Paul and Hellenism

Written by Hyam Maccoby Reviewed By Thorsten Moritz

This is a truly astonishing book. Maccoby, librarian of the London-based Jewish Leo Baeck College, sets out to provide ‘a more academic treatment’ of the issues raised in The Mythmaker. His main objective is to look at the apostle Paul from the point of view of his religious background and to establish what role the apostle played in the history of anti-Semitism. In order to do so, he distinguishes between various forms of anti-Semitism (earliest forms of Hellenistic anti-Semitism: pure hatred of the

Jews; Gnostic anti-Semitism: the Jews ‘as God’s dupes’ rather than as hated evildoers; Paul’s incipient Christian anti-Semitism; later, more fully developed, sinister Christian anti-Semitism). Paul is said by Maccoby to have assimilated the Gnostic view of Judaism and supplemented it by the Christian notion of the Jewish blindness which led them to reject the message and person of Christ. The apostle’s view that this Jewish blindness and evil was a necessary link in the history of salvation for the Gentiles is said to have provided the seed for later, full-blown anti-Semitism. It is paradoxically Paul’s refusal to dismiss the Jews from history altogether which encouraged later Christian anti-Semitism. Paul, far from being a born Jew and Pharisee himself, has primarily been influenced by Gnosticism and even the mystery religions.

As Maccoby himself affirms, his book widens yet again the gulf between Jesus the Jew and Paul the Hellenist, a gap which was first introduced in a major way by Bultmann, but which was subsequently seen to be ‘too hard to bear’ by NT scholars. Maccoby’s conclusions can aptly be described as drastic. Needless to say, he is fully aware of this and acknowledges in the preface his gratitude for having been able to debate his views with W.D. Davies and C. Rowland. Unfortunately, in the study itself Maccoby interacts only with Davies, not with Rowland.

Chapter 1 offers a general description of Gnostic anti-Semitism. Gnosticism does not in any way derive from Judaism. Instead, it reacted against Jewish missionary activities in Alexandria (Maccoby here presupposes the possibility of a Gnostic system as early as the first century bc!). Gnosticism cannot be derived from Christianity either. Whereas Gnostic anti-Semitism consisted primarily of contempt for the Jews, anti-Semitism developed into a much more sinister phenomenon only later under the influence of Christian sources. The question arises what role Paul might have played in this development.

Consequently, chapter 2 addresses specifically Paul’s relationship to Gnosticism. Here Paul is said to be a moderate Gnostic insofar as he accepted the Jewish writings as authentic utterances of the high God. To be sure, this acceptance only served to reinforce the vital negative role which the Jewish people played in the history of salvation. Paul’s view of Satan and the Torah is essentially different from anything displayed in the relevant Jewish sources (primarily the pseudepigrapha, the Qumran writings and the rabbinic literature).

Maccoby realizes that the motif of the ‘violent death of a god’ cannot be traced to Gnostic sources. Neither can it be derived from Jewish sources. Instead, chapter 3 attempts to show that Paul is at this point heavily influenced by the mystery religions. An irritating feature of Maccoby’s work at this point is his uncritical use of and weaving together of unconnected sources originating often from different centuries and milieus. This applies not only to the mystery religions, but also to rabbinic writings. Maccoby is rather more confident in tracing a large proportion of rabbinic traditions back to the first century than the vast majority of NT scholars are. It is also difficult to avoid the impression that the author is far too ready to dismiss any potential Jewish background of NT motifs (e.g. Is. 53 and Christ’s violent death) out of hand, while on the other hand being perfectly willing to assemble a suitable background for the NT from among the mass of diverse Hellenistic literature.

Chapter 4 extends the previous chapter and argues that the Christian eucharist also derives from Hellenistic mystery religions, not from the Jewish Passover festival. He attempts to cement this view by showing that the earliest account of Jesus’ alleged introduction of the eucharist is that given by Paul (1 Cor. 11), an account based on the initiation rites of the mystery religions. The gospel accounts represent various stages of secondary development. While the eucharistic language of the NT accounts may sound Jewish, the basic motifs are derived from Hellenism. To be sure, the actual historical meal held by Jesus and the disciples was Jewish, but it centred according to Maccoby purely on a Jewish apocalyptic theme. It was Paul who turned the meal into a ‘mystical eucharist’. (In a postscript of chapter 4 Maccoby mentions Jewish proselyte baptism and argues that this was ‘not regarded as a mystical initiation, but merely as a rite of passage’. But it is not at all clear on what basis he distinguishes between the alleged ‘mystical’ nature of the Christian eucharist and the ‘non-mystical’ nature of Jewish proselyte baptism. One cannot avoid the impression that Maccoby is at pains to separate neatly between what Maccoby perceives to be the ‘Hellenistic’ character of NT rites as opposed to the Jewishness of Israelite ceremonies.)

Chapter 5 aims to show that Paul’s alleged Pharisaic features are in fact highly superficial. The apostle is said to have committed elementary mistakes in his self-portrayal as a Pharisee, thus betraying his real Hellenistic heritage. He is incapable of quoting Israel’s scriptures effectively. His often faulty quotation techniques are unparalleled in the rabbinic literature. Hence, to describe Paul’s use of the OT as ‘rabbinic’ would be entirely inappropriate.

While chapters 1–5 contain precious little to endear Maccoby’s bold conclusions to NT scholars, the last chapter offers a valuable discussion and critique of the ‘Gaston-Gager-Stendahl thesis’ that Paul never forsook Judaism, but simply saw himself as the exponent of separate and additional arrangements exclusively for the Gentiles, for whom Judaism had no place. Here Maccoby trenchantly but competently exposes the ‘GGS’ thesis as highly artificial and at times self-contradictory.

It must be emphasized that despite the radical and often polemical nature of Maccoby’s treatment, the book has been very well written. While there is much in Maccoby’s study which most scholars will find unacceptable, the book is a must for Pauline scholars. Maccoby’s provocative but clear style conveys numerous fundamental challenges to present NT scholarship. His very readable book cries out for a detailed rejoinder by Pauline scholars of any theological persuasion!


Thorsten Moritz

Bethel Seminary