As someone who studies and teaches the Bible for a living, I have never quite figured out what to expect from biblical movies. Some are faithful but abysmally made. Others are less faithful but artistically effective.
Filmmakers who adapt biblical material must be clear on what their purpose is and how to get their point across. They can’t cover it all, nor can they just fling scriptural words on screen and hope they stick. They must cut, rearrange, adapt for effect. It’s a risky endeavor, to be sure, but one that can reap rewards if it moves audiences to discover or rediscover the Bible.
Ultimately we should hold the makers of biblical movies to the same standards we do of other movies. We should ask, Did the filmmakers create an effective movie for their specific purpose, or not?
Movie on Paul the Sufferer
This is the question we should ask of Affirm Films (the studio behind Fireproof and Facing the Giants) and their new movie, Paul, Apostle of Christ, directed by Andrew Hyatt.
Surprisingly few movies have been made about the man who carried Christianity to the known world. Besides Jesus, the apostle Paul is the most famous person in both the New Testament and the subsequent history of Christianity.
There are many ways a film could tell Paul’s story, which pulses with drama. In Scripture we have narratives of his conversion, his missionary journeys, and how he dealt with issues in different churches. He traveled thousands of miles to plant churches, and experienced violence, imprisonment, and other hardships along the way. Though strong and resilient, in his letters he frequently highlights his weaknesses and suffering.
Paul, Apostle of Christ focuses on the end of Paul’s life, showcasing his limitations. We see this in the film’s opening images, which don’t illustrate Paul’s vigor but rather his feebleness and pain. He stands in a dark prison with a back bloodied from whippings. A light shines in on his face, showing a full beard and a bald head. He is an old man who can barely stand up straight.
Though the film is set in Paul’s final days, periodic flashbacks illustrate episodes from the apostle’s earlier life—including his persecution of other Christians, which causes him deep regret. He knows he is the worst of sinners and doesn’t deserve the mercy of the Savior.
The movie interweaves three storylines. First, Paul (James Faulkner) is imprisoned in Rome in AD 67 as Nero accuses him and other Christians of burning Rome. Luke (Jim Caviezel) comes to visit the imprisoned apostle, and later recounts Paul’s life in the writing of Acts. The second storyline concerns Luke and Paul’s relationship with Mauritius (Olivier Martinez), the Roman guard over the prison. Finally, the movie pairs Paul’s suffering with the Christian community in Rome (led by Priscilla and Aquila), who are in hiding under threat of persecution.
Unlike other Christian films that tell redemption stories through retribution (God’s Not Dead, for example), this one shows Paul and the Christians refusing to retaliate in the face of persecution.
Paul, Apostle of Christ centers on the hope-filled suffering of early Christians. Unlike other Christian films that tell redemption stories through retribution (God’s Not Dead, for example), this one shows Paul and other Christians refusing to retaliate in the face of persecution. They choose to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors (Matt. 5:44). In many ways, this is the movie’s most powerful message. Christianity (or The Way) is rightly presented as a minority movement under duress. They are burned, beaten, and killed—yet they refuse to take up the sword, opting instead for the way of death and love.
Is Paul, Apostle of Christ historically accurate? Though this is not the only question we should ask of the film, it’s an important one.
We should note that any translation to a different medium must take editorial license. Even the Gospel writers don’t use the exact words of Jesus (he spoke in Aramaic), but they capture the heart of his words in Greek.
We should also note that the film focuses on a stage of Paul’s life about which we have little information. Second Timothy is our only source for Paul’s life at this stage, and Paul makes only a few veiled comments about himself.
We do know that Paul was imprisoned in Rome twice: once on house arrest (AD 62) and then likely martyred in his second imprisonment (AD 64–67) under Nero (see Eusebius Church History 2.25; 3:1). We also know that Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome. And Luke was indeed a travel companion of Paul (Col. 4:14; Philem. 24); Paul explicitly says Luke is with him in 2 Timothy 4:11.
It’s likely Luke wrote Acts earlier (AD 62–64), however, since he doesn’t mention Paul’s second Roman imprisonment, nor the Neronian persecution. It’s possible Acts was written later (AD 70), which would line up with the film, but there’s no evidence Luke traveled to Rome to get the story chronicled in Acts. It’s also unlikely Priscilla and Aquila would have been in Rome at the time. They are from Italy (Acts 18:1–2), Paul meets them in Corinth, and he brings them with him to Syria (Acts 18:18). When he writes to Rome he says to greet them (Rom 16:3), but he also says the same in 2 Timothy 4:19. Timothy is in Ephesus; therefore Priscilla and Aquila must be in Ephesus, too.
Is Paul, Apostle of Christ effective for its purpose? Yes and no.
The film successfully shows the suffering, non-retaliating community of Christians in Rome, including a few powerful scenes that reached heights I did not expect. Artistically the film does not feel like a low-budget Christian film, and the photographic use of light and dark is particularly effective.
But the film struggles at times from a tendency to “overspeak,” a common fault of Christian movies. What should be said subtly or in a whisper is shouted from a rooftop. What should be measured in ounces is weighed by metric tons. What could be cut is added for audience satisfaction.
The film struggles at times from a tendency to ‘overspeak,’ a common fault of Christian movies. What should be said subtly or in a whisper is shouted from a rooftop.
The film contains some cringeworthy moments that detract from its powerful themes. For example, consider this dialogue between Paul and Luke as they’re walking in a Roman garden:
Paul: To live is Christ, to die is gain.
Luke: I like that one.
Paul: Write it down.
Paul: If we live, we live for the Lord. If we live or die, we die for the Lord. Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
Luke: That’s brilliant. I now have an ending. “For two whole years . . .”
This highlights the weakest part of the movie: its lack of subtlety.
Films about Paul shouldn’t need to have Paul quoting Scripture and Luke saying he will write it down. They don’t need to highlight the same point again and again. They need to develop their characters and not force them to over-act.
Films like Paul, the Apostle could scale things way back and still manage to communicate the beauty of faith (more powerfully, I think) through silence, facial expressions, even just eyes.
Finishing the Race
One scene where the Scripture-as-dialogue motif actually works is at the end. We hear Paul’s words to Timothy (Faulkner’s voice does work great as a Paul figure) in voiceover as he limps to his place of execution: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. The Lord be with your Spirit.” He serenely places his head down and, before the sword comes crashing down, the camera pans up to the sky. “Grace be with you all.”
In a flawed film, this high moment captures its strengths around the themes of suffering and hope. Paul’s departure is an imitation of the sacrifice of Christ, whose glory comes not by bypassing suffering and death, but by bearing it.