The Bible Reviewed (Part II)—“A Gripping Film, but I Still Like the Book…”

On Easter Sunday I watched the last episode of the History Channel’s The Bible, which over its five weeks had an estimated 68 million viewers—an impressive feat by any measure! In my first review I asked how the film stacked up to the Bible itself and how it might be received by viewers. In this second installment, I’ll reflect on feedback from my students and will raise a few other questions regarding what worked with the film and what didn’t.

 So, how might the miniseries on the Bible have been experienced by young adults?

Reflecting on Dave Kinnaman’s book, You Lost Me (Baker 2011), which analyzes why 18-29 year olds in America have become largely disaffected with the church, I wondered how young adults might have responded to a media-enhanced presentation of the Bible. So, I invited my college students at George Fox University to weigh in on the series, inviting their reflections. I received over a dozen reviews, and student responses were quite positive overall. While most of them still “prefer the book” over the movie, it was intriguing to get their impressions.

Things students liked included:

  • The humanizing of narratives, including the showing of emotion behind various actions (the feelings of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham; of Mary and Joseph; of Daniel; of disciples—although John is presented as crying too much)
  • The realism of the presentations, including grit and dirt and rough terrain
  • The ways the oppression of Israel by other groups and dominating forces showed the difficulty of their plight—and also the significance of God’s deliverance
  • The miracle-friendly approach to the wonders of God.

Things students questioned included:

  • The large gaps in time left by the selection of some scenarios in Hebrew Scripture to the exclusion of others
  • The violence involved in many of the presentations—including presenting angels at times resembling ninja warriors or armed soldiers
  • The ordering of the events and teachings in Jesus’ ministry seemed confusing to some
  • Some presentations of the wondrous seemed at odds with realism.

Overall, my 18-22 year old students liked the episodes they watched, and most of them feel good about recommending it to others. The graphic and compelling presentations make biblical narratives come alive, and most of them found new insights regarding even stories with which they were familiar. Still, most of them still prefer the book over the film, but they felt the two media—text and film—reinforce each other in powerful ways.

Are there other issues or reflections to be considered, including strengths and weaknesses?

Among other issues raised by the series, several positive impressions are followed by several questions. First, I was impressed by the interracial presentation of characters within the narrative. Indeed, many of the main characters were British actors, largely because they were recruited among London’s theater district, and were thus Caucasian; yet other races were also represented. The two angels that visited Abraham and Lot are presented as Asia and African; Samson is presented as an African, as is Balthazar—one of the wise men; Joseph of Arimathea is black; at Pentecost people came from many different countries and spoke in diverse languages. The speaking in other tongues with words dubbed in English may have worked multiculturally, although the gift of tongues-discernment seems the main point of the text.

Second, women were presented sympathetically. Rahab is presented not simply as a harlot who gave shelter to the Israelite spies in Jericho, but she is a member of a family—with children and parents—embraced by the Israelites (cf. Joshua 6:25). The mother of Samson is featured at the beginning of his story, although Samson’s wife is later killed (as in the text). A female follower of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, accompanies him and his disciples in the boat across the sea and on other ventures. She and the mother of Jesus are featured centrally in the trial and crucifixion scenes (as portrayed in John). The wife of Pilate (as portrayed in Matthew) is credited with turning his thinking regarding his sentencing of Jesus, although finally to no avail. So, women play important roles in the narrative, and appropriately so, despite the patriarchal character of the eras represented.

Third, perhaps the greatest strength of the series is the way it displays the realism of political pressures, combined with personal engagements of such. Pharaoh’s court, exilic life in Babylon, Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate—political issues are portrayed graphically so as to contextualize hardships faced by the Jewish people. Especially lucid was the religious conviction of Caiaphas regarding his consternation over the Jesus movement, embellished by the crafting of imagined roles for such otherwise obscure figures in the text as Nicodemus (a Jewish leader ambivalent about but impressed with Jesus) and Malchus (the chief temple guard in service to the high priest). Pilate’s resolute commitment to putting down insurrection also came through; yet, he also is presented as seeking (realistically) to preserve his own skin in deference to Caesar. While sometimes rooted neither in biblical reference or known historical fact, these political-religious presentations added realism to the film.

Nonetheless, a variety of problems also surfaced. First, considerable problems with time and space issues surfaced as a factor of exercising dramatic license in consolidating scenes and moving things around for narrative effect. The woman caught in adultery scene in John 8 is set in Jerusalem, not in Galilee as portrayed in the film; the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) should not be confused with the feeding(s) of the multitude(s) (Matthew 14 and 16); the “not one stone will be left standing” saying is presented in the film not as part of the apocalyptic discourse by Jesus to his disciples (as in Mark 13) but is spoken to a child in the film; the eye of the needle parable in the text is uttered before the entry to Jerusalem in Mark, but not in the film; Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus by night is presented early in John’s text, not at the end of Jesus’ ministry as it is in the film; the apostles (i.e., John’s going to Ephesus, according to Eusebius) did not leave Jerusalem and go to other parts of the world before Paul began his mission to the Gentiles.

A second problem relates to the lack of historical-critical input for presenting the issues. While it is commendable to have had leading religious figures and preachers involved in the crafting of the narrative, a robust scholarly presence within the editorial process would have made the series more compelling historically. The seventh day of creation could have featured Sabbath worship as the culminative thrust, for instance, connecting the first creation account with the interests of the Priestly tradition; Psalm 51 (“Create in me a clean heart, oh, God…”) could have been connected meaningfully with David (in addition to Daniel), expressing remorse over his moral failures; the Daniel narrative could have been connected powerfully with later scenes of Antiochus Epiphanes, who sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Jerusalem temple, burned Jewish scriptures and forbade Jewish customs a full century before the Roman conquest—likely the targeted thrust of the finalized book of Daniel.

In the New Testament, the citing of Isaiah 61 by Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4) is yoked by Jesus to his sense of mission, but that particular text in Isaiah should not be referred to as a messianic prophecy–as such; a single stone seals the tomb of Lazarus in John 11 rather than a pile of stones as in the film; the initial absence among the disciples of unbelieving Thomas (John 20) is missing in the film, diminishing the tension in the text’s narration; the breaking of bread and drinking of wine together among Jesus’ followers, as portrayed in the Gospels and Acts, should have been presented as a full meal emphasizing the sacramental character of table fellowship rather than a formalized symbolic meal (emerging over two decades after Jesus’ ministry as suggested by the transition from 1 Corinthians 10 to 11); most problematic, reports of John the apostle having drunk poison in Rome (non-lethally) reflects a second-century legend (the Apocrypal Acts of John) rather than history, and his exile to Patmos in Greece deserves a bit of clarification that the island is actually off the coast of today’s Turkey.

A third problem involves the somewhat gratuitous embellishment of violence. Then again, the Bible narrates a great amount of violence created against God’s chosen people, and, unfortunately, by God’s chosen people, so presenting these harsh realities has integrity. Indeed, the maltreatment of God’s people by the inhabitants of Sodom, Pharaoh and the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Babylonians, and finally the Romans heightens the poignancy of Israel’s history. Likewise, given Samson’s and David’s victories over the Philistines, one can appreciate their adversarial stance against the Hebrews. One also can appreciate the appeal of Barabbas’ approach to liberation—following a violent liberation model as emblazoned in Jewish memory.

And yet, the showing of slitting of children’s throats and the gouging out of parents’ eyes makes the presentation of biblical history problematic for viewers. Favorably, Jesus rebukes Peter’s striking out against Malchus, whereby he drops his sword. What could have been done more effectively is to show Jesus (and also the Hebrew prophets) challenging the spiral of violence—seeking to overturn the myth of redemptive violence with the domination-free order (“Kingdom”) of God. Without a clearer emphasis upon the Third Way of Jesus (with God there is always an alternative to the violence-or-submission forced dichotomy), which is central to living in biblical faithfulness in later situations as well, an important part of the radicality of his teaching and ministry is missed. The radical message and example of Jesus, especially along the lines of loving enemies in addition to God and neighbor, continues to offend and bewilder.

Overall, the History Channel’s series on The Bible will have made an important contribution to modern and postmodern culture—informing the biblically illiterate and challenging Bible readers to greater text-based faithfulness. It does not claim to be “history-as-such,” as each episode begins with the disclaimer that it is an “an adaptation of bible stories.” And yet, trusting viewers may fail to distinguish dramatic narration from the fact of literary presentations in the biblical text—displacing the former uncritically with the latter. Then again, such is the challenge of all historical narrative—biblical and otherwise—as later editors and writers seek to preserve reports of what had happened in the past, through the filter of their own understandings and interests, as means of addressing the needs of later audiences. In that sense, the tension between the text and the film might also help us appreciate more fully what the biblical writers themselves were also seeking to do, perhaps helping us appreciate more authentically the grand story of God’s redemptive work in human history as preserved and rendered so powerfully in the Bible.

Indeed, one of the most incisive lines of The Bible miniseries is the ironic (though fictive) declaration of Pilate: “He’s not the first Jew I’ve killed; he’ll be forgotten in a week!” The popularity of this series (and any film that engages meaningfully biblical texts and narratives—despite its overdone violence and gore, c.f., for instance, The Passion of the Christ) shows how wrong Pilate was. With my students, I still think I prefer the book over the movie, but I hope the miniseries will point people back to the Bible in ways that might speak to the present generation both now and in the future. If that happens, it will indeed have been a worthy venture; only time will tell.

Paul N. Anderson

4 thoughts on “The Bible Reviewed (Part II)—“A Gripping Film, but I Still Like the Book…”

  1. Pingback: The Bible Reviewed (Part II)—“A Gripping Film, but I Still Like the Book…” | Friendly Spirituality

  2. Pingback: Paul N. Anderson reviews History’s The Bible (Part II) | Near Emmaus

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