It is a common—and fundamental—misconception that Paul told people how to live. Apart from forbidding certain abusive practices, he never gives any precise instructions for living. It would have violated his two main social principles: human freedom and dignity, and the need for people to love one another.
Paul was a Hellenistic Jew, originally named Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, who made a living from tent making or leatherworking. He called himself the “Apostle to the Gentiles” and was the most important of the early Christian evangelists.
Paul is not easy to understand. The Greeks and Romans themselves probably misunderstood him or skimmed the surface of his arguments when he used terms such as “law” (referring to the complex system of Jewish religious law in which he himself was trained). But they did share a language—Greek—and a cosmopolitan urban culture, that of the Roman Empire. Paul considered evangelizing the Greeks and Romans to be his special mission.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The idea of love as the only rule was current among Jewish thinkers of his time, but the idea of freedom being available to anyone was revolutionary.
Paul, regarded by Christians as the greatest interpreter of Jesus’ mission, was the first person to explain how Christ’s life and death fit into the larger scheme of salvation, from the creation of Adam to the end of time. Preaching spiritual equality and God’s infinite love, he crusaded for the Jewish Messiah to be accepted as the friend and deliverer of all humankind.
In Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden explores the meanings of his words and shows how they might have affected readers in his own time and culture. She describes as well how his writings represented the new church as an alternative to old ways of thinking, feeling, and living.
Ruden translates passages from ancient Greek and Roman literature, from Aristophanes to Seneca, setting them beside famous and controversial passages of Paul and their key modern interpretations. She writes about Augustine; about George Bernard Shaw’s misguided notion of Paul as “the eternal enemy of Women”; and about the misuse of Paul in the English Puritan Richard Baxter’s strictures against “flesh-pleasing.” Ruden makes clear that Paul’s ethics, in contrast to later distortions, were humane, open, and responsible.
Paul Among the People is a remarkable work of scholarship, synthesis, and understanding; a revelation of the founder of Christianity.
From the Hardcover edition.
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|Title of eBook: Paul Among the People|
|Release Date: 02-16-2010|
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|Publisher: Ballantine Books|
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Paul Among the People
The last thing I expected my Greek and Latin to be of any use for was a better understanding of Paul. The very idea, had anyone proposed it, would have annoyed me. I am a Christian, but like many, I kept Paul in a pen out back with the louder and more sexist Old Testament prophets. Jesus was my teacher; Paul was an embarrassment.
But one day, in a Bible study class I was taking, a young woman objected to the stricture against sorcery in the “fruit of the Spirit” passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. She said that to her sorcery meant “just the ability to project my power and essence.” Most of the class gave the familiar sigh: Paul was kind of a brute, wasn’t he? I would have sighed too, had there not flashed into my mind an example of what sorcery could mean in a Greco-Roman context: 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. Paul, I reflected, may never have read this poem (which depicts a crime that may never have happened), but it shows the kind of reputation sorcery had in the Roman Empire—certainly among people with a polytheistic background, who made up the main readership for his letters both during his lifetime and after it. I could not get away from the thought that what his writings would have meant for them is probably as close as we can come to their basic original importance, as key documents (prior even to the gospels) inspiring the world-changing new movement, Christianity. ...