Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Apostle Paul - A Polite Bribe in New York

SVA Theater advertises A Polite Bribe, 19 December 2013
I have previously mentioned Robert Orlando's film A Polite Bribe, a documentary that uses animation and interviews with top New Testament scholars to tell a compelling narrative about Paul's life.  On 19th December, I was invited to the the New York City premiere of the film, and so I got a chance to see it on the big screen, to meet Robert Orlando and others involved with the film, and to witness a fascinating post-film discussion.

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.

Gerd Luedemann
It was great to see a film about the New Testament getting this kind of billing, and to see a New Testament scholar's name up in lights!  Gerd Luedemann, who features prominently in the film, was the guest of honour, and he gave a short lecture as a kind of pre-screening extra.  Prof. Luedemann's style is old-fashioned but authoritative -- he held open his book and read radical statements with a calmness that belied content that would be surprising to many in the audience.

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
After the screening, there was a Q&A chaired by Dave Gibson of the Religion News Service in which Robert Orlando responded to questions about the film and how he put it together.  There was some (but much less) response also from Gerd Luedemann.

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.


Keen Reader said...

As a discriminating consumer of documentaries about the New Testament, what are your views on the 'Bible Secrets Revealed' series? I'm very surprised that you haven't posted about it episode by episode.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Keen Reader. Actually, I have live tweeted each ep. I suppose It would be fun to blog it too but I am *in* this doc-o and so can't help being a bit more bashful about it!

Anonymous said...

While it's natural to hope that documentaries on the New Testament reach a wide audience, a point of diminishing returns is quickly reached as the audience transitions from those knowledgeable about the subject matter, sources, and varying opinions to those who aren't. This is because, of course, knowledgeable viewers can discriminate among the various issues covered while less informed viewers can only accept or reject, pretty much in total, whatever the documentary is saying. And, of course, the problem is magnified the farther the documentary strays from truth in its theses.

Trenchfoot said...

Had Robert Orlando come straight from a tennis match? He's forgotten to take his headband off.

Richie Dagger said...

Do you personally have a favorite Biblical documentary Professor Goodacre? Or is there one that you'd recommend above the others?

Richie Dagger said...

My thought too Mike, but oh well, what can you do. :)

geoffhudson.blogspot.com said...

Mark, how did Paul get to know so many people in Rome when he had not been there. (Rom. 16)

Richard Fellows said...

Yes, at first sight Luedemann and Witherington seem strange bed-fellows. However, both will have their own reasons to see conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders, just as Luther and Baur did. Instead of seeing Paul as a member of a collectivist culture, those who live in Luther's long shadow like to see him as an individualist hero figure who stood up for the truth even in the face of opposition from his superiors. Those who live in Baur's long shadow like to see conflict in the early church, often because they suffer from the cognitive bias bias, which makes them over-correct for a perceived tendency to naively assume harmony among the apostles. And I think there is a tendency for students of the NT to want to believe that they have outsmarted Paul, and especially Luke. As Hurtado has noted, "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." Thus, the supposed rift between Paul and James is an appealing narrative for a lot of people, for a variety of reasons. But Mark, as you know, I believe that Carlson's work on Gal 2:12 changes everything and has let James off the hook.

geoffhudson.blogspot.com said...

I wonder, does Orlando ever question the existence of such an idealised person as Paul living in the Roman first century empire? Orlando: "I hope they would come to recognize the extraordinary nature of Paul." "In summary, to see Paul as a model of an independent thinking person who knew how to live out his thought."
"I always imagined that any man capable of his amount of sheer travel, must have been sturdy on this legs, and perhaps with the hard labor, a bit stocky."

Sorin Sabou said...

I did not have the chance to see it, but I am looking forward to to that. The mix of the names you mentioned is unexpected. I had the chance to hear Prof Luedemann presenting papers at SBL. He is the lecture type, but, in his way, with some authority. Thank you!

geoffhudson.blogspot.com said...

"But most strikingly, the story is told primarily by means of multiple modern-day Biblical scholars." - Guaranteed to get my feet shuffling.

The recent spate of films follow the same format, as Cargill's Bible Secret's Revealed and Atwill's Caesar's messiah; yes there were various NT and history scholars presented at Atwill's showing.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to seeing the documentary and what is said - or not said - about the eschatological nature of the collection.