Monday, June 13, 2011

Paul among the People

Paul among the People is a good book. You should read it.

The author, Sarah Ruden, is a classical scholar and translator of the Aeneid. Based on the snippets of her translation scattered throughout the book, I'd say she's a very good translator. (Maybe she'll be able to get me past Book I of the Aeneid.) Her renderings are striking, immediate. The danger in translating classic texts is that the unnatural English of the translation will lay like a haze over the terrain of the original's ideas. The haze masks the landscape, the places where it rises to meet us and where it falls away abruptly. Ruden is clear, and the disorientation you feel when reading her translations is the result of seeing the extremes of the landscape: These ancient people were just like us, except when they were exactly unlike us.

In Paul among the People, Ruden lets us hear Paul in the context of "his own time." This is what New Testament scholarship is supposed to do, but Ruden does it more vividly than any commentary I've read. What kind of behavior were the early Christians and their polytheistic neighbors engaged in? What was Paul warning them to avoid? (The short answer: A lot of sexual violence and exploitation.)

Ruden's approach is driven by the way Paul is viewed in modern society (outside the evangelical sphere, it should be added): as a hater of fun, women, and homosexuals, a supporter of oppression and slavery. Ruden's project is to debunk this view, topic by topic.

Reading this book from within evangelicaldom is an interesting experience. Ruden shows that Paul was on the right side of history, but she doesn't have the highest opinion of his personality. I don't think evangelicals perceive Paul as having a personality, at least, not personality flaws. (Is this a consequence of inerrancy? Was Paul's crankiness covered in verbal plenary inspiration?) Some of the hardest passages are punted away by saying, "Paul didn't write that letter." This was a let-down for me, but fair enough: Ruden's project isn't to tell the church what its Scriptures teach; she wants to present what Paul, the ancient thinker, actually taught. As an outsider to New Testament scholarship, it makes sense for Ruden to defer to the highest-credentialed scholars in the field (i.e., her colleagues at Harvard and Yale) on the limits of the Pauline corpus.

This is a unique, helpful, and riveting book. (I read it in only a couple of sittings.) The designers and typesetters also deserve credit for an excellent finished product.

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