In most churches today, the apostle Paul is a revered figure who went from persecuting Christians to being the faith's chief evangelist. Books attributed to him and his letters to fledgling churches make up a good portion of the Bible's New Testament.
But The Polite Bribe, a new documentary to be screened Thursday in Lexington, portrays Paul as a controversial figure caught in a conflict between early Jewish-based Christians and Gentile Christians who were not open to Judaism's traditions.
The film features extensive commentary from Asbury University New Testament professor Ben Witherington, who will participate in a talk with filmmaker Robert Orlando after the screening.
"This is the kind of documentary you would see on a network or a cable channel," Witherington says. "It has a wide spectrum of scholarly interviews from both Christian and Jewish (people) and those of no faith. ... So you have a wide variety of opinions being expressed in the film.
"The real heart or business of the film is Paul taking up a collection for the Jerusalem church from his more Gentile churches."
Orlando says, "To put it literally, it was Paul saying, if you're Jewish, you can follow Jesus because you're a Jew. You have a birthright to do it. But if you were a Gentile, you had to pay a fee, an entrance fee, to be allowed the same treatment as the Jewish faith.
"So that's the No. 1 thing that's controversial, is that Paul is essentially paying for the right to bring in non-Jewish Christians into the initial fold of Jesus' first followers."
Witherington says the film drives toward Orlando's point of view but shows a lot of other perspectives about Paul and his actions. The film also has a unique look: It uses fine-art illustrations made specifically for the movie.
"It's animation of a sort, so that Paul's life is depicted," Witherington says. "It's very well done. Robert Orlando knows what he's doing."
Orlando says he wanted to avoid doing what many documentary films do: show artifacts and re-enactments to tell stories. As the owner of a graphics company, he decided to have the images created for the film.
The typical use of artifacts and such "sort of takes away from the relevance of the topic because people look at it and think, 'I've seen that,'" Orlando says. "I was able to put together 2-D images in a way that reflects 3-D reality. It's a new technique; it's pretty cutting-edge. I said, why don't we match the newness of the theme and the new subject matter with a new style?"
In the style, two-dimensional images are treated in a three-dimensional manner, with foreground and background images and camera movement that Orlando says has been called animation, although technically it isn't.
Orlando is rolling the film out road-show style, bringing it to various towns with hopes of drumming up enough support to attract the attention of film distributors or TV companies. The Lexington stop comes because of Witherington and his contribution to the film.
It is all in the service of a subject that Witherington says might be most interesting to theology geeks, but he and Orlando say there is relevance today in Paul's story and the title bribe.
"It's a good conversation starter," Witherington says. "It's a good catalyst for a lively discussion, and one of my laments in America is we don't have good dialogues anymore. We sort of talk past each other."
Orlando says it is important for Christians to understand who Paul was because of his enduring impact on the faith. He says that after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, it was Paul's letters that survived. So, although his plan to strike a grand bargain with Jewish Christians failed, his message endured.
"How do we know about Jesus?" Orlando asks. "Paul was writing all these letters in the diaspora. He wrote to the Corinthians and said, 'This is who Jesus is.' He wrote to Rome and said, 'This is who Jesus is.'
"So we wind up getting an understanding of Jesus that primarily comes through the lens of Paul."