— (((Luke Ford))) (@lukeford) February 26, 2019
What philosophical school do I belong to? Warren Buffett sells stocks when thinking about them makes his back hurt. I am constantly dealing with questions and topics on my livestreams and blogs about which I am not expert and I am often talking to people much smarter and better educated than myself. So I use the Warren Buffett method. For example, reading The Bell Curve reflected back to me my experience of reality. It made 100% sense to me. I felt completely at ease while reading it. Whenever I read
attempted debunkings of TBC, my back hurts and I feel ill at ease.
When I read 100% environmentalist blank slate explanations for human behavior, my back hurts and I feel ill at ease.
So I tend to side with explanations that, all things being equal, are the most simple and clear. Occam’s razor. For example, that genes matter.
Is there a philosophical name or school that this simple approach has? And what would be the rules of conduct when employing this approach? Disclosure, I suppose. Humility. Don’t lose one’s temper.
I think you sell yourself short (and maybe you give too much credit to the supposed ‘experts’). My impression is that you have some very well-developed rational ideas on a wide range of topics. And it’s not clear what it would take to be an ‘expert’ on many of these topics. For example, things to do with politics or morality or how to live a rewarding life, etc. Clearly you’ve read widely and, just as importantly, you think deeply and you think for yourself about the ideas you come across. That’s already more than most academics do–at least, most of them don’t do that when they step outside their very narrow areas of expertise. On the other hand, there’s no harm in being humble. I don’t really consider myself any kind of ‘expert’ on anything except for a pretty small range of topics in philosophy. Even there, I’m aware there’s a lot I don’t know. I know basically nothing about science. I know none of the ancient languages. And so on. But in this society it’s so rare for anyone to apply basic logic and common sense to our experiences. Doing that gives us a giant cognitive advantage over most people, including most academics.
I’ve been listening to the show regularly. The quality is so high, for the most part. I guess it varies a bit depending on who your interlocutors are. KMG is always fantastic, as is that Kyle guy–the young guy who seems to have an IQ of 160 or whatever. (Where did he come from? How does someone that young have such a comprehensive and coherent world view with so many facts and figures always at hand?)
As for your question about your intellectual approach, I think there have been many names for it (or something like it). For example, there’s principle that’s been called ‘the principle of credulity’ or ‘phenomenal conservatism’ that seems to be similar to what you’re describing. The principle says basically this: If it seems to you that X is true, and you have no good reason for doubting X or for believing that your mental faculties aren’t working properly with respect to X, then it’s reasonable for you to believe X simply because X seems true. That seems to be similar to what you’re saying: You consider different explanations or theories, and when some of them just seem natural or obvious, and others seem weird or awkward or needlessly complicated, you will believe the ones that seem natural or obvious or common-sense-ish. And I’m the same way. When I notice patterns in how different races of people tend to behave across time and space, I have to choose between the seemingly obvious or common sense hypothesis that these patterns are based in the evolved personalities of the races or, instead, some absurdly complicated system of explanations based on all kinds of local factors. It just seems most reasonable to go with the common sense (but politically unacceptable) hypothesis that races are naturally somewhat different. At least, I will treat that as the default until there is some very strong reason for thinking otherwise.
Maybe what you’re describing is just a basic principle of rationality that many supposed experts deny in this society, because they’re not really being rational (because they’re political or worried about their incomes).
Going further back, there was ‘Common Sense Philosophy’ associated with Thomas Reid and G.E. Moore. These were interesting thinkers. But, again, it could be that the kind of approach you’re describing is really just the approach of a rational open-minded person who isn’t blinded by political ideology.
Here’s another example of my approach. I love the work of the Jewish writer Hyam Maccoby (about the origins of Christianity) who is despised by scholars. Hyam Maccoby’s approach to unpeeling history makes sense (e.g., look for the nuggets in propaganda that goes against the tendency, they probably reflect historical truth). I don’t know Greek, nor Hebrew nor Aramaic nor have any particular expertise in the subject beyond my amateur readings and some life experience in the two religions… I feel like if I keep saying, nobody thinks I have any expertise here, right? Then I’m doing the honorable thing.
In his book Revolution In Judea: Jesus And The Jewish Resistance (1980), Hyam Maccoby, who has died aged 80, responded to Christian denigration of the Pharisees by depicting Jesus Christ as a progressive, Torah-observant Pharisee. An Orthodox Jew, he argued that Jesus opposed not Judaism but the Roman oppressors and their Saducee quislings. For him, Jesus lived, preached and died wholly within the Jewish tradition – a view that discomfited many Jews and Christians.
Traditional Christianity also posits Judas Iscariot as an arch-villain, but Maccoby viewed him as a caricatured concoction, symbolising the eternal guilt that Jews supposedly bore for killing Christ. In Judas Iscariot And The Myth Of Jewish Evil (1992), Maccoby traced a thread linking the New Testament to Auschwitz.
The central thesis of another work, The Mythmaker: Paul And The Invention Of Christianity (1986), was that St Paul, not Jesus, created Christianity, being an adventurer who undermined the disciples who had actually known the living Jesus. It was Paul, said Maccoby, who turned Jesus into God and transformed the early Jewish Christian sect into a Gnostic mystery cult imbued with “Hellenistic schizophrenia”.
In Paul And Hellenism (1991), Maccoby wrote that a politically savvy Paul deliberately recast the gospels to exculpate Rome from the charge of deicide. Then, “by stigmatising the Jews as the rejecters of Jesus, [Paul] planted the seeds to anti-semitism in the Christian tradition”.
Maccoby made ancient history and theology come alive. He wrote and lectured on rabbinical literature and Jewish humour, and loved to draw parallels between cultures. In Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice And The Legacy Of Guilt (1983), he compared the Greek legend of Iphigenia, Aztec rituals and the Levantine myth of the murdered and resurrected god Attis to the sacrifice of Isaac and Jesus’s execution.
Maccoby argued that the Christian veneration of the crucifixion marked its regression to primitive human sacrifice. Witness his description of the communion, the symbolic eating of Christ’s flesh and blood: “Jesus would have been appalled to know of the pagan interpretation later put on the simple kiddush, or blessing over wine and bread, with which he began the Last Supper.”
Some rabbis were equally distressed to see the Torah apparently reduced to a series of myths, shorn of divine authorship, and Maccoby certainly refused to gloss over the schisms that divide the sister faiths. Judaism On Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations In The Middle Ages (1981) studied those bizarre mock-trials, which pitted Jewish scholars against Christian theologians. Yet it would be crass to call Maccoby an anti-Christian firebrand. His play, The Disputation (1996), commissioned by Channel 4 and expanded for the London stage, showed James, King Of Aragon, insisting that the learned rabbi, Nachmanides, have his say.
Hyam Zoundell Maccoby, biblical scholar and teacher: born Sunderland, Co Durham 20 March 1924; Scholar Librarian, Leo Baeck College 1975-95; Visiting Professor, Centre for Jewish Studies, Leeds University 1998-99, Research Professor 1999-2004; married 1950 Cynthia Davies (one son, two daughters); died Leeds 2 May 2004.
When Hyam Maccoby approved Toyah Wilcox for his 1986 television play The Disputation, he clearly added to his reputation as a serious, objective scholar.
His brilliant study Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian disputations in the Middle Ages had been published in 1982. The play (later a stage play, of which one critic wrote in 2001 on its London showing that it was “spellbinding” and “a rare reminder that learning is one of the pleasures of theatregoing”) presents the encounter in Barcelona in 1263 between Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman and Pablo Christiani, a Jewish convert to Christianity, and centres upon the Jewish and Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah.
Maccoby’s book, never mind the play, was considered as “too partisan” by some critics. In reply, Maccoby noted that “scholars who lean over backwards to demonstrate their objectivity fall into the pit of negative partisanship”.
As the stormy petrel of biblical and post-biblical scholarship, Maccoby could never be accused of this. His books on Jesus and Paul, backed up with the full knowledge of all the sources, were certain to cause controversy. Yet he was one of a school of Jewish experts in New Testament studies – others being Geza Vermes, Samuel Sandmel and Joseph Klausner – all of whom had to be treated with respect…
Throughout his teaching life, Maccoby not only published key studies in his fields, but was also active in writing and working for the media, with significant pieces in The Independent and elsewhere. His frequent appearances on television, mainly on talk shows, kept him in the public eye. He was a participant in the 1993 Sorry, Judas production by Howard Jacobson – inspired by Maccoby’s book Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (1992, winner of the Wingate Prize) – but felt betrayed and used by the editing. He also wrote a searching criticism of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 television series Jesus of Nazareth; and his comments on current issues were welcomed both by readers and listeners.
There are two areas of Maccoby’s scholarship which enter into the current Jewish-Christian dialogue. His study of Paul, The Mythmaker: Paul and the invention of Christianity (1986), challenges his Jewish colleagues (notably Sam Sandmel’s The Genius of Paul, 1958) as well as many Christian scholars. In it, Maccoby presents a highly critical view of Paul’s life and teachings, claiming that Pauline Christian theology was created out of a synthesis of mystery religion, gnosticism and Judaism. Maccoby showed that basic teachings of Jesus’s original followers survived the destruction of 70 CE within the Christian Ebionite sect until they disappeared in the fourth century.
Maccoby’s Jewish approach to Jesus is summarised in Revolution in Judaea: Jesus and the Jewish resistance (1973). There he portrays an environment which makes it totally credible that Jesus, the Pharisee, led a resistance movement against Rome and the Sadducaean priests in the hope of the coming Kingdom of God: he was executed by Pontius Pilate for his actions in which the Romans recognised a “King of the Jews”. “Jesus,” writes Maccoby, “was a good man who fell among Gentiles.” That is to say, he fell among those who did not understand that to turn him into a god was to diminish him. He tried to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, and he failed; but the meaning of his life is in the attempt, not in the failure. As a Jew, he fought not against some metaphysical evil but against Rome.
If this is unpalatable to many Christian theologians today, it must be noted that Maccoby here saves the historical structure which cannot be ignored. The wild inaccuracies of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ live totally within a fundamentalist theology which ignores history. Maccoby’s depiction of Jesus the Jew restores the authenticity of the historical quest, and one must be grateful for this.
HYAM MACCOBY focused 30 years of scholarship and authorship on a radical bid to rewrite the history of early Christianity. In that cause he became a doughty polemicist who did not hesitate to dismiss opposing scholars as “mistaken”, however great their world reputation.
The Oxford scholar Geza Vermes and his groundbreaking Jesus The Jew in particular received the Maccoby relegation. For his own revision of accepted scholarship Maccoby chose the two biggest figures, Jesus and Paul. In two closely argued volumes, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, and in the later Paul and Hellenism, Maccoby sought in particular to demolish Paul’s towering stature.
“Paul was never a Pharisee rabbi,” he insisted, “but was an adventurer of undistinguished background.”
The title of Boteach’s book? “Kosher Jesus.”
The book focuses on the Christian savior’s Jewishness, portraying him as a hero who stood up to Roman rule of Palestine and paid with his life. In keeping with Jewish theology, it does not accept his resurrection or his divinity. And it emphasizes Boteach’s belief that the New Testament intentionally deflected blame for the crucifixion from the ruling Romans and redirected it — unfairly, Boteach believes — on the shoulders of the Jews.
Given all that, one might expect Christians to take exception. But Boteach’s Jewish critics were way ahead of the curve.
“Boteach’s latest book is apikorsus and must be treated as such,” Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf of Chicago said on an Orthodox news site Jan. 10, using a Hebrew word that roughly translates as heresy. Wolf said he had “utter contempt” for the book — or, at least, for the title.
That, as it turns out, was the only part he had read.
“I am not the consumer that seeks to consume such writings,” he said.
Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet, a prominent Canadian cleric, wrote that the book “poses a tremendous risk to the Jewish community” and proclaimed that it was “forbidden for anyone to buy or read this book, or give its author a platform in any way, shape or form to discuss this topic.”
Both Wolf and Schochet, along with most of the other early critics, are affiliated with Chabad, a large organization of Hasidic Jews known for their strict religious observance. Boteach has a long and tempestuous relationship with the organization.
“I expected … to be criticized by some Christian clerics,” but not by Jews, Boteach said one night recently, discussing the book before a friendly crowd at a Beverly Hills synagogue.
Boteach is not the first Jew to write about Jesus. His book is based on the work of the late Hyam Maccoby, a Jewish scholar in Britain. Numerous Christian writers have also explored Jesus’ Jewish roots. Still, it is perilous turf for a Jewish writer, especially an Orthodox rabbi.
Boteach says the book is designed to win over both Jews and Christians to a message that he believes has been lost to the mists of history and misunderstanding: Rather than being a divisive figure, Jesus can be a bridge between the faiths.
“We in the Jewish community have a choice,” he said in an interview. “We can either, as has happened for 2,000 years, allow the Christian community to teach us about the Christian Christ, or we can take the initiative and the responsibility of teaching the Christian community about the Jewish Jesus…. He was a Jew, after all.”
…Jewish critics say they are worried that Christians will use Boteach’s book to try to convert Jews. They also say he is deliberately exploiting controversy.
Boteach insists that is not the case, although he has hardly been shy about it. Then again, shyness is not really a term that applies to a man who claims to be “America’s rabbi.” (That title could change — his name has come up as a potential successor to the chief rabbi of England.)
Boteach was incensed when an Orthodox website refused to publish his response to Wolf’s criticism, saying that it wasn’t appropriate for Jewish children.
“We are the People of the Book,” he said. “We aren’t the people who ban books.”
Scholar Hopes Play Triggers Talks Between Christians and Jews
Out of six volumes of Heinrich Graetz’s “History of the Jews,” teen-ager Hyam Maccoby latched onto one episode. Not the parting of the Red Sea. Not the battle between David and Goliath. No, Maccoby was completely taken with the Barcelona Disputation of 1263.
“When I first read it, I must have been 16. And I thought, what a fantastic play this would make,” says Maccoby, now 71, who grew up to be a respected–and often controversial–religious scholar.
He’s written 10 books dissecting the roots of anti-Semitism, challenging nearly every tenant of Christianity in the process. After 50-some years, Maccoby got around to rendering his play “The Disputation,” which will be presented starting tonight at the University of Judaism. The work is, not surprisingly, theologically loaded.
Given, the medieval disputations weren’t exactly a high point in Judeo-Christian relations. In the 5th Century, Saint Augustine forbade the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity–a frustration to future Catholics, who believed the conversion of all Jews was a precursor to the second coming of Christ.
So medieval church leaders in Western Europe staged more than 20 disputations–formal debates designed to persuade Jews to convert. Of course, anything the Jews might say in defense of their faith constituted blasphemy. The result was a browbeating, says Maccoby, that usually culminated with a choice between conversion or death.
Not so in 1263. King James of Aragon–not a very good Catholic himself–was coerced into hosting one of these disputations. The king had both sympathy for Jews and a sense of fair play, so he guaranteed the safety of the rabbi drafted for the disputation, Moses Ben Nachman.
That promise made all the difference, says Maccoby, who translated both the Jewish and Catholic transcripts of the weeklong proceedings for his 1982 book, “Judaism on Trial.” Afterward, Maccoby started work on a teleplay version, which was eventually produced for Channel 4 in England…
History–embellished by Maccoby–has given the actors interesting characters to develop. King James (Neil Vipond) struggles with his innate paganism and Christian-imposed guilt, adding a good dose of humor. Ben Nachman (Alexander Zale), while shrewd and brave, is also arrogant. Pablo Christiani (Jim Connors), who debates the rabbi, is himself a converted Jew whose family was massacred by Christians in France…
Similarly, Maccoby hopes that the story can serve as a starting point for honest discussions between modern Christians and Jews. That desire resonates throughout the play, as in a scene in which Ben Nachman tells a king’s adviser: “I feel that this is a historic occasion. This is the only time in a very long age that there has been a frank meeting between Jews and Christians. Who knows when such an occasion may occur again?”
It should occur again now, says Maccoby, when Jews and Christians are on the best terms they have been in centuries. “When people are willing to listen,” he says, “that’s the time to talk to them.”
Based on a historical incident, “The Disputation,” at the Tiffany Theatre, deals with the Barcelona debate in 1263 between Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman and Catholic priest Pablo Christiani, a Jewish convert to Christianity.
Organized by the Catholic Church, the debate is intended to instruct the Jews in the error of their ways and spark mass conversions. King James of Aragon, currently in disfavor with the Pope, hopes to appease the church by sanctioning the disputation. However, being a sporting man, he’s also hoping for a good fight.
For the Christians, the disputation is a chess game, a power play, an intellectual exercise. For the Jews, it’s a matter of life and death. Similar disputations, like a recent one in France, have already resulted in Jewish blood baths. If the Jews lose and fail to convert, they will be hounded, harassed, possibly exterminated. If they win, an outraged Christian populace will sweep down upon them, with the same devastating result.
Not so in this case, insists James, who ensures the Jews free speech, a fair contest and protection against reprisals. Even with these unprecedented assurances, Rabbi Ben Nachman, who has been chosen to represent the Jews, would just as soon forgo the honor. He fears the outcome, rightly so. Resolving to go down fighting, Nachman triumphs over his Christian antagonists, a Pyrrhic victory, but a sweet one nonetheless.
Hyam Maccoby’s play arose from his 1982 book “Judaism on Trial,” an account of the medieval disputations between Christian and Jewish scholars that contained the first definitive translation of the Barcelona debate. A noted scholar himself, Maccoby has written a terse, assured drama…
Abridged from Revolution in Judea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance
by Hyam Maccoby:
There are certain advantages in being Jewish when attempting to understand the Gospels, especially if one has been brought up in close contact with the Jewish liturgy, the ceremonials of the Jewish religious year, the rabbinical literature, and the general Jewish moral and cultural outlook. Many aspects of the Gospels … are for the Jew as familiar as the air he breathes.
When Jesus drank wine and broke bread at the Last Supper, he was doing what a Jew does every time he performs the Kiddush ceremony before a Festival or Sabbath meal. When Jesus began his prayer with “Our Father that art in heaven…” he was following the pattern of Pharisee prayers which still form part of the Jewish Daily Prayer Book. When he spoke in parables and used startling phrases (such as “swallow a camel” or “the beam in thine own eye”) he was using methods of expression familiar to any student of the Talmudic writings.
At the same time, a Jew reading the Gospels is immediately aware of aspects which do not seem authentic; for example, the accounts of Pharisees wanting to kill Jesus because he healed on the Sabbath. The Pharisees never included healing in their list of activities forbidden on the Sabbath; and Jesus’s methods of healing did not involve any of the activities that were forbidden. It is unlikely that they would have disapproved, even mildly, of Jesus’s Sabbath-healing. Moreover, the picture of bloodthirsty, murderous Pharisees given in the Gospels contradicts everything known about them from Josephus, from their own writings, and from the Judaism, still living today, which they created.
So here we have a contradiction in the Gospels between those passages which seem authentic and those which do not. To a Jew studying the Gospels the contradiction is manifest, and … the issue widens as he considers the religion based upon the Gospels, Christianity itself, with its mixture of Jewish, non-Jewish, and anti-Jewish elements.
How does it come about that a religion which borrows so heavily from Judaism has, for the major part of its history, regarded the Jews as pariahs and outcasts? In a civilization based on the Hebrew Scriptures, a civilization whose languages are permeated with Hebrew idioms, the Jews have been treated with extraordinary hate, culminating in the Holocaust of 6,000,000 European Jews during the Second World War.
Religion and Revolt: The Pharisees
The motive force behind the Jewish Resistance was the Jewish religion. This is a difficult point for the modern reader to grasp because we are not used to thinking of religion as a political, activist, revolutionary force. Also, the picture of the Jewish religion given in the New Testament is that of a rigid Establishment clinging to the status quo…. There is no indication in the New Testament of any conflict between Jewish religion and Roman power. In fact, the whole issue of Roman power is played down to such an extent that there is hardly a hint of any opposition to Rome. The aim of the Gospels is to present the revolutionary issue of the day as between Jesus and the Jewish Establishment. The fact that there was a Roman Establishment against which revolutionary forces existed is veiled so that the Establishment against which Jesus rebelled can be represented as entirely Jewish.
There was a small religious party, the Sadducees, who were collaborationists, that supported the status quo and accepted official posts under the Romans…. The High Priest himself was a Sadducee, and it is one of the most important points to grasp in New Testament studies that the High Priest was appointed by the Romans. As a member of a quisling minority group he was regarded with contempt by the great mass of the nation. Religious authority lay not with the priests but with an entirely different body of people called the Rabbis, the leaders of the Pharisees.
Thus the picture given in the Gospels of a Jewish religious Establishment which supported the status quo is true insofar as it relates to the Sadducees, who were … established by the Romans. As far as the mass of Jewish people were concerned the true Establishment was the dispossessed party of the Pharisees who held no positions of political power and whose leaders neither sought nor received recognition from Romans…. So from the first to the last, the Resistance against Rome came from the Pharisee party.
This statement will come as a surprise to those whose knowledge of the Pharisees depends on New Testament accounts. The Pharisees there are represented as being concerned only to safeguard their own official positions…. The Romans are such shadowy figures in the Gospels that the question of whether to resist or collaborate with them hardly arises. The powers-that-be are the Jews; Pilate the Roman appears only as a background figure on whom the Jews call in their vendetta against Jesus and whom they have to manipulate and mislead in various ways in order to wreak their vengeance.
If the longing for the Messiah had been no more than a desire for political independence it would not have had the power to inspire such extraordinary resistance. In other countries patriotism had produced great heroism against Rome but nothing so prolonged and determined as the Jewish efforts which by this obstinacy and courage aroused the wonder, fear, and hatred of Roman historians. The Messianic ideal arose from the whole “weltanschauung” of the Jewish people which was unique in the ancient world. The Messianic ideal arose out of monotheism.
Monotheism unified human history into a single process tending towards one final aim, the fulfilling of the purposes of God in creating the world. The idea of a Messianic age providing the dénouement of the cosmic drama is inherent in monotheism. Polytheism, on the other hand, provided no such cosmic drama. Each nation had its own gods and there was no overriding purpose for mankind. History, in polytheistic cultures, was regarded as cyclic. Nations like individuals had their life-cycles of youth, maturity, and decline. Even the gods had these life-cycles; and above both gods and men was an inexorable, indifferent Fate. Only the Jews claimed to be in contact with this supreme immortal Fate, claiming also that it was not indifferent to mankind but a loving Father who molded the process of history. This concept of progress in history towards a final Utopia has been the inspiration of the progressive and utopian tradition in Western culture — so much so that it is difficult nowadays to visualize the uniqueness of this idea in the ancient world.
As well as being a source of unquenchable optimism, Monotheism was unable to acknowledge defeat. Polytheistic nations could admit that their gods had proved weaker than those of Rome; or could succumb to Roman syncretism by which the undefeated gods were identified with the gods of Rome (e.g., Jupiter/Zeus/Ammon). The Jewish God, the creator of Heaven and Earth, could not submit to such annexation…. When the Jews were in fact defeated it meant not that God had been defeated but that God’s people had failed in their mission and must re-dedicate themselves by repentance. This is the meaning of the campaigns of repentance … which accompanied a Messianic movement…. Monotheism began as the religion of a band of runaway slaves; and it expressed their determination not to submit to any oppressive individual or class again.
The King of the Jews
The Gospels show Jesus … repeatedly prophesying his own death in Jerusalem and subsequent resurrection. The disciples are shown as failing to understand these prophesies, and at one point there is even a serious quarrel between Jesus and Peter on this very issue. While we may reject the idea that Jesus expected his own death in Jerusalem, it is quite possible that there was at this time some dissension between Jesus and his chief followers, the Twelve. The subject of dissention, most probably, was the plan of resistance to be followed against the Romans. Jesus’s disciples, with their Zealot background, may have wished to organize a full-scale resistance. The country-wide enthusiasm for the advent of Jesus as Prophet-King must have seemed an ideal opportunity for mobilizing a large army to engage the Romans in battle. Jesus, on the other hand, was a convinced apocalyptist, who considered that the fight against Rome would be won largely by miraculous means, and therefore made no serious military preparations…. Jesus was no political or military opportunist. He was prepared to stake his life on his belief that his mission was of cosmic proportions. To drive out the Romans by force of arms, as Judas Maccabaeus had driven out the Greeks, was not his purpose; such success would only lead to the founding of one more dynasty like the Hasmoneans. Jesus would inaugurate the kingdom of God, a new era in world history, or nothing….
The Triumphal Entry was the high point of Jesus’s political career. The apocalyptic hopes which had centered around him, first as a Prophet and then as a Prophet-King, burst into an ecstatic welcome as the teeming crowds of Jerusalem … hailed him with the cry, “Hosanna! Save us!”
What was the date of Jesus’s Triumphal Entry? According to the Gospels, it was at the time of the Feast of Passover, i.e., in the spring. However, there are many indications that this was not so, and that the Triumphal Entry in fact occurred in the autumn, the time of the Jewish festival known as the Feast of Tabernacles.
The whole series of events from the Triumphal Entry to Jesus’s crucifixion (including the enquiry by the High Priest, a trial before the Sanhedrin, a trial before Herod Antipas, and a trial before Pilate, not to mention various previous activities such as the Cleansing of the Temple, the preaching in the Temple, and the Last Supper) is supposed to have taken six days … This is an impossible speeding-up of human political and judicial proceedings … The history to be argued here is that Jesus’s Triumphal Entry took place just before the Feast of Tabernacles, and his execution took place on the Feast of Passover, about six months later.
The most obvious feature that points to autumn as the date of the Triumphal Entry is the palms which were in evidence on Palm Sunday. At Passover time, there are no palm branches in the region, and it is unlikely that Jesus’s admirers would have greeted him with withered palm branches left over from the previous autumn. Furthermore, palm branches played (and still play today) an essential part in the rites of the Festival of Tabernacles. The “branches of trees” mentioned in the Triumphal Entry accounts are also important in these rites, being used in profusion to roof over the “tabernacles” or booths which give the festival its name, and to accompany the use of the palms (see Leviticus xxii. 40).
A curious confirmation of autumn being the time of the Triumphal Entry can be found in the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, which happened immediately after his Entry. Jesus, apparently, came across a fig tree without fruit, and said, “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforth for ever”… Now this must have occurred in the autumn, as no one would expect to find a fig tree bearing fruit in the spring. The reason for Jesus’s angry reaction is probably this: the Hebrew Prophets had foretold that the time of the Messiah would be one of unprecedented fertility of plants and animals (Joel ii. 22: “…the fig tree and the vine do yield their strength”). Jesus, with his Galilean belief in evil spirits, may have thought that the fig tree contained an evil spirit that was fighting against the kingdom of God.
Use of the cry “Hosanna” by the crowd (Hebrew, “hosha-na,” meaning “save, please”) also confirms an autumn date for Jesus’s Entry. This cry has a special liturgical use in the rites of Tabernacles, and in no other festival. The cry was addressed to God, not to Jesus, and meant something like “Save us, God, through your Messiah.” The word “save” is especially associated, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, with God’s mercies through rulers and fighters who protected Israel against their enemies. A prayer for such salvation was offered up in the Feast of Tabernacles and would have been especially fitting as an accompaniment to Jesus’s Entry on a mission of salvation.
This leads us to an even more important point: that the Feast of Tabernacles was in a special sense a Royal festival. In general, the Jewish royal family had little part to play in the ceremonials of the Jewish religion; but the exception was the Feast of Tabernacles. In this festival, the King actually entered the Temple Court and read aloud “the paragraph of the King,” i.e., the portion of the Mosaic Law relating to his duties (Deut. xvii. 14-20)….
The Reading of the Law by the King was performed every seven years. No doubt Jesus timed his Entry to coincide with the end of the Year of Release, on the expiry of which the King’s Reading of the Law took place. He would have carefully planned the timing of his Coronation and his Royal Progress so that he arrived in Jerusalem just in time for the Festival. He would then enter the Temple Court as King and renew the rite performed by his great predecessors on the Jewish throne. This act more than any other would signalize his accession to the throne and his intention to carry out the duties of king and savior.
One particular figure must have been in Jesus’s mind, namely his great ancestor, King Solomon…. It was on the Feast of Tabernacles that Solomon performed the Dedication of the First Temple, offering a long, moving prayer to God, standing on a platform specially built in the Temple Court.
We can see now why Jesus’s first action on entering Jerusalem was the Cleansing of the Temple. This action has been much trivialized by the Gospel writers, who have presented it as an individual demonstration in which Jesus chased out the money changers with a whip. The action was far more important than this: Jesus, as rightful King, carried out a thorough-going reform of the Temple, cleansing it from the corruptions of its venal Sadducean High-Priesthood. Jesus was at the height of power. Though he had no organized army, the Jewish masses applauded his every move. The Temple police, who would have acted sharply against mere individual violence, were powerless to hinder Jesus’s reforms. He may have even appointed a new High Priest, which as King he was entitled to do. (This is the first thing that the insurgents did in the Jewish War of 66 A.D.).
Having cleansed the temple administration, Jesus must have carried through his plan of re-dedicating the Temple for the Messianic age by appearing in the Temple Court, like Solomon at the Dedication of the First Temple, to read “the paragraph of the King.” No doubt, like Solomon too, he took the occasion to address a prayer to God for his new regime, and perhaps to give a prophetic message to the people. So much we can gather from a confused and garbled account, found only in the Gospel according to John, of a visit by Jesus to the Temple on the Feast of Tabernacles — though John represents this visit as being a distinct occasion from the Triumphal Entry.
The parallel between Jesus and Solomon throws light on a charge that was later made against Jesus: that he threatened to destroy the Temple and rebuild it … It is quite possible that Jesus did declare an intention to destroy and rebuild the Temple, once his Kingdom was fully established. The Temple which Jesus now ruled had been built by Herod the Great, known to the Pharisees as Herod the Wicked. The Pharisees had given their reluctant consent to Herod’s rebuilding of the Temple, but despite its superb beauty, they never expected his Temple to last into the reign of the Messiah. If Jesus had indeed proved himself to be the King-Messiah by expelling the Romans, the Pharisees would not have objected to his destroying Herod’s Temple and building another; they would have expected him to do so…. Why should the purified and re-dedicated Jewish people, restored to freedom, worship God in a temple built by the corrupt Herod? There is nothing here that the Pharisees would have regarded as blasphemous, or that would have frightened anyone except the High Priest, Caiaphas, and his clique…. The charge of planning to destroy and rebuild the Temple was part of the indictment against Jesus, not as a blasphemer or rebel against Judaism, but as a rebel against the quisling regime of the High Priest.
Thus the dating of the Triumphal Entry in the autumn, rather than the spring, makes much more sense of the whole series of events; this is just the time that someone putting himself forward as the Messiah would have chosen to enter Jerusalem. One more important argument has not yet been mentioned. The prophesy of Zechariah says that the great battle of the Last Days would take place in the autumn, at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. On the anniversary of this great event, all the nations of the earth would be required to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles in Messianic times (Zech. xiv. 16). When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on the colt of an ass, he was committing himself to Zechariah’s concept of the Last Days. Those who knew thier Scripture (and many did) would know from Jesus’s manner of entry what his intentions were — to engage the Romans in battle before the Feast of Tabernacles came to an end.
Why then did the Gospel writers (probably following an already established Gentile-Church tradition) place the Triumphal Entry in the spring? The most likely reason is that to the Gentile-Christians the important event in Jesus’s life was his death by crucifixion, which they came to regard as the real point of the story. It seemed more dramatic therefore to telescope events, subordinating them all to the Crucifixion and crowding them all into the last scene of the play. The Crucifixion took place in the spring; this, therefore, became the time of all the culminating events of Jesus’s life.
In the resurrection cults of Adonis, Attis, and Osiris, the death and resurrection of the Young God took place in the spring. The Triumphal Entry, therefore, would accord with the feting of the Young God before his sacrifice in these cults; and it would therefore be felt right to move the Triumphal Entry much closer to the Sacrifice to which it was now merely the preliminary. The appeal of Christianity to the ancient world depended a good deal on such affinities.
To Jesus, however, who expected success, not failure, and who would not have understood the romantic apotheosis of failure, the natural time for his arrival in Jerusalem was the autumn, the time of the harvest-rejoicing. Many of Jesus’s parables compare the coming of the kingdom of God to the harvest time. This was the most joyous time of the Jewish year, when the New Year period of purification was over, the harvest was secure, and the time for thanksgiving had arrived. The Feast of Tabernacles is the only one of which Scripture says “And you shall be wholly joyful.” Passover, the spring festival, was the time of beginning salvation, the anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt, the beginning of the Jewish story. But the triumphant end of the story could be expected to occur in the autumn; just as King Solomon celebrated in the autumn the end of a long period of tribulation and the inauguration of a Messianic Reign….
The Day of the Lord
Jesus’s reign as King of the Jews in Jerusalem lasted for less than a week. What happened during that week? According to the Gospels, the only positive action performed by Jesus was his Cleansing of the Temple. After that, apparently, he confined
himself to teaching and preaching in the Temple until the time of his arrest. From the argument of the last chapter, we see that Jesus did much more than this. The Cleansing of the Temple was not an isolated incident but a full reform, entailing the occupation of the Temple area by Jesus and his followers. As in so many other insurrections of this kind described by Josephus, Jesus would have made himself master of part only of Jerusalem. Most of Jerusalem would still have been held by the Roman troops of Pilate and the Jewish troops of the High Priest. From the point of view of Pilate and Caiaphas, the insurrection was not a great affair. For a few days (as they would have put it) a deluded fanatic with mob support was able to hold a limited area of Jerusalem, including the Temple grounds, thereby interrupting the jurisdiction of the High Priest temporarily. The Temple services were not interrupted, for Jesus allowed the vast majority of the priests to remain at thier posts, ejecting only those closely associated with the quisling Caiaphas.
However, for those few days, Jesus reigned supreme in the Temple area. The Gospels make it clear that the High Priest was unwilling to attempt the arrest of Jesus because of the strong popular support given him by the Festival crowd. Caiaphas probably calculated that it would be better to wait until the first wave of enthusiasm was over and then catch Jesus off guard. He did not ask for the aid of Roman troops at this stage because he thought he would be able to handle the matter himself.
Jesus’s appearances in the Temple during those few days would have been as a Prophet-King, not as the preacher portrayed in the Gospels. His performance of the Tabernacles rites of the King was a political act of great significance, consolidating his claim to the Messiahship. His preaching was no doubt of an apocalyptic character, as the Gospels indeed show, but not prophesying his own death and the doom that would come on the Jews and the Temple; these prophesies were inserted in the Gospels after the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.
Jesus did not spend all his time in the Temple area during his few days of kingship. In the evenings he went to the Mount of Olives, on the east of Jerusalem, about a mile outside the city. The prophesy of Zechariah on which Jesus was particularly relying states that the location of the miracle would be the Mount of Olives. This mountain was of great religious significance, especially for a Messiah, for not only was it the location of the expected miracle, it was also the place where David used to pray. Moreover, it was here that the prophet Ezekiel had seen the appearance of the “glory of God” for which Jesus was waiting.
We come to the incident known as the Last Supper. It follows from the argument of the last chapter that this took place not at Passover time but during the Feast of Tabernacles. In the Gospels the Last Supper has been overlaid with myth serving three purposes: to show that Jesus foresaw and intended his own death on the cross; to show how Judas Iscariot became … determined to betray Jesus; and to show that Jesus instituted the rite of Communion, with its pagan symbolism of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the god.
No trace is revealed of any of the special rites of a Passover “Seder,” such as the eating of unleavened bread, the eating of the Paschal lamb, the bitter herbs, and the relating of the Exodus from Egypt. The only special rite of the Tabernacles, as regards eating, is the taking of meals in the Succah, or booth (from which the festival takes its name). Of this there is some trace in the odd reference to an “upper room,” described in Mark as “strewn over.” The ritual booths or “Tabernacles” were often constructed on the flat roofs of houses, so the “upper room” may in fact have been a “tabernacle” which was “strewn over” with tree branches in the prescribed manner.
The feature of Sanctification (“Kiddush”) with wine and bread is common to all Jewish festivals, and applies to Tabernacles as much as to Passover. There is no mystical symbolism of “flesh” and “blood” in the Jewish use of bread and wine in the ceremony of Kiddush. The wine is used first to pronounce a blessing on the Festival. The bread is then used as a ceremonial beginning to the Festival. Jesus would have been appalled to know of the pagan interpretation later put on the simple Kiddush with which he began the Last Supper.
Jesus had no foreknowledge of his failure and crucifixion. The Last Supper was a celebration with his closest disciples of his appearance as King and the imminent overthrow of the Roman power. After preparing himself by several nights of prayer on the Mount of Olives, Jesus was convinced that “the day of the Lord” was close at hand, and he called together his disciples for a final strengthening of the bond between them before their crucial testing time. The atmosphere must have been extremely tense. They were about to embark on a great venture on which the fate of their country and the whole world would depend. But the special poignancy and drama of the Gospel accounts are the product of hindsight and of the myths that grew up later to explain Jesus’s failure.
The Last Supper would also have been regarded as a foretaste of the great Supper and Feast which would take place if Jesus were successful. Jewish legend, prophesying Messianic times, contained many details of the great Messianic Feast at which the Leviathan would be eaten and all the great heroes of Jewish history would be present. This is no doubt what Jesus meant when he said at the Last Supper, “Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more the fruit of the vine until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Their next meal would be the Messianic Feast itself, in celebration of victory over God’s enemies, the Romans.
After the Last Supper, Jesus led his disciples, as usual, to the Mount of Olives. But this time there was a difference. Jesus was convinced that this was the night on which God would appear in glory and overthrow the foreign invaders of his Holy Land. Accordingly, he required his disciples to equip themselves with swords. Two swords were produced, and Jesus said, “It is enough.” The Messiah and his followers, like Gideon and his tiny band, would be required to fight, for the prophesy of Zechariah had said, among its awesome predictions of God’s intervention, “And Judah also shall fight at Jerusalem.” But two swords would be enough: the miracle would be even greater than in the case of Gideon.
Only Luke … has retained the incident of the swords. He could have no possible motive in inventing it, for it goes against the whole grain of his narrative. The only possible explanation of its inclusion is that it is a survival from the original story which only Luke was not ruthless enough to excise. The Gospel writers were following the outline of an older Gospel. To twist this Gospel to a new meaning required courage of a kind; sometimes thier nerve may have failed them. This would explain why bones of the old narrative can sometimes be seen jutting out uncomfortably from the body of the new.
Jesus was now determined to put to the test his interpretation of the prophesy of Zechariah. It may be useful, therefore, to have before us this prophesy, which was of such fateful importance for Jesus:
Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against these nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives which is before Jerusalem in the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a great valley; and half the mountain shall move toward the north, and half of it toward the south. And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains … and the Lord my God shall come, and all the saints with thee. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the light shall be known to the Lord, not day nor night: but it shall come to pass that at evening time it shall be light … And the Lord shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one … And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem. Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in thier holes, and their tongue shall consume away in thier mouth … and Judah also shall fight at Jerusalem…. And everyone that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles … and in that day there shall be no more Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts.
The strong influence of the prophesy of Zechariah on Jesus is shown by his mode of entrance into Jerusalem riding on an ass’s colt. Such deliberate fulfillment of Zechariah ix. 9 suggests that Jesus also had the rest of Zechariah’s prophesies in mind.
“The people that have fought against Jerusalem” were none other than the Romans, the heathen barbarians who had united “the nations” in a great empire and had set their faces against God. He himself, Jesus of Nazareth, was the person to whom the prophet was addressing his instructions; the Messiah who would arrive in Jerusalem on an ass’s colt, and would stand in “the valley of the mountains” together with a company of “saints” to witness the appearance of the glory of God on the Mount of Olives. He would see the Romans stricken by a plague, and would lead “Judah” in fighting against them. Then, after a great victory, he would reign as King-Messiah in Jerusalem, where every year on the anniversary of his victory he would welcome representatives of every nation on earth, coming to pay homage to the Lord of Hosts in his Temple.
It may be objected that this account makes Jesus appear insane. Could he really have expected the prophesies of Zechariah to be fulfilled so literally that night on the Mount of Olives? How could he have been so sure he knew the exact hour of the prophesies, and that it was through him that they would be fulWlled? As a person, Jesus was what would today be described as a “manic” character, i.e., one capable of remaining for long periods at a high pitch of enthusiasm and euphoria. This enabled him to impress his associates to the extent that they could not let his memory die. He was not Judas of Galilee, or Bar Kochba, who were Messiahs of essentially ordinary or normal temperament, men who made their bid for power, failed, and that was that. It was no accident that Jesus gave rise to a new world religion. Christianity was a falsification of everything that Jesus stood for, yet every detail of this falsification was built on something that existed in his temperament and outlook. It was only a step for the Hellenistic Gentiles to transform Jesus’s soaring conviction of his universal mission into a dogma of his divinity; or to transform his confidence of victory by the hand of God, rather than by guerilla methods, into a pacifist other-worldly doctrine which transferred the concept of victory on to a “spiritual” plane. Jesus’s “manic” temperament was the mainspring of the early Christian Church, with its ecstatic mood, its universal ambition, and its confidence in ultimate victory.
To modern minds, it would seem insane to expect to overthrow Rome without a proper army and with only two swords, because of some obscure sentences in a book written five hundred years before. Yet the Christian account of Jesus makes him appear even more insane. According to this account, Jesus regarded himself as one of the Three Persons of the Triune Almighty God, who had descended from the immensities of the World of Light in order to immolate himself on behalf of mankind. Such a combination of megalomania and suicidal fantasy was alien to the society of Judea and Galilee in Jesus’s day. They had their own apocalyptic extravagances, but this kind of Hellenistic schizophrenia was quite outside their experience or understanding. Jesus never regarded himself in this way. His profoundly impressive “manic” nature followed the pattern laid down for such temperaments in the Jewish prophetic tradition. His claims would have seemed, to his contemporaries, breathlessly daring but entirely reasonable.
The Jewish Resistance against Rome consisted of various groups, all of which were religious in character. They differed, however, on the question of how much could be left to the intervention of God. The Zealots were prepared for a long, hard fight by realistic military methods. Bar Kochba, successor of the Zealots, is said to have prayed to God, “Master of the Universe, I do not ask that you should fight on my side; only that you should not fight for the Romans, and that will be enough.” Some would-be Messiahs, such as Theudas, were at the other extreme, and relied on God even more than Jesus did. The moderate Pharisees were cautious “wait-and-see” people, who like Gamaliel, thought, “If this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it.” But even they could be carried away by apocalyptic fervor at times, as was Rabbi Akiva in the days of Bar Kochba. Jesus can be placed, in the spectrum of the Jewish Resistance, as an apocalyptic Pharisee whose hopes were similar to those of Theudas, and the prophet from Egypt, mentioned by Josephus, who also centered his movement around an expected miracle on the Mount of Olives.
Having arrived at the Mount of Olives, Jesus stationed himself with his disciples in the “garden of Gethsemane.” This is located traditionally at a spot at the foot of the Mount of Olives, but possibly is further away from Jerusalem in a low valley between two spurs of the mountain. Zechariah’s prophesy says that God’s feet would stand on the Mount of Olives, which would split in an earthquake towards the east and west, the mass of the mountain removing towards the north and south. The prophesy goes on, “And ye shall flee into the valley of the mountains.” Jesus therefore took his disciples to the spot indicated by the prophet, where he could watch the miracle and not be overwhelmed by it. He was further assured by the prophet, “And my Lord will come, and all the saints with thee.” (Alternative translation: “…if all with thee are holy.”) God Himself would join the Messiah in the valley and fight against the enemy by smiting his ranks with a plague. Other startling miracles would occur: living waters would go out from Jerusalem in two rivers; and “at evening time, it shall be light.”
Once in the “valley of decision,” Jesus applied himself to prayer and vigil. He told his disciples, “Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation.” Jesus now experienced an Agony of sorrow about his approaching crucifixion. This, at least, is the version of Mark and Matthew. (John omits the whole incident.) Only Luke uses the word “agony,” and what he seems to describe is not an agony of sorrow but one of strenuous prayer. “And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” What was Jesus praying for so earnestly at this time? Why did he instruct his disciples to “watch and pray,” an injunction he had used previously to those waiting for the coming of the kingdom of God? Why did he warn them against entering into temptation? If he had resigned to the Crucifixion and was spending the night in Gethsemane waiting for Judas to arrive with the troops to arrest him, there was no particular reason to pray or even to stay awake. And there was no particular temptation likely to assail the disciples while they were waiting.
On the theory outlined here, however, there was great reason to pray and to stay awake, and there was great reason to avoid temptation. Jesus was not waiting passively in the Vale of Gethsemane for his arrest. He was expecting an awesome miracle and the appearance of the glory of God: but he must have felt that this manifestation would depend, to some extent, on his own worthiness and that of his disciples.
Jesus had not merely prophesied the coming of the kingdom of God; he had also prepared for it. He had campaigned among “the lost sheep of Israel,” calling them to repentance, because he felt that the coming of God’s kingdom was being held back by Israel’s sins. Pharisee writings often stress that God’s promises to Israel are not automatically fulfilled; the depend on Israel’s worthiness and coöperation. Consequently, even though Jesus felt that the time was propitious for the coming of “the day of the Lord,” he could not be quite sure. What was needed now was a last great effort of prayer. The belief in the efficacy of prayer was very strong among the Pharisees, especially when the prayer came from a prophet. What might not be accomplished by the powerful prayers of a dedicated Messiah-Prophet, supported by a band of holy men, all concentrating their thoughts toward God, at a time and place appropriate for salvation?
Only the most powerful concerted beam of holy concentration, directed from Gethsemane toward God, could obliterate the traces of the sins of Israel, and bring about the hour of redemption. Jesus alone was not sufficient, for Zechariah had said, “And my Lord will come, if all with thee are holy.” This explains why Jesus narrowed his company to the Twelve on that night. He wanted the company of those on whom he could most rely, for the power of sinless prayer would be far more important than the strength of mere numbers.
It is no wonder that Jesus gave the Messianic slogan, “Watch and pray” to his disciples, that he himself went into an agony of prayer, and that he reproved his disciples when he felt a lack of concentration and wholeheartedness in their prayer.
The story of the failure of the disciples in Gethsemane must have developed very early in the history of the Jewish-Christian Church. It was impossible to believe that Jesus himself had failed. His disciples themselves preferred to believe that they had failed him, since by blaming themselves they could go on believing in him. He had temporarily withdrawn from the world, like Elijah when he ascended to heaven, but when they proved themselves worthy he would return and lead them to victory.
Later, in the Gentile-Christian Church, when Jesus had been turned into a god, the idea that he needed the support of his disciples to accomplish his mission became inappropriate. Jesus’s injunction to his disciples in Gethsemane to watch and pray, and his own agony of prayer, became pointless and incomprehensible.
It was not difficult for the disciples, after Jesus’s arrest and execution, to fall back on guilt feelings and attach the whole blame to themselves. Jesus must have made them feel guilty on many occasions by his white-hot faith and selflessness … This may account to some extent for the many stories in the Gospels about the lapses of the disciples.
Jesus, then, stands in the Vale of Gethsemane, with the Mount of Olives looming above him. This, he fervently believes, is the valley of decision, the valley of the Lord’s judgement. If he has chosen the moment well, if the hearts of his companions are pure, and if his campaign and reclamation among the “lost sheep of Israel” has been successful, the last battle will be fought. But, as he prays, he feels a sense of struggle. He wrestles in prayer till his sweat falls like great drops of blood to the ground. The difficulty of his prayer is unpropitious, and he can see that the powers of his chosen companions are flagging. With a great sadness he realizes that the long travail of Israel has not yet come to an end.
The Arrest and Trial
The miraculous appearance of the Lord God on the Mount of Olives did not occur. Like Theudas and “the prophet from Egypt” and many other messiah-figures of the period, Jesus, despite his tremendous charisma, turned out to be deceived in his apocalyptic hopes. When the Roman troops … arrived at Gethsemane they found a handful of rebels equipped with only two swords. A few blows were exchanged, but Jesus was soon captured. The disciples fled in dismay and the troops, who had orders to bring in the ringleader only, proceeded on their way with the prisoner.
As a Talmudic scholar, I have found that knowledge of the Talmud and other rabbinical works has opened up the meaning of many puzzling passages in the New Testament. In my earlier book on Jesus, Revolution in Judaea, I showed how, in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus speaks and acts as a Pharisee, though the Gospel editors have attempted to conceal this by representing him as opposing Pharisaism even when his sayings were most in accordance with Pharisee teaching. In the present book, I have used the rabbinical evidence to establish an opposite contention: that Paul, whom the New Testament wishes to portray as having been a trained Pharisee, never was one. The consequences of this for the understanding of early Christianity are immense.
In addition to the rabbinical writings, I have made great use of the ancient historians, especially Josephus, Epiphanius and Eusebius. Their statements must be weighed in relation to their particular interests and bias; but when such bias has been identified and discounted, there remains a residue of valuable information. Exactly the same applies to the New Testament itself. Its information is often distorted by the bias of the author or editor, but a knowledge of the nature of this bias makes possible the emergence of the true shape of events.
For an explanation of my stance in relation to the various schools of New Testament interpretation of modern times, the reader is referred to the Note on Method, p. 206.
In using the Epistles as evidence of Paul’s life, views and ‘mythology’, I have confined myself to those Epistles which are accepted by the great majority of New Testament scholars as the genuine work of Paul. Disputed Epistles, such as Colossians, however pertinent to my argument, have been ignored.
When quoting from the New Testament, I have usually used the New English Bible version, but, from time to time, I have used the Authorized Version or the Revised Version, when I thought them preferable in faithfulness to the original. While the New English Bible is in general more intelligible to modern readers than the older versions, its concern for modern English idiom sometimes obscures important features of the original Greek; and its readiness to paraphrase sometimes allows the translator’s presuppositions to colour his translation. I have pointed out several examples of this in the text.
In considering the background of Paul, I have returned to one of the earliest accounts of Paul in existence, that given by the Ebionites, as reported by Epiphanius. This account has been neglected by scholars for quite inadequate and tendentious reasons. Robert Graves and Joshua Podro in The Nazarene Gospel Restored did take the Ebionite account seriously; but, though they made some cogent remarks about it, their treatment of the matter was brief. I hope that the present book will do more to alter the prevailing dismissive attitude towards the evidence of this fascinating and important ancient community.
The Problem of Paul
At the beginning of Christianity stand two figures: Jesus and Paul. Jesus is regarded by Christians as the founder of their religion, in that the events of his life comprise the foundation story of Christianity; but Paul is regarded as the great interpreter of Jesus’ mission, who explained, in a way that Jesus himself never did, how Jesus’ life and death fitted into a cosmic scheme of salvation, stretching from the creation of Adam to the end of time.
How should we understand the relationship between Jesus and Paul? We shall be approaching this question not from the standpoint of faith, but from that of historians, who regard the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament as an important source of evidence requiring careful sifting and criticism, since their authors were propagating religious beliefs rather than conveying dispassionate historical information. We shall also be taking into account all relevant evidence from other sources, such as Josephus, the Talmud, the Church historians and the Gnostic writings.
What would Jesus himself have thought of Paul? We must remember that Jesus never knew Paul; the two men never once met. The disciples who knew Jesus best, such as Peter, James and John, have left no writings behind them explaining how Jesus seemed to them or what they considered his mission to have been. Did they agree with the interpretations disseminated by Paul in his fluent, articulate writings? Or did they perhaps think that this newcomer to the scene, spinning complicated theories about the place of Jesus in the scheme of things, was getting everything wrong? Paul claimed that his interpretations were not just his own invention, but had come to him by personal inspiration; he claimed that he had personal acquaintance with the resurrected Jesus, even though he had never met him during his lifetime. Such acquaintance, he claimed, gained through visions and transports, was actually superior to acquaintance with Jesus during his lifetime, when Jesus was much more reticent about his purposes.
We know about Paul not only from his own letters but also from the book of Acts, which gives a full account of his life. Paul, in fact, is the hero of Acts, which was written by an admirer and follower of his, namely, Luke, who was also the author of the Gospel of that name. From Acts, it would appear that there was some friction between Paul and the leaders of the ‘Jerusalem Church’, the surviving companions of Jesus; but this friction was resolved, and they all became the best of friends, with common aims and purposes. From certain of Paul’s letters, particularly Galatians, it seems that the friction was more serious than in the picture given in Acts, which thus appears to be partly a propaganda exercise, intended to portray unity in the early Church. The question recurs: what would Jesus have thought of Paul, and what did the Apostles think of him?
We should remember that the New Testament, as we have it, is much more dominated by Paul than appears at first sight. As we read it, we come across the Four Gospels, of which Jesus is the hero, and do not encounter Paul as a character until we embark on the post-Jesus narrative of Acts. Then we finally come into contact with Paul himself, in his letters. But this impression is misleading, for the earliest writings in the New Testament are actually Paul’s letters, which were written about AD 50-60, while the Gospels were not written until the period AD 70-110. This means that the theories of Paul were already before the writers of the Gospels and coloured their interpretations of Jesus’ activities. Paul is, in a sense, present from the very first word of the New Testament. This is, of course, not the whole story, for the Gospels are based on traditions and even written sources which go back to a time before the impact of Paul, and these early traditions and sources are not entirely obliterated in the final version and give valuable indications of what the story was like before Paulinist editors pulled it into final shape. However, the dominant outlook and shaping perspective of the Gospels is that of Paul, for the simple reason that it was the Paulinist view of what Jesus’ sojourn on Earth had been about that was triumphant in the Church as it developed in history. Rival interpretations, which at one time had been orthodox, opposed to Paul’s very individual views, now became heretical and were crowded out of the final version of the writings adopted by the Pauline Church as the inspired canon of the New Testament.
This explains the puzzling and ambiguous role given in the Gospels to the companions of Jesus, the twelve disciples. They are shadowy figures, who are allowed little personality, except of a schematic kind. They are also portrayed as stupid; they never quite understand what Jesus is up to. Their importance in the origins of Christianity is played down in a remarkable way. For example, we find immediately after Jesus’ death that the leader of the Jerusalem Church is Jesus’ brother James. Yet in the Gospels, this James does not appear at all as having anything to do with Jesus’ mission and story. Instead, he is given a brief mention as one of the brothers of Jesus who allegedly opposed Jesus during his lifetime and regarded him as mad. How it came about that a brother who had been hostile to Jesus in his lifetime suddenly became the revered leader of the Church immediately after Jesus’ death is not explained, though one would have thought that some explanation was called for. Later Church legends, of course, filled the gap with stories of the miraculous conversion of James after the death of Jesus and his development into a saint. But the most likely explanation is, as will be argued later, that the erasure of Jesus’ brother dames (and his other brothers) from any significant role in the Gospel story is part of the denigration of the early leaders who had been in close contact with Jesus and regarded with great suspicion and dismay the Christological theories of the upstart Paul, flaunting his brand new visions in interpretation of the Jesus whom he had never met in the flesh.
Who, then, was Paul? Here we would seem to have a good deal of information; but on closer examination, it will turn out to be full of problems. We have the information given by Paul about himself in his letters, which are far from impersonal and often take an autobiographical turn. Also we have the information given in Acts, in which Paul plays the chief role. But the information given by any person about himself always has to be treated with a certain reserve, since everyone has strong motives for putting himself in the best possible light. And the information given about Paul in Acts also requires close scrutiny, since this work was written by someone committed to the Pauline cause. Have we any other sources for Paul’s biography? As a matter of fact, we have, though they are scattered in various unexpected places, which it will be our task to explore: in a fortuitously preserved extract from the otherwise lost writings of the Ebionites, a sect of great importance for our quest; in a disguised attack on Paul included in a text of orthodox Christian authority; and in an Arabic manuscript, in which a text of the early Jewish Christians, the opponents of Paul, has been preserved by an unlikely chain of circumstances.
Let us first survey the evidence found in the more obvious and well-known sources. It appears from Acts that Paul was at first called ‘Saul’, and that his birthplace was Tarsus, a city in Asia Minor (Acts 9:11, and 21:39, and 22:3). Strangely enough, however, Paul himself, in his letters, never mentions that he came from Tarsus, even when he is at his most autobiographical. Instead, he gives the following information about his origins: ‘I am an Israelite myself, of the stock of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin’ (Romans 11:2); and ‘… circumcised on my eighth day, Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred; in my attitude to the law, a Pharisee….’ (Philippians 3:5). It seems that Paul was not anxious to impart to the recipients of his letters that he came from somewhere so remote as Tarsus from Jerusalem, the powerhouse of Pharisaism. The impression he wished to give, of coming from an unimpeachable Pharisaic background, would have been much impaired by the admission that he in fact came from Tarsus, where there were few, if any, Pharisee teachers and a Pharisee training would have been hard to come by.
We encounter, then, right at the start of our enquiry into Paul’s background, the question: was Paul really from a genuine Pharisaic family, as he says to his correspondents, or was this just something that he said to increase his status in their eyes? The fact that this question is hardly ever asked shows how strong the influence of traditional religious attitudes still is in Pauline studies. Scholars feel that, however objective their enquiry is supposed to be, they must always preserve an attitude of deep reverence towards Paul, and never say anything to suggest that he may have bent the truth at times, though the evidence is strong enough in various parts of his life-story that he was not above deception when he felt it warranted by circumstances.
It should be noted (in advance of a full discussion of the subject) that modern scholarship has shown that, at this time, the Pharisees were held in high repute throughout the Roman and Parthian empires as a dedicated group who upheld religious ideals in the face of tyranny, supported leniency and mercy in the application of laws, and championed the rights of the poor against the oppression of the rich. The undeserved reputation for hypocrisy which is attached to the name ‘Pharisee’ in medieval and modern times is due to the campaign against the Pharisees in the Gospels — a campaign dictated by politico-religious considerations at the time when the Gospels were given their final editing, about forty to eighty years after the death of Jesus. Paul’s desire to be thought of as a person of Pharisee upbringing should thus be understood in the light of the actual reputation of the Pharisees in Paul’s lifetime; Paul was claiming a high honour, which would much enhance his status in the eyes of his correspondents.
Before looking further into Paul’s claim to have come from a Pharisee background, let us continue our survey of what we are told about Paul’s career in the more accessible sources. The young Saul, we are told, left Tarsus and came to the Land of Israel, where he studied in the Pharisee academy of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). We know from other sources about Gamaliel, who is a highly respected figure in the rabbinical writings such as the Mishnah, and was given the title ‘Rabban’, as the leading sage of his day. That he was the leader of the whole Pharisee party is attested also by the New Testament itself, for he plays a prominent role in one scene in the book of Acts (chapter 5) — a role that, as we shall see later, is hard to reconcile with the general picture of the Pharisees given in the Gospels.
Yet Paul himself, in his letters, never mentions that he was a pupil of Gamaliel, even when he is most concerned to stress his qualifications as a Pharisee. Here again, then, the question has to be put: was Paul ever really a pupil of Gamaliel or was this claim made by Luke as an embellishment to his narrative? As we shall see later, there are certain considerations which make it most unlikely, quite apart from Paul’s significant omission to say anything about the matter, that Paul was ever a pupil of Gamaliel’s.
We are also told of the young Saul that he was implicated, to some extent, in the death of the martyr Stephen. The people who gave false evidence against Stephen, we are told, and who also took the leading part in the stoning of their innocent victim, ‘laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’. The death of Stephen is described, and it is added, ‘And Saul was among those who approved of his murder’ (Acts 8:1). How much truth is there in this detail? Is it to be regarded as historical fact or as dramatic embellishment, emphasizing the contrast between Paul before and after conversion? The death of Stephen is itself an episode that requires searching analysis, since it is full of problems and contradictions. Until we have a better idea of why and by whom Stephen was killed and what were the views for which he died, we can only note the alleged implication of Saul in the matter as a subject for further investigation. For the moment, we also note that the alleged implication of Saul heightens the impression that adherence to Pharisaism would mean violent hostility to the followers of Jesus.
The next thing we are told about Saul in Acts is that he was ‘harrying the Church; he entered house after house, seizing men and women, and sending them to prison’ (Acts 8:3). We are not told at this point by what authority or on whose orders he was carrying out this persecution. It was clearly not a matter of merely individual action on his part, for sending people to prison can only be done by some kind of official. Saul must have been acting on behalf of some authority, and who this authority was can be gleaned from later incidents in which Saul was acting on behalf of the High Priest. Anyone with knowledge of the religious and political scene at this time in Judaea feels the presence of an important problem here: the High Priest was not a Pharisee, but a Sadducee, and the Sadducees were bitterly opposed to the Pharisees. How is it that Saul, allegedly an enthusiastic Pharisee (‘a Pharisee of the Pharisees’), is acting hand in glove with the High Priest? The picture we are given in our New Testament sources of Saul, in the days before his conversion to Jesus, is contradictory and suspect.
The next we hear of Saul (Acts, chapter 9) is that he ‘was still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the High Priest and applied for letters to the synagogues at Damascus authorizing him to arrest anyone he found, men or women, who followed the new way, and bring them to Jerusalem.’ This incident is full of mystery. If Saul had his hands so full in ‘harrying the church’ in Judaea, why did he suddenly have the idea of going off to Damascus to harry the Church there? What was the special urgency of a visit to Damascus? Further, what kind of jurisdiction did the Jewish High Priest have over the non-Jewish city of Damascus that would enable him to authorize arrests and extraditions in that city? There is, moreover, something very puzzling about the way in which Saul’s relation to the High Priest is described: as if he is a private citizen who wishes to make citizen’s arrests according to some plan of his own, and approaches the High Priest for the requisite authority. Surely there must have been some much more definite official connection between the High Priest and Saul, not merely that the High Priest was called upon to underwrite Saul’s project. It seems more likely that the plan was the High Priest’s and not Saul’s, and that Saul was acting as agent or emissary of the High Priest. The whole incident needs to be considered in the light of probabilities and current conditions.
The book of Acts then continues with the account of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus through a vision of Jesus and the succeeding events of his life as a follower of Jesus. The pre-Christian period of Saul’s life, however, does receive further mention later in the book of Acts, both in chapter 22 and chapter 26, where some interesting details are added, and also some further puzzles.
In chapter 22, Saul (now called Paul), is shown giving his own account of his early life in a speech to the people after the Roman commandant had questioned him. Paul speaks as follows:
I am a true-born Jew, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia. I was brought up in this city, and as a pupil of Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in every point of our ancestral law. I have always been ardent in God’s service, as you all are today. And so I began to persecute this movement to the death, arresting its followers, men and women alike, and putting them in chains. For this I have as witnesses the High Priest and the whole Council of Elders. I was given letters from them to our fellow-Jews at Damascus, and had started out to bring the Christians there to Jerusalem as prisoners for punishment; and this is what happened….
Paul then goes on to describe his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. Previously he had described himself to the commandant as ‘a Jew, a Tarsian from Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city’.
It is from this passage that we learn of Paul’s native city, Tarsus, and of his alleged studies under Gamaliel. Note that he says that, though born in Tarsus, he was ‘brought up in this city’ (i.e. Jerusalem) which suggests that he spent his childhood in Jerusalem. Does this mean that his parents moved from Tarsus to Jerusalem? Or that the child was sent to Jerusalem on his own, which seems unlikely? If Paul spent only a few childhood years in Tarsus, he would hardly describe himself proudly as ‘a citizen of no mean city’ (Tarsus). Jews who had spent most of their lives in Jerusalem would be much more prone to describe themselves as citizens of Jerusalem. The likelihood is that Paul moved to Jerusalem when he was already a grown man, and he left his parents behind in Tarsus, which seems all the more probable in that they receive no mention in any account of Paul’s experiences in Jerusalem. As for Paul’s alleged period of studies under Gamaliel, this would have had to be in adulthood, for Gamaliel was a teacher of advanced studies, not a teacher of children. He would accept as a pupil only someone well grounded and regarded as suitable for the rabbinate. The question, then, is where and how Paul received this thorough grounding, if at all. As pointed out above and argued fully below, there are strong reasons to think that Paul never was a pupil of Gamaliel.
An important question that also arises in this chapter of Acts is that of Paul’s Roman citizenship. This is mentioned first in chapter 16. Paul claims to have been born a Roman citizen, which would mean that his father was a Roman citizen. There are many problems to be discussed in this connection, and some of these questions impinge on Paul’s claim to have had a Pharisaic background.
A further account of Paul’s pre-Christian life is found in chapter 26 of Acts, in a speech addressed by Paul to King Agrippa. Paul says:
My life from my youth up, the life I led from the beginning among my people and in Jerusalem, is familiar to all Jews. Indeed they have known me long enough and could testify, if they only would, that I belonged to the strictest group in our religion: I lived as a Pharisee. And it is for a hope kindled by God’s promise to our forefathers that I stand in the dock today. Our twelve tribes hope to see the fulfilment of that promise…. I myself once thought it my duty to work actively against the name of Jesus of Nazareth; and I did so in Jerusalem. It was I who imprisoned many of God’s people by authority obtained from the chief priests; and when they were condemned to death, my vote was cast against them. In all the synagogues I tried by repeated punishment to make them renounce their faith; indeed my fury rose to such a pitch that I extended my persecution to foreign cities. On one such occasion I was travelling to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests….
Again the account continues with the vision on the road to Damascus.
This speech, of course, cannot be regarded as the authentic words addressed by Paul to King Agrippa, but rather as a rhetorical speech composed by Luke, the author of Acts, in the style of ancient historians. Thus the claim made in the speech that Paul’s career as a Pharisee of high standing was known to ‘all Jews’ cannot be taken at face value. It is interesting that Paul is represented as saying that he ‘cast his vote’ against the followers of Jesus, thus helping to condemn them to death. This can only refer to the voting of the Sanhedrin or Council of Elders, which was convened to try capital cases; so what Luke is claiming here for his hero Paul is that he was at one time a member of the Sanhedrin. This is highly unlikely, for Paul would surely have made this claim in his letters, when writing about his credentials as a Pharisee, if it had been true. There is, however, some confusion both in this account and in the accounts quoted above about whether the Sanhedrin, as well as the High Priest or ‘chief priests’, was involved in the persecution of the followers of Jesus. Sometimes the High Priest alone is mentioned, sometimes the Sanhedrin is coupled with him, as if the two are inseparable. But we see on two occasions cited in Acts that the High Priest was outvoted by the Pharisees in the Sanhedrin; on both occasions, the Pharisees were opposing an attempt to persecute the followers of Jesus; so the representation of High Priest and Sanhedrin as having identical aims is one of the suspect features of these accounts.
It will be seen from the above collation of passages in the book of Acts concerning Paul’s background and early life, together with Paul’s own references to his background in his letters, that the same strong picture emerges: that Paul was at first a highly trained Pharisee rabbi, learned in all the intricacies of the rabbinical commentaries on scripture and legal traditions (afterwards collected in the rabbinical compilations, the Talmud and Midrash). As a Pharisee, Paul was strongly opposed to the new sect which followed Jesus and which believed that he had been resurrected after his crucifixion. So opposed was Paul to this sect that he took violent action against it, dragging its adherents to prison. Though this strong picture has emerged, some doubts have also arisen, which, so far, have only been lightly sketched in: how is it, for example, that Paul claims to have voted against Christians on trial for their lives before the Sanhedrin, when in fact, in the graphically described trial of Peter before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5), the Pharisees, led by Gamaliel, voted for the release of Peter? What kind of Pharisee was Paul, if he took an attitude towards the early Christians which, on the evidence of the same book of Acts, was untypical of the Pharisees? And how is it that this book of Acts is so inconsistent within itself that it describes Paul as violently opposed to Christianity because of his deep attachment to Pharisaism, and yet also describes the Pharisees as being friendly towards the early Christians, standing up for them and saving their lives?
It has been pointed out by many scholars that the book of Acts, on the whole, contains a surprising amount of evidence favourable to the Pharisees, showing them to have been tolerant and merciful. Some scholars have even argued that the book of Acts is a pro-Pharisee work; but this can hardly be maintained. For, outweighing all the evidence favourable to the Pharisees is the material relating to Paul, which is, in all its aspects, unfavourable to the Pharisees; not only is Paul himself portrayed as being a virulent persecutor when he was a Pharisee, but Paul declares that he himself was punished by flogging five times (II Corinthians 11:24) by the ‘Jews’ (usually taken to mean the Pharisees). So no one really comes away from reading Acts with any good impression of the Pharisees, but rather with the negative impressions derived from the Gospels reinforced.
Why, therefore, is Paul always so concerned to stress that he came from a Pharisee background? A great many motives can be discerned, but there is one that needs to be singled out here: the desire to stress the alleged continuity between Judaism and Pauline Christianity. Paul wishes to say that whereas, when he was a Pharisee, he mistakenly regarded the early Christians as heretics who had departed from true Judaism, after his conversion he took the opposite view, that Christianity was the true Judaism. All his training as a Pharisee, he wishes to say — all his study of scripture and tradition — really leads to the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. So when Paul declares his Pharisee past, he is not merely proclaiming his own sins — ‘See how I have changed, from being a Pharisee persecutor to being a devoted follower of Jesus!’ — he is also proclaiming his credentials — ‘If someone as learned as I can believe that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Torah, who is there fearless enough to disagree?’
On the face of it, Paul’s doctrine of Jesus is a daring departure from Judaism. Paul was advocating a doctrine that seemed to have far more in common with pagan myths than with Judaism: that Jesus was a divine-human person who had descended to Earth from the heavens and experienced death for the express purpose of saving mankind. The very fact that the Jews found this doctrine new and shocking shows that it plays no role in the Jewish scripture, at least not in any way easily discernible. Yet Paul was not content to say that his doctrine was new; on the contrary, he wished to say that every line of the Jewish scripture was a foreshadowing of the Jesus-event as he understood it, and that those who understood the scripture in any other way were failing in comprehension of what Judaism had always been about. So his insistence on his Pharisaic upbringing was part of his insistence on continuity.
There were those who accepted Paul’s doctrine, but did regard it as a radical new departure, with nothing in the Jewish scriptures foreshadowing it. The best known figure of this kind was Marcion, who lived about a hundred years after Paul, and regarded Paul as his chief inspiration. Yet Marcion refused to see anything Jewish in Paul’s doctrine, but regarded it as a new revelation. He regarded the Jewish scriptures as the work of the Devil and he excluded the Old Testament from his version of the Bible.
Paul himself rejected this view. Though he regarded much of the Old Testament as obsolete, superseded by the advent of Jesus, he still regarded it as the Word of God, prophesying the new Christian Church and giving it authority. So his picture of himself as a Pharisee symbolizes the continuity between the old dispensation and the new: a figure who comprised in his own person the turning-point at which Judaism was transformed into Christianity.
Throughout the Christian centuries, there have been Christian scholars who have seen Paul’s claim to a Pharisee background in this light. In the medieval Disputations convened by Christians to convert Jews, arguments were put forward purporting to show that not only the Jewish scriptures but even the rabbinical writings, the Talmud and the Midrash, supported the claims of Christianity that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was divine and that he had to suffer death for mankind. Though Paul was not often mentioned in these Disputations, the project was one of which he would have approved. In modern times, scholars have laboured to argue that Paul’s doctrines about the Messiah and divine suffering are continuous with Judaism as it appears in the Bible, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and in the rabbinical writings (the best-known effort of this nature is Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, by W.D. Davies).
So Paul’s claim to expert Pharisee learning is relevant to a very important and central issue — whether Christianity, in the form given to it by Paul, is really continuous with Judaism or whether it is a new doctrine, having no roots in Judaism, but deriving, in so far as it has an historical background, from pagan myths of dying and resurrected gods and Gnostic myths of heaven-descended redeemers. Did Paul truly stand in the Jewish tradition, or was he a person of basically Hellenistic religious type, but seeking to give a colouring of Judaism to a salvation cult that was really opposed to everything that Judaism stood for?
The Standpoint of this Book
As against the conventional picture of Paul, outlined in the last chapter, the present book has an entirely different and unfamiliar view to put forward. This view of Paul is not only unfamiliar in itself, but it also involves many unfamiliar standpoints about other issues which are relevant and indeed essential to a correct assessment of Paul; for example:
Who and what were the Pharisees? What were their religious and political views as opposed to those of the Sadducees and other religious and political groups of the time? What was their attitude to Jesus? What was their attitude towards the early Jerusalem Church?
Who and what was Jesus? Did he really see himself as a saviour who had descended from heaven in order to suffer crucifixion? Or did he have entirely different aims, more in accordance with the Jewish thoughts and hopes of his time? Was the historical Jesus quite a different person from the Jesus of Paul’s ideology, based on Paul’s visions and trances?
Who and what were the early Church of Jerusalem, the first followers of Jesus? Have their views been correctly represented by the later Church? Did James and Peter, the leaders of the Jerusalem Church, agree with Paul’s views (as orthodox Christianity claims) or did they oppose him bitterly, regarding him as a heretic and a betrayer of the aims of Jesus?
Who and what were the Ebionites, whose opinions and writings were suppressed by the orthodox Church? Why did they denounce Paul? Why did they combine belief in Jesus with the practice of Judaism?
Why did they believe in Jesus as Messiah, but not as God? Were they a later ‘Judaizing’ group, or were they, as they claimed to be, the remnants of the authentic followers of Jesus, the church of James and Peter?
The arguments in this book will inevitably become complicated, since every issue is bound up with every other. It is impossible to answer any of the above questions without bringing all the other questions into consideration. It is, therefore, convenient at this point to give an outline of the standpoint to which all the arguments of this book converge. This is not an attempt to prejudge the issue. The following summary of the findings of this book may seem dogmatic at this stage, but it is intended merely as a guide to the ramifications of the ensuing arguments and a bird’s eye view of the book, and as such will stand or fall with the cogency of the arguments themselves. The following, then, are the propositions argued in the present book:
1 Paul was never a Pharisee rabbi, but was an adventurer of undistinguished background. He was attached to the Sadducees, as a police officer under the authority of the High Priest, before his conversion to belief in Jesus. His mastery of the kind of learning associated with the Pharisees was not great. He deliberately misrepresented his own biography in order to increase the effectiveness of missionary activities.
2 Jesus and his immediate followers were Pharisees. Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion. He regarded himself as the Messiah in the normal Jewish sense of the term, i.e. a human leader who would restore the Jewish monarchy, drive out the Roman invaders, set up an independent Jewish state, and inaugurate an era of peace, justice and prosperity (known as ‘the kingdom of God,) for the whole world. Jesus believed himself to be the figure prophesied in the Hebrew Bible who would do all these things. He was not a militarist and did not build up an army to fight the Romans, since he believed that God would perform a great miracle to break the power of Rome. This miracle would take place on the Mount of Olives, as prophesied in the book of Zechariah. When this miracle did not occur, his mission had failed. He had no intention of being crucified in order to save mankind from eternal damnation by his sacrifice. He never regarded himself as a divine being, and would have regarded such an idea as pagan and idolatrous, an infringement of the first of the Ten Commandments.
3 The first followers of Jesus, under James and Peter, founded the Jerusalem Church after Jesus’s death. They were called the Nazarenes, and in all their beliefs they were indistinguishable from the Pharisees, except that they believed in the resurrection of Jesus, and that Jesus was still the promised Messiah. They did not believe that Jesus was a divine person, but that, by a miracle from God, he had been brought back to life after his death on the cross, and would soon come back to complete his mission of overthrowing the Romans and setting up the Messianic kingdom. The Nazarenes did not believe that Jesus had abrogated the Jewish religion, or Torah. Having known Jesus personally, they were aware that he had observed the Jewish religious law all his life and had never rebelled against it. His sabbath cures were not against Pharisee law. The Nazarenes were themselves very observant of Jewish religious law. They practiced circumcision, did not eat the forbidden foods and showed great respect to the Temple. The Nazarenes did not regard themselves as belonging to a new religion; their religion was Judaism. They set up synagogues of their own, but they also attended non-Nazarene synagogues on occasion, and performed the same kind of worship in their own synagogues as was practiced by all observant Jews. The Nazarenes became suspicious of Paul when they heard that he was preaching that Jesus was the founder of a new religion and that he had abrogated the Torah. After an attempt to reach an understanding with Paul, the Nazarenes (i.e. the Jerusalem Church under James and Peter) broke irrevocably with Paul and disowned him.
4 Paul, not Jesus, was the founder of Christianity as a new religion which developed away from both normal Judaism and the Nazarene variety of Judaism. In this new religion, the Torah was abrogated as having had only temporary validity. The central myth of the new religion was that of an atoning death of a divine being. Belief in this sacrifice, and a mystical sharing of the death of the deity, formed the only path to salvation. Paul derived this religion from Hellenistic sources, chiefly by a fusion of concepts taken from Gnosticism and concepts taken from the mystery religions, particularly from that of Attis. The combination of these elements with features derived from Judaism, particularly the incorporation of the Jewish scriptures, reinterpreted to provide a background of sacred history for the new myth, was unique; and Paul alone was the creator of this amalgam. Jesus himself had no idea of it, and would have been amazed and shocked at the role assigned to him by Paul as a suffering deity. Nor did Paul have any predecessors among the Nazarenes though later mythography tried to assign this role to Stephen, and modern scholars have discovered equally mythical predecessors for Paul in a group called the ‘Hellenists’. Paul, as the personal begetter of the Christian myth, has never been given sufficient credit for his originality. The reverence paid through the centuries to the great Saint Paul has quite obscured the more colourful features of his personality. Like many evangelical leaders, he was a compound of sincerity and charlatanry. Evangelical leaders of his kind were common at this time in the Greco-Roman world (e.g. Simon Magus, Apollonius of Tyana).
5 A source of information about Paul that has never been taken seriously enough is a group called the Ebionites. Their writings were suppressed by the Church, but some of their views and traditions were preserved in the writings of their opponents, particularly in the huge treatise on Heresies by Epiphanius. From this it appears that the Ebionites had a very different account to give of Paul’s background and early life from that found in the New Testament and fostered by Paul himself. The Ebionites testified that Paul had no Pharisaic background or training; he was the son of Gentiles, converted to Judaism in Tarsus, came to Jerusalem when an adult, and attached himself to the High Priest as a henchman. Disappointed in his hopes of advancement, he broke with the High Priest and sought fame by founding a new religion. This account, while not reliable in all its details, is substantially correct. It makes far more sense of all the puzzling and contradictory features of the story of Paul than the account of the official documents of the Church.
6 The Ebionites were stigmatized by the Church as heretics who failed to understand that Jesus was a divine person and asserted instead that he was a human being who came to inaugurate a new earthly age, as prophesied by the Jewish prophets of the Bible. Moreover, the Ebionites refused to accept the Church doctrine, derived from Paul, that Jesus abolished or abrogated the Torah, the Jewish law. Instead, the Ebionites observed the Jewish law and regarded themselves as Jews. The Ebionites were not heretics, as the Church asserted, nor ‘re-Judaizers’, as modern scholars call them, but the authentic successors of the immediate disciples and followers of Jesus, whose views and doctrines they faithfully transmitted, believing correctly that they were derived from Jesus himself. They were the same group that had earlier been called the Nazarenes, who were led by James and Peter, who had known Jesus during his lifetime, and were in a far better position to know his aims than Paul, who met Jesus only in dreams and visions. Thus the opinion held by the Ebionites about Paul is of extraordinary interest and deserves respectful consideration, instead of dismissal as ‘scurrilous’ propaganda — the reaction of Christian scholars from ancient to modern times.
The above conspectus brings into sharper relief our question, was Paul a Pharisee? It will be seen that this is not merely a matter of biography or idle curiosity. It is bound up with the whole question of the origins of Christianity. A tremendous amount depends on this question, for, if Paul was not a Pharisee rooted in Jewish learning and tradition, but instead a Hellenistic adventurer whose acquaintance with Judaism was recent and shallow, the construction of myth and theology which he elaborated in his letters becomes a very different thing. Instead of searching through his system for signs of continuity with Judaism, we shall be able to recognize it for what it is — a brilliant concoction of Hellenism, superficially connecting itself with the Jewish scriptures and tradition, by which it seeks to give itself a history and an air of authority.
Christian attitudes towards the Pharisees and thus towards the picture of Paul as a Pharisee have always been strikingly ambivalent. In the Gospels, the Pharisees are attacked as hypocrites and would-be murderers: yet the Gospels also convey an impression of the Pharisees as figures of immense authority and dignity. This ambivalence reflects the attitude of Christianity to Judaism itself; on the one hand, an allegedly outdated ritualism, but on the other, a panorama of awesome history, a source of authority and blessing, so that at all costs the Church must display itself as the new Israel, the true Judaism. Thus Paul, as Pharisee, is the subject of alternating attitudes. In the nineteenth century, when Jesus was regarded (by Renan, for example) as a Romantic liberal, rebelling against the authoritarianism of Pharisaic Judaism, Paul was deprecated as a typical Pharisee, enveloping the sweet simplicity of Jesus in clouds of theology and difficult formulations. In the twentieth century, when the concern is more to discover the essential Jewishness of Christianity, the Pharisee aspect of Paul is used to connect Pauline doctrines with the rabbinical writings — again Paul is regarded as never losing his essential Pharisaism, but this is now viewed as good, and as a means of rescuing Christianity from isolation from Judaism. To be Jewish and yet not to be Jewish, this is the essential dilemma of Christianity, and the figure of Paul, abjuring his alleged Pharisaism as a hindrance to salvation and yet somehow clinging to it as a guarantee of authority, is symbolic.
Some passages in Paul’s Epistles have been thought to be typically Pharisaic simply because their argument has a legalistic air. When these passages are critically examined, however, the superficiality of the legal colouring soon appears, and it is apparent that the use of illustrations from law is merely a vague, rhetorical device, without any real legal precision, such as is found in the Pharisaic writings even when the legal style is used for homiletic biblical exegesis. An example from Romans is the following:
You cannot be unaware, my friends — I am speaking to those who have some knowledge of law — that a person is subject to the law so long as he is alive, and no longer. For example, a married woman is by law bound to her husband while he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the obligations of the marriage-law. If, therefore, in her husband’s lifetime she consorts with another man, she will incur the charge of adultery; but if her husband dies she is free of the law, and she does not commit adultery by consorting with another man. So you, my friends, have died to the law by becoming identified with the body of Christ, and accordingly you have found another husband in him who rose from the dead, so that we may bear fruit for God. While we lived on the level of our lower nature, the sinful passions evoked by the law worked in our bodies, to bear fruit for death. But now, having died to that which held us bound, we are discharged from the law, to serve God in a new way, the way of the spirit, in contrast to the old way, the way of a written code. (Romans 7: 1-6)
The above passage is remarkably muddle-headed. Paul is trying to compare the abrogation of the Torah and the advent of the new covenant of Christianity with a second marriage contracted by a widow. But he is unable to keep clear in his mind who it is that corresponds to the wife and who to the husband — or even who is supposed to have died, the husband or the wife. It seems that the correspondence intended is the following: the wife is the Church; the former husband is the Torah, and the new husband is Christ. Paul tells us that a wife is released by the death of her husband to marry a new husband; this should read, therefore, in the comparison, that the Church was freed, by the death of the Torah, to marry Christ. Instead, it is the wife-Church that dies (‘you, my friends, have died to the law by becoming identified with the body of Christ’) and there is even some play with the idea that the new husband, Christ, has died. The only term in the comparison that is not mentioned as having died is the Torah; yet this is the only thing that would make the comparison valid.
On the other hand, there is also present in the passage an entirely different idea: that a person becomes free of legal obligations after his or her own death. This indeed seems to be the theme first announced: ‘that a person is subject to the law so long as he is alive, and no longer.’ The theme of the widow being free to marry after the death of her first husband is quite incompatible with this; yet Paul confuses the two themes throughout — so much so that at one point he even seems to be talking about a widow and a husband who are free to marry each other and have acceptable children because both widow and new husband are dead. Confusion cannot be worse confounded than this.
Thus what we have here is a case of someone trying to construct a legal analogy and failing miserably because of his inability to think in the logical manner one expects of a legal expert. The passage thus does not prove that Paul had Pharisee training — just the contrary. What we can say, however, is that Paul is here trying to sound like a trained Pharisee. He announces in a somewhat portentous way that what he is going to say will be understood only by those who ‘have some knowledge of law’, and he is clearly intending to display legal expertise. It is only natural that Paul, having claimed so often to have been trained as a Pharisee, should occasionally attempt to play the part, especially when speaking or writing for people who would not be able to detect any shortcomings in his performance. In the event, he has produced a ludicrous travesty of Pharisee thinking. In the whole of Pharisee literature, there is nothing to parallel such an exhibition of lame reasoning.
What Paul is saying, in a general way, is that death dissolves legal ties. Therefore, the death of Jesus and the symbolic death of members of the Church by identifying themselves with Jesus’ sacrifice all contribute to a loosening of ties with the old covenant. This general theme is clear enough; it is only when Paul tries to work out a kind of legal conceit or parable, based on the law of marriage and remarriage, that he ties himself in knots. Thus he loses cogency just where a Pharisee training, if he had ever had one, would have asserted itself; once more, he is shown to have the rhetorical style of the Hellenistic preachers of popular Stoicism, not the terse logic of the rabbis.
The Philosophy of the Talmud, by Hyam Maccoby
New York: Routledge, 2002. 240 pp. $85.00.
After the demise of the modern paradigms of rationality, can we still speak of the rationality of our religion? If so, where is its rationality to be found? Many philosophers of religion today offer either of two contrary answers: either “no, because we cannot speak of rationality in any general sense at all,” or “no, because religion is extra- or sub-rational.” According to a romantically orthodox position, Judaism is an extra-rational religion, because our sages deliver a divine message whose authority and meaning cannot be gainsaid by any recognizable standard of rationality. According to a skeptically postmodern position, Judaism is sub-rational, because it is constituted by political, economic, and psycho-social phenomena that cannot be reduced to any sets of rational principles.
In The Philosophy of the Talmud, Hyam Maccoby introduces an answer that is far more promising than any of these: that, while we may recognize no humanly constructed, universal rationality, the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrashic collections display indigenous patterns of rationality. This is a rationality that emerges from out of rabbinic argumentation itself, rather than as judged by criteria imported from classical Greece, 19(th) century Germany, or other, contrasting sources of rational practice. These various rationalities are not merely self-enclosed, however; rabbinic thinking can import patterns of rationality learned from Greece, and vice-versa. Maccoby therefore calls his study of rabbinic rationality “the philosophy of the Talmud”: it is philosophy, the way Greek thinking is philosophy, except that its logic and conditions of truth and falsity may differ from those of Greek philosophy.
One of Great Britain’s most active author/editors in rabbinic thought, Maccoby writes many books, and he tends, in each one, to offer only one facet of a larger project. The same is true of this book. Here, he collects classes of rabbinic sugyot that illustrate various patterns of rabbinic rationality. Learning these patterns, a student of the Talmud should be prepared to debate the major philosophic issues of our day from out of a distinctly rabbinic perspective. Within the limits of this book, however, Maccoby does not also illustrate what such a student’s philosophic approach would look like in any significant detail. For the most part, moreover, he does not attempt to justify his manner of collecting those classes of sugyot within the terms of recent Talmudic scholarship. These are not oversights of Maccoby’s, however; he has simply chosen to offer just this much within this book, inviting readers to wait for the next book to see how his Talmudic readings engage the philosophic debates of the day. Within these limits, we should be encouraged by what Maccoby has begun.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, self-defense manuals armed Jewish teenagers and young adults with facts about Judaism and arguments against
Christianity in the face of deceptive proselytizers of all stripes. Twentyfirst-century polemicists such as Rabbi Tovia Singer, founder of Outreach Judaism, have aggressively contested Christian truth-claims in a variety of settings. Polemical tracts do not merely refute Christian teachings, however; at times they misrepresent them.
The most significant Jewish writer in this regard was Hyam Maccoby (1924–2004), whose “polemical agenda was undisguised.”12 His widely admired books have gone through multiple printings and are still quoted on blogs and websites. GoodReads shows six editions of The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity and forty-six mainly positive reviews. This
book has been translated into German, Arabic, and Polish. Shmuley Boteach credited Maccoby with much of the historical research he used for his
popular Kosher Jesus.
An obituary (following Maccoby’s May 2, 2004, death) called him “a Jew of profound learning,”14 while a reader’s review on Amazon.com called him “a scholarly hero.” Others, however, have labeled him “idiosyncratic,” “tendentious,” and “the stormy petr0l of Biblical and
It is worth considering Maccoby’s writings for several reasons. First, although his arguments about Christian origins have been refuted in academic assessments and in reviews published in scholarly journals, his books remain quite popular, as evidenced by GoodReads. They continue to inform Jewish and non-Jewish understanding of Christianity. Second, since
polemical works were directed at insiders rather than outsiders, Maccoby
intended to furnish Jewish readers with anti-Christian ammunition in the
present, not just as an academic exercise. A look at his complete corpus
demonstrates that his primary concern was to write for Jews about Judaism
rather than to engage in dialogue with, or to communicate with, Christians.
Moreover, his historical studies were designed to show the disconnection
rather than the connection between Judaism and Christianity. Third, Maccoby took a very different approach from contemporaries such as Samuel Sandmel and Geza Vermes, and from present-day Jewish scholars such as Amy-Jill Levine and Pamela Eisenbaum, who are committed to genuine dialogue with Christians. While these and other scholars do not avoid telling
inconvenient truths to their Christian readers, their tone and style indicate warmth, affection, and appreciation. In contrast, Maccoby adopted a combative and “needlessly pugilistic stance,” which would confound most attempts to engage in thoughtful and respectful discussion…
This essay describes the key arguments Maccoby makes in order to show
how this significant Jewish scholar depicted Christianity and its origins. Its purpose is to reveal the “Christian story” created by Maccoby in order to heighten awareness about what many Jews believe to be true about Christianity.19 Working from the premise that the Jewish narrative of Christianity can be every bit as troubling as the Christian chronicle of Judaism, it introduces readers to some of its contours. It does not attempt to refute the opinions of Maccoby but, rather, puts the British scholar’s work within the historical context of Jewish anti-Christian polemical works and presents the specifics of his characterization of Christianity.
His central work, The Mythmaker (1986), did not appear in Germany until 20 years later. As a historian of the school called “the Jewish view of Jesus”, he documents and substantiates the proof, hardly new, that Jesus could not have been the founder of Christianity but was firmly anchored in Jewish society, which regarded the Torah and took on a leading role in the Pharisee movement. He had the Messianic aim of re-establishing the Jewish monarchy, freeing his land from the yoke of Roman occupation and then doing away with all military rule worldwide. This claim to be the King of the Jews – an open provocation to the Roman occupiers – landed him in prison and after sentencing by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate on the cross, where he and numerous other Jewish freedom fighters died a martyr’s death. Had he simply been one of the many unsuccessful aspiring Messiahs, he would soon have been forgotten, if it had not been for his direct adherents, the Nazarenes, who believed in his resurrection by means of a divine miracle and began to establish themselves as a Jewish sect within the Pharisee movement, led by their Jewish leaders Peter and James. Here, Maccoby develops the whole panorama of a society under the rule of the world power of Rome, he shows the various groups, the compromising sect of the Sadducees, one of whom was the high priest who acted as a chief of police for Rome, the Herodians as Quisling and titular kings, the militant Zealots and above all the Pharisees, well regarded among the people, who were the real leaders of the oppressed Jewish majority and guaranteed the spiritual survival of the Jews after the destruction of the Temple.
Maccoby provides countless pieces of evidence supporting the premise that Paul was the actual founder of Christianity. He reconstructs the true story behind Paul’s Epistels, the oldest part of the New Testament that was written before the destruction of the Temple, and the Gospels, which were written afterwards. Maccoby reveals Paul as a Greek adventurer who was only superficially familiar with Judaism and could presumably speak hardly any Hebrew. He did not leave his home town of Tarsus in Asia Minor until he was an adult and, impressed by Jewish authorities such as Hillel, Shammai and Gamaliel, tried to find a connect to the Pharisees and make a career for himself with them. However, he failed in his ambitions: he never became a Pharisee scholar, as he claimed for himself and his alleged origins from the tribe of Benjamin, which is a questionable construct in itself, a pure invention in order to make a name for himself in his later missionary activities. He was also never a disciple of Gamaliel, as Luke claims in Acts. After failing to achieve his ambition, he joined the high priest’s auxiliary police – presumably out of desperation. In his function as a police agent, Paul, who was still Saul at that time, was involved in the persecution of the Nazarenes, amongst other things.
Damascus and after
On the way to Damascus, where he was supposed to arrest Jewish resistance fighters from the Nazarene faction, this torn adventurer was befallen by a kind of hallucination, a revelation in which, according to his own statements, Jesus appeared. This was the starting point, the initial spark, of the foundation of a new religion, Christianity. Because Paul was fascinated by the ideas of the Nazarenes, Jesus’s Jewish supporters. A crucified and resurrected Messiah figure reminded him of the mystery religions of his childhood, the Phrygian Attis cult and also the cult of Baal-Taras, who gave his home town its name. As in other Hellenistic mystery religions, the Adonis cult in Syria, the Osiris cult in Egypt and many others, sacrificed god-figures died and were then resurrected. Their suffering was required for the spiritual redemption of their followers and assumed a sinister perpetrator who could be given the blame for the necessary sacrifice. This concoction began to ferment in Paul’s mind and blended with the concept of Gnosticism, which was also Hellenistic, in which an extraterrestrial saviour descends from heaven in order to liberate an evil world from the demiurge and his false doctrine by bringing the knowledge, the true cognition, “gnosis” to a select few. The demiurge is then made the same as the Hebrew god, the Torah becomes the imperfect law, a kind of deception. The true, highest god would send down his son to depose the Jewish god and save selected souls for eternal life. Gnosticism transported anti-Semitism into Paul’s religious ideas and developed a taste for escape from a terrible doom. It had demonstrably come about before Christianity among the Greeks in Alexandria, who had initially been impressed by Judaism but then capitulated to the demands of the Torah and assumed an inimical stance against this religion. And this is exactly the dilemma Paul found himself in: he began to fabricate a new religion, a highly virulent “myth mixture” with a resounding effect composed of these three elements, the mystery cults, Gnosticism and Judaism. And this ultimately led to a new prospect for his leadership aspirations, which went far beyond his previous ambitious ideas, saved him from reversion to paganism, made him a kind of prophet and raised him far above the envied Pharisees.
His connection to the Nazarenes was only superficial, because for these strictly religious Jews Jesus was not a mythical figure but a political and religious leader. Paul initially gained their confidence and entitlement to conduct heathen missions, but it then came to a dispute when it became clear that he had been spreading the entirely new concept that Jesus had died for the sins of man and for their salvation, his atoning and sacrificial death had made the Torah superfluous and he was to be viewed as a divine being, ideas that the historical Jesus would have been horrified at. After a council in Jerusalem he initially manoeuvred himself out of it; five years later he stood trial and there was then a final break between him and the Jewish followers of Jesus, led by Peter and James. Paul, who had bought Roman citizenship with donations he had appropriated that were thought to have been for his supposed fellow believers, fled to Rome, where his historical trace disappears. According to Christian mythology he is supposed to have suffered martyr’s death there. But it is just as possible that he still lived for several years there and was occupied with developing his Pauline church. Peter never supported him and was probably never in Rome, and he was certainly not “the rock on which the Church was built”, i.e. the first Pope.
Maccoby makes it clear that Paul was the founder of Christianity. He was the one who introduced the Eucharist as the central sacrament of his new religion, not Jesus. This is only superficially connected to the Kiddush, which is a simple thanksgiving prayer for God. The Eucharist, by way of contrast, is a sacrificial ritual in which an incarnated God-man is symbolically eaten. The wine becomes his blood, the bread his flesh. It is worthy of note that the term Paul uses for the Eucharist is “the Lord’s supper”. This same expression was used in mystery religions for the sacred meals dedicated to the saviour-god. Historically, these cults served to make the fields fertile, to avert a danger, or to found a new city or tribe, and there were actual human sacrifices, as proxy for a god; Maccoby examines these in detail. The mystery religions weakened the human sacrifice ritual and Judaism ended it completely with the Akedah. Here, a human sacrifice became an animal sacrifice and the whole concept of a sacrifice was gradually completely sublimated. But Paul revised this development and made a fantasised human sacrifice the central sacrament of his new religion. He transfers the mythical concept of salvation from the atonement sacrifice of a god to a historical person, Jesus, which gives his myth mixture an especially dramatic, impressive aura and revives the necessity of a scapegoat, which he already begins to see as “the Jews”. In form, however, he adheres to Judaism, which he wants to rebuild without breaking away from it, above all in order to give his new religion authority and authenticity. Paul usurps Judaism, as Maccoby makes clear. His followers, freed from the burden of the Torah, saved from their sins and mortality by the death of Jesus, form the New Covenant with God that is to replace the Old Covenant of Judaism.
The Judas legend
After the First Jewish–Roman War (66–70 CE) and the destruction of the Temple, the Church of Jerusalem, i.e. the Nazarene movement, slowly began to dissolve, because its competing organisation, the Pauline Church, accused it of heresy, as did the Pharisees in Jerusalem themselves. It survived for a few centuries still, scattered, isolated and persecuted, under the name of “Ebionites”, which means “poor people”, and was then eroded away inconspicuously by the maelstrom of history. When the Pauline Hellenistic followers of Jesus no longer had anything to fear from the Jewish side, when the Torah-true Jewish followers of Jesus were too weakened to assert themselves, the former went on the offensive on a Pauline basis from Rome, their new religious centre. The era of virulent anti-Semitism began with the Gospels, which were written between 70 and 110 CE. The Pharisees were reviled as dry, hypocritical legalists, which made a considerable contribution to the anti-Jewish stereotypes of the Middle Ages and afterwards. The Torah was portrayed as a relentless, misanthropic law and “the Jews” were made responsible for Jesus’s death. The Passover privilege was fabricated according to which the Jewish people were supposed to be permitted to pardon a prisoner once a year. In the Barabbas episode, the whipped-up crowd decides to free Barabbas and loudly demand the death of Jesus: “Crucify him!”. The legend of the benevolent Pontius Pilate was created, who in reality was an evil, corrupt and violent governor. In the Gospels he mutates into a beset man who washes his hands in innocence. Judas Iscariot was turned into a money-grabbing perpetrator who is said to have sold Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver. His name was chosen because it is intended to represent the entire Jewish people. And thus the “sacred executioner” was finally found, the scapegoat who commits the evil deed that is urgently necessary for the salvation of the community. This was crucial to later developments because there would now be, in “the Jews”, a reservoir of whipping-boys for all generations who could be used as a lightning rod to indemnify perpetrators.
Hyam Maccoby proves that the main purpose of Paul’s Epistels and the Gospels consists in masking the radical break between the heathen Christian and the Jewish Christian churches and turning it into a different conflict between the allegedly united Pauline and Jewish followers of Jesus on the one hand and “the Jews” on the other, who stubbornly refused to recognise Jesus as the ultimate divine Messiah. They also postulated that Jesus was the founder of the new religion of Christianity and Paul merely his prophet, that all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible had already announced Jesus as the Messiah and had already been prevented in doing this and executed by – once again – “the Jews”. And they depoliticised Jesus, turning him from an anti-Roman Jewish resistance fighter into an anti-Jewish mythical figure, half god, half man, whose sacrificial death would deliver all those who believed in him from sin and give them eternal life. Rome and the Romans are hardly mentioned in the New Testament at all. This is like talking about France during the Vichy regime without mentioning the German occupation. In order for a religion to be successful in the Roman Empire, no anti-Roman firebrand could be at the centre of Christianity who was punished by crucifixion for his aim of trying to free his land from the Roman invaders.
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.
According to Encyclopedia.com: “Born in 1924 in Sunderland, the son of a mathematics tutor.. Hyam Maccoby was educated at Oxford… In such works as Judea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance (1980), Maccoby argued that Jesus should be viewed as a liberal but Torah-observant Pharisee, who opposed the Romans but not other Jews. Maccoby also saw the origins of Christian antisemitism as beginning with the foundations of Christianity as a separate religion, a view he put forward in such works as Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (1992) and in Paul and Hellenism (1991). Maccoby was widely known through his many appearances on television; he was frequently attacked by both Christians and Orthodox Jews.”
Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah: Five Studies by E.P. Sanders
SCM, 404 pp, £35.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 334 02455 2
Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee by Alan Segal
Yale, 368 pp, £22.50, June 1990, ISBN 0 300 04527 1
The battle about the Pharisees is not just a matter of research into an ancient religious group: it affects our standpoint towards questions about the origin of Christianity. If the Pharisees were not as bad as they are painted, why did they oppose Jesus and help to bring him to his death? Did they perhaps not oppose him at all? Is it possible (in view of multiple parallels to Jesus’s teaching in rabbinic literature) that Jesus was himself a Phari see, as several scholars, including myself, have argued? If so, why are the Gospels so anti-Pharisee? Modern research, once it took Jewish sources seriously, began to open up an alarming gap between Jesus and Christianity – a gap that recent Christian scholarship has developed several strategies to try to close.
In Jesus and Judaism (1985) Sanders deepened his case for the essential similarity be tween Jesus’s teaching and Pharisaism: ‘I am one of a growing number of scholars who doubt that there were any substantial points of opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees.’ The alleged scenes of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees about both purity laws and the Sabbath were ‘artificial’ – they have no ground in actual Pharisee teachings – and stem from a period later than that of Jesus. In his first books, Sanders opposed the views of Christian anti-Pharisee scholars. Recently, however, Jacob Neusner, an American Jewish scholar, has pictured the Pharisees as indeed primarily ritualists, basing himself on what appears to be an exhaustive study of the Jewish sources. His work has of course been seized on with pleasure and relief by those Christians who find the pro-Pharisee picture difficult to live with. But Neusner’s work has also been accepted by some Jewish scholars, keen to escape from an ‘apologetic’ stance, and to demonstrate their credentials as fully objective exponents of ‘Jewish Studies’ in the universities.
Jesus and the Politics of his Day edited by Ernst Bammel and C.F.D. Moule
Cambridge, 511 pp, £37.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 521 22022 X
Others, however, have felt the need to reestablish the conviction that traditional anti-political Christian theology stems from Jesus himself. This anti-political backlash is represented, on the scholarly level, by the present volume, a collection of essays attempting to dismantle all the strong points of the ‘political Jesus’ position. These strong points are: that the term ‘messiah’ was a political one; that Jesus’s teachings were not contrary to Pharisaism; that no Roman governor would have behaved as mildly as Pilate is said to have done when told that a Jewish subject was claiming to be ‘king of the Jews’; that Jesus could not have been indifferent to the oppression of Roman rule, any more than a Frenchman during the Occupation could claim ‘spiritual’ exemption from opposition to Nazi rule; that crucifixion was a Roman, not a Jewish, punishment. Thus one essay attempts to show that the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is historically authentic; another that the picture of Pilate as reluctant to execute Jesus is trustworthy (evidence from non-Gospel sources that Pilate was corrupt and ruthless is explained as deriving from a Jewish-inspired campaign of vilification); another that Roman rule in Judaea during Jesus’s lifetime was mild and benevolent, so that there was no need for Jesus to have sympathy with Zealot movements of rebellion. Other essays try to divest the term ‘messiah’ of political connotations, by arguing either that Jesus claimed this title in a new non-political sense or that Jesus made no claim to messiahship at all, and that the term was applied to him only after his death by the Christian Church.