INTERVIEW OF AUTHOR, ROBERT ORLANDO
BOOK TITLE: APOSTLE PAUL: A POLITE BRIBE
BY: AUTHORTALK HOST, RON WAY
TO LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW CLICK HERE
Hello everybody, this is Ron Way for AuthorTalk Rising Light Media. What a pleasure it is for me to introduce to you today an author that I think has written one of the most insightful and important books on the Apostle Paul that has been written in the last decade. I really like this book, and I think it's an important book, and you should be reading it. His name is Robert Orlando, and the name of the book is Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe. The book is published by WIPF and Stock. Welcome, Robert, to AuthorTalk.
Thank you for having me.
When modern Christians think about Paul, we don't understand how important it was in the modern years of the modern Christian faith. I think that the churches pay more attention to the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, even though Paul's letters predate them by decades. Without Paul, we certainly wouldn't have the Christianity that we have today, which may be very different from the teachings of Jesus. Robert, one of the things that you do so well in your book is breathe life into Paul's stories and writings. Because you're a movie-maker, you paint a picture, you string together seemingly disparate facts and events into a life's picture of a real human being, which Paul most certainly was.
I want you to walk us through a brief life summary, just a thumbnail, if you will, of Paul's life from that special revelation, whatever that was, which Acts says it happened on the way to Damascus, to the next three years, where Paul was alone in Arabia before he ever spoke to any followers of Jesus that knew him intimately. Then, lastly, his evolving relationship with the home church in Jerusalem, and the apostles, or the super-apostles. Just give us a quick thumbnail and start us on our way.
If you don't mind, I just want to take a quick step back, because I think you're saying something quite significant, and that is that our modern lens, and the church's lens, generally still seen through the canon, looking backward. When you think of the Bible in terms of a canon that's been laid out in a certain way, that begins the biography of Jesus, goes through Luke-Acts, which then takes you on for the mission of Jesus to the original apostles, and ultimately on to Paul and others. The reason why that can distort the historical Paul is because if you look at it through the lens of chronology, the truth is that it's Paul, in advance, I'd say way in advance in some cases. He's also separated from the Gospels, which is a fact most scholars agree with, by the Jewish war and other things, huge events on the ground, that change the landscape, change the audience, change the location of where the movement is originally fromed.
With those factors in play, it's almost a paradigm shift completely to start with Paul and his letters in the year 50 A.D., as opposed to the Gospels, and it's debatable, but whether it's 70 to 120 A.D., after the Jewish war, and after the relocation of the original Jewish Christian movement. Having said that, I think to understand Paul is to start with his letters, not start with the more mythical filters that come later to explain the phenomena of Paul, but to actually just hear him as if he's on a phone call reaching out to us, telling us what are the problems on the ground.
Why write these seven consensus letters? The main reason he wrote these letters was because he couldn't be everywhere at once, although I'm sure he wanted to be, and as he would come into a town and convert several of the leaders, and grow a new church, he would have to leave at some point to go on with other missions, and found that a lot of times, and I think we can get into this later, his original vision for that area, whether it was Corinth, or Thessalonia, or all these other locations, would fall apart. He, as a result of responding to these crises as a pastor would, or a traveling missionary who's trying to keep his network together, would start writing letters to replace him, and send them with emissaries like Timothy and Titus to go back into these communities and say, "Well, you're right on this, you're wrong on this, don't listen to these other people."
What we start to realize is that there's an intrusive presence of other Jewish apostles who also believe, maybe in differing degrees, in the same Jesus, who a lot of times are undermining his own ministry, which, to me, raises a very curious question, which is "Why all this conflict?" Why do people who come from the same legacy of Jesus have all this conflict? What I've done in my film and book is looked into this conflict as a storyteller, as a dramatist, and said, "What is the nature of this conflict? Where does it come from, what do the two sides represent, and why is this drama playing out?" before you get to the later rewriting of history that comes through Luke-Acts and the Gospels. When you ask those essential questions, you start there, what you find is you don't find this visionary Paul who is merely responding to light in the sky, and going out and telling all the Good News, and people gathering round, but that he's an embattled individual, to a large degree.
He does find, it seems, intimacy with a lot of the people he mentors, like Timothy and Titus, who become very close with him, and others, like Apollos, and some of the women who lead the churches he's with, but in terms of his peers and the legacy that emerges out of the Jewish Christian movement of Jerusalem originally, and then later crosses over into Paul's time, there's almost a conflict throughout, I would say. There's more respites that are not filled with conflict, and there is one bias here, which is that we're looking through his letters, and maybe he wrote a lot more letters when he wasn't in a crisis or having a conflict, but that's not what we do know.
What we do know is that he's speaking very harshly against his brethren and saying, "Please don't come in my church, don't invade the purity of the Gospel message," and essentially what that is is that it's, "A new epoch has been born, Jesus came to me in a vision, even though you were his original apostles," and this includes James and Peter and John, and a lot of the names that we see later in the history of Christianity. He's telling them that "although you knew the original Jesus, the physical Jesus, he came to me because he gave me a new revelation," and you could imply by that that the others were not aware of it, or were not fully cognizant what it meant, but it was for Paul to then say to them that in this new epoch with the Kingdom about to be born, the Kingdom on Earth about to be born, that a lot of the former human rituals and elements that held together religion, mainly Judaism, would no longer be necessary.
This meant not just Judaism, for all human religion, because there would come a new epoch soon where spirituality would dominate, we would take on new bodies, and a whole new world would be born, almost a utopian idea. In light of that, it meant that older views of religion, like Judaism, he believed, held, would fade off, along with Greco-Roman pagan religions and other things, and in that new world, we would live and learn that we no longer could be identified by either class systems, or gender, or in the case of Jewish Gentiles, ethnic identity. All these boundaries would be shattered, and we would live as spiritual beings together in the Kingdom. That's kind of the essence. It's saying a lot, I know, but it's kind of the essence of what I see Paul's vision is. He tries to take that vision and put it in the world.
Well, I think it was interesting, that in one place in your book, you said, one of the observations that you made was how dumbstruck an original follower, such as an apostle, maybe Peter, James, and the others, might have been when they heard Paul's version of Jesus. You said, and I think I'm quoting here, that they would have had to shake their head and wonder to themselves, "Who's he talking about? It certainly isn't the Jesus I know. Where did he get this stuff?" He never calls it a “vision”. The blinding light came from Acts, much, much later. Paul doesn't talk about that, but he did have a revelation of some sort, because he stopped what he was doing, chasing Christians around, and he took off for Arabia. Talk a little bit about the very first years, where he met these apostles, and how that interaction came. What do you see as your vision of what happened?
Well, again, if we stick with the letters and what we'll call his autobiography in the first two chapters of Galatians, he tells a story that kind of narrates, he is doing it in retrospect, but he's kind of narrating the different early, let's call them "story beats," that were significant enough to mention for his own life. One of the things he clearly points out is he says after he had his vision, and by the way, let me parenthetically say, I do believe he had visions or a vision, but we'll get to this in a second, but the description of Acts is where it's troublesome, about an audible voice, and other witnesses, and things like that, which we can revisit if you'd like.
Back to Galatians, so in the first two chapters, he kind of depicts his early years as an attempt to move away from the authoritative figures. Because his vision was so new, he didn't want to give them the impression that if he went back for approval, that that would be the way the mission would take place: he would have a vision, he'd go back, and James and Peter would give Paul their blessing, and then he'd move on. I think he was trying to avoid that, but learn that when he went out into the synagogue with the early churches in Antioch and, like you said, Arabia, which we don't know a lot about, but we have the echoes in a lot of scholars' works, we find out that he failed.
If you want to point to something specific that is in the history books ... I mean, that is historical and accepted as historical by most, he winds up being thrown out of a city and chased by their ethnarch to the point where he has to be lowered in a basket in the middle of the evening. His ministry didn't start off very well, and some project, or they guess at this point, that the reason it didn't do so well is because he was breaking down a lot of these ethnic boundaries with his message, and a lot of people weren't going for it.
He spent about three years in Arabia, if we are to follow the time line here, about three years, then he said, "Okay, then I went up to Jerusalem, and I talked to James and Peter," but not the rest of the disciples, and he struck the first deal, right?
Correct. He says James was there, but according to his words, he did not engage with James, he was just there, which makes him, historically, this kind of shadow figure, because he outrightly engages Peter, but doesn't deal with James.
Right. The brother of Jesus.
Who ended up, later on, actually being the head of a church when Peter took off, and was traveling himself.
Correct. James becomes the leader of the same church later on, but not, not ... People won't just say because Peter was absent, but because James might have taken over for Peter after some other controversies that we can get into; we can also talk about what Peter felt about the mission, and was he orthodox enough himself to remain the leader in Jerusalem. There's two views of this event. I remember, Gerd Lüdemann gets into this in his works a lot, about how James took over for Peter at a certain point, not just because Peter was on a missionary trip, but because Peter was not the right representative and might have leaned in the direction of Paul too much.
Right, and in truth, it seems that Peter kind of vacillates later on, and then infuriates Paul, and we can get into that later also. After his visit to Jerusalem, you begin to paint a picture of a real man. You tell a story that makes sense. You bring together the letters that Paul writes, and you try to string together a human story out of them, because in truth, we really are human beings, and we react to people and circumstances, and you can begin to trace that human trajectory, and that's what you did. We always think that Paul was the leader of the gang that took off and went to the diaspora, or the Greek cities and the Roman cities, but in the beginning, it's interesting to note that he was relegated to spending years as an apprentice to Barnabas. If you read Paul alone, though, you don't get that perception. He says, "They gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship," and he sounds like an equal when he writes about it—or more. Why do you think that Paul was subservient to Barnabas during this early time frame?
Well, these details matter. It's hard to go through all the details now, but let me give you some key points that I think help organize what we're talking about here. One is that Paul, and again, a lot of scholars support this, and even, I think, the general circumstantial history that there was an early collection, some speculate that Paul was, actually, he was given early-on the chance to be mentored by Barnabas to see how he does, after his vision, and how loyal he would be, but part of the reason was, he was brought in to help Barnabas with a collection. Interestingly enough, in Antioch, it was a church that was beginning to integrate early on, so Paul was, I guess, looking at his later life and his ministry, it was ideal for him from a point of contacts. He was raising funds, and he was also working out of a ministry that was already beginning to be, maybe not as far as he wanted to go, ultimately, but integrated with Jews and Gentiles.
I think that's where that comes from, but the line you're bringing up in Acts 15, and this is where you're getting into time logic, it gets a little tricky, and I don't want to get lost in the weeds here, but whether you place Acts before or after Galatians is important, but in either case, let me just address both points. In the case of Galatia, when he said, "I came back and found out that all of them had turned against me, that James, brother of Jesus, had sent emissaries to tell and segregate the sharing of meals, and Peter went along," which Paul took as a betrayal, he also said Barnabas also got caught up in this.
It's almost like he felt the letdown that Barnabas, who had been his mentor, and who had originally gone out in the mission field, now was buying more into, let's call it a retrospective look of the Christian Gospel, which was to go back to the early combining of the Gospel with Jewish law. He felt Barnabas let him down. Later, when he said that he gave him the right hand of fellowship, that was earlier in my timeline, when originally, they were looking for a compromise, which is where the collection compromise comes in, or, if you will, the bribe, is that they couldn't come together until Paul offered a way to kind of find middle ground, and that would be by offering a collection.
He was basically saying, "We only have so many choices. Either everyone becomes a Jew," which would be impossible, "or we move past Judaism," which was impossible, and he felt like the way he could find the middle was that if he offered a collection that would still show the priority of Jerusalem, in light of his modern Christian movement, it would still give honor to the legacy of the early church, but still give a way for Gentiles to belong to it. Aside from the monetary part of it, it also had a unifying fact that I think is tied in to the verses you just spoke of.
You know what I'd like for you to do, Robert, is that the subtitle of your book is "A Polite Bribe," so let's address that head-on for a second. There were two different collections. The first one, which you've been speaking about, which happened fairly early on, and then there's a second collection, I'm not even sure if it's mentioned in Acts, but that took ten years to complete. That's just an incredible thing for me to contemplate, that he went out and away from Jerusalem for ten long years preaching, recruiting, and raising money without ever sending any back? What did he do, keep promising, "Honest, I'm going to send the money"? Or, perhaps he was collecting in dribbles and drabs, and sending it back piecemeal? If that was the case, then he wouldn't need to come back during that last visit—which was the fateful visit—so I’m guessing that it wasn’t until his relationship with the church was coming unhinged that he finally got serious and started pressuring the churches for the money.
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, one scholar, the Catholic, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, tried to actually break down in hours and miles what this would have entailed, to actually collect all this money, and how preoccupied he became to make it happen. My take on it was that this was a giant annoyance for him. He didn't want to be bothered raising funds, he wanted to be about the business of spreading the Gospel. Unfortunately, and now let me set up the circumstances, what is the conflict? What's the radical idea here that most people don't know of, but that is captured in the book and the film, but that scholars know of, and that is that in the early Christian movement, there were still factions, namely, the one that was born of the Jerusalem apostles and the one that was moving more out toward the Gentiles.
Now, there was common ground. Originally, there had to be, because Paul was trying to gain their approval. As we said, he went back after his vision, but at a certain point, they couldn't come to terms with his teachings, the movement was growing, a lot believed the end times were coming closer also, so a lot of issues that maybe in the beginning were more experimental became more serious, coming down to simple ideas like voting. If you had a church and you were Jewish, and you had an overwhelming audience of Gentiles, they wouldn't be as concerned about maintaining Jewish law or whatever, and if the end never came, and the Messiah never returned, you'd start losing what was the core of your system of belief very quickly, because just the numbers alone play out to give you one little insight there.
What started to happen was, I think, and this is proven in the history, James started to recoil back and return more to, let's call it "orthodox," for want of a better word, to a more pure Judaism, even through the lens of, let's say "Christian Judaism" or "Jewish Christianity," however you want to capture that, but the thing that Paul does is he comes along and says, "Well, now what do we do with all these Gentiles? They're Christians, they're believers, I know them, I circumcised Timothy. What do we do with them? How do we all fit together, because we can't split apart. If we split apart, then Christ is made up of two groups. If he's made up of two groups, we can't share in the meals, we can't share his body and blood, we're not one movement. How do we put this thing together?"
I think what he did was ... Here's the three possibilities, I'll go through them again. One, all Christians must become Jews, which means being circumcised, and if you get into the history of what it means to be an adult male being circumcised in that time, before there were sterile tools for surgery, you're dealing with a big and dangerous operation back then. That would be one, and no, they wouldn't have gone for it anyway, and the same with, if you went past Judaism and you said, Two, Jewish law was no longer necessary, and gave the Gentile crowd the nod, you'd be going against six thousand years of history, which is kind of the themes that come through Romans later, when Paul says, "Well, what of the Jews now? In light of this Gospel, what about the Jew? What about the Jewish Christian?"
He's stuck in the middle, and I'll say it again, I think the key for him was that the collection, the collection of money, and from what we know, the Gentile churches had a lot more wealth, and the Jerusalem churches did live in a lot of poverty, which is where it gets a little confusing with giving to the poor, and what "the poor" means. I think what he said was…
Paul, you mean.
Paul, yeah. The best way for Paul to strike a balance was to say, "We will keep the honor, the core, the legacy, and the Jewish Christian roots, but we will bring the unity, we will bring that honor through the support of the Gentile community." It was a way to kind of agree to disagree, in almost a polite bribe, if you will. It's not a direct bribe, it's kind of polite, because it's not alone, it's not the money alone, but it enhances, or persuades those listening to go along with it.
One other important point, vital point, is that throughout history, the idea of "the poor” ("the poor" has been defined in multiple ways, but it doesn't mean "a collection for the poor," meaning the impoverished). It also means “the poor” that was a group, a lot of them associated with radicals that went back to the Maccabean movement, that were against Rome, or the imperial powers, but that held Jerusalem, almost like we see today in more radical movements, who couldn't support themselves because they worshiped all day, they prepared for the end of times, and that group has, a lot of times, been associated later with the Ebionites, but during the times of Paul's conflict, some have linked to the Jerusalem apostles themselves.
The possibility does exist, and I believe this, in my book and film, I wrote it, was that I think that he's also saying, "Don't forget the poor, don't forget us who have to remain at the temple and prepare for that day, and can't go have a second career and support ourselves. Don't forget us." There was a lot of meaning attached to this collection.
With that, Robert, see how fast it goes, Robert? I told you that it would. We're going to have to bring this to a close, but ladies and gentlemen, you're going to tune in to the second half of this interview next week. I really highly recommend his book. Again, the name of the book is Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe, by Robert Orlando. I will mention also that you should check out Robert's website for his movie with the same title. You go to www.apolitebribe.com, and you can even download it and watch the trailer there for free.
Thank you, Robert, for being with us. I'm so grateful that you joined us today. Folks, this has been a fun, fun day for me. I hope you enjoyed it too. For AuthorTalk and Crossing the Line. Watch for Part Two of my interview with Robert coming soon. Have a good day.