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The Council That Wasn’t

Answering the claim that a supposed "Council of Jamnia" decided the Jewish canon of the Old Testament

Many myths are believed not because they are true but simply because people want to believe them. But wishful thinking is a poor substitute for truth. It is always preferable to dig deep and discover the facts and not believe things only because you want them to be true.

For instance, it is popular in some Protestant circles to claim that the Jews had a closed canon of Scripture in the first century A.D. and that the early Christians accepted this final Jewish collection of inspired writings as final and binding upon the Church. Generally, the Council of Jabneh (usually referred to in Catholic literature as Jamnia) is assumed as the “proof” for this assertion. At the “Council of Jabneh,” you see, the Jewish rabbis supposedly got together—something like an ecumenical council in the Catholic Church—to lay down specific criteria for inspired Scripture and to finally define and close the Old Testament canon.

Is this true? First, we will look at how various authors defend the Protestant exclusion of seven books based on a flawed understanding of the so-called “Council of Jabneh.” Second, did the members of this “council” actually discuss the limit of the Old Testament canon, and third, if so, did they have the authority to close the canon? Fourth, did they actually compile a final list of accepted writings, and, fifth—and importantly—if such a decision had been made, would the Christians be bound by that decision? We will conclude with the teaching of the Catholic Church and why we can trust it.

Let’s clarify a few terms. The canon of Scripture refers to the final collection of inspired books included in the Bible. The Catholic Bible contains seven books that do not appear in the Protestant Old Testament. These seven writings are called the deuterocanonicals or the Second Law. Protestants usually call these writings the Apocrypha (meaning hidden), books they consider outside the canon. These seven writings include 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Wisdom, and Baruch, along with additional passages in Daniel and Esther. Before the time of Christ, these writings were included in the Jewish Greek Septuagint (LXX)—the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture—but they were not included in the Hebrew Masoretic text.

The Jewish Canon

The vast majority of Jews in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. lived outside of Israel. They were called the diaspora, those dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. Many had become Hellenized—that is, they had taken on the Greco-Roman culture, including the Greek language. The Septuagint, containing the deuterocanonical books, was the main Bible used by these Jews of the diaspora.

Most non-Christian Jews of the first century A.D. considered the Church to be a heretical and misinformed Jewish cult, probably similar to the way Christians look at the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses of today. In the first century, several decades after the life of Christ, the majority of early Christians were Gentiles, and they used the Greek Septuagint as their Old Testament, following the example of the Greek-speaking Jews, including Jesus and the apostles (note 1, sidebar, page 25).

When Christians began to use this Greek translation to convert Jews to the faith, the Jews began to detest it (note 2, sidebar, page 25). Does it surprise anyone that they would condemn the canon and translation the Christians used, even if it was originally translated, approved of, and put into circulation by the Jews themselves three hundred and fifty years earlier (c. 250 B.C.)? The early Church, following the Greek Septuagint and the apostles’ extensive use of it (Paul took most of his Old Testament quotations from it), accepted the deuterocanonical books. When the canon was finally closed by the councils of the Catholic Church, these books were included.

The so-called “Council of Jabneh” was a group of Jewish scholars who were granted permission by Rome around the year 90 to meet in Palestine near the Mediterranean Sea in Jabneh (or Jamnia). Here they established a non-authoritative, “reconstituted” Sanhedrin. Among the things they discussed was the status of several questionable writings in the Jewish Bible. They also rejected the Christian writings and made a new translation of the Greek Septuagint.

Since many Protestant authors have appealed to the “Council of Jabneh” in their case against the deuterocanonical books contained in the Catholic Bible, it will serve us well to look at a few examples.

In his popular book Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (co-authored by Ralph MacKenzie [Baker Books, 1995]), Norman Geisler, dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary, denies the Catholic canon of the Old Testament, claiming that the Jewish rabbis at Jabneh excluded the deuterocanonical books received by Catholics and that the canon was fixed (meaning finalized) at Jabneh.

Geisler writes, “The Jewish scholars at Jabneh (c. A.D. 90) did not accept the Apocrypha as part of the divinely inspired Jewish canon. Since the New Testament explicitly states that Israel was entrusted with the oracles of God and was the recipient of the covenants and the Law (Rom. 3:2), the Jews should be considered the custodians of the limits of their own canon. And they have always rejected the Apocrypha” (169). And though Geisler seems to deny the authority of the rabbis at Jabneh in one place in his A General Introduction to the Bible (with W. E. Nix [Moody Press, 1996]), he later relays in a chart, “Council of Jabneh (A.D. 90), Old Testament Canon fixed” (286).

Geisler is not alone in his assertion that the Apocrypha was rejected and the final Old Testament canon was fixed at Jabneh. It seems to be a common legend that is used as “proof” to bolster up an ahistorical and incorrect assumption. Before we take a look at the myth, we will demonstrate how it is often appealed to. A couple more quick examples of this false reliance on the “Council of Jabneh” will suffice:

“At the end of the first Christian century, the Jewish rabbis, at the Council of Gamnia [Jamnia], closed the canon of the Hebrew book (those considered authoritative)” (Jimmy Swaggart, Catholicism & Christianity [Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, 1986], 129).

“After Jerusalem’s destruction, Jamnia became the home of the Great Sanhedrin. Around 100, a council of rabbis there established the final canon of the OT” (Ed. Martin, Ralph P., and Peter H. Davids, Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments [InterVarsity Press, 2000, c1997], 185).

Though many are now recognizing that Jabneh did not exclude the deuterocanonical books or authoritatively close the Old Testament canon, there are still plenty of sources that claim and assume that it did.

Did Jabneh Have Authority?

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the “council” in Jabneh in 90 was not even an “official” council with binding authority to make such a decision:

“After the fall of Jerusalem (A.D.70), an assembly of religious teachers was established at Jabneh; this body was regarded as to some extent replacing the Sanhedrin, though it did not possess the same representative character or national authority. It appears that one of the subjects discussed among the rabbis was the status of certain biblical books (e.g. Eccles. and Song of Solomon) whose canonicity was still open to question in the 1st century A.D. The suggestion that a particular synod of Jabneh, held c. 100 A.D., finally settling the limits of the Old Testament canon, was made by H. E. Ryle; though it has had a wide currency, there is no evidence to substantiate it” (ed. by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston [Oxford Univ. Press, 861], emphasis added).

Isn’t it interesting that the Jews did not have a “closed canon” of Scripture during the time of Christ, before 100, or even after Jabneh? Even during the time of Christ there were competing opinions on what books actually belonged in the Jewish Bible. There were various collections in existence. Sadducees and Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch, the first five books, whereas the Pharisees accepted a fuller canon including Psalms and the prophets. The Masoretic text did not contain the deuterocanonicals, whereas the widely used Greek Septuagint did.

This uncertainty continued well into the second century. The discussion over the books of the canon of the Old Testament continued among the Jews long after Jabneh, which demonstrates that the canon was still under discussion in the third century—well beyond the apostolic period. The challenges to canonicity at Jabneh involved only Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, but the debate over the canon continued past Jabneh, even into the second and third centuries. Even the Hebrew canon accepted by Protestants today was disputed by the Jews for two hundred years after Christ.

Some cautionary points should be noted here:

  1. Although Christian authors seem to think in terms of a formal council at Jabneh, there was no such thing. There was a school for studying the Law at Jabneh, and the rabbis there exercised legal functions in the Jewish community.
  2. Not only was there no formal council, there is no evidence that any list of books was drawn up at Jabneh.
  3. A specific discussion of acceptance at Jabneh is attested only for the books of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. Even so, arguments regarding these books persisted in Judaism centuries after the Jabneh period. There were also subsequent debates about Esther.
  4. We know of no books that were excluded at Jabneh. In fact, Sirach, which was read and copied by Jews after the Jabneh period, did not eventually become part of the standard Hebrew Bible (cf. Raymond Edward Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland Edmund Murphy, The Jerome Biblical Commentary [Prentice-Hall, 1996, c. 1968], vol. 2, 522).

Why the Church Rejects the Jewish Canon

Even if the rabbis at Jabneh did have the authority to make such a canonical determination and had closed the canon, who says they had the authority from God to make such a binding determination? Why should Christians accept their determination? God had publicly turned aside from the Jews as his “prophetic voice” twenty years earlier when Jerusalem was destroyed and razed by fire. God judged them and rejected their old wineskins. The old wine and wineskin (Judaism) was now replaced by new wine (the gospel) and new wineskins (the Church). Why accept the unauthoritative rabbis’ determination rather than the Church’s?

There is a further reason we should not rely on the first-century Jews for their determination of the canon, even if they had made such a determination: The rabbis of Jabneh eventually provided a new translation in Greek to replace their previous translation of the Septuagint. Why? Because the Gentile Christians were using the Septuagint for apologetic and evangelistic purposes—in other words, they were converting the Jews using their own Greek Scriptures!

For example, they were using it to prove the virginal birth of Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 7:14 is rendered, “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son,” whereas the Greek Septuagint, quoted by Matthew (1:23), renders it, “A virgin shall be with child and bear a son” (emphasis added). The rabbis who supposedly “determined” the final Protestant canon also authorized a new Greek translation specifically to hinder the gospel. Aquila, the Jewish translator of the new version, denied the Virgin Birth and changed the Greek word from virgin to young woman.

One of the key issues in the first-century Jewish mind regarding the canon was not necessarily inspiration but resisting the Christian evangelization of the Jews and Gentiles. It was an issue of Jew versus the new Christian teaching and the Christians’ use of the Jewish Greek Scripture. It would seem rather strange for a Protestant to choose the truncated canon chosen by the Jewish leaders and by so doing fall on the side of the anti-Christian, disenfranchised Jew in this matter.

We do not know much about the deliberations at Jabneh, but we do know that they mentioned the Gospels of the New Testament. They mentioned them specifically in order to reject them. F. F. Bruce writes, “Some disputants also asked whether the Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sira (Ecclesiasticus), and the gilyonim (Aramaic Gospel writings) and other books of the minim (heretics, including Jewish Christians), should be admitted, but here the answer was uncompromisingly negative” (The Books and the Parchments [Fleming H. Revell, 1984], 88).

Many Protestants accept the Jewish opposition to the Catholic canon of Scripture because it supports them in their anti-Catholicism. Catholics, on the other hand, have accepted the determination and canon of the new covenant people of God, those who are the new priesthood (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9), the new wineskin. As we noticed earlier, Geisler comments, “Since the New Testament explicitly states that Israel was entrusted with the oracles of God and was the recipient of the covenants and the Law, the Jews should be considered the custodians of the limits for their own canon” (Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, 169).

Am I supposed to accept the alleged determination of the rabbis as authoritative and binding upon my soul, when the mantle of authority has been passed on to the Church by an act of the Holy Spirit? Does Geisler give his readers this historical information and timeline, reminding them that God had turned aside from the Jewish people and destroyed their temple before their unauthoritative “council” rejected the Gospels and the “whole Christian canon,” including the New Testament?

The Jewish people had no closed canon prior to 300, and they “built a wall around it” to keep the Christians out. Why rely upon them? I accept the canon of the apostles and the early Church, which was determined by the bishops of the Church. And, like them, I do not accept the canon of anti-Christian Jewish leaders.

(Several Fathers, such as Jerome, accepted the Jewish Masoretic canon, but it was never an individual Father that made binding decisions for the Church; only the councils could do so.)

The canon of the Old Testament was not closed at Jabneh, nor were the deuterocanonicals excluded from the Old Testament there. Who has the authority from God to determine and close the canon of Scripture? Simply put, the Church. The Jewish hierarchy during the time of Christ claimed authority to bind and loose, which was a clearly understood technical term, but Jesus specifically appointed a new hierarchy over the “new Israel”—the Church—and transferred to this new magisterium the power to bind and loose (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). The Church was thus appointed to speak for God, and the final canon of Scripture would thus fall under its authority.

Protestant author Paul Achtemeier tells us, “Eastern and Roman Catholic tradition generally considered the Old Testament ‘apocryphal’ books to be canonical. It was not until the Protestant Reformation that these books were clearly denied canonical status (in Protestant circles). The Roman church, however, continues to affirm their place in the canon of Scripture” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 1st ed. [Harper & Row, c1985], 69).

At the Council of Trent the Church put the matter to rest by listing definitively the accepted books, which included the deuterocanonicals, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this list (CCC 120). This is the Catholic Bible we have today.

Isn’t it interesting that Martin Luther acknowledged the Catholic Church as the custodian of sacred Scripture when he wrote, “We concede—as we must—that so much of what they [the Catholic Church] say is true: that the papacy has God’s word and the office of the apostles, and that we have received holy scriptures, baptism, the sacrament, and the pulpit from them. What would we know of these if it were not for them?”

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