Paul's Bungling Attempt
At Sounding Pharisaic
excerpt from: The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity
by Hyam Maccoby


Some passages in Paul's Epistles have been thought to be typically Pharisaic simply because their argument has a legalistic air. When these passages are critically examined, however, the superficiality of the legal colouring soon appears, and it is apparent that the use of illustrations from law is merely a vague, rhetorical device, without any real legal precision, such as is found in the Pharisaic writings even when the legal style is used for homiletic biblical exegesis. An example from Romans is the following:

The above passage is remarkably muddle-headed. Paul is trying to compare the abrogation of the Torah and the advent of the new covenant of Christianity with a second marriage contracted by a widow. But he is unable to keep clear in his mind who it is that corresponds to the wife and who to the husband -- or even who is supposed to have died, the husband or the wife. It seems that the correspondence intended is the following: the wife is the Church; the former husband is the Torah, and the new husband is Christ. Paul tells us that a wife is released by the death of her husband to marry a new husband; this should read, therefore, in the comparison, that the Church was freed, by the death of the Torah, to marry Christ. Instead, it is the wife-Church that dies ('you, my friends, have died to the law by becoming identified with the body of Christ') and there is even some play with the idea that the new husband, Christ, has died. The only term in the comparison that is not mentioned as having died is the Torah; yet this is the only thing that would make the comparison valid.

On the other hand, there is also present in the passage an entirely different idea: that a person becomes free of legal obligations after his or her own death. This indeed seems to be the theme first announced: 'that a person is subject to the law so long as he is alive, and no longer.' The theme of the widow being free to marry after the death of her first husband is quite incompatible with this; yet Paul confuses the two themes throughout -- so much so that at one point he even seems to be talking about a widow and a husband who are free to marry each other and have acceptable children because both widow and new husband are dead. Confusion cannot be worse confounded than this.

Thus what we have here is a case of someone trying to construct a legal analogy and failing miserably because of his inability to think in the logical manner one expects of a legal expert. The passage thus does not prove that Paul had Pharisee training -- just the contrary. What we can say, however, is that Paul is here trying to sound like a trained Pharisee. He announces in a somewhat portentous way that what he is going to say will be understood only by those who 'have some knowledge of law', and he is clearly intending to display legal expertise. It is only natural that Paul, having claimed so often to have been trained as a Pharisee, should occasionally attempt to play the part, especially when speaking or writing for people who would not be able to detect any shortcomings in his performance. In the event, he has produced a ludicrous travesty of Pharisee thinking. In the whole of Pharisee literature, there is nothing to parallel such an exhibition of lame reasoning.

What Paul is saying, in a general way, is that death dissolves legal ties. Therefore, the death of Jesus and the symbolic death of members of the Church by identifying themselves with Jesus' sacrifice all contribute to a loosening of ties with the old covenant. This general theme is clear enough; it is only when Paul tries to work out a kind of legal conceit or parable, based on the law of marriage and remarriage, that he ties himself in knots. Thus he loses cogency just where a Pharisee training, if he had ever had one, would have asserted itself; once more, he is shown to have the rhetorical style of the Hellenistic preachers of popular Stoicism, not the terse logic of the rabbis.