A Polite Bribe: A New Narrative For Paul And The Early Church?

The Apostle Paul was, for much of his life, and abject failure who never knew the success of his Christianizing mission. And yet, Paul was incredibly talented in one key measure: being divisive.
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The Apostle Paul was, for much of his life, an abject failure who never knew the success of his Christianizing mission. From his letters, written 50-60 A.D., we know that most of his relationships deteriorated in the midst of his overbearing personality, Jesus' original 12 disciples could hardly tolerate the man. Paul had to constantly fight to see that the congregations he started stayed true to his teachings, and he failed on numerous occasions to complete his missionary journeys because of disputes back in Judea. And yet, Paul was incredibly talented in one key measure: being divisive.

Interlaced within his Epistles, and other New Testament texts, lies a challenging narrative concerning the founding of the Christian Church. A narrative that leads up to one event that shaped the religion for generations to come, that led to Paul's violent death, and set forth an understanding of Jesus, the Christ, which was a far cry from the underclass, largely unlettered, first-century Palestinian Jew. The event, occurring between 58-60 A.D., was the supposed third Jerusalem Council, where Paul expected he could finally make amends with Jesus' original followers. Yet, as Gerd Ludemann flatly states, "Paul miscalculated this situation."

It did not go as planned.

First some background: Paul, a self-professed Hebrew among Hebrews, was rarely at peace with his original followers back in Jerusalem. James the brother of Jesus, Peter and the other remaining disciples were keen on keeping the movement -- then known as The Way -- as a Temple-based, ethnically Jewish, messianic mission. They were suspect of Paul, and understandably so. He had once been their chief persecutor prior to his conversion, around 36-39 A.D.

"He was not one of those disciples up in Galilee. He was Johnny-come-lately to this movement," says Pauline Scholar Richard Horsley. He was a lone man with a vision that insisted on the equal inclusion of Gentiles, without any Jewish regulation. And at times, because of his insightful visions, he considered himself a superior Apostle to those who had been with and followed the living Jesus. At best he was a nuisance, at worst he was a threat.

In Galatians, 51-53 A.D., where Paul offers something of an autobiography, we read that when he sought this lot's endorsement for his mission, an important endorsement for an evangelist claiming to be an "Ambassador of Christ," one thing was required of him in return -- that he continue his monetary collection which has started with Barnabas in Antioch and expand it into the Gentile congregations in Asia Minor and Eastern Mediterranean, and that he deliver it back to the Church in Jerusalem.

The gift was the crux of Paul's bargain. "Had he not brought a collection, he would have welched on the agreement and it would be off," according to Union Theological Seminary's Paul Achtemeier. Paul could have his mission to the Gentiles, and with it the sanctioning of those Jesus left in charge of the movement, but as part of the deal he needed to collect money from the Pagans to support the Christians -- known as "the Poor" -- still worshiping in the Jerusalem Temple. Paul, in a sense, bought his commission. It was, as some 20th century Pauline scholarship has come to term the moment, a Polite Bribe.

This moment stands as an entre to the sub-plot for much of the New Testament. That is the conflict between Paul, who viewed Jesus' message as a law-ending, ethnicity breaking, license to missionize the Gentiles, and the Judean Church who very much viewed the Jesus movement as part-and-parcel with the Jewish faith, Temple life and their ethnicity. For the apocalyptic Paul, all was passing away and there was no need for man-made laws or temples, only a spiritual relationship with soon returning Christ.

The collection conflict narrative is one that Christians, shortly after Paul, attempted to paint-over. This was not a challenging task as after the sacking of Jerusalem, in 70 A.D., the Pauline congregations are effectively all that was left of Christianity, because the Romans eliminated the Judean Church. Following later writers, such as the author of Luke-Acts (written around 90 A.D.), would present something of a rosey picture of unity in the early Church. Acts, in particular, conflicts with a number of Paul's own statements in his epistles as to his relationship with the Judean Church.

We learn that Paul's visionary mission and message was not only a spiritual battle, but also a socio-political and even ethnic struggle that involved more than questions of the Torah and circumcision. It involved money, power, questions of who spoke for Jesus, and what were the correct barriers of Jewish ethnicity. Agreeing to return a collection to Jerusalem gave Paul the chance to find the support that would allow the fulfillment of his missionary journey.

And yet, it is not until he decides to turn back from that journey, reluctantly early in 58 A.D., that we witness the full consequence of the collection. In the years he was on the mission field Roman oppression had surged in Jerusalem and the Jews responded by increasingly asserting their chosen identity. Soon, the Temple banned gifts from Pagans. According to Princeton's Early Church Historian Elaine Pagels there was, understandably, "a lot of anxiety about how he is going to be received."

So when Paul, with his collection and Gentile believers from each of the churches in tow, returned to Jerusalem, he was in for a rude welcome. Jesus' brother James a Nazarite and daily visitor of the Temple, suggested he go there to offer the gift and complete his ritualistic duties as proof of being a faithful Hebrew. It's possible that James wanted, dreadfully, not be associated with Paul. According to Dominic Crossan, there was an opinion about that "this is a renegade. Don't have anything to do with him. Don't take a gift from him." Predictably, according to Acts, Paul's presence at the Temple sparked a riot.

He was beaten to within inches of his life. And, in a moment of terrifying irony, he was rescued from the stones of his own people by pagan Roman guards. Acts says he claimed he was a Roman Citizen and was rescued. This collection, this pay-off, which was to allow his mission to continue, would ultimately lead to the end of Paul. "Paul final days end up being just deeply pathetic, filled with pathos," says to Duke University's Douglas Campbell. Years later tradition has it that he died a prisoner of Rome.

The story of Paul's collection exposes a character who could hardly have imagined that the men he worked so hard to impress, an ultimately appease with money, would be little more than footnotes in the story of his founding of the Christian religion.

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