Another Polite Bribe

Another Polite Bribe October 5, 2013

I had the chance to finish watching the documentary A Polite Bribe, which I blogged about briefly on a previous occasion, and so now want to say more about it.

I honestly cannot think of another single documentary film about the Bible which has such a wide array of the very best and best-known scholars from around the world in it. The movie would be worth watching just to hear those scholars speak, even if they only spoke in the proportion that is common in documentaries. But scholars speaking makes up the vast majority of the film’s verbal component. And in addition to hearing scholars speak clearly and compellingly about Paul, you’ll also get to hear Ben Witherington do an impression of a mafia godfather.

The film offers even more than that. It explores Paul’s entire life story, with nicely animated artistic depictions of scenes from his life and the world he inhabited. It places Paul’s emphases and actions against the background of his historical setting, such as the Caligula crisis, or the patronage system of reciprocity, or Greek thinking about the body and how it impacted the reaction to Paul’s talk about Jesus being raised from the dead.

As with any movie about Biblical matters, there are things that seemed puzzling or problematic. It sounded as though it was being assumed at one point that “Nazarene” was a particular type of temple servant, a claim that has no basis that I can think of. And there is information that is offered as though it is clearly evidenced – such as the way that the collection would have been transported to protect the money – which has no basis in the New Testament sources. It may be the most likely way he would have proceeded, based on sources from the ancient world about normative practices for transporting money. But it could have been indicated that it is a deduction based on such information, rather than something that we “know” Paul and his travel companions did.

But the movie also has some really intriguing scholarly proposals on how to understand some of the details in the New Testament, such as that James had Paul use the money from the offering he brought to pay the cost of purification for some individuals who had taken a nazirite vow. Did this represent a rejection of the offering by James? Or was this a way of “purifying” money that was thought to be tainted with impurity because of where it has come from? The movie also includes very useful comparisons – such as when John Dominic Crossan compares the accusation that Paul had brought a Gentile into the part of the temple where Gentiles were not allowed, to an accusation that someone had brought a non-Muslim to Mecca during the Hajj; or when Edgar Krentz compares the impact of the destruction of Jerusalem on Christianity to what the impact on Catholicism would be if an atomic bomb destroyed Vatican City.

The movie concludes with interesting questions, such as what Jesus would have had to say if he had lived to see what James and Paul did with the movement he started.

I highly recommend this film. Anyone, whether they be a scholar or just someone interested in the figure of Paul or the history of early Christianity, will find something in it that is interesting and thought-provoking.

The movie website has a free pdf ebook that you can download, which illustrates the contents of the film, including the art. The theatrical distribution is being done by TUGG and you can find more information on their website.

Once again, discussion of Paul’s offering to the Jerusalem church from the Gentile churches is also taking place in the blogosphere, in particular on the blog Paul and His Co-workers. There, Richard Fellows has posted a lengthy interaction with Robert Orlando, the filmmaker behind A Polite Bribe. And Robert Orlando has published an article about Alan Segal in The Huffington Post, while Larry Hurtado posted about Alan on his blog. The film is dedicated to his memory.


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