In this book, Hyam Maccoby presents a view of the Apostle Paul that is essentially novel and, from a traditional Christian point of view, heretical. However, Maccoby is a London-based Talmudic scholar, not a Christian.
Maccoby contends that Christian concepts, not only of Paul but of the earliest Christians themselves, need to be more accurate. He begins by arguing that Christian notions of the Messiah were not the actual beliefs held by Jews two millennia ago. The coming of the Messiah was to be a divinely sanctioned act but the Messiah was to be essentially a political ruler of a restored Jewish state. The true Messiah was to be descended from the house of David, which would meet the requirement to be anointed as King of the Jews. We are reminded that the Greek word ‘christos’ is a direct translation of the Hebrew ‘mashiah’ meaning ‘anointed.’ Through Jewish history, a number of individuals claimed the Messiahship, and the historic Jesus of Nazareth was one such individual.
Maccoby scrupulously argues that, for Christians, the various sects of Judaism two thousand years ago need to be more clearly understood. At the apex, most members of Temple officialdom were predominantly Sadducees, a conservative establishment that was allied to the Roman overlords. The Pharisees, however, originated from and were much more in touch with ordinary citizens, were more progressive in their religious views, and believed that the Temple officials were corrupt. Maccoby argues that Jesus probably was a Pharisee, with Pharisee connections. The verbal exchanges that he had with Pharisees, reported in the Gospels, derived from the fact that the Pharisees, precursors of modern Rabbinic Judaism, had already developed the tradition of religious disputation that could be vigorous but was essentially amiable and positive. Many Pharisees, including the early rabbis themselves, frequently earned their livelihood in secular trades, which could include Jesus’ trade of carpentry, but they were expert in their knowledge of Jewish law and theology, prepared to give advice to fellow citizens and to preside in synagogue ceremonies.
Putting this all together, Maccoby argues that the historic Jesus was very much a human being, had never intentionally presented himself as a ‘God-man,’ and had a following that became the Church of Jerusalem of the Book of Acts. He challenged the Sadducee establishment, but probably had softer views towards the Romans than the militant Zealots. He did not want a violent rebellion, believed that the rule of the Messiah would come about by a peaceful miracle, and saw a strong spiritual side to a restored Jewish nationhood. (‘My kingdom is not of this world.’) Nevertheless, the Romans saw any messianic movement as a threat to their rule, the Jewish establishment supported the Romans, and Jesus was crucified.
The orthodox Christian doctrine concerning Jesus, that he was the incarnation of the Second Person of a Trinity and a cosmological sacrifice for sin, came from an alien, non- Jewish source, in Maccoby’s view, and this source originated with Paul of Tarsus.
Contrary to traditional views, Maccoby strongly suggests that Paul was not a Jew with a long Pharisee pedigree. Probably he came from a Hellenistic family that had recently converted to Judaism. Such conversions were not uncommon in the world of the Jewish Diaspora, and the argument that circumcision should be removed for Gentile converts had been an item of rabbinic dispute for over a century before it became one of the central messages in Paul’s epistles. Paul was an ardent convert, was initially anxious to support Jewish rulers in stamping out a messianic movement, and underwent his conversion on the way to Damascus perhaps because of inner conflict. Maccoby invokes William James’ classic, 'The Varieties of Religious Experience', in suggesting why Paul had hiis conversion experience. But the doctrine that Jesus was a sacrificed and rresurrected demigod arose from the esentially pagan side of Paul’s psyche, and this perhaps explains why virtually all converts to classic Christianity, from Paul’s own time onward, were Greeks and other Hellenized denizens of the Roman Empire, including Romans themselves. They certainly were not true Jews, as Maccoby strives to define them.
In explaining the Gospels, Maccoby presents detailed arguments that these writings came after Paul’s influence was already being felt among early Christians, and were directed primarily towards a Hellenic, not a Jewish, audience. These books were based on actual stories of Jesus that originated with Jesus’ followers but they were given both a Pauline and a pro-Gentile (pagan) slant. Regarding the book of Acts, Maccoby tries to seek out the kernels of original truth in examining such things as the trial of Stephen, reminding the reader that the martyr had Pharisee supporters at his trial. The conflict between Paul and the Church of Jerusalem, led by saints Peter and James, is depicted as the dialogue between a pagan who was only half Jewish and people who were much more traditionally Jewish than they are conceived in Christian tradition.
Maccoby may not satisfy all readers with his arguments, certainly not orthodox and fundamentalist Christians, but the work is well documented, highly readable and articulate. At the very least, it should challenge Christians in their notions of first century Judaism, which was the parental origin of their own faith.