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July 15, 2007 / vivator

Jamnia Council and the (Jewish) Canon of the Old Testament

It is commonly believed that after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD, the Jews under the leadership of Yohanna ben Zakkai decided at Jamnia or Javneh (in c. 90 AD) to adopt the twenty-four books as their scripture (equal to 39 books of Protestant’s Old Testament).  However there is no evidence that there was the so-called Jamnia council who closed the canon of the Jewish scripture.  Jamnia hypothesis was made based on the following Jewish Mishnah, which actually only discusses the canonical status of Songs of Song and Ecclesiastes.  The hypothesis was proposed by Heinrich Graetz in 1871 (source: McDonald and Sanders: The Canon Debate, page 146) and was popularized in Ryle’s book: The Canon of the Old Testament, published in 1892.

If the writing in a scroll was erased yet there still remained eighty-five letters, as many as are in the paragraph:  And it came to pass when the Ark set forward …, it still renders the hands unclean.  A [single] written sheet [in a scroll of the Scripture] in which are written eighty-five letters, as many as are in the paragraph:  And it came to pass when the Ark set forward renders the hands unclean.   All the Holy Scriptures render the hands unclean.  The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes render the hands unclean.  R. Judah says: The Song of Songs renders the hands unclean, but about Ecclesiastes there is dissension.  R. Jose says: Ecclesiastes does not render the hands unclean, and about Songs of Song there is dissension.  R. Simeon says: Ecclesiastes is one of the things about which the School of Shammai adopted the more lenient, and the School of Hillel the more stringent ruling.  R. Simeon b Azzai said: I have heard a tradition from the seventy-two elders on the day when they made R. Eleazar b. Azariah head of the colleges [of Sages], the Songs of Song and Ecclesiastes both render the hands unclean.  R. Akibah said: God forbids! – no man in Israel ever disputed about the Songs of Song [that he should say] that it does not render the hands unclean, for all the ages are not worth the day in which the Songs of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.  And if aught was in dispute the dispute was about Ecclesiastes alone.  R Johannan b. Joshua, the son of R. Akiba’s father in law said: According to the words of Ben Azzai so did they dispute and so did they decide.

Mishnah, Sixth Division, Yadayim 3.5

Translated by Herbert Darby, Oxford University Press, pages 781-2

Mishnah is the oldest authoritative post-biblical collection and codification of Jewish oral laws, systematically compiled by numerous scholars over a period of about two centuries. The codification was given final form early in the 3rd century AD. The Mishnah supplements the written, or scriptural, laws found in the Pentateuch (extracted from Encyclopædia Britannica 2000). 

We have evidence that Jewish Talmud still considered Book of Sirach as inspired, i.e. as part of the Writings or Hagiographa.

Raba [again] said to Rabbah b. Mari: whence can be derived the popular saying, ‘A bad palm will usually make its way to a grove of barren trees’? – He replied: This matter was written in the Pentateuch, repeated in the Prophets, mentioned a third time in the Hagiographa, and also learnt in a Mishnah and taught in a baraitha:  It is stated in the Pentateuch as written, So Esau went unto Ishmael [Genesis 28:9], repeated in the prophets, as written, And there gathered themselves to Jephthah idle men and they went out with him [Judges 11:3], mentioned a third time in the Hagiographa, as written: Every fowl dwells near its kind and man near his equal [Sirach 13:15];

Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nazikin, Baba Kamma 92b

Translated by E.W. Kirzner, Soncino Press (1961)

…..And R Aha b. Jacob said: There is still another Heaven above the heads of the living creatures, for it is written: And over the heads of the living creature there was a likeness of a firmament, like the colour of the terrible ice, stretched forth over their heads above [Ezekiel 1:22].  Thus far you have permission to speak, thenceforward you have not permission to speak, for so it is written in the Book of Ben Sira: Seek not things that are too hard for thee, and search not out things that are hidden from thee. The things that have been permitted thee, think thereupon; thou hast no business with the things that are secret [Sirach 3:21-22]

Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Hagigah 13a,

Translated by Israel Abrahams, Soncino Press (1961)

Talmud is scholarly interpretations and annotations on the Mishna.  Each of two groups of Jewish scholars (amoraim), one in Palestine and the other in Babylonia, independently produced a Talmud. Although the two groups addressed the same Mishna and consulted with one another, their work resulted in two separate collections of law, lore, and commentary. The amoraim of Palestine laboured for about two centuries, completing their work c. 400 Ce, approximately one century earlier than their counterparts in Babylonia. The Babylonian Talmud is consequently more extensive than the Palestinian Talmud and, for that reason, more highly esteemed. (extracted from Encyclopædia Britannica 2000).

Encyclopaedia Judaica indicates that third part (the Writings or Ketuvim) remained open-ended until 2nd century AD. 

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to show that the collection of the Ketuvim as a whole, as well as some individual books within it, was not accepted as being finally closed until well into the second century c.e. [common era = AD]

As noted above, the practice of calling the entire Scriptures the “Torah and Prophets” presupposes a considerable lapse of time between the canonization of the second and third parts of the Bible.  The fact that the last division had no fixed name points in the same direction.  Even the finally adopted designation “Ketuvim” is indeterminate, since it is also used in Rabbinic Hebrew in the two senses of the Scriptures in general and in individual texts in particular.

Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 4 page 824



Leave a Comment
  1. Newchasm / Jul 23 2007 12:37 pm

    The jews fought over scripture beforehand. The sadducees accepted only the torah. The Pharisee’s accepted books of prophecy and books of wisdom (psalms proverbs etc). Jesus uses the torah to argue with the sadducees. He also accepts the other books as scripture. He was in the Pharisee branch of judiasm with some exposure to beliefs in other branches. Some questions asked of him were arguments between the two great rabbis of that tradition.

    With this idea of multiple scriptural books and jewish tradition, you need to realize only magi cannonized books. The earliest evidence of cannon came from a short annotated summery of several books considered scripture. Not a cannon as we understand it. A cannon was unofficial but existed.

    The pharisee line of judism was the largest sect. It was also the only one to survive and cannonize their OT. There were two types Alexandrian and Philistine Jews. They fought over the apocrypha but really more on the LXX. (septugent) Luther picked up the debate so he could be justified in moving them into a new section. Like Jerome. Luther still used the LXX greek OT to my understanding. KJV didn’t I think.

  2. JNORM888 / Jan 1 2009 5:14 pm

    Great post!!!


  3. friendly / Dec 26 2010 9:02 pm

    The original canon was the first five books the law.
    Next came the 2nd canon containint the prophets from Joshua to Malachi, and finally the Writings. What constitiutes all the Writings? Should it include Deteurocanonical or only Protocanical Wisdom books. I suppose it depends on how you interpret history

  4. vivator / Dec 27 2010 6:45 pm

    What you wrote is Jewish division of books of the Old Testament. Christian Old Testament follows Septuagint divisions: Law, Historical books, poetical books and the prophets.

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