Yesterday I finally got to see the new movie about the apostle Paul, entitled “Paul, Apostle of Christ.” My response to it is a mixed bag.
SPOILER ALERT: This review includes some spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
From a cinematic standpoint it was pretty well done. Jim Caviezel puts in a good performance as Luke the physician, Paul’s traveling companion and author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible. The storyline is compelling, and the production is good. Visually the scenery is interesting and true to the historical background. In all these ways it’s better than your typical Christian film.
I didn’t know much about the movie going in. I had only scanned a single review of it, so I didn’t really know what to expect. What I did expect to see was a movie about the life of Paul based on the biblical book of Acts and Paul’s writings. I assumed it would tell the broad outlines of Paul’s story from his conversion to his death, hitting some major events along the way.
Instead, the movie focuses on the last few days or weeks of Paul’s life. The Bible doesn’t tell us exactly when Paul died, nor does it tell us how he died. Based on the little bit of evidence we do have from Scripture, found in Paul’s 2nd letter to his protege Timothy, it’s believed Paul was executed in Rome in the late 60s AD. Because Paul was a Roman citizen he most likely would have been spared a more grizzly death like crucifixion, as Roman citizens were not allowed to be crucified. For this reason it’s believed Paul was beheaded.
Many scholars believe 2 Timothy was written while Paul was awaiting execution in Rome, and this background provides the setting for the movie. The time is during emperor Nero’s reign of terror. Nero had burned the city and then blamed it on Christians. In supposed retribution Nero begins burning Christians alive at night to give light to the city. The movie portrays this and in doing so gives a realistic and chilling depiction of what the persecution of Christians was like under Nero.
In 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul says that Luke is with him, meaning most likely that Luke had come to visit him in prison. The story for the movie is built around this brief mention of Luke’s visit to Paul at Rome. Beyond that the story is more of a historical re-creation than actual history.
In the film Luke comes to visit Paul in prison. It appears Paul may soon be executed so Luke realizes he doesn’t have much time left. In addition to wanting to encourage Paul, his main reason for coming is to interview Paul about his life in order to put his story down in writing. Of course, the document Luke creates by the end of the movie is supposed to be what we now know as the book of Acts.
One would expect that the stories Paul tells about his life would be the focus of the movie, but actually that’s not the case. Jim Caviezel as Luke is really the movie’s star, and as such he gets a bit more screen time than Paul. Also, one of the movie’s subplots examines the Christian community in Rome headed by Aquila and Priscilla, a couple whose names appear six times in the New Testament. Luke stays with this community when he’s not with Paul and tries to help them decide how to respond to the persecution by the empire.
The movie takes some liberties there historically. While we do know from Acts 18:2 that Priscilla and Aquila were originally from Rome, they were forced to flea when emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, and we don’t know whether they ever returned there. In 2 Timothy 4:19, Paul asks Timothy to greet Priscilla and Aquila, implying they were with Timothy in another location (Ephesus?), rather than in Rome near Paul. Nevertheless, the depiction of the early Christian community in Rome at the time of Paul is both interesting and appealing, and probably pretty accurate historically overall.
Yet despite these side stories the filmmakers do use Luke’s interviews of Paul as a way of telling a couple key stories from Paul’s life through flashbacks, the most central being the story of his conversion. The film’s creators also choose a few key passages from Paul’s letters to put in his mouth as part of the dialogue. I was disappointed, though, that there wasn’t more emphasis on Paul’s life, ministry, and teaching.
Entirely absent, in fact, is any mention of Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith, which is all the more surprising since it was to the church at Rome that Paul addressed his most thorough explication of that topic. The producer, director, and primary screenwriter for the movie is a Catholic, though, which may help explain this rather glaring omission.
In a video interview I found on youtube, the producers state that their intended audience is Catholics. They said Paul’s letters are read in the Catholic church most Sundays, but not read or studied much by individual Catholics, and so the filmmakers wanted to create a movie that would help Catholics learn more about Paul. They also said they wanted to create a movie that was less “vanilla” than most other Christian films they had seen, and more cinematically interesting to a younger audience. Overall I think they did achieve this goal.
The filmmakers referenced Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” as a Christian-themed movie they liked (note that Gibson is also a Catholic). “Paul, Apostle of Christ” focuses on Paul’s last days just as “The Passion” focuses on Jesus’ final days. Perhaps the makers of the movie wanted this film to be for Paul what “The Passion of the Christ” was for Jesus.
The film’s portrayal of Paul misses the mark in some other ways, too. One small way is in the language Paul uses to talk about Jesus. In the film Paul always and only refers to him as “Christ.” Yet in Paul’s letters he almost always calls the Son of God “Christ Jesus,” “Jesus Christ,” or simply “the Lord.” Rarely does Paul call Jesus merely “Christ” in his letters. This is a small detail that could’ve added more authenticity to the movie.
Another instance in which the movie misses the mark in its portrayal of Paul comes in a scene toward the end. After the prison warden’s daughter is healed by Luke (see below), the warden is softened toward Paul and his message. As he and Paul are talking, he asks Paul “What if I still choose not to accept your Christ?” To this Paul replies “I’m not trying to persuade you to become a Christian” or words to that effect; I can’t remember the exact phrasing at this moment.
I felt this response was totally out of character for Paul. Paul’s entire life was devoted to persuading people of the truth of the gospel and actively trying to convince people to accept Christ as God’s messiah. In this pursuit he was a bulldog. He shared the gospel with everyone and he didn’t care who he offended, so important to him was this message and his belief that faith in Christ was the only way to escape the wrath of God. Moreover, in the book of Acts every time Paul has the opportunity to speak with a secular official he takes the opportunity to share the gospel with them (for instance see Acts 24 and also Acts 25:13 – 26:32). In 2 Corinthians 5:10-11 Paul writes these words: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” Paul was all about persuading people to accept Christ, so for him to say in the movie that he wasn’t trying to persuade the warden to become a Christian just didn’t ring true.
I felt the movie was lacking from a spiritual standpoint in a couple other ways, too. Just about the only time the characters are shown praying they all recite the Lord’s Prayer together. No prayers of a more extemporaneous or personal kind are expressed, except by Paul in some of his more desperate moments in his prison cell.
Likewise, one of the prominent story lines in the movie is about a daughter of the prison warden who is dying, and the best remedy Paul has to offer the warden is not prayers or gifts of healing, but merely to have Luke the physician come pay a house-call to the daughter. When Luke is finally able to visit her, no prayers are said. Instead the girl’s recovery is credited to Luke’s ingenuity as a doctor rather than to the power of God. In fact, the entire supernatural element in Paul’s ministry and early Christianity is very much downplayed, and the few times it is mentioned, it’s treated more like legend than reality. I felt this was a definite weakness of the film.
Despite the filmmakers’ expressed desire to appeal to a younger audience, the movie relies more on dialogue than action to tell its story. The flashback sequences are more artistic than action-oriented. For this reason, some viewers may find the movie to be a slow starter. But once the overall plot kicks in it becomes a pretty gripping tale.
To conclude, I thought “Paul, Apostle of Christ” was a good movie cinematically and artistically. Because the film is not heavy-handed spiritually and because it doesn’t offer platitudes or sentimentality I think it could offer a winsome portrayal of Christianity for non-believers. The film’s portrayal of the persecution experienced by the early church provides an important teaching moment for those who may not be aware of this aspect of Christian history. Yet I think the movie would’ve been better and more powerful if it had included more of the most interesting stories from Paul’s life and ministry; likewise I think it would’ve been more accurate if it had shared Paul’s central message about salvation by grace through faith in Christ. The movie would’ve been more compelling if it had shown us more of the supernatural power of Christ and the Holy Spirit which was expressed throughout the life and ministry of Paul, Luke, and others in the early church. Lastly, I think the movie would’ve been more meaningful if it had included heartfelt prayer as an integral part of the story.
What did you think of the movie?