“Council of Jamnia” and Old Testament Book Collection

by Steve Ray on February 4, 2017

The Old Testament Canon and the “Council of Jamnia”

Many popular myths are believed simply because people want to believe them—not because they are true. Wishful thinking is a poor substitute for truth. It is always preferable for one to dig deep and discover the facts and not just believe things because one wants them to be true.

IMG_6527In order to reject the Catholic Bible, it is popular in some Protestant circles to claim that the Jews had a closed canon of Scripture in the first century and that the early Christians accepted this final Jewish collection of inspired writings as final and binding upon the Church. The Council of Jamnia is usually assumed as the “proof” for this assertion. At the “Council of Jamnia” 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 Jamnia”. Second, did 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 very importantly, if such a decision had been made, would the Christian be bound by that decision? We will conclude with the teaching of the Catholic Church and why we can so securely trust it.

First, 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 Protestant Old Testament. These seven writings are called the deutero-canonicals, 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, 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 the Jewish Scriptures, but they were not included in the Hebrew Masoretic text.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kidane-Mehret February 6, 2017 at 12:04 PM

I have two questions. Why would the Jews chose to close the Jewish Scriptures if they were still waiting for the Messiah? It is illogical to think that God would stop sending them prophets to instruct and guide them during their anticipation of the coming of their Messiah, since they rejected Jesus. Also, the story of Hanukkah is recorded in the 2 books of Maccabees. If the 2 books are not accepted as part of the Jewish Scriptures, how are the celebrations explained? Is the story recorded in other books of the Jewish Scriptures, or are they relying solely on Tradition?

STEVE RAY HERE: You are correct about the Jews and their canon. They did NOT close the canon even in the first century AD. Different Jews had different collections of books, example Sadducees only accepted the first five books. Also, one does not have to consider a book “inspired” to learn from it or take it as true history, but your point is well taken.

Kidane-Mehret February 7, 2017 at 3:52 PM

Thank you for your quick response. I am Eritrean who grew up in Ethiopia and while our Orthodox brethren’s canon include around 81 books the Ethiopian Jews canon only include few books of the Old Testament. In that part of the world, more than the books it is Tradition that holds a higher place to live out the faith, mainly because few people knew how to read and write. It is also commonly believed that little knowledge is dangerous to the faith, but the full participation in the Mysteries (Sacraments) guarantees one’s path to holiness. One is called to study Scripture and doesn’t get to chose it out of intellectual curiosity. Being a Ge’ez Rite Catholic (Ethiopian/Eritrean ancient eastern church in communion with the Pope) the Protestants claim that the Catholic Church got corrupted by introducing European pagan beliefs and rituals from the middle ages (or right after the death of the apostles or the 4th century depending on who I talk to) never made sense to me. The Church is catholic not parochial (pun intended:)) I am not educated in theology but using common sense, I can only deduce that the only way 2 people from separate continents with completely different historical experiences to end up having the same organic form of worship (Divine Liturgy/The Mass) both claiming having received it from the Apostles prove to me that their claim can only be true.
I was once talking to a Baptist who wanted to save me from the “grip of the European pagan church” and he was quite offended that I would embrace Catholicism coming from an Orthodox country. I really didn’t understand why he thought I betrayed my people and my heritage. I was new to America and I really took it as a language barrier thinking maybe I didn’t express myself properly as English is not my first language. When I told him that the Orthodox and Catholics share the same Divine Liturgy originating from the Alexandrian rite handed down by St. Mark as tradition has it, he really thought I was making that up. When I mentioned that it was everybody else who protested against the ancient Church and the teachings of the Apostles, he told me that he was not protesting against anything because he was a Baptist, rendering me speechless. I guess he mistook my dumbfounded silence to mean I was affirming him in his belief and he made the mistake of starting to bash my Mom, the Holy Virgin Mary (also known as Emiye Mariam in Ethiopia, meaning my mommy Mary… not kidding). I could only muster the charity to warn him to never, ever, ever speak about the Blessed Mother in such an irreverent manner especially to an Ethiopian whether he/she is Orthodox or Catholic. I was young and hot tempered then, nowadays I just tell people who think I worship her not to offend Her Son by denying her the honor bestowed on her by the Almighty in their zeal to prove me wrong. Instead I say, if you want to pick on Catholicism, pick on any other Catholic even the Saints or the Pope if you wish but not the Virgin Mary, The Burning Bush That Was Never Consumed as she is known in the East. One Protestant told me “Mary was not Catholic!” I just said “Are you for real?” Yes, my English and my understanding of what it means to be protestant got better:).

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