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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?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2015 4:24 am

    Very much looking forward to seeing it 🙂

    Can I just ask – what is (or was) the ‘polite bribe’ of the title?

    • March 2, 2015 2:57 pm

      Of course… It refers to the collection Paul was making for “the poor” (probably a reference to the believing community) in Jerusalem… over the course of several years and personally delivering on that fateful final trip there. Orlando admits borrowing the term from a biblical scholar (I forget who at the moment). I don’t think it will “spoil” any of the film or book to say that while some might object to the term “bribe”, it’s pretty clear it was part of a sort of bargain… a bit of quid pro quo.

      The collection’s real importance is almost always overlooked as people read the NT… and even by preachers and scholars who are taking a deeper look. The film helps illustrate why that has been the case, and a good bit of the “blame” can go to Luke.

      Thanks for the question! I’m eager for your thoughts, reactions upon viewing and/or reading!

      • March 3, 2015 1:04 am

        Thanks, that’s interesting. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with Paul’s efforts in his letters to get churches to donate to his collection – some of his rhetorical methods strike me as a little emotionally/spiritually manipulative, though I’ve always hesitated to say that.

        Nonetheless, I’d be interested to see the evidence that it was a bribe or quid pro quo, as that seems quite a bold statement! 🙂

        I’m somewhere in the middle with Paul… I find his style, personality and quite a bit of his theology difficult, but I’m reluctant to write him off too much as well. Maybe that’s the evangelical bit of me still struggling to stay alive!

        • March 3, 2015 2:22 pm

          I know from long Evangelical days that seeing Paul in mainly theological terms is the strong tendency… I did that, too. While there is often some nod to his passion, his suffering and tenacity, there is a reluctance to take a probing look at the full complexity of who/what he was… and even some aspects of his claims and message.

          Another distorting factor re. him and his mission is that we tend to blend his accounts in with Luke’s about him and the resulting composite is quite different than taking just Paul on his own…. Also leaving off, from his body of work, at least the Timothy and Titus epistles (plus 2 Thes.), as is quite proper, helps Paul’s message and practice be much more consistent on women.

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