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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12 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.

  4. Christians with less knowledge than an author making a plausible argument, and educated regarding the Bible, which Christians assume is the Word of God, in reality is well known to be a fusion of Jerusalem based Nazarene Judaism and their enemies the church of Marcion, likely forger of said Epistles which appear in history after, not before, Marcion who like Paul didn’t care for the Apostles and probably is responsible for the embarrassing error of attributing the Law revealed and ordained by God (who else could?) to inferior angels, which is not the words of the Torah or any Hebrew Pharisee ever in history.

    It’s easy to say “I don’t think he is right” from a point of ignorance and while providing no point and thus no refutation of any point made by Maccoby.

    Nobody is ever right about matters of conjecture in a way that can be proven, but conjecture aside, I knew Paul was a fraud, pseudepigraphal or not, by reading the New Testament doesn’t without letting my want for Christianity to be the truth cloud my judgement.

    It is not Maccoby who supports his ideas, but Paul himself and the New Testament doesn’t itself, the content, narratives, context and subtext.

    And the term cherry picking or out of context applies most to how Christians are forced to study the Bible to avoid this rather obvious conclusion, as 13 Apostles is 1 too many and Acts says Matthias and Justus were the last 2 eligible, Peter chosen by God as Apostle to the Gentiles, and Paul is never confirmed to be an Apostle BY an Apostle, is guilty of teaching the doctrine of Balaam regarding idol meat, which is condemned by Jesus, who didn’t teach Paul that or anything.

    1. Yes, it could be that the epistle 2 Peter is a forgery, was not written by apostle Peter, so it could be Peter never endorsed Paul and his epistles as scripture. And the book of Acts was written by a supporter of Paul, so it could be biased too.

    2. So in conclusion, let me add, that we don’t know how much in the book of Acts is true, so we don’t know if Peter really was converted to the attitude that it is OK now for Jews to eat pork and other non-kosher animals, and whether he or any other apostles really participated in the council of Jerusalem of Acts 15, which apparently declared that gentile converts to the faith in Jesus did not have to keep the Law of Moses. Likewise Mark 7:19, which seems to be saying that all foods are clean, though the translation is difficult, if it means that, it is an unreliable verse, after all, Acts 10 is saying that Peter did not eat any unclean animal. So Jesus could not have been saying that now Jews can eat pork, camels and other unclean animals or idol food, or blood. Maybe Mark was a supporter of Paul too. After all, the gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying in 5:18 that until heaven and earth pass away, not even one letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Well, has the passing of heaven and earth taken place? Of course not. We are still here on the same earth on which Jesus was walking. Still the same globe going around the sun. So it looks like Jesus would not have approved of any abolishing of the Law. But then we don’t really know if anything in the New Testament is really reliable. After all, it was all written decades after Jesus died.

      1. Let us not lose sight of the far more essential meaning of Peter’s dream—which had nothing to do with food. This was the idea that gentiles, as well, as Jews were ‘kosher’ when it came to teaching them the Faith.

        Regarding the age of the gospel record, yes, the earliest ‘book’ was the Gospel of Mark published as a unit 40 years after the ascension of Christ. The letters of the apostles to the various congregations, however, are older and were disseminated during the life times of the apostles themselves. Further, if you look at the history of any nascent faith, you see that often what later becomes scripture has been collected orally and in writing in the time frame with the event described, but not collected into discrete volumes for some time.

        There is a tendency, I think, when we hear that the Gospel of Mark dates from 40 years after Christ’s ascension to imagine that it poofed into existence all at once like Athena leaping from the brow of Zeus. If the way the early writings of the Báb’í and Baha’i Faith or Islam, or Buddhism, for that matter, are an indication, the stories contained in the gospels existed as separate stories for years before they were compiled as part of a collection and labeled with a particular apostle’s name. Luke, for example, makes a point of saying that he has gone about collecting the stories contained in the Book of Luke.

        Neither Christ nor Muhammad had a chronicler of the level of Nabil among Their disciples or Their histories might have been more complete and detailed. We tend to forget the early disciples of any Prophet are not chosen for their journalist prowess, but self-select based on their spiritual virtue.

        1. Personally I think it is possible that Jesus’s teaching was great, and the 4 gospels, written much later, distorted his teachings, making it look like Jesus approved of the Law of Moses, considered it all inspired by God, he just objected to what he considered modifications and additional laws added by the Pharisees and others, which he called traditions of men. So the 4 gospels make it look like Jesus did not object to the sexist laws, the homophobic laws, the pro-slavery laws, and the pro-genocide laws in the Law of Moses. The gospels also make it look like he chose 12 apostles, all of them men, so he was very sexist. Also the gospels, especially the gospel of John, make it look like he believed that belief in him being the Christ and the Son of God is necessary for salvation, that those who happen not to believe are condemned. The gospels also portray Jesus as believing that only Jews, and maybe Samaritans, are worthy of hearing his preaching and getting saved, the Gentiles are like dogs, and furthermore the gospels portray Jesus as disliking dogs, even though many dogs are wonderful, loving pets. So while some of the teachings of Jesus presented in the gospels are wonderful, and good complement to some wonderful teachings of some Jewish prophets of previous centuries, still, some of the teachings the gospels present are terrible. So I would hope the gospels are often wrong and Jesus was really much better, really did denounce slavery, sexism, homophobia and genocides, and ethnic exclusivism, nationalism, and the need for faith for salvation and the consequent religious discrimination. Only then I could believe that a good God would really send Jesus to preach, and maybe even do miracles. And certainly it is not impossible that the 4 gospels present doctrines Jesus did not preach, but are a later development in Christianity, influenced by Judaism and maybe some forms of paganism. And it can be that Paul is an example of such doctrines, which is why he issued some sexist and pro-slavery commandments, like that slaves need to obey their masters, wives need to obey their husbands, women are forbidden to speak in the congregation, only men can be bishops, elders and deacons. And of course he did not tell the Christian masters to give freedom to their slaves. Meanwhile another contemporary Jewish sect, the Essenes, actually condemned slavery. That is at least what an ancient report about the Essenes says about them. Though how could they condemn slavery while believing in the Law of Moses, is not explained. Though it can happen, after all, nowadays even fundamentalist Christians usually condemn slavery. It just takes some crafty reinterpretation of the scriptures. And it is made easier by the fact that the New Testament is unclear on quite a number of doctrines, leading to various interpretations in the thousands of different denominations. Some denominations even believe the Law of Moses is still in effect and it is binding on all people, not just the Israelites. I am aware of what verses they use to prove it, and how they interpret any contrary verses. For example the vision given to Peter about eating unclean food is interpreted as signifying no people are unclean, so the food was just symbolic, and it continues to be a sin to eat pork, camels, horses, shrimp, etc.
          Anyway, I wish Jesus had written some scripture books himself, so we could know what he really believed. But for some reason, he did not write anything. A huge contrast to Baha’u’llah. We know well, what Baha’u’llah believed, and much of it is a big improvement compared to the teachings of Jesus, as presented by the gospels, whether they present Jesus’s teachings correctly or not.

    3. Your sentence structure makes it very difficult to divine what you’re trying to convey, though I take it you disagree with my take on Maccoby’s work. My real point is that regardless of Paul’s validity as an apostle, Maccoby does not make a case for his specific contentions about what Paul was or was not. His work is entirely conjecture presented as fact and using a form of rhetorical sleight of hand that, as a writer, I’m very familiar with.

      I personally find Paul’s epistles both instructive and revelatory of his own personal struggle. The issue I had with him as a Christian and continue to have with him as a Baha’i is less his fault than that of the church fathers who came after him and elevated his writings to such a degree that they were allowed to eclipse the teachings of Christ. Much of the doctrine of the plethora of Christian sects, including Catholicism, is extrapolated from the letters of Paul, most of which he wrote in response to specific problems within the nascent community of Christians.

      All of which simply goes to prove that to presume God’s revelation ended after any particular Prophet, be it Moses, Christ or Muhammad, is questionable from both a rational and spiritual perspective.

  5. “I can’t take at face value anything Maccoby said…”

    Is the statement of one unable to name anything said, never mind refute, and the fact that Paul is the source of Christianity and not Jesus is proven by the fact Jesus was not a Christian, never planned on appointing a 13th Apostle (12 is max at 1 time, Matthias the 12th and final) and unless Marcion was right about the 12 Apostles misunderstanding (Marcion know Jesus? Neither did Paul, both agreed though) Jesus’s message…

    Sending a murderer to “fix” his ineptitude in choosing properly the right people to represent his message, and changing completely the message itself, is a slap in the face to the 12 legitimate Apostles who knew him personally.

    What use is Paul after learning from The Messiah and friends?

    A test, the test of the false prophet, failed miserably by Christianity.

    1. Here’s what I said, “I was unable to take any of it at face value because of the many manipulations he indulged in.” This statement is at the end of an article in which I named exactly what he said that caused this distrust. You clearly have issues with Paul. I empathize. I have issues with Paul as well, chiefly that his writings—which are not the word of God or even of Christ—have been elevated to a pre-eminent position in scriptures when they are not scripture at all.

      BUT having said that, it does let Maccoby off the hook. He manipulates the reader in exactly the way I pointed out with some detail, which makes your contention that I was unable to name anything he said that I could not take at face value objectively untrue.

      Two things: 1) Paul was not a prophet at all, nor should he be taken as one. It is inarguable that much church doctrine is extrapolated from his letters rather than the teachings of Christ, but Christ is yet the Source of the scriptural basis for the faith raised in His name.

      2) Of course Christ wasn’t born a Christian, that goes without saying, but He did found the faith we refer to today as Christianity and His example is the ultimate example of Christian virtue. Muhammad wasn’t a Muslim, but he was the father of Islam. Baha’u’llah was not a Baha’i. He was the Prophet Founder of the Baha’i Faith.

      I don’t for a moment believe that Christ saw what He was teaching as a new faith meant to compete with Judaism, but as the next stage of Judaism—its fulfillment. This is something He says Himself—”I have come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.” That is the role of any Prophet, to fulfill the promise of the previous revelation and to move the goal forward so that we have the teachings necessary for our progress as individuals and as a species. We waste precious energies when we lose sight of that.

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