lunes, 8 de septiembre de 2014

Review of "A Polite Bribe", by Robert Orlando (film)

  Back in 1999, Venezuela suffered a terrible landslide that left 25,000 casualties. The US offered humanitarian relief, but President Hugo Chavez refused it. At the time, as an idealistic young man, I thought this was a terrible act of arrogance by Chavez; but over the years, I came to understand what the reception of that relief effort from a major imperial power would have implied. Later on, I read Marcel Mauss’ classic text The Gift, and I further understood that, when receiving a gift, new obligations arise. Or, as the great late economist Milton Friedman would have put it, “There ain’t a free lunch”. I even wish some feminists would come to realize that, when a guy offers to buy a drink, this is no act of charity, and girls who accept the drink should be prepared to face the consequences.

            Some cultural Marxists may claim that this all due to the corrupting influence of modern capitalism: these days money rules us all. But, no, that is not the case. Polite bribes have been around for quite a while, and one particular polite bribe was at the center of the origins of Christianity, roughly 1900 years ago. Robert Orlando’s film tells that story. In a nutshell: the Apostle Paul disagreed with James and the early Jerusalem Christian community over the nature of Jesus’ message and whether or not Gentiles were to be reached; and in a desperate effort to gain authority and keep the unity of the movement, chose to gather a collection of money and deliver it personally to James in Jerusalem. He failed to do so, and it all ended in tragedy.
            Of course, this is not the way the book of Acts tells the story, but there are plenty of clues in Paul’s authentic letters that point in that direction. This has long been known by scholars, and yet, most cinematographic accounts of Paul’s life are guided exclusively by Acts’ biased account. Orlando’s film breaks new ground by presenting the scholars’ version. Big leaguers such as Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Gerd Ludemann and J.D. Crossan are featured on the film (I would have liked to see in the cast J.S. Spong, and his rather strange theory that Paul was gay).
            The film quotes extensively Paul’s own letters (although, unfortunately, it does not reference the verse numbers), and again, this is a great choice, as we get testimony, not from what a dishonest propagandist said many decades later (Luke), but things as Paul himself saw them. The actor representing Paul’s voice is great, especially as he adds anger in the references to the “superapostles” (delegates sent by James to counteract Paul’s influence). Orlando wisely avoids the temptations to shoot on location (what’s so appealing about a ruined amphitheater in Ephesus, anyways?), or dull dramatizations (as in History Channel’s Mysteries of the Bible, although that was a fine series). Instead, he opts for comics somewhat close to Japanese manga, a nice option, for the subject matter of this film is quite dark, indeed. And, by doing so, he gives the film a greater aspect of historical vividness (contrary to popular wisdom, ruined amphitheaters make the film less historically vivid). There is even a nice historical detail: Jesus, contrary to Medieval paintings, has his nails on his wrists (as was surely the case), and not on the palm of his hands!
            In a span of 90 minutes, it is almost impossible to present Paul’s life without feeling a rush, and most certainly, Orlando makes no attempt to do so. Yet, very cleverly, he lets so incidents go by unmentioned, but still display them in the comics, as for instance, Paul’s escape from Damascus: nowhere is it mentioned in the film how he escaped, but the comics do show him rather quickly descending from the city walls with a rope. However, I think there is an important omission in the movie: Paul’s witnessing of Stephen’s death. This is probably a fictitious story, for Paul later recounts how no one recognized him when he went to Jerusalem, but inasmuch as the scene of Stephen’s martyrdom is so popular, some scholar could have at least mentioned that Paul was probably not present.
            The film indulges in some speculations, but they are certainly not wild. For instance, when describing the Jerusalem council, great drama mounts up about Titus and his potential circumcision; according to Crossan (one scholar interviewed), Paul uses Titus as “visual aid” to make his points across about the uselessness of the penile requirement. I wouldn’t say the account in Galatians presents it as such, but Crossan’s description is not way off, either.
            The film also suggests that, on his way to Jerusalem, Paul was guarded by armed men because he was bringing the collection. As far as I know (and I double checked before writing this review), nowhere in the New Testament is there mention of this detail. But, then again, Paul may have picked retired Gentile soldiers from Philippi. The film also claims that the money was exchanged into gold, and it was sewed attached to their clothes. I have no idea where Orlando got this from. I am aware that a book version of the film will come up, I hope he’ll tell us there how he came to that conclusion.
            But, surely the most controversial speculation of the film is that James himself was behind Paul’s doomed fate. Acts tells us that, during Paul’s arrest, the doors of the Temple were closed, and this might be taken to mean that James organized the whole disturbance that got Paul arrested, and made sure that no one from the Temple offered him help; after all, James was a rather influential character in Jerusalem at the time. Furthermore, James never visited Paul in jail, which proves that he was satisfied with Paul’s fate.
            This sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory, but it is most plausible. There is a hole, however, that it seems to me, has not been sufficiently filled by scholarship. How did James manage to be so prominent among the Jews of Jerusalem, if he was the leader of a movement that was at first persecuted by Jews themselves?

            At any rate, I don’t think it is particularly outrageous to propose a conspiracy theory here. I might add, this was not the only conspiracy organized by the early Christians. It seems to me Judas was most likely killed by someone in Jesus’ movement (this might explain the discrepancies in the accounts of his death), and Ananias’ death is certainly very strange, too (in fact, as strange as all those people that disappeared in Communist dictatorships when they simply, very much as Ananias, wanted to keep their private property).
            Towards the end of the film, various scholars explain that Paul’s message was far removed from Jesus’ original message regarding the extension to Gentiles. This, of course, is historically correct. But, Orlando should have included some additional remarks by scholars explaining why Jesus proclaims the Great Commission to Gentiles in Matthew 28:19. The explanation is easy: the Gospels were written under Pauline influence and that is how Jesus appears open to the Gentiles, and yet, they couldn’t simply eliminate the earlier layer of tradition in which Jesus is a nationalistic Jew.
            The element of ethnicity is emphasized throughout the film, and this surely explains a lot. Christianity is today a universal religion, and it’s quite sublime to see how, in the Conclave to elect a new Pope, there are all sorts of faces; I’m confident that, in the near future, we’ll have a black Pope. But, it wasn’t the case back then. It took a dramatic turn of events, such as the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., to finally open Christianity to all peoples of the world. Nevertheless, a question still remains in my head, and I was hoping some scholar would address it (none did): if Paul appealed to scripture to proclaim that, in the apocalyptic time, all nations would gather in Zion to worship Yahweh, why didn’t James and Peter (apocalyptic Jews very much as Paul) accept Paul’s interpretation? After all, Paul’s views didn’t come out of the blue; the joining of Gentiles is already proclaimed in Zechariah and other prophetic writings.
            At the end, this is a much needed film that tells the story as it really happened. There are plenty of apologetic films that exhibit null critical capacities (e.g. The Passion of the Christ). The alternative, unfortunately, are ridiculous films that propose Jesus was an invention of Paul (Zeitgeist!), or even worse, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene or some other outrageous claim (The Jesus Family Tomb). Despite its shocking assertions about the behavior of James, there is no sensationalism in Orlando’s film. It is pure history, plain and simple.
Yet, I was a bit shocked to see N.T. Wright and other theologians included among the scholars. Frankly, I simply cannot see how these theologians can still believe the Bible is revealed, even after knowing that the author of Acts deliberately presented a propagandistic and dishonest account. I cannot see how these theologians believe Jesus is God, even after acknowledging that Jesus never meant to break off with Judaism (and this would imply that Jesus never proclaimed himself as God). In an interview we had, Robert Orlando told me that this film does not shatter faith. I disagree. This film does shatter faith (why should I have faith in a book written by propagandists?), and that is precisely its greatest merit.

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