Most helpful critical review
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on May 10, 2011
In his book "Mythologies" (English translation 1972) the French semiologist Roland Barthes analyzes what he terms 'neither-nor criticism', a rhetorical game now even more prevalent than when he first essayed it back in the 1950s. This involves the critic's confession that he is able to discern how any subject's reality is more complex than simply being a matter of X as opposed to Y: the reality in question is neither X nor Y because it is, in the critic`s own perceptive gaze, a blazing matter of being Z. And the identification of Z is the result of the plucky critic's having so clearly established the respective errors and inherent biases of X and Y that he was led eventually to Z`s discovery. But, as Barthes simply observed, what fuels the neither-nor critic's activities and ultimately convinces him of his own results is the relative amount of FREEDOM he assumes for himself, namely, that he is immune to A PRIORI judgments, and that his own critical work is as much a liberation as it is a timeless explication of a given subject.
Reading this book by Sarah Ruden made me think of Barthes' essay. Her subject is the eternally controversial Paul and his reputation, deserved or not, in the modern world. And here is where the 'dichotomy-spotting' begins: wishing to steer a course between conservative and/or traditional views of Paul (X) and the often questionable results and opinions deriving from the historical-critical method (Y), Ms. Ruden in her quest for an 'original' understanding of Paul (Z) inadvertently relies on so many polarities and contrasts largely derivable from our own age that the 'original' voice of Paul she thought she had re-discovered ends up being the reflection of some currently entrenched prejudices.
Now I am not advocating any kind of relativism here; nor am I contending that there is nothing like a reasonable truth to be had about Paul or the meaning of his letters. I am as willing as the next person to say that Paul actually means what he says and in fact says what he means, but what Sarah Ruden promises and what Sarah Ruden delivers end up being two different things. I would make the following observations concerning her not entirely satisfying book:
First, her basic idea seems admirable enough--examine some of Paul's more inflammatory passages in the light of the reigning conventions of Greco-Roman society AS THESE ARE COMMUNICATED TO US BY ITS LITERARY PRODUCTS and see if that provides any guidance in understanding them--but the actual results don`t match the expectations she kindles in us. I found that the literary selections on which Ms. Ruden relies were entertaining enough, but often for reasons that had nothing at all to do with the light she thought they were shedding on ancient attitudes toward homosexuality, the treatment of women, or, say, the practice of slavery. In general I would say that she assigns a sufficiency of evidence to the classical corpus which it is unable to sustain: she intimates that a floodlight will be brought to bear on the meaning of Paul's works, but, by the time you finish this book, its real effect is closer to that of a penlight.
Second, as valuable as any knowledge of the Hellenistic cultural milieu is in understanding Paul, it becomes a most lopsided analysis when it is not seen in conjunction with what was in fact Paul's more significant frame of reference, namely, his own Jewish background: a CLASSICAL Paul is as much of a distortion as anything dished up by all those dichotomous modern modes of criticism (all those X's and Y's) as is one in which, for example, only Paul the Jewish apocalypticist is highlighted.
Third, there is a running assumption in this book that the real key to understanding Paul lies in our recognizing that, in ways surely to astonish us, Paul was somehow even more MODERN and more ENLIGHTENED than we so sloppily assume that we already are vis-à-vis his likes. The chapter on homosexuality is a case in point: rather than presenting Paul as being categorically opposed to homosexual acts in any form (as any first-century A.D. Pharisee would be), Ruden tries to paint the proscriptive passages of his letters as being a condemnation of homosexuality's 'abusive' or 'exploitative' social forms. I fail to see how such an interpretation is justifiable given the unequivocal information we have about the consistency of Pharisaic-rabbinic attitudes concerning this matter.
This is perhaps my most serious objection to the book`s project: that in order to make Paul more palatable, to rehabilitate him IN THE COURT OF OUR SENSIBILITIES, it becomes necessary to show that he was more like us than we ever imagined, that the reasons for his startling statements about the relative 'status' of women, homosexuality, slavery, even the nature of the divine agapê (love) itself must be revealed as having been based on the same forms of modernist pathos that so prejudicially orient not a few of our own attitudes and assumptions.
Fourth, Ruden avoids a certain amount of textual grief because she buys into the modern historical-critical division of Paul's letters into the authentically Pauline ones and the allegedly deutero-Pauline works. To her credit she at least deals with the controversial passages from the 'authentically' Pauline letters but only after excusing herself from having to say anything at all either about the content or the implications of the deutero-Pauline texts (other than being conveniently dismissive of them).
And finally, there is, for my tastes, a far too lenient (and downright anachronistic) use of expressions and ideas such as 'liberal', 'emancipation', 'oppression', 'individuality', 'self-expression', etc. in this book. This usage is problematic for many critical reasons, but it is further complicating, not because the ancients lacked any of the sensibilities that make such concepts possible and so compelling for us, but rather because our own psychologizing take on things, our own debilitating capacity for introspection and interiorization makes the ancients seem like they were inhabitants of another planet, like us in so many respects but thinking, feeling and experiencing God in ways that seem like a proverbial world apart.
Now Ms. Ruden occasionally keys in on these inherent and undeniable differences, those moments when Paul communicates to us the disconcerting proximity of God's glory--gospel 'flashpoints' I would call them--the kind that stem not from antiquated patterns of ignorance let alone our condescending attitudes toward them, but from a direct and overwhelming sense of God's presence and power: they are the expression of those timeless certainties that make for the blessed uncertainty of the faithful; in short, they are what make Paul true rather than just learnedly relevant.