Saturday, January 17, 2015

Movie Review: Apostle Paul - A Polite Bribe by Robert Orlando

I'm glad that I can get back to blogging. I was taken aback by how busy the 1st week of the Spring 2015 term was and missed already my aim to post regularly at least once a week here. Hopefully, I can get back on track, though I make no promises (note: posting 1x a week was not a new year's resolution!). I am teaching 4 classes this semester, and if I include a co-taught course on Reconciliation, Race and the Corinthian Correspondence with Paul De Neui (North Park's missiologist) in May (a 2-week mission trip to the Equateur province of Congo), that's a whopping 5 courses that I need to prep and teach. Ouch! But I'm all-in and ready to charge out of the gates with gusto as far as human agency, divine help, and prayer can take me. 
Purchase or rent the movie at amazon instant video
A preview/promo of the film can be watched here: 

   That said, I have been meaning to watch and review the recent documentary on the apostle Paul with the provocative title: Apostle Paul - A Polite Bribe (2014). I finally watched this and like it enough that I am currently requiring that my undergraduate Paul course and my seminary New Testament 2 class view the film. Their research project will involve an engagement with Orlando's central thesis on the purposes and motivations of Paul to collect, transport, and deliver an offering to the church in Jerusalem (mentioned explicitly by Paul in 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8:1-9:15; Rom 15:25-32; and likely Gal 2:1-10 though Bruce Longenecker would argue otherwise; and recorded by Luke in Acts 11:27-30 [famine impetus]; 21:17-26 [delivery of the collection]). 
    Orlando, if I did not miss anyone, interviews some 24 different New Testament scholars on the life and mission of Paul, using the Jerusalem collection as a kind of thematic thread to unite the interviews and illustrated narrations (using some impressive comic-motion style graphics) that reconstruct the historical Paul of Acts and his letters. It's a relative who's who of top names in the academy on Pauline studies, including (roughly in order of their 1st appearance): Paul Achtemeier, Ben Witherington, Candida Moss, Bart Ehrman, N.T. Wright, John Dominic Crossan, Jeffrey Bütz, Philip Eisler, Gerd Thiessen, Paula Fredriksen, Pamela Eisenbawn, Larry Hurtado, Neil Elliott, Elaine Pagels, Richard Horsley, Amy-Jill Levine, Robert Jewett, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Dale Martin, John Reumann, Douglas Campbell, Victor Furnish, Daniel Boyarin and Edgar Krentz. Whew... did I miss anyone?
    Just to hear in person the above scholars offer their expertise on Paul is worth the price of admission. They together represent a wide range of confessional, ecclesial, and ideological commitments which range from conservative evangelical scholars to radical source critics. You get the whole spectrum. But while a range is represented by the choice of interviewees, and while the critical listener can glean from these interviews diverse and competing theories on Paul's missionary enterprises, the interviews themselves have been expertedly edited to promote one central thesis: that Paul's monetary offering functioned as some sort of "bribe" to assuage suspicions from a hard-line faction in Jerusalem (= the Judaizers of Gal 1-2) who did not consider Paul's Gentile churches full converts to Jewish-Christianity. How the offering functioned as a bribe was not clear in the film. Perhaps, Paul hoped that the acceptance of the offering by the Gentile converts by the famine-stricken Jerusalem church would also mean that the Jerusalem church accepted the donors as full members of God's people without the Jewish requirements of circumcision and food law observance. If so, this meant that Paul paid Jerusalem to by-pass the Jewish legal requirements and hence the subtitle, "a polite bribe." 
   However, if one simply reads the key texts in Paul (cited above) where he explains his own motivations for asking the Gentile churches to contribute to the Jersusalem collection, we read that 1) his Gentile churches could have simply wanted to help the poor in Jerusalem who were recovering from a horrible famine (mentioned in Acts 11:27-30) as a sign of their transformed lives and genuine conversion; or 2) the collection demonstrated that there was one church, Jewish and Gentile, united by their common fidelity to one Lord and one gospel, and so the needs of one were the concern and burden of the other; or 3) perhaps Paul saw in the collection an eschatological fulfillment of Isaiah (60:6-7) and other OT prophetic texts (cf. Micah 4:13) that promised a day when Gentiles would bring gifts to Jerusalem as an act of worship and recognition of Israel's one true God. There have been other suggestions by scholars like Klaus Berger that 4) the collection functioned to substitute for the cost of Jewish initiation rites required from Gentile converts to Judaism (a stretch in my opinion). Johannes Munck theorized that 5) Paul wanted the collection to draw Israel's attention to how the influx of Gentile converts into the church and somehow provoke Israel's jealousy and conversion to the gospel (less of a stretch, but still a stretch). This list of possible explanations is not exhaustive either. There could also be a non-competing coalition of several motivations that drive Paul to pursue the collection and deliver it (see Down's The Offering of the Gentiles). But the movie, unfortunately, really focuses on the idea of a polite bribe.
   So in the end, Orlando's thesis is not satisfying, and it creates more questions than answers. But the latter is not a bad result. In fact, his film is a fantastic segue into larger historical issues surrounding Paul and hence my keen interest to show the film in class and let it generate further discussion. 
   A number of other bibliobloggers share my same sentiments and evalution of the film, in varying degrees. Worth reading are the posts by Larry Hurtado, James McGrath, and Richard Fellows. Also check out the interview of Ben Witherington in the Lexington Herald, as well as his video question and answer session after a film viewing. Mark Goodacre posted a pre-showing interview with Orlando on his NT blog as well. 

Post-script 03/11/15: Here is a link to the post-screening discussion which took place over the film at the SBL showing in San Diego on Nov 22, 2014 between the director Robert Orlando, and scholars Larry Hurtado and Ben Witherington. 


  1. You should also consider my new book which explores in more detail the some of your questions and shows how the meaning of "The Poor" (Longenecker) has a long history and might have meant James himself. Send an email to if you would like to be contacted for any screenings or events. We will be uploading our SBL screening (with Hurtado/Witherington) onto to Vimeo in a few days.

    1. I appreciate this post and yes, I did buy a copy of your book already. In fact, I had my institution's library buy both the book and DVD to make these available as part of their loan listings. Currently these are on the library reserve for my courses. I also listed the amazon instant video rent/purchase as part of the textbooks required for the class. Many thanks again for producing this video, which again I thought was an overall very well produced film. I enjoyed it immensely. More importantly, it will serve academics well as we teach our classes on the amazing historical figure of Paul. Blessings in your endeavors! Max

  2. Thanks. Look forward to the review of the book. You can post your reviews on Amazon and join the growing conversation!