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Paul Among the People

The Apostle Re-Interpreted and Re-Imagined in His Own Time


Sarah Ruden (View Bio)
Hardcover: Pantheon, 2010.

Paul Among the People

PAUL AMONG THE PEOPLE looks at the letters of the apostle against the background of ancient Greek and Roman literature, especially the bawdy, comic and everyday-life works Biblical scholars do not know. Acclaimed scholar Sarah Ruden translates passages from these works and sets them beside famous and controversial passages of Paul and key modern interpretations. Using the pagan texts to explain important words and ideas and to illustrate customs and institutions, she shows what Paul was likely reacting against and trying to do on such subjects as pleasure, homosexuality, women, slavery, the state, and love. She makes Paul real in his own world—and in a book for people of all religions or of none.

"The astonishingly high quality of the new literature concerned with the greatest missionary apostle continues in poet and classical translator Ruden’s cross-referencing of Paul and his literary confreres who describe the world in which Paul spread and strengthened the new faith in Christ. Her project enables her to call the standard repertoire of Pauline characterizations seriously into question. Paul’s cross-references show us a Greek and Roman world of great brutality, given to pleasures carried to damaging and even fatal extremes that today are condemned as unconscionably sadistic and cruel. Nor was there any notion of inhumane punishment; hence, crucifixion, to which only commoners and slaves were subjected. Homosexuality was basically anal rape of adolescent boys, the more painful the better for the socially superior rapists. Women of high status were veiled, while unveiled women could be and were treated as prostitutes and criminals. Slaves were so unequal to masters that they might have been a different, inferior species. The nonviolent love and community that Christianity preached radically differed from such exploitative, status-based norms, and Paul’s preaching perceived as being against homosexuality and higher status for non-ruling-class women and slaves looks very different when contrasted with those Greco-Roman norms as reported by writers from Aristophanes to Apuleius. Judiciously citing her own behavior to bring certain points home to contemporary readers, Ruden is winningly intimate as well as impressively scholarly in this superb book." — Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)

"In 'Paul Among the People,' Sara Ruden brings a unique perspective to the teachings of the apostle most responsible for spreading Christianity throughout the Greco-Roman world. As an accomplished translator of classical literature, Ruden offers a wholly fresh reinterpretation of Paul's most controversial writings—on slavery, the role of women in the church, homosexuality, love—by examining them alongside the writings of the polytheistic culture of his day…. Quoting from Aristophanes, Petronius, Juvenal and others, she provides startling insights into the prevailing values regarding the status of women and slaves and the widespread practice of raping young boys." — Jane Lampman, The Washington Post

"Books about the Apostle Paul arrive regularly at my desk, in such profusion as to strain the carrying capacity of a Kindle. Some are introductions; many are highly specialized studies from this or that academic fiefdom. Some are impeccably orthodox; others flaunt their scorn for Scripture and the traditions of the church. And then there are the effusions of cranks, self-published and self-important, eager to Explain It All. Now and then, though, something wonderfully unexpected appears. Earlier this year, Pantheon Books published Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People. Ruden is a translator of Greek and Latin; her Englishing of The Aeneid was published in 2008 to considerable acclaim. She is the translator for The Landmark Julius Caesar (coming down the road in a bit), and in the coming academic year, as a Guggenheim Fellow and a visiting scholar in classical studies at Wesleyan University, she will translate The Oresteia of Aeschylus. You may be thinking that Ruden doesn't have the background of the typical Pauline scholar. You would be right. Herself a poet as well as a translator of classical texts, she approaches the subject from a fresh angle." — John Wilson, Christianity Today

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