Paul Among the People

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his Own Time
© 2010 Sarah Ruden
240 pages

Although liberal Quaker Sarah Ruden had heard criticisms of Paul all her life,  after becoming familiar with the culture of the Greco-Roman world through a career in translating classical works into contemporary English, she realized there was something missing in most people’s approach to Paul. They took no consideration of the culture in which he wrote,    not realizing that his criticisms of particular issues were deeply countercultural, even subversive,  in his time.  Ruden writes not as a theologian or an apologist (though she does seem to be fond of Paul despite his irritability and does-not-play-well-with-others qualities), but as a classicist who sees in Paul’s writings a markedly different appraisal and hope for humanity than in his contemporaries.  

It’s very easy for contemporary readers to take cheap shots at those who have gone before us, because they have values we don’t, so I appreciate Ruden taking Paul in his context seriously.    Most chapters in here open a door into the Greco-Roman world,   often a violent and abusive place. Take Paul’s condemnation of ‘revels’, for instance: a contemporary reader might harrumph that Paul is the quintessential stick in the mud,  a proto-Puritan who hates parties,   without realizing that the specific word he used referred to a custom of drunk young men going out wandering the streets and stirring  up trouble,  creating a literal orgy of violence as they robbed, raped, and even kidnapped those in their way.  His condemnation of homosexuality, too,  doesn’t refer to homosexuality as we know it, because current views of fixed orientations didn’t exist:    what was rife was the sexual abuse of social inferiors, especially young boys, by men who wanted to prove their standing –   and so fiercely did the Romans look down on the passive partners in these liaisons, forced or not, that men often raped other men to prove the rapists’ manliness.  Paul turned tables by attacking the instigators.  In another vein, Paul’s fashion advice to women on wearing veils within church reads more differently when one appreciates that appropriate clothing for women varied widely on class and standing:   wearing a head covering was considered a marker of high status, reserved for wives and widows, and women  who didn’t wear such coverings were either suspiciously unmarried,  adulterers,  or associated with prostitution. Paul’s admonition was a call for women to conduct themselves with dignity, as beloved children of God, even if the secular world forbade them that dignity because of their economic class or past misdeeds. 

Paul Among the People is of general interest, in part because it draws so much on Greco-Roman plays, oratory, and letters, creating a picture of the classical world in the midst of upheaval from within, both by the still-emerging empire and the new force of Christianity. I’ve never read another appraisal of Paul, so I don’t know how Ruden’s analysis of certain topics like secular authority compares against them, but I enjoyed her insight into the culture at the time. Paul’s under-the-belt punches at Roman society remind me of Jesus’ own rebukes — as when he condemns not only actions, but the spirit of said actions, the habits of mind that lead to vicious behavior. I’ll definitely be reading more of Ruden, as she has translations of The Aeneid and Augustine’s Confessions.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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2 Responses to Paul Among the People

  1. This sounds fascinating. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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