New Documentary on Paul by Robert Orlando


Review by Jeffrey J. Bütz

Earlier this year I was contacted by director Robert Orlando to be interviewed for a film called The Paul Story. Robert explained to me that he was doing final edits for his documentary and realized he needed more information on Paul’s relationship with Jesus’ brother James. He had recently read my book The Brother of Jesus and thought my understanding of the controversial figure of James would fit in well with his Paul film.

A quick Google search revealed that in addition to being a director and screenwriter and running a production company (Nexus Media), Orlando was an independent scholar of the classics  and a student of Paul, having studied under the late Alan Segal. He had been interviewing leading scholars since 2005 to incorporate in his documentary and several of those interviews (with the likes of Amy-Jill Levine, Daniel Boyarin, and Ben Witherington) were already available online. Seeing the great potential of this film I agreed to go to Orlando’s studio in Princeton, New Jersey for an interview.

As soon as Robert and I began talking, I was hooked. Robert is clearly a Pauline scholar. The interview was like a scholarly exchange in comparison to all the previous media interviews I had done on James (where many interviewers were even surprised to hear that Jesus had brothers and sisters!). A bit to my surprise, Robert’s interview questions focused mainly on Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem, where he met with Jesus’ brother James for the purpose of presenting the collection for the poor in Jerusalem that he had gone to such great lengths to collect during his missionary journeys. In hindsight, having now seen the film, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the line of questioning. What happened (or didn’t happen) to that huge collection of gold is a story all unto itself, and provides the lens through which Orlando presents the life of Paul. 

I left the interview with some mixed feelings. I was blown away by Robert’s knowledge, and was already in awe at some of the world-class scholars he had interviewed for the film. But driving home from Princeton that day, I realized that this was going to be a very controversial film that was going to take a no-holds-barred look at the darker side of Paul’s involvement in the beginnings of the Christian church. My trepidation was only heightened when I saw the official trailer for the film that was now being called A Polite Bribe.  The title says it all as to the controversial nature of the film.

At the beginning of May, I headed to Princeton to attend the premiere with family and friends, with some trepidation as to what I was going to see on the screen. Would it be a flop? Would it merely be a lot of over-the-top “Paul bashing,” as was the latest fad in much popular literature on Paul? I also had visions of angry protesters swirling in my head! But after watching a full two hours of the rough cut of A Polite Bribe, all fears were laid to rest. I am very happy to say that A Polite Bribe is a triumph on all levels.

Robert Orlando has produced a unique and groundbreaking documentary which will indeed become highly controversial if it reaches a mass audience (the film is currently being screened in select cities in advance of a limited theatrical release). The title itself is controversial—“A Polite Bribe” being a designation some scholars have used to describe the collection for “the poor” which Paul went to such great lengths to collect from his Gentile churches.

Paul himself describes the meeting he had in Jerusalem with James, Peter, and John where a demarcation of mission territories was agreed to: “. . . they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (Gal. 2: 9-10).

Paul was indeed eager to carry out this collection and the film presents a rather thorough biography of Paul as he carries out his vision for a “law-free” mission to the Gentiles, a mission which over time was increasingly seen by James and the apostles in Jerusalem as being at odds with their own “law-based” mission to the Jews. Ever since the groundbreaking scholarship of F. C. Baur and the “Tübingen School” in Germany in the late 19th century, it has been increasingly recognized by scholars that the relationship between Paul and the original apostles was not one of sweetness and light as the Church has traditionally presented it, but one of often outright animosity. As Bart Ehrman comments in the film on the picture of harmony and cooperation presented in the book of Acts, “Luke has imposed his own agenda on what really happened.” One of the groundbreaking aspects of A Polite Bribe is that it may be the first documentary to present “what really happened” as uncovered by modern critical scholarship over the last century and a half.

The controversial central claim of A Polite Bribe is that Paul believed the presentation of his monumental collection would ingratiate him to the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem; that they would see the collection as the fulfillment of the prophecies of the riches of the Gentiles streaming into Zion and open their arms wide to him. Instead, as the film carefully explains through the mouths of the scholars, the collection was rejected as being “unclean money,” the acceptance of which would be tantamount to James and the elders in Jerusalem putting their stamp of approval on Paul’s rejection of the law. The fact is that the book of Acts makes no mention of the collection when Paul makes his final visit to Jerusalem, which has led most Paul scholars to conclude that Luke intentionally whitewashed an embarrassing faux pas for the picture of apostolic harmony he strains to present.

There may be no filmmaker better equipped than Robert Orlando to pull back the curtains to reveal the tension-filled beginnings of the Christian church and the rivalry and infighting that existed between Paul and the rest of the apostles. Orlando has done some serious homework in putting this film together. The sheer number of scholars interviewed in the film (28!) is astounding and Orlando has been careful to include a wide diversity of theological opinions ranging from Jewish scholars such as Amy Jill-Levine, to Catholic scholars such as Philip Esler, to liberal scholars such John Dominic Crossan and Gerd Lüdemann, to evangelical scholars such as Ben Witherington.

Witherington (who gets quite a lot of face time) is especially engaging and manages to inject some needed levity into a film whose overall tenor is very tense, even dark. Orlando gets the most out of his assembled multitude of scholars, who are clearly eager to engage with a director who knows the subject in-depth. 

There are basically only two ways to do a historical documentary—with actors recreating the events or with illustrations and/or animation. Orlando has wisely chosen the latter method for his film (far too often, recreations involving actors come across as downright cheesy). Orlando has enlisted some talented artists and used cutting-edge computer graphics to create a visual feast of images which at times seem to be 3-D. The visuals are ably abetted by a stirring original score that richly enhances the overall drama and tension that permeates the film.

Surely not everyone who sees this film will agree with its conclusions, and there are many views put forth with which one can theologically and historically nitpick (personally, I felt that James was portrayed in a bit too negative of a light, though scholarly opinion on James’s stance varies and Orlando’s presentation may be correct); but one will surely come away greatly enlightened about Paul and the fierce struggles he waged with Jesus’ own brother to create a church that was in many ways quite different from what the apostles understood as Jesus’ vision for the new messianic community.

In the end, Paul is wonderfully portrayed in all his humanity and complexity and the film leaves one with a new appreciation for the tragic end which Paul faced after all his daunting work. While portraying Paul warts-and-all, Orlando thankfully never submits to the current fad of “Paul-bashing.” The film leaves one with a haunting feeling about a tragic/heroic figure who it could be said changed the course of history even more than Jesus himself. Whether one comes away from this film moved, disturbed, or angered, Robert Orlando has set a new standard for scholarship and artistry in biblical documentaries. This has to be the finest documentary on Paul ever made and it deserves as wide an audience as possible.

The Rev. Jeffrey J. Bütz, S.T.M. is the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies at Penn State University. He is the author of The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity.

For more information on Orlando’s documentary, check out The Huffington Post’s article A Polite Bribe: Paul’s Final Journey to Jerusalem.

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