Paul Among the People-- Sarah Ruden

Paul Among the People is subtitled The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, and, as a fairly orthodox Catholic, I approached it with a little frisson, wondering what in the world I might encounter in this reinterpretation by a Classical Scholar and Urban Quaker.  I can report to any who care, the concern was needless. While some of Ms. Ruden's own feelings and ideas bleed through--she remains resolutely on task--interpreting Paul in his own time.

What exactly does that mean?  Well, I think many of us have a great many misconceptions about "the Glory that was Greece, the Grandeur that was Rome."  Even today, in the face of relentless historical reinterpretation, there is about the ancients a kind of veil of romanticism under which most of the worst scars and deformities are hidden.  Ms. Ruden helps to remind us of what life was really like during the time period.

She juxtaposes "problematic" portions of Paul's letters against classical sources from about the same time that reveal to us the real nature of life.  Concerned about the ambiguity of Philemon?  Ms. Ruden tells us about the life of slaves during the time.

from Paul Among the People
Sarah Ruden

The freed slave might stay part of the household and enjoy its support and protection--no small matters in that world--by taking on the status of a dependent. In this case he would be a sort of servant at large, only partly free, and if he defied his former master, he could be punished or even taken back into slavery. Pliny the Younger, of the late first and early second centuries A.D., wrote a letter of intercession for a freedman who had offended his former master. Pliny does not specify the offense--it could be nearly anything. The problem is the former master's anger, referred to five time in the short letter. . .

On the other hand, the freed slave might be completely free, with no obligation--but then the former master would not want him around at all and would never help him. A man of position gave nothing away. Anyone who got food, money, discarded clothes, or even a glance or word from him had to perform rigorous duties as a henchman. Even the freeborn poor, in Roman literature, stumble anxiously through the streets before dawn to join the other "clients" wish the "patron" good morning. He can send them on virtually any errand, including that of rubbing out somebody else's clients.

So too with Paul's strong writings against homosexuality.  When we read about the ancient world and what it accepted and what it rejected, it puts Paul's teaching on a completely different level and adds a completely new perspective.  Not that I believe that it takes away for a moment from the central horror Paul had regarding the practices--but the horror has a dimension that goes beyond Mosaic law and enters straight into the heart of love.  But you must read the book in order for that perspective to make sense.

 Oh, and perhaps of equal issue--Paul's teaching on marriage.

Paul's Jewish tradition put some equal sexual duties and restrictions on husbands and wives, but there also the aim was pregnancy: a couple had to have sex around the time the wife ovulated, and must not have sex when she could not conceive. Paul comes up with something altogether new.: husbands and wives must have sex with each other on demand, because they both need it--it's the reason they got married. According to these verses , they may need it equally. The rules for marriage treat human sexuality as a part of nature that needs expression.

History or, if you like, providence may have worked rather ironically to our benefit. Paul's main concern was to make room for celibacy, which would give his followers more freedom and a closer relationship with God; and he also sought communal order and rationality in this time of change and excitement. But nevertheless his new rules give the proper basis for marriage, the erotic one; and they also address the chief reasons marriages break down: the failure of  partners to act generously toward each other, keeping intimacy after any passion is gone; and the loss of trust, typical when men have greater freedom and smaller stake in the relationship.

The supreme serendipity is that, in founding communities that could shelter the celibate, Paul changed people's experiences of their emotions and their bodies in ways that inevitably changed marriage, though the new kind did not send down deep roots until the modern age and the end of authoritarianism that began to blight the church in the generations after Paul. But real marriage is as secure a part of the Christian charter, and as different from anything before or since, as the command to turn the other cheek.

In reading Paul against the other literature of his time, Ms. Ruden is able to bring out points that may have been hidden from us because of the glow that surrounds the Ancients. She exposes the brutality of the culture, the callousness of men of the time in their treatment of children, women, and other men; the rules and restrictions of a society which, while it gave birth to our own, is as different from our own as we are from the Xhosa or Mongolians.  What Paul discovered in all of this, what he shared with us, and what Ms. Ruden discovers and shares, is that Paul enunciated in some ways what it means to be human--what it means to strip away all of the differences that mark us, all of the insignificant variances and get down to the core of the human experience.

Add all of that to the fact that Ms. Ruden translates most of the ancient texts herself with a liveliness, vivacity, and verve that really adds punch to the reading, and you have a transformative reading of Paul, one that should add to one's appreciation of the great, if sometimes curmudgeonly saint.

Highly recommended *****

Later: Another review of same


  1. I also really liked this book. Glad to see this very good review of it!


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