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

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9780385522571: Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time

In Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden explores the writings of the evangelist Paul in the context of his time and culture, to recover his original message of freedom and love while overturning the common—and fundamental—misconception that Paul represented a puritanical, hysterically homophobic, misogynist, or reactionary vision.
              
By setting famous and controversial words of Paul against ancient Greek and Roman literature, Ruden reveals a radical message of human freedom and dignity at the heart of Paul’s preaching. Her training in the Classics allows her to capture the stark contrast between Paul’s Christianity and the violence, exploitation, and dehumanization permeating the Roman Empire in his era. In contrast to later distortions, the vision of Christian life Ruden finds in Paul is centered on equality before God and the need for people to love one another.
 
A remarkable work of scholarship, synthesis, and understanding, Paul Among the People recaptures the moral urgency and revolutionary spirit that made Christianity such a shock to the ancient world and laid the foundation of the culture in which we live today.

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About the Author:

Sarah Ruden was educated at the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard. She has translated four books of classical literature, among them The Aeneid and is the author of Other Places a book of poetry. She is a visiting scholar at Wesleyan University and lives with her husband in Middleton, Conn.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1: Paul and Aristophanes— No, Really
 
The last thing I expected my Greek and Latin to be of any use for was a better understanding of Paul. The very idea, had anyone proposed it, would have annoyed me. I am a Christian, 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.
 
But one day, in a Bible study class I was taking, a young woman objected to the stricture against sorcery in the “fruit of the Spirit” passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. She said that to her sorcery meant “just the ability to project my power and essence.” Most of the class gave the familiar sigh: Paul was kind of a brute, wasn’t he? I would have sighed too, had there not flashed into my mind an example of what sor­cery could mean in a Greco-Roman context: the Roman poet Horace’s image of a small boy buried up to his neck and left to starve to death while staring at food, so that his liver and bone marrow, which must now be imbued with his frenzied longing, could serve as a love charm. Paul, I reflected, may never have read this poem (which depicts a crime that may never have happened), but it shows the kind of reputation sorcery had in the Roman Empire—certainly among people with a polytheistic background, who made up the main read­ership for his letters both during his lifetime and after it. I could not get away from the thought that what his writings would have meant for them is probably as close as we can come to their basic original importance, as key documents (prior even to the gospels) inspiring the world-changing new movement, Christianity.
 
As I began to read Paul in connection to Greco-Roman writing, I seemed to be actually reading him: understanding his devotion and his constraints, and not simply listening to 1 Corinthians 13 with boredom and irritation, and with smug agreement to excoriations of his “betrayal of Jesus’ message.” I came to see how a man whom a divinity student friend of mine called “grumpy-pants Paul” had spread an uncompromising message of love, and how he had estab­lished a community that proved to have, if not a steady power for good, then at least a steady power for renewing its ideals. More and more, I wanted to take his part.
 
This feeling grew even stronger when I researched the ori­gins of our bad impressions of Paul. It seemed that many reactions to him across the centuries had been distorted or incomplete in ways that would not have survived a look at his main contemporary and near-contemporary audiences through their own books. For every implausible reading of Paul, there were Greco-Roman works through the lens of which he showed more plausibly. The contrast between dis­tant views of Paul in a variety of modern authors and the very near view that we can re-create came to seem like a way to organize a book.
 
Others have written defenses of Paul, but he needs—and deserves—all the help he can get. His faults are obvious enough: his bad temper, his self-righteousness, his anxiety. But we tend not to feel inspired that such a painfully human personality was able to achieve so much in the name of God. And we do not ask the obvious question, which is, what was he doing right in substance that is hidden from us under his manner? He must have been doing a great deal right or he could not have succeeded as he did.
 
And understanding his success is vital for letting him help us now. Paul dealt with several social issues that remain painful today. Read in a way that shows the challenges, ideals, and strategies behind his words, he usually offers diverse people something they can agree on. In the case of homosexuality, it is the passion he had for ending exploita­tive sex, the only physical expression of homoeroticism he likely knew about. Getting closer to Paul as he really was can allow Christians and non-Christians either to find common ground to build on or to part ways more peacefully, because they see that they merely disagree on how to reach the same goals and can no longer call each other’s intentions evil.
 
Paul is, of course, not easy to understand. Probably many Greeks and Romans themselves misunderstood him or skimmed the surface of his arguments when he used terms such as “law” (referring to the Jewish religious law in which he himself was trained). But their literature is still a good basis for interpretation: they shared a language with him, Greek, and a cosmopolitan urban culture, that of the Roman Empire, and he considered evangelizing them his special mission.
 
What Greco-Roman works can teach about Paul’s writ­ings is incredibly rich and virtually unexplored so far—and often rather mortifying to a previous knee-jerk anti-Paulist like me. For example, there is the matter of the komos and the right to have a really good party. The “fruit of the Spirit” pas­sage in Galatians does not forbid “carousing,” the outrageous New Revised Standard Version translation of the word, or “revellings,” as in the King James. A k?mos was a late-night, very drunken, sometimes violent postparty parade—which could even end in kidnapping and rape. We have vivid scenes of it in Greek comedy and other genres. It was nearly the worst of Greek nightlife, and if any Christian young men counted on still being allowed to behave like rampaging frat boys or overgrown trick-or-treaters in a foul mood, their eld­ers would have been relieved to have it in writing from Paul that this was banned. Other translations, probably in an effort to be less dour, have “orgies,” but that is unsatisfactory: some features of Greek parties were orgylike, but not the k?mos. And since orgies are quite rare today (I think), a reader might wonder why Paul included something so unusual in his list, as if a modern pastor were to speak against flashing. We would never guess from the English that the abuse Paul is speaking of is both serious and customary.
 
I was at first puzzled that nobody had lined up Paul’s let­ters and Greco-Roman literature in any systematic way before, but I soon realized that scholarly disciplines are not set up for it. In seven years at Harvard as a classics graduate student, I got to know exactly two divinity students, and only as friends, not as scholars. I never met any of the divinity professors, wherever they were, somewhere up in the cloudy regions of the North Yard. Their language courses were separate, and in my curriculum there was not a single piece of Christian literature out of all that belonged to the era I was studying. We behaved as if the New Testament had not been written in Greek, as if Paul had not been a Hellenized Jew and by some accounts a Roman citizen, and as if the Roman Empire at its greatest period of power had not been in the early Christians’ background.
 
I was now stunned at how much perspective this took away from Christianity. “Oh, yeah, we’re not supposed to have orgies, no kidding.” Maybe shallowness of perspective is one reason so many people consider the religion passé—not interesting, not inspiring, not useful. To me, 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. And as I went on, I found that—almost creepily—the pas­sages to which the modern world has the most resistance were all telling me the same thing: contemporary readers would likely not have seen Paul’s “authoritarian” policies as anything but ways to connect with one another in conscien­tious tenderness.
 
In this way, I was dragged away from a quite dear preju­dice: that the socially concerned church was an invention of the modern era. (We Quakers have always thought our own sect invented it, but I won’t go into that.) In fact, the compassionate community was there at the beginning, and its founder was Paul of Tarsus. To those asking, “But how do we live, right here, right now?” his answer was always in essence the same: “In a way worthy of God’s infinite love for each of you.”
 
This is his story as told not only by himself, but by Aristophanes, Herodas, Petronius, Juvenal, Apuleius, and many others he never met. It is the story of his challenges and his triumphs in their world. And here’s a little of what it tells us for today.

Chapter 2: The End of Fun? Paul and Pleasure
 
What was Paul’s real message about the body and social life? Don’t ask the Puritans. When these gained power and sought to wipe out the enjoyments (games, drama, feasting, dancing, fancy hats) that the medieval church had spared, the main New Testament authority they alleged was Paul. Richard Baxter (1615–91) of Kidderminster, in England, cites him over and over in part VII of his Directions to Weak Christians, “Directions Against the Master Sin; Sensuality, Flesh-Pleasing, or Voluptuousness.” By this time, “flesh” meant roughly anything that is often done for its own sake, like eat­ing or conversation, and Baxter condemned what we would today call the most ordinary and natural pleasures:
 
Do you think that man is made for no higher matters than a beast? and that you have not a more noble object for your delight than your swine or dog hath, who have the pleasure of meat, and lust, and play, and ease, and fancy, as well as you? Certainly where sensual pleasures are preferred before the higher pleasures of the soul, that man becomes a beast, or worse, subjecting his rea­son to his brutish part.
 
The looming trouble with pleasure of all kinds was that it could come between you and your religion. (“Flesh-pleasing is the grand idolatry of the world, and the flesh the greatest idol that ever was set up against God.”) That is, if you found you liked doing anything more than you liked praying, exhorting, and reading pious books, you were in for it. So pretty much everyone was in for it, or had hope only in sus­pecting and resisting any natural draw.

[Flesh-pleasing] is the very rebellion of corrupted nature; the turning of all things upside-down; the taking down God, and heaven, and reason, and destroy­ing the use of all the creatures, and setting up flesh-pleasing instead of all, and making a brute of your god and governor. And do you ask what harm there is in this? So will your child do, when he desireth any play, or pleasure; and the sick, when they desire to please their appetite.
 
Many people think Paul is the original authority for this (and for all puritanism; the Puritans only epitomized the ide­ology), because of what he wrote about the flesh. One of the passages Baxter and other Puritans relied on most is the “fruit of the Spirit” part of Galatians 5. (I count five citations of that passage within “Directions Against the Master Sin,” more than of any other part of the Bible.) At the heart of Paul’s exhortation is a pair of lists: what not to do to indulge the flesh, and what the fruit of the Spirit will be.
 
Paul’s letters contain other lists of bad things and good things, but here the strictures have a special force. Galatians is mainly about false teachings and alienating practices, and the criteria for spiritual fruit answer the vital question of how a group of believers can tell whether they are going in the right way—that is, whether the Spirit is really working in them. So it is hardly an academic matter to get a better sense of the spe­cific acts and attitudes Paul condemns and commends. Here, in the original King James translation of Galatians 5, some close derivative of which Baxter would have used, are the bad things:
 
19 Nowe the workes of the flesh are manifest, which are these, adulterie, fornication, vncleanness, lasciuiousnesse, 20 Idolatrie, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emula­tions, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Enuyings, murthers, drunkennesse, reuellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I haue also tolde you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherite the kingdome of God.
 
I will go straight back over Baxter’s head with my ques­tions. Would people of Paul’s time have read him as preach­ing against natural desires and ordinary fun? What exactly did these words mean about the way people were expected to live according to this new religion?
 
Picture the Galatians hearing this list read for the first time, perhaps in the house of the most well-to-do member of their church, where they usually meet to pray and eat together. They know Paul as a poor speaker and a scrawny, sickly man of the unpopular Jewish race. He may have been kind to them in person, but now they have his bad temper emerging from the papyrus of his long letter to them. He thinks his rivals should go castrate themselves (5:12), and he snarls that he is writing in big letters for the Galatian Christians (6:11)—not that he needs to rub in his scorn: he has already called them “foolish” (a soft-pedaling translation: more precise would be “brainless”). What use might words like those in the list above have been to this church? The cor­rect answer is not “They were another reason to throw the letter away and go back to the shrine of Isis.” If we judge Paul’s prose that harshly, we would have to wonder why any of his letters, not to say his churches, survived.
 
Okay, I’ll answer my own question. All of Galatians 5 shows a great concern with the link between religion and getting along with other people, caring for them, allowing communities to thrive. Among those who had grown up as polytheists, there was nothing trite about this program. On the contrary, it set out a new way of thinking that must have been quite exciting, a hope for something beyond exploita­tion, materialism, and violence—a plan not for competing in purity and the denial of life, but for the sharing of life in full. The words in the list above, even the words we might at first associate with puritanical values, back this up.
 
“ADULTERY” IS THE only way to translate the word moicheia, but here translation just doesn’t communicate; it merely leaves us crouching over two thousand years of mostly inapplicable experience, including puritanism and our reac­tions against it. For us, the thought of religion banning adultery might bring up images of Hester Prynne standing on the scaffold in public, displaying her scarlet letter A and being harangued by her lover, the minister.
 
For Greeks, “adultery” was far different. A moichos (the root word) was a man (married or not) having sex with another man’s wife, and rage and punishment were aimed at him, not her. We don’t know precisely how all of the various Greek and Greek-influenced city-states treated this kind of adultery (though we are certain that it was the only kind that was illegal), but we do know well the system set up in fifth-century b.c. Athens. In Athens, adultery with a married woman, once known, automatically broke up her household, and the main victims were the children, who would now be classed as illegitimate. They could not inherit (a vital privilege, as I will show below) and were no longer citizens. Neither boys nor girls would be allowed to marry citizens, and when the boys grew up they could not take part in the all-important political life of the city along with their peers.
 
Since men were supposed to be far more rational and to have far mo...

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