The party of the Sadducees, for instance, accepted only the Torah, the five original books of Moses;2 the party of the Pharisees reckoned the prophets to have been inspired as well, along with a collection of wisdom literature they called the Ketuvim; while the large body of Greek-speaking Jews outside the Holy Land venerated the much longer Septuagint version and considered all of its contents to be Scripture, too — at least seven whole books more than in many modern Old Testaments, with additions to the standard books, to boot.
Many second-century churches still read aloud from debatable works. Early, orthodox writings such as The Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of St. Clement to the Corinthians so straddled the line between truly sacred and merely profitable literature that even some of the greatest of the early Fathers (such as Irenaeus and Origen) considered them to be divinely inspired, and this at a time when the status of New Testament books such as Hebrews, Second Peter, James, and the book of Revelation was still warmly debated.
And therefore the apostle Paul says: “Love is the fulfillment of the law, for he who loves the Lord has fulfilled the law” [Rom. 13:10]. But the Lord too, when He was asked, what was the first commandment, said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole strength; and the second, like to it; thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments, He says, dependeth the whole law and the prophets” [Matt. 22:37–40]. So He has increased, through our faith in Him, our love toward God and our neighbor, rendering us godly and just and good. And therefore He has made a short word upon the earth.
The Bible could never again fill the place alone; for the Christians also regarded it as a divine revelation.” In order to sever this common ground, writes Simon, “Akiba [became] the creator of a rabbinical Bible version elaborated with the aid of his pupil, Aquila, and designed to become the common property of all Jews; thus Judaizing the Bible, as it were, in opposition to the Christians. . . . Under Akiba’s guidance he gave the Greek-speaking Jews a rabbinical Bible.”189 Aquila’s was the first Bible to leave out the so-called Apocrypha “on purpose,” so to speak — and also many other Septuagint passages widely seen as favorable to Christianity. We know this not because we know the contents of his version (which has been lost)190 but because it was produced under the discipleship of Akiba — first to officially declare that the Deuterocanonical books lack that sacred quality that would “defile the hands.” “Akiba was the one who definitely fixed the canon of the Old Testament books,” according to Jewish Encyclopedia, and “he protested strongly against the canonicity of certain of the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus, for instance.”191 This rejection doesn’t seem to have been driven by any theological objections to the contents of the Deuterocanon, for the book of Ecclesiasticus (also known as Ben Sira — the only one Akiba mentions by name) does not contain anything particularly preferential to the Christian position. Books such as Esther and the Song of Songs, on the other hand, about which there had been serious debate within Judaism based on content, Akiba welcomed without hesitation. “To the same motive underlying his antagonism to the Apocrypha,” writes Simon, “namely, the desire to disarm Christians — especially Jewish Christians — who drew their ‘proofs’ from the Apocrypha, must also be attributed his wish to emancipate the Jews of the Dispersion from the domination of the Septuagint, the errors and inaccuracies in which frequently distorted the true meaning of Scripture, and were even used as arguments against the Jews by the Christians.”192
Afterward, Akiba and the other Jamnia rabbis began the long process that culminated in the creation of what is known today as the Masoretic Text.193 Aquila, as we’ve noted, appears to have used some unknown combination of “not the Septuagint” texts for the creation of his Greek version, as did other early Jewish translators such as Theodotion and Symmachus the Ebionite.194 One of these texts seems to have become the skeleton around which the Masoretes (a group of later Hebrew scholars working during the early medieval period) developed the single authoritative Hebrew text for Rabbinic Judaism.195 The Dead Sea Scrolls (dating, once again, from the last two centuries B.C. and the first century A.D.) fully demonstrate the fact that early Hebrew Bibles showed far less uniformity of text than Rabbi Akiba preferred. Once the Jamnia rabbis exerted their hegemony, however, the push was on to create a single, “perfect” text sanctified down to the very letter. The final result, for the movement that became, by the late 200s or so, simply “Judaism,” is the Masoretic Text — the basis not only for the Leningrad Codex we cited earlier but, incidentally, for the beloved King James Bible of English Protestantism.
This brings up a final, very important point about this second new canon, the canon of Akiba and Aquila: the fact, specifically, that theirs was not really “the Jewish canon” or even the canon of “most Jews” in the years to come. The truth is far less straightforward. Akiba was not speaking for all Jews, not even in his own day; and he offered his canon in competition to many other canons, equally Jewish. The Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Jews of the Diaspora — as well as their Semitic cousins, the Samaritans — all used different Bible texts before the revolts; and the Falashas (or Ethiopian Jews) still use a canon containing the Deuterocanonical books to this very day. Most of the Christians (at least for the first hundred years or so) were fully Jewish as well; and their loose, unofficial canon contained not only the Deuterocanonicals but at least twenty already agreed-upon New Testament books as well — all of which had been written by Jews. No, the Jamnia movement was a self-appointed “Committee of Public Safety” that arose during a military crisis and began claiming to speak for all Jews. In reality, they spoke only for a remnant of the Palestinian Pharisees, through the mouthpiece of a demonstrably false prophet, and for those Jews most obstinately opposed to Jesus.