Twenty-five years ago I arrived on the Princeton campus as a 17-year old. Armed with a public high school and Reform Jewish education, my first class met in 1879 Hall, where I dipped my toe in the Ivy League waters via Martha Himmelfarb’s course on the Old Testament. Little did I know that more than two decades later I would find myself back on campus, unpacking one of the big mysteries of the New Testament, this time on behalf of a feature-length documentary I am co-producing.
Apostle Paul Goes to Princeton
By: Associate Producer Ted Deutsch
My ticket back to campus came through Princeton-based film director Robert Orlando, who had just held a screening of his new film, A Polite Bribe, a new telling of the story of Apostle Paul and the beginnings of Christianity. We came to Scheide Caldwell House to meet with a current generation of eager Princetonians who have been studying the New Testament under Professor AnnMarie Luijendijk. Her class was completing a semester studying Paul and had just attended the Princeton Garden Theatre showing along with 150 others.
Orlando, a veteran filmmaker who has spent a lifetime exploring first century history from a Jewish and Greco Roman perspective, and in particular Paul, described to the class the journey that led him to A Polite Bribe. Raised Catholic, he gravitated toward Evangelical and later mainstream Protestantism. While building a career producing commercial spots, and features film, he could never put aside his fascination with the man originally known as Saul of Tarsus. While completing other projects over the past decade, he gradually compiled 50 hours of interviews with the world’s top Pauline scholars, gestating what would become his magnum opus on the topic.
The director began his long quest from a theological perspective while working in Trinity studios in New York, a house that featured some of the best known religious scholars. He briefly attended seminary at Reformed theological seminary and later studied the New Testament at Columbia under the late Professor Allen Segal. Ultimately, he explained to the eight undergrads in the seminar room, he saw himself more as a detective, determined to understand and portray what actually happened in those first 50 years after the death of Jesus.
During my 10 years of Jewish education and four years as a Princeton history major, I had accumulated only limited knowledge of the New Testament. Yet during my sporadic encounters with books or films on the topic, I was always intrigued by both the factual and sacred elements of the story. The chance to get on board a project that tied together history, religion and film in an innovative documentary package was too alluring to pass up.
In his film, Orlando argues that the story of Paul, as told decades later in the Acts of the Apostles, whitewashed a fundamental divide between Paul and more conservative Christian Jews like James and Peter. After Paul’s revelation “on the road to Damascus,” this one-time persecutor of Christians became determined to bring Christianity to all parts of the Roman Empire, inviting gentiles into the new cult of Jesus. Yet Peter, James and the conservative Jewish Christians didn’t share his mission to open up the emerging sect to non-Jews.
One point is consistent throughout the ancient texts: toward the end of his life, Paul returned to Jerusalem from his missions around the Empire with a large collection of gold. What will surprise many about Orlando’s narrative – and likely generate controversy — is his contention that the collection was actually a “polite bribe” to ingratiate his new vision with the Jerusalem church and hold together what would have been a movement ending in fracture.
After a few minutes of introductory comments, the seminar room percolated with questions and theories. The students, though still comparatively new to the subject area, had spent the prior months not only steeped in the texts but also visiting some of the ancient sites of Paul’s mission during an unforgettable spring break trip.
How did the director, one student asked, choose what to rely upon as fact from the texts when there are many contradictions? Whose theories had most influenced his perspective? How did he arrive at his artistic choices – right down to the clothing worn by the Temple priests – and was he concerned that any could be perceived as inflammatory?
It was a true moment of art meeting academia. There was even a sense of sport, as Orlando skillfully received and passed back question after question, like a goalie protecting his net. The director reasoned that as an artist creating a film, he is compelled to interpret the ancient texts and choose a clear narrative. It must be credible and provable, but it also must engage and even provoke moviegoers. The students, accustomed to the nuanced “on the other hand” analysis more typical of academic exercises, seemed both pleased and frustrated to dissect a filmmaker’s clear storyline.
Both director and students agreed that Paul had been a heroic and tragic figure, often toiling with few allies to pursue his holy mission. As one student described, “he was his own team.” Orlando concurred, and explained that he wanted to convey not only the story of this one figure, but also the sense that Christianity was founded in violence and tension. The film indeed dramatizes Paul’s ultimate rejection in Jerusalem, implying that his demise was at least indirectly facilitated by his fellow Apostles, a point Orlando shows is supported by some prominent scholarship.
Ultimately, everyone seemed to take something valuable from the encounter. The students appeared satisfied that this filmmaker knew his material and could stand toe-to-toe with their freshly unearthed knowledge. At the same time, they raised ideas and critiques that Orlando found useful as he moved toward a final edit of the film – ranging from how the biblical texts should be cited to whether certain scholars might take issue with the context of their commentaries within the film.
I took it all in, partly itching to switch seats with them and replay my student days, but also excited to be part of an effort to lift this story out of the pages of course packets and enliven it on screens around the world.
As we prepared to break — the students to move on to their next class and Orlando and I to leave behind the bubble of undergraduate life — one student asked the question that struck the deepest nerve. How, she posed, has this project affected the director’s understanding of his own faith?
Orlando gave a contemplative smile that betrayed years of soul searching. Paul is a tragic figure, he replied. But you can admire a tragic figure. As a filmmaker, I can tell you this: I will forever be an advocate for his story. It is one history’s most epic tales.
That story, and one director’s passion, is what drew me to the project. The fact that the film also brought me back to a vivacious Princeton classroom, with echoes of my earliest university debates, was an extra and welcome bonus.
Ted Deutsch is a 1991 graduate of Princeton and associate producer of A Polite Bribe.