I just finished a book I wish I’d read when I was writing Uninvented. The subtitle made me curious: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his Own Time. The Author, Sarah Ruden, is a classics scholar, and an impressive one at that. Although she is a Quaker and not an Evangelical Christian, as I am, and does not believe in the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture as I explain it in the book, she is clearly a passionate Christian. The theme of the book fits an Uninvented perspective perfectly, although she never addresses why the Bible and Christianity are true. If it isn’t true, I don’t much care what Paul had to say, Apostle or not. However, as I argue in the book, the Apostle could not be invented, especially his teaching, which is what she addresses in her book.

To set up the theme of Uninvented, we’ll need to address the proverbial elephant in the room, Paul’s conversion. She glosses over his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus in a couple paragraphs in her preface, but never directly addresses the historicity of the event. No one disputes something happened to Paul on the road to Damascus, but many dispute something supernatural happened. Was Paul actually confronted by the risen Jesus, or not.  Ruden seems to believe the historicity of the events in the Bible isn’t as relevant as our perceptions of those events, however they were recorded or whatever happened. Be that as it may, there is much valuable in her book that lends credibility to the argument of Uninvented. In the vernacular the conclusion is, you just can’t make this stuff up!

Since what has come to be known at “the 60s,” the secular anti-biblical narrative broke out of academia and among intellectual elites in general, into the wider culture. The Apostle Paul in this telling is a big meanie, anti-misogynist bigot, among other things. I might be overstating the case a bit, but not by much. Needless to say, the text doesn’t support such conclusions about Paul, but broader secular culture isn’t much concerned with the text. Ruden most definitely is, in the original language and the Greco-Roman cultural context. Her knowledge of that context is impressive, and she quotes extensively from writers and thinkers of the time to try to understand the real societal situation Paul was writing to and for.

Many people since the Enlightenment carelessly read modern assumptions into the biblical text, including many of the most influential biblical critics of the last several hundred years. For much of that time, critical scholarship almost ignored the Jewish context of Jesus’ world and claimed much of what we read in the gospels was written back into the gospels by Greek speaking, non-Jewish Christians. For them it was the needs of the Christian communities much later that in effect created the gospel stories from a kernel of historical events. For these scholars with an anti-supernatural bias, this was a way to explain away the miracles as having actually happened because their bias wouldn’t allow them to happen. Miracles can’t happen, but they must be explained some way, and this was their way. The same thing, but without the bias, happens when people read Paul about women or homosexuality or slavery. Knowing little about the Jewish and Greco-Roman context of the gospels, they misinterpret what Paul says, and miss its world altering genius.

Ruden tackles these and a few other issues, and shows how those who know nothing or little of the ancient world will never understand Paul. His teaching was radically novel at the time, and it was largely Paul’s teaching based upon the implications of the gospel that created the modern world. Her premise makes the point:

To me, even the first efforts at setting Paul’s words against the words of polytheistic authors helped explain why early Christianity was so compelling, growing as no popular movement ever had before.

Speaking of marriage, she claims Paul’s teaching was “as different from anything before or since, as the command to turn the other cheek.” After Paul, men and women and marriage could never be viewed the same way it was in the ancient world. For Paul, “faithfulness in marriage now applied equally to both men and women” which was “a real shocker.” The fruit of such shocking novelty took a long time to develop, but it was because of Paul that women eventually became equal partners at the marriage table. Everything about the new Christian conception of marriage “was entirely against Greco-Roman norms.” Even Jews, who should have known better, often treated women as second-class citizens, and sometimes worse.

This all raises a question I talk often about in Uninvented: where did such unique teaching come from? And both from the lips of Jesus and Paul. Ruden is not a secularist and believes in a spiritual reality, and at times hints it can only come from world beyond this one, but her focus is more sociological. That is of course valuable, but I’m more interested in truth, if the Bible is what it declares itself to be, God’s inerrant authoritative revelation about himself and the ultimate meaning of all things. If it’s not, I’m not interested. So, I argue, what Paul and Jesus taught was so radical, so contrary to every Jewish and Greco-Roman teaching and expectation at the time, that it could not possibly be merely human invention. It is more plausible to believe that such teaching had behind it a divine source which Paul was confronted by on the road to Damascus: the risen Jesus!