Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Review: PAUL AMONG THE PEOPLE – Sarah Ruden [Vol. 4, #19.5]

522571: Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time

A Review of

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

By Sarah Ruden
Now Available in Paperback: Image, 2011.
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Reviewed by David Anderson.

Paul is one of those writers—and personalities, as we catch glimpses of his own in the epistles and in Acts—that people either love or dislike without much middle ground. But he was a man of his time, just as the Old Testament prophets were men of their time. To understand “where they were coming from,” a reader needs to own at least a basic familiarity with the culture they lived in.

Sarah Ruden’s earlier books are translations of some of the classics of ancient literature: the Aeneid, Lysistrata, and Satyricon. In this short study (a little under 200 pages not counting backmatter) she looks at Paul’s writings on various topics in the light of how these compare to accounts by Greek and Roman authors. For a slightly similar, albeit more scholarly, effort that places more emphasis on contemporaneous historical events (the emperor Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome, Nero’s early actions as emperor), Neil Elliott’s Arrogance of Nations (Fortress, 2010 reprint ed.) can be highly recommended.

Ms. Ruden takes on six subjects here: Paul on pleasure, homosexuality, women, the State, slavery, and love. She says that many of Paul’s most controversial statements (e.g., that women should be silent at worship) reflect the culture he lived in, but that he was trying to persuade the recipients of his letters to adopt a new worldview based on Jesus’s teachings.

Ruden says that it would have been remarkable if a woman had spoken up in public discussions at the time. Women were to be seen and not heard, and they had to be careful about how they were seen in public places. She gives fascinating background information for Paul’s passage in 1 Corinthians 11 about women and their hair. Respectable women wore veils in public, and Romans regarded hair as very sexy, as testified to by the poet Ovid and others.

Then there’s the whole issue of homosexuality. Ruden reminds readers that although lots of same-sex intercourse went on, mostly with slaves, a “gay lifestyle” and loving gay relationships are modern constructs. She maintains that Plato’s idealization of gay love in the Phaedrus is basically a load of hooey. Her discussion in this chapter shows something that bothered me throughout this otherwise very interesting book: she obviously doesn’t come from a theological background. Little attention is paid to the strictures against homosexuality in Leviticus, and although Paul was a man of his time, he was also a Pharisee and a man of his people. He wouldn’t have proscribed homosexual acts just because Romans on the street sniggered at them, but because they were forbidden in the Torah.

In her chapter on Paul and the State, Ruden describes the extent to which being a good citizen meant being a good soldier in the Roman world. It wasn’t the armed camp that Sparta had been, but it wasn’t twenty-first century America either. Paul, as a Roman citizen, would naturally advise his readers to obey their rulers. This admonition is a prime example of modern readers cherry-picking what they choose to follow in Paul: whatever one’s feelings about the policies of the current administration, the denigration that many people heap on it cannot be reconciled with Paul’s teaching.

To sum up: Ruden’s book is a good popular introduction to the topic of Paul as a man of his times. Readers who want a book with footnotes on every page won’t find it here, but casual readers will enjoy Ruden’s beautiful writing. To sum up, here is an excerpt from her chapter on Paul and love:

It might be possible if love is not an ethereal, abstract standard, an impossible assignment written in lightning on a rock, but a living God. Suppose the love people need to carry out loves them and helps them, sometimes through the other people it loves, and sometimes merely as itself. Suppose it reaches out, calls, never gives up on failure. Suppose that, though human beings fail most of the time, love never does.


David Anderson is a writer who tweets on religion at www.twitter.com/dvdandrsn.

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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