Flying High since 1998.

Review of Hyam Maccoby's Paul and Hellenism

by John Mann SCM 1991

St Paul is traditionally thought of as a Jewish thinker, someone who was originally a Pharisee and whose ideas came out of his encounter with Jesus and a background of Judaism.

In book the Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby argues that Paul is best understood as someone strongly influenced by Greek religious ideas, in particular Gnosticism and the mystery religions. In addition it seeks to show that Paul had only a superficial understanding of Jewish ideas and often showed a fundamental misunderstanding of Jewish concepts.

Chapter 1 - Gnostic Antisemitism

Maccoby begins by examining the phenomena of Gnosticism. He defines Gnosticism as a religion which sees the world as fundamentally evil, and salvation as a mystical escape to the higher realms beyond this world. Historically Gnosticism has identified the God of the Jews as the creator of the world, and hence the source of evil. The God of the Jews according to Gnosticism is a deluded God, as he believes none is greater than him, whereas there are numerous realms above this world which are greater than it.

The Jews in this scheme of things are essentially fools who have been taken in by this false God. The Jews themselves are not regarded as evil or dangerous, as much as laughable and to be pitied.

Gnosticism is interesting because of its links with Judaism - why did it fix on the God of the Jews as its evil God? Some believe Gnosticism came out of Christianity - Maccoby argues this is unlikely as there is plenty of Gnosticism which deals directly with Judaism with no mention of Christianity or Christian ideas. Some believe Gnosticism came out of Judaism.

This Maccoby takes more seriously, but argues against it because there is so much in Gnosticism which is alien to Judaism. However it is true that some Gnostics show a great deal of knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, and often seek to identify alternative traditions within those scriptures - for example those who follow the teachings of Seth (son of Adam and Eve).

Maccoby concludes that Gnosticism was the result of the spread of Jewish ideas into Greek thought by such writers as Philo, a Jewish thinker who sought to combine Greek philosophy and Judaism. These ideas acquainted Greeks with the Old Testament, and those who opposed links between Greek philosophy and Judaism then took what they had learned about Judaism and turned it around, arguing that the ultimate God, far from being the God of Israel, was in fact far higher and greater than the God of Israel.

Maccoby concludes that although Gnosticism opposed the Jewish religion, it had two characteristics which meant it was not as antisemitic as Christianity was to become. Firstly it never identified the Jews themselves with evil, only their God, so making the Jews at best duped by their God. Secondly the God of the Jews wasn't dangerous - he could never do any harm, as those higher than him could not be harmed by him.

Christianity turns this around. The God of the Jews is good, it is the Jews themselves who are evil - forever turning from God and killing his prophets. Even worse, the evil the Jews do is far from harmless, as they actively prevent the work of God, and indeed even kill God's Son.

Chapter 2 - Paul and Gnosticism

Paul identifies Satan as the "God of this world" (2 Cor 4:4), and views this world as being a place of evil. This is a concept very far from Judaism which sees the world as fundamentally a good place, created by God.

Paul argues that the Torah was given by angels, not God (Gal 3:19, Act 7:53, Heb 2:2), and indeed the phrase in Gal 3:19 is that the angels were the authors of the Torah, not simply the transmitters. This is done to justify Paul's claim that the Torah was temporary. Maccoby is particularly interesting on Colossians (p.45), where he argues against the traditional view that Paul's opponents are angel-worshipping Gnostics (as traditionally thought) but Jews who effectively worship angels because of their veneration of the Torah.

Although in 1 Cor 6:12-20 it appears that Paul is arguing against Gnostics, Maccoby argues Paul is being a moderate Gnostic against extreme Gnostics.

Chapter 3- Paul and the Mystery Religions

Maccoby argues that fundamental to the mystery religions is the God who dies and comes back again, to mystically redeem the morally hopeless condition of mankind.

Maccoby argues that Paul's moral pessimism (e.g. Rom 7:14-8:1) is alien to Judaism, where it is always claimed that God's law can be kept (e.g. Deut 30:11-14), but such pessimism is consistent with mystery religions.

Mystery religions are full of dying and rising Gods. Dionysus is torn to pieces by the Titans and brought back to life again by Rhea. Adonis is killed by a boar and raised on the third day. Baal is killed by Mot then comes back to life. Attis is dismembered and dies from his wounds then comes back to life and dances. Osiris is dismembered by Set then put together again and becomes a god. In Mithraism the bull killed by Mithras provides life through its body and blood for the whole universe.

Maccoby argues that the idea of a vicarious sacrifice is unknown in Judaism, but common in mystery religions, hence it is highly likely this is where Paul got the idea from. Maccoby also makes the connection here between Paul's view of the Jews as being the divine executioners in killing Jesus, and the fundamental anti-semitism of Christianity in making the Jews as a whole responsible for this evil act.

Chapter 4 - Paul and the Eucharist

Maccoby has two main points to make on the Eucharist. Firstly, the original sources point to Jesus making 'apocalyptic' remarks at the Passover prior to his death. Jesus states that he will not eat or drink until he comes again. The bread and wine referred to are part of the traditional Jewish meal, not the Eucharist. Maccoby argues these sources gradually became corrupted by Paul's view of the "Lord's Supper" as a mystery rite instituted by Jesus prior to his death.

Secondly Maccoby seeks to show that these original 'apocalyptic' remarks are understandable as part of traditional Judaism, whereas Paul's remarks on the Lord's Supper - with its "eat my body drink my blood" remarks - only make sense against a mystery religion background. Even the term "Lord's Supper" is common in mystery religions, and Maccoby argues the Jewish term "Eucharist" was used instead by Christians to distance the rite from the mystery religions of the same name.

What Maccoby is saying is that Paul had a vision in which he was shown that Christians need to keep the Eucharist, for by eating Christ's body and drinking his blood they will participate in his death.

The Gospel writers then tried to add this back into the gospel account. The fact that the gospels contain such discrepancies in their account of the Last Supper indicate that there was no agreement about how Paul's account of the Last Supper should be mixed with the original, historical account.

This chapter goes into a great deal of detail, as a lot of scholarship has argued against Paul creating the Last Supper, and argued that it was indeed instituted by Jesus. Maccoby takes issue with the various scholarly arguments, but his basic points remain those described here.

Chapter 5 - Paul and Pharisaism

Paul often claimed that he had been brought up a Pharisee. Maccoby argues that the evidence is against this. First he does not follow the literary style of the Pharisees. Second, he does not observe the rabbinical rules for their arguments, instead using the imprecise, rhetorical style of Hellenistic literature.

Third, he muddles his analogies which would be unthinkable for rabbinic legal thinking. Fourth he always quotes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, a Pharisee would use the original Hebrew.

Fifth his quotes from the Old Testament ignore the original context - something a Pharisee would never do. Sixth he is illogical - his conclusions do not follow from their premise, which is highly untidy by rabbinic standards. Seventh Paul often uses phrases from the Old Testament in a Greek or Gnostic context, showing he is more at home in Hellenism than the Old Testament.

Chapter 6 - The Gaston-Gager-Stendahl thesis

In recent years (in the 1970s and 1980s) a view has arisen that Paul believed in two covenants. He was to convert the Gentiles, but the Jewish Torah was sufficient for the Jews. This is known as the Gaston-Gager-Stendahl thesis. It is clear from the work of the scholars who propose this thesis that it is done in the context of better relations between Christianity and Judaism, and the attempt to make Judaism a valid religion from a Christian viewpoint.

These scholars take the various passages in which Paul appears to attack the Jewish covenant and argue that the meaning is not how it appears. For example 2 Cor 3:6-18 is actually an attack on Jewish opponents in Corinth, Gal 4:21-31 is attacking the myth that God made other covenants with the gentiles. Maccoby argues that this interpretation of the New Testament is incorrect - Paul does not believe in two covenants, only one.

Maccoby also argues that the idea that the Jewish covenant was only for the Jews is also mistaken for Judaism was highly evangelistic in Paul's time. In the first century Judaism had already converted the nation of Adiabene (the old Assyrian Empire), and a century before converted the Idumaeans.

Indeed the New Testament record itself shows Jews seeking to convert (Paul's) gentiles to Judaism, so the claim that Judaism was only concerned with the Jews and Paul was therefore able to go after the Gentiles is itself an invalid assumption.

Chapter 7 - Paul, Hellenism and Antisemitism

Maccoby argues there is a large gap between the Jewish Jesus and the Hellenistic Paul. We can see that Paul's world is one of Gnosticism and mystery religions, not that of Judaism. Paul used the terms and stories from the Old Testament, but his ideas came from Greece.

However Paul did not simply repeat the old Gnostic idea of an evil Jewish God. Instead in an act of apparent original creativity he retains the God of the Old Testament as the ultimate high God, but in so doing makes the Jews the source of evil instead of their God.

This switch had deadly consequences probably unseen by Paul in which once the Christians gained control of the state they used their power to persecute those guilty of the murder of their God. So Paul becomes responsible for Christian antisemiticism, by laying the seeds of the idea that the Jews are guilty of a great evil.

Conclusion and Comments

Obviously Maccoby is historically correct in associating Gnosticism with being hostile to Judaism, however it is possible to hold Gnostic beliefs without necessarily holding the anti-Jewish ideas, as Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels makes clear.

Maccoby's views on Paul are challenging to Christianity, but leave many questions unanswered. Given that Paul did have his background in Gnosticism and the mystery religions this in itself is not a crime, we may admire Paul for being able to combine three religions so fundamentally different: Judaism, mystery religions and Gnosticism. Paul's writings are not just a clever mixture of three religions.

They have a single vision and can be very powerful: his writings on love, his writings on spirituality, his writing against legalistic religion. The fact that his letters have had such an effect testifies to their force. Thus far we may be drawn to conclude that Paul brought three religions to a single point, and in so doing brought out the truth in each.

Yet Paul's writings also include the claim that he was a Pharisee. If Maccoby is correct, Paul was simply lying in order to gain the kudos of someone trained in scripture, with powerful legal and logical techniques. According to Maccoby Paul deliberately attempted to mimic the style and arguments of the Pharisees, so that superficially he appeared to be a Pharisee to those not closely familiar with them.

Yet this doesn't seem quite right. If Paul's main enemies were Jewish Christians, we can assume at least some were Pharisees. What would be the point of Paul claiming to be a Pharisee when in direct competition with this group? According to Maccoby it is blindingly obvious Paul is not a Pharisee, so why would he damage his credibility with the churches he so wanted to influence by continually claiming he was a trained Pharisee?

We have no evidence that Paul would have lost credibility by not being a Pharisee - after all according to the gospels (but not according to Maccoby) Jesus was not a Pharisee, indeed they were his enemies. The other leading members of the Christians do not appear to have been Pharisees either, so why would Paul run such as risk to claim he was?

Note that according to Maccoby Paul didn't even seem to be able to read Hebrew. Surely when he visited the Christian churches - and apparently he often stayed quite some time with them - they would have realized he only read Greek translations of the Old Testament. What would this do to his claim to be a trained Pharisee?

So although I am not able to produce clear arguments against Maccoby's points concerning Paul's ignorance of rabbinical techniques, Maccoby's arguments don't all fit together either.

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