A Polite Bribe is a documentary about the life of the Apostle Paul, and his final confrontation with James, Jesus’ brother. There will be an upcoming book version as well. Venezuelan journalist Gabriel Andrade interviewed via email its director and author, Roberto Orlando.
Q: What prompted you to write this book?
A: I was a student of Paul and Greco Roman History for some time before I met Alan Segal at Columbia/Barnard in 2001. It was during his world religion classes in Manhattan that 9/11 took place. Witnessing the horrors of religious fundamentalism in Islam that day, I concluded that we had witnessed enough "God told me" like faith. And that a more enriching faith must incorporate critical reason and humility that comes with embracing human foibles. With these tools the Christian religion would better be able to check extremes and experience a healthier and more intellectually satisfying faith. In a world of great suffering, as we see with ISIS, it is a dangerous temptation to buy and sell certainty, almost a Faustian pact. Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe, the book and the film was my attempt to take a step back from the mythical truths of Christianity and ask, what can we actually know? What can we logically and historically know enough to make claims to others? And while so many still hold to the perspective of a world where seamless transitions between God and Men are common place, the truth is early Christianity exposes the human condition with clashes over money, ethnicity and honor, as much as any other movement.
Q. Is your book mostly about a split between two friends, James and Paul?
A: From the historical record, it would be hard to conclude that Paul and James were ever "friends." At best, they were acquaintances that ran hot and cold with one another. And the main reason for this conflict was that they had fundamental differences with their understanding of Jesus. Plus, James was Jesus' blood brother and one of Jerusalem's inner circles, and, in contrast, Paul's claim to fame (apostleship) came through a vision, early on in spite of Jesus' original Apostles. If we also use the apocryphal sources to define this relationship, you could argue that they became enemies. In the so-called Clementine Literature, you can read how Paul's return to James at the Temple is described.
Q: In the so-called Clementine literature, James' adversary is actually Simon Magus. How can we be sure that this is in fact refers to Paul?
A: It is widely accepted as true, though apocryphal.
Q: Is there any guilty part in the split between Paul and James? Who is more to blame?
A: Strangely enough, though it was Paul's version of Christianity that eventually won the day, in the beginning you might call him the instigator or antagonizer of the original Christian group. First, as a Zealot Pharisee, he wanted the Christians (not called Christians yet) dead and then, after his conversion, he claimed that He alone understood the new Gospel of Christ. A fact that flew in the face of Jesus' followers, who tried adamantly to stop his ministry and also claimed that he was an embezzler collecting funds in an attempt to buy his apostleship!
Q: A bribe is an immoral act that involves two immoral parties. So, yes, Paul was guilty of offering the bribe. But, it seems to me that James was also guilty of proposing it at the Jerusalem council in the first place, in the form of the agreed collection. Was James to blame for that?
A: I don't know if it needs to be this sinister. The offering in the film was a "polite" bribe not an underhanded bribe. As one scholar (Moss) mentions in the film, when a donor offers a donation to a college, even if the college does not agree with the philosophy or policies of that person that does not mean they will not put their name on a wall or monument. They simply need the donation. James was doing what any leader would do who is trying to keep a movement together in light of the complaints by the more right-wing (false brethren).
Q: Presumably, James proposed the collection because his community was suffering extreme poverty. Why were they so poor?
A: It is important to understand that the "poor" did not mean those impoverished but it was a term, since the time of the Maccabees, that referred to those apocalyptic followers dedicated to the Temple who required support from outsiders.
Q: If James and Paul had a deal at first, and James was willing to accept the collection, why did he reject it at the end?
A: The film and book purports that James might have been on board until he realized that Paul's promise of Jesus' return did not manifest itself in due course. Instead the movement was overwhelmed by Gentile believers and as a result the synagogue vote (Paula Fredriksen) was tipped toward the Gentiles which would have threatened the existence of traditional Judaism as the necessary transition into the faith. It was at that point that James retreated from the movement sometime between the agreement in 49 AD and Paul's final journey with the collection in 58 AD.
Q: What were James' apocalyptic beliefs? If he believed that his own brother had been the Messiah and had resurrected, and he kept his belief that the end of the world was imminent, didn't he believe that Jesus would return?
A: You raise a fundamental question that goes almost unexplored in Bible studies: how is it possible that James and Paul have the same beliefs about Jesus yet James can worship in the Temple, but Paul is such a threat? If they both understood the coming of Jesus as the sign of the new age, and all things being different, including entry of Gentile converts, why all the conflict? It is safe to say, that we do not have the correct perception and it makes more logical sense that James and Paul had vastly different ideas about the Messiah and his meaning for 1st century Judaism? Otherwise there would be no reason for all the conflict.
Q: Did James, Peter and John ever think that Jesus had indeed communicated with Paul?
A: They were always somewhat cautious and by the end seemed to no longer believe Paul's vision, which is why Paul was forced against their wishes to follow through with this collection. He was hoping that his collection would force a unity and overlook the real differences, so his Gentile ministry would be validated.
Q: Paul seems to have some sort of perturbation, speaking of "thorns" throughout in some of his letters. Does this have anything to do with his confrontation with James?
A: Given that Paul's main weakness came from the fact that he was born outside the Holy Land, without personal knowledge of the living Jesus to legitimize his ministry. Therefore an Apostle like James or others who could exploit this fact would be Paul's thorn, the one who would keep him humble. Also, in the Hebrew scriptures, the term "thorn" always referred to an actual person, a fact Paul would have known.
Q: James had, very much as his brother Jesus, great zeal for Moses' Law, and this included stoning adulterers and other barbarities. The modern Western world is shocked to see such things today performed by ISIS and the Taliban. Yet, it seems to me, this is the very type of thing James and Jesus defended as pious Jews of the 1st Century. Would it be fair to call Paul a modernizing influence on Western history, as his message to some extent superseded the archaic Law?
A: Absolutely. It is difficult for modern readers to realize, but the early Judaism that Paul was confronting would have had similar apocalyptic or messianic ideas of a Kingdom (Caliphate) as we witness in the modern Islamic movements. They did not have bombs, but did have sicarii (dagger men) to murder senators in the secular order.
Q: Paul was a Hellenistic Jew, whereas the members of the Jerusalem community were Galileans and Judeans. Did ethnicity get in the way of their cordiality?
A: It is all about ethnicity, not only for Jews but for many of the tribes of the classic world including Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, etc. Most people don't realize that circumcision and shared meals were the way that different groups would to would not fellowship. In the case of the Jews, if someone was not circumcised or did not sacrifice meals according to Jewish law, you could not eat or bathe with them, which meant there would be no worship or unity. This was precisely why Paul feared a compromise with the Jewish Christians and James.
Q: Do you find any objective difference between giving alms and polite bribes?
A: Giving alms for the poor today and paying tribute in the classical (honor code) world to show your loyalty are light years apart! In the 1st century, to whom you paid tribute, was to whom you would gain your social identity, your employment, and your respect. Without this belonging, you were isolated and on your own. Without Jerusalem, Paul, with or without his Gentile following would have been cut off from the homeland of Jesus and his own people. The acceptance of his collection by Jerusalem meant everything!
Q: When Paul required Gentiles to pay for the collection, might he have presented it as some sort of initiation fee (as in mystery religions), instead of a humanitarian exhortation to help the poor in some faraway land?
A: Yes, he is offering entry into the family of the one true God, and a chance to receive the gifts associated with that chosen group: the law, circumcision, and a chance to live in the Kingdom.
Q: If it was so notorious that Jesus rejected his own family (and vice-versa), how did James manage to become the leader of the community?
A: It is speculation to some degree, but knowing the ancient world, it would be logical that the next of kin would take over the movement whether he agreed with the movement or not. The Gospel of Thomas says in verse 12, “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘We know that you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?’. Jesus said to them, ‘Wherever you are, you are to go to James the righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being’." James, might not have agreed with all that Jesus preached, but enough of the content to become responsible for the movement after his death. It is fascinating that even with this proximity to Jesus he so disagreed with Paul who was the key figure in the original cult being transformed into a world religion.
Q: If the Gospels were written under Pauline influence, could it have been that they falsely presented James as a nonbeliever during Jesus' lifetime, in order to discredit him?
A: Possibly, or more likely, he genuinely did not agree with his brother, but felt obligated to step in and watch after his family after his brother's death.
Q: Apologists have long tried to present a different view of this affair, by claiming that, at the end, James and Paul remained friends. They try to do so by reworking the chronology. In their view, even though there was indeed a nasty incident at Antioch between Peter and Paul, the differences were solved at the Jerusalem council.
A: As I make clear in the book, what is explicit in Galatians is implicit in almost all of the Pauline pages and where Paul's writings align with Acts of the Apostles, and most strikingly when Paul returns to the Temple to deliver the unwanted collection late in his life. Acts mentions the whole sequence in chapter 21 but leaves out the collection of money? A very odd remission of a collection that later shows up in Acts 24: 17, when Paul is caught with Felix! “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. And I think, in light of my film, and the controversy it has caused, what follows at the end of chapter 24 is the most naked passage of all that helps prove the point.... “As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, ‘That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you’. At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him” (Acts 24:25-26). The fact that Felix was aware that he might be bribed by Paul is right there in scripture! Paul must have been a man of means with a reputation for those means, rather than a suffering servant simply coming to be martyred!
Q: Ok, but apologists claim that, although in Galatians Paul apparently mentions that first came the Jerusalem council, and then the incident, this needn't be that way. Perhaps the meeting Paul mentions in Galatians 2:1-10 is not the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, but rather, a previous meeting narrated in Acts 11:27-29; in this case, first came that meeting, then the incident at Antioch, and finally, all differences were solved during the Jerusalem Council. Do you have any reply to this argument?
A: Having had these debates for some years I am at a point now that I strongly believe that whether Acts 15 does or does not match up with Galatians, the conclusion is irrelevant to the A Polite Bribe story. What is undeniable is that Paul was in conflict with James, Peter, and John for most of his life, and whether their agreement came before or after the incident in Antioch, we know at the end of Paul's life in Romans 15:30-31, he was aware that his collection might be rejected (as it was) and that he might be killed during its delivery. Something Acts mentions via Agabus in chapter 21. The question that all should be asking is why there was this major split in what should have been the ordained Apostles of Christ? A meeting between the so called Apostles that would lead directly or indirectly to the attempted assassination of Paul!
Q: So you, along with many other scholars, claim that James may have actually prepared a trap for Paul, and he may have been the instigator of the riot at the Temple that caused Paul's arrest. On what basis do you claim this?
A: In the film and book, I concluded that there was simply no way that James could not have known about the dangers that awaited Paul, but his specific role would be more speculative. However, some scholars like Ralph Martin and James Dunn believed that James was part of the set up.
Q: Your thesis is that Paul's collection was never accepted. Yet Acts narrates that he was indeed received with joy by the brothers (21:17; and one may presume that James was among those brothers), and they proposed him to pay for the Nazarite vows of four men (21:24), which he accepted. Couldn't this payment have been the collection?
A: Most scholars I read or spoke with concluded that James' direction toward the Nazarite vows was a sign that a) the collection alone was not accepted and/or b) it required a cleansing to be presentable to the Temple. In other words the collection was unacceptable given its Gentile origins. As scholar Robert Jewett comments in the film, it required "a primitive money laundering scheme." Lastly, after Paul's arrest by the Romans and time in jail, he was not visited by James or any other Apostles, another sign that there was a final rejection of Paul.
Q: Is it possible to claim that James and the others did not speak at the trial, simply because they were afraid of the other Jews?
A: No, because James lived amongst the Jews at the Temple. For James and the other Jewish Christians, there was no separation between Judaism and the Jesus cult. It was totally different for Paul.
Q: Why, despite Paul's arrest, did Pauline Christianity prevail, whereas Jamesian Christianity became extinguished?
A: Because after Paul’s letters were written (48-58 AD) and before the Gospels were written (first 70AD), came the Jewish War (66-70AD) when the Roman army invaded Jerusalem and destroyed any presence of Judaism and Jewish Christianity from the region. Krentz says in the film, it would be like the Roman Catholic Church losing the Vatican.
Q: If our version of Christianity is mostly Pauline, and the canon was organized along those lines, why was the Epistle of James included?
A: I don't think James was without a role, but his influence diminished over time. It is interesting that the book of James addressed the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Q: Scholar Robert Eisenmann agrees there was a major confrontation between Paul and James. But, he goes even further, and makes a connection with the Qumran community. According to him, James is the Dead Sea Scrolls' "Teacher of Righteousness", whereas Paul is the Spouter of Lies. Is this way off?
A: These questions go beyond the scope of the Paul film and book, but I will comment that there is a growing body of studies on James and Jewish Christianity that provide a new context for Paul and his ministry at the time. From a Jewish Christian perspective it is understandable why Paul was perceived as a threat. If his vision turned out to be wrong, he threatened the very survival of the Jewish religion!
Q: Are you a believing Christian?
A:I come from the Catholic tradition, though I have spent many years in mainstream and Evangelical Protestantism.
Q: Can one be a Christian and yet accept that the author of Acts was some sort of dishonest spin doctor?
A: I don't think it is an either/or question. Luke is writing Acts for a Roman patron and uses a form of narrative to tell the story of Christianity that would solidify its place in the new world. The story is to depict how the movement began in Jerusalem and then traveled west into the Greco Roman world. Do you think it would have been wise for Luke to mention that Jesus' original followers were opposing one of the movement's greatest missionary, Paul? Or that the original followers of Jesus had some involvement in an assassination attempt on Paul's life after he returned with a promised collection from the Gentiles at the Temple? I understand why he would not mention some of these facts, who would? Yet, they are clues that give insight into the world of the time.
Q: Does this book shatter faith?
A: If you are a person that believes more knowledge is bad, then I guess it can challenge your faith - yes. I don't believe less knowledge is ever better, though I know it makes the world more complex.
Q: Can we draw any lessons from this book, about ethnic relations, money, power and religion in our contemporary world?
A: Yes, that the human journey has common characteristics and that we are not destined to commit the same actions over and over, if we are aware of what they are. Or perhaps we can at least slow down their inevitability. I'm sure ISIS has true belief, but based on what? Their version of a religious book. How do you argue with that? It's an experience that offers the power of certainty and direction to young men. It organizes the world into a coming Apocalypse with good and evil. Money is involved, ethnic distinction, power and of course religion, plus in the modern era more dangerous weapons. They are not alone, many religions begin with Apocalyptic promise including Judaism and Christianity. Faith and religion will always be a part of human experience, but so must our ability to test and verify claims.
Q: There is a marginal but interesting religious group today, the so-called "Messianic Jews". They claim to practice Judaism, but accept Jesus as savior and Messiah (mainstream Jews don't accept them as part of Israel). Would it be fair to say they are closer to original Christianity, much more so than the other Christian denominations?
A: If we explore an alternative Christian history and there was no Jewish War, we might have seen what a Jewish based Christianity would have grown to be. What ultimate influence Paul would have had on the movement had it survived? If Jesus had not returned would the movement, eventually, like so many other Messianic movements, have gone away? Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe, though it explores these ideas, essentially tells the story of what we do know with the greatest possible accuracy, using the scripture and historical sources.
Details of the book and film can be found at: http://apolitebribe.com/
Press reviews: http://apolitebribe.com/about-the-film/press/
The book will come out September 30th: https://wipfandstock.com/cascade_books