ROBERT C. NEWMAN The Council of Jamnia and the Old Testament Canon

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                              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-

          xerxes. who succeeded Xerxes as king of Persia, the prophets


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 (New York:

Atheneum, 1969, reprint of 1931 edn.)

   Tos. - Tosefta

   I thank Dr. Robert A. Kraft of the University of Pennsylvania for his

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-

Spirit departed from Israel,"4 so that inspiration was thought

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

York: Harper and Row, 1965, from 3rd German edn., 1964), p. 563n.

   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.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), II, p. 620.

   9 4 Ezra 14:44-45.

   10 R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids,

Mich.: Eerdmans, 1969), p. 214.

   11 Herbert Edward Ryle, The Canon of the Old Testament (London:

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

Church of Christ filmstrip, How the Old Testament Came to Be,


          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 school of Johanan ben Zakkai


   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.


   18 Ibid.

   19 Carl E. Berges, How the Old Testament Came to Be: Script for

Adults (Philadelphia: Christian Education Press 1958), p. 10.

   20 Alice Parmelee, A Guidebook to the Bible (New York: Harper and

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 Temple, the scribes and learned men of 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 Jerusalem by the Romans (A.D. 70)

          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

consistent here:

          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,

p. 871.

   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.

   28 Ibid.

   29 Aage Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament (2 vols., 2nd edn.;

Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad Publisher, 1952), I, p. 28.

   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 of Jamnia are known to

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

(Judah the Prince), who was born in A.D. 135 and died about

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 (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1933).

   35 Isidore Epstein, ed., The Babylonian Talmud (35 vols.; London:

The Soncino Press, 1935-52).



Aba, a friend and disciple of Rabbi,36 so that the Tosefta is

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

cited here.

          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: Selections (London:

S.P.C.K., 1926).

42 Encyclopaedia Judaica (16 vols.; New York: Macmillan, 1971-71.) ,

see relevant articles.

43 H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah (10 vols. ;

London: The Soncino Press, 1939).

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.; Leiden: E. J. Brill,


                    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 Jamnia, located near the coast of Palestine

south of Jaffa, is still inhabited and called Yabneh. Although

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,

which moved there from Jerusalem, later moved to Usha, then

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

and Usha.

          R. Johanan ben Zakkai seems to have been instrumental in

the establishment of the Great Sanhedrin at Jamnia. During the

siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, he is said to have escaped

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

          Jabneh, but was taken to the Great Beth Din in Jerusalem


1973); A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai (2nd edn.; Leiden: E. J. Brill,

1970); The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 (3 vols.;

Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971).

    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

Sanhedrin at Jamnia even before the siege of Jerusalem, as free

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

Jamnia succeeded Jerusalem as the place where the pilgrim

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

          it ...125


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 Jerusalem, then, there was apparently

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

   129 Ibid.

   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

defile the hands," although it is clear that "hiding a book" ind-

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

into judgment."141

          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

not recounted.143

          Proverbs was claimed to be self-contradictory because of

Proverbs 26:4,5:

          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

into agreement.144

          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


   140 Ibid.

   141 MR, Eccl. 1. 3. 1.

   142 BT, Shabb. 13b.

   143 Ibid.

   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

more specific.

          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

fall of Jerusalem, and no known rabbis of Jamnia are mentioned

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

every indication of having occurred before the fall of Jerusalem

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.

   161 Ibid.

   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,

and three of Akiba's later students, Judah, Jose, and Simeon.175

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

beyond this.179


   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,

Origen, Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Jerome, and

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.

   189 Ibid.

   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

Baba Bathra.

          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 Jamnia had both a rabbinical school (Beth ha-

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),

pp. 201-14.

   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

Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1972; reprint of vol. I : 1917, vol. II

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-

able content.

          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.


Biblical School of Theology,

Hatfield, Pennsylvania



            Westminster Theological Seminary

            Chestnut Hill

            Philadelphia,  PA   19118




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