Book Review: Sarah Ruden's "Paul Among the People"

On occasion, I offer reviews of books, which I believe have some popular appeal for a wider audience. These reviews tend to be lengthier and more academic than regular posts.

Sarah Ruden’s book Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Image Books, 2010) is now available in paperback. This book has received mostly glowing praise as a book that places Paul in his context and makes him comprehensible. This book succeeds in only giving us a part of Pauls' context. This is a book that is so good in parts that it is difficult not to recommend it and so bad in other parts that it is impossible to endorse it. Initially I was going to attribute Sarah Ruden’s manifest and numerous oversights to naiveté, which often strikes those who wander into biblical studies from other fields, intent to set the record straight, or ignorance, which is common amongst neophytes even from classical studies who are unaware of the vastness of biblical scholarship, but now I know that these oversights were a purposeful and planned tactic. Ruden sets out her method at the end of her book, not the beginning, in her “Note On My Use of Sources.” In this “Note” she states that she is writing a “new kind of book,” which she then goes on to explain as “directed almost entirely at the Greeks and Romans, with very limited treatment of the Jewish tradition in itself” (189). She is correct, that is a “new kind of book,” but not a good kind. You simply cannot understand Paul without wading into the question of Judaism and its prominent significance for the intellectual and spiritual formation of Paul. To make matters worse, though, earlier in the book she has claimed that “what Greco-Roman works can teach about Paul’s writings is incredibly rich and virtually unexplored so far” (5) and “I was at first puzzled that nobody had lined up Paul’s letters and Greco-Roman literature in any systematic way before” (6).  Virtually unexplored? This is jaw-droppingly wrong, so wrong as to be beyond comprehension. As someone who wrote a dissertation dealing with the influence of Greco-Roman law on Paul and Philo of Alexandria, I can say that many years ago the literature on the relationship between Paul and Greco-Roman thought was vast and since the 1990s has grown tremendously.  Yet, in her Bibliography there is no notice of Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul or Stanley Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, to note only two of the most significant studies from the 1980s. Newer scholarship is also absent, such as Hans-Josef Klauck’s The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religionsor Emma Wasserman’s The Death of the Soul in Romans 7: Sin, Death and the Law in Light of Hellenistic Moral Psychology. But these books, excellent as they are, are simply drops in the bucket and what is missing includes almost all of the scholarship in the area which Ruden claims is “virtually unexplored.”

In the same way she purposefully overlooks not just the Jewish influence on Paul – and how can we call it “influence” when he was and remained in fundamental ways Jewish his whole life? – but the reality of the “Hellenization” of Judaism centuries prior to Paul’s birth. She claims that “I did not look into the Greeks and Romans as entirely separate from the Jews and risk being lured into the tired rather unfruitful debate over who had the greater influence on Paul. I didn’t want or need to go there” (189). One half of that final statement is true: she might not have wanted to go there, but she needed to go there. This is not a question of determining which held greater “influence” upon Paul, but determining what it meant to be a Hellenistic Jew. Scholarship has for a long period moved away from thinking of Judaism as anything but Hellenized at this time, but biblical scholars could never make the claim that “at this period many Jews of the Diaspora lived and thought like Greeks and Romans most of the time” (190). The Jews, for many reasons, stood apart from their Greco-Roman neighbors, which is why there is a vast scholarship on the reality of Hellenization. There is no mention in the Bibliography of any of the greats of the 20th century in this field, some of whom could also be classified as Classical scholars, such as Saul Lieberman, Elias Bickerman, Victor Tcherikover , Arnaldo Momigliano, Martin Hengel, Shaye J.D. Cohen, Gregory Dix, Martin Goodman, and the list could go on and on. I encourage all with an interest in this field to check out one or more of the books by these scholars.

But how does the book do on its own, limited terms of looking at Paul in terms of Greco-Roman culture and literature? Ruden knows that she “seems to playing fast and loose with chronology by citing material written hundreds of years before the New Testament” (190) and, indeed, she is. She defends herself by pointing to the fact that ancient cultures were more static than modern cultures, which is true, that some relevant material on certain topics is lacking from Paul’s period, which is too bad, and that some of these texts were well-known in the ancient world, which is meant to indicate, I think, that Paul would have known of them. It is possible that these texts were known to Paul, but one cannot be certain of that unless one can demonstrate knowledge, which is something Ruden does not always do and she often falls prey to what Samuel Sandmel called “parallelomania”: because something similar to my text existed, it must have had an influence on my text even if I have not proven this. Do texts from 5th century B.C. Athens really explain Paul’s letters in 1st century A.D. Rome? Even in the ancient world, which changed slowly and deliberately, this is too wide a gap of time and place to assume agreement, knowledge or influence. It must be shown.

On the other hand, she is able to show in some chapters in a convincing manner how current Greco-Roman thought and practice forms the necessary and essential backdrop for understanding certain aspects of Paul’s letters and how his first readers might have made sense of his teaching in these letters. When this occurs, the book has valuable contributions. Chapter 3, “No Closet, No  Monsters? Paul and Homosexuality,” is an excellent introduction to Greco-Roman sexual ethics, particularly in the realm of sexual relations between men or, more correctly, sex between men and boys (or male slaves who were treated sexually like boys). “Homosexuality” as we understand it today did not exist. Sexual relations between men and boys (or slaves) were strictly attempts to dominate, use and harm. This is valuable information about the cultural and sexual landscape of the Greco-Roman social world and it will be an eye-opener for those who are unaware of this ancient reality.

Attention to the Hellenistic Jewish context, however, would have alerted her to the reality that Paul was by no means first in his criticisms and that the scholarship in this area is vast. Other Jewish thinkers and texts, such as Philo, who details these practices in Special Laws 2.50 and 3.37-42 and On the Contemplative Life 48-62, and The Sibylline Oracles 3.185-187, 3.596-600, 5.166-67, 5.387-89 and 5.430, denounced these sexual practices. For that matter, so too did a Roman thinker of the 1st century A.D., Musonius Rufus (in “Must One Obey One’s parents Under All Circumstances?” and “On Sexual Indulgence”), which does not ameliorate the cruel behavior common at the time, but it does indicate that even some pagan thinkers were willing to criticize the widespread acceptance of the sexual use of minors and slaves.

More significantly, though, in her discussion of these matters, especially because of her clear excellence as a translator of Greek – Ruden is rightly noted for her superb, shimmering  translations of ancient Greek texts – is that she omits any discussion of 1 Corinthians 6:10. This is a passage which contains two words, malakoi and arsenokoitai, whose meanings have been much debated and translators have struggled to render these words in English. The basic meaning of malakoi is “soft,” referring to effeminate men usually, and arsenokoitai is a neologism which means to “lie with a man.” The debate has been not just over how to translate these terms, but what they mean in context. Robin Scroggs in The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate(106) saw the word malakos, which he rightly defines as “literally meaning soft and by extension “effeminate,” as referring in Paul’s vice list  to those youths who sold themselves to older men and so represents “a specific dimension of pederasty which, as we have seen, neither proponent nor opponent of pederasty ever defended.”  Scroggs understands arsenokoites as meaning “one who lies with a male,” but acknowledges the oddness of the term which makes its first literary appearance in Greek in this passage in 1 Corinthians. To my mind Scroggs solves the origin of this term in Greek by tracing it to the Hebrew phrase mishkav zakur, “lying with a male.” He understands the phrase to denote “the adult, who took the active role in the sexual encounter” and with malakos the two words together indicate the youth who is hired for sex and the adult who hires him (107-08). Scroggs is just one representative of this debate, but it would have been fascinating to have Ruden weigh in both with her cultural expertise and her superb knowledge of Greek. Why did she not mention it?

Chapter 4, “An Apostolic Oinker? Paul and Women,” is less successful than the previous chapter because she studiously and dutifully avoids any conversation with the array of literature dealing with women and the family in the early Christian world, books which cover the same ground as she does. Such books include David L. Balch and Carolyn Osiek, eds. Early Christian Families in Context. An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, Shaye J.D. Cohen, The Jewish Family in Antiquity, John M. G. Barclay, “The Family as the Bearer of Religion in Judaism and Early Christianity” in Constructing Early Christian Families (ed., Halvor Moxnes), or Gillian Clark, Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles. When she gets to the actual texts of Paul, her unpacking of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and her explanation of the images of hair and its meaning in the Greco-Roman context are revealing and helpful. She thinks Paul’s rule of covered heads “aimed towards an outrageous equality” (87).

The same positive argument cannot be made for her work on 1 Corinthians 7 on marriage, celibacy and divorce, though, because she does not engage the vast literature on this passage, which would have been helpful for her case. It would also have helped her avoid missing, once again, a potentially valuable passage for her argument on Greco-Roman influence on Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:36-38. A good case can be made that this passage deals not with whether a fiancé and his betrothed should get married because of sexual passions, but whether a Greco-Roman marriage which has been contracted must be carried out in light of Paul’s teachings that it is better not to marry. Cornelia Horn and I cover these issues in Let the Little Children Come to Me, 309-316, in light of Roman marriage law and practice.  Her voice would be a wonderful addition to this discussion.

Chapter 5, “Just Following Orders? Paul and the State,” which focuses exclusively on Romans 13:1-7 is a weak study which sets Paul’s passage in the context of Greco-Roman political satire and denouncement and mockery of political authority. Due to this fact, Ruden surmises that Paul could not have imagined that his listeners would have respected political leadership, so Paul concentrated on supporting military authority in this passage. This is an odd and frail argument, both because the existence of political satire does not indicate that these same people do not see the goodness and necessity of the state and because she does not look at the Jewish theological context in which Paul acknowledges authority for human rulers. She attempts to support her argument linguistically, by stating that the tasso root verbs used in this passage point to the military on Paul’s mind (128). These verbs, which generally indicate “obedience,” or “submission,” are widely used in the NT. In one case the verb is used to indicate Jesus submitting to his parents after the incident as a boy in the Temple, in other cases the verb forms are used to suggest the proper behavior of a wife to her husband. Are these military uses?  Even less compelling are arguments that words such as agathos (good), kakos (bad or evil), or exousia (power or authority) have military meanings in Paul’s usage. These are common words throughout the NT and in most instances there is no military sense, except when Jesus, who is often described as having exousia, is doing battle with the forces of evil. This is a difficult chapter to critique because it is as thin as air and does not advance discussions of this significant passage amongst Pauline scholars.

Chapter 6, “Nobody Here But Us Bondsman: Paul on Slavery”, should be a surprise for those who know nothing of slavery in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Ruden’s discussion of Paul’s letter to Philemon is very helpful, especially her summation of Paul’s key innovations with respect to the Christian stance to slavery (165-66). This can all be found in other studies of Philemon, but to have it laid out in a fourteen point chart is revealing. She should, however, have carried out this task without her potshot at biblical scholars who she claims are “closed to the reality of original Christianity” (148) with respect to slavery in Paul’s letters. She states that she spent “a day” at the Library of Congress looking for texts on Paul and slavery and that she already knew some current studies. She should have spent more than a day on the task, for she overlooked the superb works of Jennifer Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity andJ. Albert Harrill, The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity, neither of which appear in her Bibliography, and everything on the current study of Paul’s letter to Philemon.

Her final chapter, “Love Just Is: Paul on the Foundation of the New Community,” does not present anything new in Pauline studies. For instance, her study of 1 Corinthians 13 on agape, love, is excellent (179-181), but no different than one would find in, for instance, Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord(273-275), except that Gorman offers a more comprehensive context of agape as one of the three theological virtues in Paul. Ruden struggles to understand, though, Paul‘s discussion at the end of 1 Corinthians 13 of himself as a child, nepios (infant, or young child), but does not discuss its use elsewhere in Paul’s letters and omits all discussion of new works on childhood in Christianity and Paul, such as Odd M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, or Trevor J.  Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor. The theological context of a child growing to spiritual maturity, a theme throughout 1 Corinthians 3 and 4, is simply not discussed at all.

The book offers us on occasion fascinating insight, especially in Chapters 3, 4 and 6, as to how attention to Paul’s Greco-Roman context helps us to understand Paul’s letters, but these insights have been available for a long period of time and more thoroughly in the extensive literature of biblical scholarship, some of which I have linked to in this review. Ruden's study is less a study of Paul and more a study of how Ruden came to understand Paul not as an artificial construct of her imagination, as an anti-feminist, cruel taskmaster or bogeyman, but as a man of his world. This is all well and good, but that bogeyman was not created by biblical scholars and she should not claim that what she is doing is something new, innovative, or virtually unexplored. Because she did not know Paul in this way before does not mean it was not known. By examining him in his Greco-Roman context, she is doing what numerous scholars have done before her, though she gives them scant acknowledgement or attention. By ignoring the Hellenistic Jewish context for Paul, she creates for herself once again a partially comprehensible Paul, somewhat better understood, but strangely disconnected from the world in which he lived.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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