“A Polite Bribe”: A Few Observations
Rob Orlando graciously sent me a link to permit me a private (second) viewing of “A Polite Bribe”, which my wife and I enjoyed last night (via my laptop). It bears viewing a second time, and I reiterate my recommendation to see it if you get the chance. But, as this is a blog site devoted to critical engagement on matters of NT & Christian origins, I also feel the need to offer a few critical observations about the film.
First, although Rob assures me that the term “bribe” to describe the Jerusalem collection originated with Rudolf Bultmann and then Gerd Luedemann (I can’t verify this), I remain of the view that it distorts things. Surely, the historical task first and foremost involves trying to let the dead speak, trying to understand them. (And, yes, apologies to all you “postmodernists” out there, I still think that, however difficult, this should be a central part of the historical task.) I see no basis in any of Paul’s references to the collection for ascribing to him this sort of “bribery” motive. He variously refers to the collection as caring for “the poor” in Jerusalem (e.g., Gal 2:10; Rom 15:25-27), a “service/ministry to the saints in Jerusalem” (Rom 15:25; and cf. 1 Cor 16:1; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:1), an act of generosity (e.g., 2 Cor 9:13-15), reciprocity for receiving spiritual gifts from Jerusalem (e.g., Rom 15:27), and demonstration of the genuineness of gentiles’ obedience to the gospel (2 Cor 9:13-15).
I suspect also that he may well have thought of the collection as in some sense fulfilling OT prophecies of gentile converts to the God of Israel bringing their gifts to Jerusalem. I think that Paul saw himself as a uniquely-called (by God) salvation-historical figure, his ministry part of the eschatological drama. So, it’s a fair inference that he likely saw the collection as part of this drama too. Certainly, he invested several years of effort in bringing it off. But a “bribe”? Naw. I don’t think that fits.
He surely was anxious about the collection’s fate in Jerusalem, as directly indicated in Romans 15:30-33. And that means that he had reason to worry. And that’s probably because Jerusalem church-leaders accepting the collection would have meant accepting Paul’s converts as authentic “brothers” in Christ. And Paul knew that there was a hard-line faction in the Jerusalem church who didn’t regard his converts as authentically/fully converts/brothers.
So, sure, Paul wanted the project to succeed: He wanted the collection to be raised from all his churches; he wanted it to be accepted, thereby ratifying Jerusalem’s acceptance of his ministry and full fellowship with his churches. And, yes, all of us who have inhaled the “hermeneutics of suspicion” know the heady thrill of disdain for what an author says, in favour of imputing this or that covert motive. But, I think we need to be careful. I still think that the commandment about not bearing false witness against your neighbour has a role in scholarship. The term “bribe” (even a “polite” one) imputes a not-too-commendable motive; it makes an accusation. And we have to be careful in making charges against the dead, when they can’t answer for themselves.
Now, just to be a bit pedantic, there are also a few historical glitches in the film. One that features prominently early in the film is the mushing together of Paul’s references to TWO visits to Jerusalem in Gal 1-2. Also, e.g., contrary to the narration, we actually don’t “know” that the collection was melted down into bars and then sewn into the clothes of the members of the delegation who travelled with Paul to deliver it. To cite another, we actually don’t know that Barnabas was a Pharisee either.
One might make a more serious complaint about treating almost as fact the mere possibility that James and other Jewish believers in Jerusalem may have been complicit in Paul being seized by a mob in the Temple. Yes, Acts doesn’t mention support given to Paul by James and the Jerusalem church when he was arrested. That may mean something. But, then, the Acts account of Paul after his arrest simply focuses on his own defence-speeches and his interactions with the Roman governors, with scarcely any attention to anything else. So, I think it’s dubious to build much on the absence of reference to James, etc., in these chapters.
But, despite these (and a few other) blemishes, the film is a really good conversation-starter. It would make a fitting feature of a course or adult-learning group (with appropriate critical assessment). For these purposes, I could have wished that the film wasn’t so long. It’s feature-film length, which is fine for cinemas, but a bit long for classroom usage.