It is always hard to know what to leave in, or leave out, of a film on the whole Bible. In this third episode we get part of the tale of Jeremiah and Nebuchadnezzar carting Jews off into Babylonian exile. The real focus of the first hour is on Daniel, and here finally, the story telling become becomes more apt and ept, and worth watching. We get both the fiery furnace and the lion’s den episodes decently portrayed without melodrama. After all, the story in itself is dramatic enough. And smartly, we hear Daniel quoting the vision we find in Dan. 7.13-14, which provides a nice segue for the next segment, for we are shifting quickly right to Herod the Great and Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus, the Son of Man of Daniel’s vision.
Herod is portrayed as a fat, obnoxious, winebibber, who practices blood-letting by leeches and scoffs at the wise man when he comes. And the wise man comes before the birth of Jesus, not after. Jesus is born in a cattle stall, just as St. Francis, but not the Bible envisioned it. So we have the traditional nativity scene— Mary, Joseph, the baby and both shepherds and the wise men all in a cattle stall. Here we are better served by the film the Nativity which sticks closer to the facts in most regards.
And was it really necessary to make Joseph and Mary white Anglo-Saxon Brits? Really?? Really?? So much for verisimilitude. And so it is that Herod shows up to slaughter the innocents only shortly after the birth of Jesus, when probably he sent the troops after the wise men came which was considerably later.
Then we skip to the rebellion of Judas the Galilean in A.D. 6 with a portrayal of how hundreds of Galileans were crucified (nailed through the hands, rather than through the wrists as was the actual practice). Mary and Joseph see a forest of crosses on a hill as they head home from Egypt to Nazareth. The Romans are portrayed as nothing but brutal butchers. Then we skip another 25 years to the time of Herod Antipas, and John the Baptizer.
Jesus is baptized by John, but there is no voice from heaven. Jesus then immediately staggers through the wilderness, falls down and a snake crawls over him. Then the devil himself shows up looking like death warmed over, dressed in a black robe (this particular Jesus looks a great deal like the Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar played by Mr. Neeley). Jesus envisions his end from the beginning including crucifixion by Pilate, but when he passes the three tests, the snake crawls away.
Then quickly we cut away to John the Baptizer confronting Herod Antipas with the bad news that the messiah has already come, which is juxtaposed with Jesus and Peter out in a boat on the sea of Galilee, fishing, resulting in a huge catch of fish. And when Jesus says “come with me and I will make you a fisher of human being”. And Peter says “Why, what are we going to do?” To this Jesus replies— “change the world.” The juxtaposition of the demise of John and the rise of Jesus is reasonably effective.
The saddest part of all this is twofold: 1) millions were spent on this project filmed overseas with no little time and expense expended, but 2) it could have been soo much better. So much better. I do think they intended well. I have no problem with the selectivity and even with paraphrasing things to get at the spirit of this or that narrative. But they needed to do a better job of listening to whatever scholars were advising them. They have avoided irreverence but are flirting with irrelevance by not doing a better job.