Paul was a Jew. He regularly boasted of his extreme commitment to his Jewish heritage. For example, in his letter to the Philippians he boasts of his Jewish heritage: "circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Philippians 3:5-6). In Galatians 1:14, he writes, "I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors." Therefore, the more we learn about first-century Judaism, the better we will understand Paul. Recapturing both Paul (and Jesus') Jewishness has had many advocates - and for good reason.
However, Paul's Judaism was formed in the midst of Greco-Roman culture. Unlike Jesus, Paul was a "city boy." Tarsus, his hometown, was a major cosmopolitan center. As an educated young man, Paul would have been very familiar with Greco-Roman culture. Therefore, if we fully desire to understand Paul and his teachings, we must not only view them from the perspective of his Jewish heritage, but also from the perspective of his Greco-Roman setting. When we do this, we discover that many of the passages that moderns react against as narrow and intolerant are really, in Paul's Greco-Roman setting, progressive and revolutionary.
Sarah Ruden argues for this powerfully and persuasively in her book, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. She incorporates many "hot button" Pauline texts to prove her point.
For example, in her opening discussion of Paul's contrast of the "works of the flesh" with the "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:19-24), she points out how Paul is addressing the indulgences of his contemporary culture. Some of the particular items Paul condemns are perceived by moderns as pecadillos, but in his Greco-Roman culture, they are major transgressions against loving all people equally. For example, he condemns "sorcery" because of the abuses connected with the practice of magic. Ruden draws attention to "the Roman poet Horace's image of 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). Likewise, Paul condemns "revelings" which refers to a komos in his culture, that is, "a late-night, very drunken, sometimes violent postparty parade--which could even end in kidnapping and rape" (6). Her conclusion: Paul's list of the "works of the flesh" is not the work of an aggressively intolerant man but the revolutionary writings of a progressive prophet. Thus, "the compassionate community was there at the beginning, and its founder was Paul of Tarsus. To those asking, 'But how do we live, right here, right now?' his answer was always in essence the same: 'In a way worthy of God's infinite love for each of you'" (7).
Paul and Homosexuality
In two places Paul condemns homosexual practices. In 1 Corinthians 6:9, he states that "male prostitutes and sodomites" will not inherit the kingdom of God. His most quoted passage is found in Romans 1:26-27: "For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error."
However, Paul's condemnation of homosexuality cannot be viewed from our modern perspective, but must be seen from within his Greco-Roman setting. Ruden argues that when we do this, we can no longer view Paul's writings as the intolerant rantings of a bigot, but rather, as passionate and progressive calls to the ending of "exploitative sex, the only physical expression of homoeroticism he likely knew about" (5). In Paul's day, "There were no gay households; there were in fact no gay institutions or gay culture at all, in the sense of times or places in which it was mutually safe for men to have anal sex with one another" (49). Paul, therefore, is not condemning the mutual and monogamous love shared between consenting adults with a homosexual orientation, but rather, he is condemning abusive and exploitative sex.
For Greek and Roman males, the sexual use of another male was an expression of power and dominance, sanctioned by the culture. "The Greeks and Romans even held homosexual rape to be divinely sanctioned. There was an idol of sexual aggression, Priapus, the scarecrow with a huge phallus who was said to rape intruders, lawfully policing gardens through sexual threat, pain, and humiliation" (54). Those on the receiving end of this exploitative sex were either slaves, conquered enemies, or cinaedi. Ruden writes,
Both castrated men and cinaedi [an effeminate, passive "queer"] had lost their manhood to violence, either of the knife or of anal penetration. Both kinds of men were lower than women: there was no way to be a rare "good" cinaedus, or an attractive one--only quite fresh boys and youths had any charm for grown-up males. The only satisfying use of an adult passive homosexual was alleged to be oral or anal rape--the satisfaction needed to be violent, not erotic. Greek and Roman men, in public, would threaten bitter male enemies with rape. (51)
This was also true in regard to women. The sex Paul speaks about in Romans 1 is not lesbianism, but anal penetration of women by men:
While Paul may seem to mention lesbianism, this was such a rare or little-noticed phenomenon in the ancient world that it is likely he instead means anal penetration of women by men. That did happen often, but men valued it less than penetration of boys: women were made to be penetrated anyway; a real man needed to transform an at least potentially active and powerful creature into a weak and inferior one. (54)
Put simply, Paul condemns the sexually exploitive use of men and women as an expression of power over others. This does not correspond to our modern culture's debates regarding mutual, consensual sex among adults of homosexual persuasion. Whatever one's view of this practice, Paul's writings on this topic cannot be used as "hammer texts" to prove that all homosexuality is wrong.
Women in the Church
Another "hot button" is the role of women in church. Though Paul's writings seem intolerant and sexist when viewed from within our culture, when viewed from the perspective of Greco-Roman culture, Paul's perspective is progressive.
The Greek word for church, ekklesia, was a common word which meant "public assembly." It usually referred to "a city's governing assembly, ancestor of our legislatures but in an ancient Greek democracy (or the remnants of one, institutions with their old forms but limited functions under the Roman Empire) open to all male citizens. It was the 'place to be heard.' Every citizen had a right to speak, to try to make his opinions part of binding law" (77-78). Every citizen, that is, except for women. The ekklesia were "male domains." "To gauge the enormity of female trespass on Greek male domains, it may be helpful to know that a married woman or widow caught in the stands at the Olympics was subject to the death penalty" (78).
In contrast to his Greco-Roman culture, the new community, Christ's ekklesia, was open to all, slave and free, Greek and Jew, male and female. When we recognize how unconventional this was from Paul's cultural setting, we are finally in a position to recognize the revolutionary and progressive qualities of his teaching, even if it appears strange from our cultural vantage point:
But whatever the exact standards of anyone involved here. Modern readers tend to come at the passage in I Corinthians from the wrong angle. It would not have been remarkable that women were forbidden to speak among the Christians. It's remarkable that they were speaking in the first place. It's remarkable that they were even there, in an ekklesia, perhaps for all kinds of worship and deliberation, and that their questions needed answers, if not on the spot. Paul's negativity-- even his typical snapping about authority--is extremely modest against the polytheistic background. (81)
Ruden also sheds light on the strange passages about the need for women to cover their head in the ekklesia (see 1 Corinthians 11:1-16).
Respectable Greek and Roman women traditionally wore concealing veils in public. Marriage and widowhood were the chief things that a veil signaled. (For a Roman woman, "to get married" and "to veil oneself were exactly the same word.) The veil held great symbolism: it reminded everyone that all freeborn women, women with families to protect them, were supposed to enter adulthood already married, and that they were supposed to stay chastely married or else chastely widowed until the end of their lives. The veil was the flag of female virtue, status, and security. In the port city of Corinth, with its batteries of prostitutes--including the sacred prostitutes of the temple of Aphrodite--the distinction between veiled and unveiled women would have been even more crucial. (85-86)
She continues: "In Rome also, dress was regulated in detail: for example, any married woman found to have committed adultery would lose forever the right to wear a floor-length, heavily bordered stola and a veil. Any woman who had ever been a prostitute was of course not allowed to wear them either" (87).
When we view this passage from Paul's cultural setting, it speaks not of narrow intolerance, but rather, of a progressive and revolutionary stance that welcomed women in the ekklesia. Ruden concludes:
I think Paul's rule aimed toward an outrageous equality. All Christian women were to cover their heads in church, without distinction of beauty, wealth, respectability--or of privilege so great as to allow toying with traditional appearances. The most hurtful thing about bareheaded, gorgeously coiffed wives might not have been their frivolity but rather their thoughtless flaunting of styles that meant degradation to some of their sisters--as if a suburban matron attended an inner-city mission church in hip boots, a miniskirt, and a blond wig. Perhaps the new decree made independent women of uncertain status, or even slave women, honorary wives in this setting. If the women complied--and later church tradition suggests they did--you could have looked at a congregation and not necessarily been able to tell who was an honored wife and mother and who had been forced, or maybe was still being forced, to service twenty or thirty men a day. This had never happened in any public gathering before. (87-88)
This sheds light on Paul's conclusion: "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering" (1 Corinthians 11:13-15). Ruden writes,
Paul does not write of "nature" (verse 14) by accident. The ancients believed that it was female hair's nature to inflame men, almost like breasts or genitals: men experienced women's hair as powerfully, inescapably erotic, in a way that makes our hair-care product commercials look like an accounting textbook. (88)
Paul and Marriage
Paul not only spoke in progressive ways or women in the church, but in the process, he also taught a progressive and revolutionary view of marriage. In Greco-Roman society, wives were for the purpose of bearing children. Ruden quotes from ancient Greek and Roman writings that counsel that wives should remain motionless during sex in order that the male's seed may better settle within her body. Wives were for bearing children. Other women were for sexual escapades. "Traditionally, legitimate children were what marriage was for. It certainly wasn't for channeling a man's sexual energy--which could go nearly anywhere--and the whole of a woman's energy belonged to her household, to her children most of all" (109).
Paul's teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 is therefore revolutionary. He calls upon married couples to remain faithful to their marriage partner and to freely and equally give themselves to one another in sexual fidelity: "But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (1 Corinthians 7:2-4).
Paul also allows both sexes to initiate divorce and seek their well-being - either within marriage or in singleness. This was revolutionary in Paul's culture.
Paul did make a huge change in the status of women and in marriage, but not the one we ascribe to him. By bringing the question of happiness into it, he let loose not only that hope and possibility, but with it all of the complexity that ancient customs had tamped down. People now had to figure out relationships between the sexes: whether to have relationships at all, whether they bring too much pain and trouble, whether something else would be more fulfilling, how to balance relationships with the spiritual life, and how to love each other selflessly rather than take each other for granted as providers and breeders. It's lucky that Christians counted on divine help, because they were going to need it. (117-118)
Ruden also covers Paul's progressive and revolutionary perspectives on the individual's relationship to the state, on slavery, and on love. In every case, what we moderns perceive as backward, narrow-minded, and intolerant, is, in Paul's host culture, progressive and revolutionary.
Ruden has done us all a service with her book. She allows us to fully embrace the New Testament texts as texts that continue to speak to our current situation, but must, in order to do so, be read from within their own cultural setting. And in the case of Paul's writings, this must include not only Paul's Jewishness, but also his familiarity with Greco-Roman culture.
Quotes excerpted from Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time by Sarah Ruden
© Richard J. Vincent, 2010