Putting the Apostle Paul In His Place
In contrast to a destructive postmodern deconstruction of Paul, this is more of a constructive reconstruction, in that it attempts to interpret Paul's words in the way they would have been heard and understood in the almost inconceivably different time and place he wrote and spoke them.
Ironically, one of the main reasons we have difficulty appreciating the vast cultural differences is due to Paul's extraordinary success in transforming them. As Ruden points out, "more than anyone else, Paul created the Western individual human being, unconditionally precious to God and therefore entitled to the consideration of other human beings.... No other intellect contributed as much to making us who we are." Theist and atheist alike are beneficiaries of this profound transformation of values.
We have to begin by imagining a society that was every bit as cruel and barbarous as, say, the Palestinians or Islamists, to understand the context in which Paul spoke -- and, just as importantly, to appreciate the fantastic and even revolutionary appeal of the message he was spreading.
In our time, we can misinterpret Paul's words as punitive and restrictive, whereas those who heard them would have been struck first and foremost by the novelty of his liberating message of love, equality and dignity.
This itself is a critical point, because it goes a long way toward explaining how and why the Christian message took off like wildfire and spread so rapidly. "In fact, the compassionate community was there at the beginning, and its founder was Paul of Tarsus." It wasn't just the "good news" of the resurrection. After all, pagan peoples had been familiar with mythic stories of resurrected gods from time immemorial, but that didn't make their lives and communities any less cruel.
Rather, there was something uniquely alluring about the actual communities that were being created out of this new revelation -- mostly how they were ordered around love instead of the usual violence, depravity, exploitation, and cruelty of the ancient world.
The pagan polytheistic world "deified materialism in the form of idolatry," and "deified violence and exploitation through the belief that these were the ways the gods operated. Paul fought this ideology and all its manifestations. Rather than repressing women, slaves, or homosexuals, he made -- for his time -- progressive rules for the inclusion of all of them in the Christian community..."
Yes, Paul was a progressive in the truest sense of the word, because he was instrumental in the vertical progress of mankind at large. In contrast, contemporary "progressiveism" is a reversion to the very pagan materialism that Paul ultimately gave his life to end.
No wonder we see such a resurgence of neo-paganism on the left: idolatry, body mutilation, child sacrifice, new age witchcraft, earth worship, sexual license, the cult of the body, exaltation of the state (and its messianic leader), cult leaders with light streaming from their butt, etc.
It seems to me that the book understates its own importance, since, if the author is correct, then not only have many Christians been misinterpreting Paul for hundreds of years, but whole sects and even cultures are rooted in this misunderstanding. Furthermore, on the other side of the equation, there is no question that many people have rejected Christianity because its most important proselytizer appears to them to be a bit of an irascible, sanctimonious, authoritarian, and intolerant hothead.
JWM coined the term "Jesus willies" for people who are made uncomfortable by the moronic way Christianity is often presented to the public. But it might be more accurate to call them the "Paul willies," since he is the one most responsible for creating the thing we actually call Christianity.
In my book, I tried to get into a bit of psychohistory, in order to demonstrate the progress mankind has made (at least at its leading edge) in vanquishing its mind parasites (see Chapter 3.4 Adapting to Mindedness: Why the Past is So Tense). This is without a doubt the weakest part of the book, since it would have required a whole book to do justice to the subject. In pp. 157-162 I cover the ancient world, but again, how could one possibly do justice to such a vast subject?
Fortunately -- to paraphrase Bo Diddley -- I don't have to do stuff like that, because I got scholars like Ruden doin' it for me. While I tried to show what Greek and Roman culture were actually like beneath the veneer of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and the rest of those luminaries, Ruden goes into more detail about just how alien to us these cultures were.
Their values were antithetical to ours, and again, this is the audience to whom Paul was preaching. Truly, his death at the hands of the state was inevitable, just as you wouldn't be long for the world in the Palestinian terrortories if you began preaching a message of love and tolerance toward Jews, or at a major American university if you preached that their racial obsessions are evil.
In addition to being violent and exploitative, the ancient world was frankly a depressing and meaningless place, especially if one was not a freeborn member of the ruling class. Most people were slaves or at least under some degree of servility, and slaves had no rights at all. Truly, they were not persons, but objects to be used in any way the owner saw fit.
Children were devalued as well. Pederasty and child prostitution were rampant, and no one gave it a second thought as to whether these practices were "moral." Likewise, what we know of as romantic love simply wasn't a value for the ancients. Indeed, Ruden shows that it was regarded as a kind of weak and shameful madness that was to be shunned and avoided.
To be continued....