Friday, 27 November 2015

Mythmaker: The Pharisee Messiah

(This is the fifth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)
... Jesus did not in historical fact criticize the Pharisees in the way represented in the Gospels; he was indeed himself a Pharisee. The whole picture of Jesus at loggerheads with the Pharisees is the creation of a period some time after Jesus' death, when the Christian Church was in conflict with the Pharisees because of its claim to have superseded Judaism.
In chapter four Maccoby sets out to bolster his claim to turn the accepted narrative on its head. Not only was Paul, the ex-Pharisee, no such thing but Jesus, the nemesis of the Pharisees, was one of their number. Maccoby draws on the Sabbath sayings and stories in the gospels as evidence. "Jesus' celebrated saying, 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,'... is found almost word for word in a Pharisee source." Jesus' clashes over sabbath teaching were not, according to Maccoby, with the Pharisees (as the gospels plainly state) but with the Sadducees. Why?
In fact, at the time that the Gospels were edited, the Sadducees had lost any small religious importance that they had once had... it was of the utmost importance to the Gospel editors to represent Jesus as having been a rebel against Jewish religion, not against the Roman occupation.
For Maccoby Luke 13:22 (where the Pharisees warn Jesus about a Herodian plot to have him killed) is a clear indicator that Jesus and the Pharisees were by no means at odds.
Why should the Pharisees, who, in previous stories, have been represented as longing for Jesus' death because of his sabbath healings, come forward to give him a warning intended to save his life?
And, for that matter, why did the Pharisees not bring any charges about sabbath breaking against Jesus in the accounts of his trial?

A Messiah claim was not sufficient to alienate Jesus from the Pharisees either, remembering that the title carried no claims to divinity. Other contemporary figures made the same claim, and none were accused of blasphemy. Another claim, to destroy then rebuild the temple, was likewise a non-issue.
... the Temple built by Herod was not expected by the Pharisees to last into the Messianic age. Jesus very probably did declare his intention of destroying the Temple and rebuilding it, for this is just what anyone seriously claiming to be the Messiah would do.
There is also an interesting discussion of the account of the disciples plucking corn on the sabbath (Mark 2) which brings a very different perspective to the story.

Does any of this 'prove' that Jesus was a Pharisee? That would be a high bar to clear. But it does indicate that Jesus and the Pharisees were by not so far apart as we might imagine.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Mythmaker: Pharisees

(This is the fourth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

'Pharisee' is a byword for bad religion: judgmental, legalistic, conniving, self-righteous, hypocritical, unyielding. That's because Pharisees are portrayed that way in the gospels. They are Jesus' nemeses. Funny head-wear, scowls, beards...

But is this an accurate representation? Hyam Maccoby leaps to their defense in chapter three. Forget everything you thought you knew about the Pharisees; "this Gospel picture of the Pharisees is propaganda, not fact."

Forget, for example, the idea that they were always bickering among themselves about the fine points of doctrine and the Law: "decisions were made by a majority vote. Once a majority decision had been reached, the dissenting rabbis were required to toe the line and accept the result of the vote, not because they were regarded as refuted, but because of the principle of the rule of law, which was conceived in exactly the same terms as in parliamentary democracies today..."

But they "did not invest these decisions with divine authority." Opposing views were recorded for future use and reference. Difference of opinion "was itself an essential ingredient of their concept of the religious life, rather than a danger to it."

"A wide variety of views was tolerated by the sages and their successors, the rabbis, without any accusations of heresy."

Forget the idea of a mindless devotion to the Temple; that's the Sadducees. "The Sadducees turned for leadership to the priests and especially the High Priest." The Pharisees saw these offices as of lesser significance.
Even the High Priest was regarded as a mere functionary, and had no authority to pronounce on matters of religion. It was a Pharisee saying that 'a learned bastard takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest', and most High Priests were in fact regarded by the Pharisees as ignorant.
Christian churches tend to combine ceremonial roles (the Archbishop of Canterbury for example) with teaching roles. "[In] Judaism these two roles have always been distinct..."

Think back to the clash between the established priesthood and the anti-establishment prophets in the Old Testament. The rabbis saw themselves as heirs of the prophets, and left the priestly role to the politically compromised Sadducees.

There's little doubt that Maccoby has the side of the angels in arguing this. The evidence points away from the stereotypes we find in the gospels. Whether it reaches as far as portraying the Pharisees in such a positive light that they seem so thoroughly tolerant and enlightened is perhaps moot, but a bit of overstating (and Maccoby seems prone to overstating) is understandable when confronted with an edifice of misrepresentation that he's up against.

How all of this relates to Maccoby's contention that Paul was never a Pharisee, while Jesus was, will become apparent as he progresses in setting out his position.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Mythmaker: 6 propositions

(This is the third part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

In chapter two Maccoby briefly sets out to provide an overview of where he's going.

1. "Paul was never a Pharisee rabbi, but was an adventurer of undistinguished background... He deliberately misrepresented his own biography in order to increase the effectiveness of his missionary activities."

That's not mincing words. Taking away the inflammatory rhetoric, the basic proposition is that Paul was never a Pharisee.

2. "Jesus and his immediate followers were Pharisees."

Now there's a thought to conjure with, running very much against the grain. Obviously he'll need to build a strong case in order to convince most readers.

3. "The first followers of Jesus... were called the Nazarenes... indistinguishable from the Pharisees, except that they believed in the resurrection of Jesus, and that Jesus was still the promised Messiah."

That seems to be a fairly uncontroversial point, though big news to most lay Christians.

4. "Paul, not Jesus, was the founder of Christianity as a new religion which developed away from both normative Judaism and the Nazarene variety of Judaism."

Again, nothing really new here, at least to students of early church history, though the consensus position would be that the Gentile church followed the lead of the Holy Spirit while the Jewish church was incapable of such change. Paul, in the standard narrative, was the one who was forging ahead while the Jerusalem-led church stagnated. That of course moves beyond the facts to a winners' narrative. Maccoby wants us to pull off the apologetic glasses and take a new look.

5. The testimony of the Ebionites (as recorded by Epiphanius) provides solid historical information about the real Paul who "had no Pharisaic background or training; he was the son of Gentiles, converted to Judaism, in Tarsus, came to Jerusalem when an adult, and attached himself to the High Priest as a henchman."

6. "The Ebionites were not heretics, as the church asserted, nor 're-Judaizers', as modern scholars call them, but the authentic successors of the immediate disciples and followers of Jesus..."

Maccoby is not using nuanced language here, and building his conclusions and judgments into his argument from the start. Many of us would much prefer to see the case laid out before we reach our own conclusions. But there's no denying that the reader is in for an invigorating journey, with more than one bucket of icy water thrown in their face along the way. I'm happy with that. Bring it on!

Next time we'll delve into the third chapter, The Pharisees, as Maccoby seeks to put flesh on his argument.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Doctor Who - Face The Raven

Clara - no sign of Harry Potter
A bit out of character for me, but a couple of quick observations on this morning's (tonight's in the UK... I watched on a BBC1 stream) episode of that most unpredictable and inconsistent of British sci-fi series, Doctor Who.

Derivative? Remember Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter franchise? Imitation, so they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Down into a hidden street of London goes the Doctor, Clara and... well, let's not trespass too far into a "spoiler alert". I'll only say that I'll be counting my steps next time I'm in Auckland's Queen Street.

James McGrath regularly finds faith-based themes in Doctor Who. With this episode, yet to air in New Zealand and the US (though it won't be far off), he should really knock himself out. Substitutionary atonement anyone? Maybe even a reprise of the old Protestant dichotomy (not very soundly based) between the supposedly rigid demands of Old Testament-style law and compassion.

But don't expect a satisfying resolution. Maybe next week, or the week after. This is 3-part story.

Interviewed yesterday on Graham Norton's BBC chat show, Peter Capaldi was giving nothing much away, except to say that the show would be "sad" and confirming that this would be Clara's swan song as the Doctor's companion.

And yes, this episode pulled out all the stops to take the viewers on an emotional ride from something akin to an extreme sports rush (Clara hanging out of the Tardis above London on an adrenaline high) to the final denouement.

Who's the Doctor's new sidekick? Capaldi wouldn't tell Norton, and even after seeing the show we still don't know. Next week?

I'm looking forward to James' analysis.

(If you're outside the UK and have yet to catch Face the Raven, there's a "spoiler alert" article at Digital Spy.)

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Herman's Pyramid Hooey

What's the connection between Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson and late evangelist Herman Hoeh of the Worldwide Church of God?

Pyramid speculation anyone?

From an article by David Krueger on Religion Dispatches.

The writings of one Joseph-built-the-pyramids enthusiast reveals some clues about what might be at stake in Carson’s firm embrace of his beliefs.

In 1964, the evangelist Dr. Herman Hoeh wrote an article titled “Who Built the Great Pyramid” in a Worldwide Church of God magazine called The Plain Truth. Hoeh begins his article emphasizing the impressive size of the pyramid and the mathematical precision with which it was constructed. He notes that the Great Pyramid is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and that a pyramid, minus a capstone, is imprinted on U.S. currency. Additionally, he claims that the citizens of the U.S. are the descendants of Joseph’s son Manasseh. Very quickly, we get a glimpse of Hoeh’s interests in writing about the pyramid:

"We found the external appearance of the Great Pyramid ruined by the Arabs. For centuries they have carted away and used the polished white casing stones which once made the Pyramid gleam in the sun and moonlight."

He also cites another example of Arab mismanagement of the pyramid stating that after the “Moslem Arabs” invaded Egypt, they further vandalized the “architectural wonder” when they “blindly cut into the pyramid hoping to find buried treasure in it.”

Hoeh goes on challenge the scholarly consensus about the identity of the known builder of the pyramid, the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (or as he’s known in the Greek, Cheops). First, Hoeh exploits some of the uncertainty about Khufu’s family line by asserting that he was not Egyptian, but instead came from a foreign sheep-herding people who were of a “different race.”

Hoeh then asserts that Cheops was not an “idolater” like other Egyptian pharaohs. To the contrary, he says, Cheops worshipped God under the name “Amen,” which he notes is later used to refer to Jesus Christ in the Book of Revelation 3:14. Furthermore, although scholars have dated the rule of Cheops to the 26th century B.C.E., Hoeh claims that he built the Great Pyramid almost one thousand years later during the time of the seven-year famine, spoken of in the Book of Genesis, when Joseph took up residency in Egypt and assisted the pharaoh in leading during a time of crisis. And what is the true identity of Cheops? In Hoeh’s mind, it is none other than Job, another character from the Hebrew Bible.

Hoeh’s historical claims are clearly flawed and easily debunked, but he succeeds in crafting a narrative that inserts revered figures of the Biblical tradition into the starring roles of Egypt’s history. Hoeh’s assertion that Egypt’s most revered structure was built by the Israelites Job and Joseph is followed by a territorial claim. The Great Pyramid, says Hoeh, was constructed by the Biblical Job with the help of Joseph “to commemorate what Joseph did for Egypt and to mark the border of the territory given to Joseph’s family in the land of Egypt by Pharaoh.” The land granted to the patriarchs of Israel “extends westward from Palestine to the Nile River” and includes the Suez Canal even though “Egypt has [wrongly] seized control of it.”

Hoeh concludes with his hope that one day the Great Pyramid will be recognized by modern Egyptians as a monument to the true God, Amen, a.k.a. Jesus Christ, the capstone depicted on U.S. currency. Given his earlier association of Joseph as a forefather of Americans, it’s not hard to imagine that Hoeh hopes for a Middle East more greatly influenced by Christianity and U.S. foreign policy. (End of excerpt. The 1964 Hoeh article is still available online.)

Few 21st century adherents of Armstrongism are aware that Herbert Armstrong once toyed with "pyramidology" - the idea that the Great Pyramid was "prophecy written in stone" complete with measurements in "pyramid inches" - after reading British Israel texts such as Great Pyramid Proof of God (George Riffert, Destiny Publishers, 1932). After actually visiting the pyramids himself on a tithe-funded junket in the 1960s Armstrong emerged disillusioned and dropped the pyramid nonsense - as presumably did Hoeh and his tour-buddy Meredith.

Which may well prove that Herb was a smarter cookie than the Seventh-day Adventist brain surgeon.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Mythmaker: An Unlikely Pharisee

(This is the second part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

Paul, the converted Pharisee? How likely is that? Not very if you follow Hyam Maccoby's argument. In the second part of chapter one he introduces preliminary evidence to the contrary.

The "pre-conversion" Paul is said to be following the orders of the High Priest in Jerusalem, yet the High Priest was a Sadducee.
How is it that Saul, allegedly an enthusiastic Pharisee ('a Pharisee of the Pharisees'), is acting hand in glove with the High Priest?
It's a bit like asking a devout Shia Muslim to follow the directives of a Sunni Grand Mufti. (Maccoby will delve into the relationship between Pharisees and Sadducees at greater depth later in the book).

But there are further problems.
... Paul is represented as saying that he 'cast his vote' against the followers of Jesus, thus helping to condemn them to death. This can only refer to the voting of the Sanhedrin or Council of Elders, which was convened to try capital cases; so what Luke is claiming here for his hero Paul is that he was at one time a member of the Sanhedrin. This is highly unlikely, for Paul would surely have made this claim in his letters, when writing about his credentials as a Pharisee, if it had been true.
Paul is never one to shy away from self promotion, even when he's boasting of his humility. Given this degree of braggadocio it's hard to imagine he wouldn't have played this very impressive trump card.

Maccoby doesn't buy the commonly accepted Christian narrative that Paul was only claiming to be an ex-Pharisee who saw the light and then dumped on his former Pharisaic faith. Paul's motivation was to use his assumed credentials as a Pharisee to exalt his status and to add legitimacy to the transition from Judaism to a largely Hellenistic faith.

As chapter one concludes Maccoby takes a parting shot at one of the most influential Christian scholars in this field.
In modern times, scholars have laboured to argue that Paul's doctrines about the Messiah and divine suffering are continuous with Judaism as it appears in the Bible, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and in rabbinical writings (the best-known effort of this nature is Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, by W.D. Davies).
Clearly Maccoby is of a different opinion. Why is this important?
So Paul's claim to expert Pharisee learning is relevant to a very important and central issue - whether Christianity, in the form given to it by Paul, is really continuous with Judaism or whether it is a new doctrine, having no roots in Judaism, but deriving, in so far as it has a historical background, from pagan myths of dying and resurrected gods and Gnostic myths of heaven-descended redeemers.
You can almost hear the sharp intake of breath from the world of privileged Christian scholarship.

And we're only up to page 14!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Mythmaker: Preface and Chapter One

This is the first part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.

Maccoby sets out his intentions in the Preface.
I have used the rabbinical evidence to establish... that Paul, whom the New Testament wishes to portray as having been a trained Pharisee, never was one.
In this undertaking there would be few more qualified than Maccoby, a Fellow of Leo Baeck College, London and a specialist in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

And later.
I have returned to one of the earliest accounts of Paul in existence, that given by the Ebionites, as reported by Epiphanius.
This then is a unique brief, but clearly not one that should be regarded as beyond the pale.

With the first chapter, The Problem of Paul, we get an interesting angle on the apostle. Maccoby is neither a Christian nor a Christian apologist, and he isn't even faintly interested in politely genuflecting in that direction.
Paul claimed that his interpretations were not just his own invention, but had come to him by personal inspiration; he claimed that he had personal acquaintance with the resurrected Jesus, even though he had never met him during his lifetime. Such acquaintance, he claimed, gained through visions and transports, was actually superior to acquaintance with Jesus during his lifetime...
Anybody want to argue that one?

The erasure of James and his brothers from prominence in the gospels indicates for Maccoby that the ground had shifted. These people, who actually knew the Jesus of history, regarded Paul as an upstart and his gospel as a misrepresentation.

Paul is said to have hailed from Tarsus, but this is something he is reticent about revealing in his own writings.
The impression he wished to give, of coming from an unimpeachable Pharisaic background, would have been much impaired by the admission that he in fact came from Tarsus, where there were few, if any, Pharisee teachers and a Pharisee training would have been hard to come by.
Maccoby is asking, basically, if Paul cooked his CV.
The fact that this question is hardly ever asked shows how strong the influence of traditional religious attitudes still is in Pauline studies. Scholars feel that, however objective their enquiry is supposed to be, they must always preserve an attitude of deep reverence for Paul, and never say anything to suggest that he may have bent the truth at times, though the evidence is strong enough in various parts of his life-story that he was not above deception when he felt it warranted by circumstances.
Them is fighting words, but it's a relief to see somebody putting it out there in plain language. Those who have paddled in the academic puddles of theology know that this is a pretty fair summation of the situation - and degree programmes at secular universities (and yes, I'm remembering classes at Otago) are far from exceptions.

Only in six pages and my appetite was well whetted.

More from the first chapter next time.