Orlando, Robert. Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe. Eugene Ore.: Cascade Books, 2014. 174 pp. Pb; $23. Link to Wipf & Stock
A “Polite Bribe” refers to Paul’s collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Robert Orlando’s thesis is that Paul needed the approval of Jerusalem in order to continue to preach the Gospel. Paul therefore agreed to give a gift to the Jerusalem church in exchange for their approval to preach his Gospel to the Gentiles.
Orlando understands one of the main problems for Paul was his continual “battle with this sense of legitimacy as an apostle and as a missionary to the Gentiles” (xxiii). As evidence for this is Galatians 2, Paul’s conflict with “men from James” and the subsequent rejection of table fellowship by Barnabas and Peter. Orlando paints a vivid picture of Paul’s Gospel as radical and “counterintuitive” to the majority of early (Jewish) Christians (29).
There does seem to be a deep division between James as a leader of the Jerusalem church, Peter as a missionary along the fringes of Judaism and Paul, who Jesus appointed to go directly to the Gentiles. In Acts, Luke tends to smooth over these divisions in favor of presenting the early church as more united than it was. The Antioch Incident (Galatians 2), the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), and Paul’s arrest after he returned to Jerusalem with the Collection (Acts 21:17-22:29) are all evidence of a sharp struggle between Paul and other early Christians who considered the Law as required even for Gentiles. This is especially problematic when Jews and Gentiles shared meals and celebrated Communion together.
At the heart of Orlando’s thesis is his assumption Paul needed (or wanted) approval from the original apostles. There are two problems with this assumption. Is there any evidence the original Twelve or James had an interest in appointing additional apostles? When Judas died, he was replaced, but this was before Pentecost (Acts 1). After James, the son of Zebedee, is killed in Acts 12, there appears to be no effort to replace him as one of the Twelve. When there is a need for leadership among the Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem, they are told to appoint their own leaders (who are not called apostles, Acts 6). It is not as though the Twelve constitute a governing body for the church and have the authority to authorize preachers of the Gospel.
Second, a fair reading of Galatians 1-2 and 2 Corinthians 10-11 should be enough evidence to indicate Paul was not overly concerned about what the Jerusalem church thought of his mission to the Gentiles. He claims independent apostleship based on his encounter with Jesus. I agree he would have preferred to have the “right hand of fellowship” from Jerusalem, but he does not seem to have ever claimed to be working under the authority of Jerusalem, the Twelve, or James.
Orlando’s most remarkable suggestion is that James and the original apostles required a monetary gift in exchange for their approval of Paul as an apostle. He describes this as a kind of Temple Tax imposed on Gentiles to assist the poor. James had his followers in Jerusalem (59). James indeed asked Paul to remember the poor, the very thing Paul was “eager to do “(Gal 2:10). It is even probably the case James understood the “poor” to be his Jerusalem church which was still living in common in anticipation of the return of Christ. But to describe this as a price paid for authorization to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles runs far past what the evidence could prove. Paul does not hurry back to Jerusalem in Acts 20-21 in order to offer a bribe to James but to arrive on the day of Pentecost with a gift from the Gentile churches. He wants to evoke memories of the Day of Pentecost from Acts 2, when the Spirit of God was first poured out on the Jewish believers. For Paul, the Collection is a first-fruit offering from the Gentiles to those who were followers of Jesus from the beginning.
Orlando is indebted to the old History of Religions view that Paul adapted Greek and Roman myth better present the Gospel to Gentiles. For example, he says on several occasions, Paul used the dying and rising god myths from Greek mystery religions (85), stating that Paul needed “secret wisdom in order to avoid critique: in the public square. As a result of this commitment to Paul’s adoption of Mithraism, he often misses the Jewish foundations of Paul’s theology. One result of the explosion of studies in the tradition of the New Perspective on Paul is an awareness of how Jewish Paul remained after his so-called conversion. Orlando’s presentation on circumcision, for example, is described in terms of modern practices which were not necessarily present in the first century (metzizah b’peh, for example).
Several bold assertions would be hard to support from evidence. Orlando explains Paul’s desire to launch a final journey to Spain, the “end of the known world,” as an attempt to “trigger the second coming of Christ” (84). For Orlando, this is Paul’s motivation for dispensing with food laws and circumcision for Gentiles. God was about to “dissolve the distinctions between Jew and Greek in the Kingdom” (37). It would be very difficult to support this assertion from the letters of Paul or the book of Acts, and “dissolving the distinction between Jew and Gentile” is not part of any Second Temple period Jewish expectations for the coming Kingdom! Fourth Ezra, for example, sees no future for Gentiles in the Kingdom at all (nor for most Jews, for that matter).
According to Orlando, Paul was dispatched to Antioch to work as a protégé under Barnabas in Antioch (35). However, in Acts, Barnabas seeks out Paul because Gentiles are responding to the Gospel in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). For some reason, Orlando omits the mission to Cypress in Acts 13. Luke uses the symbolic miracle, Paul’s blinding of Bar-Jesus, to indicate a shift from Barnabas to Paul. Luke then follows that miracle with a detailed synagogue sermon which presents Paul’s understanding of what God is doing in the present age. Rather than focus on this data, Orlando describes a breach between Paul and Barnabas: “he’d had enough” of Paul and returned to Antioch, where he eroded Paul’s relationship with the church (44). It is not Barnabas who leaves Paul, but John Mark. Paul and Barnabas continue as partners through the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and only split when Barnabas insists on restoring John Mark to the ministry team.
Assuming an imprisonment in Ephesus, Orlando asserts Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from prison in a state of despair, “possibly a loss of faith” (93), which he suggests is akin to a “nervous breakdown” (the title of the chapter, although he never quite states his in the text). To describe Paul’s ministry in Ephesus as “two or three years immobilized, probably ‘lying there and rotting’” (93) completely misunderstands how Luke presents Paul in Acts 19. Although Paul may have been imprisoned for a time in Ephesus (and he probably wrote Philippians during that time in prison), he evidently spent at least two years teaching and preaching so that “all Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:9-10). Rather than “lying there are rotting,” Paul established churches and trained people to plant additional churches (Epaphras and Colossae, for example).
Orlando is a filmmaker and not a New Testament scholar. He tells the story of Paul in a narrative fashion with little awareness of scholarship on Luke-Acts or Paul. Often his source for a particularly striking idea is not the text of the New Testament or a published commentary or monograph but an interview from his film, A Polite Bribe. This would be unacceptable in a scholarly monograph, but since this book is a companion to the film, it is less problematic.
Sometimes his sense of story-telling goes beyond the evidence. He presents his idea of starting the story of the church with Paul rather than the Gospels as a new and groundbreaking idea. This is not exactly news to biblical scholars, especially those who focus on the writing of Paul. For example, Jens Schröter contributed an article to Paul and the Heritage of Israel (LNTS 452; T&T Clark, 2012) on “Paul the Founder of the Church: Reflections and Reception of Paul in the Acts of the Apostle and the Pastoral Epistles.” Certainly, Reformation theology stands on the foundation of Paul and his epistles.
One additional concern: the book seems to breathe the air of conspiracy. This is a byproduct of the presentation of the book as a film since a documentary that claims to uncover some dark secret suppressed by the Church is likely to be more popular. For example, Paul’s Jewish opponents “hatch a conspiracy against him” in Corinth (73). This was more or less a standard Roman lawsuit and not a “conspiracy.” It was a common problem in Roman culture, and Paul treats it 1 Corinthians 6. Orlando detects a “shipboard conspiracy” against Paul on the trip to Jerusalem, forcing them to return to shore (107). There is not much evidence for this in the text; Orlando does not cite the book of Acts but rather an interview with Robert Jewett in his film.
Conclusion: A Polite Bribe is an interesting approach to the difficult problem of Paul’s relationship with James and Jerusalem. Orlando should be commended for taking Paul seriously and attempting to get behind the scenes of Acts and the Epistles, although there are many assertions in this book that will not stand up to scrutiny. His narrative method makes for easy reading, although his non-scholarly approach seems to create some problems which erode the value of his main point.
NB: Thanks to Wipf & Stock for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.