We see money in politics, in marriage and on the news, but it is still surprising that we find the suggestion so scandalous that there was money in early Christianity, something I suggest in my documentary "A Polite Bribe."
Most conservative scholars will view the money transaction through a mythical lens and argue that Paul's collection given to the Jerusalem Apostles was not a "bribe" but an attempt to unify the church. But is that all it was?
Did the Jewish Christian party not need real support to feed themselves and "the poor," or to make sacrifices at the Temple, which, absent the raining of manna, would have been necessary?
Historians also make the mistake of defining "poor" only in terms of a mission to the hungry, ignoring the fact that Paul already had a mission of outreach with Barnabas. It did not need to be redefined. Rather, since the Maccabean revolt, poor also meant those at the Temple who had taken their vows of purity in awaiting the kingdom and who required support from an outside source.
The point is simply that divine people do not always have "divine" reasons for their actions; rather, at times, they infuse divine meaning into very human motives, a practice common to the human condition.
Arguably, Greek civilization began with one man's desire for a woman, Helena, as a reward (a bribe, really) for winning an apple-picking contest, which is ironic given the Hebrew story that details the "fall" of civilization over the same fruit.
Candida Moss, of Notre Dame, one of the more outspoken scholars of early Christian history, reminds us that England went to civil war over "an argument of where you put the altar in the church." And didn't Henry VIII start a religion so he could get divorced? Wasn't the Reformation ignited by a man who believed he could scare away Satan with his gastrointestinal releases?
"I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away. When he tempts me with silly sins I say, 'Devil, yesterday I broke wind too. Have you written it down on your list?'" --Martin Luther
Major changes in history do indeed happen for very base reasons, and yet we continue to drape mythical clouds over sacred history, making it impossible to call an apple an apple or a bribe a bribe.
Yes, Apostle Paul wanted to unite the world, and yes, he also bribed his brethren with his offering of a Gentile collection because they would not accept his vision but did need the cash.
And yes, the original followers of Jesus rejected his vision, which meant at least in part, he persuaded them with gold, paying the entry fee for Gentiles. Does this mean in essence that he bought his Apostleship?
Now, some may say human foibles are "part" of God's plan, but if God's destiny is so subject to the ebbs and flows of human foibles, is there a divine plan at all? It's the old free will vs. predestination conundrum.
So the question remains: Why? Why do we require mythical figures like Paul and James and Jesus to be so angelic? Might it be because -⎯ as Shakespeare said -⎯ we might otherwise discover our saints are made of "baser matter," and that we, in return, might lose our innocence or our sense of the sacred?
OK, fair enough, I love my heroes as much as the next guy.
Yet, when that sacred longing is polluted by an utter disregard for the facts, what does that leave us but to undergird falsehoods to protect secret wishes? Not a bad thing if we are speaking of romance or epic fiction or even a great flick, but of the very core of our human values?
In the case of Paul and early Christianity, we may need to look through an entirely different prism to see how this occurs, one that better suits his first-century world and may possibly clear our vision.
First, let's not separate the sacred-profane spheres; rather, let's think of ancient religion as a marriage of economic powers, like Wall Street to the Church, where others pay taxes to this single entity; in this union we are moving closer to the model of the Temple, or in Rome's case, the Imperial Cult.
Now give that corporate entity a divine mandate from "the almighty" to carry out a mission with exclusive books of revelation that required a hand-picked or privilege-born class of interpreters (think lawyers on Wall street), and we are getting closer.
Paul tells this entity that God spoke to him in the desert and that He was not entirely happy with the way they were doing business -⎯ not only were their ancient methods meaningless, but also, their reign would soon be over. God indicated He was going to blow open the doors in favor of allowing everyone else to partake in the corporate profits, which would change the nature of the business and also negate 4,000 years of history.
Might not any group hearing that want to cross-examine this holy man's vision? Maybe before they dismantled the institution, they would even discuss the meaning of the Cross itself, and ask how all risk had been removed in this ancient "default swap" of universal grace, or they would at least ask for a little empirical data.
And if this lone prophet continued to push upon the executive board an expired agreement, which had also been rejected and was backed by tainted money, don't you think they might turn a blind eye should Paul one day suffer some unfortunate accident?
Again, Moss points out, this was a society that "purchase[d] women with dowries" and, as we know, stoned them on the street when they misbehaved. Sound familiar? Yes, it's the same type of divine thinking that might justify flying planes into office buildings.
If the "follow the money" method could be used so effectively to expose Watergate, or our Bank Crisis with its cozy relations to the Senate, or to bring down any abuse of power, I say it should be employed for gaining a clear understanding of the ancient past as well, sacred or not.
To order the A Polite Bribe DVD or Book or find upcoming screenings please visit our site at www.apolitebribe.com.