|SVA Theater advertises A Polite Bribe, 19 December 2013|
The screening took place in the SVA Theater in West 23rd Street in Manhattan which was, as it happens, just a short walk from my hotel.
Luedemann really came alive in the question and answer session, though, and when it was time to pause ahead of the pre-screening break, the questions from the audience were still coming thick and fast.
The film itself is quite original. As regular readers will know, I am something of a consumer of documentaries about the New Testament, and I can't recall having seen anything quite like this. Its chief focus is on Paul's collection for the saints in Jerusalem. It tells the story of Paul's troubled relations with James, Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem, and explains how he became fixated on what it calls his "polite bribe".
The film uses an unseen narrator and a unique animation style that somehow manages to capture the
sense of this as another world. Orlando avoids usual documentary distractions of shots of present day Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and so on. But most strikingly, the story is told primarily by means of multiple modern-day Biblical scholars.
Many of the top shots are there. They include documentary regulars like Bart Ehrman and Tom Wright, new documentary stars like Candida Moss, and many I have not seen before on film, Philip Esler, Douglas Campbell, Amy-Jill Levine. Orlando seems to get the best out of them all. Ben Witherington III appears often and is surprisingly amusing. Indeed, many of them appear relaxed and even humorous, perhaps because they all get a little more than the usual twenty second soundbites.
I was impressed by the way that the film manages to weave a story that scholars know well into a narrative that would be comprehensible and compelling to those with no knowledge of the field. It's certainly something I would enjoy using in the classroom, but I suspect that those who will enjoy it most will be those who are unaccustomed to reflecting critically on Paul's biography.
Although the film occasionally utilizes the Acts narrative, it tells its story primarily by means of an epistles-based chronology, and it is this angle that will prove refreshing to scholars who try so hard to underline the importance of beginning with the letters. And from a scholarly perspective, perhaps the most surprising thing -- and something I asked Orlando about in the Q&A that followed the screening -- is its integration of scholars from a variety of different perspectives who end up telling a continuous story, from Luedemann to Witherington, from Ehrman to Wright.
A Polite Bribe is not perfect, of course, and students and scholars of Paul will have their niggles. I felt that it telescoped the separate Jerusalem visits of Galatians 1 and 2 in such a way as to make it a little confusing for those unfamiliar with the text, and I shared James McGrath's puzzlement over the conflation of the terms Nazarene and Nazirite. Paul also becomes a more lonely and isolated figure in the film than I think is likely to have been the case given the friends and partners in mission that we repeatedly witness in the letters, but this is, I suppose, a necessity of effective story-telling. Overall, though, the film does a great job of illuminating Paul's life by focusing on a key issue, the "polite bribe" of the title, that is little known outside of academic circles.
|Gerd Luedemann, Robert Orlando & Dave Gibson|
I'd recommend the film to anyone interested in Christian origins. Several screenings have been advertised for the coming weeks, and we have one at Duke on 23 January, which I'll discuss further in due course.
Update (10.10pm): Joshua Paul Smith has an interview with Robert Orlando about the film on the Near Emmaus blog.