From the Bookshelf - St. Paul

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     Since Pentecost our Epistle readings have focused on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul is a complicated disciple and yet the seven authentic letters written by Paul make up more than a quarter of the New Testament. Most all of us know the conversion that took place for Paul on the road to Damascus. His letters to the early churches provide an interesting perspective on the early communities of those who followed Jesus the Messiah. But these letters and Paul himself have generated controversy over the centuries. Thomas Jefferson referred to Paul as “the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus”. George Bernard Shaw mentioned, “it would have been better for the world if Paul had never been born.” Paul’s view of Christianity, largely taken from the letters, has over the centuries painted a very bleak, strict, and some would say unforgiving view of what it means to be a Christian. His verses from his letters are often pulled out as ammunition in attacks against Jews, women, marriage and gays. As a result the vision of Paul is, to say the least, quite complicated and he has earned quite a bad reputation as a result.

     This summer I have been reading two books that take a fresh look at Paul: What Paul Meant (Penguin Books, 2006) by Gary Wills and Paul Among the People (Image Books, 2010) by
Sarah Ruden. Neither are theologians; Wills is Catholic and Ruden is Quaker. Both are remarkable writers and thinkers. Both received doctorates in classical languages (Wills from Yale and Ruden from Harvard). The perspective they each bring to their reading of Paul’s letter, as classicists alone, is astonishing and helps set Paul and his message in the first-century Greco-Roman world in which his letters were written.

     Ruden’s work is quite enlightening as she not only looks at Paul’s words (he was a native Greek speaker and was fluent in Hebrew) from the vantage point of a trained classicist, but she frames them within the context of the Greco-Roman culture of the 1st century AD. She tackles his views on a number of topics such as women (actually very liberated at the time), slavery, and homosexuality just to name a few. In the process she provides us with an amazing wealth of information about the culture in which Paul wrote, the challenges he faced, and the essence of his message of Christ’s love.

      Wills takes a somewhat different approach and aims to clarify what Paul’s life, letters and teachings meant from a close reading of these letters, turning to the ancient Greek to clarify centuries of misinformation and misinterpretation of these epistles. In the long Western tradition that has portrayed Paul’s message as one focusing on sin, guilt and the tortured conscience, Wills scrapes away all these layers of interpretation and reveals just how radical Paul’s teachings were then and now. The result is a liberating and refreshing view on the early Christian communities, the teachings of Christ, and a guidepost for how we may carry Christ’s message forward in our own lives and communities.

     We will continue to hear from Paul for the rest of this year. If you would like to delve deeper into his teachings and the world in which he was writing I would recommend both of these books. They are well written, easy to read, and you will come away with a richer understanding of Paul, his message, and the very early Christian communities.