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 '
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-
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
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-
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-
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
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
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
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
The book of Acts then continues with the account of Saul's conversion on
the road to
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-
Paul then goes on to describe his vision of Jesus on the road to
It is from this passage that we learn of Paul's native city,
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-
My life from my youth up, the life I led from the beginning among my
people and in
Again the account continues with the vision on the road to
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-
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-
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-
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-
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
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
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
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
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
3 The first followers of Jesus, under James and Peter, founded the
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
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
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-
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-
The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, by Hyam Maccoby
ISBN: 0760707871 Publisher: Barnes & Noble Books
Format: Hardcover, 237pp Edition Description: Only From B&N Books
Pub. Date: February 1998 Edition Number: 7
Copyright © 1998, Hyam Maccoby. All rights reserved.