According to tradition, Jannes and Jambres were the two magicians who opposed Moses in Egypt. This tradition is based on an allusion to the two men in 2 Timothy 3:8, although they are only know from fragments of a text now named after them. These two men are the magicians who were able to change their staff to a snake as did Moses in Exodus 7:11. Although they are not mentioned by name in Exodus, the traditional use of these two names as prototypical magicians is well known. In Eusebius’ Praeparatio evangelica (9.8) the pagan Numenius may have alluded to this tradition, saying that Jannes and Jambres were able to undo, the plagues against Egypt. In the Decretum Gelasianum, a sixth-century Latin manuscript attributed to Pope Gelasius I (492–96), Jannes and Jambres is listed among the sixty-two “apocryphal” (rejected) works.
The text of Jannes and Jambres is fragmentary and lacks solid historical allusions making it difficult to date. Origen appears to refer to the book when commenting on 2 Timothy (Contra Celsus, IV. 51). The fragments in Chester Beatty papyri XVI date to the third century A.D. The book could be either Jewish or Christian since the Jannes and Jambres traditions are found in both streams of tradition.
The Damascus Document is the first reference to one of the magicians by the name, suggesting a tradition which predates 100 B.C.:
“For in earlier times Moses and Aaron arose with the help of the Prince of Lights, while Belial raised up Jannes and his brother in his cunning, when Israel was saved the first time” (CD–A Col. v:18, trans. Davies, 245).
In his commentary on Matthew, Origin indicated the reference to the Jannes and Jambres in 2 Timothy came from a non-canonical source (see commentary on 27:3-10). There are several rabbinic sources for the names (b.Men., 85a; Exodus rabba, 7 on 7:11) and in Targum. Ps.-Jonathan. on Exod 1:15, but these are also late and not useful for dating the document with any precision
It is possible Paul knew the tradition since 2 Timothy 3:8 refers to the men who opposed Moses as Jannes and Jambres. Paul’s point is his opponents stand in the tradition of these magicians, “corrupted in mind” and “disqualified in the faith.” From about the same time as 2 Timothy, Dibelius and Conzelmann quote Pliny, Hist. Nat. 30.2.11: “There is yet another branch of magic, derived from Moses, Jannes, Lotapes and the Jews, but living many thousand years after Zoroaster.” Dibelius and Conzelmann also mention a tradition in the Acts of Peter and Paul 34: “For just as the Egyptians Jannes and Jambres deceived Pharaoh and his army until they were drowned in the sea, so also etc.” (The Pastoral Epistles; Hermenia, 117).
The book makes for difficult reading since most lines are fragmentary and there are gaps in the text. When the two magicians are summoned to oppose Moses, Jambres ran back to the library to collect his “magical tools.” A fragment in the British Library states that Jambres (also spelled Mambres) performed necromancy. When he died he went into the netherworld where there is a “great burning pit of perdition.”
Mambres opened the magical books of his brother Jannes; he performed necromancy and brought up from the netherworld his brother’s shade. The soul of Jannes said in response,
“I your brother did not die unjustly, but indeed justly, and the judgment will go against me, since I was more clever than all clever magicians, and opposed the two brothers, Moses and Aaron, who performed great signs and wonders. As a result I died and was brought from among (the living) to the netherworld where there is great burning and the pit of perdition, whence no ascent is possible” (Pietersma A. and R. T. Lutz, “Jannes and Jambres,” in OTP 2:440)
The use of the fragments for New Testament studies is extremely limited, perhaps only serving to illuminate the tradition standing behind 2 Tim 3:8.
Davies, Philip R. The Damascus Covenant: An Interpretation of the “Damascus Document” (Translation) (JSOTSupp 25; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1982), 245–247.
James, M. R. “A Fragment of the ‘Penitence of Jannes and Jambres.’ ” JTS 2 (1901): 572–77.
Klippenstein, Rachel “Jannes and Jambres, Text,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016).
Pietersma A. and R. T. Lutz, “Jannes and Jambres,” in OTP 2:427; Pietersma, “Jannes and Jambres” in ABD, 3:368-369.