I’ve been going through Catholic apologist Gary Michuta’s new book, Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger. Obvious from the title, the book attempts to validate the apocryphal Old Testament books found in Roman Catholic Bibles.
Michuta argues the Jewish canon was open until the middle decades of the second century. This late closing of the Hebrew canon allows for the canonicity of the apocryphal books, in that it proves the Jews collectively did not have a canon fixed earlier excluding the apocrypha. Keep in mind though, the Jews did explicitly exclude the apocrypha at the late date Michuta suggests.
One particular Jewish leader, Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, had the rabbinical clout necessary to limit the canon once and for all to exclude the apocrypha (and also the New Testament). According to Michuta, it was this man who spurred on deceptive historical arguments put forth by second century Jewish leaders to eliminate the apocrypha from sacred Scripture. They were the ones who claimed oral traditions from antiquity held prophecy had ceased. Without a prophet, the apocrypha could not have been sacred Scripture. Michuta says this “..[A]llowed Jewish leaders to become the sole arbiters of Jewish oral tradition” (p.71). In Michuta’s treatment of Josephus, he posits Josephus can’t be trusted when he limits the canon to twenty-two books. Now when Rabbinical Judaism speaks of a cessation of prophecy rooted in oral tradition, they simply concocted this and read it back into history. There is indeed irony in a Catholic apologist criticizing the keepers of oral tradition, as those claiming to be sole arbiters of a particular body of information.
If Akiba ruled against the apocrypha and Judaism followed his ruling, the Jews of the second century began treating commonly accepted canonical books as non-canonical. Michuta does not explain how such a dramatic change went so smoothly within the confines of Judaism. Josephus notes the Jews were a people that would die for their sacred texts. How was it Akiba ruled against books that were previously treated canonical, and the Jews simply went along with his ruling?
Perhaps though it was only a portion of the Jews that accepted these books as canonical. Michuta notes, “…[A]t least some Jews must also have shared that acceptance [with the Christians], otherwise Akiba’s decree would have been superfluous” (p. 69). Since there does not appear to be a major outcry against de-canonizing them, would this not indicate it was probably a smaller number that accepted the apocrypha as Scripture? This would mean the majority Jewish opinion saw the apocryphal books as non-canonical.
An immediate question arises if Michuta’s view is correct. One can understand why Rabbi Akiba would speak against the New Testament. Akiba supported his contemporary, Simon Bar Cochba as the messiah, and repudiated Jesus Christ. Hence, for Akiba, the New Testament could not be the very word of God. But why would Akiba rule against the apocrypha? Michuta’s answer comes from his debate with Dr. White. Quoting the Jewish scholar Lewis Ginsberg, Michuta says,
“Akiba’s the one who definitely fixed the canon of the Old Testament books. Ginsberg also explains that the motive underlying Akiba’s antagonism to the deuterocanonical books says the motive to disarm Christians, especially Jewish Christians, who drew their proofs from the apocrypha.”
Now if this is the case, Michuta has to explain why Akiba singled out the apocryphal books being quoted by Christians. Did not the early church quote from the entire Old Testament to prove Jesus was the Messiah? The New Testament is filled with references to the Old Testament. As is obvious from checking the references to the Old Testament, the apocrypha is not needed to prove the entirety of the Old Testament spoke of Him. Why was Akiba so distressed by Christian citations from the apocrypha? Gary’s reasoning presents more problems than answers. He needs to explain why Akiba found Christian citations from the apocrypha so troubling, whereas citations from the Old Testament proper were not addressed.
In his section on Akiba, Michuta spends more time arguing the early Christians accepted the apocrypha. The question though is, did the Jews accept it? Michuta quotes Akiba declaring, “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.” Michuta then argues, “Here we have a hostile witness confirming through his actions that the earliest Christians accepted both the Gospels and the Deuterocanon as inspired and sacred Scripture” (p.69). True, Akiba speaks against both the apocrypha and the New Testament, but the conclusion he posits does not automatically follow. Wouldn’t it be more likely to conclude that Akiba was arguing from the position of a historically closed canon? That is, those books that came after the cessation of prophecy were not sacred Scripture. Michuta refers to this on page 71, noting, “It is also during [the] reign of Akiba (or shortly afterwards) that the idea of a cessation of prophecy began to appear in rabbinic literature.” What Michuta thinks serves as proof Christians held the apocrypha to be Scripture, actually serves as proof for something quite different, a closed canon at an earlier date.
In summary, Michuta never really explains why Akiba ruled against the apocrypha. He doesn’t explain why Jewish leaders wanted to become the sole arbiters of Jewish tradition (why would any other group be entitled to share this anyway?). He doesn’t explain why these Jewish leaders had to impose the cessation of prophecy back into history. He doesn’t explain why at least some Jews, were not outraged by the elimination of allegedly sacred books from the canon. But most importantly, he does not explain why Akiba would be against Christians citing the apocrypha, when they spent more time citing the rest of the Old Testament to prove Jesus was the Messiah.