Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined 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 was a Hellenistic Jew, originally named Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, who made a living from tent making or leatherworking. He called himself the “Apostle to the Gentiles” and was the most important of the early Christian evangelists. 

Paul is not easy to understand. The Greeks and Romans themselves probably misunderstood him or skimmed the surface of his arguments when he used terms such as “law” (referring to the complex system of Jewish religious law in which he himself was trained). But they did share a language—Greek—and a cosmopolitan urban culture, that of the Roman Empire. Paul considered evangelizing the Greeks and Romans to be his special mission.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The idea of love as the only rule was current among Jewish thinkers of his time, but the idea of freedom being available to anyone was revolutionary. 

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.

“Sarah Ruden brings a unique perspective to the teachings of the apostle most responsible for spreading Christianity throughout the Greco-Roman world. As an accomplished translator of classical literature, Ruden offers a wholly fresh reinterpretation of Paul’s most controversial writings—on slavery, the role of women in the church, homosexuality, love—by examining them alongside the writings of the polytheistic culture of his day.” —Jane Lampman, The Washington Post 

“… [A] well-written, informative, interesting and thought-provoking book on the Apostle Paul.” —William Walker, Jr, The Post and Courier

The most exciting book of historical analysis I’ve read in ages—indeed the most exciting book period—is the Classical scholar and translator Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People.” —Rod Dreher, beliefnet

“Ruden is winningly intimate as well as impressively scholarly in this superb book.” —Ray Olson, Booklist (starred)

Review & Commentary

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

  1. Review

    Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People:  The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York:  Pantheon, 2010).  Pp. 214.  $25.00.  ISBN:  978-0-375-42501-1.

    Review by Kirk Bane

    Today, many Christians view the Apostle Paul as a woman-despising, homosexual-loathing killjoy.  Dr. Sarah Ruden, research fellow at Yale Divinity School and author of the superb revisionist study Paul Among the People:  The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (2010), once held a similar opinion.  “I am a Christian,” she observes, “but like many, I kept Paul in a pen out back with the louder and more sexist Old Testament prophets.  Jesus was my teacher; Paul was an embarrassment.”

    No longer.  To truly understand and appreciate the Apostle, Dr. Ruden contends, we must contextualize him.  As evangelist to the Gentiles, Paul labored in the polytheistic Greco-Roman world, an oftentimes brutal, merciless place.  Paul condemned some of the “worst abuses” of this callous culture, including “pederasty, male promiscuity, and forced marriage.”  Into this ruthless environment, the Apostle introduced a novel message of hope, spiritual equality, and “God’s infinite love.”  Ruden declares that the Greeks and Romans “deified materialism in the form of idolatry, and they deified violence and exploitation through their belief that these were the ways the gods operated.  Paul fought this ideology and all of its manifestations.  Rather than repressing women, slaves, or homosexuals, he made—for his time—progressive rules for the inclusion of all of them in the Christian community.”

    Ruden, a classicist whose translations include The Homeric Hymns (2005) and Vergil:  The Aeneid (2008), contrasts Paul’s letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) with the texts of such ancient writers as Apuleius, Aristophanes, Herodas, Juvenal, and Petronius.  Among the topics she examines are pleasure, homosexuality, women, slavery, and the state.  “To me,” Dr. Ruden avers, “even the first efforts at setting Paul’s words against the words of polytheistic authors helped explain why early Christianity was so compelling, growing as no popular movement ever had before.”

    Ruden humanizes Paul, drawing a memorable portrait of the man from Tarsus.  She enumerates the evangelist’s flaws, including “his bad temper, his self-righteousness, his anxiety.”  Simultaneously, Ruden salutes Paul’s tenacity and selflessness in spreading the Good News among the Gentiles.  The Apostle, she argues, “sacrificed his home, his health, his peace of mind, and eventually his life for the sake of the Greeks and Romans…He must have helplessly, sufferingly loved them.”

    A word of warning is in order.  Portions of Paul Among the People are quite graphic, particularly the segments addressing sex.  In the final analysis, Ruden has produced an admirable work, perceptive, revelatory, and clearly written.  She convincingly portrays Paul as the “socially concerned…compassionate” Apostle of Jesus Christ.  “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

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