I am going to be praising this book highly, so let me get just a couple of criticisms out of the way at the very front. This book is a “reimagining” of the apostle Paul, one that defends him from some very common modern misunderstandings. It undertakes this task on the basis of a very wide and deep knowledge of the classical world, with which Paul was so often in conflict. Sarah Ruden, in short, is someone who is able to listen to both sides of the phone conversation, and who is able to rescue Paul from the misunderstandings of moderns, only able to listen to Paul’s side of it, and who wildly underestimate what he was actually dealing with.
My two criticisms are these. Ruden tends to accept what current scholarship (all rise) wants to say about Pauline authorship, and so this limits what she is able to draw on as she reintroduces the apostle to us. This cavalier approach to the inspiration of Scripture also results in her willingness to be critical of what she sees as Paul’s foibles—sort of tetchy, ill-tempered, kind of splenetic—while staunchly maintaining that he was among the good guys and was fighting the good fight. I grew up wanting to be more respectful of apostles than that. She respects him in the main cause—indeed, that is what the book is about—but she also makes a little bit too free.
The second criticism is that she uses Puritan interpretations of Paul as kind of a foil, not realizing that the Puritans need to be understood contextually, just as she does for Paul. Not only so, but when the Puritans are read in context, and more widely than she does, much the same thing happens as happened with her and Paul. So if you read this book on my recommend, just tiptoe past her observations on the Puritans. The good stuff is up ahead.
Now the praise. Sarah Ruden’s knowledge of the classical world is wide-ranging. She is intelligent, honest, and informed. Not only does she have this knowledge, she has the courage to simply put what it was like on the table. I mean this. She interprets the first century in first century terms, without trying to make their customs and outlook fit into contemporary norms. Moreover, she sees very clearly that it was the apostle Paul’s opposition to those perverse norms that helped get us to the world we now inhabit—from which vantage we perversely turn around to critique the apostle.
She tackles genuine hot button issues. There is a chapter on Paul and homosexuality. There is another chapter on Paul and women. And then she also treats Paul’s instructions to slaves. But unlike so many modern commentators, Ruden actually knows what first century sexual ethics were like. She knows the actual status of women back then. She also knows what the institution of slavery was like. In support of her observations, she quotes extensively from the literature of the period, and for the average Christian today, few experiences will be as eye-opening as reading this book. Sure, Paul was a first century curmudgeon. But then you get a glimpse of what he was being curmudgeonly about, your natural response will be omigosh.
When you get into the meat of this book, you find arguments that you can respect. Even when you don’t agree, or if you suspect that she would allow for some things today that you would not, what she provides is real substance for real discussion.
Her chapter on homosexuality ends this way:
“All this leads to a feeling of mountainous irony. Paul takes a bold and effective swipe at the power structure. He challenges centuries of execrable practice in seeking a more just, more loving society. And he gets called a bigot. Well, it’s not a persecution that would have impressed him much” (p. 71).
And I will offer this as a teaser. Her provocative treatment of head coverings inverts the whole question, and is at least worth thinking about. In that day the women without veils were not the liberated women, but rather quite the reverse. Slave women, who were frequently forced into prostitution, were not allowed to wear a covering. Paul’s requirement for the Christian worship service may have been a staggering promotion for the women with pasts—as though it were the height of the Victorian era and he required all Christian women to wear white at their weddings.
I will finish with an observation that I have made before, and it is one that needs to be made over and over again with regard to the kinds of issues addressed in this book—e.g. sexual ethics, the role of women, and slavery. Often evangelical expositors are less to be trusted with the meaning of the text than liberal expositors. This is because an evangelical is necessarily stuck with the results of his exegesis. The liberal can say that Paul taught xyz about women, ho, ho, ho, but the evangelical, if he comes up with xyz, has to defend it himself. This has led in the past to no small measure of exegetical creativity on the part of Bible “believers.” Ruden is in an odd position. She clearly inhabits the liberal academic world, but shows Paul a great deal more actual respect than he often gets from evangelicals. The evangelicals have to pretend respect while at the same time passing over such ignorables as his teaching on head coverings, returned slaves, and the problem of the silken boys.
I don’t agree with everything Ruden argues for. But it was one of the more worthwhile books I have read in some time.