Paul Among the People

We’ve all heard it, too often to count. The Apostle Paul was a misgynistic homophobic pro-slavery authoritarian, probably a repressed homosexual himself, the first Puritan – Puritan here defined as “someone who cannot sleep if someone in the world is having fun.”

To call this a caricature is too generous. Caricatures resemble their subjects, and this portrait of Paul has no resemblance to the real apostle.

One of the best defenses of the apostle I’ve read, and one of the most interesting books on Paul I’ve read in a long time, is Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People. Contemporary defenses of Paul run the risk of trimming Paul’s sails to the winds of contemporary opinion. Ruden, a poet and translator of Virgil and Aeschylus, avoids this trap by placing Paul’s writings on pleasure, homosexuality, women, authority, and slavery in his first-century context.

What, for instance, was Paul condemning when he listed “sorcery” among the works of the flesh? Ruden suggests that the image that may have been in Paul’s mind was one from Horace, who describes “a small boy 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 longing, could serve as a love charm” (3). Anyone want to defend sorcery now?

In discussing Paul’s view on homosexuality, Ruden deftly dispels the view that Greece was a homosexual paradise, or that Roman homosexuality was a victimless diversion. Pagans of the first century disdained the passive partners in homosexual relationships – usually boys or slave. To have a “loose anus” was equivalent to being depraved.

But Paul didn’t conform to the contemporary opinion. He had no tolerance for the active partner either, the male who “strutted between his wife, his girlfriends, his female slaves and prostitutes, and males.” For the strutting male, “penetration . . . signaled moral uprightness” (53).

Paul makes no distinction between active and passive: “they are all morally degraded and . . . they all become physically debilitated from the sex act with each other.” This was unheard of among Greeks and Romans (67). For Paul, the issue was “wickedness,” adikia, injustice. His contemporaries would first have been puzzled by Paul’s application of the terminology of justice to homosexuality, but then they would have understood. Jesus gave His body to save the weak: “What greater contrast could there be to the tradition of using a weaker body for selfish pleasure or a power trip?” (71).

Ruden follows similar lines of argument in discussing Paul’s statements on women. What’s remarkable about Paul’s prohibition of women speaking in the church isn’t the prohibition. It’s the fact that women were present in the ekklesia in the first place; for the Greeks and Romans, public assemblies were male preserves. What’s remarkable is that women were permitted to speak at all. Romans would have been appalled at women who raised questions or formulated opinions at home.

And those oppressive head coverings? Ruden writes, “Respectable Greek and Roman women traditionally wore concealing veils in public. Marriage and widowhood were the chief things that a veil signified. . . . The veil was the flag of female virtue, status, and security” (85).

By requiring every woman to wear a veil, Paul was aiming “toward an outrageous equality.” Whether the woman was a prostitute or a matron of a great house, she covered her head in the assembly, crowned with the mark of “beauty, wealth, respectability” (87). Looking out over a congregation, you couldn’t have distinguished the “honored wife and mother” from the woman “who had been forced, or maybe was still being forced, to service twenty or thirty men a day” (88). No public gathering was like the church in this respect.

Within marriage, Paul described the relation of men and women “with . . . common business terms, stressing mutually binding rules” (107). Wives have authority over the bodies of their husband; that was not the Roman standard. Men were to treat “the wife’s body as his own and serve its most intimate needs” (108). Unheard of! For Roman men, women existed to serve the needs of men, and men had to be careful not to give too much pleasure to their wives, lest they unleash insatiable female sexuality.

On point after point – the role of parents in marriage, the place and protection of children, the right to leave a marriage – Paul undermines the phallocentric family of the Roman world.

Ruden devotes an illuminating chapter to Philemon. Paul is often blamed for not freeing Onesimus, the runaway slave who fled to him from Philemon. Others claim that this is just what Paul insisted on in his letter to the slave owner.

Ruden cuts through the debate with first-century commonsense: Slaves were nonentities; runaway slaves even worse. If Paul had released Onesimus, he still would not have had the rights of a citizen. Slaves who got their freedom “went either into permanent subordination or into exile” (158). When a slave became completely free, his former master would do nothing for him. Only a fool would help a slave get started on his life of freedom without demanding some kind of quid pro quo. Did Onesimus have skills? Would he have become a day-laborer? Their lives were worse than slaves. The safest real-world option, the one that best met Onesimus’s needs, was to return to his master.

In urging Philemon to receive Onesimus back, Paul writes “the most thoroughgoing, absurd set of paradoxes in all of his letters” (165), a “comic inversion” par excellence (187). Slaves were “sons of no one,” but Paul claims that Onesimus as his son and he urges Philemon to treat him as a “brother,” as kin. Paul wants to keep Onesimus, but (like the Father) gives away his son (165-6).

God is the hero of the “farce” of the runaway slave. God alone can turn a runaway slave into a son and brother. Paul doesn’t anticipate the end of slavery. He turns “Onesimus – and Philemon, and himself, and the whole community – to God” (168).

I’ve summed up only a fraction of the arguments that Ruden presents. It’s an elegant, powerful book. Tolle lege.