Hyam Maccoby’s “Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity”

Hyam Maccoby’s “Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity”

The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of ChristianityThe Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by Hyam Maccoby

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I was impressed with Maccoby’s attempts to manipulate the reader’s perceptions, but disappointed in his scholarship. His book is full of what I refer to as “sleight of tongue.” This is a rhetorical device by which the writer posits a hypothetical situation of what “might have happened,” then subtly changes the language from the conditional or theoretical (“might have,” “could have”) to the positive until they are speaking of the hypothetical incident or situation as if it had actually happened. The writer may then tell the reader what “we have seen” or what “I have shown” or what they may surmise. Having promoted an idea and assumed the reader has accepted it, the writer then proceeds as if the point has been proven rather than merely raised.

In “Mythmaker” Maccoby tells us that, according to Ebionite sources (which are not cited) Saul of Tarsus—later, the Apostle Paul—was not, as he claimed, a Pharisaical rabbi, but rather a Gentile, born of Gentile parents. Further, he is “an adventurer of undistinguished background.” We are asked to accept Maccoby’s word that the adjective “undistinguished” is accurate—ditto, the descriptive noun “adventurer,” both of which are evocative.

Maccoby proceeds with the rest of his commentary on Paul as if he has proved that this is so, and so, later in the chapter, he says that “Even though Saul, after his conversion to Judaism, never actually became a Pharisee rabbi, the mere fact that he felt a strong urge in later life to represent himself as having been one must be significant. It means that … this had been his dream. If his parents were indeed ‘God-fearers’ (i.e. Gentiles who lived as Jews), they must have told him about the famous Pharisees of Judea… The young Saul would have heard the names of the greatest Pharisee leaders … he may have seen [them].”

Maccoby completes the hypothetical construct by asserting, in non-hypothetical terms, that “The young Saul, planning to be a full convert, would be impelled by his naturally ambitious nature to see himself as no ordinary convert, but … to become … a great Pharisee leader himself.” At the end of the chapter, Maccoby sums up what we may now “surmise” about Paul based on the foregoing: “We may surmise that he made an abortive attempt to rise in the Pharisee movement; that he enrolled with some Pharisee teacher for a while … but proved a failure.” The finale: “Instead of his dream of respected status as a rabbi, the reality was ignominy as a member of the High Priest’s band of armed thugs.” (Maccoby’s Mythmaker pp98 & 99)

These two paragraphs are a case study in the attempted manipulation of the reader’s perceptions. After laying out a fabric of mixed conditional and unconditional assertions (must be, may have, must have, would have)—which are opinions about what Paul might have thought, been and done—Maccoby goes on to claim that based on these suppositions, we may surmise an entire chapter full of actions and attitudes on Paul’s part.

Let’s reverse engineer this. Two things stand out most starkly, to me: 1) in the entire passage, the author fails to offer one actual fact and 2) the one thing he actually labels a fact is something he would have to be Paul to know. This is “the fact that he felt a strong urge” to represent himself as being a Pharisee. In Maccoby’s case, I think it’s instructive to look at the depth of omniscience he claims. He says with certainty that Paul:

1. never became a Pharisee
2. wasn’t Jewish by birth, but a convert
3. felt a strong urge to be taken as a Pharisee
4. dreamed of achieving high status in the Pharisee movement
5. planned to be a full convert to Judaism
6. had a naturally ambitious nature
7. made an abortive attempt to rise in the Pharisee movement (especially difficult if he was never a member of the movement to begin with.)
8. proved a failure (at an unproven, hypothetical ambition).

It’s a mixed bag, but among the unsupported assumptions are three items that there can be no historical record of—Paul’s feelings, urges, plans and naturally ambitious nature. An unwary reader may emerge from the chapter believing that a scholarly treatise has uncovered an historical character’s true nature when it’s done nothing of the kind.

As a rhetorical device this assumption of omniscience can be very useful. It allows a writer to paint a picture of the individual that—unless the reader is aware enough to deconstruct it—can outlast any factual information the reader might glean. I’m uncomfortable with this usage, even from writers whose viewpoints I agree with. Maybe it’s because I’m primarily a writer of fiction, but even in the realm of non-fiction, I’m a firm believer that showing, not telling is the best way to communicate honestly.

Maya Bohnhoff

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4 thoughts on “Hyam Maccoby’s “Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity”

  1. reading this book did not change my view of Paul because his letters to the churches are truthful (in my opinion). I do, however, find the part of Jesus being a pharisee very interesting and plan on looking into this further. As well as the cover up of him being sought after by the corrupted leaders of his day instead of the Pharisees. It makes sense…

  2. I suppose it’s possible that Jesus studied to be a Pharisee. He did, after all, deliver a reading in the synagogue in Nazareth and used the opportunity to declare His mission.

    But He clearly taught against what the Pharisees had become. He refers to the religious leaders as “white-washed graves”, “vipers”, and hypocrites. All of which is in line with His teaching that faith does not lie in what we profess, but in how well we follow the teachings of God.

    He warns His own followers that a time will come when many will call HIm “Lord” and He will say, “I never knew you.”

    With regard to Maccoby’s book, I was unable to take any of it at face value because of the many manipulations he indulged in. After all, if I find that he’s presented his own opinion as fact in one case, how can I be sure he hasn’t done it in another?

  3. Maya,

    Yeshua was indeed a Beit Hillel Pharisee. You wrote: “But He clearly taught against what the Pharisees had become.” No, he taught against what the Beit Shammai Pharisees had become. The two Pharasaic factions of the 1st century were notoriously bitter toward one anothers doctrines. The students of Shammai even went as far as to murder some 70 Beit Hillel students. Perhaps a study on the 18 measures of Shammai would do you well.


    1. Didn’t Jesus disagree with Hillel and agree with Shammai on divorce? At least if we believe Matthew, where Matthew quotes Jesus as allowing divorce only for fornication. Though Mark and Luke quote Jesus as not allowing divorce at all. Though a complication seems to be that Jesus is apparently revealing a new law on divorce, so it could be he agreed with Hillel on divorce and decided to change the Law of Moses regulation, since he did not like what Moses legislated, saying Moses did it only because of the hardness of heart of the Israelites.
      I don’t see anything else in the New Testament where Jesus took any stand on the disputes between Hillel and Shamai. Clearly he wanted to introduce new teachings, like allowing his disciples to collect seeds on the Sabbath, or allowing carrying of beds or other burdens on the Sabbath, or also not washing hands before eating, or especially announcing himself to be not only the Messiah but also the Son of God. That is not what Hillel preached.

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