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Apostle Paul: Bribes, Bids, and Betrayals in the Bible?

06/20/2014 02:36 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2014

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The main controversy over my recent film Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe, (and my book of the same name) is the use of the word "bribe" in the subtitle. I understand that for many Christians, the books published over the last dozen years such as Jesus Interrupted, Forgery, The End of Faith, and God is not Great or the films like The Da Vinci Code, or more recently the "kabballistic" Noah have put them a bit on the defensive. And a word like "bribe" might only raise another red flag, or perhaps not.

First off, I've learned that trying to change the mind of a fundamentalist is like trying to scrape the paint off a footlocker with a tooth brush. A fact that I had not fully appreciated before the film's promotional tour and DVD release in the US and in UK (my book will be published by WIPF & Stock Cascade Books summer 2014). I was already aware that many Christians assumed the Bible as a divine source -- case closed. What I was surprised about is that exploring content in the actual bible should also be greeted with suspicion.

For a time, I did ponder calling the film "The Final Bid," a phrase we eventually coined as the tag line. Although "bid" is not as sharp "bribe" it was also not as accurate. Truth be told, at the heart of the life of the Apostle Paul there was not only a bribe, albeit a "polite" one, but actually an apostolic betrayal! An attempted assassination on the Apostle Paul in Jerusalem that some reputable scholars think might have involved Jesus' brother James.

Highly regarded New Testament scholar James Dunn (University of Durham), points out, "When Paul was arrested and put on trial we hear nothing of any Jewish Christians standing by him... ...It looks very much as though they had washed their hands of Paul, left him to stew in his own juice. (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p. 277). Or Modern conservative evangelical Ralph P. Martin (Fuller Seminary) who admits that by the time of Paul's final visit to Jerusalem, "his ministry was decisively rejected by James and the Jerusalem leadership." (World Biblical Commentary #48, James, p. xxxvii) Catholic, Luke Timothy Johnson in his The Acts of the Apostles asks (Acts 21), "Was Paul accepted by the Jerusalem community or not? Was his eventual arrest and imprisonment something entirely outside the community's control and concerning which it was powerless to intervene? Or was Paul abandoned by the Jerusalem community? Was he, possibly, even set up?" (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 377) And there are numerous other scholars.

The story goes as such: Paul had a vision (of Jesus) and in this vision it was revealed to him the "true gospel" that no longer required conversion to Judaism before one could become a Christian. Rather salvation came for all by simply believing in Christ. Most if not all of Jesus' original followers were suspect of this visionary and having known the messiah "in the flesh" did not agree. Paul struggled to maintain a unified movement, and after exhausting ways to end an ethnic tug of war over converts, suggested a collection to help persuade his brethren in Jerusalem, headed by James. In other words this tepid endorsement meant the Judean Church would embrace Paul's converts even if uncircumcised and the Gentiles by contributing the collection would be allowed membership into the family of God.

The agreement held for a time (49-58AD?) but eventually the Judean church reneged. Paul who could not allow his gospel message to be torn from the roots of the Holy land and home of Jesus, decided to force their hand. Though warned not to go, and aware of the danger (Romans 15:30-31), Paul gathered the promised Gentile collection and headed into Jerusalem. He arrived and his collection was rejected by James, though he gave Paul a chance, as Robert Jewett states in the DVD, to use a "primitive laundering scheme" to wash the dirty money. Paul had to pay the "Nazarite vows" for four other men to the Temple in order to prove he was still a faithful Jew. Yet, when he arrived at Temple with his fellow Gentiles he was accused of violating Jewish law and a mob set out to kill him. He was eventually rescued by a Roman Tribune and his men and placed in a jail cell in Caeserea to await trial(Acts 21).

Strangely, Luke the accepted author for these events, captures this dramatic sequence with the attempted assassination, but leaves out the crucial motive for why Paul was going to Jerusalem in the first place -- to deliver the Collection!?? Though he does mention "an offering" later in Paul's speech (in prison) to Felix in Acts 24. Also, Paul's letters mention the collection several times, including how his opponent apostles thought that Paul was using the persuasive nature of the collection to "buy his apostleship" (2 Corinth 12:16-18), and of course he announces the collections delivery to Jerusalem as he ends his most important letter to the Romans (Rom 15:30-31), where he fears he will not survive.

As a result of this ignorance of these facts, the "white washing" of Christian history continues, with a spiritualism or enthusiasm absent the human condition, or the conflicts of money, politics, and ethnicity. And this is not just a difference of opinion, the Apostle Paul film has been censored from some Christian circles and banned from some Christian media distribution channels, for reasons that have yet to be fully disclosed. So what does this all reveal? Why is it so threatening to acknowledge the human condition in the bible?

Beyond the hundreds of books and dozens of hours of interviews, I have learned more about Paul in trying to reach his audience. How some are genuinely intrigued. Some are put off, because they were never told these parts of scripture. And for the "thought police" who must resort to name calling or character assassination, they employ their bag o' tricks on me, but even worse for Paul the "Women hater, anti-semite, troublemaker." Yes, Paul is a lightning rod for world views, but as a historian-storyteller what cannot be denied is that:

1. Paul was not one of the original Apostles and was called by a Vision (of Jesus) (I Cor 15:8).
2. Paul did not get along with the original Apostles and in part his agreement with them required a collection (Gal 2:10).
3. When it was time to fulfill his promise of the collection, he was rejected and almost killed (Romans 15:30-31, Acts 21).

Rather than my book or film raising more red flags, I offer a white flag appeal that our use of critical human reason -- "faith seeking knowledge" or knowledge seeking faith -- as the only possible mode for the full discovery of truth.