Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimaged in His Own Time

It is a common—and fundamental—misconception that Paul told people how to live. Apart from forbidding certain abusive practices, he never gives any precise instructions for living. It would have violated his two main social principles: human freedom and dignity, and the need for people to love one another.

Paul, regarded by Christians as the greatest interpreter of Jesus’ mission, was the first person to explain how Christ’s life and death fit into the larger scheme of salvation, from the creation of Adam to the end of time. Preaching spiritual equality and God’s infinite love, he crusaded for the Jewish Messiah to be accepted as the friend and deliverer of all humankind.

In Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden explores the meanings of his words and shows how they might have affected readers in his own time and culture. She describes as well how his writings represented the new church as an alternative to old ways of thinking, feeling, and living.

Ruden translates passages from ancient Greek and Roman literature, from Aristophanes to Seneca, setting them beside famous and controversial passages of Paul and their key modern interpretations. She writes about Augustine; about George Bernard Shaw’s misguided notion of Paul as “the eternal enemy of Women”; and about the misuse of Paul in the English Puritan Richard Baxter’s strictures against “flesh-pleasing.” Ruden makes clear that Paul’s ethics, in contrast to later distortions, were humane, open, and responsible.

Paul Among the People is a remarkable work of scholarship, synthesis, and understanding; a revelation of the founder of Christianity.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimaged in His Own Time

  1. Review

    Paul of Tarsus has always been a controversial character in the history of Christianity.  He has made statements on women, slavery, homosexuality and other topics that many Progressive Christians have abhorred.  Sarah Ruden in her book, Paul Among the People, attempts to place a number of the more controversial issues attributed to Paul into the Greco-Roman context in which he lived. By using other literature written during the Greco-Roman period Ruden attempts to explain what Paul meant.  This is one of a number of books in which Progressive Christians have attempted to reclaim Paul’s teachings and show that Paul was not as conservative as we generally believe.

     

    An interesting note is that 110 pages of the 187 pages of the book deal at least in part with sexual behavior.  These are the sections of the book dealing with Paul’s positions on partying, homosexuality and women.  From Ruden’s perspective, these are the most important or at least the most controversial positions that Paul took.  She also deals with slavery, the state and the new community.  In all cases she finds that after placing Paul’s writings in the context of the other Greco-Roman literature, the meaning of his writing is significantly different than we had previously thought.

     

    Looking at the prohibition on enjoying oneself, it has been historically thought that this meant Paul believed that we should not enjoy ourselves because that separated us from God.  In Galatians Chapter 5, Paul presents a whole list of behaviors that will prevent people from entering the Kingdom of Heaven.  Ruden, after reviewing other Greco-Roman literature suggests that this chapter is saying something quite different.  For example, she argues that adultery was not just sex between a married person and another person, but specifically sex between a married woman and a male who is not her husband.  Historically, it has been viewed that this prohibition of adultery separated Christians from the rest of Greco-Roman culture.   After reviewing other literature of the period, she concludes that this anti-adultery position was the norm of society and not in opposition to it

     

    Another controversial topic is homosexuality.  Many people argue that Paul was opposed to homosexuality.  Ruden argues that what Paul opposed was the use of young boys as partners for older men.  He was opposing a highly exploitive sexual relationship between men and boys, usually of different social classes, and not homosexuality per se.  This theme that Paul’s positions were more equalitarian than many scholars have argued in the past runs through many chapters of the book. 

     

    The one argument that seems to be a real stretch is her discussion of slavery.  She begins by saying that there is no doubt that Paul states that slavery is nothing and slaves should just get on with their religious life.  Paul argues for forgiveness of a male slave who ran away and became a Christian.   In his letter to the owner, he asks that the slave be forgiven and not punished.  Ruden argues that request was a radical move, with which I agree.  But, unlike many of the other situations, this only affected that one individual slave and not something applied to all slaves.  Unlike other arguments in her book, this one does not seem to push for greater equality.

     

    In general it was an interesting book.  The placing of Paul’s writings in the context of his period gave me a new perspective on his writing.  I would recommend this book to any one who is interested in Paul’s writings and Greco-Roman period and how they inter relate. 

     

    As for convincing me that Paul was more liberal than I previously thought, I see it as a beginning.  Since I am not a translation expert, I cannot evaluate her arguments for the mistranslations of Paul’s work.  But the book raises enough questions to lead me to do further research.

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