Dr. Andy Johnson
Professor of New Testament
I was recently asked to be a part of a panel discussion in Kansas City following a screening of a new documentary film on the apostle Paul. The film is called “A Polite Bribe” and has been in the works for almost a decade. Robert Orlando, the filmmaker, has spent countless hours reading Pauline scholarship and interviewing a wide variety of recognized New Testament (NT) scholars ranging from more evangelical NT scholars like Ben Witherington all the way to others like Gerd Lüdemann who left the Christian faith over a decade ago. I won’t list all the NT scholars Orlando interviewed but just to get some sense of the sweep of the over thirty scholars who appear in the film, have a look at the following names: N. T. Wright, Larry Hurtado, John Dominic Crossan, Amy-Jill Levine, Douglas Campbell, Bart Ehrman, Robert Jewett, Neil Elliot, Victor Paul Furnish, Paula Fredrickson. Unlike many documentary films dealing with early Christian history, Orlando should be commended for drawing on such a range of scholars rather than letting only three or four, all of whom are cut from the same mold, carry the day.
The focus of the Orlando film is the collection for the needs of the poor in the Jerusalem church that Paul had agreed to gather from his Gentile churches at the urging of James, Peter, and John (Gal 2:10). For Paul, the collection becomes—to use the language of the film’s title—a “polite bribe” to the Jerusalem church and its leaders to accept him and his Gentile churches. The film consists of Orlando drawing clips from over fifty hours of interviews with NT scholars and combining them with the voice of an anonymous narrator. Interspersing quotes from Paul’s letters with these clips, the narrator gradually develops a story of conflict between Paul and the early Jerusalem church over his ministry to the Gentiles and the collection he gathered from them. Along the way there are interesting visual effects and a very nice soundtrack that help bring the story to life. I’m no movie critic, but from what I could see, Orlando has done a terrific job with the artistic aspects of this film.
At the very beginning of the film, Orlando has a written disclaimer that the story of Paul he weaves together is not exactly the story that any one of the particular scholars in the film would tell. But he did make it clear in the discussion following the film that the story of Paul he tells is an historical reconstruction that generally represents a scholarly consensus about Paul and his conflict with the Jerusalem church and its leaders, James and Peter. I would agree that the basic gist of the film reflects something of a consensus in Pauline scholarship…at least more or less. And that’s the problem.
There was certainly some level of tension/conflict at some point in time between Paul and the Jerusalem church, including its leaders James and Peter (Galatians 2). And from what little Luke says about the matter in Acts (he does report Paul saying that he did “bring alms to my nation” in 24:17), it would seem that the Jerusalem church may not have accepted the collection he’d gathered from the Gentile churches. It is also clear from Acts that after Paul was attacked in the temple, no one from the Jerusalem church came to his aid. There may be good reasons why they did not and one of those reasons might indeed have been that they were just glad to have Paul out of their way, given their own precarious political situation approaching the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70. It might also have been that they did not have much power to intervene. We may never know.
Let’s be clear. There never was some pristine “NT church” that was totally without inner tensions and conflicts over practices and beliefs. But in my view, the film tends to interpret Paul’s letters and Acts (chapter 21 in particular) in ways that maximize their potential for yielding an historical reconstruction that presents early Christianity as characterized mostly by power games and conflict, particularly that branch of early Christianity located in the Jerusalem church. Certainly the way that the last few speakers in the film present what happens when Paul arrives in Jerusalem tends to create that impression for the film’s audience.
For example, at least one or two speakers suggest that James, Peter (whom Luke never mentions as present) and the other leaders of the Jerusalem church actually set Paul up to take the fall in the temple when they sent him there with others to complete their vows. This is of course possible—and a good number of NT scholars tend to think that it is probable—but is not at all what Luke’s narrative says in Acts 21:17-36. And one of the last things the audience hears toward the end of the film (from Gerd Lüdemann) is the suggestion that since we don’t know exactly how Paul died, it is possible that Jewish Christians like those from the Jerusalem church actually killed Paul themselves. I suppose this too is possible, but it is sheer speculation. And as one of the last things the audience hears, my hunch is that such an over–the–top speculation will solidify in their minds that the best interpretive framework for understanding early Christianity and reading NT documents is that of bitter conflict and power games.
Reading the NT with conflict as a primary interpretive framework has been going on in much of the scholarly world at least since the middle of the nineteenth century and the work of F. C. Baur. Hence, the film can indeed be said to reflect something of a consensus in Pauline scholarship. But with suggestions like Lüdemann’s toward the end of the film, it might not be unfair to characterize the story the film weaves as—using the words of a friend of mine from another context—“Baur on steroids.” I continue to be suspicious about using the limited data in the texts we have to come up with such large historical reconstructions that are then reused to interpret the texts from which they supposedly come (along with a variety of other NT texts as well).
Still, Orlando’s film is something you ought to go see. He was able to get 150 or so people out on a Thursday night to talk about the apostle Paul, and if the film actually encourages people to dive back into Paul’s letters and read them carefully, I’d count “A Polite Bribe” as a success.