Anyone who has watched an episode or more of the made-for-TV History-Channel series will have to admit that the series packs a powerful punch for growingly post-Christian America. On Sunday I watched four episodes back to back—eight hours’ worth of high definition biblical drama—played out on the LED screen. As a Bible teacher and scholar who is also a committed Christian, I found myself asking several questions.
First, how does this series stack up to the biblical text, itself?
Most obvious to those know the Bible will be the selectivity of the series—but rightly so. It would be impossible to narrate four millennia of history all within a brief ten hours, especially when nearly half of it is devoted to Jesus of Nazareth and his relatively short ministry. Painful for the Bible historian is the skipping of centuries between narrated events—400 years between the near-sacrifice of Isaac and the plight of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt; 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, as leadership passes from Moses to Joshua; 100 years between the conquest of Jericho and the ordeals of Samson; 400 years between the monarchy of David and the Exile to Babylon; 500 years between the restoration of Jerusalem under Cyrus and Palestine’s occupation by the Romans; twenty or more years between the childhood of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry. One might prefer the book over the film on this score.
Lots of good stories are stepped over in such an approach (Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, the conquest narratives, Gideon and Deborah, the ministries of most of the prophets, Naboth and his vineyard, the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom and Israel’s Diaspora, the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the Second-Temple period), but the stories that were chosen are certainly well done!
That being the case, none of the scenarios chosen, in my view, were superfluous. Each of them had its memorable points to make, and I doubt I would have deselected any of the chosen scenes in the editing process. And, the series wastes no time with transitions, which works well to move the story along. It wisely opts for fuller, sympathetic presentations of fewer scenes over and against superficial attempts to “get it all in,” so the editors are to be commended for their work along those lines.
From the Hebrew Scripture selections, the sense of realism with the Abraham, Moses, Samson, Saul/David, and Daniel stories certainly capture some of the highlights of key biblical narratives, themselves. From the Christian Scripture side, the harmonized birth of Jesus and loathsome presentation of Herod the Great, the calling of Peter and the disciples, the ministry and teachings of Jesus, and especially the religious and political tensions are very well done. Space is taken to develop characters compellingly—both protagonists and antagonists—leading to sense of empathy for heroes and adversaries alike. This is one of the key distinctions of this presentation of the biblical story.
Empathy for multiple sides of issues is one of the most distinctive features of this series, and that fact should appeal to critics and traditionalists alike. For instance, the tension between Abraham’s divine promise to be the father of innumerable descendants and multiple frustrations with its actualization is poignant. The while the conundrum of barren Sarah is at first alleviated by her suggestion that Abraham have a child with the maidservant Hagar, Sarah’s own hard feelings and concern over which son would be the rightful heir make the painful complexity of their situation palpable—let alone the testing of Abraham over his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, thwarted just in time by God’s provision of a lamb.
Likewise, empathy for Hagar, Rahab, and even Delilah is cultivated by showing psycho-social sensitivity to people’s likely plights within such settings. Even the political threat felt by Pilate regarding Jewish insurrections, as well as the religious convictions of Caiaphas and the temple guards, are presented in understandable perspective—as well as the plight of the Galileans under yet another hostile occupation. These features make for compelling narration, and they even add value to thoughtful readings of the biblical text. Historians will take issue with many a presentation, but as the piece does not claim to be history-as-such (rather a narrative amalgam), artistic license is permissible.
Second, how will this film be received by both Christians and non-Christians?
Perhaps the most important function of The Bible series is that it informs an increasing biblically illiterate society of some of the key stories narrated in the biblical corpus. This includes Christians and non-Christians alike. A puzzling feature of western modernism is that while religious sensitivity has increased overall, knowledge of the Judeo-Christian heritage has diminished. Therefore, for Christians and non-Christians alike, this series and others like it help to inform western society as to its own literary and historical heritage. Indeed, many a classic literary theme has its root in biblical narrative (ten plagues, written in stone, feet of clay, betrayed with a kiss, etc.), and this series helps alleviate the cultural illiteracy of various audiences accordingly.
The series also does a fair job of straddling the concerns of critical scholars and traditional scholars in several ways. The narration of the days of creation by Noah, for instance, works very well on both accounts. For the critical scholar seeing the first creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:4a as focusing on observing the Sabbath (if God got all his work done in six days and rested on the Sabbath, so can we) works well. Noah’s narrating the days of creation as a primordial tale of how the world came into being suits an understanding of how that material might have been transmitted. For the traditional scholar, it makes sense for accounts of earlier events to have been transmitted by Noah and his heirs.
While the story of Daniel in the lions’ den will please the traditionalist, the critical scholar will appreciate a mention of the long-term value of the Babylonian Exile—the preserving in written form the historical books of the Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings at least. Traditional viewers will appreciate the compelling presentation of Jesus and his ministry—including his teachings and miracles; critical viewers will appreciate the political and religious realism of Galilee and Judea under Roman occupation.
I also found myself wondering how the series might be experienced in interfaith and intrafaith ways. For Jewish and Christian viewers, the repeated admonition to trust in God comes through in multiple ways and contexts. In that sense, the series will likely be experienced as “inspiring” by Judeo-Christian viewers. Among viewers of other faiths, I imagine Muslims will be disturbed by the presentation of Abraham’s favoring of Isaac over Ishmael (whom the Koran presents as the true heir of Abraham’s promise), but this is not the fault of the series; it is a fact of the biblical text. Therefore, Muslims who view the series may appreciate the Judeo-Christian perspective on the Abrahamic promise, as portrayed in Genesis, which could lead to a more informed dialogue between the religious families of Abraham.
I also was impressed by the presentation of authentic worship at the end of the fourth episode, as Jesus and his disciples, Caiaphas and the Jewish leaders, and even the wife of Pilate all lifted up their own types of prayers and blessings. This realistic presentation makes it less likely for one faith to come across as supersessionist over others, even though the Jesus movement and the growth of the church have the last word within the Christian canon.
Of course, no film is infallible—a standard many might uphold for the Holy Writ—but the series certainly shows its own marks of inspiration. The acting is strong, and the special effects are indeed compelling. How it speaks to young adults and a few other observations will follow next week in Part II of the review, after I hear from my college students and watch the final episode. In more cases than one, of course, the true measure of inspiration is the degree to which a piece inspires its audiences…time indeed will tell.
Paul Anderson Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies George Fox University Newberg, OR 97132 503-554-2651