The Real Paul?
The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.
by Hyam Maccoby.
Harper & Row.237 pp. $17.95.
The New Testament speaks of Jesus Christ as “a sign spoken against” and “a stone of stumbling.” But at least since the 18th-century Enlightenment, it has been the apostle Paul who has often been cast in the role of (in the words of Thomas Jefferson) “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus”; for Jefferson, who twice took upon himself the task of “abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried” in the New Testament, found the assignment of separating the “diamonds” from the “dung” and of identifying the authentic religion of Jesus to be “obvious and easy,” carrying it out in two or three evenings after the day’s work was done. This authentic religion of Jesus he set in opposition to “the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of his disciples,” adding that “of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus.”
Yet the same apostle Paul has also been the source and inspiration for many of the great reformations, personal and corporate, throughout Christian history. In 386—thus exactly sixteen centuries ago this year—when, according to his Confessions, Augustine heard a voice calling, “Tolle, lege! Take it! Read it!” it was the reading of Paul’s epistle to the Romans that converted him to Catholic Christianity. Similarly, when Martin Luther in his “tower experience” came to what he believed to be “the discovery of the gospel” of justification by faith, it was once again the epistle to the Romans that he was pondering. Luther’s interpretation of Romans, as summarized in his preface to that epistle, was in turn the message by which John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” in his own conversion to evangelical Christianity at Aldersgate on May 24, 1738. And “the bombshell that fell into the playground of the theologians” after World War I was Karl Barth’s commentary on the same epistle, Der Römerbrief (The Epistle to the Romans), published in 1919.
The ambiguity of Paul’s locus in Christian history suggested by that recital provides the basis for Hyam Maccoby’s iconoclastic book, The Mythmaker. Maccoby, who is a fellow of the Leo Baeck College in London, interprets Paul, not Jesus, as “the founder of Christianity as a new religion.” According to Maccoby, Paul was not a Jew “of the tribe of Benjamin” as he claimed to be, but a Gentile convert from paganism to Judaism (who “knew very little Hebrew”) and then from that Judaism to Christianity. Much less was he, as he also claimed, an ex-Pharisee, or as the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament claim, a pupil of the great Rabbi Gamaliel. Rather, he “regarded the Jewish tradition with awe and envy, and had sought to master it, only to meet with failure and rebuff”; thus he had at best a dilettante’s acquaintance with rabbinic Judaism, but “fantasized a career as a successful Pharisee, which he had voluntarily renounced.”
The real Pharisee in Maccoby’s picture of primitive Christianity was none other than Jesus himself, whose Pharisaism the evangelists, in keeping with their Tendenz, suppressed in their accounts. And so, Maccoby writes, “it was Paul’s frustrated love affair with Judaism that created Pauline Christianity.” This he achieved by a fusion, into “a new and powerful myth,” of elements borrowed from gnosticism (above all, the myth of the descent of the savior from heaven), from the mystery religions (the idea of a dying and resurrected god), and from Judaism (the authority of the Hebrew Bible, but seen now as the “Old Testament,” to be interpreted messianically). In sum, Paul was a “mythologist” rather than a “theologian.”
The “real life” of this Paul, in Maccoby’s view, “was more like a picaresque novel than the conventional life of a saint”: he was “an adventurer of undistinguished background” and “the greatest fantasist of all,” who resorted to “sheer bluff” in putting over his “concoction” of various disparate elements. This was “the real Paul—the tormented adventurer, threading his way by guile through a series of stormy episodes, and setting up a form of religion that was his own individual creation.” Not only did Paul “invent” what eventually became the orthodox Christian doctrines of Jesus as a divine being and of his death on the cross as an atoning sacrifice; Maccoby even regards it as “abundantly clear that Paul himself was the inventor and creator of the Eucharist, both as an idea and as a Church institution,” despite its explicit presence in all three of the synoptic Gospels and at least by allusion in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, not only in 1 Corinthians. Beyond all that, Paul was an “anti-feminist” and “the originator of Christian anti-Semitism” as well.
The author is probably understating the case, therefore, when he warns his readers at the very beginning that his preliminary “summary of the findings of this book may seem dogmatic at this stage,” and there will be many readers, and not only Christian readers, to whom these “findings” may seem dogmatic not only at that stage but at the end of their reading as well. Maccoby represents his own position, however, as “approaching this question not from the standpoint of faith, but from that of historians,” and he contrasts its objectivity with “the influence of traditional religious attitudes . . . in Pauline studies.”
In his treatment of most of his predecessors in those studies, Maccoby sounds a polemical tone that does itself sometimes seem, if the expression may be indulged, “Pauline.” Thus, New Testament interpreters like John G. Gager and Krister Stendahl “all seem entirely unaware that Judaism already provided a way of salvation for Gentiles”; another group of present-day exegetes is said to manifest “great incompetence and prejudice,” with a “stance of ultra-professionalism” that is “phony”; scholars like W. D. Davies, the author of Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (1965), “misunderstood” their sources; and “the drama of Paul’s confrontation with the High Priest . . . has been entirely missed by commentators.” By contrast, Maccoby finds some affinities with the radical hypotheses of the German Protestant Tübingen school of the 19th century, which, with the aid of a Hegelian dialectic, interpreted the emergence of Catholic Christianity as the “synthesis” that came out of the opposition between the Jewish Christianity of Peter and the Gentile Christianity of Paul, although it failed to recognize the implications of this for the understanding of Jesus himself. Above all, he accepts as “very convincing” the historical speculation (which he describes as “detective work”) of a few scholars about the Ebionite sect when it substantiates, or seems to substantiate, his thesis.
As I read The Mythmaker, I was repeatedly reminded of the acknowledged masterpiece of this genre, Freud’s Moses and Monotheism: a daring, often even reckless, endeavor to go behind the all-but-unanimous historical evidence to reconstruct the founding of a world religion wie es eigentlich geschehen ist, as it really happened, rejecting the a prioris of traditional orthodoxy as tendentious only to superimpose another set of a prioris as scientifically verifiable. Maccoby promises to elaborate the scholarly foundations of his thesis in a forthcoming book, Paul, Pharisaism, and Gnosticism. But as his earlier publications make clear, he is interested both in setting the historical record straight (for example, in his Revolution in Judaea, about the true character of Pharisaism as against the distortions of it in the Gospels and, from that source, in popular usage) and (perhaps above all in his incisive Cardinal Bea Memorial Lecture, “The Parting of the Ways,” published in 1980) in discovering the Christian origins of anti-Semitism as well as its later medieval development (Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages, 1982).
Both of these aims are not merely laudable but indispensable for the sake of historical honesty and of interfaith understanding, and all of us are indebted to Hyam Maccoby for his willingness to take on the tough questions. But as a historical scholar, I must confess that I am not convinced either by the neo-Hegelian historical dialectic of the Tübingen school or by Maccoby’s theories of radical discontinuity; for at least in my own researches, I have discerned a far more subtle process of continuity-cum-discontinuity at work in the history of early Christianity as well as in, for example, the history of the Reformation, which Maccoby characterizes as “the most massive instance” of Christian “antinomianism.” As a Christian, I must confess that I am not persuaded that the path to better understanding between the traditions lies in “debunking” either Moses or Paul. And speaking both as a historical scholar and as a Christian, I am confirmed by my reading of The Mythmaker in my long-held belief that neither the solo flights of Christian scholars into talmudic territory nor the attempts by Jewish scholars to get at the status quo ante bellum behind the New Testament writings have been very successful, but that only the collaboration of critical investigators from various traditions can lead to the kind of historical insight and ecumenical understanding demanded both by scholarship and by faith.