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The History-Changing Initial Jewish-Christian Conflict – Discussion of “A Polite Bribe” Film

February 28, 2015

 

My headline says it: The direction of history was truly altered in a mere 40-year period of the first century. Who was at the epicenter of this massive quake? The Apostle Paul!

Another central character in the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., much less known because the New Testament obscures as well as reveals him, is none other than the brother of Jesus, James.  He had become the leader of the personal disciples of Jesus within the clear authority base of the new “Church” (yet to be) in Jerusalem.  His relationship with Paul was complicated and tension-filled to say the least.  This relationship was the focal point of quickly-arising conflicts when non-Jews (“Gentiles”) also wanted to follow “The Way” laid out by Jesus.  A great many of them were converts of Paul’s.

There is a whole lot more to the story of the tensions than even most Christian or Jewish leaders realize, right in the pages of the New Testament. It doesn’t take a careful eye to spot it but it does to piece together the scattered and generally brief references to it and construct the larger story.  Some biblical scholars have done it.  But it has taken a brilliant filmmaker, Robert Orlando, with his film, A Polite Bribe, to bring the scholarship to a popular-level audience in a compelling story form.  He has written the same story in a book, covering more detail and extensive documentation.

The film and book I’ve reviewed on the blog here and here.

A Polite Bribe was screened at the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature last November.  The video above is an edited version of a discussion afterward.  Don’t let the academic setting scare you off!

The points are easy to follow and they don’t get too “down in the weeds” with details.  If you have an interest in how a Jewish sect became Christianity beginning with the original followers of Jesus, centered in Jerusalem; or if the life and work of the extraordinary person of Paul intrigues you, this is worth watching, whether before or after seeing the film itself or reading the book!

In the discussion video, the man on the left is theologian Larry Hurtado, in the middle another biblical scholar, Ben Witherington, and on the right, Robert Orlando, who researched and wrote the script as well as produced the film.  Hurtado and Witherington are both very popular, widely read authors as well as professors… read particularly in the more traditional and evangelical wing of Protestant Christianity which they represent, at least in a general way.    Orlando himself is theologically educated (seminary) and a scholar via his extensive research for the film and beyond.  In the video he mainly takes the role of filmmaker and only mildly “defends” the historical contents and conclusions of the film.

An important aside is that if A Polite Bribe can get a “two thumbs up” which it does (without them using that term) from these two particular scholars, we can know Orlando has stuck pretty close to the actual historical data about the final recorded period of Paul’s drama-filled life and his conflicts with other believers, including Jesus’ brother and the Jerusalem leader, James.  They do state they have differences about some of the “artistic interpretation” or minor details, but remain enthusiastic about the film.

The panel members agree that the focus of the film is the human issues… the passion, the drama, the tensions within Paul and between him and other Jewish-Christian leaders from Jerusalem (again, mainly James, but also Peter, the other Apostles and their representatives).  They recognize that many Christians unconsciously put Paul in some kind of separate super-human category and will benefit from a good in-depth look at his complex human personality and choices.  Similarly, most Christians are unaware of or minimize the seriousness of the conflicts the earliest Church was going through.  Not just theological squabbles, but things at the core of personal and ethnic identity issues linked with religious beliefs and practices… major lifestyle and social interaction issues!

The settling of those issues is unfortunately unable to be shown in A Polite Bribe because neither the New Testament nor any other document relates them.  The process of working them out entered a new phase just a decade after Paul’s famous final trip to Jerusalem….  The Jews had revolted against Rome just six or seven years after that visit and Jerusalem, along with the magnificent “Second Temple”, were destroyed.  The Temple was never rebuilt and the worship and practices of Judaism necessarily shifted.

Christianity, as a hopeful new though rocky Gentile-Jew affiliation, entered another phase as well… one with increasing acrimony which, over time, created fully separate religions with distinct and often contentious groupings.

In the video Hurtado mentions that the build-up of political tensions with Rome, which had become intense by the late 50s, is recognized by scholars as influencing how James and the Jerusalem leaders felt they needed to treat the mission and message of Paul.  Not only their own religious and ethnic identities were at stake, but no doubt even their lives.  I’d imagine they were prepared to lose their lives to Roman soldiers if it came to that, but less willing to die by the hand of fellow Jews, among whom James was noted as “The Righteous” or “The Just”.  (Historian Josephus records that James did die, just a few years later, by the action of the High Priest, although we don’t know the exact reasons or provocation…. The other believers apparently were not attacked.)

You can see a trailer of the film and other discussions of it and order it or the book here.  If you have an interest in hosting a screening of the film for your church or another group, please contact Mr. Orlando though the site.

What are your thoughts after seeing the discussion or viewing A Polite Bribe, the film, itself?

We Need to Mirror the President on “Extremist” Label

February 22, 2015

If you follow our American news even a little you’ve probably noted the flap over President Obama’s recent comments on terrorists in the Middle East and Africa.  If you’re not familiar, there’s been a lot of controversy over at least a couple related elements:

  1. That he continually calls the fighters concentrated in Syria and Iraq who label their organization an “Islamic State” simply “terrorists” or “extremists” without the inclusion of “Islamic”.  He reinforces the point by saying, repeatedly, that we must not think of the conflict as a war against Islam — even if just one extreme expression of it.  It is also not a “clash of civilizations”.
  2. In a recent important speech he rankled many (particularly conservatives) by reminding fellow Christians that historically many, on a large scale, have perpetrated atrocities in the name of Christ.  It is not that different from current terrorists using Islam as cover for their twisted ways.  (And the point is not whether the parallels are exact but that claiming alliance with a religion or spiritual leader is not the same as being a faithful follower, validly bearing the name… that all religions are vulnerable to being hijacked this way.) He warns against a smug “we’re superior” attitude.

All this President Obama is quite right about.  As an aside, it is refreshing to me to observe that in him we have a president who seems to be spiritually aware and truly more theologically adept than any president for a long, long time. Of course, he properly speaks very little about it.

Now to the main point: whether to call the largest (or any) group of terrorists “Islamic” or not.  If it were mere grammar knit-picking I wouldn’t weigh in. But it’s more.  I think the administration’s insistence is prompting important deeper thinking and a conversation that is needed.  More Americans, and others, need to get “on board” with him on this.

To me the issues are clearly about levels of personal and societal development more than they are about any religion.  (To my knowledge, it is Integral Theory… some of the writings of Ken Wilber and others following his basic model of human and societal development… that best explains why we have terrorists, what motivates them, etc. And Wilber actively calls on religious leaders to help religion (whether Christianity, Islam, or whatever) play the positive developmental role it can and should play toward virtually eliminating the seedbeds of terrorism.  Another very insightful resource on this is Terror in the Mind of God by Mark Juergensmeyer.)   

The issues also have to do with regions of the world and the economic, political and other factors in play there.  Yes, religion plays a part because it is a major aspect of how people structure their personal and societal lives.  But religions are widely diverse within their own “boundaries”.  So if we agree to accept Middle Eastern terrorists’ self-label as Islamic or as a valid expression of Islam I believe, as President Obama has also stated, that we actually support and reinforce their narrative.  If they are seen by young and impressionable Muslims or youth open to Islam from Western along with Middle Eastern countries as having a religiously-based utopian ideal, it seems no matter how many atrocities they publicly commit and revel in, these young people can be sucked in.  They are being drawn in, apparently by the thousands.  Take away at least some of this recruiting power by demonstrating clearly that there is nothing validly religious about their cause – that it is a demonic kind of brutality and barbarism for selfish, not selfless ends, and we might begin to disempower their evil.

What are your thoughts?

Why a Process View of God and Reality is Crucial

January 17, 2015

If you are thinking, “What is a process view…?” you are far from alone.  “Process” as a systematic viewpoint (paradigm) for understanding things has been around for nearly a century, refined along the way.  Yet it is still not widespread… a shame!

Maybe you have some exposure to Process theology (or philosophy) but it has failed to appeal, or seems confusing… perhaps unimportant.  I won’t explain it much here but rather point out some of what Process can do practically for you and for everyone’s benefit – why it is important.

First, a few key things about the Process viewpoint must be stated so this article makes sense.  In it, God is seen in both personal and force-like ways.  (In Process, a lot is more “both-and” or “sort of” than “either-or”.) God contains all of reality but is not contained by it…. Thus, “panentheism” rather than either traditional theism or pantheism (God=everything).  God is creator but not, in the typical sense, controller of the universe.  God uses only persuasive power, never coercive power.  (We truly do have “agency”, or some level of free will.)  God has not created any form of eternal punishment – as it cannot be persuasive, only coercive and vindictive.

You may note I’ve used opposites or “this, not that” binary statements here….  Such is the nature of much of our thinking and language, necessarily.  But Process tries also, when possible, to move us beyond the dichotomies or toward holding needed dichotomies in balanced tension with other ones.  (Making God, for example, seemingly both “personal” and “impersonal” at the same time, or alternatingly, in human perspective.)

Here, we’ve encountered part of the Process difficulty: some of us are more prone than others to wanting or needing simple black-white categories.  It’s partly a matter of education level and “brain power” but not entirely.  It’s partly mental style, which is not entirely our choice.  And my contention here is that we can and should come to understand and stretch our own mental style and ability to make sense of things, whatever it currently is.  The very future of humanity may depend on it.

My suggested benefits of learning about and becoming more Process-oriented aren’t as immediate as “study it and within days you will begin making more money” or “having more success in relationships” or “you’ll find deep peace”.  But they include gradually coming to greater peace internally and with others… which can be extended, eventually, to greater international peace, one area of gigantic potential in a (P)process orientation.

One place where peace-making results from Process is the broad field of science.  Particularly, science and religion… where the two seemingly are often in conflict.  Even more specifically, creation and evolution can more easily, effectively be reconciled and worked with cooperatively through Process than any system of which I’m aware.  Far too often currently scientists and “religionists” are at war.  Or scientists who are also religious don’t actively integrate the two, leaving them in largely distinct realms, and unnecessary fights are seldom resolved.  Those scientists best positioned to balance things and mediate between often-anti-science creationists and often-anti-religious scientists of evolution are far too quiet.  They are quiet because they are uncomfortably split between the two dominant paradigms in which they live and work: supernaturalism and naturalism.

To Process thinkers, both these organizing systems are too simplistic or “reductionist”.  Thus they create serious problems.  Too loyal a following of them by most of society unnecessarily distorts reality.  It sets up the counter-productive debates that are often distractions.  It promotes internal personal conflicts, often severe ones.

I could go beyond this science-religion example to issues that create personal anxiety and expand outwardly to critical ecological and political issues.  But my aim is to keep this particular article brief and thought-provoking so that its complexity will not, itself, discourage people from starting to at least rethink the usefulness of religion’s traditional supernatural view of God and Scripture (particularly within the monotheistic religions).  Similarly, to reexamine the usefulness of holding to pure naturalism which doesn’t allow for the existence of any kind of God and fails to account for or validate a wide range of common experiences.  (These are often suppressed in conversation and research because of culture’s naturalism bias).

If both supernaturalism and naturalism are unsatisfactory what else is there? To me and thousands of others, the most viable, helpful alternative is a view that approaches reality as an ever-flowing process, thus “Process” thought. 

While I’ll not here take time to get intensely practical with further specifics, I’m hoping you’ll be watching (e.g., by “following” this blog) for future posts on this general theme.  Meanwhile at least go to the Process entry on Wikipedia, here.  It has a very readable and helpful summary and list of many great resources.  I also have a number of Process-related posts here, often listed under that category.

Please share your thoughts!

 

Shaman? Savior? Myth? Inkblot? — Why Christianity’s Main Man Remains So Elusive

December 27, 2014
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Howard Pepper:

With special focus on Jesus’ birth just past, here is a great article well worth reading. I’m using author Tarico’s conclusion here as an introduction, as I feel she nails it! Similarly to her, I “came to Jesus” very early in life. While my understanding of him has dramatically changed, the stories of him and his teaching continue to be important and the object of much ongoing inquiry for me. The article helps show how we may never know much about the “real” Jesus, definitively. But he never-the-less can be a powerful positive influence if we keep growing “with” him. Valerie’s concluding comment:
“My friend understands the Jesus she seeks to be a matter of hope, not history. The power of her Jesus comes not from whatever tentative facts scholars can glimpse in the fog of history, but from yearnings of the human spirit that are as relevant today as they were in the Ancient Near East. Perhaps humanity’s centuries of desperately seeking Jesus are best thought of as a quest to find and define ourselves. Perhaps that is enough.”

Originally posted on ValerieTarico:

Historical Jesus Was there a man behind the myths? — Three approaches to the question.

To my mind, the only thing in the world duller than a graduation ceremony is a traditional wedding. Not long after finishing my graduate studies in psychology (and skipping the ceremony), I found myself in the pew of a Presbyterian church, staring at the back of a trailing white dress and fuming at my predicament. As the officiant droned on, I desperately searched for some distraction, but saw only the hymnal and a Bible. I chose the latter—why not—and began reading the gospel of Matthew—again, why not–and I was struck by something I’d never noticed before. The stories of Jesus at the beginning and end of Matthew seemed very, very different.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus might be compared to a guru or a shaman, a wandering holy man who imparts bits of timeless wisdom…

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Review of film, “A Polite Bribe”

November 26, 2014

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A few days ago I saw the film A Polite Bribe: An Apostle’s Final Bid.  A few weeks ago I had here reviewed the book, A Polite Bribe, which covers the same basic subject, by the same author and director, Robert Orlando.

Both are focused on Paul and the other Apostles and leaders in Jerusalem.  Not just historically but in terms of the many-years-long conflicts and tensions between them… the story of Paul’s core mission and passion.  That story’s final chapter is unexpected, even disturbing, as the film depicts in words, paintings and visual effects… a “surprise” even to many Bible readers.

Why is the real nature of Paul’s somewhat murky but clearly severe conflict with James and also with Peter and the other Jesus-followers in Jerusalem a surprise to so many Christians? (This often includes pastors and priests.) A Polite Bribe lays out part of the answer to this in just what it does that is different than the traditional approach: It traces Paul’s interactions with the Jerusalem leaders through his letters.  With this, it tracks a special long-term project based on his desire to stay in their good graces and have his mission validated.

That project is the collection he was building up for years through the generous giving of his mission congregations… for “the poor” in Jerusalem (a double-meaning term designating either the believers themselves or the needy among them).  The film builds and builds, with viewers knowing there is trouble to come, to the bloody climax in Jerusalem.  Paul attempts to deliver the large collection to James and the Jewish Christians in the holy city.  Will they receive it? Will his mission be validated or will he have “run in vain”?

Most people know that Paul was not killed in the process (tradition says that happened in Rome), but we often forget that he here had another close brush with death.  And who was responsible?

Paul himself, given his own sense of foreboding about the venture, plus being warned and begged not to go? James, in that he undoubtedly had a good sense of the grave danger to Paul, yet sent him into the Temple on a ritual observance to prove that he was still “living in obedience to the law” (Acts 21:24, NIV)? Jewish believers who may have been among those distraught by reports (which may well have been pretty accurate) as to what Paul was teaching to pagans and Jews… perhaps even among the instigators of the riot attacking Paul?

This all comes toward the end of a nearly hour-and-a-half film.  Paul’s life has been reviewed and the central thrust of his mission to unify Jews and Gentiles in the Kingdom of God under Christ as universal savior described.  But the movie, in documentary style, is no session on theology.  Theology is mostly kept on the sideline.  This is the story of what was driving Paul and why he came into ongoing conflict with the Jerusalem leaders.  The reasons have as much or more to do with ethnic loyalties and social factors as with theology.  This is what we tend to miss….  Our education is mostly through churches, directly or indirectly, and thus mostly about theology with only a little setting of history or social conditions.

That is one reason I believe churched people will enjoy this film although much of it may be disturbing. Disturbing especially to those who have become locked into traditional views that whitewash the conflicts and the messier side of the birth of Christianity.  (The movie also shows how this began with “Luke” himself, as author of Acts, from whom we know at least something of what must have really happened at this critical juncture.) In his later years, Paul sought to gain approval for “his” gospel and unifying mission from those who had personally been with Jesus and who retained a heavily Jewish way of interpreting what Jesus’ work had been.  They were still the undisputed authorities in the new sect which as yet was not separated from Judaism. Nor was it called Christianity.

Through elements I’ve only touched on, the movie makes the case for calling Paul’s collection a kind of bribe, though a “polite” or subtle one, agreed to on both ends in advance.  To better understand why there was occasion, again on both sides, for at the least a reciprocal gift I recommend you get the DVD of the movie.  Go to the “APoliteBribe.com” website here and get a copy of the book or movie or both, plus check where screenings are planned or explore the related videos.  The writer/director, Orlando, may be at a nearby screening, particularly at a church or university, to personally run a question and answer time and sign your book.

The screening I attended was at a church…. The thoughtful crowd at Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Carlsbad, had a good number of questions and comments.  Virtually everyone seemed to be impressed one way or another with the film – its message and emotional impact.  Not only does it help us see the realistic picture of a period of high religious drama around the birth of a new faith, it also humanizes Paul. We can feel the intensity and grit of the single person who most influenced the twenty-centuries-long course of what Jesus had set in motion.

Once more, you can obtain the DVD here.

If you have read the book or seen the movie, we welcome your comments!

Dialog on John the Baptist – Part 4b

October 26, 2014

Is there much to explore about John the BaptistYes, a surprising amount, so we’re on the topic again….  And there are points of interest with helpful New Testament background and world history information along the way so that we are not merely nit-picking a locust-eater from the wilderness.

More specifically, fellow blogger, Brian and LePort, and I are transitioning (rather slowly) in our John the Baptist discussion from Josephus’ description of John to that in the Gospels.

Like him, I pursue other related (or not-so-related) topics at the same time, one of them being a very cool (and also scholarly) book I’ve read and reviewed just recently here. There will be a screening of the film by the same title, Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe, written and produced by Robert Orlando, in Carlsbad, CA, on Nov. 21, 2014.  If you have interest, mention it in a comment or email me for details.

For some setting on today’s topic that some readers may need, Josephus was a first century Jewish historian in Roman employ.  He is the main source of much of our knowledge of pre-first-century and first-century Palestine and the Roman Empire in the area, and especially the Jewish revolt against Rome.  This truly “history changing” revolt of 66-70 C.E. (A.D.) had antecedents in movements at least somewhat like that of John and earlier (as well as later) ones that were armed rebellions of varying sizes.  Josephus’ works are by far our most detailed look into these rebellions and much more about this period.  So reports by Josephus take on clear significance for this and a great number of reasons.

I give that background again because it relates to some points Brian and I have raised.  His last contribution, found on his blog, www.brianleport.com (part 4a), deals mainly with the overall issue of differences vs. similarities of Josephus’ comments on John the Baptist and the picture given in the Gospels and Acts.  I’m not sure just where and how our views of this are not fully lined up, as I think so far, they generally are in line.  Differences may well appear more as we move ahead.  I don’t recall claiming contradiction between the accounts of Josephus and the Gospels per se, but I may have at least implied that, without meaning it exactly, as I’ll explain in a moment…. It’s a bit complex.

First, I want to emphasize that Josephus’ inclusion of brief remarks about John and what he was and did is important in confirming the historicity of John.  Similarly this is so for his mentions of Jesus and James as brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem Jesus-followers (not yet called “Christians”).  Combining all three, with a number of other politically or religiously important figures of the time acting “in support”, Josephus offers powerful evidence for the existence of both John and Jesus as real men, not mythical inventions (for any “mythicists” who may be reading, or those interacting with a mythicist).

It also seems clear to me that the main facts about John and his activities do line up in the New Testament (NT) and Josephus.  He was a powerful preacher, devoted to spiritual and religious (ritual bodily/ceremonial) purity and to “right living” … a high ethical standard.  Beneath this was probably also at least an implied resistance to Roman occupation of the Holy Land, odious as it was to all Jews, although neither he nor Jesus seem to have directly advocated any armed rebellion.  But the the sizable and excited followings of each, in the unstable context of the day, was a serious threat to rulers. People knew the history of a couple centuries of resistance movements (vs. Greek and Roman rule), foremost being the successful Maccabean one – 167 to 160 B.C., with a century of self-rule following.  So both Jewish regional administrators and Roman overlords were cautious, prone to nip problems in the bud.

Now, I have highlighted “main” facts and “activities” above.  There is agreement between our sources (Josephus, NT) that John had a favorable identity as a righteous prophet, that he had a remote-area baptizing ministry pulling from village and city areas, calling people to moral/ethical (and Torah-following) living, and that his movement threatened Antipas, who had him arrested and subsequently beheaded.  The Gospels reiterate these factors, with additional details that may well be historical.  I don’t see reason to question the “big picture” of John that the Evangelists (writers) give.  However, this brings us to where we may well have a difference of significance between Josephus and the Gospels as to John.

The impression I have always gotten from direct reading of the Gospels and from many, many sermons and guided studies of the Bible is that the primary function of John, the real reason his ministry existed, was to prepare the coming of Jesus as Messiah.  With that, to introduce and endorse Jesus among Jews who sought God and cared about the welfare of their nation… ultimately to introduce him to the world!  I don’t think that is a misreading of the intentions of the Evangelists.  The fact that all of them are basically united (with some variations) in emphasizing this is important.  (Many details around and in Jesus’ life are not included in all four gospels, including his birth, the infancy escape of Herod, many of the miracles and parables, etc… even resurrection appearances – in Mark, only the later-written ending includes this element although it yet appears in most Bibles, often noted as not part of the original.)

For this reason and others that are clear upon reading, John’s role is made key and emphasized in the Gospels.  And John’s baptism of Jesus is included although this presented theological problems historically in the Church (mainly why a sinless Jesus would need to repent and be baptized).  This had almost certainly cropped up before the Evangelists wrote.  So this inclusion likely indicates an actual event (by validation criterion of “embarrassment”) …. John baptized Jesus.  So there was some connection between the two movements and men.  But what, really was it? 

This points us back to Josephus: We know historically that Jesus’ movement (as carried on in two mostly separate lines of Jerusalem followers and those converted by Paul and his associates outside Palestine) was much greater than John’s, even before the end of the first century (when Josephus had finished “Antiquities”).  So John’s famous, “He must increase, but I must decrease” was fulfilled, certainly beyond their lifetimes, as well as within.  But did he really say that and the several other things attributed to him about preparing the way for Messiah Jesus – fulfilling a “prophecy” to that effect? That Jesus would baptize with “holy spirit” (more importantly than his water baptism), etc.?

In other words, Josephus seems to confirm who John was and basically what he did.  But does his account either validate or question the Gospel contention that John was a special prophet sent by God for the main purpose of identifying and building up Jesus among Jews, along with “turning over”, as it were, his following to Jesus? My reading of the situation would say it questions it more than validates it. Here is why: (First, an aside that subsequent posts in this series will look deeper at just the Gospel statements about John and his movement, his strange mention in Acts re. an Alexandrian [Egypt] connection, etc.)

Josephus clearly writes from an unusual position — a Roman-sympathizing (employed by their rulers) Jewish defender of Judaism.  To defend Judaism was particularly important in the decades following the 66-70 A.D. revolt which left Jerusalem destroyed but was costly to Rome as well.  And it left major suspicions about Jews (and indirectly, about Christians as tied to Judaism… in this last point, the agendas of Josephus and the Evangelists overlap significantly).  In his major works (War – late 70s, and Antiquities – early 90s) Josephus mentions Jesus and Christianity only briefly and seemingly in passing.  (His longest Christian-sounding comment on Jesus, though short itself, is almost universally recognized as a much later addition to his text — at least a portion of it.)

So a pertinent question in evaluating Josephus’ summary of what John was about is whether Josephus shows any clear bias against or avoidance of mentioning Jesus and his followers.  Without going into the more technical reasons why, I’ll say I don’t think he does.  He doesn’t spend much time on specific Jewish religious groups either, but does indicate his preference for the Pharisees, the largest group before the war and the only widely influential one after it (post 70 A.D.) which led into the formation of “rabbinic Judaism”.  So, if he knew much about the claims of Jesus and his followers, he had not become a believer.  (It is quite possible he did not know many of the details, despite having lived in Galilee and later done extensive research on the lead-up to and execution of the war.  He had also been a young general, captured at its beginning.)

If we had any strong suspicion Josephus purposely sought to diminish Jesus or his movement, we might have reason to suspect that he knowingly left out the kind of vital connection of John and Jesus that the Gospels feature prominently and spend considerable “time” on.  In a situation like we have here, it is more than a mere “argument from silence” (generally weak) that Josephus fails to bring up Jesus in any way in his discussion of John’s work.  That is because all the Gospels make a strong point that John is the “way-preparer” for Jesus, less important than Jesus, a promoter of the work of Jesus.  He had no significance once Jesus’ ministry had been launched.  In other words, if the NT accounts of the real importance of John are correct, then Josephus is somewhere between deficient and flat wrong.

Now, if Josephus’ picture of John and his movement as largely if not fully apart from any other (including Jesus and his followers) were the only factor raising questions about the Gospel picture, we’d not have particularly strong reason to suspect the latter.  However, as we delve further into the matter in coming posts, we will be seeing that a number of important questions arise within the NT texts themselves that make it difficult to conclude that the Evangelists were honestly and reasonably “historical” here…. That they were not manipulating the story of John and working around the complicating likelihood that he did, in fact, baptize Jesus… to further their theological and Christian-support agendas.   

To “close the circle” on the fit between Josephus’s report and the Gospels’, I would add that as to what Josephus includes, it probably is reasonable to see it in harmony with the Gospels’ more elaborated account in terms of John’s capture and execution.  John may well have criticized Antipas’ marriage, as the Gospels tell us, or his other moral failings … it was his manner, and credible within Josephus’ report.  And while some of the scandalous details are probably more for story-telling impact than they are historical, it may well be that Antipas was pressured into killing John when he may not have really wanted to.

Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe – Review of Just-released Book

October 20, 2014

One might think that nothing new could yet be written about the Apostle Paul…. Wrong! Especially when an often-overlooked but key endeavor of Paul’s has directly to do with our entire view of what the earliest Christians were like and what they believed.

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This book, by independent scholar and filmmaker, Robert Orlando, takes a new angle to understanding what Paul was really trying to accomplish and to the nature of his relationship with the Jerusalem Jesus-followers, James (Jesus’ brother and main leader of the Jerusalem group), and Peter.  (It’s not what Christians through the ages have been led to think.)  A reasonable-length review cannot fully cover or critique the case Orlando makes… for that you should get the book or the DVD or both… but I will give the main points in the course of the review.  First, how the approach of this book and its companion documentary film of the same title is new and different from the usual fare in biblical studies or histories of Christian origins (I’ll cautiously use the common term, “early Church”, largely interchangeably, with the note pertinent to the book’s thesis, that the evidence shows the existence of “early churches” only loosely connected, not a single early church):

We generally get, and personally take on a perspective on Paul and his mission, and him within early Christianity, from a theological vantage point… theological analysis primarily.  We usually also get some review of his work geographically in terms of his “missionary journeys” which covered much of “Asia” (western present-day Turkey) and “Acaia” (Greek peninsula) and Macedonia (then and now, just to the north).  Only occasionally do studies have some inclusion of, or perhaps a focus on cultural, sociological, and local or regional social factors.  In A Polite Bribe Orlando is careful to include these and at least one more factor in effective balance.  

That additional factor is discerning and re-creating a narrative for Paul’s life – Paul’s story, from the seven or so letters we can be assured he wrote, mainly to various of the churches he founded.  (Orlando properly, in my view, sticks to the seven “undisputed” letters of Paul, and by this is on solid ground.) Paul never develops his own story much, beyond brief summaries of his “resume” (credentials for his authority) and general references to his revelatory experiences of Christ and insights or guidance from God.  Much more of what most people “know” of Paul comes from Acts via “Luke” (or whoever was the unnamed author of Luke/Acts).  The latter material tends to be more story and biography, but as the book shows, in harmony with many top scholars, Acts is continually and seriously slanted to present a smoothed-over selective history, giving the appearance of a unified and harmonious early Church.  This is often in stark contrast with the letters of Paul, “snapshot” style and unfiltered as they are.

Most in focus within this contrast, in which we see Paul regularly at serious odds and angry with the leaders of the Jerusalem “church” and their delegates, is the matter of Paul’s collection of large sums for the support of “the poor” in the Jerusalem community.  (The term served double meaning as a moniker for the believers there as well as some who were in material need.)  Most of us either entirely missed the long-term focus of Paul on this “polite bribe” arrangement or have slighted the centrality and importance of it for understanding both Paul’s personal mission and his tense and tenuous relationship with the Apostles and “bishop” James in Jerusalem.  This dynamic, and dynamic it is, becomes the focus of this fascinating book.

Now what, referred to earlier, is refreshingly different in Orlando’s approach is his perception as story-observer and story-developer (as filmmaker and beyond)… a perspective he imparts to us, along with some explanation of the structure of the archetypal hero’s journey.  (This is something we all relate to at one level or another, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.)  Here he astutely cites Carl Jung, probably the most spiritually-aware and “into” the deep-subconscious of all psychologists of at least the bulk of the last century if not to date.  It is by tracing not just the beliefs and teachings of the Apostle Paul, but his actionsparticularly as oriented so heavily around the taking and delivery, in person, of the “collection for the saints”, that Orlando masterfully reveals both the deeper Paul and the true nature and extent of the conflict between Paul and the other Apostles.  

So the above explains why you should get and read the book (and watch the DVD or see a screening when it comes to your area… both can be found here).  Particularly the DVD, but also the book, is for anyone with interest or curiosity.  The book is versatile… it has so many footnotes that it will benefit the scholarly, but it is written plainly and understandably, with the lay or non-religious person in mind, even those with minimal knowledge of the New Testament.

And below are a few other features of the book which enhance its message and its value.

  • Orlando avoids speculation re. possible subconscious motives and stays with what most would agree to be expected motivations given what Paul’s own writings show clearly about him and his sense of mission, his goals, etc.
  • There is a most interesting “Prologue” where the author sets the stage for his coming narrative with a helpful timeline.  Also here Orlando posts a clever open letter to Theophilus, the patron who “Luke”, the author of Acts of the Apostles, addresses.  It alerts Theophilus of a major, apparently purposeful omission of Luke… one filled in somewhat by other recent scholars, and now in more detail and focus by Orlando (not the collection itself, but related to it).  If Theophilus is currently able to read this letter, I’m sure he’s already become aware of what it alerts him (and us) to, but I loved this being slipped in!
  • The notes and bibliography are a treasure-trove in themselves for anyone with interest to pursue Pauline or Christian origins studies in general, or seek to validate or critique Orlando’s points specifically.

[This book was provided by the publisher.  This has not influenced my review.]

Here again is the link to the author’s site for more on both the book and the DVD or film screenings: apolitebribe.com

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