Headed for Judea, in 58 A.D., Paul begs the church in Rome to pray that the "unbelievers" (non Christian Jews) do not assassinate him and that the Jewish Christians accept his collection of gold. In Paul's Greek there is a clear sense of "danger" and fear of his Christian brethren.
Paul shockingly concludes his famous Letter with a plea: "Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favorably received by the Lord's people there" (Romans 15:30-31).
This little known exchange stands as one of Christianity's most challenging moments where human conflict and inspired myth cannot be reconciled. In fact, these verses as a "skeleton key" might unlock the origins of Christendom deep beneath the accepted tale.
As the apostle to the Gentiles journeyed through the crashing waves across the Mediterranean, he reflected back to his three earlier meetings with the Mother Church, and its leaders, namely Jesus' brother James and Peter and the tensions that defined their relationship.
The first time around, in 36 A.D., three years after his conversion, Paul visited them with an identity crisis, after his ministry in Arabia resulted in an abysmal failure. Hated in the Arabian region of Nabatea Paul's only escape was in the dark of night, lowered on a rope in a basket.
New Testament Scholar Ben Witherington cleverly refers to this episode with Paul as "the basket case."
His sequel voyage in 49 A.D. was a "boundary issue" over his Gospel message and to whom he could preach it. Paul was offering a lawless message to Gentiles based on his vision, which did not sit well with the Jewish Christians.
Only, this time, Paul found James in charge and Peter playing his subordinate. Something had clearly changed. In addition, there were a group of hard line antagonists, whom Paul calls "False Brethren."
Scholar Gerd Ludemann explains that during this clash Paul "tips the scales" by agreeing to a collection, as a way to outwardly demonstrate that God's home church would remain in Jerusalem.
Given his shady history and the possible demise of his mission, a "well-timed offering" was not much to ask. A tepid endorsement resolved by a collection and a division of mission fields along ethnic lines, which also kept Paul "off-limits" to his Jewish brethren.
Paul wiped the Judean dust from his feet, and set off to blaze a trail deep into Europe, and eventually Rome, and more importantly Spain, where his arrival would trigger the return of Christ.
He had geographically moved past his ethno-theological conflicts, but within a short time, Paul's mission was plagued by groups he called "mutilators of the flesh," or "messengers of Satan," sent from Jerusalem, who attacked his character and motives for a collection.
His vitriolic response -- showcased in his second letter to the Corinthians (56-57 A.D.) -- addressed these invaders as "Pseudo Apostles" or Super Apostles, labels also used to mock James and Peter earlier.
New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman explains that these "Judaisers," insisted that "Gentiles needed to be Jews in order to enter the Kingdom of God." Paul not only disagreed, but considered the notion akin to being "under an evil spell."
And, when he could no longer defend himself using Scripture or his credentials, he boasted of his unsurpassable visions.
By 58 A.D., as Paul was returning home, his tone had changed dramatically. After years telling how God made the Jews "deaf and dumb" to his message, now, facing his own end, he explains God's will not only to save Jewish Christians -- but all Jews.
Amy Jill-Levine explains the acceptance of the collection by the Jerusalem Apostles would make "Paul's mission kosher," and he would have been given a hekhsher or stamp of approval.
Instead, the aftermath of the Paul's visit to James at the Temple, as told by the Book of Acts, included a rejected offering, a beating by a mob and a prison sentence for three years without any visits from the Jerusalem apostles.
Had the Roman army not pulled his bloodied frame from the mob, Paul would have died. Even his ironic journey to Rome as a prisoner -- rather than apostle -- would not have occurred.
The passage in Romans reveals a man who realized he was facing his end. His mission had driven him far beyond the boundaries of his people. He learned -- maybe too late -- that he would not survive without their support.
Paul's story soars beyond speculation or Sunday school musings, to a life and blood biography, about one man's struggle -- in light of his own unforgiving passion -- to forge a new group identity amongst the political powers of his time.
What is undeniable is that it involved a Polite Bribe.
"A Polite Bribe" opens May 1 in Princeton, N.J., and June 1 in NYC. Please see our upcoming screenings.
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