A Polite Bribe: Review Part II

19 01 2014

In my previous posting, I noted several of the positive aspects of the movie “A Polite Bribe.”  In this entry, I will highlight a few of the problematic area that occur in the film.

Paul's Call ExperienceWas Paul Jewish enough?  I am not certain the film captured the Jewish nature of Paul.  For example, in the retelling of Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road, the narrator indicates it was Paul’s “conversion” and the point at which Paul became a Christian.  Of course nothing could be further from the truth.  Paul’s experience on the Damascus road is best understood as a “call” experience.  Just as Isaiah, Abraham, or Gibeon was called by God to go to new places or to take on special tasks, so also Paul’s narrative fits perfectly into this category of call.   Also, it is anachronistic to suggest Christianity existed at the time of Paul’s experience. There was only Judaism (or better, varieties of Judaisms).  Paul is/was a Jew (Judean) and continued to be a Jew until drawing his last breath. The question about labeling this experience of Paul as a conversion to Christianity was raised in the Q & A session.  The director, Robert Orlando, acknowledged it was not a totally accurate description, but he wanted to start with some typical assumptions held by many of the moviegoers.  He seemed to think that an audience might not follow through with hearing the rest of the movie if they didn’t have at least some traditional assumptions presented.  However, as the questioner noted, for many in this audience, the assumption that Paul becomes a Christian and left Judaism is one that cause some in the audience to have trouble following the rest of the movie.  I would have been interested in knowing how a couple of the scholars interviewed, such as, Amy Jill-Levine and Pamela Eisenbaum would have responded.  Eisenbaum has a book entitled, Paul Was Not a Christian:  The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (2009).

The film had an over reliance on the narrative as found in the Acts of the Apostles.  Even though Orlando uses Paul’s letters to a great extent in order to construct the film, I felt that Acts still had the upper hand in shaping much of the movie.  Acts, however, comes from perhaps 25 or 30 years after the time of Paul. The author of Acts had specific agendas for presenting his version of the early Jesus movement.  A reader is not getting history but an author’s reinterpretation of events in light of his contemporary context in 85 C.E.  I understand, however, why Act is so appealing from a movie production perspective.  It is a narrative and lends itself to visual story telling, the letters of Paul do not.

The presentation of James, the brother of Jesus, was very different and perhaps uncomfortable at times.  It was suggested that he was a Nazirite/Nazarene and had administrative/liturgical duties within the Temple.  This reconstruction and definition of Nazarene (Nazirite) seems odd.  The definition of Nazirite and its role has been noted in other blogs, and Orlando has responded extensively; see the following link: Polite Bribe . I think it is highly unlikely that a rural Galilean, like James, comes to Jerusalem and takes up some type of office within the Temple.  Also the suggestion that James and the Jerusalem community had a hand in the death of Paul to get him off of the scene because of Paul’s work with the Gentile believers seems to build a large argument upon a great deal of silence in Acts.  One of the possible scenarios put forward by the film is that Paul was “setup” to go to the Temple (Acts 21:23-26) and was ambushed by Jews in the Temple and almost killed in a riot.  Why set Paul up?  The Judean community of believers sacrificed Paul because of his work with Gentiles and their inclusion into the community of faith.  The collection was not the bridge to unity but instead, at least in the film interpretation, was the catalyst for Paul’s betrayal. It certainly portrays the Jerusalem church as xenophobic, which Acts does not do: “When we [Paul and coworkers] arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly” (Acts 21:17).  And when Paul explained the Spirit’s movement among Gentiles and how Gentiles were entering the faith, “they praised God” (Acts 21:20).   The suggestion of collusion and of hanging Paul out to dry almost makes the Jerusalem believers as conspiring as those forty plus Judeans who pledged to kill Paul (Acts 23:12-15).

The film also portrays Paul as a lone martyr. I am not certain, however, Acts creates this image of Paul and his ministry.  While the author of Acts does want the spotlight to fall of Paul, individuals do assist him.  For example, after Paul’s arrest and rescue by the Roman soldiers and centurions (Acts 21:32), Paul’s nephew warns the Romans of a plot against Paul (Accts 23:16).  And when Paul is finally imprisoned in Caesarea (for two years) some of his friends (coworkers?) assist him (Acts 24:23).  [Here is list of some of the individuals with Paul in Jerusalem according to Acts:  Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus, and Trophimus.] Interestingly, however, no specific mention is made of the Jerusalem Church coming to Paul’s aid in Acts.  (At the Temple riot, the Romans rescue Paul—not fellow believers.) One would expect James and/or other Jerusalem leaders of the Judean community to have supported and protected Paul; however, there is silence.  Perhaps they did support Paul, but after the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Judean community in Jerusalem, the author simply felt its inclusion was unnecessary.  They were not the focus of his attention and no longer existed as a significant influence.

A brief reference was made about how Paul would have transported the collection from the west (Europe/Asia Minor) to Jerusalem.  The narrator said that Paul would have converted the collection into gold bars and they individuals would have sown them into their clothes.  I am a bit skeptical of this scenario.  One of my interests is numismatics, and I put this question to some of the individuals who specialize who in ancient coins and their history.  None of them suggested any transportation along this line.  For example, the Osfi’a Hoard, which was found in Israel and was probably going to the Temple because of the high content of Tyrian shekels, had 4550 coins—all silver no gold.  Gold coins were rare and not typical.  Most likely, Paul would have traveled with silver coins.  In talking with Robert after the film, he said he got this information from Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s book Paul:  His Story.

I was curious about which Bible translations were used in the film.  I know in the short PDF book on the movie, (link is here, free PDF Book), it quotes the NRSV.  Some quotes in the movie, however, sounded like they came from more modern translations.

The movie is certainly worth seeing.  It will engage and stimulate discussion and reflection upon Paul, and that is a good thing.

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4 responses

22 01 2014
Turns Out, Kansas Citians are Curious About Paul… | Near Emmaus

[…] Theological Seminary professor David May has written a two-part review of the film (see Part I and Part II), and Bill Tammaus, former faith columnist for the Kansas City Star, also posted his thoughts about […]

23 01 2014
James Kelsey

“Call” not “conversion,” (ala Stendahl) is a key insight for reading Paul. This experience of “call” provides an interpretive key for many other pieces of Paul’s writing.

23 01 2014
John Anngeister

Thanks for your work of review.

2 quibbles –

first I think there can be too much emphasis on Paul’s Jewishness – it needs to limit itself at the point where it misses his source of inspiration – analogy might be like trying to build a thesis about Luther’s career by saying he lived and died a Roman Catholic? Same goes with the people who think that ‘Jesus the Jew’ is the height of a critical understanding of the Incarnation.

second, the whole pretense of a ‘bribe’ (no matter how politic) misses the charitable angle – I think the need of a collection indicates a condition of extreme need in the Jerusalem church, which by that decade ought to have been utterly impoverished by the folly of selling their possessions early in hopes of a quick second coming. I think the economic life-span for any community that ‘sells all’ is determined by the length of time they can win new converts. Paul’s collection for ‘the saints’ was literally feeding and clothing them. The Roman army finally put this ill-conceived economy out of its misery

20 05 2014
Turns Out, Kansas Citians are Curious About Paul… | Joshua Paul Smith

[…] Theological Seminary professor David May has written a two-part review of the film (see Part I and Part II), and Bill Tammaus, former faith columnist for the Kansas City Star, also posted his thoughts about […]

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