Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Interview by Natalia Marandiuc

Paul in Context

A conversation with classicist Sarah Ruden.

Sarah Ruden is a translator and poet; her translation of The Aeneid was published by Yale University Press in 2008. A Guggenheim Fellow, she will spend the academic year 2010-11 as a visiting scholar in Classical Studies at Wesleyan University. Natalia Marandiuc spoke with Ruden this spring about her book Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, published earlier this year by Pantheon. Their conversation took place at Yale Divinity School, where Ruden had been a visiting fellow since 2007.

Given your formation as a classicist, more particularly one with a subtle knowledge of the classical literary world, what prompted your interest and desire to write a book on Paul?

It was pure chance, or maybe I could say a leading. I prefer to say that. I was in a Quaker Bible study course. We were looking at letters of Paul and considering them in what's now become a fairly conventional way. We were examining them from a position of moral superiority, of political enlightenment, dismissing Paul. But I became curious and at the same time rather irritated when we were discussing a passage that was being interpreted in a way that knowledge of ancient literature simply does not support, in a way that would have been impossible and unimaginable for Paul. And so for the first time I began reading Paul in Greek, alongside the Greco-Roman literature I had studied for years.

Right. And you say that such a perspective is surprisingly rare in the academic study of Paul. You mention specifically the lack of intellectual exchange between classicists and New Testament scholars in your experience at Harvard. Now, however, there is some significant dialogue here at Yale, for example, between people who study classics, people who study New Testament, and people who study ancient Christianity. And there is also another kind of world that calls for being explored in this kind of nexus, the Jewish world of antiquity.

In extrapolating from my experience at Harvard, which was quite a long time ago, I spoke, of course, too sweepingly. You are exactly right: there is a lot of interchange here at Yale now. And to see this is very encouraging. But the problem persists, and I think it has to do more with the present character of the academy than with what's going on in particular fields. There is a tendency to get bogged down in technicalities and to be narrowly specialized and to speak about things that are only of interest to a dozen other scholars in the world. Now, all this has professional and political causes that go pretty deep, and it's going to take a long time to address it, if it is going to be addressed.

You consider five broad charges, so to speak, that contemporaries tend to bring against Paul—regarding pleasure (he was a killjoy), homosexuality, women, the state, and slavery. And on each count you claim Paul was, in fact, much more humane than such criticisms suggest. Yes, and in each of those chapters I chose what I thought was the most extreme misinterpretation of Paul—extreme but nevertheless representative of widely accepted criticisms. For example, when I talk about Paul and women I cite George Bernard Shaw, who calls Paul "the eternal enemy of woman."

A recurring theme in these chapters is the way in which Paul anticipates many of the values that we take for granted today, especially modern notions of equality and the individual human person. How would you answer a critic who says it's anachronistic to find such notions in antiquity?

I think that Paul addresses people collectively in a way that respects their individuality. In 1 Corinthians 12, for instance, he says everyone has a particular gift. One person has one kind; one person has another kind. This doesn't seem very striking to us, because the idea it expresses is so pervasive in our society, but in Paul's time it was extraordinary.

And in recognizing individuality, Paul was emphasizing personal responsibility. People must assess their own capacities and make their decisions freely. Greco-Roman authors typically shared an understanding of individuality that was hemmed in by quite narrow constraints. You were an individual, but a great deal would depend on your family, who your father was, the class that you were born into, the particular attitude that the gods had toward you, your fated role in life. All of this played down the role of choice.

Well, exactly. That's the thrust of my question. The language of choice was not present in antiquity in the way we employ it many, many centuries later. So are you suggesting that Paul is a pioneer in introducing this language?

Yes. You assess yourself. You choose, and this choice is part of God's plan for you. That is, if you are created in such a way that perhaps the most idealistic striving for you is not possible, is not practical, then you choose something else, but it's okay. If you can't be celibate then you choose marriage, and it's okay. It's a gift to choose marriage. He says, Okay, we have different gifts. What he really means is no one is excluded from service and salvation—even people who according to society's standards would not seem to be doing something important. Here we are in 1 Corinthians 12 again. If you're the foot, if you're the nostril hair, you're still important, and you are not excluded from the divine plan. Nor are you excluded from individual choice and responsibility. Everyone is the same in that. This attitude I really do not see anywhere in classical literature.

In your book, you don't explicitly apply your reading of Paul on homosexuality to contemporary debates, but your argument is that what Paul condemned in his context was rape, pederasty, sexual abuse, and the like. The implication, I think, is that there was absolutely nothing in Paul's world corresponding to a modern understanding of mutually loving homosexual relationships.

The idea, for example, of a gay household would have been unbelievably far beyond Paul's imagination. He could have had no idea of anything in homosexuality that was not exploitative and cruel. I think this is the source of his emotion when writing about homosexual practice in his time, if not about the basic prohibition itself.

On this theme of exploitation as opposed to mutuality and choice, but in another context, you refer to arranged marriages as being tyrannical. What's tyrannical about an arranged marriage in that kind of society?

Women, at least for their first marriage, if they came from a respectable family, had no choice at all. They wouldn't even meet their spouse before the wedding. Their parents made this choice for them.

But what's tyrannical about that? I'm asking that thinking about the way in which the family's good name, the family's survival, the family's respectability in general was paramount.

Well, we can look at what happened when Christianity introduced the idea of choice, and in particular the possibility of celibacy. There was a stampede toward it. We have all of these stories about early women saints and martyrs. They seem to have been martyred, many of them, purely for saying "I don't want to get married." Now the details of these legends are not credible in many respects, but it does seem clear that celibacy was a very popular option once Christianity introduced it—an option chosen in preference to a situation that pagan society portrayed as very delicious. You have this home. You have money. You have children. You have position. You know, as far as is humanly possible, what's going to happen to you from cradle to grave, and the next generation is the same. As attractive as that might seem to some of us who have knocked around a lot in modern and postmodern society and had nearly complete freedom, it does not seem to have been unequivocally attractive to ancient young people. Some young women particularly felt that they were being treated as prisoners, and they said, "No, I don't want to get married, I am a Christian. I want to pursue that." And their parents said, "Forget about it. We're putting you in jail. We're forcing you to marry." That certainly was tyrannical.

You suggest that Paul is most radical when he talks about slaves. In what way was he departing altogether from the normal view in that time? He really seems to have thought that in an absolute and eternal sense, slavery was nothing. It didn't matter. In Galatians, for example, he says that in Christ there is no slave or free person. This certainly was not a view established among the pagans. We get the theoretical view in Aristotle, and that is that a slave was essentially a different species. Now, how you would actually explain this is not clear, because, say, a war captive could be sold into slavery: a free person could become a slave. And to complicate things further, in practice some slaves were considered much better than others, and some were treated nearly as family members or as friends and collaborators.

Nevertheless, you have these theoretical statements, which were enormously telling. A slave, because he is a slave, is subhuman. And the law was very plain. A slave is property. It can be used, abused, and destroyed. In Roman law and practice, it will not make a fundamental difference in a slave's identity that he's freed. For one thing, the usual mode of freeing a slave was to make him a sort of servant at large. He wouldn't actually be able to go out and do whatever he wanted, move out of town, set up a business in rivalry with his ex-master. There were also immense barriers in social life.

But Paul says to Philemon, "Take Onesimus back as your brother." Your what? Yes. As your brother. And I don't think that the technicalities of this are important—whether or not Paul is commanding Philemon to free the slave—I don't think that's crucial at all. As far as Paul's concerned, from what I can tell, slaves will continue to work and take orders, and masters will stay masters. He's not interested in changing this, but when he says to slaves and slaveowners that slavery is nothing, then a bunch of social trains start moving. If you have to look on your slaves as fellow worshipers, as equal partakers of salvation along with you, then your mind will be blown. You will start to organize your household differently. And eventually the Christian community will be pushing against the laws by which slaves have no rights.

Natalia Marandiuc is a doctoral candidate at Yale Divinity School.

Most ReadMost Shared