Hyam Maccoby: A Critique

Between the Old and the New Testaments, perhaps the greatest heroes in all of Judaism were the Maccabee family - the brave fellows who stood up to the desecrator of the Temple Antiochus Epiphanes. We remember the result of their deeds at this season along with those of our Savior.

Today there is another "Maccoby" and he is neither warrior nor priest. He is a Talmudic scholar and a leading writer against Christianity.

Few scholars take the works of Hyam Maccoby seriously. You will not often see him quoted as an authority, and his books (like the one evaluated here, The Mythmaker - Harper and Row, 1986) belong on the same shelf as items like Holy Blood, Holy Grail and James the Brother of Jesus. In other words, Maccoby is a conspiracy theorist, and has all of the associated practices and assumptions:

To put it in a nutshell: Maccoby uses the prejudicial adjectives quite well, but he seldom validates his qualifications to use them with arguments and data.

Maccoby is also bad with the sources. How so? In this book under consideration, Maccoby argues, among other things, that Jesus was actually a Pharisee, and that Paul was a major distorter of Jesus who was not a very serious Jew, but a charlatan who mixed paganism, Gnosticism, and Judaism to create Christianity as we know it.

But what of the work done by the likes of W. D. Davies, E. P . Sanders, and Joseph Klausner, placing Paul firmly in the traditions and methods of rabbinic Judaism?

Maccoby deals with Davies and Sanders by the simple expedient of mostly ignoring them or broadly dismissing them. Their work is cited only seven times in 230 pages, and never in relation to evidence. Klausner he dismisses by simply calling his arguments names ("unconvincing" - [61]).

Thus it is clear that while Maccoby's extensive source list looks impressive, he's simply listed volumes to make it look like he's done the work. How scholarly he actually is, is revealed in that most chapters have fewer than a dozen footnotes, and in that he feels he can refutek the likes of Davies, Sanders and Klausner with a single chapter of only 10 to 12 pages. Most of the book turns out not be scholarly at all, but mostly imaginative reconstruction of what Maccoby thinks actually happened in the first century.

What is really happening here is revealed in part by the tribute Maccoby offers to those who funded his work - The Centre for the Study of Anti-Semitism. Maccoby accuses the Apostle Paul of creating "a new religion" in which the Jews "were the villains, instead of the heroes, of sacred history" [50] - and in service of allegedly destroying anti-semitism, he wishes to prove that Paul was the real villain.

Thus, like Haim Cohn in The Trial of Jesus, where it was supposed that the high priests actually loved Jesus and were trying to get him to be quiet and stay out of trouble, Maccoby is a historical revisionist on behalf of the elimination of bigotry.

May I say as I have before on regards to Cohn and others that revisionism of this sort is as outrageous as that used by anti-Semites to justify their own perversions. Maccoby has merely replaced the bigotry of those who willfully misinterpreted the writings of Paul for their own purposes with a bigotry of his own - directed solely against Paul.

This is wrong however we look at it: Bigotry is bigotry whether directed against a class of people or against only one. Let us see now exactly how Maccoby misuses the data to suit his own purposes.

Pauline Premises

Maccoby summarizes in advance what he hopes to prove in The Mythmaker; let's look at that first.

  1. Paul, who is painted as a Pharisee in Acts and claims to be a Pharisee in his letters, "never was one." [xi] He lied about his qualifications and was poorly trained as a rabbinic scholar. [15ff]
  2. Jesus was a Pharisee whose teachings Paul distorted. True Christianity, represented by the Jerusalem church led by Peter and James, never believed that Jesus was divine, though they did believe he was the Messiah and had been resurrected. They observed the Jewish law faithfully and disdained Paul, who created what we call Christianity out of a mix of hellenism, Gnosticism, paganism, and Judaism.
  3. The similar description of Paul written by the Ebionites in the middle of the second century is a much more reliable source about Paul than the NT, and scholars have neglected this fact for "quite inadequate and tendentious reasons" [xii].

Jesus and Paul - Card-Carrying Pharisees?

Even a cursory glance at the Gospels suggests that Jesus and some Pharisees (not all, of course) had disagreements. Now we know that there were variations within Pharisaism - the schools of Hillel and Shammai were major players, and no doubt there were individual levels of commitment that found varying means of expression. For Maccoby, though, the Pharisees are all cut from the same cloth; it is assumed that what is true for one Pharisee is true for all, and hence he places Jesus in their ranks.

He does this in one instance by noting the story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath. He claims that a Pharisee source shows that they had no problem with healing on the Sabbath, but he does not name this source or quote it, not even in a footnote. One suspects that healing was permitted for lifesaving medical treatment; but that was not what Jesus was up to; the man in the story was not in deadly peril.

Later Maccoby reworks the story of the disciples picking grain in the field [41] to suppose that Jesus was actually in flight from Herod and the Romans and justified the picking of corn on an emergency basis - this, done to make Jesus in perfect agreement with Pharisee law. I think we hardly need to comment on such blatant and unwarranted revisionism.

As for Paul, Maccoby devotes 11 pages to proving that the Apostle was a liar when he claimed to be a Pharisee. Paul, he tells us, created this religion in which Jews were "enemies of God." Maccoby needs to read Romans carefully; Paul says that ALL men are enemies of God in their unredeemed state, not just the Jews.

Here also Maccoby selects from Acts that which suits his case, and discards the rest: Gamaliel's speech is mostly reliable (except for the alleged Judas/Theudas error), but that Paul received endorsement for his persecutions is not reliable at all, for Maccoby tells us that there is nothing in Christian belief that any Pharisee, whether liberal or conservative, would object to...because Christianity did not actually believe Jesus to be divine...which was a belief invented by Paul...so that there was no belief for Paul to persecute if he were really a Pharisee...and around the circle goes.

In fact, much of what Maccoby argues in this book works upon the presumption that true Christianity never believed in a divine Jesus, and upon the sort of circular argument we have described above.

Paul, Student of the Rabbis?

Maccoby's most important point for our purposes, however, is his attempt to prove that Paul was no Jewish intellectual as has been argued by the likes of Davies and Klausner. This view, he tells us, is "entirely wrong, being based on ignorance or misunderstanding of rabbinical exegesis and logic." [61] And so, in a tour de force of nine pages with 12 mostly-irrelevant footnotes, Maccoby goes on to prove that Paul was not the rabbinic scholar that Davies, etc. have supposed.

Klausner, who said, "It would be difficult to find more typically Talmudic expressions of scripture than those in the Epistles of Paul," is disposed of by reference to the "six unconvincing examples" he provides (though we are only allowed to have one explained to us in Maccoby's text) and the claim that "rabbinical arguments are never guilty of logical confusions" like Paul's arguments contained.

Also cited is the fact that Paul bases some of his arguments on the LXX, which Maccoby claims that a Palestinian scholar of Judaism would never do, although not so much as a footnote is offered in proof - and one wonders what works from the first century Maccoby can provide as proof; if he cites Talmudic literature, then that is too late to use as proof, for it is beyond that century and into the time when Jewish scholars would indeed have disliked using the LXX, because of consistent Christian use of it.

The acid test for proving that Paul was a fakir of rabbinical teaching, however, would be to show that he shows none of the signs of having a rabbinical education, which is the whole point of what Klausner, Davies and others wrote about. Maccoby dismisses Klausner and another scholar, Schoeps, by remarking that "it is quite startling to see how unconvincing they are" [64] and accusing them of bias, which is not an argument but a statement of evaluation without support.

We do get to some specifics, however. One evidence of Paul's rabbinic background is that he uses a typical rabbinic exegetical method called qal va-homer - or "light and heavy". It is a sort of principle of analogy used to prove one point based on a given fact. Maccoby cites four examples of this method from Paul; let's look at them, all from Romans:

5:10 For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
5:17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
11:15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
11:24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!

Maccoby gives Paul a failing grade on 3 out of 4, accusing him of "woolly, imprecise reasoning" and going "far beyond the conclusion warranted" - the bottom line being, Paul cannot be a Pharisee or a rabbinic exegete, because he "was arguing for a doctrine of which the Pharisees would have disapproved strongly." [65-6]

Now, did the reader catch that? Paul can't be a Pharisee or a rabbinic exegete, because he comes to conclusions that are false by Pharisee thinking...i.e., because he asserts that Christianity is true. All 4 of these arguments, in fact, are quite sensible if what Paul argues is based on what is true; but that is the very point at issue, and Maccoby has merely started by assuming from the get-go that Christianity as we know it is a Pauline fraud. Once again, all he does here is argue in circles.

As another attempt to rob Paul of his credentials, Maccoby cites this passage, Romans 7:1-6 --

Do you not know, brothers--for I am speaking to men who know the law--that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man. So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

Maccoby criticizes Paul hard here, calling him "remarkably muddle-headed" and "unable to keep clear in his mind who it is that corresponds to the wife and who to the husband - or even who is supposed to have died, the husband or the wife." [88-9]

Well, the confusion is Maccoby's own, because Paul is not drawing that sort of analogy here. He is not trying to make anyone or anything "correspond" with wife or husband; he is merely establishing a basic principle of contract, that death releases one from even the most sacred of contracts. There is no confusion here, except by Maccoby, who is reading into Paul's work an argument that he is not making at all. There is also no attempt being made by Paul at a "logical" argument, so it is misplaced to attack Paul's "logic" or his "form." There is no effort at an "if/then" statement by Paul, not any conclusion based on any attempt at logic. There is only a brief analogy.

And that's the basics; here are a few other Maccoby miscues to consider:

And that is how Hyam Maccoby paints the portrait of Paul: With glasses, a mustache, and blacked-in teeth; with Paul as the "originator of Christian anti-Semitism" and "the greatest fantasist of all." [209]

What is truly amazing, however, is that Maccoby expects anyone to believe that he has long solved the problems of the NT with his revisionist version of history.


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