Maccoby's theories of the historical Jesus
Maccoby considered the portrayal of Jesus given in the canonical Gospels and the history of the early Church from the Book of Acts to be heavily distorted and full of later mythical traditions, but claimed that a fairly accurate historical account of the life of Jesus could be reconstructed from them nevertheless.
Maccoby argued that the real Jesus was not a rebel against the Jewish law, but instead a Jewish Messianic claimant whose life and teaching were within the mainstream of first-century Judaism. He believed that Jesus was executed as a rebel against the Roman occupation of Judaea. However, he did not claim that Jesus was the leader of an actual armed rebellion. Rather, Jesus and his followers, inspired by the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament prophetic writings, were expecting a supernatural divine intervention that would end the Roman rule, restore the Davidic Kingdom with Jesus as the divinely anointed monarch, and inaugurate the Messianic age of peace and prosperity for the whole world. These expectations were not fulfilled and Jesus was arrested and executed by the Romans.
However, many of the disciples of Jesus did not lose their hopes, believing that Jesus would soon be miraculously resurrected by God, and continued to live in expectation of his second coming. Their fellowship continued to exist in Jerusalem, as a strictly orthodox Jewish sect under the leadership of James the Just. According to Maccoby, the founding of Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism was entirely the work of Paul of Tarsus.
Maccoby claimed that Paul was a Hellenized Jewish convert or perhaps even a Gentile, coming from a background exposed to the influence of Gnosticism and the pagan mystery religions such as the Attis cult, a myth involving a life-death-rebirth deity. The mystery religions, according to Maccoby, were the dominant religious forms in the Hellenistic world of that age and so, would have strongly influenced Paul's mythological psychology. Maccoby partially derived this theory from fragments of the writings of opponents of Ebionites, particularly in the treatise on Heresies by Epiphanius of Salamis.
Maccoby considered Paul's claims to an orthodox Pharisaic Jewish education to be false, asserting that while many of Paul's writings sound authentic to the uninitiated, they actually betray an ignorance of the original Hebrew scripture and the subtleties of Jewish Law. Maccoby claimed that an examination of the New Testament indicates that Paul knew no Hebrew at all, and relied entirely on Greek texts that no actual Pharisee would ever use because they were not properly translated.
According to Maccoby, Paul fused the historical story of Jesus' crucifixion with elements of contemporary mystery religions and Gnosticism, developing such new non-Judaic mythic ideas as the Trinity and the Last Supper. Paul also made an attempt to find prophetic justification for his newly created myth in the Old Testament. Paul came to present Jesus as a dying and rising savior deity similar to those from the Hellenistic mystery cults, fused with the historical pedigree of Judaism, thus giving birth to a powerful new myth whose preaching gained him a large following. As the Jerusalem group of the original disciples of Jesus gradually became aware of Paul's teachings, bitter hostility ensued between them.
Maccoby interpreted certain New Testament passages (for example Paul's account of his quarrel with Peter in the Epistle to Galatians) as remnants of authentic accounts of this hostility. However, the Roman-Jewish War of 66-70 CE soon brought a violent end to the Jerusalem sect, and the Gentile Church founded by Paul emerged as the winner by default. Maccoby viewed the Book of Acts as a later attempt by the Pauline Church to present the relations between Paul and the Jerusalem disciples as harmonious, thus presenting the Pauline Church as legitimized by the chain of apostolic succession reaching back to the original disciples of Jesus. Maccoby also conjectured that the Jewish-Christian sect of Ebionites may have been an authentic offshoot of the original Jerusalem community.
Maccoby focused his work on tracing the roots of anti-Semitism back to an early-Christian origin, and on disassociating Christianity from a truly Jewish background. Maccoby placed the blame for the death of Jesus on the Roman authorities and their Jewish collaborators from the Sadducee party, who controlled the Temple, its funds, and its police. He considered the Gospel accounts of the hostility between Jesus and the Pharisees as an invention of the Pauline Church, and argued that Jesus himself subscribed to Pharisaic Judaism as revealed in such texts as the Sermon on the Mount.
Religion and History
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