A great new video on early Christianity, A Polite Bribe, has been released. If you’ve never read Paul’s letters or the book of Acts, well guess what–now you don’t have to! They’ve made a movie out of it!
Moreover, it’s a movie that makes some critical points about the history of the early church. There was a split in the early church between Paul and the Jerusalem church. Paul made a collection for the church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10, Romans 15:25–27, etc.). This collection was likely refused by the Jerusalem church. Whoa! What was this all about?
On top of that, the movie provides both drama and context. The animations are very well done, depicting Paul and the disciples, angry mobs in Ephesus, Paul in jail, and other notable events. Even the music provides a sense of immediacy to the whole thing. Here’s the clincher: you won’t have to wait for it to come around to your local movie cinema. (It actually would have been nice if that had happened, but it didn’t, at least not in Denver.) For the price of a couple of movie tickets (about $16), you can have the DVD delivered to your doorstep, where you can watch it in the comfort of your own home with your significant other. (“Hey honey, let’s watch A Polite Bribe!”)
Like all other movie adaptations, of course, something is gained and something is lost in the transition from literature to the silver screen. The one thing that I missed, of course, is what you can all guess anyway: there is no discussion of the issues of vegetarianism and rejection of animal sacrifice (Romans 14, I Corinthians 8–10, Galatians 2, Acts 15). More about this in a future post.
But first to the good stuff. A Polite Bribe brings a number of positive elements in the retelling of the well-known story of Paul’s missionary journeys. It brings both drama and context to the narrative, interspersed with top-notch scholars. The scholars come from a variety of different perspectives — they’ve got agnostic Bart Ehrman as well as conservative Christian Ben Witherington. I was glad to see some lesser-known scholars get a place as well. Dr. Pamela Eisenbaum of Iliff gets a brief role (Iliff is within walking distance of my house). Jeffrey Bütz (The Brother of Jesus and The Secret Legacy of Jesus) gets somewhat more attention. But, interestingly enough, there is very little of the conservative versus liberal clash that you might expect. The evangelicals, the liberals, and the agnostics all seem to agree on the basic historical points, at least on the screen.
It is a pet peeve of mine that scholars and others generally don’t appreciate the historical importance of the factionalism that shattered the early church. A Polite Bribe provides that, in spades. For extra credit, scholars might want to think about the implications of this factionalism for our knowledge of Jesus, specifically in the huge diversity of viewpoints claiming to speak for Jesus in the second and third centuries.
Finally, A Polite Bribe concludes that it was the Jewish Christians, not Paul, who best understood Jesus. Paul had a vision of Jesus, but had never met the earthly Jesus. Paul, moreover, was in constant conflict with the other apostles, including Peter, James, and even his mentor Barnabas. The divide between Jewish and gentile Christianity was never healed, it just ended when Jewish Christianity perished after the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE.
The text of A Polite Bribe sticks to the basic narrative in Acts, but with considerable variations. The variations include some dramatic enhancements, as well as some shifts in the chronology. Since Acts was likely written in the second century and repeatedly contradicts the eye-witness accounts in Paul’s letters, I don’t have a problem with deviating from Acts. In fact, if anything, I’d say that the video sticks too closely to Acts — as do most of the scholars.
The conclusion of the movie reflects on the meaning of this dispute in the early church. Most interestingly, would Jesus have sided more with Paul, or with the Jerusalem church? The movie implies that Jesus would have sided with the Jerusalem church, not with Paul. But in that case, where does that leave modern-day Christianity, which followed the teachings of Paul rather than Jewish Christianity? What was the original message of Christianity?
A Polite Bribe does not answer these questions. It only asks them and explores what took place at a critical junction in world history. For that, people interested in understanding the true message of early Christianity should be grateful.