sophia_sol: drawing of Combeferre, smiling and holding up a finger like he's about to explain something (Default)
sophia_sol ([personal profile] sophia_sol) wrote2017-04-14 04:28 pm

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, by Sarah Ruden

The thing about Paul is that his writing is pretty confusingly written and complicated to understand sometimes and also in places is very easy to interpret as pretty harsh towards, like, women and gay people and slaves and a variety of other marginalized populations. AND there's lots of letters in the bible that claim to be by Paul but aren't, and those letters contain the worst of the bigotry, which doesn't help with the general public perception of Paul.

Way back in university I took a course about Paul, which was very educational. Prior to that course I was totally ready to throw Paul out entirely. The course made me feel very differently.

The thing about Paul (like the thing about MOST of the bible tbh) is that a lot of people forget to look at the social context in which the writing was happening, and/or don't have the detailed knowledge needed to appropriately contextualize. The world Paul lived in is very different than the world we live in! So you can't understand what he means by various injunctions unless you understand the particular social pressures he was reacting to.

That's what this book is doing, in a somewhat different way than my university course did. This book talks about Paul in the context of popular works of ancient Greek & Roman literature and what those things can tell us about the society Paul and his original audience lived in. And in that context, the things he says read very differently. He was actually working really hard to be loving and welcoming and anti-oppression and anti-injustice, and that kind of thing. Not always succeeding perfectly, but the direction he's pointing is clear.

So this book was full of interpretations that were not exactly news to me, but with greater attention to the specifics of the context than I've gotten before. So it was an enjoyable read but I didn't really learn anything new.

Also, although the book is overall pretty good, I feel like the author didn't always manage to actually....come to a coherent conclusion in all her chapters, and wrap up the various stuff she was saying into an actual point. The chapter on Paul and the state was the worst for this. It felt like she was building towards something with her discussion of the public perception of the military and how that connected with a passage from Paul's letters, but then the end of the chapter turned into some sort of confusing personal reflection and never actually concluded that thought. I was able to make inferences forward to where she was probably going with things, but she didn't actually say it. So that was annoying.

But my overall conclusion from reading this book was to be reminded of how many feelings I have about Paul himself. Like, he's just so much more of a person than anyone else in the entire Bible. Biblical narratives tend towards the short and spare, so you don't get really well-rounded looks at lots of characters. Paul feels like that too when we get third-person discussion of him in Acts. But in his letters, he talks in "I" statements a lot, he says stuff about himself, and his personality just really shines through.

I mean, sometimes the personality that shines through is kinda asshole, but like....even in his vast flaws he's so clearly real and so clearly trying that I can't help but care about him. I don't know what to do with these feelings because like, what even, but the feelings are THERE and STRONG and Paul-the-person really matters to me and I don't even know why.

At any rate, because apparently this is where I'm dumping all my latent Paul feelings, I just want to at least briefly mention the fact of his massively outsized influence on the direction of Christianity and Christian theology in the time after Jesus' death (like....Christianity could have gone in a LOT of directions. There were massive conflicts about this! Paul won, to the degree that we have trouble even imagining what Christianity would have been like without at least some Pauline interpretation because it's so thoroughly ingrained.) And I'm not sure whether Paul's influence was all a good thing, and over the years he has definitely been used in very bad ways, so like, as a piece of Christian history I'm still really not thrilled about the dude.

But as a person I care about him A LOT.

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