Q&A With Sarah Ruden, Author Of Paul Among The People

Once again, thanks to Image Catholic Books for sending along a copy of Paul Among the People.  I think this is becoming one of my favorite parts of getting to review for Image –  I get to interact with the authors.  Below are my questions in bold with Sarah’s answers in normal font.  Enjoy!

1. On the dust jacket, the author information says that you are teaching fellow at Yale Divinity school and that you have studied at the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins and Harvard.  Can you share a little about your academic background and your work as a teaching fellow at Yale?

Ah, you’re looking at the hardcover, just supplanted by the paperback 2nd edition on August 2. I’m now a visiting scholar at Wesleyan University, and I don’t teach here. (Technically, and way too complicatedly, I was a visiting scholar at Yale Divinity School for three years, during which I was an instructor in the Yale Classics Department for two semesters, teaching beginning Latin and Latin literature.)

I was a student of Classics at Michigan (B.A., 1984) and Harvard (Ph.D., 1993), and a Nonfiction student in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars (M.A., 1999). I taught a lot of Latin as a TF and instructor at Harvard, and was a “lecturer” (junior professor) at the University of Cape Town in South Africa for three years before leaving to pursue writing, translating, and journalism full-time.

I guess that translating is the best heading for my academic interests—but my interests aren’t very heavily academic on the whole. In my late teens, I got caught up in the question of what words in Latin, Greek, French, and German really mean, but long before that I had been a poet, obsessed by the search for the most beautiful words. My artistic and academic interests came together not so much in my teaching as in four literary translations: the Satyricon of Petronius (2000), Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (2003) The Homeric Hymns (2005), and then the Aeneid (2008). I brought to Paul among the People the same stubborn fascination with words, and the same conviction that, as an ancient author (the first Biblical writer in the Classical tradition of personal authorship, in fact), Paul chose his words with meticulous passion—as well, of course, as with some help from the Author of the Universe.

2. I noticed in my copy of the book that Paul Among the People was originally published by Pantheon, but has now been picked up by Image Catholic Books.  Is it safe to assume that you are Catholic?  And if so, what role did your faith play in the writing of this book?

Yes, it’s Image Books, but the imprint is in transition from a Catholic to an ecumenical one. I’m a Quaker myself. Historically and theologically, of course, Quakers and Catholics would seem to have little in common—but the idea of vocation is somewhat similar. That is, you are called by God to do a particular work for Him. It may not be a call you understand or agree with at first, but you come to acknowledge its power. You then take your resulting inclination (“leading,” according to Quakers) to people of authority in your community, who test it rigorously. I had a call both to teach in the South African black townships and to write Paul among the People. In both cases, I started off thinking, “This is ridiculous!” and ended up convinced that the work was an actual leading from God. In the case of the book, I had to say, “Well, there isn’t anyone else to do this—no other Christian Classicist with a specialty in ancient popular literature who’s deeply annoyed by the unfair reputation imposed on Paul. There must be a reason my career wants to take this strange turn!”

3. In the acknowledgments you thank friends for their “spiritual, scholarly, and practical” help.  Would you say that this book contains each of those elements – the “spiritual, scholarly, and practical”?  Or another way of asking might be – who do you see as the audience for this book?

My ideal reader is somebody like me, who’s confused over the purported differences between those functions. For Quakers, religion is supposed to be a moment-by-moment commitment to a relationship with God, by means of books, friendships, work, play, worship, and literally the kitchen sink. I believe committed Catholics feel the same way.

4. I see that much of the praise on the back of this volume is for translation work that you have done.  Why the shift to a book on the apostle Paul?  Was this a side interest?  Or did things you encountered in your translation work just lead naturally into this?

I didn’t experience much of a shift. The question “What does the word really mean?” is an irrepressible instinct of mine, which I automatically applied to this new kind of book. And in certain helpful ways, Paul among the People turned out to be more of a translation than my actual translations, because in this format I could indulge my urge to explore the meaning of a word for page after page, instead of having to quickly choose a modern English word—however inadequate—and move on to the next word. It wasn’t a side interest but one that pounced on me and carried me away in its jaws, after stalking and cornering me in a Bible Study class. But my translation experience was of course quite helpful.

5. Lastly, for those who read the reviews here then buy and enjoy your book, do you have any other publications in the works?

My translation of The Golden Ass of Apuleius is due out in January of 2012; this novel of the mid-second century A.D. contains the first detailed, personal account of a religious conversion—but very strangely, it’s a conversion to the worship of Isis, not to Christianity. In 2013, a Guggenheim-funded project I’m working on, a translation of the Oresteia tragedies of Aeschylus, will come out as part of the Modern Library series. I hope to begin during 2012 a book on the Gospels’ Greco-Roman literary background; Apuleius, for example, shows in horrifying terms what usually happened to a man robbed and beaten and left for dead.

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