem to have been adopted by the assembly of rabbis at
Jamnia about A.D. 90 or 100 under the leadership of Rabbi
Akiba. Until then, apparently, the status of Song of Solomon
and of Ecclesiastes remained doubtful, but at Jamnia they
were definitely included in the canon . . . Some of the Hagi-
ographa (including apparently Daniel) were still in dispute
until the assembly at Jamnia.23
Among experts on canon, not even Ryle is so definite about
Jamnia, however. He says that Jamnia only put "an official seal
to that which had already long enjoyed currency among the
people."24 Unfortunately Ryle does not seem to be entirely
It was then that the Writings we have called "Disputed
Books" (Esther, Song, Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, possibly
Daniel), which, from the peculiarity of their contents and
teaching, had previously exerted little influence upon reli-
gious thought, had been little used in public and, possibly,
little studied in private, seemed all at once to receive an ad-
ventitious importance. Doubts were expressed, when their
canonical position was finally asserted. But no sooner were
such difficulties raised and scruples proclaimed and protests
delivered against their retention in the Canon, than eager
voices were lifted up to defend the character of writings
21 Ibid., p. 149.
22 Edward Robertson, "Jamnia," Encyclopaedia Britannica., 1970, XII,
23 Jaroslav Pelikan, "Bible," Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1970, III, p. 576.
24 Ryle, op. cit., p. 173.
which, after all, had long been recognized, although, in com-
parison with the acknowledged books of the Kethubim, little
valued and rarely made use of.25
After this detailed psychological analysis of the situation, one is
rather astonished to find Ryle admitting that "the Synod of
Jamnia can be little else to us but a name." In any case he
claims that this name is "connected with the ratified canonicity
of certain books" and that it symbolizes the rabbinical deter-
mination "to put an end to the doubts about the 'disputed' books
of the Hagiographa."26
Eissfeldt, by contrast, sees Jamnia in a broader context:
Though unfortunately we know otherwise very little about
this synod, it is at least clear that it regarded its task as the
securing of the Jewish heritage, and in this it succeeded.27
After speaking of the threats to Judaism posed by the apocalyp-
tic literature and by Christianity, he continues:
These threats . . . necessitated at that time in particular the
formation of a normative canon of sacred scriptures . . . So
now what had come into being as a result of gradual growth
was formally declared binding and for this purpose was also
undergirded with a dogmatic theory.28
The Danish scholar Aage Bentzen speaks of the "synod of
Jamnia" as "important for the definite fixing of the Canon
among the Semitic speaking Jews."29 According to him:
The debate of the synod mainly centred on Ezekiel, Proverbs,
the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. There also seems
to have been some insecurity concerning Chronicles. This
seems to indicate that only the Law was really acknowledged
. . . in Palestinian circles, or at least that Prophets and
Kethubim were considered of secondary importance.30
Bentzen has previously argued that the presence of Ezekiel in
25 Ibid., p. 178.
26 Ibid., p. 172.
27 Eissfeldt, op. cit., p. 568.
29 Aage Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament (2 vols., 2nd edn.;
30 Ibid., p. 29.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 325
these discussions indicates that the second division of the canon
was not yet fixed.31
From this necessarily brief and selective survey of opinion
concerning Jamnia and the Canon, a number of questions arise.
For instance, was there a "council" of Jamnia? What informa-
tion do we have about it? When was it held? Who presided?
What books were discussed? What arguments were presented?
What conclusions were reached? How binding were these con-
clusions? Were they at variance with popular opinion or pre-
vailing practice? It is to an attempted solution of some of these
matters that we now turn.
The Jamnia Material in Rabbinical Literature
The rabbinical activities at the city
us only through rabbinical literature, where the more Hebraic
spellings "Jabneh" or "Yabrieh" are used. Little of this material
seems to come to us in its present form from rabbis who were
alive at A.D. 100.
The Mishnah, which forms the basis for both the Babylonian
and Palestinian Talmuds, was traditionally compiled by Rabbi
A.D. 210.32 His work, however, was apparently based on earlier
compilations by R. Meir and R. Akiba,33 the latter of whom
was active at Jamnia. The Mishnah is available in English in a
separate form edited by H. Danby,34 as well as in the Soncino
edition of the Babylonian Talmud, which will be cited here.35
Some of the rabbinical discussions left out of the Mishnah
were compiled in a work called the Tosefta. Although the text
of the Tosefta has probably been somewhat confused by influ-
ence from the Mishnah, it presupposes the Mishnah and is there-
fore somewhat later. Strack suggests its author is Hiyya bar
31 Ibid., p. 25.
32 SITM, p. 118.
33 Ibid., pp. 20-25.
34 Herbert Danby, ed., The Mishnah (
35 Isidore Epstein, ed., The
Babylonian Talmud (35 vols.;
The Soncino Press, 1935-52).
probably from the early third century. Only three tractates of
the Tosefta are presently available in English.37
Some other early remarks left out of the Mishnah have found
their way into the Gemara of the Babylonian and Palestinian
Talmuds where they are designated as Baraitha. The Palestinian
Talmud was completed early in the fifth century and therefore
contains material up to that time.38 The Babylonian Talmud
was not closed until the middle of the sixth century.39 As little
of the Palestinian Talmud is available in English, it has not been
The rabbinical discussions which are organized according to
the biblical texts (rather than topically as in the previous ma-
terials) are known as Midrashim. Among the extant Midrashim,
only those compiled by the schools of Akiba and Ishmael may
be as old as the Mishnah.40 But of these, only one, Sifre on
Numbers, is available in English, and that only in selection.41
The works contained in the later Midrash Rabbah date from the
fifth to the twelfth centuries.42 But, since these are readily
available, in English, they are occasionally cited in this study.43
We shall examine these sources for references to Jamnia to
see what can be learned about rabbinical activity there. Then
we shall examine early rabbinical discussions relating to canon,
whenever and wherever these have occurred. Little attempt will
be made to criticize these materials as Neusner is now doing,44
36 SITM, p. 75.
37 Herbert Danby, ed., Tractate Sanhedrin: Mishnah and Tosefta
(London: S.P.C.K., 1919) ; A. W. Greenup, ed., Sukkah: Mishnah and
Tosefta (London: S.P.C.K., 1925) ; A. Lukyn Williams, ed., Tractate
Berakoth: Mishnah and Tosephta (London: S.P.C.K., 1921).
38 SITM, p. 65.
39 Ibid., p. 71.
40 Ibid., pp. 206--09.
41 P. P. Levertoff,
Midrash Sifre on Numbers:
42 Encyclopaedia Judaica (16
see relevant articles.
43 H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah (10 vols. ;
44 Jacob Neusner, Development of a Legend: Studies on the Traditions
Concerning Yohanan ben Zakkai (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970); Eliezer ben
Hyrcanus: The Tradition and the Man (2 vols.;
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 327
for the author has neither the background nor inclination to
undertake such a mammoth and problematical task. Naturally,
some attempt will be made to estimate the date of various tradi-
tions, from which perhaps one could get an idea of the relative
reliability of each tradition,45 but anything further I leave to
The ancient city of
mentioned both in the Old Testament and in various records
of the intertestamental period, Jamnia was basically a gentile city
before the Hasmonean period and did not become thoroughly
Jewish until about the time of Tiberius.46 According to the
Talmud, Jamnia was twice the home of the (Great) Sanhedrin,
moved there from
returned, and then passed back to Usha.47 The ten locations of
the Sanhedrin mentioned here are consistent with the list given
in the sixth-century Midrash Genesis Rabbah,48 although the
later source does not mention the double sojourns at Jamnia
R. Johanan ben Zakkai seems to have been instrumental in
the establishment of the Great Sanhedrin at Jamnia. During the
the doomed city by having his disciples announce his death and
carry him to safety in a casket. Once outside, he met the Roman
general (soon to be emperor) Vespasian, who allowed him to
have “Jabneh and its Wise Men.”49 Notice, however, that this
passage suggests there were already scholars at Jamnia when
ben Zakkai arrived. This is further implied by the earlier
He (the rebellious elder) was executed neither by his local
Beth Din (i.e., court or Sanhedrin) nor by the Beth Din at
was taken to the Great Beth Din in
A Life of Yohanan
ben Zakkai (2nd edn.;
1970); The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 (3 vols.;
45 Neusner, Development of a Legend, p. 10.
46 "Jabneh," Encyclopaedia Judaica, IX, p. 1176.
47 BT, R.H. 31.
48 MR, Gen. 97.
49 BT, Git. 56.
and kept there until the (next) festival, and executed
This remark, attributed to R. Akiba, indicates an important
at Jamnia even before the siege of
passage throughout the land is assumed.
However, a discordant note is struck by the much later
Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah (7th to 10th centuries),51 which
R. Johanan ben Zakkai had five disciples, and as long as he
lived they sat before him. When he died, they went to
If this tradition is correct, then ben Zakkai either was not a
permanent resident of Jamnia or he left the city before his death.
After ben Zakkai, R. Gamaliel II became head of the rab-
binical activity at Jamnia. He was later forced to share his
authority with R. Eleazar ben Azariah because he continually
insulted R. Joshua.53 R. Akiba was already important by this
time, but he seems to have figured even more prominently in
later activities there. In any case Jamnia was still the center of
rabbinical activity at the close of the second revolt in A.D. 135,54
in which Akiba and many others died.
A number of scholars are mentioned in connection with
Jamnia. Without attempting to reassess the work of Talmudic
experts, these rabbis can be classified roughly by age according
to the scheme of Strack, which we shall follow here.55 Among
the oldest rabbis at Jamnia (before A.D. 90), Johanan ben
Zakkai is frequently mentioned,56 not only as founder but also
as a participant and leader. R. Zadok is also mentioned as a
contemporary of ben Zakkai57 and (if the same person is in
view) also of Gamaliel II.58 Ben Bokri is mentioned once.59
50 M, Sanh. 89a.
51 Encyclopaedia Judaica, XI, p. 1512.
52 MR, Eccl. 7. 7.. 2.
53 BT, Ber. 27b.
54 Ibid., 48b.
55 SITM, pp. 109f-I.
56 E.g., M, R.H. 29b; BT, Git. 56, Men. 21b.
57 BT, Git. 56b.
58 Tos., Sanh. 8. 1.
59 BT, Men. 21b.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 329
The next generation (c. A.D. 90-130), overlapping to some
extent with those that precede and follow, can be subdivided
into an older and younger group. In the older group, R.
Gamaliel II is most frequently mentioned, both as head of the
Beth ha-Midrash at Jamni.60 as well as prince of the San-
hedrin.61 His wealthy contemporary R. Eleazar ben Azariah was
elected to replace him (at least in his former office) for a time,
after which they shared the position.62 Other contemporaries
associated with Gamaliel at Jamnia were: R. Joshua, mentioned
above, who was reputed to have spoken all the seventy lan-
guages guages of mankind63 and who, after much argument, submitted
to Gamaliel's decision on the date of Yom Kippur;64 R. Eliezer
ben Hyrcanus;65 R. Levitas;66 Samuel the Little, a disciple of
Hillel "deserving that the Shechinah should alight upon him"
and author of the benediction against heretics;67 and Simeon
the Pakulite, who is said to have formulated the Eighteen
The younger group of this generation is dominated by R.
Akiba, who is important in the pre-history of the Mishnah. He
is mentioned as early as the time of Gamaliel's replacement by
Eleazar ben Azariah,69 and he was executed by the Romans
in connection with the Bar Kochba revolt70 Frequently in argu-
ment with Akiba are R. Tarfon7l and R. Ishmael.72 The latter
founded a school in competition with Akiba's, and these schools
produced the Tannaitic Midrashim.73 Two other rabbis con-
temporary with Akiba seem to be slightly younger (or at least
less advanced in studies): R. Jose the Galilean74 and R. Simon
60 BT, Ber. 27b.
61 Tos., Sanh. 8. 1.
62 BT, Ber. 27b.
63 BT, Sanh. 17b.
64 M, R.H. 25a.
65 BT, Sanh. 17b.
66 M, Ab. 4. 4.
67 BT, Sot. 48b, Ber. 28b.
68 BT, Ber. 28b, Meg. 17b.
69 BT, Ber. 27b.
70 BT, Ber. 61b.
71 M, Ber. 28b; BT, Zeb. 57a, Kid. 66.
72 BT, Zeb. 57a.
73 SITM, pp. 206ff.
74 BT, Zeb. 57a.
the Temanite.75 Besides these rabbis, a butcher I1a76 and a
physician Theodos77 figured in rabbinical discussions at Jamnia,
apparently in this period.
The third generation (after A.D. 130) apparently consisted
only of students or very young rabbis when the Sanhedrin left
Jamnia for good. Such men only appear in Jamnia in the follow-
When our teachers entered the vineyard at Jabneh, there
were among them R. Judah and R. Jose and R. Nehemiah
and R. Eliezer the son of R. Jose the Galilean. They all
spoke in honour of hospitality and expounded texts (for that
Apparently, then, the Sanhedrin left Jamnia the second time
shortly after A.D. 135.
What sort of rabbinical activity went on at Jamnia during
the height of its fame? Jamnia is said to have had a Beth Din
even while the Great Beth Din continued to function in Jeru-
salem.79 It also seems to have been the principal Beth Din in
the time of ben Zakkai,80 Gamaliel II,81 and Akiba.82 Similarly,
the term "Sanhedrin," synonymous with all but the smallest
Beth Din,83 is also applied to Jamnia in the same period.84
According to the Tosefta:
The Sanhedrin was arranged in the form of a semicircle,
so that they might all see each other. The Prince sat in the
middle with the elders on his right and left. R. Eleazar, the
son of Zadok, said: 'When Rabban Gamaliel sat at Jabneh,
my father and another sat on his right, and the other elders
on his left.'85
Jamnia was also said to have had a Beth ha-Midrash during
this period, in connection with which Rabbis Gamaliel, Eleazar
75 BT, Sanh. 17b.
76 M, Ber. 28b-29a, 40b.
77 M, Ber. 28b; IBT, Sanh. 33a.
78 BT, Ber. 63b.
79 M, Sanh. 89a.
80 M, R.H. 29b.
81 M, R.H. 25a.
82 M, Ber. 28b, 40b.
83 Encyclopaedia Judaica, IV, p. 720.
84 BT, R.H. 31, Sanh. 17b; Tos., Sanh. 8. 1.
85 Tos., Sanh. 8. 1.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 331
ben Azariah, Joshua, Akiba, Ishmael, Tarfon, and Jose the
Galilean are all named.86 During the somewhat later mishnaic
period (c. A.D. 200), such an institution was a biblical study
center independent of the synagogue and considered even more
holy.87 The Beth ha-Midrash at Jamnia is explicitly connected
with the so-called "vineyard" there.88 Although this place may
have been an actual vineyard, the 4th century rabbi Hiyya ben
Nehemiah speaks of a tradition that it was so named "because
of the disciples who sat in tiers as in a vineyard."89 It is not
clear whether the Sanhedrin met in the same place, although
the semicircular form of the latter and the (presumably) recti-
linear form of the former would seem to be against this. Among
references to the vineyard, all are consistent with a Beth ha-
Midrash: several involve exposition of Scripture,90 one speaks
of teaching,91 and another, though mentioning a halakic dis-
pute,92 which might equally well occur in a Sanhedrin, uses
the term Beth ha-Midrash.
There were therefore at least two different rabbinical institu-
tions functioning at Jamnia during this period, a Beth Din or
Sanhedrin and a Beth ha-Midrash. Let us seek to catalogue the
activities mentioned in reference to Jamnia to see if there is
anything left over which would not fit one of these two insti-
In later years, Jamnia was especially remembered for the
wisdom and piety of its rabbis. Although some of the incidents
reported in this regard appear to be exaggerated, it seems clear
that some facts lay behind this reputation. Thus Samuel the
Little was probably an unusually pious man, whether or not a
Bath Kol ever indicated he was the only man of his generation
deserving to receive the Shekinah.93 Likewise the almost legen-
dary wisdom of the "Sages of Jabneh"94 presumably has some
86 BT, Ber. 27b, Zeb. 57a.
87 Encvclopacdia Judaica, IV, p. 751.
88 BT, Zeb. 57a.
89 MR, Eccl. 2. 8. 1.
90 BT, Ber. 63b, B.B. 131b; MR, Ecc1. 2. 8. 1.
91 BT, Yeb. 42b.
92 BT, Zeb. 57a.
93 BT, Sot. 48b, Sanh. 11a.
94 BT, Kid. 49b.
basis in fact, whether or not they included four men who could
speak the seventy languages of mankind.95
On a more prosaic level, we find that the habits and sayings
of the rabbis at Jamnia were long remembered. Thus the prac-
tice at Jamnia of removing the leaven on the 14th of Nisan even
when it fell on a Sabbath contributes to a later discussion.96
Liturgical customs are recalled,97 and the frugal example set
by Gamaliel II at his own funeral reversed a prevailing trend
which was impoverishing the heirs.98
Among many sayings attributed to various rabbis active at
Jamnia, one collective remark occurs:
A favourite saying of the rabbis of Jabneh was: I am God's
creature and my fellow is God's creature. My work is in the
town and his work is in the country. I rise early for my work
and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume
to do my work, so I do not presume to do his work. Will you
say, I do much and he does little? We have learnt: One may
do much or one may do little, it is all one, provided he
directs his heart to heaven.99
This exemplary material provides little of real help for our
discussion. Probably a school (Beth ha-Midrash) in prolonged
contact with its students is more likely to produce such memo-
ries than a combination court and legislature such as the Beth
Din. But we have already shown that both existed at Jamnia.
No third institution, such as a council or synod, is suggested
by this material.
Other passages associate teaching and exposition of Scripture
with Jamnia. Recall the reference to students sitting in rows like
a vineyard.100 One particularly industrious student was remem-
bered for finding a hundred and fifty reasons why a dead "creep-
ing thing" should be considered clean.101 Likewise R. Johanan
and R. Ishmael were spoken of as having been taught at Jamnia
regarding the time a woman must wait before remarriage.102
95 BT, Sanh. 17b.
96 BT, Pes. 49a.
97 E.g., BT, R.H. 32a.
98 BT, Ket. 8b.
99 BT, Ber. 17a.
100 MR, Eccl. 2. 8. 1.
101 BT, Erub. 13b.
102 BT, Yeb. 42b.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 333
As regards exposition, R. Eleazar ben Azariah is explicitly
seen interpreting Scripture,103 apparently as a teacher, whereas
Rabbis Judah, Jose, Nehemiah, and Eliezer all speak on the
subject of hospitality, perhaps as students fulfilling an assign-
ment in exegesis or homiletics.104
Such materials also suggest the Beth ha-Midrash rather than
the Beth Din, although one may learn from a legal decision.
It is certainly possible that the expository material could be
synagogue sermons, but there does not seem to be any evidence
here for a council or synod.
We also find considerable material expressing differences of
opinion among the rabbis at Jamnia. For instance, ben Bokri
and ben Zakkai argue over the necessity of priests to pay the
shekel tax.105 Ila and the rabbis argue about blemishes in ani-
mals.106 Rabbis Tarfon, Jose, Akiba, and Ishmael disagree on
how long a firstling may be eaten.107 Tarfon and Akiba debate
the cleanliness of objects immersed in a reservoir in which an
insufficiency of water is discovered only later.108 Such argu-
ments could occur either in the teaching situation of a Beth
ha-Midrash (which seems to have employed a seminar method)
or in the controversies of a Beth Din. In fact, two such examples
explicitly mention the latter109 and one the former.110 Though
a council cannot be ruled out, it does not appear necessary to
postulate any such rabbinic institution to explain. this material.
Another class of rabbinical activities at Jamnia is binding
decisions, whether of a judicial (fact-finding) or legislative
(rule-making) nature. These activities seem to belong primarily
to the Beth Din. Some are rather specialized decisions, such as:
the exemptions of R. Tarfon and Ila the butcher from certain
regulations because they were experts for the Beth Din;111
setting the dates for New Moon and Yom Kippur in a partic-
103 BT, B. B. 131b.
104 BT, Ber. 63b.
105 BT, Men. 21b.
106 M, Ber. 40b.
107 BT, Zeb. 57a.
108 BT, Kid. 66.
109 M, Ber. 28b, 40b.
110 BT, Zeb. 57a.
111 M, Ber. 28b-29a.
ular year;112 and determining the effect of an oven fire at Kefar
Signah on the cleanliness of the bread baked in it.113 More gen-
eral decisions are seen in the question of the fitness of a cow
whose womb has been removed,114 or of an animal with a wormy
liver,115 or of a mixture which had come into contact with a
Especially interesting in these last two examples is the state-
ment that each question was submitted to the rabbis at Jamnia
on three (successive) festivals before their ruling was given.
Although it is possible that this is mentioned merely because
festivals were the most convenient time to bring questions from
afar, it seems likely that the Beth Din met only at festivals.
This seems to be supported by the report that "when Rabban
Gamaliel and his court of justice were at Jabneh" they did not
even take time off to recite the Shema or the Benedictions for
fear of being distracted in caring for "the needs of the congrega-
tion."117 A general, full-time exemption of the rabbis from these
duties seems very improbable, considering the centrality of
such observances to Jewish piety, but a suspension for judges
on such occasions as the Great Beth Din was in session would
not be unreasonable.
In contrast, then, the Beth ha-Midrash would be in view in
the saying quoted above (note 99), apparently meeting daily
for a full workday. The two examples above also suggest that
festivals were held.
Still more general decisions at Jamnia include rules: e.g., for
recognizing maturity118 or uncleanness119 in women, or for
blowing the shofar.120 Another class of general decisions would
be liturgical innovations. It is reported that the rabbis at Jamnia
instituted a benediction (now the fourth one said in the grace
112 M, R.H. 24b-25a.
113 M, Kel. 5. 4.
114 BT, Sanh. 33a.
115 BT, Hul. 48a.
116 M, Par. 7. 6.
117 Tos., Ber. 2. 6.
118 BT, Nid. 48b.
119 BT, Nid. 15a.
120 M R. H. 29b.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMZNIA 335
after meals) on the 15th of Ab, the day on which permission
was given to bury those who died at the Battle of Bethur in
the Bar Kochba War.121 Earlier, in the presence of R. Gamaliel
at Jamnia, Simeon the Pakulite is said to have formulated
(composed, or organized?) the Eighteen Benedictions in their
present order, and Samuel the Little is supposed to have com-
posed a nineteenth against heretics.122 However, the latest of
these sources123 dates one of the benedictions later.
Although these references would seem to refer to the Great
Beth Din at Jamnia, one of them says "a hundred and twenty
elders, among whom were many prophets, drew up eighteen
blessings in a fixed order."124 Since this is larger than the tradi-
tional size of the Great Beth Din, it might refer to some special
council called to institute certain liturgical reforms. However,
according to another source:
Said Rabban Gamaliel to the Sages: Can anyone among you
frame a benediction relating to the Minim (heretics) ? Samuel
the Lesser arose and composed it. The next year he forgot
This suggests an annual event, which would seem more likely
to be the Beth Din than some sort of council.
Even before the fall of
a Beth Din at Jamnia. Afterwards this became the Great Beth
Din and remained so, with perhaps one interruption, until
about A.D. 135. Likewise the Beth ha-Midrash probably pre-
dates dates A.D. 70 and continues after 135, but it would not be
surprising that its golden years coincide with the presence of
the Great Beth Din.
From the evidence we have surveyed, it would seem reason-
able to suggest that the Beth ha-Midrash met daily and involved
teaching, exposition, and argumentation, for the purpose of
training the next generation of rabbis. The Beth Din, on the
other hand, probably met less frequently, either at every festival
or annually at some particular festival, argued out questions
submitted by various congregations or rabbis, kept an eye on
121 BT, Ber. 48b, Taan. 31a, B.B. 121b.
122 BT, Ber. 28b, Meg. 17b; MR, Num. 18.21.
123 MR, Num. 18. 21.
124 BT, Meg. 17b.
125 BT, Ber. 28b.
the calendar, and instituted various practices as the need arose,
so that a certain uniformity might exist at least in Palestinian
The distinction between these two institutions may explain
the peculiar remark in Ecclesiastes Rabbah noted above (note
52). Perhaps R. Johanan ben Zakkai was head only of the Great
Beth Din at Jamnia and not of its Beth ha-Midrash. Then he
would only visit Jamnia sporadically, and his five disciples
could have moved there permanently after his death.
Although a larger Jamnia assembly, called for the purpose
of instituting far-reaching rulings in worship and practice, can-
not be ruled out altogether, there does not seem to be any real
evidence for such a group in the data so far examined. Certainly
some decisions made at Jamnia prevail to this day (e.g., the
benedictions), but these appear to have arisen at different times
and would necessitate several "councils" of Jamnia. Probably
all are the work of the Great Beth Din.
The Old Testament Canon in the Rabbinical Literature
Turning now to rabbinical reports regarding the extent of
Scripture, let us consider first of all which books were explicitly
discussed. Next we shall consider what sort of discussions the
rabbis conducted regarding these books. Finally we shall attempt
to date the discussions and consider to what extent their con-
clusions were binding.
Among the books for which we have rabbinical discussion of
canonicity none is more prominent than Ecclesiastes.126 Next in
frequency of discussion is Song of Songs.127 Several others are
discussed in a single passage (though not necessarily only once
in rabbinic history): Ruth,128 Esther,129 Proverbs,130 and
Ezekiel.131 It is possible that Ezra and Daniel were also dis-
cussed, although the only reference to them in this sort of ma-
126 M, Eduy. 5. 3, Yad. 3. 5; BT, Shabb. 30, Meg. 7a; MR, Lev. 28. 1,
Eccli. 1. 3. 1, Song 1. 1. 11.
127 M, Yad. 3. 5; BT, Meg. 7a; MR, Song 1. 1. 11.
128 BT, Meg. 7a. j
130 BT, Shabb. 30b.
131 Ibid., 13b.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 337
terial does not seem to deal with the question of whether or
not they belong in Scripture.132 The only extra-canonical books
mentioned in these contexts are the "books of Hamiram"
(Homer?) mentioned below, but the context seems to imply
that they are not under consideration for canonization.
In the rabbinical discussions of the canonicity of the Old
Testament, the term "canon" and its derivatives are only used in
periphrastic English translations, as this is a later technical
term developed in Christian circles. Although the word "Scrip-
ture" already seems to be a technical term with the required
significance, our extant reports usually give the discussions in
terms of two other concepts: "uncleanness" and "hiding."
Those books which we would call canonical or scriptural were
held by the rabbis to confer uncleanness on the hands of those
touching them.133 According to a late tradition, the rabbis de-
clared uncleanness upon the Scriptures:
Because originally food of terumah was stored near the Scroll
of the Law, with the argument, This is holy and that is holy.
But when it was seen that they (the Sacred Books) came to
harm (apparently because of mice), the Rabbis imposed un-
cleanness upon them.134
From its context, this particular distinction seems to go back
to the period when the temple was still standing. This seems to
be supported by the presence of Sadducees in a similar type of
passage in the Mishnah:
The Sadducees say: We complain against you, 0 ye Phari-
sees, because you say that the Holy Scriptures render unclean
the hands, but the books of Hamiram do not convey unclean-
ness to the hands. R. Johanan ben Zakkai said: Have we
nothing against the Pharisees excepting this? Behold they
say that the bones of an ass are clean, yet the bones of
Johanan the High Priest are unclean. They said to him:
Proportionate to the love for him, so is their uncleanness, so
that nobody should make spoons out of the bones of his father
or mother. He said to them: So also the Holy Scriptures
proportionate to the love for them, so is their uncleanness.
132 M, Yad. 4. 5.
133 M, Eduy. 5. 3, Yad. 4. 5-6; BT, Shabb. 14a, Meg. 7a; MR, Song
1. 1. 11.
134 BT, Shabb. 14a.
The books of Hamiram which are not precious do not convey
uncleanness to the hands.135
Such a passage also seems to indicate virtual identity between
the concepts “Holy Scripture” and "books which render the
hands unclean." Certainly it is true that a book which is not
Scripture does not defile the hands, but another passage shows
us that the converse is not necessarily true:
If an Aramaic section was written (translated) in Hebrew,
or a Hebrew section was written (translated) in Aramaic, or
Hebrew (Phoenician) script, it does not render unclean the
hands. It never renders unclean the hands until it is written
in the Assyrian (square) script, on hide and in ink.136
Thus "defiling the hands" is a ceremonial concept which does
not apply to translations. It would seem that the stipulations
regarding type of script and writing materials indicate that only
scrolls which would be fit for reading in a worship service can
defile the hands. So "books which defile the hands" is a some-
what narrower concept than "Scripture."
Another concept common to rabbinical discussions on the
canon is that of "hiding" certain works.137 Unfortunately this
concept is not explained as thoroughly as that of "books which
the hands," although it is clear that "hiding a book"
cates disapproval. It is possible that a book is considered hidden
when its reading in public worship is forbidden, but it may be
that even private reading of the book is thereby discouraged.
R. Akiba is reported to have denied a place in the "world to
come" to those who read non-canonical books.138 The connec-
tion of "hiding a book" with the synagogue geniza (hiding
place, at least for worn-out copies of Scripture) or with the term
"apocrypha" (hidden books) is not clear.
Having looked at the terminology used in discussing the ques-
tion of the canonicity of various books, let us consider the argu-
ments presented for questioning various books. Only one work
is ever explicitly charged with heresy, the book of Ecclesiastes.139
135 M, Yad. 4. 6.
136 M, Yad. 4. 5.
137 BT, Shabb. 13b, 30b; MR, Lev. 28. 1, Eccl. 1. 3. 1.
138 M, Sanh. 90a.
139 MR, Lev. 28. 1, Eccl. 1. 3. 1.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 339
The third verse, "What profit has a man in all his labor which
he does under the sun?" was thought to deny the value of
studying the Torah. This was reconciled by suggesting that
man's profit from Torah will be given him "above the sun."140
Similarly, the writer's exhortation to a young man to "walk in
the ways of your heart" (11:9b) seemed to violate God's com-
mand to follow His law rather than one's own desire (e.g.,
Num. 15:39). These were brought into agreement by noting the
context (Eccl. 11:9c): "for all these things God will bring you
Several books, however, are charged with lesser or internal
contradictions, namely Ezekiel, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. In
the case of Ezekiel, the contradiction is said to be with the
Torah.142 No details are given, but the problematic material
seems to involve the predicted temple and liturgy foreseen in
chapter 40 and following. Hananiah the son of Hezekiah is
blessed for having expended three hundred barrels of "mid-
night oil" successfully to reconcile them, but his arguments are
Proverbs was claimed to be self-contradictory because of
Answer not a fool according to his folly
lest you also be like him;
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own conceit.
Here, too, the rabbis managed to find a way to bring these words
Ecclesiastes was seen as both self-contradictory and in dis-
agreement with other Scripture.145 In addition to the passages
mentioned above, Ecclesiastes 4:2 and 9:4 seemed divergent,
as did the former when set beside Psalm 115:17. R. Tanhum of
Neway solved these with a long explanation.146 Another rabbi
141 MR, Eccl. 1. 3. 1.
142 BT, Shabb. 13b.
144 BT, Shabb. 30b.
145 BT, Shabb. 30.
146 BT, Shabb. 30a.
explains that Ecclesiastes was not hidden because "it began and
ended with words of Torah."147
A third reason for rejecting a book is charged against Ec-
clesiastes: it has only Solomon's wisdom rather than God's.148
It is significant that some Bible-believing Christians today say
the same thing. But the "words of Torah" with which Ecclesi-
astes closes do not allow them this solution:
The preacher sought to find out acceptable words, and that
which is written is upright, even words of truth (12:10).
The subject matter of Song of Songs was apparently respon-
sible for the questions raised regarding it. R. Akiba's reactions
suggest the nature of the problem. "All the Writings are holy,"
he says, "and this is the holy of holies,"149 implying that some
felt the Song of Songs was not so holy. Similarly, "he who, at
a banquet, renders the Song of Songs in a sing-song way, turn-
ing it into a common ditty, has no share in the world to
come."150 Again it is significant that, even today, some Bible-
believers are embarrassed by this book, feeling that allegorical
exegesis is necessary to justify its canonicity.
The only problem mentioned in connection with Esther is its
post-Mosaic establishment of a religious festival,151 although
both Esther's Purim and 1 Maccabees' Hanukah were then
being observed. Perhaps the lack of any specific reference to
God was also a problem.
No discussion arises over Ezra and Daniel, but the citation
given above regarding translations and unclean hands (p. 26)
is immediately preceded by the remark, "The Aramaic sections
in Ezra and Daniel render unclean the hands."152 Apparently
the presence of long Aramaic passages concerned some. But
the Mishnah here seems to affirm the belief that Aramaic was
the original language of these passages, that therefore that lan-
guage was to be used in their public reading, and that not even
a Hebrew translation of such was an adequate substitute.
147 BT, Shabb. 30b.
148 BT, Meg. 7a.
149 MR, Song 1. 1. 11.
150 Tos., Sanh. 12. 10.
151 BT, Meg. 7a.
152 M, Yad. 4. 5.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 341
For the book of Ruth, the remaining work which may have
come under discussion,153 nothing is said of the problem in-
volved. Perhaps the difficulty was reconciling Deut. 23:3 with
the fact that Ruth was a Moabite.
Let us now attempt to date these rabbinical discussions on
the canon. Although a number of the references are too vague,
saying only that the "Sages" gave some opinion,154 others are
Even while the temple was standing (before A.D. 70) it
seems that the rabbis discussed the extent of the canon. Ac-
cording to the Mishnah:
R. Ishmael cites three instances of lenient rulings by Beth
Shammai and rigorous rulings by Beth Hillel. The Book of
Ecclesiastes does not defile the hands according to the opin-
ion of Beth Shammai; but Beth Hillel says: It defiles the
R. Simeon, a student of Akiba,156 reports the same opinion,
adding that Ruth, Song of Songs, and Esther are to be con-
sidered Scripture.157 As Hillel and Shammai were active at the
beginning of our era, their schools were in existence before the
here, it is probable that these discussions pre-date Jamnia.
A stonger evidence of early canon discussion is given in the
In truth, that man, Hananiah son of Hezekiah by name, is to
be remembered for blessing: but for him, the Book of Ezekiel
would have been hidden, for its words contradicted the Torah.
What did he do? Three hundred barrels of oil were taken up
to him and he sat in an upper chamber and reconciled them.158
According to the Mishnah at this point, eighteen halakoth were
enacted on one day in the upper chamber of Hananiah ben Heze-
kaih ben Garon when Beth Shammai outvoted Beth Hillel.159
The Gemara further informs us that one of the rulings was
153 BT, Meg. 7a.
154 BT, Shabb. 30b; MR, Lev. 28. 1; Eccl. 1. 3. 1.
155 M, Eduy. 5. 3.
156 SITM, p. 115.
157 BT, Meg. 7a.
158 BT, Shabb. 13b.
159 M, Shabb. 13b.
that terumah is made unfit by contact with Scripture.160 Since
this ruling is presupposed in the argument between Johanan ben
Zakkai and the Sadducees quoted above (note 135), it was prob-
ably enacted before Jamnia. Since also Hananiah ben Hezekiah
is connected with the authorship of Megillat Ta'anit,161 and the
appendix of that work mentions his son Eliezer, who is thought
to have been one of the leading rebels in the first revolt against
the Romans,162 it appears that this discussion occurred in the
last generation before the destruction of the temple.163
Thus it appears that there was at least one discussion regard-
ing canon, involving two groups, Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel,
and one named individual, Hananiah ben Hezekiah, which gives
indication of having occurred before the fall of
in A.D. 70.
In the period of Jamnia's prominence we also find such dis-
cussions. The most specific statement comes from R. Simeon
ben Azzai, a contemporary of Akiba,164 who says that he has a
tradition "from the seventy-two elders on the day when they
appointed R. Eleazar ben Azariah head of the Academy" that
both Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes defile the hands.165 This
specific (though undated) day166 seems to have occurred some
time after the death of R. Johanan ben Zakkai. The number
seventy-two suggests that the action was taken by the Great
Beth Din rather than the Beth ha-Midrash (presumably the
"Academy" mentioned here) or the special (?) group of 120
elders who drew up the Eighteen Benedictions.l67
R. Judah, a student of Akiba,168 reports that Samuel rejected
the Book of Esther.169 Presumably this is Samuel the Little, a
contemporary of Gamaliel and Eleazar ben Azariah,170 so this
could easily be the same incident mentioned above. Strangely
160 BT, Shabb. 13b.
162 Josephus, Jewish War 2, 17, 2 (409).
163 See Encyclopaedia Judaica, IV, p. 738; XI, p. 1230.
164 SITM, p. 114.
165 M, Yad. 3. 5.
166 Also mentioned in BT, Ber. 27b.
167 BT, Meg. 17b.
168 SITM, p. 115.
169 BT, Meg. 7a.
170 SITM, pp. 110-12.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 343
enough, Samuel did not deny that Esther was inspired by the
Holy Spirit, but rather he felt that it was not supposed to have
been written down, presumably remaining as oral tradition.
In addition to these, we have the remarks of R. Akiba on the
Song of Songs171 and his condemnation of those who read non-
canonical books.172 As Akiba was already a prominent rabbi
when Gamaliel II was temporarily deposed,173 these statements
in themselves need not imply any later discussion. Elsewhere,
however, we have R. Akiba's statements on both Ecclesiastes
and Song of Songs174 in a context which seems to be a discus-
sion between himself, R. Simeon ben. Azzai mentioned above,
three of Akiba's later students,
In a sense this is a discussion about the two previously-men-
tioned discussions of the canon, as the controversy between
Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel, and the making of R. Eleazar
ben Azariah head of the Academy are both mentioned. Yet the
disagreement among these men on just what was disputed and
what was decided in these previous discussions seems to belie
any widely-publicized decision. Presumably this last discussion,
involving Akiba and his students, is set in the Beth ha-Midrash
rather than the Beth Din.
Thus Jamnia saw at least one discussion of canon in the Beth
Din and, later, another in the Beth ha-Midrash. Probably there
were even more discussions among the rabbis on these matters
during the Jamnia period, but there is no indication of a special
council for this.
But discussions and even arguments on canon did not cease
with Jamnia. About A.D. 200,176 R. Simeon ben Menasia
claims that Ecclesiastes is not Scripture, as it contains only
Solomon's wisdom.177 R. Tanhum of Neway is still discussing
apparent contradictions in Ecclesiastes178 a century and a half
171 Tos., Sanh. 12. 10; MR, Song 1. 1. 11.
172 M. Sanh. 90a.
173 BT, Ber. 27b.
174 M, Yad. 3. 5.
175 SITM, p. 115.
176 SITM, p. 117.
177 BT, Meg. 7a.
178 BT, Shabb. 30a.
179 SITM, p. 131; Encyclopaedia Judaica, XV, 793.
Likewise the inspiration of Esther, though favored earlier by
such as Eleazar, Samuel, Akiba, and Meir, is still being argued
by Raba, Rabina, Joseph, and Nahman ben Isaac180 late in the
fourth century of our era.181 It does not appear, therefore, that
any earlier rabbinical decisions were viewed as ending all dis-
So far, we have seen that the canonicity of from six to eight
books was discussed by the rabbis, all but one of which are in
the third of the present divisions of the Hebrew Bible. Unless
one considers the books of Hamiram to have been real candi-
dates for canonicity, only books in the present canon were even
The defensive nature of the discussion suggests that the rabbis
were trying to justify the status quo rather than campaigning
for or against candidates for admission. There is no hint that
any of the books discussed was of recent vintage or of any other
than traditional authorship. The questions which are raised, in
fact, are just the sort that are still being raised today among
people with similar theology and interests. These involve inter-
nal considerations only, and it appears that no other lines of
questioning were pursued.
Although the rabbis occasionally refer to "decisions" in re-
gard to the canon, reported discussions of these matters go back-
ward to early rabbinical times (before A.D. 70) and forward
nearly to A.D. 400. The question therefore arises whether the
rabbinical discussions really contributed decisively to the ac-
ceptance of the works discussed as Scripture or whether the
rabbis were merely seeking to understand and defend their prior
acceptance. To attempt to answer this, let us consider other early
Jewish and Christian evidence regarding the Old Testament
Other Evidence on the Canon
We shall not here attempt to catalogue the earliest Jewish
references to each of the Old Testament books for which can-
onicity was later discussed by the rabbis. Most scholars concede
180 BT, Meg. 7a.
181 SITM, pp. 130, 132.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 345
that all were in existence nearly two centuries before Jamnia.182
Instead let us examine early statements regarding the extent
of the canon and groupings of the books included in it.
Among the oldest sources which give numbers for the books
in the Old Testament, at least two different enumerations are
found. A twenty-two book count is given by Josephus183 (see
above, note 1) as well as by several church fathers (Melito,
Eusebius, Cyril of
Augustine) who seem to be reporting Jewish enumerations.184
On the other hand, 4 Ezra seems to picture twenty-four
books185 as known to the Jewish public. Such a count is also
seen in the Talmud186 and in the Midrash Rabbah on Num-
bers.187 It is probable that, as suggested by Bentzen:
The difference is accounted for by assuming that Josephus
combines Ruth with Judges, Lamentations with Jeremiah,
and takes Ezra and Nehemiah as one book, while 4 Esdras
probably regards Ruth and Lamentations as separate books.188
Whether it is also probable that Josephus's count was artifi-
cially reduced to twenty-two to match the number of letters in the
Hebrew alphabet, as Bentzen further suggests,189 is not so clear.
The Midrash Rabbah on Numbers associates the twenty-four
books with the twenty-four priestly divisions.190 Eissfeldt, for
instance, believes that the twenty-two book count is the older.191
A third, rather peculiar numbering of twenty-seven is found
in an eleventh-century Greek manuscript containing the Didache
and 2 Clement.192 Here the books of the Old Testament are
given in Greek together with a transliterated name for each,
some from Hebrew and some from Aramaic. A list with the
182 E.g., Ryle, op. cit., pp. 177-78; Bentzen, op. cit., I, p. 26.
183 Josephus, Against Apion 1. 8 (38-41).
184 Eissfeldt, op. cit., p. 569.
185 4 Ezra 14:44-45.
186 BT, B. B. 14b.
187 MR, Num. 14. 4, 15. 22.
188 Bentzen, op. cit., I, p. 26.
190 MR, Num. 15. 22.
191 Eissfeldt, op. cit., p. 569.
192 Jean-Paul Audet, "A Hebrew-Aramaic List of Books of the Old
Testament in Greek Transcription," Journal of Theological Studies, new
series, I (1950), 135-54.
same count and names, but a more usual order, is given by
Epiphanius.193 Audet argues rather convincingly that the list is
at least as old as the first half of the second century and prob-
ably as old as the last half of the first century of our era. If so,
it must receive consideration along with Josephus and 4 Ezra.
In this list the double-books are divided, as is Ruth from
Judges, though the twelve Minor Prophets are one book. La-
mentations is not mentioned, either being combined with Jere-
miah or left out altogether. As Lamentations was not questioned
by any rabbis and was included in the list in Baba Bathra,194 the
first alternative is not unreasonable. The order of books in this
list is peculiar. Joshua is mixed in with the Pentateuch; Ruth,
Job, Judges, and Psalms precede the historical works 1 Samuel
through 2 Chronicles, which are followed by Proverbs, Ec-
clesiastes, Song of Songs, Jeremiah, the 12, Isaiah, Daniel, 1
Ezra, 2 Ezra (Nehemiah ?), and Esther.
From these sources, as well as from the statements in Jo-
Josephus, 4 Ezra and the Talmud regarding the cessation of
prophecy about the time of Ezra (cited above, notes 1, 4, 7, 9),
and in view of the New Testament use of "Scripture" as though
it were a recognized body of material, it seems that there was a
popular consensus on the books belonging to Scripture even
before the end of the first century A.D. This consensus did not
extend to the question of how these books were to be ordered
or counted, but it did seem to be combined with the belief that
these books had been known publicly since the time of Ezra.
As indicated at the beginning, it is common among liberals to
see in the threefold grouping found in Baba Bathra and in the
medieval Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible a "fossil" of the
canonization process. This has a certain plausibility, as one may
trace three sections back from Baba Bathra (c. A.D. 200) to
the prologue of Ecclesiasticus (before 100 B.C.). But a careful
examination of the materials involved raises questions about
the identity of the threefold divisions in Ecclesiasticus and in
For one thing, Josephus (cited above, note 1) also has a three-
193 Epiphanius, Weights and Measures, 23.
194 BT, B. B. 14b.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 347
fold division of the Old Testament, but it differs from that of
Baba Bathra. Although his first division is the Torah and his
second could as well be called "Prophets" as the second division
in Baba Bathra, his third division contains only four books,
designated "hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of
human life." Presumably these four are the Psalms, Proverbs,
Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, though some might prefer to
replace one of these by Job. Since this arrangement differs from
that in the Talmud, we must ask which (if either) of these divi-
sions is found in even earlier statements.
In the prologue to Ecclesiasticus or Ben Sira,195 a threefold
division is mentioned in slightly different words on three oc-
casions. In Charles's edition we have "the Law and the Proph-
ets and the others who followed after them" (lines 1-2),
"the Law and the Prophets and the other books of our fathers"
(lines 5-6), and "the Law itself, and the Prophecies and the
rest of the books" (lines 13-14). These terms could equally
well fit the divisions of Josephus or the 'Talmud.
In Philo's discussion of the Theraputae, he mentions a room
for contemplation into which members never take food or
such things, but only "laws and oracles delivered through the
mouth of prophets, and psalms and anything else which fosters
and perfects knowledge and piety.”196 Here, if Scripture is in
view, Colson's translation suggests a threefold division in which
the third section is called "Psalms" (actually "hymns"). If one
were to choose between the two, this would fit Josephus's classi-
fication better than that of the Talmud. It is equally possible to
translate the last part "psalms and other (books) which foster
and perfect knowledge and piety," which would then yield either
a fourth division or a twofold name for the third division. This
phrase is in fact remarkably like Josephus's "hymns to God
and precepts for the conduct of human life."
We have also Jesus' remark in Luke 24:44, where he refers
to prophecies fulfilled in himself: "all the things written in the
law of Moses and the prophets and psalms." If this is a state-
ment about the grouping of books in the Old Testament rather
195 Charles, op. cit., I, 316-17.
196 Philo, Contemplative Life, 25 (475).
than a list of those particular books which prophesied His
ministry, then it fits Josephus's grouping far better than that
of Baba Bathra.
In addition to these citations, the Greek-Hebrew-Aramaic
list mentioned above and the ordering of books in the lists of
the church fathers and early uncial Greek manuscripts197 should
warn us against too facile assumptions regarding some definite
grouping being preserved through more than three centuries
from Ben Sira's grandson to Baba Bathra, particularly when
codices do not begin to replace scrolls until about the end of
the first century A.D. It is quite possible, as suggested by Bloch,
Bleek,198 Wilson,199 and MacRae,200 that the Talmudic division
is a later development related to synagogue usage: only those
books read at Sabbath services in conjunction with the Torah
were retained in the second division; the others were moved
to the third section.
In this paper we have attempted to study the rabbinical activ-
ity at Jamnia in view of liberal theories regarding its importance
in the formation of the Old Testament canon. I believe the
following conclusions are defensible in the light of this study.
The city of
Midrash) and court (Beth Din, Sanhedrin) during the period
A.D. 70-135, if not earlier. There is no conclusive evidence for
any other rabbinical convocations there.
The extent of the sacred Scriptures was one of many topics
discussed at Jamnia, probably both in the school and in the
court, and probably more than once. However, this subject was
197 Henry B. Swete and Richard R. Ottley, An Introduction to the Old
Testament in Greek (New York: KTAV, 1968, reprint of 2nd edn., 1914),
198 William Henry Green, Introduction to the Old Testament: The
Canon (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1898), p. 90.
199 Robert Dick Wilson, Studies in the Book of Daniel (2 vols.; Grand
1938), II, 61, 64.
200 Allan A. MacRae, unpublished class notes in Old Testament Intro-
duction, Faith Theological Seminary, Fall, 1967.
THE COUNCIL OF JAMNIA 349
also discussed by the rabbis at least once a generation earlier
and also several times long after the Jamnia period.
No books are mentioned in these discussions except those
now considered canonical. None of these are treated as candi-
dates for admission to the canon, but rather the rabbis seem to
be testing a status quo which has existed beyond memory. None
of the discussions hint at recent vintage of the works under con-
sideration or deny them traditional authorship. Instead it ap-
pears that the rabbis are troubled by purely internal problems,
such as theology, apparent contradictions, or seemingly unsuit-
The books discussed are not all in the present third division
of the Hebrew Bible known as the Writings, Kethubim, or
Hagiographa, and therefore it does not appear that the distinc-
tion between the second and third division has anything to do
with the history of the Old Testament canon. In fact, it is not
clear that the present threefold division goes back into the first
century A.D. At the least, such an arrangement faced strong
competition from other groupings in this period. The suggestion
of Wilson and others for a later origin of this grouping seems
to fit the available evidence better than that of a three-stage
The decisions of the rabbis in the canonical discussions at
Jamnia and elsewhere doubtless had some influence in what
became orthodox Judaism, for these discussions, together with
thousands on a vast array of other subjects, eventually became
a part of the Babylonian Talmud and other early rabbinical
literature. But no text of any specific decision has come down
to us (nor, apparently, even to Akiba and his students). Rather,
it appears that a general consensus already existed regarding the
extent of the category called Scripture, so that even the author
of 4 Ezra, though desiring to add one of his own, was obliged
to recognize this consensus in his distinction between public
and hidden Scripture.
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