Paul through the eyes of a classicist

Though some may see him as the grump of the New Testament, St. Paul is full of surprises.

What’s the connection between St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and the second-century Roman novelist Apuleius’s comedy The Golden Ass? More than you might think, says classicist Sarah Ruden in her book Paul Among the People (Image). Ruden, who specializes in ancient Greek and Roman literature, became interested in the preconceptions modern readers bring to Paul’s writing when she began studying the apostle herself.

“I had nothing to apply to Paul’s writing but classical literature,” Ruden says. She found that comparing Paul with ancient authors such as Petronius and Seneca on similar topics shed new light on some of the apostle’s more controversial passages. A scene in The Golden Ass, for example, suggests that the “veil” Paul asked women to wear when speaking in church was a sign of status and protection rather than a way to restrict women.

Ruden argues that much of Paul’s famous grumpiness is really an expression of outrage at the institutionalized violence he encountered as a missionary in the Greco-Roman world, which included the rape of slaves, prostitution, and violence against wives and children. “Paul had a sense of all people being sacred children of God. And look at how they were being treated.

“Paul was not a 20th-century feminist, so we complain about that,” she says. “But we’re the beneficiaries of a very long list of reforms. Paul, I think, got all that started.”


How do Paul’s writings and classical literature apply to each other?

Paul died, we think, in 67 A.D. I wrote my dissertation on a novelist called Petronius, a courtier of the emperor Nero. Petronius died in 66 A.D.

We know Nero was responsible for Petronius’ death, and he was probably responsible for Paul’s in the aftermath of the great Roman fire in 64. So Petronius and Paul are not far apart in time; neither are they far apart in subject matter.

Petronius writes cynically and satirically about Roman decadence, about a society that’s corrupt and materialistic.

Paul, to a certain extent, is writing about the same thing. He is certainly not humorous most of the time; he’s expressing his straightforward outrage about what he is seeing around him.


Can you set the scene a little bit?

Ancient Greco-Roman society was a lot like ours, marked by huge material wealth unevenly distributed, tremendous power unevenly distributed, and great ethical, spiritual, and religious confusion.

But it was different from ours as well. It was a slave society. It was a society of local self-government bound together by the massive Roman army.

To me, these differences are technicalities. Paul’s general principles are really very valuable and instructive for our time.

What are a few things people should know about Paul’s world before opening one of his letters?

The first thing is violence. Think about a society in which violence was very near the surface all the time, when freedom from violence was a privilege. There would be certain times, certain places, certain classes of people immune, but generally, it was the Wild West. There was no policing, the law was for the elite, and brutal order was imposed on the lower classes.


As a Jew, Paul was incensed by this. He could never accept it. For Paul, God’s love of everybody without exception was so great that God had given his son, and people’s simple awareness of this needed to lead them to another way of living.

How would people encounter violence on an everyday level?

Powerful Romans would travel with a big entourage. You had a group of people around you signifying that these people would beat up anybody who bothered you. You needed a large amount of private wealth to have any degree of security.

Violence was, to some degree, the way people thought. Men believed that they were entitled to extract sex from their wives by violence. My specialty in Greco-Roman literature is comic literature, and this is a comic trope. If a wife will not have sex, she’s going to be beaten. This is the ordinary state of affairs. Children are beaten routinely, at school and at home.

Slaves are beaten. This is another thing that comes out in classical comedic literature. It’s such an ordinary sitcom circumstance—a slave being beaten within an inch of his life; you find it all over the place in entertainment. This seems very odd to us, but it didn’t to them because this was just life.


The grimmest manifestation, of course, was pederasty, prostitution, and the sexual abuse of slaves. This was just institutional rape. A slave owner could rape anybody, male or female, who was a slave because a slave had no rights whatsoever but was a piece of property. In Roman law property was a thing you could use, abuse, or destroy at will.

What mistakes are we making before we even start reading Paul?

We have this vision of Paul as someone with great animus: He seems annoyed at women for being women or at gay people for being gay people.


We certainly know from his writing that Paul was an irritable person, but we don’t have a sense for the principles behind his anger. It wasn’t bigotry at all. It was a sense of all people being children of God. And he was outraged at how they were being treated.

Let’s start with Paul and women.

For me, the most useful way to approach this question is through First Corinthians, Chapter 7, which is a long passage about sex and marriage. Part of it reads: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband” (7:3). It goes on to talk about how Christian husbands and wives should interact.


The ancient institution of marriage is a fairly brutal one, with relationships contracted in the interest of the clan, and it just chews individuals up, especially women, but men as well. Women were married off very young, and there was little they could do if they were abused—nothing if their children were.

The ancients had a really astonishing view of human sexuality. Women were not seen as asexual; they were seen as wild animals who had to be kept in a cage as far as their sexuality was concerned. If they had any real sexual experience, they would just run amok all over town. If a husband let his wife experience sexual desire or pleasure, he would be be a cuckold for sure. A man’s actual erotic life took place outside his marriage through other brutal institutions like prostitution.

In First Corinthians Paul takes this institution and just wipes it away. For Paul, people marry by choice. They marry for erotic desire, for the natural reason. They have to be faithful to each other. They have to be erotically generous to each other. Women’s sexuality is considered in this system.

It took a long, long time for modern marriage to develop out of this set of principles, but that’s where we get it.


Why were people so open to such a radical change in thinking?

Paul was working through synagogues with “God-fearers”—a Pauline term—who were exposed to Judaism but hadn’t converted. This group of people was already tuned into Jewish ethics.

A lot of his guidance agrees with Hebrew scripture: The woman has rights within the marriage, including erotic rights. According to Jesus’ decree against divorce, she has additional rights as to the maintenance of the marriage. Sexual fidelity, of course, is always very important in Jewish ethics.

Where exactly does the idea that Paul was a misogynist come from?

It’s crazy that people feel that way about Paul, considering his very respectful relationships with women who were active in his mission, such as Prisca. He’s simply overflowing with respect and with gratitude.

Partly the perception is based on letters or passages that he didn’t write, such as First Timothy and Ephesians. I don’t treat them in my book because they’re considered by most scholars to have been written by someone other than Paul.

What are those passages about?

Women shouldn’t speak in church; the husband is the head of the wife. These are the two main precepts that these writers are communicating.

There are also other nasty, condescending statements about how women dress and a very strict set of rules about which women get to be on the Christian dole—which widows are the “deserving” widows. Those statements really seem to me to come from somebody who doesn’t like women.

Isn’t there an authentic passage where Paul talks about women covering their heads in church?

That’s a really interesting passage in First Corinthians (11:5)—“any woman who prays or prophecies with her head unveiled disgraces her head”—and it is probably completely genuine.

I think it’s misread. This passage does sound impatient with women. When I read it, I think of the situation of excitement and ferment Paul is facing. This is the ecclesia that we’re talking about, the assembly, the place to be heard.


In traditional Greek society the ecclesia is the men’s legislative assembly. Paul uses that same word. He’s letting women have full liturgical and political participation in the church. They can say whatever they want to. They can preach, they can speak in tongues, they can express themselves however they would like within this forum. It may have gotten a little bit out of control.

The veils question points to that. We’re not really sure whether the Christian assembly was considered a public place or private, like the home. Would a respectable woman take off the veil that she always wears in public? Is the assembly a place where people could dress more casually? This is a problem for Paul because of outside perceptions of the gathering.

Why did women wear veils at all?

The veil was a privilege for virgins and for matrons—for women who enjoyed protection from their community and from their family. The veil is like a force field.

For a respectable married woman, it’s a pretty heavy head-covering made of wool, more like a hood. A woman walking on a busy street would have this clutched in front of her face. If you didn’t have a veil, you were signaling that you were sexually available.

Another source of uncertainty and ferment for Paul was that Roman women were more liberated and had lovely, elaborate hairdos that they didn’t want to cover up. So even if they were respectable women, maybe they were letting these veils slip a bit.

The sight of a woman’s hair was considered very erotic. So why would she display it if she didn’t want sexual attention? Of course, in a Christian assembly, there is going to be a bit of a problem sorting out all these different inclinations and these different signals.

What does Paul say about it?

Paul does sound a bit impatient here. He says: Look, all of you. When you speak, wear veils. It probably doesn’t mean that women have to wear veils all the time, but when they stand up and when they’re addressing the whole assembly, they cover their heads.

This was probably a very liberal provision on the whole because a disgraced woman or a prostitute—someone who didn’t have the social entitlement to a veil—could express herself religiously. For that stratum of women, it must have been very liberating.


Paul’s writing also gets used to condemn homosexuality. What was he talking about?

Paul’s excoriation of homosexuality is pretty much limited to Romans (1:24-27). I think you have to look at his context really carefully.

First of all, in the Greco-Roman world, you have a pretty broad and nebulous culture of homosexuality. There is flirtation, there is male companionship, there is some sexual activity. Much of it is going on between respectable adult men.

When it comes down to actual homosexual intercourse, however, what is mostly going on in the ancient world is pederasty, abuse of slaves, and prostitution. All of this activity centers on cruelty, on the exploitation of the young and weak.

According to the ethics of the Greeks and Romans, the aggressor got off scot-free. He could seduce, rape, exploit, and toss aside anybody with utter contempt. And that only made him more of a man. The passive victim was seen as ruined, degraded. If he were of citizen status and the rape became known, he could be prosecuted for it and could lose all his rights.

This was, of course, a pretty dismal situation. If you were a respectable family, your son did not walk to school or anywhere else alone. Imagine a society today in which if you want your child to be safe, you have to send a servant with him to school and the servant has to stick around all day and then bring him home.

For Paul, this situation was unequivocally evil. He was incensed. It’s the injustice he complains about, this exploitation, this cruelty.

When we talk about homosexuality today, is this a helpful passage?

Absolutely, because whenever we read Paul, we can put the culture-specific situation aside and look at his principles.  What is he actually talking about in terms of human relationships? What quality is Paul demanding?

With an issue such as homosexuality, we have to start all over again, because Paul’s characterization of homosexuality is obviously not necessary. We know of homosexual relationships that are not at all like what he describes. So what do we think of homosexuality then in general? How would we integrate it into religious communities, if at all?


I’m a Quaker, and I think we Quakers have had a helpful experience in dealing with this because we have no church hierarchy. Nobody says, “Everybody, do this,” or, “Everybody, don’t do this.”

So everything is decided piece by piece, personally and through experience. Some Quaker meetings are marrying gay couples. Some will probably never marry gay couples. But they all have to act according to their own experience and with the consciousness that they could be wrong.

I think this has been useful to us in that human sexuality is so incredibly complicated, so full of potential for good and evil. Quakers don’t approach this as something that we can decide from the top. This is something that we have to figure out, as Paul would put it, in fear and trembling.

As a believer, how do you experience Paul differently after doing this kind of work?

It has been, to some degree, a rocky road making friends with somebody like Paul. I think of Paul as someone who is helpful to me in my religious life, who gives me good advice, but not someone whose advice I would take literally. He’s a human being like the rest of us.

I think he had an incredible urgency about his message. He had had this powerful, personal experience of a direct revelation from God. And this revelation told him about his sinfulness, his huge distance from God, and then, at the very same time, brought him face-to-face with God in a loving relationship. It must have been an overwhelming experience.

This experience redefined the world for him, and he understood everything in terms of it. He understood the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the continuing presence of Christ and God’s purpose. Everything was about this direct, loving relationship that is possible with God. Of course, this relationship with God automatically redefines human relationships.

Paul does not, in the end, seem to be terribly worried about how things will work out. He’s got faith. That’s the key word. He has faith that everything will be OK. He doesn’t have to decide whether, for example, Onesimus, a runaway slave—about whom he writes a letter to the slave’s owner, Philemon—is going to be freed or not. It’s worked out already in the love of God, so the solution simply flows from that. And it’s a solution not just here, but in eternity.

I think the best thing we can draw from Paul is the determination to imitate his faith and to be joyful and content. The questions which seem to us as human beings to be so difficult and so dismal are going to work themselves out.

This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 5, pages 28-31).

Image: Sailko via Wikimedia Commons