Council of Jamnia

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The Council of Jamnia, presumably held in Yavneh, was a hypothetical late 1st-century council at which the canon of the Hebrew Bible was alleged to have been finalized. First proposed by Heinrich Graetz in 1871, this theory was popular for much of the 20th century. However, it was increasingly questioned from the 1960s onward and the theory has been largely discredited.[1]


The Talmud relates that some time before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai relocated to the city of Yavne/Jamnia, where he received permission from the Romans to found a school of halakha (Jewish religious law).[2]

The theory

The Mishnah, compiled at the end of the 2nd century, describes a debate over the status of some books of Ketuvim, and in particular over whether or not they render the hands "impure". Yadaim 3:5 calls attention to a debate over Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. The Megillat Taanit, in a discussion of days when fasting is prohibited but that are not noted in the Bible, mentions the holiday of Purim. Based on these, and a few similar references, Heinrich Graetz concluded in 1871 that there had been a Council of Jamnia (or Yavne in Hebrew) which had decided the Jewish canon sometime in the late 1st century (c. 70–90).[3]


W. M. Christie was the first to dispute this popular theory in the July 1925 edition of The Journal of Theological Studies in an article entitled "The Jamnia Period in Jewish History". Jack P. Lewis wrote a critique of the popular consensus in the April 1964 edition of the Journal of Bible and Religion entitled "What Do We Mean by Jabneh?". Sid Z. Leiman made an independent challenge for his University of Pennsylvania thesis published later as a book in 1976. Raymond E. Brown largely supported Lewis in his review published in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (also appears in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary of 1990), as did Lewis' discussion of the topic in 1992's Anchor Bible Dictionary.[4]

Albert C. Sundberg Jr. summarized the crux of Lewis' argument as follows:

Jewish sources contain echoes of debate about biblical books but canonicity was not the issue and debate was not connected with Jabneh... Moreover, specific canonical discussion at Jabneh is attested only for Chronicles and Song of Songs. Both circulated prior to Jabneh. There was vigorous debate between Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel over Chronicles and Song; Beth Hillel affirmed that both "defile the hands." One text does speak of official action at Jabneh. It gives a blanket statement that "all Holy Scripture defile the hands," and adds "on the day they made R. Eleazar b. Azariah head of the college, the Song of Songs and Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) both render the hands unclean" (M. Yadayim 3.5). Of the apocryphal books, only Ben Sira is mentioned by name in rabbinic sources and it continued to be circulated, copied and cited. No book is ever mentioned in the sources as being excluded from the canon at Jabneh.[5]

According to Lewis:

The concept of the Council of Jamnia is an hypothesis to explain the canonization of the Writings (the third division of the Hebrew Bible) resulting in the closing of the Hebrew canon. ... These ongoing debates suggest the paucity of evidence on which the hypothesis of the Council of Jamnia rests and raise the question whether it has not served its usefulness and should be relegated to the limbo of unestablished hypotheses. It should not be allowed to be considered a consensus established by mere repetition of assertion.

Other scholars have since joined in and today the theory is largely discredited.[6]


  1. McDonald & Sanders, editors, The Canon Debate, 2002, chapter 9: Jamnia Revisited by Jack P. Lewis.
  2. Talmud Gittin 56a–b, p.95, Kantor
  3. Graetz, Heinrich (1871). "Der alttestamentliche Kanon und sein Abschluss (The Old Testament Canon and its finalisation)". Kohélet, oder der Salomonische Prediger (Kohélet, or Ecclesiastes) (in German). Leipzig: Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandlung. pp. 147–173. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. III, pp. 634–7 (New York 1992).
  5. "The Old Testament of the Early Church" Revisited 1997
  6. McDonald & Sanders, editors, The Canon Debate, 2002, chapter 9: Jamnia Revisited by Jack P. Lewis.


  • Kantor, Mattis, The Jewish timeline encyclopaedia: a year-by-year history from Creation to the present day, Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale N.J., 1992

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