Upcoming Conference: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians & Christian Theology

Dates: July 10-13, 2012

Event: University of St. Andrews’ Fourth Triennial Scripture & Theology Conference in St. Andrews, Scotland

Keynote speakers:

  • Richard Hays, George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina
  • Oliver O’Donovan, Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh (New College)
  • N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, University of St Andrews (St Mary’s College)

Main papers:

  • Jean-Noël Aletti – Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome
  • Lewis Ayres – University of Durham
  • John Barclay – University of Durham
  • Ivor Davidson – University of St Andrews
  • Beverly Gaventa – Princeton University
  • Bruce McCormack – Princeton University
  • Volker Rabens – University of Bochum
  • Thomas Söding – University of Bochum
  • Kendall Soulen – Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.
  • Timothy Wengert – Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia
  • Simeon Zahl – St John’s College, Oxford

Registration is available here.

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.

Latest Update

Latest Updates

Added Chris M. Smith’s review of Stephen J. Chester’s dissertation Conversion in Corinth: Perspectives on Conversion in Paul’s Theology and the Corinthian Church to the Book Reviews section under The New Perspective on Paul and added the title to the Bibliography.

Latest Updates

Added Matthew Forest Lowe’s review of Chrisopher D. Stanley, ed., The Colonized Apostle: Paul in Postcolonial Eyes to the Book Reviews section under Paul and Empire and added the book to the Bibliography.

Latest Updates

Added the following to the Bibliography under The New Perspective on Paul: Cornelis P. Venema’s Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul (a Calvinist critique) and E.P. Sanders’ Paul: A Very Short Introduction.

Latest Update

Updated the link to Paul’s Contradictions — Can They Be Resolved? by John G. Gager under the Articles section of Paul Wthin Judaism.

Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels

Book Review

James D.G. Dunn, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2011, 221 pp.

The back cover promotes this book as a “compact theological primer,” a description that could be improved in accuracy as “compact biblical theological primer.” This monograph is a compilation and adaptation of lectures that were delivered to Catholic and Jewish audiences in Europe and Israel. If a reader is looking for an accessible avenue into Prof. James Dunn’s thoughts, this book is a good place to start. The book has a clear connection to these oral texts, maintaining its focus on audiences across the Christian and Jewish faiths. Prof. Dunn admits that the bulk of his work to prepare the lectures for printed publication was accessorizing it with footnotes (p. xi). This reviewer believes that it would be useful to college students, pastors, and lay church leaders.

Chapters 1-2 are a distillation of his lengthy treatment of the prehistory and character of the Gospels, which he has articulated in Jesus Remembered. Dunn continues to promote his criterion of looking for the “characteristic Jesus” rather than just the “distinctive Jesus.” This criterion issues from his presupposition that Jesus’ work, even in his own day, was influential on many people, inspiring their trust and hope. Dunn’s conviction is that the variety of Jesus-traditions, which are evident in the NT, are testimony to Jesus’ legacy and that they cannot be attributed primarily to the theological musings of the early Church. The result of his study is a basic outline of Jesus’ life (p. 20), a tracing of his life through eight essential parts from his baptism through his proclamation of the promise of the Kingdom of God and miraculous exorcisms.            

Chapters 3-4 trace the core Jesus traditions along a chronological line from Paul through the Synoptic Gospels and lastly to John. This survey begins by linking Paul’s early adaptation of euangelion  to the passion of Christ. Dunn argues that while the meaning and function of “gospel” may have some connection with the promulgation of imperial news, Paul chiefly found inspiration from Isaiah 57 and 61. Mark, who wrote after Paul, also told his gospel with a focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. Matthew and Luke, however, both made adaptations to the “gospel of Jesus” in the later decades of the first century CE and these adaptations began to focus on the life of Jesus as gospel (pp. 63-66). The Fourth Gospel again focuses on the suffering, death, and resurrection, and in fact heightens this, for example by re-positioning the cleansing of the Temple to the beginning of book (pp. 73-79).

In chapter 5, Dunn explores the questions about continuity between Jesus’ message and Paul’s. He argues here that discussions of their differences have too long dominated NT discourse and thus obscured their critical similarities. Paul’s message of realized eschatology was presaged by Jesus’ own emphasis on the present reality of the Kingdom of God. Likewise, Jesus’ promise of a future coming of the kingdom and emphasis on the repentance of sins comports with and inspired Paul’s inclusion of the Gentiles, according to Dunn. On the topic of the law, Dunn again draws a line of continuity between them, now through the use of Lev 19:18, the command of Love. While both Jesus and Paul drew lines of discrimination in their use of the Law, both saw in this elegant summary the ongoing relevance of the Law for their audiences.

Having transitioned from Jesus to Paul, the book now focuses in chs. 6-7 on identifying Paul, who it must be admitted is the most influential founder of the Christianity after Jesus. Paul lived in a transitional period in the history of Christianity, as Dunn points out. He moved the faith from a messianic Jewish sect towards a global religion. Both Paul’s work and his person have understandably ignited much controversy. That is to say that Paul himself had to transition from Pharisaic zealousness for the Torah, to one who was “dead to the Law” (Gal 2:19-20, p. 129) and was “in Christ.” Nevertheless, Dunn rightfully reminds us that Paul did not wholly forsake his Israelite identity. Dunn concludes that Paul would have resisted the charge of apostasy, because Paul believed he was fulfilling “Israel’s own apostolic mission—to be a light to the nations” (p. 146).

Dunn argues in ch. 8 that the trajectory of Paul’s work, including his conviction that the Holy Spirit’s presence confirmed his work, should be seen as an ongoing call to constructive dialogue between Jews and Christian as well as compassionate ecumenism within Christianity (pp. 162-164). On the latter count, Dunn is particularly poignant: “For Christians today are all in one degree or another in a position similar to that of Peter and the other Jewish Christians…. And in effect they make their traditions and distinctive beliefs as important as the gospel itself…” (p. 164, emphasis his).

The concluding chapter is a brief description of Paul’s legacy, the churches which he founded. Some of this discussion is historical in nature, but the author’s chief the aim here is on the theological character of the body of Christ. One must admire Prof. Dunn’s ability to make relevant the historical context of the texts to understanding better these ancient documents. In ch. 9 we see him depict how Paul’s language (ekklesia and soma) brushed the shoulders of typical political discourse, yet nonetheless parted company with it too in important practical and theological ways (see e.g. p. 172). Paul saw these new assemblies as part of the historic assembly (qahal) of YHWH God, the body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit. Dunn’s impassioned plea, then, to his oral and written audiences is to remember the historic foundations, the gracious inclusiveness, and the Spirit led dynamism of Paul’s vision of the Church.

Again, this is an accessible and helpful book that will help many students and pastors revisit the New Testament and re-grasp the significance of the Christian faith’s two greatest founders, Jesus and Paul.

Douglas Mohrmann, Cornerstone University

New Documentary on Paul

Earlier today The Huffington Post published an article by filmmaker Robert Orlando titled A Polite Bribe: A New Narrative for Paul and the Early Church? For more information about Orlando’s documentary and a list of scholars featured in the film, see The Paul Story.

Latest Updates

Added James S. Hanson’s review of Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed by Timothy G. Gombis to the Book Reviews section under The New Perspective on Paul: Around the Web and added the book to the Bibliography.

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