Two excerpts here, full review below the jump:
This is the first book about Paul I have ever read that treats him alongside Homer, Aristophanes, Plautus, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Petronius, Juvenal, and Apuleius, among others — not as their literary equal (Ruden speaks teasingly of Paul’s “rough art”) but to convey a sense of attitudes and assumptions that were pervasive in the classical world, against which Paul’s message stands out in stark contrast.
“How could anyone manage to follow I Corinthians 13 and not go insane?”…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.
Sarah Ruden is a poet and translator steeped in the literature of classical Greece and Rome. Her superb translation of The Aeneid was published in 2008 by Yale University Press; she’s also translated the Homeric Hymns, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and the Satyricon of Petronius. Her new book, Paul Among the People, is a sustained rebuke to lazy projections of modern sensibilities onto the ancient world. And yet Ruden is an effective apologist for Paul precisely because she well understands his cultured despisers, whose prejudices she shared not so long ago:
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.
Ruden acknowledges Paul’s faults at the outset — “his bad temper, his self-righteousness, his anxiety” — but she goes on to note that “we tend not to feel inspired that such a painfully human personality was able to achieve so much in the name of God,” a theme that Paul himself repeatedly underscores, emphasizing his own unworthiness. Point by point, Ruden takes up the indictment against Paul: He was a killjoy, a misogynist, and virulently homophobic to boot; he counseled deference to unjust authority, even urging slaves to obey their masters and make the best of their condition. Interpreting Paul in the context of his time, Ruden shows how the charges against the apostle can’t withstand scrutiny. She does so by toggling between passages from Paul’s New Testament letters and quotations from classical writers: This is the first book about Paul I have ever read that treats him alongside Homer, Aristophanes, Plautus, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Petronius, Juvenal, and Apuleius, among others — not as their literary equal (Ruden speaks teasingly of Paul’s “rough art”) but to convey a sense of attitudes and assumptions that were pervasive in the classical world, against which Paul’s message stands out in stark contrast.
So, for example, after noting the widespread prevalence of pedophilia in Paul’s day — celebrated shamelessly in stomach-turning texts — Ruden writes: “No wonder parents guarded their young sons doggedly. It was, for example, normal for a family of any standing to dedicate one slave to a son’s protection, especially on the otherwise unsupervised walk to and from school: This was the pedagogue, or ‘child leader.’” It was a culture in which virile manhood was the measure of all things. Routine sex with slave boys, seduction of a free-born prepubescent youth, violent rape of an adult male: All were manly acts with no opprobrium attached. Only the victims were mocked and scorned. Little wonder that Paul’s revolutionary denunciation of such behavior (Romans 1:24–27) struck a chord with many of his contemporaries.
Or consider the much-abused passage from I Corinthians 7, in which Paul talks about the marriage relationship. Is this the testament of a killjoy, a hater of women? Hardly. This misreading makes sense only if we assume (falsely) that “erotic, mutually fulfilling marriage was a ready option for Paul’s followers, when actually he was calling them away from either the tyranny of traditional arranged unions or the cruelty of sexual exploitation, or (in the case of married men exploiting the double standard) both.” Here and in many other passages, we find a forthright rejection of the “unmitigated chauvinistic attitudes Paul would have found in Greco-Roman households, both in his boyhood Tarsus and anywhere he would have traveled in the Roman Empire later.”
Paul created an honored place for celibacy as well as “putting brand-new limits on male desire” and “licensing female desire, which had been under a regime of zero tolerance” (women, you see, “were supposed to stop at nothing once they got started,” but Paul regarded male and female desire as equal and reciprocal). And in so doing, Ruden observes,
Paul changed people’s experience of their emotions and their bodies in ways that inevitably changed marriage, though the new kind did not send down deep roots until the modern age and the end of the authoritarianism that began to blight the church in the generations after Paul. But real marriage is as secure a part of the Christian charter, and as different as from anything before or since, as the command to turn the other cheek.
Notice what Ruden is doing here by mentioning one of the hard sayings of Jesus (“the command to turn the other cheek”) in conjunction with Paul’s teaching on marriage. As a Quaker, Ruden has probably spent more time digesting this injunction from Jesus than most of her fellow Christians have — but that doesn’t mean she finds it easy to follow. Indeed, in her concluding chapter, devoted to Paul’s famous passage on love, Ruden asks, “How could anyone manage to follow I Corinthians 13 and not go insane?”
Fortunately she doesn’t stop there. She goes on to answer her own question:
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.
It would be splendid to end on this note. Here, finally, is the conviction on which Ruden’s argument rests, the source of hope for all who share her faith. And yet for now, as Paul himself acknowledged, we see through a glass darkly. We muddle along, bickering, divided, as fractious as the early church described in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s own letters.
Still, in “reimagining” Paul with the aid of her intimate knowledge of classical literature, Ruden hasn’t only helped us to better understand him and his message in the context of his time (as indispensable as that service is). She has also brought Paul to us, to our time. “The critic who forms his style on that of his author,” Hugh Kenner once said, “not only does mimetic homage, he avails himself intelligently of the author’s principal research: how to write about the pertinent world. For 18 months, wanting all the time to commence a book on Samuel Beckett . . . I delayed until I could command a style sufficiently like his for the purpose. Like, not identical; Beckett couldn’t write a book on Beckett.”
Nor could Paul write a book on Paul. But Sarah Ruden could and did. In an uncanny way, her book is animated by the apostle’s style: his urgency, his argumentative agility, his bluntness, his exasperation, his vision of great felicity (“though he almost needed to reinvent Greek to express it”). Turning the pages, I half expected the man from Tarsus to come striding impatiently through the door. This is an act of literary sorcery: white magic, of which not even Paul himself could disapprove.
Mr. Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a bimonthly review.