Here are my first impressions of Paul: Apostle of Christ, which came to our area today. First of all, I am very grateful that such films are being made. That gratitude overwhelms reservations on any other points. As you might guess (because I am a biblical scholar), movies about biblical themes are my favorite, and among the few kinds of movies I must see.
The various scenes of Rome are splendidly done; they make ancient Rome look like ancient Rome. For modern viewers far removed from the world of the New Testament, this provides an invaluable benefit. The film also dramatically captures the horror of people being murdered for their faith (or because the powerful in society deem them expendable). I appreciated the numerous echoes of Paul’s letters (and a crack about the Corinthians), although sometimes when Paul tells Luke to write something down it comes from Paul’s earlier letters, not from Acts.
Among major roles, Aquila and Priscilla are depicted particularly movingly. (I doubt that their domicile was as large as in the movie, unless they were fairly rich, but that they would have taken people in is quite plausible.) Paul’s discouragement and determination are depicted clearly, but given the Paul of the letters I would have also expected a greater display of broken-heartedness over the suffering of the believers (cf. e.g., Phil 2:27; 1 Thess 2:8; 3:1-5, 8) and greater expressions of joy when he contemplated his future with Christ.
I felt that many scenes of Paul and Luke could have moved faster with more concise dialogue rather than lingering so often for dramatic effect; in turn, I would also have preferred to see more of Paul’s past in flashbacks. But admittedly, I am an Acts and New Testament backgrounds scholar, not a film critic. (I am also ADHD and need to catch up on sleep, which may explain my current preference for faster scenes.)
Much of the background is very helpful, though obviously the producers had to make choices. I agree with their choice about why Luke ends Acts where he does, and I personally appreciate their drawing on the full range of Pauline material in the New Testament (as well as some subsequent tradition, as with the Mamertine prison) to flesh out their picture of Paul’s final custody. They correctly recognize Nero’s persecution to be local.
Some background could be argued differently: they date the persecution to A.D. 67, and I date it to much closer to the fire in 64 (although they may envision the persecution continuing since 64). They depict Christians burned to light Rome’s (surviving) narrow streets at night, but the source, Tacitus, is clear only about the burning in Nero’s gardens. (Admittedly, Luke wouldn’t be walking around in Nero’s gardens, so their choice makes cinematic sense.) In the movie Paul claims that he spent three years in Arabia to get to know Christ, as Peter got to know Christ for three years. On the former point, some of us think that Paul evangelized among Nabateans; and on the latter, the three-year-period (based on inferences from the Gospel of John) is possible but disputed. Prostitutes in temples are also a matter of dispute, though this appears only as a passing mention (like the Prince of Egypt’s “There go the pyramids,” although Goshen was in northern Egypt, far from the pyramids). In one scene the officer apparently pours sacrificial blood over his head; this may evoke the taurobolium and Mithraism, but Mithraism began sweeping the Roman army especially in the second and third century, not the first.
These are each extremely minor questions; of greater concern to me was the downplaying of healings associated with Paul, although signs and healings constitute roughly 20 percent of Acts. The healings are acknowledged as real, but almost so backhandedly that only one familiar with Acts will realize it. Film is a perfect medium for the dramatic, and even Paul receiving his sight could have been made more dramatic by showing scales falling from his eyes when he was healed as in Acts 9:18. (I suppose, returning to my previous allusion, that Prince of Egypt spoiled me.) Most of the movie’s viewers probably have no problem with miracles. Moreover, historically, ancient medicine was not generally very reliable; why does Paul then express greater confidence in Luke’s success, which appears almost miraculous, than in God performing a more direct healing? Nevertheless, Paul in the movie directs both the Roman officer and the modern viewer to the right place: God, not Paul, does the miracles, and the gospel is about a salvation that goes deeper than miracles.
From my vantage point as a New Testament scholar, however, what is most profound about the movie is its emphasis on the way of love and disavowing revenge. The viewer understands why some in the movie want to strike back; it is precisely what many of us might want to do. That passion runs deep in our culture (like many others). Paul’s insistent refusal to support such violence therefore poses a challenge to widely held personal values today and also to the stereotype the wider North American society often holds of Christians. The value of these scenes for the present cultural moment outweighs any possible weaknesses elsewhere in the movie, as a reminder both to Christians and to the wider culture of what Christ stands for.
In the same way, the film brings home the reality and grotesqueness of suffering in a way that invites us to consider how we would respond. Paul’s (and Jesus’s) message about eternal life outweighing the cost of martyrdom is a needed reminder for a generation of Western Christians that has not experienced death on the scale of a massive invasion and has certainly not experienced lethal persecution. If we someday face such challenges, that message will be essential for us to remember. Nor is that message a reminder only for the future; if we are able to die for Christ, we are also to live for him, devoting our time and resources to him while we live. May God burn this reminder deeply in our hearts.