Sarah Ruden is an highly acclaimed classical translator , a researcher on the Yale Divinity School faculty, and a Quaker. She’s also the author of a new book about St. Paul, called “Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time” which will be released next week. A copy landed on my desk yesterday. Opening it, I thought oh great, another example of trendy Biblical scholarship. In other words, I judged the book by its cover.
I opened it for kicks, and started reading. I instantly loved Ruden’s voice; not knowing her writing, I assumed that it would be impenetrable Academese. But in this book, at least, she writes like a normal person who actually loves the English language. Here’s the arresting first paragraph:
The last thing I expected my Greek and Latin to be of any use for was a better understanding of Paul. The very idea, had anyone proposed it, would have annoyed me. I am a Christian, but like many, I kept Paul in a pen out back with the louder and more sexist Old Testament prophets. Jesus was my teacher; Paul was an embarrassment.
But then this classics scholar had an epiphany:
But one day, in a Bible study class I was taking, a young woman objected to the stricture against sorcery in the “fruit of the Spirit” passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. She said that to her sorcery meant “just the ability to project my power and essence.” Most o the class gave the familiar sigh: Paul was kind of a brute, wasn’t he? I would have signed too, had there not flashed into my mind an example of what sorcery could mean in a Greco-Roman context: the Roman poet Horace’s image of a small boy buried up to his neck and left to starve to death while buried up to his neck and left to starve to death while staring at food, so that his liver and bone marrow, which must now be imbued with his frenzied loging, could serve as a love charm.
This got her to wondering about the chronological and cultural prejudice with which we judge Paul. Ruden decided to use her knowledge of Greek and Latin, and of the Greco-Roman world, to imaginatively investigate the kind of culture against which Paul’s letters to the early churches are a critique. It completely changed her view of the man, helping her to see that far from being a sour, censorious Puritan, Paul’s message proclaimed freedom and human dignity to the oppressed — especially the slaves and the poor of the Roman Empire.
For example (follow the jump; this is good stuff)…
Ruden often criticizes contemporary interpretations of the Bible for failing to convey accurate and/or complete meanings of the Greek words Paul used (though she admits that in some cases, there really is no satisfactory English equivalent). She takes this famous passage from Galatians 5, which the actual Puritans used to justify their severity (and which contemporaries use similarly to condemn Paul as a sourpuss who hated normal human pleasures):
19Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,
20Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,
21Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
23Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
… and deconstructs it in historical context, trying to understand what Paul’s readers at the time would have heard. The word “revellings” sounds so innocent to us, Ruden says, which is why it seems parsimonious of Paul to condemn them. The actual Greek word is komoi, which to the Greco-Romans of Paul’s day meant a particular kind of late-night party that involved blind-drunk men marching through the streets late at night, singing loud songs, at times accompanied by prostitutes, looking for sexual partners. Ruden says Paul’s readers wouldn’t have understood him to be condemning celebrations, but rather a particular kind of wantonly destructive partying that was terrible for the community and for individuals.
This is Ruden’s method: to use classical texts to illuminate the moral contours and practices of the Greco-Roman world, and to explain why Paul’s point of view was actually deeply humane and liberating to the vast numbers of the oppressed — a fact that, in her view, explains why Christianity took off in the ancient world. Her second chapter takes on Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality, which infuriates so many contemporaries today. She explains at great length, with frequent citations from the writings of pagan Romans, the social context of homosexuality in that world. The Greco-Roman world, she explains, was a violent place in which virility meant everything. Women were treated like receptacles for male lust — as were slave boys, poor boys, and any man who was not strong enough to defend himself against anal rape. There was no shame in being the active partner in anal sex — in fact, she writes, the hypermasculine culture of the era considered the active partner to have absorbed the masculinity of the passive partner by the act. The picture she paints is of an entire culture operating according to the brutal laws of contemporary American prisons. Ruden explains that pederasts were everywhere, and were open about their attempts to seduce boys; parents had to be constantly on guard against this.
Once a male had been penetrated by a predator, she writes, he was worthless trash in the eyes of the ruling male class. Ruden writes with heartbreaking empathy about the lives of slave boys and other poor boys who were used up by men, and discarded like human waste.This was normative for that time and place — and this is what Paul condemns. She explains how the Greek word that Paul uses distinguishes his condemnation from those of the Greeks and the Romans, who frequently mocked passive partners (or victims) of male-on-male sex as weak and despicable. By contrast, Paul says the practice disgraces all who participate in it, because it degrades their human dignity. She goes on to show, in a close reading of Paul’s Greek, to show that his condemnation of homosexuality was in fact a ringing protest against the injustice of male-on-male sexual exploitation that was common in his culture — and permitted to those men who held power, and who could do whatever they wanted to the sons of slaves and the poor. As Ruden says, you can well imagine why to men and women who had to endure this abuse at the hands of privileged men, and who had to see their sons ruined for the pleasures of the rich, Paul’s teaching sounded like liberation.
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.
I’ve not read more than the first two chapters, but the book really is intellectually thrilling to me, not only as someone who knows far, far less about Paul and his letters than I should, but also as someone who has an abiding suspicion of the blinders I and so many other contemporaries have about judging other societies, present and past. (This is why I’ve been so interested in Wade Davis’s cultural anthropology). I present this to you here for your own consideration as a matter of intellectual curiosity, but not as an attempt to start an argument over contemporary views of homosexuality (indeed, Ruden, at least insofar as I have read in the book, does not make her personal views known, but she gives a hint when she says that given the overwhelming brutality of male sexuality in the Greco-Roman world, Paul almost certainly would not have been able to conceive of homoerotic physical and emotional affection in a non-exploitative context). Anyway, whatever one’s views on the moral licitness of homosexuality, I think it’s helpful to all of us to know the cultural context in which Paul stated his views. One can disagree with him, and even loathe what he had to say, but one should at least consider that his views did not come from blind prejudice. What strikes many contemporary listeners as cruel condemnation of people with same-sex desires would have struck listeners in Paul’s day as a defense of the defenseless against institutionalized sexual abuse of their male children. That’s worth thinking about. To issue a blanket condemnation of Paul for anti-gay bigotry is not unlike condemning abolitionists for encroaching on private property rights.
The point I want to make in this post is not about homosexuality in our time, but about how we read and understand the Bible in historical context. I think it is theoretically possible to think Paul is not a reliable guide to how to regard homosexuality in our culture, but to sympathize with his conclusions for his own. I think, in fact, that that’s probably where Ruden is, though I can’t say for sure.
Alas, I’d love to see a discussion about all this on a comments thread, but I know from past experience that the thread would quickly get into a screaming culture-war fight — and I don’t intend to spend my Saturday monitoring the comment. So I’m not going to open up comments on this one.
UPDATE: After Ruden translated The Aeneid, National Review did an interview with her to find out how a Quaker pacifist like herself dealt with one of the great war poems in history. It speaks to the temperament that drew her to speak up for St. Paul against his contemporary defamers. Excerpt:
Working with the Aeneid did me a lot of good. I used to bear a cheap pacifist witness that is fairly typical — though not, I hasten to add, as typical among the Quakers and Mennonites with whom I hang out, and who should have been able to teach me better. But it took Virgil to persuade me that everything costs. If I want to be against war, I can’t just shoot off my mouth about it. I have to pay, as I do now: live in a small furnished apartment with a roommate, not own an appliance bigger than a humidifier that fits on a bookshelf, not even try to get a driver’s license but let roller-blades be my only thrill from wheels, not get married except to someone who’ll let me continue this sort of testimony.
Brand-new, politically correct literature is supposed to be liberating and empowering, but it’s the classics that allow someone marginal like me — a woman in a tiny religious sect, who spent ten years in Africa — to understand mainstream culture and take part in it, and to have a chance of influencing it in turn. The big classics wouldn’t last unless they persuaded a lot of different people of some set of realities, so I think anybody who wants to engage the world should engage seriously with these books. I just wish somebody had told me this, and told me when I was young. I spent way too much time in the ghetto of women’s Greek and Latin literature that people managed to build, containing merely love elegy and some brief etcetera.
It’s about imagination, and this is why it was Virgil especially who helped me. Once you’ve confronted, through an author like him, the tragedy, the full horror or human nature, you cry for a while, but then you cheer up and wonder what you can do with what you understand. And for a pacifist, it works both ways. There are usually many, many solutions besides killing someone. But you have to be prepared to confront your own orthodoxy, too. A friend of mine in Cape Town, shortly before she resigned as a Quaker, fretted that we weren’t allowed to be rude about Robert Mugabe. Quakers in Africa had been excusing violence by Africans for decades — now they were full of compunction and sanctimony, and horrified at any “verbal violence,” when their own pacifist connections, Africans dedicated to uplifting Africa, were being raped and enslaved, and tortured, and killed? It was idiotic.
I have an intense and intimate relationship with literature. I look in an author for some of the things I look for in a friend or a lover. Most of the authors I choose are dead and white, which makes sense. They are privileged. Their own grievance is small enough to be put aside, so that they can take in what’s happening around them. Who wants to live with somebody who can’t do this?
Put more bluntly, why would I live with someone who treats me like a moron, as if I can be entertained and instructed, and asked to give something meaningful in return, by someone with nothing in her brain but the mean things done to her or her ancestors?
Virgil would have been stumped to be told that someday a woman would translate him, but he respected me much more than race-gender-class authors do, by respecting the complexity of the world, which is a respect for all possibility. Worrying about him being dead, white, and male is like worrying about the gender, color, and mortality of the Labrador who pulls me out of a lake and saves my life. For me, having something to think about is life.
The interviewer asks Ruden why anyone should study Latin today, instead of, say, Spanish or Chinese. She answers, in part (remember this is last year):
Who says this language is dead? Is literature dead? Is the West dead? Check in early next year, when my book on Paul of Tarsus comes out, and see how reading the “dead” language of Koin? Greek can challenge what is actually dead in us.
…can challenge what is actually dead in us. Great line. What an interesting mind she has.