When defending the Bible against critics, one must be prepared to answer questions on several fronts. Were the documents written reliably? Were they transmitted correctly? Why were some books left out? What happened to all the Gnostic books? And what is papyrus anyway?
Even if we answer these questions well, we are still left with another hurdle: the character of the writers. Take Paul. Please. Paul has managed to become a lightning rod for accusations of anti-semitism, homophobia, bigotry, anger, meanness, crudeness…. It’s the kind of list that would make South Park proud. Even if we show that the documents are inspired, reliable, and faithfully transmitted, what do we do with the topics? And how do we explain writers like Paul?
I recently read Paul Among The People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined In His Own Time. I know what you are thinking: Thrilling title! This book and a Wild Blue Premium Blueberry Lager, and my Friday night is planned! Actually, that’s pretty much what happened for me. I started reading last Friday night, Wild Blue in hand, and I couldn’t put it down (the book, that is).
The author, Sarah Ruden, is an intriguing person. Equally at home among Quakers, Mennonites, and intelligentsia at Harvard, she has managed to find fans everywhere from Christianity Today to the Daily Beast. She is a pacifist who clearly articulates the Apostle Paul’s use of military analogies. She is a social and religious liberal who willingly and generously engages social and religious conservatives.
Ms. Ruden is also a pleasure to read. She has an extensive history in Greek and Roman literature, and she masterfully interweaves Paul’s writings with those of the most influential writers of his day. It’s a very different kind of analysis of the Bible, one that pulls more from the common culture that created the language than from the isolated words themselves. Meaning is gleaned more often from historical records of parties and plays than from verb tenses (though she is at home there as well).
She goes out of her way to keep her focus very neatly defined within the targeted texts, and by doing so carefully avoids much broader and even more volatile questions. Perhaps this is good for the purposes of this book.
So why is Ms. Ruden defending Paul?
In the opening chapters, she establishes the basic thesis: Paul “understood the lure of monotheism and of a consistently just and merciful God unlike any of the deities in the Greco-Roman pantheon; and he knew the beauty of a deeply ordered community, such as polytheistic ideology had never managed to produce…”
It appears the Paul-as-curmudgeon crowd overstated their case. Paul actually offers a message of hope and liberation, not oppression and bigotry.
Ms. Ruden uses Galatians 5 as a springboard to dive into the topics that have caused so much controversy over the years.
Greek and Roman men could have sex with prostitutes, single women, slaves, other men, boys – the list is as exhaustive as the cited stories are exhausting. Adultery with another man’s wife was the one (and apparently the only) type of sexual relationship that was off limits.
In this context, Paul’s banning of adultery and fornication created a community that elevated women, chastised the promiscuous men, and offered a way of life that would stabilize the community instead of destroy it. Paul said that those who use other people sexually and treat them like objects, ruining them and then discarding them, were morally impure. Even the men (perhaps especially the men) were accountable now. In Ms. Ruden’s words, “it set out a new way of thinking that must have been quite exciting, a hope for something beyond exploitation, materialism, and violence…”
When Paul addressed homosexuality, he was writing to a culture that was, simply put, brutal. Pederasty was normal; “real” men knew how to use and break not only women and slaves, but also boys and effeminate men. The active partner was almost always admired, while the passive partner – the victim – was always disdained. The classical literature that records this aspect of Greek and Roman life is difficult to read even now, especially with the scandal at Penn State covers the front pages. Here was a culture in which “real’ men represented the worst of human nature: oppression, usury, brute force, destructiveness, and hypocrisy.
In Romans 1 Paul makes no distinction between the active and passive partner in his discussion of homosexuality. In other words, all of the cultural humiliation that had been heaped upon the passive, used victim should be applied to the active, abusive perpetrator. In this light, one can understand how the used and abused in Greek and Roman culture read Romans 1 as a clarion call for liberation, which is very different from how it is portrayed today.
It is worth noting that Ms. Ruden carefully qualifies this discussion: this kind of homosexuality “was what Paul and his readers were seeing”; “no one could have imagined homosexuality’s being different.” By not going further than the very direct focus of the passage itself, she speaks bluntly without having to worry about offending almost any reader, conservative or liberal.
She summarizes that section well: “Christ, the only Son of God, gave his body for mankind. What greater contrast could there be to the tradition of using a weaker body for selfish pleasure of a power trip?”
THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Paul’s statement that those who do these things “will not inherit the Kingdom of God” is not so much a threat as a plaintive observation: “Do you realize what you will miss out on if you do these things?” Inheritance was of monumental importance in Greek and Roman societies, but only the respectable, secure, wealthy people were able to provide this. Paul is offering a Christ whose kingdom is open to all.
“Christianity offered anyone, no matter how poor or powerless, an alternative inheritance – another kind of home; a new way to belong. In this light, Paul’s message is strongly positive…”We offer you an equal share of a community such as most of you could only dream of before. You forfeit it only if you are disorderly through these destructive acts that are not even attractive in comparison to the life you could be leading.”
This message of equality, worth, and full entrance into community life provides the backdrop for Paul’s writing concerning women. In a world where hair styles and head coverings carried with them cultural and social significance – particularly in highlighting distinctions of virtue, class and privilege – Paul gives structure to the church that erases these distinctions for the benefit of the underprivileged and abused. If all are seen as equal in the eyes of God, why not work to bring equality to how all are seen by the followers of God?
As for the instructions limiting the involvement of women in public meetings, Ms. Ruden does not see this as unusual considering the culture. In addition, she believes that Paul actually elevated the role of women by not only allowing them to be at meetings, but also encouraging them to have follow-up conversations with their husbands.
“It would not have been remarkable that women were forbidden to speak among the Christians. It’s remarkable that they were speaking in the first place. It’s remarkable that they were even there, in the ekklesia perhaps for all kinds of worship and deliberation, and that their questions needed answers, if not on the spot.”
Even the passages on marriage show a remarkable step forward for women. All women in Greek and Roman culture were expected to be submissive, so this is hardly a groundbreaking command. But the idea that both spouses had to be faithful, not just the wife? That the sexual needs of both spouses ought to be considered? That a husband ought to make personal sacrifices for his wife? That was indeed groundbreaking.
When dealing with the troublesome questions of Paul’s position on slavery, there are several things worth noting.
First, freed slaves had a miserable life ahead of them. The Greeks and Romans did not consider freed slaves any more worthy of rights and privileges than when they were slaves. In fact, the life of a freed slave was often worse than his life of slavery. Had Philemon freed Onesimus (which Paul could have suggested but did not), Onesimus would have had a rough – and perhaps short – life. Paul had a more ambitious plan: “He wanted to make him into a human being.” A slave was a filius neminis, a son of no one. Paul wrote what he did because he wanted Onesimus to have a father in Philemon; Paul wanted a slave to become one of the liberi, the free ones, legitimate sons of the household, one to whom an inheritance was secure.
If Ms. Ruden writes more books on the Bible, I will read them. What she offers goes a long way toward taking the tenseness out of the discussion about Paul and his writing. If her thesis is correct – Paul brought a message of liberation and hope that ought to resonate with the marginalized and oppressed in our world – then we have found a much stronger starting point from which to knock down unfortunate biblical stereotypes.
I believe I will recommend Paul Among The People to my skeptical friends. The book is not perfect, but it can be an effective tool in removing one more roadblock on the road to the cross.