The Apostle of the Golden Age
Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time
February 16, 2010
240 pp., $25.00
Books about the Apostle Paul arrive regularly at my desk, in such profusion as to strain the carrying capacity of a Kindle. Some are introductions; many are highly specialized studies from this or that academic fiefdom. Some are impeccably orthodox; others flaunt their scorn for Scripture and the traditions of the church. And then there are the effusions of cranks, self-published and self-important, eager to Explain It All.
Now and then, though, something wonderfully unexpected appears. Earlier this year, Pantheon Books published Sarah Ruden'sPaul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. Ruden is a translator of Greek and Latin; her Englishing of The Aeneid was published in 2008 to considerable acclaim. She is the translator for The Landmark Julius Caesar (coming down the road in a bit), and in the coming academic year, as a Guggenheim Fellow and a visiting scholar in classical studies at Wesleyan University, she will translate The Oresteia of Aeschylus.
You may be thinking that Ruden doesn't have the background of the typical Pauline scholar. You would be right. Herself a poet as well as a translator of classical texts, she approaches the subject from a fresh angle. A couple of months ago—Ruden was then at Yale Divinity School, where she'd been a visiting fellow since 2007—we talked about her book.
At the very beginning of your first chapter, you say, "The last thing I expected my Greek and Latin to be of any use for was a better understanding of Paul. The very idea that anyone proposed it would have annoyed me." Why was that?
My upbringing was pretty mainstream liberal Christianity. In the Midwestern Methodist church I attended, the word was that, while Paul was very important, he was no friend of women, and he was very harsh and authoritarian. I was taught that there was a big gap between Jesus' mission and Paul's.
You mention at several points in your book that you are now a Quaker. Did you become a Quaker after you grew up?
Yes. I was around 30 when I became a Quaker. This was a decision that I'd come to after a long time away from Christianity altogether. During my last year of graduate school, I was staying in a Quaker boarding house, and it was an astonishing experience for me—an experience of lived Christianity. I was very much at loose ends at the time. I didn't have strong social ties. I had been nerding it out, or nerding it up, maybe, for my entire adult life. I did my undergraduate degree in three years at the University of Michigan, and then I went into a Harvard Ph.D. program at the age of 21.
That took you through most of your 20s?
It did. So there I was, and I really hadn't explored any of the possibilities of human society. The Quaker community was a wonderful place in which to start that. We shared tasks, and they rotated, so everyone would do an equal amount of the dirty work. And they appreciated each other so much. If you did a good job of cleaning the stairs, people would stand at the bottom of the stairs and exclaim about their beauty: "Oh, it shines. How did you do that?" It was there, in a Quaker meeting for worship, that I had a real revelation, a real sense of the presence of God. I heard a voice inside me saying that everything would be okay.