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Hyam Maccoby's
The Myth-Maker,
Paul and the Invention of Christianity

Harper Collins, 1987

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


 This book dares to revive the now-shunned understanding of Paul as the Second Founder of Christianity. Acknowledging his debt at significant points to the pioneering work of the Tübingen critics, Maccoby argues (as he did in his earlier Revolution in Judea) that the original Jesus movement was a messianic, revolutionary movement. Briefly disappointed by the execution of its leader, the movement was re-energized by the visions of the resurrection (however we may want to account for them), whereupon the followers of Jesus eagerly anticipated his imminent reappearance to bring the revolution to completion. Christianity as we know it, argues Maccoby, is the result of a syncretistic fusion of the belief in Jesus' messiahship and resurrection with the very different death-and -resurrection salvation schemes of the adjacent pagan Mystery Religions, particularly that of Attis.   

Who was responsible for this fusion? None other than Paul. Maccoby is flying in the face of generations of scholarship which has rejected and repressed Baur and his radical colleagues. Maccoby views their rejections of Baur as a retreat into Christian apologetics. It is no accident that Christian scholars have rejected conclusions so theologically repugnant to them. But Maccoby's is not simply a hermeneutic of suspicion. Space forbids more than an outline of a few of the most important arguments.

As many scholars (e.g., E.P. Sanders, Burton Mack) are now doing, Maccoby demonstrates how the gospel portrait of the Pharisees as legalistic opponents of Jesus is a later distortion drawn by Christians who no longer had the remotest idea of what the Pharisees had actually stood for. When one compares the positions attributed to Jesus with those held by contemporary Pharisees, one is tempted to number Jesus among their ranks (see in the same vein Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee and Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew).

If we admit this, Maccoby asks, how can we hold onto the New Testament story that Paul had persecuted the followers of Jesus because he was a good Pharisee? If the portrait of Paul is seen to be based on an anachronistic apologetical distortion, then we cannot be seeing the real Paul. Maccoby concludes that Paul cannot have been a Pharisee, that his claims are fabrications. (This problem would vanish if we removed both Acts and Philippians as spurious where the historical Paul is concerned: then he would have made no such claims).

Maccoby points out that even in Acts there is a tension between the Pharisees who, like Gamaliel, seem fairly well-disposed toward the apostles, and the High Priest who, along with his obedient minion Paul, is out for Christian blood. If Paul is a Pharisee, he is on the wrong side in this scenario! Maccoby makes him a member of the Temple police, an operative of the High Priest, no Pharisee at all. Neither does Paul in his letters, Maccoby continues, in fact practice Pharisaic/Rabbinic techniques of exegesis, despite the oft-repeated claims of W.D. Davies and others whose search for authentic Rabbinism in Paul comes up with such meagre results. Maccoby shows how such Christian scholars and apologists do not seem to get the point, for instance, of the "qal wahomer" argument and confuse it instead with a generally similar lesser-to-greater argument familiar from popular Hellenistic rhetoric. It is the latter, not the former which Paul can be shown to practice. And alleged bits of rabbinic scribal lore, such as the rolling stone that provided water in the wilderness, can be shown to be the common property of popular Hellenistic Judaism (­­Pseudo-Philo). Paul does not argue like a Pharisee.

Sometimes he does not even write as if he were Jewish. How can he associate himself with the Galatians, ex-idolaters, as if he too once worshiped their altar (Galatians 4:3, 8)? Maccoby resorts to Ebionite polemic against Paul that made him a Gentile convert to Judaism.  Maccoby accepts this, not sharing the automatic Christian reflex-rejection of this piece of anti-Paulinism. If Paul were a frustrated convert to Judaism, desirous but at length unable to accommodate himself to a religion which to him, as a foreigner, must seem an alien burden, then the famous puzzle of Romans 7 might be solved. The successful Pharisee of Philippians 3:4-6 could never have found the Torah such a burden, but a Gentile convert might indeed have felt the heaviness of the yoke and later warned he Galatians, in pretty much the same boat, not to try it either.

The greatest strength of Maccoby's bold new paradigm (not even Baur went so far as to make Paul a Gentile!) is the way it makes difficult passages like these in the epistles to shine with new meaning. But we may think twice about some of his other evidence.  Some will think he is too inclined to take Acts as historically sound. Maccoby is far from naive on such matters: he is acute in observing the literary artifice and novelistic character that disqualifies much of Acts' narrative as unhistorical. The most he thinks he can find here and there are traditions which run against the redactional grain and thus provide clues of what really happened.

But his reconstruction of Paul's role in the Jerusalem persecution of the High Priest seems to take too much as historical. Given the anachronisms involved, why not rather follow Haenchen and others in excising Paul from the Stephen episode altogether, and with it any role in Jerusalem? And thus would disappear any link to the High Priest. But that link comes in handy as a hook on which to attach the Ebionite tradition about Paul as a disappointed convert. The full form of that tradition makes Paul a rejected suitor for the hand of the High Priest's daughter. It is this rebuff which leads Paul to renounce the Torah and start a new, anti-Torah, Jew-hating Gentile semi-pagan religion just for spite! And here is another problem.

Though Maccoby thinks he can isolate a historical core to this bit of vilification, we must ask with Strauss why we should bother once we recognize, form-critically, that the story is simply a piece of sour-grapes ad hominem? We are today disinclined to believe the similar stories told by Christian apologists at the expense of both Marcion and the Prophet Muhammad. Why should we believe this one? The tale exists for the sake of the Tendenz; why keep looking for a historical residue?

            But even if we follow Maccoby thus far, as well we might, what are we to make of his claim that Paul is the founder of Christianity, the grand synthesizer? First, many will rule out the very idea that Christianity owes anything to the Mystery Religions. Here one can only say that a rereading of Reitzenstein and others is long past due, without the spectacles of apologetics coloring one's view.

Second, even supposing that Christianity as we know it and as we already see it in the New Testament is a syncretistic merging of pagan and Jewish elements. Are we to make Paul the sole author of it? Bultmann envisioned much the same syncretism at work, but he placed most of the process prior to Paul in the early Hellenistic missionary communities. A.M. Hunter, though disinclined to admit any syncretism, agreed with Bultmann (perhaps turning Bultmann's statements against their original intent) in his Paul and his Predecessors that Paul inherited more than he innovated. But much of this argument rests on certain form-critical theories. Is Paul quoting a pre-Pauline hymn in Philippians 2:6-11? Is he quoting a piece of liturgy in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25? There are two sides to these arguments, and Maccoby (here and in his companion volume Paul and Hellenism) capably argues the other side.

And when Paul refers to things his readers already know, and things the churches in general believe or practice, how often can we be sure he is not referring to his own innovations in churches he himself has founded? The Roman church is always cited as a good example of a pre-Pauline church. But even the theories of Marxsen and others make that church originally of Jewish-Christian vintage, originally dispersed by messianic rioting, then refounded by Gentiles including a large number of Paulinists, addressed by name in the concluding chapter.

Maccoby's paradigm would enable us, perhaps for the first time, to give full weight to passages like Galatians 2:7, where it seems that the mission to the Gentiles, a special "gospel" for the Gentiles, is entrusted to Paul alone. And think of 2 Corinthians 3:5-18 where Paul compares his ministry with that of Moses. Maccoby is right to ask whether this does not imply that Paul, like the Apostle Mani and the Prophet Muhammad after him, viewed himself precisely as the founder of a new religion.

Nonetheless, questions remain. If the discontinuity posited by Maccoby between the Jewish Jesus-movement of James the Just and Peter on the one hand and the Mystery religion of Paul on the other was really so abrupt, on what possible ground can they ever have met? How can Paul or James have meaningfully viewed each other as in any sense as brothers or colleagues? Can they have even have been close enough to agree to disagree? What fellowship have the Zealots with the cult of Attis? Here we might posit an earlier syncretizing of the Jewish Jesus movement with native Palestinian pagan survivals (survivals of Tammuz and Dionysus worship, as Johannes Leipoldt argued long ago). Perhaps there was already this much common ground, common belief in a risen savior, so that it was the narrower but all-important issue of anti-Torah libertinism that divided Paul from the Pillars.

Maccoby seems outrageous at some points when he simply asks us to stop interpreting the text in conformity with tradition, something that should hardly sound controversial in the ears of Protestant exegetes. An example is his bold suggestion that we disregard the legend, traceable to 1 Clement and no earlier, that Paul died in Rome around A.D. 60 in the Neronian persecution.   

Suppose this is legend pure and simple, like the martyrdom legends of most of the other apostles, which no historian takes too seriously. May Paul not have lived on to a ripe old age propagating the faith he had authored? Here and everywhere the Paul Maccoby offers us is a strange new figure. And that ought to be all the more reason to take this unaccustomed portrait seriously.




CopyrightŠ2007 by Robert M Price
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