Synod of Jamnia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Synod of Jamnia finalized the contents of the Jewish scripture into the three major divisions of the Old Testament: the Law, or Torah; the Prophets, or Nevi՚im; and the Writings, or Kethuvim.

Summary of Event

The Synod of Jamnia finally closed the canon of Jewish Scripture, a corpus that profoundly influenced the character and content of all Western religion. The development of the Hebrew canon, like that of the Christian, was a gradual and complicated process. Originally the message of God was preserved orally, the prophecies of Amos being the first utterance written down as a book, in the eighth century b.c.e. The notion of inspired writing appears to have grown out of prophecy. Much of the canonization process came about without datable formal pronouncements; specific synods or councils participating in canonization development merely ratified what common consent had already recognized as authoritative. The history of the canonization of the Jewish Scripture, however, can be simplified if the three major divisions of the Old Testament—the Law, or Torah; the Prophets, or Nevi’im; and the Writings, or Kethuvim—are isolated and studied in turn. Josiah Ezra Johanan ben Zakkai

The core of the Pentateuch is Deuteronomy, a book discovered under strange circumstances in the Temple of Jerusalem as late as 621 b.c.e. in the reign of Josiah. It was immediately regarded as Yahweh’s word and given government enforcement. By the mid-sixth century, the early history of the Jews, the story of the patriarchs, Exodus, and Kings became so popular that the Deuteronomic code was inserted into it to form a corpus. When Ezra reputedly read the book “of the law” before the people in 444 b.c.e., he gave the Pentateuch an unusual endorsement as the work of Moses and the surest bulwark of a Jewish theocratic community struggling for security and identity in the aftermath of the exile. By 250 b.c.e., when the Pentateuch was translated into Greek, it was commonly accepted as the bible of the Jews. Its canonization must have taken place about 150 years earlier, about 400 b.c.e., judging from the fact that the Samaritans knew it as Scripture before their secession from Judaism about that time. The first five books of the law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were apparently removed from the historical narrative of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings with which they had been associated one by one over the years, and given a unique authority never to be shared equally by later canonized books. The Torah was widely circulated as authoritative and was read extensively in synagogues.

Other books gradually began to receive recognition. The eight historical and prophetic books came to be grouped together as “the Prophets” (the former prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings; and the latter prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets). By 200 b.c.e., their religious and patriotic popularity together with their supposed prophetic visions of a restored Jerusalem after the degradation of the exile made them desirable in synagogue worship; the four historical books, or former prophets, and the four books of latter prophets were in some sort of final edition by the same date, judging on one hand from the inclusion of definite third century materials and on the other from the absence in the corpus of Daniel, which was written in 164 b.c.e. Clearly the canonization of the law and the prophets can at best be only approximately dated because no definite event can be associated with their official recognition.

The third section to be given official status is called simply “the Writings,” eleven works with little in common. Some are poetical, like Job; some are prophetic, like Daniel; and some are historical, like Chronicles. Others conveniently grouped together as “the Five Scrolls” became associated with one another merely as synagogue readings. One by one, books in this third section came to enter the canonical orbit soon after 200 b.c.e. Proverbs and Job were quickly accepted; Daniel was recognized shortly after its publication. By the beginning of the Christian era, most of the books in this third grouping were accepted as Jewish Scripture, but some were controversial, including Song of Songs with its love poetry, Ecclesiastes because of its skepticism and pessimism, and Esther with its secular note. By the time of Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 b.c.e.-c. 45 c.e.), the canon seems to have been well recognized; he is careful to quote no book outside the official corpus although he does not quote from all.

Between 90 and 100 c.e., the city of Jamnia or Jabneh became the scene of the last act in the process of canonization. Jamnia was a city in Palestine a few miles south of Jaffa; it had once been the property of Herod the Great (d. 4 b.c.e.), and it was later passed to Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus (63 b.c.e.-14 c.e.). After the time of Alexander Jannaeus (d. c. 78 b.c.e.) it became a center of Jewish culture, and it was here that Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, a member of the defunct Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, received permission from the emperor Vespasian (9-79 c.e.) to establish a sort of academy or sanhedrin. About 90 c.e., a synod of rabbis met in this new center of authority and learning to discuss and fix the canon. The need was urgent because of the confusion then arising through Christians quoting from books that they regarded as canonical but were not recognized as such by Palestinian Hebrews. By closing the canon of the writings, the Hebrew Bible was officially closed at twenty-four books. Flavius Josephus (c. 37-c. 100 c.e.) about the same time listed twenty-two authorized books, preferring to follow the arrangement of the Greek version.

Agreement prevailed, although there were some local variations in the list of canonical books especially among Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria. In addition, esoteric sects often tended to give their secret writings a semicanonical status. The Torah, however, remained the word of God par excellence to all.

Significance

In all ancient religions, gods communicate with human beings spontaneously or in response to questions. This communication comes through visions or dreams, or directly through prophecy. Because the Jews enjoyed an unparalleled opportunity to hear the word of God through prophets rather than by other means, it becomes understandable why they arrived at the conclusion that God wanted his message written down in books. The unusual notion of an inspired scripture is a major contribution to religion by Judaism, one adopted later by Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. The preservation of prophetic materials seems, in retrospect, haphazard. Some were gathered together accidentally; the words of the ninth century b.c.e. prophets, Elijah, Elisha, and Micaiah ben Imlah, for instance, were incorporated in Kings. Beginning with Amos, the sayings of individual prophets were preserved in separate books. Canonization of the materials was another process, generally protracted. Thus Amos’s writings were not officially recognized until five and a half centuries had elapsed; in Amos’s day itself the concept of inspired scripture did not exist. The very diversity of the books in the canon is surprising when one compares the Jewish scriptures with those of Christianity or Islam. Much material was selected on the basis of patriotism, for Judaism, despite its great monotheistic thrust entailing a degree of universalism, never lost its nationalistic quality. Material of a secular nature included in the canon came to be endowed through allegory with profound religious significance originally alien to it.

Jesus himself did not regard the Scriptures as complete or a final revelation. Sometimes they contained temporary dispensations, such as divorce in the law of Moses, which were considered in opposition to the fundamental law of God. Although Paul deprecated the law and preferred to base his religion on a mystical conception of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Old Testament Septuagint remained authoritative in the early Church because Christians needed the fulfillment of prophecies and promises in the Old Testament to guarantee the divinity of Jesus. Matthew and John especially emphasize the fulfillment of prophesy in the person of Jesus. Thus the Old Testament conversely and indirectly contributed much to Christianity. The Christians appropriated the Old Testament when the Church became in its mind the New Israel, the New Jerusalem. The institutions of Judaism outlined in the canon became forerunners, symbols, and shadows of what was to come. New Testament writers regarded the canon of the Old Testament in different ways. Paul saw the law as largely negative; while John was often anti-Jewish, the Book of Revelation was quite friendly. All, however, agreed that the old canon was divinely inspired. New Testament writers quoted widely from their predecessors, the early Church Fathers, especially those writing during the formation of the Christian scriptures, borrowing freely from the Old Testament.

It is not surprising then that the Jews at Jamnia felt the need to determine the exact content of the Hebrew canon in the face of haphazard Christian usage. Those who would impugn the historicity of Christianity by disconnecting it from the Old Testament, as Marcion (c. 120-c. 160 c.e.) and the Gnostics tried to do, were generally considered heretics. Tatian (fl. second century c.e.) recognized several important contributions of the Old Testament to Christianity: it helped to form the doctrines and institutions of the Church, it nourished piety through liturgical and private readings, it provided norms of conduct, and it opened promises of a glorious future. To the present, the Old Testament remains a pattern of faith and edification for the Jew, an ultimate source of doctrine for the Christian, and an assurance of Providence for both.

In short, the Jewish concept of a canon, of books as a norm for religion, is in itself an interesting and unique phenomenon, one far from the ancient classical mind. More significant, probably, is the closing of the canon. It implies that, since the days of Ezra, God no longer spoke to his people through prophets. Judaism became the religion of a book or biblos. Additional revelation had to come through exegesis, commentaries, or the employment of tradition. Acceptance of tradition in turn led inevitably to a splintering of Jewish sects. Christians, refusing to accept the thesis that God no longer walked and talked to men, felt the necessity of recognizing a “new” testament with additional insights into the psychology of the Godhead and his economy. However, adoption of the Hebrew canon with slight variations gave the new Christian community retroactive respectability in history.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cross, Frank Moore. From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Chapters 10 and 11 deal with the establishment and stabilization of the Hebrew canon. Illustrations and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Philip R. Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. Discusses the idea of canons generally and the control and operation of the technology of writing in the ancient world, reviews various approaches taken by scholars regarding these issues in Judaism, summarizes Israelite and Judaean history from the monarchic to the Roman periods, and considers the transition of canonical collections of literature into the Holy Books.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grabbe, Lester L. Judaic Religion in the Second Temple Period: Belief and Practice from Exile to Yavneh. New York: Routledge, 2000. A holistic examination of the development of Judaism. Chapter 9 deals with the construction of the canon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leiman, Sid Z. The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Connecticut Academy of the Arts, 1991. Discusses the process by which the Hebrew canon evolved and was closed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinmann, Andrew. The Oracles of God: The Old Testament Canon. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1999. Argues that the canon was essentially established during the Persian period. Reviews all evidence and the process of closing the canon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vanderkam, James C. An Introduction to Early Judaism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2000. A lucid yet scholarly introduction to the formation of Judaism. Discusses history, worship, and literature, explaining the process by which the Jewish canon was established.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Ezra; Herod the Great; Johanan ben Zakkai; Flavius Josephus.

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