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!


  1. You think too much. Don't you know that's how people get in trouble? The whole world is in trouble because people think. The world would be a much better place if no one thought. I remember a WCG minister saying once that he could hear the gears turning in the heads of some church members as they started thinking about some issue. Now that's good hearing, and he said to stop it! Reasoning only gets you in trouble. It made me realize what a close call I had with thinking and I stopped it then and there! I didn't think for another 15 years or so.

  2. God is in the details. And the more I learn the details of the collection of writings known as the Bible, the more I realize it's all B.S. Like K says, all you really need to do is turn on your brain and keep it turned on.

  3. I really enjoyed k-baradanikto's comments - anyone who has been a member of the ACOG culture for any length of time can relate to them.
    As for Maccoby's statements relative to whether or not Christianity was derived from Judaism, by being so completely dismissive of a connection between the two, he has destroyed his credibility with most students of the subject. When attempting to write revisionist history or introduce new interpretations of the past, it is usually prudent to attempt to be more nuanced in one's treatment of the subject. Most folks would be open to evidence of other influences on Christianity, but it seems a bit absurd to suggest that the religion doesn't have any roots in Judaism.

  4. As a True Believer, I would have been shocked by this in the mid eighties.
    In fact by ~1990 when reading Eric Hoffer casually slamming Paul as a fraud, I was shocked!

    To quote the PT: "You will find the Truth SHOCKING!"

    Though not a specialist like Maccoby, how did Hoffer have this kind of clarity in 1951?
    Well, both have the neutrality and impartiality that only Atheism can provide!

  5. Skeptic, your comments suggest that you aren't a skeptic anymore.
    Minimalist, swallowing a particular interpretation of history hook, line and sinker is not indicative of neutrality or impartiality. And are you suggesting that it's impossible for a theist to be objective?

    1. Atheists are more trustworthy with the evidence and therefore (in this case) achieved breakthroughs in understanding decades earlier than theists.

    2. Miller, I'm not sure what you mean. I'm certainly skeptical about most things. Regarding the bible, however, I'm quite convinced that it wasn't inspired by any all-knowing being but is the product of fallible writers. This example of Paul's writings shows clearly that (1) the writer didn't really understand what it meant to be a Pharisee or a Sadducee, or to "cast his vote". It all sounded good to the writer, and apparently to his audience. Most people don't look these things up or think them through, they just accept them and gloss over them.

      Similarly if your analyze many of the supposed travels of Jesus in the gospel accounts - if you get out a map and trace where he supposedly went (as Dennis McKinsey did in detail) - some of these stories are the equivalent of him traveling from Paris to London but stopping at Athens on the way there. Other stories have him zigzagging all over the place for no reason. Clearly the writers were writing their fictions without a clear grasp of the geography involved, but with a realization that it would all sound good to their readers anyway.

      So, for these reasons and hundreds more, when it comes to whether the bible is the inspired work of a higher being, I've made up my mind. I'm pretty sure the answer is "no".

    3. So, if you've seen enough evidence to make up your mind about biblical inspiration, why are you wasting your time by continuing to consider and comment on the evidence? If this question is truly settled, doesn't the moniker that you've chosen for yourself suggest that you should be moving on to other topics?

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  7. Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene or none of the above? I could label myself as being a liberal or a conservative, but a good many folks in whichever camp I decided to identify with would probably dispute my choice (not to mention a few political scientists). Likewise, if asked, I would identify myself as belonging to the Baptist branch of the Christian community. However, I can think of a few Southern Baptists who would dispute that designation. It's a question of self-perception versus who other folks perceive me to be. And, just for the record, my self-identification doesn't necessarily mean that I'm trying to deceive anyone!

    1. Suppose you wrote a book saying you're a Baptist and mentioning elsewhere how you were a key participant in decision-making at the Vatican. That might work quite well if you're a missionary in Africa writing to a semi-literate audience of people who are unfamiliar with the Christian religions. Maybe they'd be impressed and look up to you.

    2. Was Paul proud of his accomplishments and associations prior to his conversion to Christianity? If Paul or someone else was trying to use his Pharisaical connections to win Jewish converts, they certainly weren't being very clever about it were they? And why would Gentiles care one way or the other? I doubt most Gentile Christians would have been very interested in the different schools of thought extant in the Jewish community of that day.