What is it with film-makers? There is so much wonderful biblical content to work with, yet to jazz it all up we end up with Noah, Mary Magdalene, and Paul, Apostle of Christ.
Biblical quotes, such as Paul expanding on love from the Corinthians letter to Luke are evident in the film. But the general feel of the film is dark and hopeless. The Christian community has none of the joy the epistles encourage them to, nor does Paul (as portrayed) found a peace that is beyond all understanding. In fact, even though the character Paul says repeatedly “My grace is sufficient,” he remains haunted by his sins of old. In scripture Paul says he did all in good faith, yet here he clings to his transgression as a reminder of his “failing.” Is this the film-maker giving an educated wink to Paul’s writings where he moves from “an apostle,” to an “apostle untimely born,” to later in life calling himself, “chief of all sinners?”
The depiction of Saul’s conversion is handled well, though with slight embellishment in his meeting with Ananias. The idea of conversion, is clear. However, as noted above the long lasting nature of being “born again,” is not as pronounced in the film as one might expect it to be.
The film also not only fails to show the Christian community, and Paul, as joyful in persecution (Matthew 5:12), but they are fear ridden and wanting to strike out violently (which incidentally would prove Nero’s charges against them). So much for “Turn the other cheek.”
The persecution shown, while in line with Tacitus’ account following the Roman fire, makes a poor job of showing Christians as street-lamps. The oil dousing as shown in the film would not burn long, so this is just a point for historians. Tarred and covered in straw is how one historian suggested it would be done, but the film goes with the suggestion, not the practicality of it.
What bothers me most about this movie is that the Christian community, and Priscilla especially, are depicted more as a philanthropic organisation, more than a religious community. Yes, the early church was noted for their acts of charity and equality, but where in this film is this linked to “loving your neighbour” much less loving God? When one character calls for an uprising against Nero, he is reprimanded with the words, “Christ called us to care for the world, not rule it.” Is caring for the world in material ways truly all the gospel calls us to? Where is the “Go and make disciples?”
There was also no point where communal worship of the community shown. The closest is Luke addressing a group of Christians about to be killed in the games. Luke leads them in the Lord’s prayer after telling them death will only hurt for a moment, then they will be with Christ.
Luke’s role is also troublesome in this film. He has gone to Rome to get Paul’s testimony so that he can write the Book of Acts. This is not divine revelation, but studious note taking. His purpose in writing it is not to elevate Christ, but rather to make an example of how to live as a Christian based on Paul (not Christ). I find this a problem. In the film’s side story (the illness of the daughter of a Roman official), Paul’s spiritual gifts are not exercised, but only Luke’s Greek medical skills. Again, a charitable, social conscious secularism is an underlying element of this film, despite all of its Christian potential.
This film is not terrible (like Noah) but it really fell down from what it could have achieved.