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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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