A whistle-stop tour through Hyam Maccoby’s theories

There’s a fair bit more I could write, and hopefully some day will write, about my experiences of looking into Christian theology and its flaws (some time I’ll have to write about the experience of reading the Prophets), but what I’m working towards at the moment is an explanation of why, although I now believe that much of the story of Christianity is mythical, I do nevertheless believe that there was a real-life historical Jesus-figure, not a mythical Jesus, at the start of it all. So for now I’m going to skip some bits of my experience that were relevant to my decision that the teachings of Christian apologetics are incorrect, but aren’t relevant to this particular issue.

In all the reading I’ve done about Christian apologetics and the debunking thereof, there have been two authors I’ve found particularly influential and helpful. The second of those was Richard Carrier, the person running the current course about the historicity of Jesus. The first was an author named Hyam Maccoby, and the first book of his I found was The Mythmaker.

I was in medical school at the time, which would put this in my early 20s, and I’d continued to spend a lot of my spare time checking out the religion sections in the local libraries. I was, by the way, getting to do this in a setting so awesome I’m going to go off on a completely irrelevant tangent for a few minutes to describe it; the Liverpool Picton Library, part of the Central Library, repository of their religion and psychology section. A huge circular room, ringed with three stories of bookshelves, with wrought-iron spiral staircases leading up to balconies running the circumference of the room. And, over it all, a giant arched dome of a ceiling that echoed every quiet sound back and forth, so when you closed a book or put it down too loudly you’d hear the sound repeating three more times. Those soft quadruple thuds punctuate my memories of reading there.

So, not to be too overdramatic, but it was a good setting for discovering a life-changing author; and, browsing the balcony shelves, I discovered Hyam Maccoby.

Maccoby was a Jewish Talmudic scholar who brought that background and expertise to his analysis of the New Testament, and thus provided some surprising insights and interpretations. I hope to write a lot more about his views, because they deserve more detailed analysis, but for now here’s the Cliff Notes version for the main points.

  • Maccoby believed the Pharisees have been unfairly maligned. He pointed to a quote of Josephus, who referred to them as ‘beloved of all the people’, and argued, with many examples, that their detailed analysis and interpretations of the Jewish Law, far from being unnecessary legalism, were aimed at making the law more humane and less oppressive. As an example of which…
  • Maccoby believed that Jesus himself – portrayed throughout the Gospels and the centuries as ferociously anti-Pharisee – was, in reality, a Pharisee. Maccoby’s smoking gun here is Jesus’s expressed position on Sabbath healing. This aligns perfectly with that given in the Oral Law (since preserved in writing as the Talmud) even to the extent of using similar expressions to state his views; Mark 2:27 and John 7:23 both echo expressions found in the Talmud, the latter in particular coming from a known logical technique used frequently by the Pharisees to formulate some of their legal interpretations. On top of that, Maccoby argued that Jesus’s other views were in no way in conflict with Pharisee principles; that teaching in parables was known to be a typical Pharisaic teaching style; and that the description of Jesus as a passionate debater of legal points with the Pharisees is exactly what we would expect of the Pharisees, whose very raison d’etre was to be in constant debate over the different points of the law with the aim of reaching a workable and evolving consensus.
  • ….which, of course, raises the question of why the Gospels show Jesus as constantly in conflict with the Pharisees. The answer, Maccoby believes, is the political background at the time the Gospels were actually written, in the aftermath of the Jewish-Roman War. The pro-Jewish Pharisees were persona non grata at the time; the pro-Roman Sadducee party were at least somewhat more in favour. So, if Jesus’s arguments about Sabbath law had in fact been with the Sadducees (plausible, as the Sadducees are known to have taken a harder line on the keeping of the Sabbath, although we no longer know details), then here the Gospel writers would have been, faced with stories about their hero apparently arguing against the pro-Roman party in a time when it was politically unwise to be anti-Roman. It would have been simple and obvious to alter the story by a crucial detail (when telling it to a largely Gentile audience who might well not have known better) and substitute ‘Pharisees’ for ‘Sadducees’.
  • To round off the irony, Maccoby also believed that Paul – the supposed super-duper-uber-Pharisee prior to his conversion – was actually a failure at Pharisee training and had to drop out without making it beyond the basics. More on that when I get a chance to blog about it, which will not be for some time.
  • Maccoby believed that Jesus’s original followers were exactly what other Messianic groups were – a group who believed their leader to be the king of David’s line promised by Jewish prophecy, whose arrival signaled the prophesied and long-awaited time in which Israel’s oppressors would be overthrown and a wonderful time of peace and plenty would come about. Nothing about dying for our sins, or being God, or being the only way evil doomed humanity could find salvation; all those ideas, according to Maccoby, would have been entirely foreign to the original disciples and to the Jewish religion of which they always counted themselves a part. They did, of course, have one interesting difference from other Messianic groups; following their leader’s ignominious death at the hands of the oppressors, they came to believe that he had been miraculously raised from the dead by God and was coming back – at some unspecified but imminent time in the future – to lead them to the longed-for victory over the Romans. Thanks to this belief, they were able to persist as a Messianic group after the death of their leader, unlike most other such groups who fell apart, hopes dashed, after their particular would-be Messiah died. But they remained faithful to Judaism at all times, with no intention of starting a new religion.
  • And then (Maccoby tells us) along came Paul. Who, labouring under some profound problems of his own (partly the aforealleged failure to make it as a Pharisee; partly a fascination with the pagan religions that were forbidden to him as a practicing Jew) but aided by a brilliantly creative mind, experienced a sudden (literally) dazzling flash of inspiration in which his troubled mind fused different influential schools of thought within his society into a syncretic whole. From pagan religions, the idea of a god who died and rose again to benefit his followers; from Gnosticism, the idea of an external saviour sent from above in order to rescue humans from the condition of otherwise irredeemable sinfulness and hopelessness in which they existed; and from Judaism, a powerful sense of destiny, with a single all-powerful Deity prophesying wonders for His chosen people. On some subconscious level, on his fateful journey to Damascus, Paul fused these elements together and the religion we now know as Christianity was born.

Now, if you’ve read that far, I can imagine you may well be doing a certain amount of head-shaking and eye-rolling at that amount of speculation. And, if so, you’d be at least partly right. While Maccoby provided far more in the way of detailed and cogent arguments for the above points than I can do justice to in one blog post, his main weakness was always his blurring of the line between fact and his opinion. He did an intriguing and thought-provoking job of identifying anomalies in the NT writings and coming up with plausible explanations – but, over and over, his books fail to distinguish between ‘This is a feasible explanation for such-and-such’ and ‘This is the way things happened.’ I’ve tried to keep this in mind while reading his work; to remember that just because I can’t obviously spot any errors in his work doesn’t mean he couldn’t be wrong. (In fact, I decided early on that it would be wise to assume that he is wrong about at least some of it – even if I don’t know which parts – simply because it seemed too improbable that one person could have come up with all the answers as to how things really happened two thousand years ago.)

Despite this flaw, however, Maccoby remains one of my all-time favourite writers on the topic of religion and Christian origins. Initially, what he gave me was a possible – and plausible – explanation for how Christianity became the success it did – an explanation, that is, that did not involve believing that Christianity is actually true and hence that the universe is run by a monster. Which was, of course, a great relief. Over the years, I’ve learned a great deal from his books and found them fascinating reads. His theories have been the single biggest influence on my understanding of the NT and of Christianity. And, although I do now question some details of them, overall they have so far stood the test of time for me.

But… how do they compare to the theory that Jesus never actually existed?

To be continued…


About Dr Sarah

I'm a GP with a husband and two young children.
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Hyam Maccoby, Theories - How Christianity Started and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A whistle-stop tour through Hyam Maccoby’s theories

  1. Pingback: Maccoby vs. Doherty; some thoughts on the mythicism theory | Thoughts From An Atheist

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