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April 16, 2016 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 813-835-0129

Akivah ben Joseph was born about 50 AD, twenty years before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Tradition affirms that he accompanied Johanan ben Zakai in his escape from Jerusalem during the destruction of the city in 70 AD.  He studied with ben Zakai in Yavne and with many other famous Rabbis including Gamaliel II and eventually became the chief architect of the Mishna and Gomorrah which make up the Talmud.

I have been reading a new biography of Akivah by Reuven Hammer who is the former director and dean of the Jerusalem branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1974- 1992).  My interest in Akivah lies in the fact that he was instrumental in the development of Rabbinic Judaism during the same period in which the message of Jesus was beginning its spread throughout the Roman Empire.

Both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism rose from the school of the Pharisees.  They took different courses.  Rabbinic Judaism developed an intense devotion to the study of the Torah and the practice of Mitzvoth, or good deeds, as a replacement for the sacrificial system of the Temple.  Christianity saw the sacrifice of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Temple system and emphasized the new relationship with God possible through forgiveness of sins and a fuller life of fellowship with the “Ruach Kadesh,” or the Spirit of the Holy One.

Hammer’s life of Akivah is excellent and a good preparation on my part for the celebration of Passover on April 23.  However, I have one complaint.  You might have guessed.  He sets the Apostle Paul against the work of Akivah as one who depreciates the Torah in favor of faith in Jesus as Messiah.  The question of Jesus’ Messiahship is a theological issue for another time and probably another place.  However, Paul’s attitude toward the Torah is a historical question that needs clarification.

The Apostle Paul, along with Jesus and all the Apostles, was a Pharisee.  The difference between the followers of the Way and rabbinic development was not over the divine nature of the Torah, but of its function.  Jesus was quite clear in his teaching on the permanent validity of the Torah.  “For I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass away from the Torah until all is accomplished (Matt. 5:18).”  However, the function of Torah was not to bring us salvation, but to lead us to repentance.  Salvation came by trust in the mercy of God.  Paul quotes the Torah when he proclaims, “Abraham trusted God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6 and Rom. 4:3).”

The laws of Temple sacrifice became moot when there was no Temple, although the theological principals were still real and appropriate for teaching.  The civil laws of Israel became less appropriate when Israel was largely in diaspora.  However, the moral laws of Torah were firm and universal.  The Brith Hadassah (New Testament) is filled with moral exhortations emanating from the Torah.  The Tanach, or what Christians call the Old Testament, was the only Bible the early Church possessed.

Objections aside, if one is interested in how Rabbinic Judaism developed alongside Christianity, “Akivah” by Rabbi Hammer is a good read.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at  END-whs