r m p




Hyam Maccoby, Jesus the Pharisee (London: SCM Press, 2003)

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

This, one of the last books by the late, great Hyam Maccoby, is typically fascinating. In it the author pursues an agenda familiar from and anticipated in some of his previous work. He aims to separate the historical Jesus from Christianity and to reclaim him for Judaism, hermetically sealing him off from Paul, the real founder of Christianity, an alien religion that has about as much to do with Judaism as Sabazianism did. And, like a recurring video echo on the screen, we can see an ongoing debate between Maccoby and today’s preeminent authority on Judaism, Jacob Neusner. It is to Maccoby’s credit that he manages to keep the tone of this latter discussion as cordial and collegial as he reminds us the debates among the rabbis were. Though Maccoby finds various minor bones to pick with Neusner, his major gripe is Neusner’s notion that Rabbinical Judaism began with Yavne, not with the first-century Pharisee movement, and that the former merely proof-texted the latter, back-dating various traditions, laws, and quotations into the earlier period in order to claim the prestige of the Pharisees for their own, rather different enterprise. Instead, Maccoby defends the position that the Rabbis were the genuine successors of the Pharisees (not that there were no innovations made necessary by changed circumstances), and that Jesus’ halakhic positions as recorded in the gospels are so closely parallel to those of the Rabbis that he must be considered a prime exemplar of a Rabbinical-style Pharisaism that extends back into the first century. As to why the Pharisaic character of the historical Jesus has not been evident from the start, Maccoby takes up the theory he has espoused before, basically that of S.G.F. Brandon, that Jesus viewed himself as King Messiah and hoped to bring about the expulsion of the Romans, albeit by precipitating a divine miracle, not by taking up the sword. Christians saw the failure of the Jewish Revolt, in which they must have participated, and thereafter they transformed their faith in the fallen Jesus into a purely spiritual salvation cult, under heavy (Pauline-brokered) influence from the Mystery Religions. Seeking to avert Roman hostility, which they and their Master had earned, Christians sought to rewrite history, driving a fictitious wedge between Jesus and Judaism (Pharisaism) already in his lifetime, making him a rejector of Torah, the very portrait that has served Protestantism so well ever since. This redefinition of Jesus and Christianity entailed the vilification of the Pharisees, originally Jesus’ colleagues, as his deadly enemies, and the caricaturing of their positions to the point where the gospels show Jesus espousing the actual views of the Pharisees against bizarre opinions no real Pharisees, as far as we know, ever held.

This effort to reclaim Jesus for Judaism is part of a larger program by which Maccoby seeks to restore Rabbinic (= Pharisaic) Judaism to the place it used to hold in scholarly reckoning as the mainstream of first-century Judaism. Here again Maccoby clashes with Neusner, who has (with others) made clear that the Pharisees, even if they were the major and most popular Jewish sect, were just that: one Judaism among many. And this despite the cataloguing by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic writers of over a score of Jewish sect names from the early period. Maccoby even resists the conclusions of Jewish scholars who have demonstrated how originally loose-canonical figures like the rain-making Hasidim Onias the Circle-maker and Hanina ben Dosa were later “rabbinized” (much as Elijah and Elisha were subsequently domesticated by the Deuteronomic Historian). For Maccoby, even John the Baptist was a Pharisee! Here and elsewhere one detects an apologetical agenda on behalf of Rabbinical Judaism analogous to that of N.T. Wright and Luke Timothy Johnson on behalf of conservative Christianity. Of course, that by itself makes no difference; his arguments must stand or fall on their own, no matter how they happened to occur to him or why.

Maccoby calls attention to what seem to him items of data which go against the general redactional/apologetical tendencies of the Hellenizing, Romanizing gospel writers. These he considers loose ends owing their survival to a napping redactor who failed to notice their inimical implications for the case he sought to make. And that, in itself, is sound critical thinking. His favorite example is the caution of Rabban Gamaliel in Acts 5:34-39, according to which the chief of the Pharisees (though Acts doesn’t tell us that) sticks up for the early Jewish Christians, entertaining the possibility that their movement might after all be divinely inspired, so that to persecute them might turn out to be opposing God. Maccoby feels that this scene, left intact by Luke, gives the lie to the notion of a Pharisee hatred of Christianity right from the start. And it also means that Christianity cannot yet have contained doctrinal features later repugnant to Judaism, such as divine incarnation, eucharistic blood-drinking, or Torah-apostasy.

The trouble is that (here and elsewhere) Maccoby is entirely too credulous of the texts that come in handy for him. In this case, any historical value of the scene is completely vitiated by the plain fact that it is borrowed lock, stock, and barrel from literary sources. The summary of previous flash-in-the-pan messiahs (Theudas Magus and Judas the Galilean, in that order) comes right out of a too-hasty reading of Josephus, who discussed the two messiahs in reverse order, employing a flashback, which Luke missed. The advice not to persecute the propagators of the new gospel comes straight from Tiresias’ warning Pentheus not to risk opposing God by persecuting Dionysus worship in Thebes, in Euripides’ Bacchae. Besides these borrowed elements, there is nothing left. How interesting that Maccoby flatly rejects as a Pauline lie Acts’ report that Paul had studied with Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Too bad he is not as properly skeptical of the earlier Gamaliel mention.

Maccoby similarly takes as history the altercation in Mark 7 over purity laws, maintaining (quite properly) that Jesus is in fact not shown there “declaring all foods clean,” since these words are in any case editorial and should probably be read as referring not to “he,” Jesus, “declaring” anything, but rather to the latrine which renders all foods clean in the end. The trouble is, the scene is predicated, as all men know, upon Jesus and Palestinian scribes arguing from the Greek Septuagint, not the Hebrew text of Isaiah. Yikes.

Did Jesus believe himself to be the messiah? Maccoby thinks so. But then what about the discovery of Wrede and Bultmann, that Jesus cannot have taught his messiahship when the early Christian conviction of the same was only gradual in dawning, replacing an earlier belief that Jesus had become messiah-designate at the ascension, as well as a subsequent stage whereby Jesus officially became the Messiah as of the resurrection? How can these stages of belief ever have occurred if Jesus had simply taught (even privately) that he was already the Messiah?

Maccoby is even willing to accept Matthew’s amplification of Mark’s (already fictive--see Gerd Thiessen) Caesarea Philippi scene in which Jesus bestows vizier-like powers upon Peter, the keys of the kingdom. This will come in handy to explain that Peter was subordinate, in the reckoning of Jesus himself, to James, Jesus’ regent in the Jerusalem caliphate. Maccoby needs the structures and beliefs of Jerusalem Christianity to go back to Jesus, not to be merely one of several mutations of Jesus-faith after his death. But he is building upon pretty sandy soil.

In just the same way, Maccoby mounts a doomed argument that Matthew 5:17 and 19 represent an authentic saying of Jesus, who therefore must have envisioned no Pauline-style abrogation of the Torah. Now it is clear that the underlying Q saying Matthew 5:18 (also Luke 16:17) does mean to attribute just such a position to Jesus (whether correctly or not, who knows?). But it seems impossible not to take the adjacent verses as Matthean embellishment. That they cannot go back to Jesus in any case is evident from the fact that verse 17 already knows of a rival Christian opinion that Jesus “came to” abolish the scriptures, theological language interpreting the ministry of Jesus, a figure of the past. Jesus cannot have said this.

Matthew 23:1-2, where Jesus urges his disciples to accept all the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, though not to emulate their personal conduct, falls prey to archaeology, for the Cathedra of Moses was a literal throne in the chancel of the synagogues—of the second century, not the first. But Maccoby ascribes the whole business to Jesus, who therefore must have been an orthodox Pharisee.

Maccoby claims Matthew 9:10-13 as a rare glimpse of Jesus’ true regard for his Torah colleagues: if he were to spend his time with them he would be like a physician wasting his time on the healthy, neglecting his sick patients. Thus Jesus must have regarded the Pharisees as the “righteous who need no repentance.” But why should we assume the Pharisees are in view? What Jesus’ critics want to know is why Jesus consorts with a bad element instead of with upstanding folks. Neither they nor he say anything implying the “righteous” are the Pharisees.

In order to salvage such friendly but dubious texts from the cutting-room floor, Maccoby proposes to go John Dominic Crossan one better and to extend the latter’s criterion of multiple attestation, in other words, to make the holes in the net wider so more fish can make it through. In company with other form-critics, Crossan had proposed accepting the authenticity of any saying that was to be found in two or three unrelated early Christian sources, say Mark and Q. Maccoby says that we ought to include sayings that appear even in related sources, like all three Synoptics. Why? Apparently because Matthew and Luke could have edited a Markan saying had they wanted to, and the fact that they left it alone must mean they set their imprimatur on it. But this is to misunderstand the nature of redaction criticism. All it means for Matthew and Luke to have left Mark alone is that they did not see the Markan material as undermining the new emphases they wanted to add. It has nothing to do one way or the other with how accurate a reporter Mark was. 

Maccoby rightly sees in the gospels a polemic against the Pillars/Heirs/Desposunoi of Jesus and the Jerusalem Christianity they headed. He echoes F.C. Baur (whom otherwise he excoriates) and Oscar Cullmann in seeing the significance of the fact that the Sanhedrin persecution of Hellenistic Stephen-Christianity left the Twelve unmolested (Acts 8:1). Surely this means that there were two very different kinds of Christianity struggling in the Jerusalem womb, and that the Sanhedrin saw nothing particularly objectionable in that headed by the Twelve. But Maccoby dismisses as absurd Baur’s conjecture that Jerusalem Christianity had “re-Judaized” the more radical, less nationalist, Torah-indifferent gospel of the historical Jesus. It seems obvious to Maccoby that if Jesus’ own brothers (James the Just and, after him, Simeon bar Cleophas) led the Jerusalem faction, aided by the Twelve, their version of the faith must stem from Jesus himself. And that does make sense on the surface. But one ought not neglect possible historical analogies to the development as Baur pictured it. For instance, the eighteenth-century Hasidic movement begun by the Baal Shem Tov was at first anti-legalistic, disdaining the letter in favor of the Spirit. They denounced what they perceived as fossilized Rabbinical orthodoxy. But it was not long before they shed this radicalism and became some of the most zealous students of Torah and Talmud. It is natural to understand Jesus this way, as Geza Vermes and others do. Suppose he was like the Galilean Hasidim who performed miracles and yet sat loose to the niceties of the Law, for which laxity they received scorn from the Pharisees. Not coincidentally, Maccoby has already challenged Vermes’s reconstruction of the Hasidim as a possible precedent for a non-legalistic Jesus. It is a strategic move, eliminating a dangerous chess piece from the board before one’s opponent can use it.

Also, one might posit that the very same survival instinct evidenced in the Pauline/Markan Christian attempt to Romanize Christianity in order to avert Roman persecution had earlier led to Jewish Christians jettisoning the radicalism of Jesus in order to buy the very toleration by the Sanhedrin that Maccoby rightly indicates that they enjoyed.

There is another thought-provoking parallel farther afield. I am thinking of what happened in India in the aftermath of the Upanishadic revelation. Kshatriya sages, weary of the ritual formalism and the caste domination of the priestly Brahmin elite, sought the solitude of the forests to meditate. Looking within, they realized the invisible power thought to reside in the Vedic rituals performed by the priests, a power called the Brahman, was instead to be located in the innermost self, the atman, of every sentient being. The only requisite “sacrifice” was that of the introspective heart. This conclusion would seem to have rendered the whole Vedic system obsolete, and so most of the priests opposed it. But some Brahmins liked what they heard, and they understood it all as the esoteric truth of the Vedas, not a repudiation of them. So, while many Kshatriyas, like the Buddha and Mahavira, flatly rejected theVedic scriptures and rituals, and most Brahmins rejected the Kshatriya heresy, there were some Brahmins who “re-Vedicized” the new doctrine, writing massive commentaries (Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads) on the Vedas, expounding them in accord with the new revelation, actually filling the old skins with new wine and holding them together as best they could. Is that not how Mark 2:18, 21-22 sees the matter? Not that it’s necessarily correct.

Maccoby rejects another Judaism-Hinduism parallel that has become practically an axiom of Politically Correct Jesus scholarship over the last couple of decades. Many have grossly misconstrued the notion of Jewish purity laws as if they established socio-economic caste divisions within Jewish society in Jesus’ day. The gospel “sinners” were, we are often told, whole professional classes whose members were stuck in a perpetual state of ritual uncleanness because their work involved constant contact with the dead, with wounds, animal corpses, etc. As a result, the historical Jesus can be depicted as a first-century Gandhi, seeking out the Shudras and the Untouchables and declaring them harijans, children of God. This, for instance, is the party-line view of Jesus propagated by network television and the talking heads they interview. Jesus as Dr. King. One hesitates to say it, but it looks like Liberal Protestantism, unsatisfied with a Jesus who is a relic of ancient concerns and debates, is remodeling Jesus after modern heroes whom they would really prefer. (In short, they do not make Gandhi and Dr. King into Christ figures, but rather they make Jesus into a Gandhi figure or a King figure. Maybe they should just be up front about it and set up a new religion based on the Mahatma and Dr. King. Many of us would join up.)

Maccoby is right: what these perilous modernizers of Jesus miss is that purity laws did not forbid all acts incurring impurity. Instead, they took for granted that many needful acts regularly incurred ritual impurity and stipulated what to do to negate it, sometimes washing your hands, sometimes just waiting till sundown, etc. Undertakers might find themselves “unclean” more of the time than other folks, but it was absolutely necessary, and a major charitable act, to bury the dead. And to recognize this obvious fact (at least it should have been obvious) is to stultify all those chic interpretations that Jesus was courageously and “radically” reversing contemporary norms when he allowed lepers or menstruating women to touch him. As Maccoby says, no such issues are mentioned in the narrative. They have to be read in by modern exegetes who sometimes seem to know too much about the background of this or that pericope. The gospel writers seem to be unaware of such factors, either because we have got the facts wrong, or they did and are writing anachronistically.  

At first Maccoby himself seems to fall victim to the same error when he discusses Jesus’ defense of his disciples’ gleaning on the Sabbath by an appeal to the scriptural precedent of David feeding his famished men with the reserved sacrament (Mark 2:23-26). Maccoby notes the silliness of the reply if all Jesus was defending was his disciples’ convenience. The Davidic case would only be relevant if they were in danger of starving. So maybe they were: perhaps the story silently presupposes that Jesus and his lieutenants are on the run from a persecuting Herod, their lives in danger as rebels. At first one thinks: Maccoby is reading in a concern of which the text seems innocent. But no. What he is doing is applying to a puzzling narrative a paradigm which has proven quite productive in solving other such puzzles. Suppose the narrative, which makes little sense as it stands, is missing something that would make sense of it, but which would be too dangerous to say aloud. On the Brandon hypothesis, we can readily imagine the censoring of precisely this element of explanation: Jesus and his men were in genuine need because of political persecution, the kind he is now in retrospect never supposed to have undergone. It is one of Maccoby’s many fresh insights. However, one still needs to take into consideration Bultmann’s insight that the text shows scribes questioning and Jesus defending the actions not of Jesus but of his disciples, i.e., of early Christians, and that this implies the pericope, together with the issue itself, arose post-Jesus. It is not evidence for the historical Jesus after all.

I have already called attention to Maccoby’s twin goals of defending Rabbinic Judaism as the direct continuation of Pharisaism and of establishing Jesus as a typical first-century Pharisee. For both purposes he needs to discount Neusner’s argument, confessedly learned from Bultmann, that one cannot trust Rabbinical/redactional ascriptions of oft-recurring sayings to any particular name. If a saying is ascribed to Rabbi A in this document but to Abba B in that one, we must approach the ascriptions synchronically, not diachronically. What function does a particular ascription serve in the document in which we find it? Presumably there will be different purposes behind different attributions. And neither will necessarily be merely one of historical inquiry. Maccoby does not like this kind of talk (p. 209). For him, attributions must be taken seriously, and this means the traditions of the Rabbis are rooted squarely in the soil of first-century Pharisaism. Yet Maccoby feels free to disregard Rabbinical ascriptions when he reasons that, if a Jesus parable sounds like a Rabbinical parable first attributed to a rabbi living centuries after Jesus, it may yet be much older, already available for Jesus to have borrowed it. (Jeremias thought the same thing.) Sure, a parable may first appear in a later Rabbinic source, but that only means that the disciple attributed the parable to the master from whom he had initially heard it, not that he has ascribed it to its actual originator (p. 93). But doesn’t this land Maccoby in a fatal contradiction? Surely, given the tradition-oriented character of Rabbinical learning, a disciple would have heard the parable (or other saying) as attributed to its ostensible originator. His own master would have said, “Rabbi So-and-so used to say…” If, then, a saying or parable meets us attributed first to a later figure, we have no right to back-date it to Jesus’ day. Rather, we must take the Rabbinical parable as the source of the gospel parable (provided the gospel version appears to be later, e.g., garbled) and admit it is anachronistic for Jesus. And remember, we have no right to date the gospel version as older than the earliest manuscript or patristic citation in which we find it.

Neusner, then, suggests that sayings which originated later have been retrojected into the mouths of more ancient sages, to give the sayings added antique authority. He infers this, I think, from the fact that, were the saying known to stem from the earlier author, we would never find it attributed also to a later one. If it were known to have come from first-century Rabbi A, who would ever have ascribed it instead to the less authoritative because more recent Abba B? This seems sound critical thinking to me. And thus Maccoby is not merely inconsistent but wrong as well. The Maccoby who implicitly agrees with Neusner that an attribution to an earlier source (e.g., to Jesus) as its originator may be fictive is right. The Maccoby who rejects the same Neusner axiom (when it comes to first century Pharisees) is wrong.

Throughout the book one anticipates seeing Maccoby say something about an earlier book with the same title, Jesus the Pharisee by Harvey Falk, who argued pretty much the same case. In fact, Maccoby for some reason never mentions him by name, though he does at length reject an important piece of Falk’s argument. Like Falk, Maccoby is busy demonstrating that virtually every halakhic judgment ascribed to Jesus in the gospels is attested also for more or less contemporary Pharisees. Where they differ is that Falk sees Jesus being depicted as a liberal Rabbi in the tradition of Abba Hillel, pursuing a policy of leniency that brought him into fatal collision with the Pharisees of Shammai’s more severe faction. Maccoby, on the other hand, points out that the gulf between the factions of Hillel and Shammai was not that wide, and that, at least on divorce, Jesus is shown as closer to Shammai than to the easy-going Hillel.

Maccoby seems to step beyond all possible evidence and to betray the wishful character of his project when he gratuitously asserts that John and Jesus “were regarded by the Pharisees as well-meaning, loyal, and breathtakingly courageous Jews, making claims that had an honored place in tradition and would someday be fulfilled, even if the present claimants, like so many before them, turned out to disappointments” (p. 66). Here we have supposition made into fact, the same process by which the fictive gospel tradition grew in ancient times. Not only that, but we also have a prime case of the very “re-Judaization” process against which Maccoby himself rails.   



Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design