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.
All shall be well. Yes. So you have been practicing your faith as a Quaker for some time now, but even so, by your own account, until relatively recently your attitude toward Paul was still rather dismissive, and also it was completely separate from the work that absorbs you, reading and translating classical Greek and Latin texts. Is that right?
Yes. Completely unconnected.
What happened when you started to read Paul in Greek?
I had been reading the Greco-Roman authors for years and years and translating them. When I started to read Paul alongside them, I had a sense of everything coming together. For me there seemed to be some kind of parallel between the community of literature and the community of human beings.
Could you flesh that out a little bit? That's a wonderful notion.
Well, there has been a sense of separation between classical literature and sacred literature, even though there is very substantial cultural overlap. There isn't any logical reason for the separation. One reason has been the historian Edward Gibbon—he was very contemptuous of Christian culture. He thought it was basically barbarism and had an almost satirical attitude toward it. This had a huge influence on the academy, especially in the classics. So in classics it has been fashionable for hundreds of years to have contempt for sacred literature. Even before, since the Renaissance, during the rise of humanism, people tended to think, Well, the Golden Age was the classical one. That was the epitome of civilization.
But there hasn't been sufficient consideration of the reforming continuity between ancient pagan and modern Christian civilizations. And that's what a study of Paul can highlight—and not just of Paul, for that matter, but any study of the New Testament in the light of classical literature. What becomes clear is that there's a single civilization, and it moves toward greater idealism. You have Platonism. You have Stoicism, Epicureanism. You have all these philosophies arising from the ancient world as educated people struggle against the brutality of idol worship, of superstition, of all of this fairly crude traditional religion. And these aspirations find a home in Christianity. And it's not only that the elite find their spiritual home in Christianity; it's that the common people do, too, because this new religion is providing new possibilities for ways to live.
Quoting freely from many classical authors, you show how a kind of casual brutality was taken for granted in the ancient world, and how Paul's attitudes, by contrast, actually have much more in common with the norms of the 21st century.
Right. What characterizes our society at its best is the habit of looking at ourselves with a critical attitude. I think this really started for Western civilization on the road to Damascus. Paul is doing what he's expected to do in his environment. He's involved in persecution. This is all sanctioned by authority, and it's going to get him ahead in his career. He has this revelation, and he is forced to answer the questions, What are you doing? What are you actually doing? Why are you persecuting me? That is, what you do to the world, what you do to other people, is what you do to God. So there's a galvanizing, horrifying, but enlightening realization that what you do every moment you do in the sight of an infinitely loving God.
Paul's entire ministry was about that idea. He made a lot of mistakes. He certainly had changes of mind. He had regrets. As he repeatedly said about himself, he was really painfully human in pursuing this idea. He took no personal credit for what he accomplished—the credit belonged to God. But he pursued this great truth relentlessly. And I think that has made us who we are religiously and ethically. That is what brought the ministry of Jesus into our lives in very practical ways.
I don't know whether it's something you do consciously, partly from your experience as a translator, inhabiting another writer's mind, but reading the book was sometimes almost uncanny: there's a very Pauline style to the book. Was that something that you were aware of?
I think it just happened. My drive is toward a certain kind of ventriloquism. When you translate an ancient author, it's quite difficult, because you don't have a lot more than the words on the page and other people's words on other pages. You have to work really hard to get a sense of the personality of a writer who's been dead so long, whose society has been gone for so long. You try to cultivate your acting ability and your imagination. That's what I've been doing for my whole career. So I think I couldn't help doing this with Paul.
What was really special about this book is that once I had translated him, so to speak, I couldn't put him aside. It's very easy for me to put a classical author aside—Vergil, Aristophanes—Okay, that was interesting. It was fun to pretend to be such a person and to have such views. But Paul I really could not put aside. There are certain things that he says that inhabit you. What he says about love, about God's commitment to individuals and to community—you can't really walk away and leave that behind.
You talk about Paul's vision of great felicity, which you see at the core of his work. At one point you say that he practically had to reinvent the Greek language to express that.
Yes. He was in quite an unusual position. He was an educated man. We know that. He could quote the pre-Socratic philosophers. He knew about rhetoric. His language is really quite sophisticated, but he is writing in part for people who are not so sophisticated, and he is having to deliver concepts that would have been exceedingly strange to everybody in Roman Imperial society, at every level of education.
Romans 1 includes an example of the kind of thing he does when he opens up a topic. He'll take a word and he will repeat it two or three times, even four or five times, in different forms. He will set it out that way. It's almost like he's scrawled his concept on a whiteboard. So in Romans 1, the root he's using is dik-, justice, and he talks emphatically about injustice (or wickedness or unrighteousness). And then he returns to that later in the chapter in rounding out his horrifying vision of sexual exploitation. He does this with several words, and it's as if he were giving vocabulary lessons, reforming the language of his correspondents right before their eyes.
So there must have been something jolting about his very manner of presenting his message as well as the message itself.
Yes. He will take a completely new idea, as in Romans 1, and then frame it by reforming a common concept. Justice was something that the Greeks just could not stop talking about. To Romans it was also an extremely important concept. What is justice? What is the abstraction of justice? Or how could we argue about it in a very long philosophical dialogue? But in Romans 1, Paul says justice is in front of your face. Justice is what you are doing or not doing. And this he rams home in the wind-up to his disquisition on homosexuality. Justice is not something out there. Don't talk about what other people do; it's what you are doing. His style would certainly have startled educated people because it's so clunky with these repetitions, especially at the beginning of passages—so emphatic, so awkward, so unlike what they were used to reading.
Did writing this book make you think that at some time you might want to translate some of Paul's letters beyond what you did out of necessity in your own book?
I don't really know. It's such a daunting idea. Scriptural translation is just an enormous responsibility, and it takes an unbelievable amount of learning and commitment. I'm standing right now in the courtyard of the Yale Divinity School quadrangle, and at one corner is the RSV room, and that is actually the room in which scholars got together and hashed out passages of the Revised Standard Version. You need an army of scholars, really.
But I think it's a bit different if one undertakes something like this not to translate all of Scripture, and not for a translation that will have a kind of official status.
Yes. It's possible to translate much smaller portions, to translate something that you are able to study deeply. I think an honest answer would be that I'm afraid. I have at certain times gotten myself involved with certain Gospel passages and thought and thought about them. What has emerged from that thinking are poems, personal poems, and I entitle them after a passage in Matthew or a passage in John, say. If I'm thinking about what these passages really mean, what emerges is more like a prayer than a translation.
I've seen a handful of poems by you. But do you have a book of poems that is out in addition to your translations?
I have one that was published in South Africa, Other Places, but it's out of print. So I have taken some poems from that volume along with newer poems for a collection called The New Places, which is available at Lulu.com. Publishers and authors alike can put things on this site without giving up copyright.
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Previous articles on Paul from Christianity Today and its sister publications include:
What Did Paul Really Mean? | 'New perspective' scholars argue that we need, well, a new perspective on justification by faith. (August 10, 2007)
Bridging the Ephesians 5 Divide | A fresh look at what this controversial marriage passage says--and doesn't say. (November 18, 2005)
Jesus and Paul: Looking at a Journalistic Approach to Christianity's Beginnings | A full review of ABC's Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness. (April 1, 2004)
The Women in Paul's Life | Two competing Bibles for women highlight the human component of Bible translation and interpretation. (October 27, 1997)
The Apostle Paul & His Times | The July 1995 issue of Christian History.
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