“The Jews never accepted the Deuterocanon [Apocrypha].” You’ll hear this in conversations with Protestants and read it on virtually every Protestant website that defends the Protestant Old Testament canon. But is it true?
One could appeal to New Testament evidence that Jesus, the apostles, and the inspired authors of the New Testament did indeed accept the Deuterocanon as Scripture. But what about extrabiblical evidence? Does any exist?
One of the earliest pieces of evidence comes from a person who, despite his hostility toward Christianity, nevertheless attests to a few truths of Christianity, including the acceptance of the Deuterocanon: Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph (A.D. 37-137).
A second revolt
Before we look at what Akiba had to say about the subject, it’s important to understand a little about his background. Rabbi Akiba became the head of a rabbinical school located in the city of Jamnia during the first decades of the second Christian century. After the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-73), the school in Jamnia became the center for Jewish religious and political thought.
The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple during the First Revolt left Judaism in a precarious position, since it was impossible without the temple for the Jews to follow all the cultic requirements of the Old Testament ceremonial law. Two paths lay before the nation: either stage a second revolt and rebuild the Temple or define Judaism from a cultic religion to a religion of the book. Akiba endorsed both paths.
Akiba is best known in history as the rabbi who endorsed a false messiah. According to Akiba, a man named Simon bar Kokhba was the messiah promised in Numbers 24:7 who would defeat the Romans, rebuild the Temple, and rule as the messianic king. Akiba’s endorsement of bar Kokhba as messiah changed the complexion of the Second Jewish Revolt (A.D. 132-135), turning it from a popular uprising into a messianic movement.
Large numbers of Jews and even pagans joined the revolt, but the Christian Jews refused to take part, since it would have been tantamount to rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. As a result, the Jews saw Christianity not only as a heresy but also as sedition. Needless to say, Akiba was a false prophet: bar Kokhba wasn’t the messiah, and the consequences of the failed Second Revolt were horrific. Simon bar Kokhba was killed, and Rabbi Akiba was martyred. The reprisals by the Romans almost wiped Judaism off the map.
A more flexible tradition
The second path Akiba endorsed was the redefinition of Judaism along non-cultic lines, at least until the Temple was restored. The Jewish religion without the Jerusalem temple found itself in an abnormal situation, and rabbis needed a way to make Jewish tradition more flexible to meet those needs. Akiba utilized a style of biblical interpretation that allowed him to read large amounts of legislation into incidental features of the Hebrew biblical text.
Until then, the Jews never had a single normative biblical text. The Old Testament circulated in many different translations and recensions, the most popular being the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Therefore, the first order of business was to adopt a single normative Hebrew text, thus setting the limits of the rabbinical Bible. It is here that Rabbi Akiba inadvertently tips his hand with regard to the Deuterocanon.
In a work called Tosefta Yadayim, 2:13, Akiba says: “The Gospels and heretical books do not defile the hands. The books of ben Sira, and all other books written from then on, do not defile the hands” (2:13).
The phrase “do not defile the hands” refers to a non-sacred text. Sacred texts require ritual hand washing after they were touched. Non-sacred texts do not. Therefore, Akiba is stating that the texts listed are not sacred (i.e., they are not Scripture).
Since the Gospels appear to be mentioned, Akiba’s remarks are in regard to the Christian scriptures. What’s fascinating here is that Akiba’s rejection of the New Testament as Scripture also includes the rejection of the “books of ben Sira and all other books written from then on.” The book of Sirach (ben Sira) is the oldest book of the Deuterocanon (or what Protestants call the Apocrypha). Therefore, this decree rejects the whole of the Deuterocanon as inspired Scripture.
Hostile witness points to the truth
This declaration suggests two very important points. First, there must have been a significant number of Jewish Christians that accepted the Deuterocanon as Scripture prior to Akiba’s remark (i.e., before A.D. 132) for Akiba to associate it with the Christian scriptures. Second, Akiba must have believed that there existed a real possibility that non-Christian Jews may accept it as sacred Scripture as well. Otherwise, there would be no need for his ruling.
Although Rabbi Akiba had no love for Christianity, he nevertheless reveals a point commonly disputed by non-Catholics: namely, that the earliest Christians did indeed hold the Deuterocanon to be Sacred Scripture, just as they did the Gospels and the New Testament. Akiba doesn’t argue the point; rather, he assumes it and legislates against it.
Akiba is just one of dozens of other enemies of the Faith discussed in my new book, Hostile Witnesses: How the Historic Enemies of the Church Prove Christianity, who inadvertently affirm some disputed point about the Catholic Church and Christianity. In this case, Akiba reveals something about the earliest Christians that we may not have otherwise known.