[Paul Among the People] by Sarah Ruden
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I was impressed by the thoughtful and knowledgeable reviews already posted, and thought it might be useful to discuss the book here.
Ruden uses Pagan literature of all sorts from 700 BC to about 200 AD (I could be of a bit off on this, as I'm pulling from memory) to help interpret St. Paul's letters.
She quotes all sorts of drama, letters, slapstick skits, etc. trying to clarify the terms Paul uses and also providing a local background on culture and original reader understanding of his positions contrasted with the mores and assumptions of pagan society of the times.
She paints a shocking picture of street life in the first century.
How valid are her arguments? Her examples?
I hope other readers of this book can chime in.
She paints a street scene in Roman Corinth with Paul (Saul) as a youngster. Sexual traffic would be blatant, with naked prostitutes paraded by their owners. Children faced constant danger of casual predation by adult males.
There is a description of witchcraft which subjects a child to torture and death so as to harvest organs for potions.
Her translations of popular plays, literature, etc. portray an acceptable nastiness throughout the pagan culture that would sicken us.
You might want to read the less laudatory reviews on Amazon.com. I initially thought I should purchase this book. I then tried to find out about the scholarly credentials of the author and, frankly, was somewhat confused. I then read these reviews and concluded that the book probably isn't worth the price and the reading time.
There are a lot of historians of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity around these days. Many are quite interesting, informative and well worth the read. There are a lot of historians of the paganism of Paul's period. There are few people who are so arrogant that they think that they are in both those categories because they have translated a number of classical texts.