Hyam Zoundell Maccoby, biblical scholar and teacher: born Sunderland, Co Durham 20 March 1924; Scholar Librarian, Leo Baeck College 1975-95; Visiting Professor, Centre for Jewish Studies, Leeds University 1998-99, Research Professor 1999-2004; married 1950 Cynthia Davies (one son, two daughters); died Leeds 2 May 2004.
When Hyam Maccoby approved Toyah Wilcox for his 1986 television play The Disputation, he clearly added to his reputation as a serious, objective scholar.
His brilliant study Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian disputations in the Middle Ages had been published in 1982. The play (later a stage play, of which one critic wrote in 2001 on its London showing that it was "spellbinding" and "a rare reminder that learning is one of the pleasures of theatregoing") presents the encounter in Barcelona in 1263 between Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman and Pablo Christiani, a Jewish convert to Christianity, and centres upon the Jewish and Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah.
Maccoby's book, never mind the play, was considered as "too partisan" by some critics. In reply, Maccoby noted that "scholars who lean over backwards to demonstrate their objectivity fall into the pit of negative partisanship".
As the stormy petrel of biblical and post-biblical scholarship, Maccoby could never be accused of this. His books on Jesus and Paul, backed up with the full knowledge of all the sources, were certain to cause controversy. Yet he was one of a school of Jewish experts in New Testament studies - others being Geza Vermes, Samuel Sandmel and Joseph Klausner - all of whom had to be treated with respect.
In contrast to his writings, his quiet kindness and concern for others made him an outstanding teacher and colleague, even though occasional outbursts of temper were part of his character. He always had time for the students and teachers of the Leo Baeck College, in London, where he did much of his work.
Born in 1924 in Sunderland, Maccoby was educated at Bede Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he initially read Classics, changing to English after war service from 1942 to 1946 in the Royal Signals at Bletchley. Later he received an honorary PhD from the Open University. For much of his teaching life he taught English to sixth-formers, but retired early. This did not prevent him from writing a brilliant analysis of T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitic outbursts (for Midstream in 1973), which also caused controversy.
When he came to us at the Leo Baeck College, we only had a vacancy for a librarian. Quietly, he turned to new studies, and soon presented himself as a qualified librarian. When we moved to a new building, Maccoby's work in setting up our library was a notable achievement. Soon, he became an essential member of the teaching staff as well, specialising in the intertestamental period but also teaching rabbinic texts. He was our librarian for 19 years, praised as "a formidable teacher" by the Principal, Professor Jonathan Magonet.
After becoming an Emeritus Fellow of the college, he moved to Leeds, where he became a Professor at the Centre for Jewish Studies at Leeds University. At the same time he was an adviser to the Department of Jewish Studies at Shandong University in China.
Throughout his teaching life, Maccoby not only published key studies in his fields, but was also active in writing and working for the media, with significant pieces in The Independent and elsewhere. His frequent appearances on television, mainly on talk shows, kept him in the public eye. He was a participant in the 1993 Sorry, Judas production by Howard Jacobson - inspired by Maccoby's book Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (1992, winner of the Wingate Prize) - but felt betrayed and used by the editing. He also wrote a searching criticism of Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 television series Jesus of Nazareth; and his comments on current issues were welcomed both by readers and listeners.
There are two areas of Maccoby's scholarship which enter into the current Jewish-Christian dialogue. His study of Paul, The Mythmaker: Paul and the invention of Christianity (1986), challenges his Jewish colleagues (notably Sam Sandmel's The Genius of Paul, 1958) as well as many Christian scholars. In it, Maccoby presents a highly critical view of Paul's life and teachings, claiming that Pauline Christian theology was created out of a synthesis of mystery religion, gnosticism and Judaism. Maccoby showed that basic teachings of Jesus's original followers survived the destruction of 70 CE within the Christian Ebionite sect until they disappeared in the fourth century.
Maccoby's Jewish approach to Jesus is summarised in Revolution in Judaea: Jesus and the Jewish resistance (1973). There he portrays an environment which makes it totally credible that Jesus, the Pharisee, led a resistance movement against Rome and the Sadducaean priests in the hope of the coming Kingdom of God: he was executed by Pontius Pilate for his actions in which the Romans recognised a "King of the Jews". "Jesus," writes Maccoby,
was a good man who fell among Gentiles. That is to say, he fell among those who did not understand that to turn him into a god was to diminish him. He tried to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, and he failed; but the meaning of his life is in the attempt, not
in the failure. As a Jew, he fought not against some metaphysical evil but against Rome.
If this is unpalatable to many Christian theologians today, it must be noted that Maccoby here saves the historical structure which cannot be ignored. The wild inaccuracies of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ live totally within a fundamentalist theology which ignores history. Maccoby's depiction of Jesus the Jew restores the authenticity of the historical quest, and one must be grateful for this.
Shortly before his death, Maccoby completed his last book, Antisemitism and Modernity.
Albert H. Friedlander