It's taken me thirty years to get around to it, but I've finally settled in to read Hyam Maccoby's The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986). It's fair to say that this was not a popular work in Christian circles, despite Maccoby's strong qualifications in the field of Jewish and Christian history. The reason, one suspects, had little to do with his theses, but a lot to do with his direct and blunt approach to the subject; what one reviewer called his pugilistic tone. In an age when Jewish and Christian scholars are studiously gracious toward each other in public discourse, Maccoby lobbed in a hand grenade. Critics included John Gager, Oskar Skarsaune and James Dunn. I haven't yet had the opportunity to read Gager's critique, but Skarsaune is a conservative apologist with ties to Messianic Judaism and whose work I am both familiar with and thoroughly unimpressed by. Dunn was, it seems, more appalled by what he saw as "a regrettable return to older polemics" than the quality of Maccoby's reconstruction.
I confess that, in matters of both history and theology, I prefer plain language, and if there's a valid point to make then "hard-hitting" is no bad thing. Mythmaker is a passionate account of the origins of Christianity as it was reinvented (so Maccoby argues) by Paul. Plain language doesn't guarantee either credibility or accuracy of course, but it lets the reader make a decent assessment minus the complication of the standard weasel words. On this count Maccoby (who died in 2004) is at the very least refreshing.
Mythmaker has been out of print for a very long time - which goes some way to explaining my thirty year delay! His more recent book Jesus the Pharisee (2003) went over some of the same territory but without the pyrotechnics, and is less likely to raise anyone's blood pressure. Over the next several days I hope to share some thoughts and observations on Mythmaker a chapter at a time.