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Was Hebrew Bible Canonized at Jamnia?

Was Hebrew Bible Canonized at Jamnia?

Jamnia or Yavneh (יַבְנֶה) in the 1st century AD was a small town located along Israel’s southern coastal plain between Jaffa and Ashdod. It is believed that Jamnia hosted the discussions pertaining to the establishment of the Jewish canon and Hebrew Bible was canonized in Jamnia. According to rabbinic sources, when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by Titus in 70 AD, Yochanan ben Zakkai (a leading Pharisaic proto-rabbinic leader who opposed the Saddusaic leadership) established a center of learning in Jamnia. This attracted proto-rabbinic scholars to this area.

Since the late nineteenth century, many scholars have believed that in approximately 90 AD a religious council convened in Jammia and closed the boundaries of what eventually became the Jewish canon. According to the Talmud, after the Temple’s destruction, Jamnia gradually became a new spiritual center in Israel. Israel’s legislative body (the Great Beit Din later referred to as the Sanhedrin) relocated to Jamnia (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 31a). Other names often associated with Jamnia are Gamliel II, the leader of Bet Din and Akiva ben Joseph, a charismatic leader from the days of Bar Kochba Revolt.

The idea of the Council of Jamnia was first introduced by Heinrich Graetz in 1871. It was assumed that since Christians had the Nicean and Chalcedonian councils to establish such matters, something similar must have taken place in Jamnia at the turn of the century. This was an assumption built on Christian history. Graetz’s theory became a widely accepted view of scholars of his day. Phrases such as “on that day” contained in rabbinic discussions (Mishna, Yadaim 3:5-4:4 and Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28a) on the topic of authority of books created an impression that this was a deliberation that took place during a single day’s session, thus creating the misnomer of the Council of Jamnia. Since the 1960s, Graetz’s theory has been questioned. (Jack P. Lewis, Lee M. McDonald, James A.)

Since the 1960s, Graetz’s theory and his assumption has been questioned. (Jack P. Lewis, Lee M. McDonald, James A. Sanders and Sid Z. Leiman and others). Today modern scholars are skeptical as to whether there was ever a synod or a council in Jamnia dedicated specifically to matters of canonization. But in popular thinking, this theory of canonization survives.

There are several important ancient sources (Josephus, Against Apion 1:8; 4 Ezra 14:44-45, Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b and others) which indicate that a generally accepted list of sacred writings already existed in the days of Jamnia. The Jamnia sages, for example, explored the merits of Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Proverbs, and Ezekiel as reported in traditional Jewish sources. However, their inquiries into selected teachings, contained within those books, should not be seen as an attempt to determine the inspiration of those works, canonize or settle the status of those books.

Whether the sages held a special council or if their discussions about the holy books were ongoing, the enduring significance of Jamnia lies not in the closing of the Jewish canon, but in ensuring the cultural and religious survival of the Jewish people. The story of the canon of Hebrew Bible is long. It did not emerge in a way the New Testament did as some imagine.

But Yavneh is still important! Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was fragmented into various sects. The Jamnia sages intentionally promoted an inclusive, pluralistic and non-sectarian Judaism. In light of new circumstances, they created a more flexible system of Torah interpretation that accounted for diversity and charted a new way to relate to God and his covenant with Israel (Shaye Cohen). They shaped the possibility of new Jewish faith and life without sacrifices, priesthood and the centrality of the Jerusalem Temple.

The spiritual developments that took shape at Jamnia proved to be very timely. The Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132-135 AD) further destabilized the Jewish society. The loss of countless lives, destruction of Jerusalem itself, the expulsion of Jews from its vicinity and widespread persecutions under Hadrian devastated the nation and brought a new era of Jewish life outside of Judea (Josephus, Jewish Wars VI. 9.3; Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIX, 14:1). After the Bar Kochba Revolt in the days of

After the Bar Kochba Revolt in the days of Antoninus the Yavneh scholars established a new center in the Galilean city of Usha (140 AD) and continued their task of preserving traditions and interpretations of Torah that became the foundation of Mishna. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 31b, Song of Songs Rabba II. 5).


I am an educator, researcher, a faculty member and an avid believer in online education. My specialties are Sacred Texts and Cultures (Second Temple period, early Judaism and nascent Christianity). I am passionate about meaning, context, and cultural transmission of ancient texts. My preoccupations with history, ancient languages and contextual interpretation often find expression in my blog posts. Every human has a pretext, every message has a context. Context changes everything! Enjoy reading.

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