From college-level religious history courses to tracts on same-sex marriage, one hears of St. Paul as the strict counterpoint to Jesus’ universal acceptance. I’d argue that the image of Jesus as the undemanding forgiver is fundamentally flawed, but Sarah Ruden — here, as summarized in a review of her book by John Wilson — puts Paul in his historical context to prove that Paul isn’t the strict progenitor of strict, primitive dogma, either:
… consider the much-abused passage from I Corinthians 7, in which Paul talks about the marriage relationship. Is this the testament of a killjoy, a hater of women? Hardly. This misreading makes sense only if we assume (falsely) that “erotic, mutually fulfilling marriage was a ready option for Paul’s followers, when actually he was calling them away from either the tyranny of traditional arranged unions or the cruelty of sexual exploitation, or (in the case of married men exploiting the double standard) both.” Here and in many other passages, we find a forthright rejection of the “unmitigated chauvinistic attitudes Paul would have found in Greco-Roman households, both in his boyhood Tarsus and anywhere he would have traveled in the Roman Empire later.”
Paul created an honored place for celibacy as well as “putting brand-new limits on male desire” and “licensing female desire, which had been under a regime of zero tolerance” (women, you see, “were supposed to stop at nothing once they got started,” but Paul regarded male and female desire as equal and reciprocal).
The popular hostile view of Paul, in other words, stands as an example of the modern tendency to judge all of the historical figures who stand along our gradual road toward the civilized present against their distance to our current height. Oddly, that tendency seems strongest among those who reject notions of absolute truth.
I say “odd” because if one believes in Truth, then it’s perfectly natural for its revelation to occur incrementally over millennia, as human society figures it out, despite our limitations. Yet, if one disbelieves in Truth, there is no basis to judge historical figures in or out of context.
Of course, those in the latter group don’t really disbelieve in objective standards. They just don’t like the conclusions toward which the Truth that freed their culture from its primitive chains rightly points.