Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. Sarah Ruden. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010.
For Christians adhering to the “Great Tradition” expressed through a divinely inspired Bible and summarized in the ecumenical creeds, the Apostle Paul hardly needs an apologist. For such Christians, Paul is regarded as an example of the depth of God’s redemptive power in Christ and also as a proclaimer extraordinaire of the truth.
However, for educated secularists of the post-modern world, Paul stands very much in need of an apologist, for to their ears Paul is without question intolerant, homophobic, misogynistic, and a sustainer of injustice (acceding to the status quo of slavery). For such modern readers, if not for Jesus, Paul is beyond redemption.
Sarah Ruden (Ph.D. in classical philology from Harvard; M.A. from Johns Hopkins; undergrad at the University of Michigan; see www.sarahruden.com), having applied her trade as a Classics scholar to the Pauline epistles, found herself in the unlikely position of becoming just such an apologist. She is not herself a defender of “all things Paul.” She openly critiques him: he’s a man with anger issues (pp. 5, 126, 171) who suffers from self-righteousness and anxiety (p. 5). With most scholars in the academy today, she rejects Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles: 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians (p. xv). Divine inspiration is not a matter of consideration.
However, Ruden does take sharp issue with a type of approach to Paul that isolates a handful of his texts on controversial matters and then adjudicates them through a 21st century interpretive lens as alien to the world of advanced thinking. Through her immersion into the Greco-Roman world Ruden writes to restore a reading of Paul within his own time. As such, she writes not to an audience already convinced of Paul’s veracity, but to that audience of educated secularists fully convinced of Paul’s barbarity.
In seven chapters Ruden deals with Pauline positions that are regarded by contemporary culture as severely wanting. In each chapter Ruden draws on Greek and Roman writings as the baseline of the thought-world of ancient polytheism against which Paul was taking a radical stand in the proclamation of the Gospel. In each chapter Ruden makes the argument that Paul was elevating the value and dignity of every human in light of the cosmic redeeming work of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection.
In Chapters 1 and 2 she argues against reading Paul as a puritanical prude. Ruden explores the vice/virtue lists (particularly Galatians 5) to demonstrate why these particular vices are so offensive, chiefly because they break down communities and lead individuals to treat others in a dehumanized fashion. In contrast to giving in to every urge of self-fulfillment, Paul holds up crucifixion: “This is what Christ did to save humankind from death…. Christ stopped at nothing in showing his love for humankind. On his example, people must stop at nothing in showing love for one another. They must eliminate, at any cost, the selfishness that divides them” (p. 41). Paul isn’t against “fun,” but he is for what strengthens the treatment of others as fully human. Ruden asks, “How did I ever accept the fairy tale of the apostle walking into communities of happy pagans, at peace with nature and their bodies, and shutting down the Maypole dances…? Instead, he sacrificed his home, his health, his peace of mind, and eventually his life for the sake of the Greeks and the Romans…. He must have helplessly, sufferingly loved them” (pp. 43-44).
In Chapter 3 Ruden addresses the issue of homosexuality. She takes issue with the approach of Boswell and others, namely, that Paul in Romans 1 says nothing about homosexual persons, but writes about heterosexuals doing homosexual acts (pp. 46-47). From her study of the Greco-Roman world, she rejects any notion that projects modern gay culture back into antiquity: “There were no gay households; there were in fact no gay institutions or gay culture at all, in the sense of times or places in which it was mutually safe for men to have anal sex with one another” (p. 49). “While Paul may seem to mention lesbianism, this was such a rare or little-noticed phenomenon in the ancient world that it is likely he instead means anal penetration of women by men” (p. 54). In Ruden’s study of antiquity, and the evidence of contemporary authors she presents in the chapter, all male homosexual activity was an act of dehumanization perpetrated by the penetrator against the passive recipient. Ruden concludes, “Christ, the only Son of God, gave his body to save mankind. What greater contrast could there be to the tradition of using a weaker body for selfish pleasure or a power trip?” (p. 71). She notes that Paul “challenges centuries of execrable practice in seeking a more just, more loving society,” and for his trouble he gets labeled a bigot (p. 71).
Chapter 4, the longest in the book, is on Paul and women. Ruden rejects the view of Paul as a misogynist; instead she sees Paul vying for an “outrageous equality” among the sexes (p. 87). Ruden explores the Pauline requirement that women wear head coverings, and she sees Paul’s rule as applying not just to wives, but to all women in the Christian gathering, such that not merely the wives were to be treated with honor and respect (indicated by the head covering), but so too were the single women of the church (not typically wearing head coverings in that culture), including also female slaves and prostitutes who would have been dismissed as dishonorable by the culture (not having allowance within the culture to wear a head covering). For women in worship not to have a head covering would have been distracting to the men and stigmatizing to the women, and thus Paul’s rule should be seen as “protective rather than chauvinistic” (p. 88). In writing that a wife’s body is not her own but her husband’s, there was nothing exceptional culturally, but in writing that the husband’s body is not his own but his wife’s (1 Corinthans 7:4) Paul is elevating the role of a wife from that of sexual servant to a full partner in a marriage relationship (p. 101). Paul was teaching men and women “to love each other selflessly rather than take each other for granted as providers and breeders” (pp. 117-118).
Chapter 5 takes up Paul’s attitude toward governmental authority, which we will bypass in this review. Chapter 6 addresses Paul’s apparent acquiescence to the evil of slavery in Philemon. Ruden provides contemporary Greco-Roman material on the status of a slave (the equivalent of an animal), and how a runaway slave had forfeited even what little status a slave could be said to possess. In returning the runaway Onesimus to Philemon, Paul was asking more from Philemon than simple emancipation: “Paul had a much more ambitious plan than making Onesimus legally free. He wanted to make him into a human being, and he had a paradigm. As God chose and loved and guided the Israelites [slaves in Egypt], he had now chosen and loved … everyone. The grace of God could make what was subhuman into what was more than human” (p. 160). “God alone has the power to make a runaway slave a son and brother, and in fact to make any mess work out for the good—not that anyone knows how, but it doesn’t matter. Philemon has only to surrender to the grace, peace, love, and faith the letter urges, and the miracle will happen” (p. 167).
Chapter 7 considers Paul’s teaching on love in 1 Corinthians 13. This chapter is not as fully developed as the others, but it is still insightful. Of Paul’s description of what love does and does not do in 13:4-8, Ruden writes, “Love is something outside of himself, but really more like a someone, since it does so many things and has so many human characteristics” (p. 179). She concludes, “My sin feels infinite, but the love of God is infinite both within me and outside me, going in every imaginable direction, like the light of the sun compared to the beam of a laser pointer with which I play with the cat” (p. 187).
The book is not without its flaws. Ruden often writes in a breezy style that gives way to hyperbole: In Philemon Paul creates the Western individual human being (p. xix); no one lined up Paul’s letters and Greco-Roman literature in a systematic way before Ruden (p. 6); the Greek and Latin languages are possessed of an “ethical poverty” (p. 15); Romans 1:24-27 on homosexuality is the “single most fiercely debated” of his writings (p. 45). There are also curiosities: Ruden’s use of original spellings of the KJV in chapter 2; her notion that presenting 1 Corinthians 13 in English without word division would simulate the same effect as when Paul wrote the material in Greek (p. 180); her position that Onesimus could not have been the man mentioned as bishop of Ephesus because as a runaway slave he would not have been accepted in that position—contrary to her entire point in the chapter! (p. 160). Readers who are well-versed in Pauline studies will find other elements in the book meriting penalty flags.
In conclusion, this would not be the first book on Paul to recommend if one wanted to understand his writings within his context. However, as a book that serves well as an apology to the modern secularist by taking up the evidence of Paul’s own day and seeing how Paul was, far from barbarous, actually progressive and enlightened, Ruden’s work is worth consideration. A final note for readers: the undersigned feels that the “Note on My Use of Sources” appended to the end (pp. 189ff.) should actually be read first so as to acquaint the reader with Ruden’s approach and offer an explanation for some of her stylistic whimsy.