Tunneling beneath the sacred walls of holy writ and the theological fortresses that for centuries have guarded the image of a strong, clear-visioned first-century Christian Church, a contemporary filmmaker and independent New Testament scholar has found compelling evidence that this image is most likely more imaginary than real.
Christianity: Did it begin with “A Polite Bribe”?
Robert Orlando, President and Director of Nexus Media, has forged an electrifying narrative that exposes an early Christian Church tainted by political resentment, navigated through bribery, and ultimately barely surviving the internal disloyalty endemic to the organization almost from the start.
Thirty years after the death of Christ, the future of the Christian church teetered on the brink of an unbridgeable chasm. Two factions with wholly different visions for the Christian mission had clearly emerged: the Apostle Paul’s numerous Gentile Churches and the Judean Church, run by Jesus’ brother James and disciple Peter. The two sides were headed toward a final, and mutually destructive, fracture that threatened to extinguish the Church in its infancy.
The stalemate lasted until the Apostle Paul offered the Judean followers the one thing they had little of—money in order to gain their support. In short, as per the phrase first used by the likes of respected German scholar Gerd Lüdemann, Paul offered the Judean Church “a Polite Bribe.” Paul already had an impressive record of founding successful churches and eliciting generous payments from them. So, solemnly promising the Judean Christians he would return years later with sorely needed cash, Paul departed on his final mission.
Fast forward to when Paul did finally return to Jerusalem with the collection after many years. He did not find the open arms he had been counting on; what he found was a Judean Church that was increasingly impatient with him and disloyal to his mission, and also a congregation so angry with him that—perhaps—they even figured large in his eventual assassination.
Orlando says, “This premise is plausible… very plausible. In fact, it is far more supported than the story many of us learned in Sunday school. I believe that the tepid truce between the two factions based on an agreed-upon collection might be the skeleton key unlocking many of the mysteries allowed for by Holy Writ.”
Orlando goes further than suggesting plausibility. His narrative emerges out of his own thirty-year commitment to Pauline studies, and is representative of the core of academia’s top New Testament scholars, many of whom have contributed to his groundbreaking project.
“All history is a combination of real facts and how they are told, that is, the literary component or narrative—this is inescapable,” avers Orlando. “I see my job as the enlivener of what the academy is telling us about Paul.” In doing this job, the director sees himself as no Da Vinci Code fantasy writer, but as a storyteller steeped in the actual Scriptures. “My goal,” he adds, “is to bring out the subtle, gripping, narrative that lies between the lines of Paul’s Epistles.”
Orlando was signed by the Don Buchwald Agency in 2007 to turn his documentary into a feature script. He is eager to set the cinematic record straight, saying, “No one has got this Paul story right on film. We’ve seen religious portrayals, pseudo-historical portrayals, and complete fiction, but no one has taken the time to convey what the evidence points to.” The director has now been working on this project since 2003. He’s been aided along the way by numerous respected scholars, including the late Alan Segal (of Columbia), who, with Elaine Pagels (of Princeton, who also appeared in the film), had been asked to consult on a Paul story some years earlier, when Director Martin Scorsese was in need of scholarly contributions.
Says Orlando, “Alan Segal was one of the first to suggest that I take on the Paul story. I had taken courses from him and I knew the literature—I taught and showed previews in his classes. He appreciated the power of film, and as we got to know each other he introduced me to his worldwide community of Pauline scholars. In a lot of ways the project was born of him.”
Orlando, also a film aficionado, reminds us that some of his early role models, like Orson Welles and Frank Capra, along with D.W. Griffith, wished to make a Paul film, but never did. “It’s not the easiest story to tell,” he says, “but I think Paul is such an intoxicating character that many start down the track, most of them never getting as far as they’d like.” For his part, Orlando has also brought on board the respected German scholar Gerd Lüdemann, who was mentioned above as one of the first to use the term “a Polite Bribe.” Orlando calls the phrase one “that well connected a lot of my questions into a solid whole, resulting in a new narrative that made sense on a human level.”
If Orlando has a nemesis in his narrative about Paul, it is certainly what he calls “the traditional Lukan story.” He says, “I understand the purpose of Luke. I think it is a great and important read. But it was written decades after the death of Paul for the purposes of pulling a fractured Church together. It is the quintessential Christian story, and I think—unfortunately—that a lot of people’s faith would be rocked if they discovered it wasn’t true.” Regarding myth versus fact, he continues, “There is the breakdown of critical reason when it comes to the Holy Men within our mythical stories. We want to believe they were above the fray created by self-interest or did not operate with any political motive. This makes them somehow less, or maybe more, than human. The narrative writer, though, is in the business of telling the fullest, most human story.”
When he’s asked if rocking people’s faith is worth doing, Orlando has a quick reply: “I’d be suspicious of an institution that claimed to hold with the truth but was ultimately afraid of the facts about its own founding. The Christian faith is bigger than narrative spats.” That said, Orlando acknowledges that even with his documentary, the book, and the film yet to be, the narrative of Paul will never be told in full. He does, however, feel his unique perspective as an independent Pauline scholar, story analyst, and filmmaker allows him to connect the story’s dots in a new way; a way, he claims, that offers the most “intellectual satisfaction” for the current era. Yet, he acknowledges, “Surely scholarship will tell us more as study continues and time goes by.”
Orlando is dedicating the film to Professor Alan Segal.