Time and again I run across anti-Catholic websites that claim (erroneously) that the Jews never accepted the Deuterocanon, or the seven Old Testament books that Catholics and Orthodox Christians accept as Scripture, but Protestants reject as “Apocrypha” (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach/Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, as well as parts of Esther and Daniel).
On the contrary, 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 does extra-biblical evidence exist that points to the earliest Christians’ acceptance of these seven books?
One of the earliest pieces of evidence comes from a person who, despite his hostility toward Christianity, nevertheless attests to a few truths of the budding faith, including the acceptance of the Deuterocanon.
After the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66-73), the rabbinical 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 for the Jews to follow all the cultic requirements of the Old Testament ceremonial law without the presence of the Temple. Two paths laid before the nation: either stage a second revolt and rebuild the Temple, or redefine Judaism from a cultic religion to a religion of the book. Rabbi Akiba be Joseph (A.D. 37-137), the head of the school during the first decades of the second Christian century, endorsed both paths.
Rabbi Akiba is perhaps best known in history as the rabbi who endorsed a false messiah. According to Akiba, the messiah promised in Numbers 24:7 who would defeat the Romans, rebuild the Temple and rule as the messianic king was personified in a man named Simon bar Kokhba. Akiba’s endorsement of bar Kokhba changed the complexion of the Second Jewish Revolt (AD 132-135), turning it from a popular uprising into a messianic movement.
Large numbers of Jews and even pagans joined the revolt, but a small segment known as the Christians refused to take part, since it would be tantamount to rejecting Jesus as the true messiah. As a result, the Jews saw Christianity not only as a heresy, but as sedition, too. 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, Rabbi Akiba was martyred, and the reprisals by the Romans almost wiped Judaism off the map.
The second path Akiba endorsed included the redefinition of Judaism along non-sacrificial lines, at least until the Temple was restored. To do so, Akiba used a creative style of biblical interpretation to read into the Hebrew text whatever he needed. The only problem was that the Jews never had a single normative biblical text. Therefore, the first order of business was to adopt single text for the Rabbinical Bible. It is here that Rabbi Akiba inadvertently reveals something about 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.”
The phrase “do not defile the hands” refers to a non-sacred text. Therefore, Akiba is stating that the Christian Scriptures are not sacred — no surprise there — and the “books of ben Sira and all other books written from then on” are not sacred. The book of Sirach is the oldest book of the Deuterocanon. Therefore, Akiba’s decree rejects the whole of the Deuterocanon as inspired Scripture.
Inadvertently, though, what Akiba’s statement does show is that a sizeable number of Jewish Christians did accept the Deuterocanon as Scripture in Akiba’s day (i.e., before AD 132), in order for the noted rabbi to associate it with the Christian Scriptures. He must also have believed there was the potential for non-Christian Jews to have accepted it as sacred Scripture; otherwise, there would be no need for his ruling. Despite his opposition to the Catholic faith, Rabbi Akiba unintentionally becomes a hostile witness that the early Jewish Christians believed that the Deuterocanon was, in fact, Scripture.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.