Monday, February 15, 2010

Updated: A Fascinating New Book Placing Paul in Context Among the Cultures of His Time

Received a review copy of Paul Among the People on Thursday before leaving for the Beyond Cana retreat and couldn't quite grasp what it was about.

I took it and found it it both easy to understand (essential for my evening reading when helping with a retreat) and fascinating. Sarah Ruden goes to great pains to put St. Paul's writings in the context of Paul's "modern times" of Greek and Roman culture so we can see just what cultural forces he was referring to when he wrote his letters. By juxtaposing her knowledge of those cultures (which were considerably cruder and more hostile to Christian religious concepts than we would think) and writings of the people (not high-brow philosophers) with Paul's writings and concepts, a new picture emerges of just what was being battled and why Christian concepts would be so welcome and revolutionary.

I never had the negative image of Paul that many seem to have picked up from his writings and which were the reason the author began researching the info that has become the basis of this book. However, it is fascinating nonetheless to see just how foreign those ancient cultures really were when compared to ours and what we think we know. I'm on page 40 but it has been eye opening already.

If you are dubious about the book, take a moment to read her after-notes on the scholarship and sources. It will reassure you. This is not a pop-culture take but a scholarly work that has been brought to our level. Or so it seems to this unschooled reader.

Updated summary now that I'm finished
Overall, this is an excellent resource for putting yourself into the culture to which Paul was speaking. The author brings up the common misconception about Paul (such as homosexuality, misogyny, etc), then addresses the reality of the culture on that issue at the time, then cites many examples to make sure the point is clear, then returns to showing what Paul's words really meant as applied to living in those times. Paul emerges as someone who really wants to communicate that if we love God then we must show that love to each other in treating each other as equals, all worthy of God's love.

Highly recommended but not for the squeamish as some of the subjects tend to be explicit by their very nature.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I'm ordering that book. I've been reading St. Paul all month.

  2. Happy to be of assistance! :-)