Jamnia Revisited

After my post on the so-called “Council of Jamnia,” I’ve been turning the canon question over and over in my head. Today I read a great article that questions the historical rationale of the Protestant OT canon. It is “The Protestant Old Testament Canon: Should it Be Re-examined?” by A.C. Sundberg, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28(1966): 194-203. Sundberg gives a decently detailed history of the formation and defense of the Protestant OT canon from Luther to Metzger. He argues that the early Church inherited from pre-70 Judaism a very defined Pentateuch/Torah and a very defined canon of Prophets, but a very ill-defined collection of “Writings” which basically included wisdom literature, apocrypha and pseudepigrapha (199). Thus the formation of the Palestinian canon of the Hebrew Bible which arose after the destruction of the Temple was a Jewish process that occured after the Christian and Jewish communities had gone their separate ways. So the formation of the Christian OT canon was actually a distinct process, and a long-fought one considering it wasn’t finished until the Council of Trent.

Sundberg references the “Jamnia doctrine of inspiration” which “limited inspiration from the time of Moses to the time of Ezra-Nehemiah” (202). As we’ve discovered, trying to associate anything concrete with what happened at Jamnia is like trying to grab a wet fish. But Sundberg points out that the “Jamnia doctrine” is first found in Josephus, Against Apion 1,8. And he says it “appears to be reflected in 4 Esdras” (202).

So, for some Catholic Bible Student action, here’s the relevant section from Josephus:

  • For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, (8) which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them. (Against Apion 1,8 from Project Gutenberg)

A few things are important for this discussion. 1.) The earliest Christians did not inherit a well-defined canon, 2.) The Palestinian Canon of the Hebrew Bible arose after 70 AD through an unknown process.

One thing I find very helpful in understanding this whole issue is that a couple terms we have become comfortable with are no longer appropriate. We often speak of the “Hebrew Bible” and the “Greek Septuagint.” But the Septuagint was never codeified during the early years of Christianity. It gets its name from the 72 scholars at Alexandria who translated the Pentateuch (yep, ONLY the first five books) from Hebrew into Greek according to the Letter of Aristeas under the reign of Philadephus, 285-247 BC. The rest of the books were translated, well, we’re not really sure when or by whom, but the translator of Sirach clues us in that many of the OT books had been translated into Greek by the time he published his translation around 117 BC (On the date see Di Lella/Skehan, Anchor Bible vol. 39, 8). And most scholars think that a few chunks were original Greek compositions like the prayers of Mordecai and Esther and the whole Book of Wisdom. So it may be better to speak of “septuagints” or something because there was no defined Greek Old Testament in the 1st Century AD. And the collections of ancient Greek Bibles often included different varieties of books. Some don’t include all the deuterocanonicals and some include other things like 4 Esdras and the like.

But the term “Hebrew Bible” is also problematic from a canonical perspective. Often people identify the Protestant OT Canon and the Palestinian canon with those books which have been preserved in Hebrew. But recent finds of Hebrew sections, most significantly, of Tobit and Sirach, change the value of the term “Hebrew Bible.” Tobit and Sirach aren’t included in the “Hebrew Bible” even though we have much of them in Hebrew. Ok, that’s an overstatment. We have about 2/3 of Sirach in Hebrew and 1 fragment of Tobit in Hebrew and 4 in Aramaic.

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