Sunday, July 05, 2009

Worst Book Review Ever. . .

Recently Michael Bird wrote about his soon to be published new book, Are You the One Who Is To Come? (Baker Academic), which I am eagerly looking forward to having on my shelf. It will be a must-read for any scholar doing work on the historical Jesus.

Michael writes,
"But now comes the hard bit, praying that my new baby doesn't get bullied in the book reviews!"

Shortly after reading this I discovered what has to be one of the most devastating book reviews ever.

Let me give you some context.

Last week I was working on the authenticity of the Last Supper. One key article disputing the historicity of the Eucharistic words appeared in a rather prestigious academic journal, New Testament Studies. The article was written by Hyam Maccoby and is entitled “Paul and the Eucharist” [NTS 37 (1991): 260–62].

The article resurrects the old theory from the history of religions school that the Eucharistic words were introduced to the Church by Paul, who formulated the words "This is my body. . . This is my blood. . . " using language from the pagan mystery-cults.

The article was not persuasive to me in the least. For one thing, Maccoby (like all those who appeal to mystery-cults) can furnish very little evidence from Paul's day showing that the Eucharist resembled these pagan practices. Practically all of the information we have about such rites come from a later period.

However, I thought I ought to give Maccoby a fair hearing, after all the journal article format is limited. So I went to check out Maccoby's larger book, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (New York: Harper and Row, 1986). Essentially, Maccoby argues here that Paul, not Jesus, should be seen as the primary founder of Christianity. However, the book was even less persuasive than the article. In fact, in the book he asserts that "Lord's Supper" was terminology which was taken directly from the mystery cults. How he knows this he never says. He simply states it without offering any support. Indeed, I set out to research the issue and I could find absolutely no support to support this.

Perhaps that's why he left that claim out of his later journal article on the topic.

So I wondered: Am I just missing the boat here? Is this guy offering really compelling arguments that I'm missing?

Then I read the book reviews. In particular, the review written by John Gager was, well, direct:
“There is a grave, if largely unrecognized, danger in all new departures, for they can take us in either of two directions―forward or backward. This book, I fear, moves us backward in virtually every area. Maccoby’s treatment reads like a (surely unintentional) summary of nineteenth century polemical-apologetic ‘scholarship’ of a liberal Christian variety: Jesus against Paul; Paul as the second (and real) founder of Christianity; Paul as the opponent and falsifier of Judaism; the predominance of influence from Hellenistic mystery cults on Pauline thought. Still, the book might have been redeemed with an ever so slight shift in its self-description. If, instead of representing it as a work of historical scholarship, the author had described it as a piece of historical romance. . . we might have been able to enjoy it as fiction.” [John G. Gager, review of H. Maccoby, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, JQR, 79/2-3 (1988-1989): 248 [248-250]:

Phew! Tell us what you really think!

Michael Bird I think can rest easy. He'll never get a review like this.


Jim said...

the most devastating reviewer of all time was james barr. a review by him could cripple.

Bjørn Are said...

BTW, A.N. Wilson swallowed this argument, hook and crook, in his book on Paul.

Hopefully he has repented now, after his return to faith;-)

Jorwed said...

I nominate as worst book review of all time, Shaye Cohen on Neusner, 'Are There Really Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels?'. I quote: '"This book is a disgrace to its author and a disgrace to its publisher. The scholarship is shoddy, the writing repetitious, the tone vituperative, and the argumentation flawed."

Bjørn Are said...

The worst review I've read was of a really bad reprint of a Carl Barks comic book (wrong colours, wrong layout, missing panels...).

The review was in three words only:
"It burnt well".

VD said...

Speaking of horrible books, I have another one to meantion which doesn't talk about Jesus -- or the Faith -- very well. You see, I did a book review once on my previous blog (which I deleted) about "The Everything Book of Catholicism" by Helen Keeler and Susan Grimbly -- you know, from the series of green-spined "Everything" books. Anyway, once I bought it, I started to read it, only to find out that it didn't support the late JPII, had a section of unorthodox groups (e.g. We Are Church, Womenpriests, etc.) which had ambivalent wording, and which was liberally biased especially at the end of the book. Plus, they didn't even list their sources in a formal bibliography -- and included hearsay! Not a very good introductory book for the Faith -- as is this one you're talking about. I just hope that the more we keep talking about the books which claim to be "Catholic" and "authoritative", the better they will realize their error and go off the market.

Loren Rosson III said...

These are all good examples, but I think my favorite scathing review is the one by the late Anthony Saldarini for Robert Eisenman's preposterous James the Brother of Jesus. Read here and enjoy.

Loren Rosson III said...

Or alternatively, do a google search for "anthony saldarini james the brother of jesus", and then click on the third result down called "Freedom Fighters", and you shouldn't have to log in as a NY Times subscriber.

Carl E. Olson said...

Maccoby's stuff is horrible. I'm a bit surprised it would be published in any journal of even mediocre reputation.

Unknown said...

Maccoby is ridiculous. Olson is right. I can't believe this was written in NTS as late as 1991.