“A Polite Bribe”: The Screening and Discussion
After considerable technical difficulty arising from the lack of fit between our projection equipment and Orlando’s movie as formatted, we managed to find a way to screen “A Polite Bribe” last Friday afternoon here in New College. (It appears that our projection equipment is a bit too old for the type of formats he uses.) Thanks to one of our PhD students with a spiffy, up-to-date laptop, however, we were able to get it going.
As mentioned in previous postings, the film (ca. 85 minutes length) narrates the life of Paul as apostle, with lots of “talking heads” comments by a galaxy of scholars (some of them obviously enjoying a lot the chance to perform before a camera!). The focus, however, is on the tensions between Paul and Jerusalem believers over the terms on which gentile believers in Jesus were to be treated as full co-religionists by Jewish believers.
Some in the Jerusalem church insisted that gentiles should effectively complete their profession of faith by adopting Jewishness also, involving a commitment to Jewish Torah-observance in addition to their faith in Jesus. Paul, however, insisted equally firmly that this was wrong-headed, and that, instead, God was now welcoming gentiles into Abraham’s family as gentiles, without them having to become Jewish.
Paul could be quite pointed in his view of those Jewish believers who demanded that gentile believers “Judaize”: e.g., calling them “false brothers” (Gal. 2:4), and (mockingly) “super apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5) and (quite bitterly) “false apostles, deceitful workers” and even ministers of Satan (2 Cor. 11:13-15). We should, thus, suppose that these people likely referred to him in negative terms too, which must have helped to generate Paul’s own ire toward them.
But Paul was also obviously concerned to maintain a genuine mutual recognition and acceptance between him and his churches on the one hand and the Jerusalem leaders and Judean churches on the other hand. The largest indication of this was his prolonged project to take up a financial collection from his churches that would be presented to the Jerusalem church, as an expression of religious solidarity. Paul refers to this project in several letters (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1–9:15; Rom. 15:22-33; and, as I hold, also in Gal. 2:10), indicating how much it meant to him. He likely spent several years on the project. It is intriguing that in his final reference to it, in Romans 15:22-33, he expresses some anxiety over what may happen when he goes with the offering to Jerusalem.
The “unbelievers in Judea” (or “disobedient ones,” ἀπειθούντων) were likely Jewish religious zealots who rejected the gospel (similarly to his own zealous opposition to Judean churches prior to the “revelation” that turned him around). But Paul’s anxiety included also worry that his “service for Jerusalem” might not be accepted by the church there. The reason for this is that acceptance of the offering would mean the Jerusalem church accepting fully Paul’s churches, and Paul’s gentile mission. Given the tensions in the Jerusalem church at that time, Paul didn’t know what the outcome would be.
I won’t spoil the film for you by giving out too much more about the line taken in it. But it does serve to underscore the tensions in earliest Christian circles over the terms of gentile inclusion into the early Jesus-movement, and over Paul in particular. The film takes a particular line on some matters, expressing (in my view) more confidence in some things than may be warranted. But it certainly makes vivid the figure of Paul and the issues that he faced.
The film will likely provoke some good questions, and is best shown with an opportunity for discussion after the screening (preferably with one or more competent to offer informed comment). One question that emerged in our screening illustrated how the film can be used to teach: One person in our audience expressed puzzlement that the film portrayed Paul in conflict with, and in danger from, some who were effectively fellow “Christians,” whereas the questioner thought that Paul’s conflict was with “Jews”.
This afforded the opportunity to clarify some important things. Among them, Paul was, and remained, a Jew in his ethnic identity, and the Jerusalem believers likewise were Jews, who continued to identify themselves as members of their nation. Of course, Paul and Jerusalem believers were absolutely convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, and that confessing him as God’s Messiah and unique “Son” is requisite of all, including fellow Jews. But their Jesus-devotion didn’t erase their self-identity as Jews as well. As for Paul, his repeated willingness to submit to synagogue floggings (2 Cor. 11:24) powerfully demonstrated his determination to remain a member of his nation, and makes his professions of concern about the rejection of the gospel by fellow Jews in Romans 9–11 entirely genuine.
As I’ve indicated, among fellow Jewish believers-in-Jesus were some who regarded Paul’s gentile mission as wrong-headed and against what they saw as scriptural teaching and God’s purposes. Indeed, they may also have feared that Paul’s gentile mission would exacerbate (for them) tensions with the larger Jewish community in a period when religious-zealot attitudes seem to have been hardening.
So, all in all, for “lay” viewers, “A Polite Bribe” can be an informative and provocative film. It will certainly help today’s Christians to realize that sharply different views of God’s purposes, different theological perspectives among Christians, are nothing new!