Review: In the Footsteps of St. Paul with David Suchet

Sandra Glahn's picture
David Suchet, a British TV actor best known for his role as Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot, received a 1991 British Academy Television Award (BAFTA) nomination.
 
As an actor he travels a lot, and one day he picked up a Bible in a hotel-room drawer. He read the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, and in the interview below he talks about that experience, which led to a life-long interest in and respect for the apostle:
 

One result of his reading the Book of Romans is that Suchet set out on a personal journey around the Mediterranean to uncover the story of the man he has longed to play since that experience. David Suchet: In the Footsteps of St. Paul  is the documentary he created in association with the BBC. The two-part series ran last Christmas and may run again at Easter. But it's also now available on video. Suchet and the BBC are in production for a similar journey with St. Peter.
 
In this 90-minute work, Suchet takes viewers along as he visits ancient and modern locations; interviews Jewish, Roman Catholic, Islamic, and Orthodox experts; and deciphers evidence from the latest archaeological research. The film contains beautiful scenery on the way to and in places relevant to Paul such as Tarsus, Antioch, Jerusalem, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Thessaloniki, Caesarea, and Philippi.  
 
Mostly I loved this film. Really loved it. Suchet's enthusiasm for his subject made the content come alive. And his use of Paul's own words at appropriate times in the contexts of where they would have been heard added clarity to their meanings. Additionally, the scenery in the places where Paul walked, sailed, and lived is beautiful throughout, making this a visual feast. That feast can help readers of the New Testament easily envision the world Paul inhabited. 
 
But while I heartily recommend this work, I must give some qualifications. Being an actor, Suchet at times imagines what drove Paul's actions. His conversion, for example, is treated as a result of inner turmoil and an identity crisis rather than the biblical text's depiction of it as a supernatural encounter with the living God.
 
Sometimes Suchet refers to finding out what really happened, leaving the viewer wondering if the text's explanation is untrue. And the result is that, according to this portrayal, in his passion to reach the Gentiles Paul comes off as a bit of a maverick driven by a newfangled religious idea rather than being motivated by the love of Christ. I understand that sometimes we have to fill in the blanks when we have incomplete information about people we're profiling, but Paul gave us insight into his own motivations when he wrote "the love of Christ constrains me" (2 Cor. 5:14).
 
In one scene, Suchet stands on the steps of the Ephesus library, which was completed in AD 135. The expert with him says they know a synagogue existed in Ephesus in Paul's day because a menorah appears on the stone steps to this library. But Paul was in Ephesus long before the middle of the second century, when those steps were hewn. Perhaps a synagogue did exist there in Paul's day, but those steps aren't the evidence. Suchet also refers to the Ephesian Artemis as a fertility goddess, and anyone familiar with my dissertation knows that a conflation of Artemis with the local Ephesians' goddess might have meant she was associated with fertility in earlier centuries, but not by the time Paul was there.
 
Suchet concludes that Paul saw life in black and white. Yet Paul became "all things to all people" rather than being rigid. John the apostle saw things more in black and white/light and dark. But Paul ate meat sacrificed to idols, insisting that in the gray areas believers should "let each person be convinced in his own mind."
 
Those studying the role of women in NT times will be interested in knowing that the experts Suchet asks about Paul's "take" on the subject see the apostle as pro-women and somewhat of a radical in his times. Suchet himself says this is a real shift in perspective for him. 
 
The film ends with a look at how tradition says Paul died (beheading, the merciful option, because he was a Roman citizen) and where he is believed to have been buried. Following an intriguing look at the evidence about Paul's last days, Suchet shifts from guide to actor. He closes with a dramatic reading of some of Paul's words about the resurrection. In the context of viewers having just walked with Paul for some of the ten thousand miles he traversed in the ancient world, the words of Scripture in closing come off as quite moving.
 
I recommend viewing/purchasing this video and reading scripture as well as Walter Wangerin's novel, Paul, as a companion guide. The DVD comes with a small booklet (which calls into question the Pauline authorship of the Book of Ephesians). A bio of the actor is included as an "extra" in the video. 
 

Comments

Thank you for this thoughtful and balanced review. You may be interested to know that there is a newly released companion program to Footstep's of Paul. Suchet and the same team have produced, In the Footsteps of St. Peter. I would love to hear your take on this new program.
https://www.visionvideo.com/detail.taf?_function=detail&a_product_id=37367

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