Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Mythmaker: the duplicitous apostle

Chapter 13 of Mythmaker focuses on the tensions between Paul's ministry and the Jerusalem Church. The action centers around Acts 15 and the so-called Jerusalem conference. Maccoby's contention (and he makes a good case) is that James' ruling was firmly based on the concept of Noahide law. Righteous Gentiles were never expected to keep all the Jewish laws, but only those which were supposedly given to Noah after the Flood. This was nothing groundbreaking: "the drawing up of a basic moral code for Gentiles was one of the preoccupations of the Pharisaic rabbis, and the Jerusalem Council was by no means making a pioneering effort in this regard."

So James' decision in fact assumed the continuing relevance of the Torah. Gentile converts, however, were not required to convert to Judaism, but to keep the less rigorous Noahide laws. Paul had other ideas. For him the distinction between Jew and Gentile was rendered irrelevant. He gave lip service to the Jerusalem decree, but under the principle of 'give him an inch and he'll take a mile' pushed the boundaries out much further.

Maccoby next examines the famous passage in Galatians where Paul, spinning the story from his own perspective, confronts Peter over table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He finds the account incoherent in parts; after all, Gentile Christians were free under James' ruling to eat the meat of animals forbidden to Jews, so what was the issue?
Information had reached James that Paul was not adhering to the Jerusalem decision, but was allowing Gentile converts to eat anything without restriction, including food offered to idols (see 1 Corinthians 8... )
If this was the case Peter's withdrawal from table fellowship was drawing a line in the sand. "It marked the rejection by Peter of Paul's new doctrines, which demolished the whole distinction between Jews and Gentiles within the movement."

But of course the story does not end here. Paul saw real advantages in continuing to operate under the aegis of James and Jerusalem, despite his frequent protestations of independence. All of which sets the scene for his last visit to Jerusalem where, outfoxed by the Jerusalem leaders, he seems willing to engage in some remarkable acts of toadying, sponsoring a group undergoing the ritual of purification (Acts 21). "He was forced to capitulate and to agree to a public humiliation and retraction." How so?
[Paul] had proclaimed in his Epistles that the Torah was dead, that circumcision was no more than a mutilation, and that observance of the Torah was of no effect... [Yet] he consented meekly to an action that reinstated the Torah...
But if Paul hoped that this backtracking would result in preserving the status quo he was to be disappointed, for in short order he was to be arrested. That's the subject Maccoby deals with in chapter 14.

(This is the latest part of a overview of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. The views of the reviewer do not necessarily coincide with those of the author.)

1 comment:

  1. The remanufacturing of Judaism into a product with market appeal to the modern Roman and Greek world was not without friction. The sticking point was the Law of Moses with a wide spectrum of proposals: James and Marcion being the polar extremes that the Church Fathers would have to reconcile. An uneasy compromise and 200 more years of factional fighting. In fact they still can't agree today: JWs - Tkach - SDA - Meredith - all with a fundamental commitment to a very messy NT canon.