By Matthew Robert Anderson
The poster for Paul, Apostle of Christ shows a steely-eyed Paul (James Faulkner) gazing straight at the viewer. Luke, played by Jim Caviezel, (Jesus in The Passion of the Christ), stands resolutely beside him. Two handsome, sun-beaten white actors with strong noses and strong chins play heroes of the Christian faith. What could possibly be wrong?
In terms of historical accuracy, there’s much wrong. And much at stake. Paul, Apostle of Christ is one of an upsurge in Bible-themed movies that romanticize and distort the past and risk present-day harm. Such films are like soda pop: Sweet, easy to swallow, but harmful as a steady diet.
I enjoyed watching Paul, Apostle of Christ; the fictional subplot of Paul haunted by a young girl’s murder is quite touching. Despite that, I believe the movie owes more to Coca-Cola than to the Bible. Here are five ways:
1. If your origins seem embarrassing, make up a new story
Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 by American Civil War veteran John Pemberton. Its earliest formulations contained alcohol and kola nut (caffeine) and coca leaf extracts (cocaine).
After businessman Asa Griggs Candler won the patent, Coca-Cola evolved into a “lifestyle beverage.” Coke doesn’t exactly hide its past but its advertising highlights sentimentalized images of the 1950s and 1960s like 10-cent dispensing machines and vintage soda fountains.
Paul, Apostle of Christ claims to be about the origins of the Christian church. But its portrayal of the past is as romanticized as Coke’s. It ignores the Jewish, fervently apocalyptic origins of the movement and instead presents an idealized story of a group’s heroism under suffering that retrojects much-later Christianity onto the first century.
Historians and biblical scholars will find errors throughout the movie. One only has to be a careful reader of the New Testament to know something is wrong with the depiction of Paul virtually dictating the book of Acts to Luke.
Anyone who has read Acts will know that both its tone and content differ from Paul’s; it cannot have come from the same source. In fact, Paul was not alive when Acts was written decades later. The story of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus is retold three times in Acts, each with slightly different details — unlikely if Paul was checking Luke’s copy, as in the movie.
2. Sell a lifestyle: Perception is more important than fact
From 1971’s I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing to 2018’s Because I Can, Coca-Cola’s aim has always been not so much to sell a product as to make consumers believe they are the type of people who would naturally buy that product. In other words, Coke is an expert at selling ideas of self-image.
In ancient rhetoric, this was called an argument from “ethos.” Paul, Apostle of Christ uses the same effective techniques. It retrojects Christians into a time before there were Christians, and makes them wise, heroic and unique before they were even a separate religion.
Despite scholarly debate about the treatment of Christians in Roman times, the movie depicts a fully formed “Christian” community experiencing full-on persecution from the beginning.
Roman historian Tacitus mentions Nero murdering Christians in his Annals XV:44, but does his text accurately depict the situation in Rome in the 60s of the Common Era? There was certainly occasional, sometimes savage, persecution of Jesus-followers; but historians are less certain than the movie of the details.
No matter: An audience raised on Jedi Knights fighting the Evil Empire automatically fills in the blanks as Luke heroically enters Mamertine prison to, as he puts it, “capture the last of Paul’s wisdom.” The touching scene of Paul’s beheading — an ancient church tradition not in the New Testament — is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s final passing.
Which brings us to the next way Paul, Apostle of Christ is similar to Coca-Cola.
3. Appropriate other peoples’ symbols
Coca-Cola famously transformed the Dutch Sinterklaas. Under the company, the gift-giving bishop grew to become the corpulent, red-cheeked, symbol of excess and secularism that Santa Claus is today.
In Paul, Apostle of Christ, filmmakers plug first-century “Christians” into symbols familiar from the 20th-century Holocaust. The believers, reminiscent of the Warsaw Jews, hide in a complex barred from the outside world. Gladiators check papers on every corner. Spies root out “the Christians,” who call the others “the Romans” even though they themselves are citizens.
Yet a true police state requires modern methods of surveillance. Ancient Rome under Nero was as dangerous a place for Jesus-followers as for many groups that drew unwanted attention. But it was an ancient city, sprawling and disorganized. One’s neighbours were likely the greatest threat.
The movie opens with the horrific burning of Jesus-followers as human torches, reported by Tacitus. Implicitly equating this terrible, but short-lived, persecution with the systematic 20th-century genocide of six million Jews is ethically questionable.
4. Reinforce gender stereotypes
Coca-Cola has received complaints about sexist advertising. Worst were the Irish ads for Sprite, featuring “She’s seen more ceilings than Michaelangelo.”
However, a more insidious sexism is the reinforcement of prevalent gender stereotypes implying women are weak and men heroic and decisive.
Two of the only obviously Jewish characters in the film are Prisca and Aquila. In Romans 16.3-4, Paul mentions Prisca first, a sign of her greater status. He notes that Priscilla (the longer form of her name) “risked her neck” for him.
There is much evidence that women were leaders both in Jesus’s own entourage and in the first assemblies. The movie, to its credit, presents Prisca this way. However, the filmmakers then immediately weaken her with stereotypical “female faults” in the story.
Gender stereotyping is equally clear in the movie’s main character. One can hardly imagine a calmer, more authoritative, more “masculine” — and less historically likely — Paul.
We don’t know exactly what Paul looked or spoke like. He himself repeated criticisms in 2 Corinthians 10.10 that “his letters are weighty, but his physical presence is weak.” The apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes Paul as a “man of small stature, with meeting eyebrows, bald head, bow-legged, strongly built, hollow-eyed, with a large, crooked nose.”
James Faulkner’s better-looking apostle is calm, measured in speech and recognized as a leader, even by Nero. In other words, apart from his bravery, he’s almost nothing like the excitable, irritable, boastful, socially isolated, sometimes petty and even occasionally vicious Paul we meet in his letters. Faulkner’s Paul is, rather, the ideal stoic man.
In his own rhetoric (advertising is not new!), Paul worked hard to cultivate a specific image of himself. Faulkner plays to this version. I believe this is one part of the film Paul would be delighted with. Perhaps stoic ideals of masculinity are now considered more “Christian” than the charismatic, often women-led gatherings of Paul’s own day.
5. Sell a mythical golden age
The problem with Paul, Apostle of Christ is that, like sentimentalized images of five-cent Cokes in the hands of stereotypical figures, the movie’s “Christian community in Rome” is a mish-mash of retrojections. With Coke’s vintage ads, we’re not sold accuracy, but comfort and constructed tradition. This movie is just as idealized.
In the real Jesus gatherings of the mid-60s, signs of Judaism would have been everywhere. Their scriptures were Jewish; much of their prayer and worship as well. The Jesus movement was still many decades from distinguishing itself as anything other than another sect of Judaism. Christianity did not yet exist.
In the movie, there is almost no mention of Judaism as a living religion. This is a subtle, but dangerous, form of anti-Semitism pointed out in other contemporary Bible films such as Mary Magdalene.
Paul, Apostle of Christ ignores the fact that the real Paul continued to be a Jew, even after his vision of Christ. He called himself a servant of Israel’s god, and considered his message to non-Jews to be part of Israel’s apocalyptic timeline.
Like Coca-Cola downplaying its origins, Paul, Apostle of Christ overlooks the apocalyptic fervour that gave birth to Christianity, and is apparent in every one of Paul’s letters. Paul awaited Jesus’ triumphant return if not before his death, then shortly after. The earliest Jesus communities trembled with this expectation. Amazingly, the movie barely mentions it.
How we describe our past says much about our present
Paul, Apostle of Christ will likely not appeal to those not already Christian. This is perhaps why Paul speaks with the fictional Roman guard-keeper Mauritius about “salvation” and “grace” as if speaking to contemporary believers.
I left the theatre wishing we could all be more like the director’s Paul: More measured in word and deed, more reflective, gentle, graceful, reconciled to ourselves and forgiving of others.
Paul, Apostle of Christ is dedicated to “all those persecuted for their faith.” One can only endorse this. Which is why, despite Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner’s fine performances, it is odd that the filmmakers did not make their characters more like those actually being persecuted today. Paul and Luke should look less like white actors from an old-school Hollywood western, and more like Syrian Christians, Egyptian Copts or Rohingya refugees.
Matthew Robert Anderson, Affiliate Professor, Theological Studies, Loyola College for Diversity & Sustainability, Concordia University.