I have never been that close to Paul before. Sarah Ruden made me feel this way. She grasped my attention from the very first moment I had begun to read a line of hers. Consequently I bought and devoured two of her books and I plan to do the same with all the others. Paul has never been that alive for me.
Though having a PhD from Harvard, she is not the regular classical philologist who translates and interprets ancient masterworks. Her soul, her faith and convictions shine through the introductions and footnotes. When she entered the field of biblical studies in Paul among the People. The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (published in 2010 for the first time) she managed to echo Paul’s personality and thoughts with justified precision. Lining up classical authors with the biblical texts she has much to say about what Paul really intended to say and to whom. This is the theme of the book:
having a fresh look at the most controversial passages of Paul about women, homosexuality, slavery, flesh and the sin, in general.
I know that beside receiving a lot of acknowledgements, much criticism has been said about her, as well. Many times she, the newcomer doesn’t cover the full range of biblical scholarship, doesn’t quote principal scientific works and sometimes forgets about the rich background of Hellenistic Judaism. Sarah mixes a little bit literary criticism and history with theology and then all that comes out with her own opinion and judgement. Sometimes it's difficult to determine where the borderlines are. Said this, Paul among the People as a complete book gained my approval.
Her prose is captivating. She has started to translate the Gospel. I can’t wait for the outcome.
Condemnation or liberation?
The first set of key texts are Galatians 5:16-21 and Romans 1:28-32 where Paul listed the actions and approaches he condemned or praised. The “authoritarian” and “misogynist” Paul seems to disappear when Sarah Ruden places words and meanings into the ancient reality and vocabulary, making use of the words of Cicero, Catullus, Aristophanes, Homer or Apuleius. She claims that in the Greco-Roman culture, where society “deified violence and exploitation”, Paul fought it and
“rather than repressing women, slaves and homosexuals, he made – for his time – progressive rules for the inclusion of them in the Christian community”.
In her presentation, Paul was only against the worst cruelties, like pederasty, male promiscuity, and forced marriage.
Within this framework, rather than fighting against the sexual and other physical desires in his entirety, fornication becomes treating the others like things and like whores and not the urge or sexual act itself. Uncleanness and lasciviousness become extreme lustfulness, and hatred is condemned in the context of a revenge culture where it was a“routine and pride” for the Greeks and Romans, for whom “the gods themselves appeared self-centered and merciless” and the leaders showed a bad example, too.
“Not inheriting the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21) gets a relatively new meaning. This verse is understood from an ancient perspective, that is, as there was a very low number of inheritors in the ancient world, any kind of heritage was a fantasy, just like “belonging fully” was a fantasy. Why do I love Sarah’s prose? For phrases like this:
“Christianity offered anyone, no matter how poor and powerless, an alternative inheritance – another kind of home, a new way to belong.” And when she adds: “No wonder Christianity grew like mad.”
Then we learn again that in Galatians 5:22 the love of God is agape, a selfless love, and not philia or eros which have different meanings. This usage and extension of the agape was quite revolutionary in Paul’s time.
Homosexuality in Paul’s writings are in first place associated with the homosexual rape and the abused slave children, pederasty and pedohilia. According to Sarah, the “gay idyll” comes from Plato’s works. Consequently, Paul didn’t fight against homosexuality in general, but against the above-mentioned extreme cases. One of the crucial texts in the book is as follows:
“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…? … All this leads to a feeling of mountainous irony. Paul challenges centuries of execrable practice in seeking a more just, more loving society. And he gets called a bigot. Well, it’s not a persecution that would have impressed him much.”
Now it’s not that difficult to find out what would happen to the second key set of texts that are (of course) about woman: 1 Corinthians 14:33-36, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Corinthians 7. Do women need to remain silent in the churches (better translation would be, according to Sarah, in “public spaces”, in an ekklesia)? Are they subordinated to men? Sarah Ruden claims that readers of the 21st century tend to interpret these verses from wrong point of view.
“It would not have been remarkable that women were forbidden to speak among the Christians. It’s remarkable that they were speaking in the first place. It’s remarkable that they were even there, in an ekklēsia, perhaps for all kinds of worship and deliberation, and that their questions needed answers, if not on the spot.”
Paul was against (again) the extremes, the “tyranny of traditional arranged unions or the cruelty of sexual exploitation”. On the contrary, Paul approved female desire which had been in the 1st century AD under a system of zero tolerance:
“The demand for faithfullness now applied equally to both men and women – a real shocker. … The husband should treat the wife’s body as his own and serve its most intimate needs and vice versa.”
“Paul did make a huge change in the status of woman and in marriage, but not the one we ascribe to him. … People now had to figure out relationships between the sexes: whether to have relationships at all, whether they bring too much pain and trouble, whether something else would be more fulfilling, how to balance relationships with the spiritual life, and how to love each other selflessly rather than take each other for granted as providers and breeders.”
The book (though maybe not intended by Sarah Ruden) strengthened my growing belief that God operates the creatures through free will and He values genuine efforts, internal struggles and sacrifice. Paul needed to build a new pathway in the Greco-Roman world, fight the other apostles and he did this while enduring immense pain, solitude and perpetual homelessness.
It strengthened my growing belief that Jesus came to this world for the Jews in the first place and the absolutely absorbing and mesmerising idea that all Jews AND Gentiles (like me) can be saved by and only through his suffering, death and resurrection, did not exist before his crucifixion. It doesn’t really matter for me that God (seeing that yet another plan of His to save Israel failed and deciding that He extends his universal plans from the chosen nation to each human creature) sent Paul to come up with the news and spread it across the globe or Paul was the first in humankind who understood well the Crucifixion as God’s predetermined plan (as Calvinists say based on Ephesians 3:3-6). When Jesus died on the cross, very few or no one knew on this planet that this would be for the Gentiles as well. Even if the second option is true, God worked closely and intimately with Paul to make it happen.
Closely because the book strengthened my growing belief that God is relational. He changes as He reacts to his creation as shown by so many verses in the Bible. Just as Paul was revolutionary and tender compared to the Greco-Roman world, so we need to be relentlessly searching for God’s will and pleasure, because he wants us to be closer to him. The Bible is a supercondensed account of what he wants: nothing more than this. To establish intimate relationship with us and wants us to establish intimate relationships with each other on a hard way, chosen freely by all sides. And He goes to extreme lengths to make it happen, but He abandons us if we continuously say no to His love.
The book strengthened my growing belief that “to contextualize” is an important and inescapable way to get closer to the Bible. Moreover, it is the ideal scenario when both forms of the divine Logos (the Scriptures and the natural or social sciences, in this case, philology and linguistics) come together to search for the divine truth. Trying to interpret the Word solely with our own twenty-first century mindset is misleading and results in false images that the original author and God had in mind.
So, do you think that these trains of thought are too rational, too cold, too scientific, too half-hearted? Too material and secular?
Just on the contrary. Paul, a refugee from the Kingdom of God, made something unlikely to happen. Against all odds. Against all human expectations. And it was achieved by something that was not from this world.
“He turns his sermonizing into a bomb, presses down the detonator, and walks away, leaving glittering fragments of absurdity in place of the conviction that people solve problems. …
How did I ever accept the fairy tale of the apostle walking into communities of happy pagans, at peace with nature and their bodies … Instead, he sacrificed his home, his health, his peace of mind, and eventually his life for the sake of the Greeks and the Romans – whom, since they are long dead, it should not be politically incorrect to call kindergartners with knives. He must have helplessly, sufferingly loved them.”
Still interested? Here you have an interview with Sarah: