Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Problem of Paul - - a response

This is my very brief comment on Hyam Maccoby's book, The Mythmaker: Paul and the invention of Christianity, excerpt as posted in Facebook.

The late Hyam Maccoby (1924-2004) believes the apostle Paul was not a Pharisee. In fact, he states, in his book The fact that this question is hardly ever asked shows how strong the influence of traditional religious attitudes still is in Pauline studies. Truth is this is not a particular point of contention among believers. However, I would like to bring out out these three points from his argument and invite anyone who adheres to his argument to respond. I would like to look at 1) His handling of some of his sources, 2) his advocacy for the Pharisees, and 3) why it is no small matter for Mr. Maccoby to understand or accept the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.

Mr. Maccoby's sources, in the excerpt from his book, include the book of Acts and some (except Colossians) of Paul's letters in the New Testament Bible and the testimony of the Ebionites. Although he touches briefly on other sources these represent his major focus. These also represent some serious oversights, errors, inconsistencies and peculiarities by Mr. Maccoby.

I need to emphasize the article is merely a twelve page excerpt from Maccoby's book. However, those oversights and errors in the article seem fair indicators of the makeup of his book, especially because although he has opportunity to correct or modify his comments he does not do so. Take the time to read the excerpt, as I did several times, before rushing to comment either on his excerpt or my comments. His book is on my must-read list to obtain through my local library.

As early as page two Mr. Maccoby makes the statement as he ventures into the New Testament as one of his sources and declares, Peter, James and John, have left no writings behind them explaining how Jesus seemed to them. Did he not know, did he forget or did he choose to ignore two letters written by Peter and three letters, a gospel account and the book of Revelation by John? I can't be sure whether he means James, the brother of Jesus according to the flesh, or the apostle. Between Paul's own letters and Luke's account of Paul in Acts Mr. Maccoby sees Paul as making claims his visions and transports were actually superior to the other apostles' acquaintance with Jesus during his lifetime. The instances in Acts 9 & 22 cited by Mr. Maccoby, make mention of the vision, but readers can judge for themselves if there is an emphasis or much less a boast by Paul about the vision when Jesus appeared to him.

The second matter which underlines Mr. Maccoby's approach to Paul clashes with his overall view to position the Pharisees in the best light. I am not interested in Mr. Maccoby's personal regard or view of the Pharisees or Pharisaism, but it is his own contradiction on this point.

Information given by a person about himself, Mr. Maccoby claims, always has to be treated with a certain reserve, since everyone has strong motives for putting himself in the best possible light. I agree, and yet, although Mr. Maccoby sees Pau's Pharisee claims as being for the purpose of enhancing his status it makes no sense and backfires on him. Why would Paul portray himself as a Pharisee, whom Mr. Maccoby states were highly esteemed at the time, who persecuted and killed Christians? On one hand Mr. Maccoby attributes the claim by Paul in Acts 22 of being a Pharisee as being Luke's embellishment for his hero Paul. Yet, when Paul does mention his past as a Pharisee in his own letters Mr. Maccoby dismisses it. However, it is these incidental claims by Paul which have a dismantling effect on Mr. Maccoby's charge against Paul because Paul makes no effort to gloss over his lowly Tarsus origins nor does he engage in any embellishment of Pharisees or Pharisaism. Paul does not speak favorably of himself as a Pharisee which, as Mr. Maccoby expects, one would definitely do if they were speaking for themselves and wanted to highten their esteem among men.

It is this matter of the esteem of the Pharisees which underpins Mr. Maccoby's entire scrutiny of Paul. It is also what casts a shadow and serious doubt on his criticism of Paul. He takes great exception, better yet, is incensed, at the scathing of Pharisees as hipocrites by Jesus according to the New Testament gospel writers. He rejects the allegation of hipocrisy by the Pharisees and wonders how the book of Acts, describes the Pharisees as being friendly towards the early Christians, standing up for them and saving their lives? Really?

This assessment of the Pharisees as friendly, standing up and saving the lives of the disciples is oblivious and a stretch given the earlier threat they handed the disciples in Acts 3. At that first clash the disciples were taken into custody by the priests, the captain of the temple and the Sadducees and were merely threatened. In the second clash which Mr. Maccoby cites as his example of the Pharisees' friendliness the friction escalated into a beating. The friction would soon escalate into the death of the first Christian martyr at the hands of a Pharisee by the name of Saul of Tarsus.

It's not difficult to understand Mr. Maccoby's view of Paul and what Paul and Christians testify as being the work of God. He is at as much of a loss with the deity claims by Jesus and the apostle Paul. He is not alone in this struggle to understand and accept the work of a God who does not act as humans think or expect that He ought to act. He goes as far as to state Jesus taught in the style and manner of the Pharisees and was indeed a Pharisee and that the apostles were Pharisees too. As much as this is a stretch it does not pose a problem. Jesus did admonition his disciples to “DO” as the Pharisees “SAY”, but NOT to DO as they DO.

No wonder that Mr. Maccoby cannot fathom how Saul, a persecutor of Christians, became such a messenger for the Good News of the love of Jesus. It is called repentance. It is called conversion. It is called the new birth with neither conversion nor the new birth being a part of the Jewish mindset. All Jews were born, according to the flesh, as children of God. The prevailing mindset was that although a Jew sinned he was not a sinner as all other people of the world.

God did not call a strong, notable leader from among the suffering tribes of Israel when they were in Eygpt as the Hebrews might have thought or expected. He called Moses, a Hebrew, but he was one who had grown up in the home and comforts of Israel's oppressor. He did not call, with Isaiah being a noteable exception, distinguished individuals in Israel to proclaim the will of the Lord to an apostate Israel. Even Israel was often reminded by God, much to their loathe, through his prophets, that He had not chosen them because of any righteousness or anything pleasing about them, but because of his covenant with Abraham.

Certainly, what Israel thought and expected as a messiah was not what they saw in Jesus. No surprise.

Blessings to you in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

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