On November 18, during the 2012 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago, I finally got the chance to view the long-awaited documentary by filmmaker Robert Orlando, A Polite Bribe, at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Initial Reflections on “A Polite Bribe”
By Mark Mattison, The Paul Page
Orlando has proven to be a vigorous dialogue partner over the last ten years, since the time of his submission of his book review of John Gager’s Reinventing Paul to The Paul Page in 2002. I interviewed him about his preliminary work on his Paul documentary in 2005 and have described his progress periodically on The Paul Page ever since. Over the years we’ve discussed everything from Pauline studies to editing screenplays to writing science fiction.
Perhaps the most salient thing I can say about Robert is that he exudes a nearly unparalleled enthusiasm for his work and intensity for the integrity of his project, which successfully achieves a unique and seamless blend of cutting-edge Pauline scholarship and narrative storytelling that’s unsurpassed in both the academy and the studio. In my personal opinion, A Polite Bribe is a singular triumph that has the potential to appeal to the broadest possible audience, from committed evangelical Christians to critical biblical scholars to followers of different faiths and even no faith at all. It’s a human story that works for all of us precisely because it doesn’t preach to any choir or tell us what to think about faith or dogma, but rather focuses with laser-like precision on the paradoxical story of Paul the man and his famously ambivalent relationship with the Judean apostles which was largely obscured by later generations of Christians.
Much of the narrative is driven by over thirty of the most prestigious Christian and Jewish academics in the field, drawn from over fifty hours of interviews conducted since 2005. The voices represented are notably diverse, ranging from evangelicals like Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright to liberals like Gerd Lüdemann and a host of widely recognized scholars in between. The extensive cast of commentators includes other luminaries like John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Amy-Jill Levine, Elaine Pagels, and Alan Segal, among many others. The most compelling plot points of the film have been stitched together from these variegated perspectives to propel the storyline through Paul’s many struggles and conflicts toward the inevitable tragic conclusion, Paul’s fateful and ambiguous demise. The multi-media experience is nicely rounded out by a haunting but graceful soundtrack, impressive special effects, and graphic illustrations which mitigate the need for the corny types of dramatizations with which historical documentaries like this are too often saddled.
Several of the scholars included in the film were also present at the Chicago screening, including Neil Elliott, Victor Paul Furnish, Larry Hurtado, and Robert Jewett, some of whom contributed to additional discussion which was moderated by Robert himself after the film. I look forward to spending more time with the DVD and the forthcoming book to dig further into the storyline and interact with the narrative, but my initial impression is that this narrative accurately dramatizes the scholarly consensus in a way never seen before.
I think the overall story is solid, though I may differ with respect to some of the details, the most notable of which is the point that Robert has identified as the crux of Paul’s story – the Jerusalem agreement. Personally I’ve been persuaded by Bruce Longenecker’s argument against the consensus view that the agreement reflected in Galatians 2:10 formed the basis of Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church among the Gentile churches. Another point of difference that stands out to me involves Paul’s work among the Corinthians. Most scholars recognize the problematic composition of 2 Corinthians, though there’s less consensus on how to unravel the Corinthian correspondence. However, I’m personally confident that the highly polemical chapters of 2 Corinthians 10-13 historically preceded at least 2 Corinthians 1:1-2:13; 7:5-9:15, if not all of 1:1-9:15; in short, I agree with the widespread view that 2 Corinthians 10-13 is part of the “letter of tears” described in 2 Corinthians 2:1-4; 7:12. As I recall, the film depicts Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians ending on a sour note, which not only follows the canonical sequence but also feeds into the film’s larger narrative. On the other hand, Robert did warn in advance that some of the narrative detail needed to be simplified in order to keep the film to a manageable length, so it may be premature to raise questions such as these.
Regardless of these more detailed questions, however, the film is unquestionably dead-on with respect to the most crucial events, such as the Antioch incident and what is widely believed to be James’ rejection of Paul’s Gentile collection (a conclusion fueled in part by Luke’s deafening silence about the collection in Acts, a silence which is otherwise inconceivable given the emphatic importance accorded to the collection in Paul’s own letters). The reaction of the Judean believers toward Paul described in Acts 21:20ff becomes all the more acutely pronounced as a result, and through its narrative approach A Polite Bribe manages to epitomize the essence of that conflict in a unique way. This is perhaps the signature achievement of Robert’s documentary with respect to telling Paul’s story in a fresh light, and the most likely to open up larger social questions.
Ultimately, however, the greatest value of this film is that unlike other popular biblical films (like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), A Polite Bribe isn’t likely to shut down dialogue but rather to inspire it, both within Christian churches and across social and religious boundaries. The reflection and conversation certain to be generated by this film will undoubtedly inform and enrich everyone who encounters it, regardless of the issues and concerns they may (or may not) bring to it.
Mark M. Mattison