Robert Orlando, Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe (Cambridge, UK James Clark & Co., 2014), xxiv + 174 Pps., $18.00.
Robert Orlando is an award-winning writer and filmmaker with over twenty years of experience as a storyteller across multiple mediums. Orlando is also a public speaker, freelance writer and editor, and director in New York City, where he founded Nexus Media. Orlando notes that Pauline studies have become sort of a parlor game between various factions: for example, the Evangelicals stand as apologists for tradition, whereas the New Perspective scholars contextualize Paul as a misunderstood Jew. All of the factions have their advocates, and defend their position with earnest, yet they all are working from the same basal documents: the seven undisputed letters of Paul, which were written from approximately 50 to 60 C.E. Paul was writing from his narrative worldview, and what we have available from his pen is not an intentionally constructed narrative intended for future generations, but rather a loose collection of letters written to the audiences of his time. As an independent New Testament scholar, Orlando seeks in this book to move away from Paul’s theology in order to look at his story and how it served his first-century identity, as well as his role in the kingdom of God. In so doing, Orlando at times views Paul as a politician and even as a panderer, but he hopes to provide new insight into the story of Paul.
Central to Orlando’s thesis in this text is that there was a conflict between Paul and the Jewish brethren, composed mostly of the original disciples of Jesus, including the Lord’s brother, James. This conflict haunted Paul, and readers of the New Testament are forced to ask why. This conflict cast such a doubt on Paul’s mission that he was driven to earn his way to support through a collection. Paul was a man “enraptured” by a vision of Jesus, yet Jesus’s closest earthly companions, the disciples, required a bribe of gold to accept Paul’s vision (xxiii). In the end, Paul’s ministry was allowed in large part because of the money that he delivered to the mother church in Jerusalem – the bribe; this constitutes the thrust of Orlando’s thesis in this title.
In or around 49 C.E., the leaders of the Jerusalem – the “pillars” (Gal. 2:9) – offered Paul temporary support of his gentile mission, as long as he “remembered the poor” (Gal. 2:10). Apparently, during this meeting, James, the leader of the church at Jerusalem, requested that Paul take up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem (whom Orlando curiously links with James himself, noting that the “collection for the poor” really was akin to more of a payment like a temple tax; the “poor” was another name for Nazarites like James, he says, who had taken a vow of poverty; see page 59). But by the time of the writing of Romans in approximately 58 C.E., the relationship between Paul and the Jerusalem constituency had soured, insomuch as the collection that had been merely asked for ten years earlier, was now required in order for the apostles to endorse his mission. This collection, Orlando claims, was really a bribe that allowed Paul to continue his ministry to the gentiles. In Romans chapter 15, Paul pled with the church at Rome to pray “that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.” As evident from this quote, Paul had two primary concerns in the late fifties C.E., as an aged man: the Orthodox Jews that wanted him dead, and the messianic Jewish-Christians whom he feared would not accept his collection, or as Orlando puts it, the bribe.
Orlando has some interesting thoughts regarding the parting of ways between Paul and Barnabas. Why would Barnabas be led astray with the other Jews’ hypocrisy (spoken of in Gal. 2:13)? Originally it had been Barnabas and Paul on side, and James, Peter, and John on the other. Could this split have festered from a dispute over Paul’s dismissal of John Mark from the earlier missionary journey? Could it be that Barnabas had seen too much of Paul’s suffering in places like Lystra, or being thrown out of multiple synagogues? Could it be that Barnabas always had held to a stricter form of Jewish Christianity like James and the others in Judea? Orlando makes mention of the debate about these issues amongst scholars, but seemingly suggests that Paul’s “gospel of freedom” was just too much for his mentor, Barnabas, to bear (83).
Using Bart Ehrman’s analysis, Orlando contends that Jesus, the founder of the movement that Paul was preaching to the gentiles, believed his mission was to the Jews. From this notion, Orlando claims that James and the Jewish Christians held to the truest testimony of Jesus after his death. And although Jesus showed empathy toward gentiles, his intention, according to Orlando, was never to create a new kingdom outside his Jewish identity (135). In Orlando’s view, then, Paul had a fundamentally different message than did Jesus.
Orlando closes the book with some startling claims, at least from my quasi-conservative, process theology driven perspective. For example, he claims that Paul’s conflict with James and the Jewish Christians led, ultimately, to his imprisonment and death. Moreover, this was the reason that Luke, in Acts, whitewashed the split within the early church (141). To sum up: the growth and expansion of early Christianity was due to the vision of one man – the apostle Paul – and his bribe of the Jewish Christians. I recommend this title to those who have interests in Pauline studies, but be forewarned: it is a novel retelling of the Book of Acts and Paul’s story.