Paul Among the People
The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time
There are people who find Paul disappointing or offensive. He says things that are not politically correct — about women, marriage, homosexuals, and slaves, for instance. It is not uncommon to hear the claim that he invented a version of Christianity that occluded the more attractive original. In such circles he is seen, at best, as an embarrassingly backward uncle who ought to be kept out of polite company, and, at worst, as a bigot who bequeathed us the besetting sins of Western culture.
The burden of Sarah Ruden’s little book is to challenge this view of Paul by providing some perspective on the man and his writings. She asks a simple but very interesting question: how would Paul and his message have been perceived by a contemporary Greek or Roman audience? She examines the testimony of Greco-Roman literature on the various controversial issues, and asks whether, in that light, Paul still seems unpalatable. She believes that he does not:
…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.
Ruden is a classicist. She is a widely praised translator of Virgil, and has also published translations of Seutonius and Apeulius. Her sources for comparison with Paul include Aristophanes, Juvenal, Horace, and Ovid — the mainstream ancient tradition. Having said that, it should be acknowledged that she is not a New Testament scholar, and has no special expertise in Paul’s writings. (Neither, of course, do I.) She, wisely or not (I am not sure), does not try to mount a scholarly argument; her tone is casual and sometimes whimsical. She’s just a regular gal pointing some things out.
Her approach to Paul is interesting from an historical point of view because, of course, so many of Paul’s converts were Greek and Roman, and so Ruden gives us insight into why they might have found the Christian Gospel compelling. But it is also interesting from a modern point of view, for it serves (as we’ll see) as a corrective to one of the assumptions on which the reigning narrative of modernity rests — namely, the belief that the Greeks and Romans were ‘enlightened’ (by our standards) and that Christianity was merely an interruption between the eclipsed ancient world and its rebirth in the early modern period. Ruden argues, convincingly, that on moral issues at least we owe far more to Christianity than to the Greco-Roman culture it displaced.
A case in point is her account of the status of women in Greek and Roman culture. Paul has been criticized for saying that women ought to be quiet in church, or that they should cover their heads, or that they should be obedient to their husbands. It all sounds oppressive from our point of view. But Ruden argues that, in context, each tended to honour the dignity of women. Take the head covering, for instance: in Roman society, married women covered their heads in public. If a woman’s head was uncovered, it meant that she was either unmarried or a prostitute. Ruden cites literary evidence that Roman men found uncovered hair particularly erotic. By proposing, therefore, that all women cover their heads in church, Paul was killing several birds with one stone: in a gathering which likely included both married women and prostitutes (as the early Christian communities did) he was erasing the distinction between them, and he was also smothering a signal that might have been distracting to the men present. The overall effect was to make the Christians more a community of equals — which was certainly advantageous to women. Similar remarks apply to Paul’s treatment of homosexuality — a stomach-churning chapter on pederasty makes it clear that the ancient world was no gay paradise! — and of slavery.
Speaking of which, the chapter on slavery is perhaps the best in the book. The principal Pauline source on this subject is, naturally, the Letter to Philemon, in which Paul recommends to a Christian slave-owner that he take his runaway slave back into custody. By implication, he is recommending that the slave return to his master. Why did he not ask Philemon to free Onesimus? At the very least, this seems to have been a missed opportunity. Ruden describes the legal and cultural status of slaves in the Roman world, and argues that a grand gesture on Paul’s part would not have worked, even for Onesimus. There were simply too many obstacles. But Paul did not want to simply free a slave in a technical or legal sense; he wanted to turn the slave into a human being, and so he adopted a strategy that was ‘beyond ingenious’. He called Onesimus a son and a brother. In a Roman context, to describe a slave in these terms was somewhere between comical and revolutionary — and, though Paul has not often been noted for his comedy, Ruden suggests that this Letter may be a parody of a letter of recommendation. She draws out the complex of paradoxes and contradictions that the first readers of Paul’s letter must have found in it:
1. Onesimus, though a slave, is Paul’s acknowledged son.
2. Onesimus, though an adult, has just been born.
3. Paul, though a prisoner, has begotten a son.
4. Paul, though physically helpless, is full of joy and confidence.
5. Paul is ecstatic to have begotten a runaway slave.
6. It is a sacrifice to Paul to send Onesimus back: he selfishly wants the services of this runaway slave for himself; conversely, he gives away his beloved newborn son.
7. Paul has wanted Onesimus to remain with him in place of Philemon, as if a runaway slave could be as much use to him, and in the same capacities, as the slave’s master.
It goes on. The point is that, in Ruden’s view, the Letter to Philemon is anything but an endorsement of the slave-holding customs of Paul’s time. On the contrary, it was a bomb thrown into the bunker. It just had a long fuse.
All of which is quite interesting. Even acknowledging that Paul can never be understood apart from his Jewishness, to consider him from a Greco-Roman perspective is enlightening and often surprising. It sheds light on Paul as a missionary. But what is the upshot? Most of these issues on which Paul is ‘controversial’ are controversial for cultural and political reasons, not theological ones. It is natural to expect that Ruden’s arguments might, therefore, play into our current cultural and political arguments. From a broadly conservative point of view, Ruden’s book would seem to be welcome, for it seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of a canonical author, showing him to have been kinder and gentler than he has sometimes been portrayed. But the book also has its uses from a broadly liberal point of view, for even if Paul was not as enlightened as us (and who was?), he was evidently more enlightened than his pagan contemporaries. In other words, even if he could only do so much in his own time and place, contemporary liberalism carries on the work that he began. Far from being a monster, he becomes a mascot.
I am uncomfortable with both sides, principally because both bless and approve of Paul only insofar as he can be persuaded to agree with them. But Paul is a canonical author, and so should be, first and foremost, granted authority to shape us, not the other way around. Naturally there will be ways in which he rubs us the wrong way. When that happens, it is far from obvious that he should be the one to yield. Ruden may help us to understand Paul better than we did before, but when the result is to smooth off his rough edges and render him suitable for polite company, I am suspicious.
In the end, and despite my measured enjoyment of the book, I suspect that I am not in its target audience. As far as I can remember, I have never felt any particular animosity toward Paul (unless mild irritation with his literary style counts). Whether this makes me a plain dullard or a truly nasty piece of work is a judgment I leave to others.