The Bible— Part Three

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.

  • Ray Dymun

    Maybe the point would have been too subtle for those not grounded in NT, but I felt the proximity of John’s execution and the start of Jesus’ ministry in this telling really robbed the story of a dynamic that will prove to be elemental later on. But at least they do seem to trying to get the right balance between the scenes. I wish they had spent a few moments on Nehemiah and Esther though. I guess what is troubling me most now is personal; one of my mentors as I was going through seminary now works for Lifeway, and he is pushing this series like sliced bread because Lifeway is handling the disc sales. Poor guy, I really do feel for him. On the plus side, I like the fact that the characters don’t always have clean clothes. I know that sounds petty, but it really irked me seeing the movies like The Robe or Greatest Story Ever Told where Jesus and the disciples always looked like they just came from the dry cleaners.

  • Chris

    Was it not King Darius rather than Cyrus who tossed Daniel in the lion’s den, or is there some reasonable explanation like Darius’ name was also Cyrus? I was disappointed by the decision to leave out the dove and audible voice of the Father after Jesus’ baptism but Overall, I’m glad this series is on. One other nit pick: I think Nebuchadnezzar was treated poorly: no mention by Shad, Mesh, & Abed that “even if God doesn’t deliver them” which I think is such a powerful scene and line, but also no restoration of Nebuchadnezzar and they omit him praising God.

  • Matt Purdum

    There are plenty of details that could use some work, but this is a Biblically-illiterate nation, and the important thing is to get the story told. After reading comments here and at three or four other sites, I say leave movie-making to the movie-makers, if they considered half the criticisms I’ve read, they’d make a movie that’s unwatchable, like so many of the Christian film companies have made. They’re planting seeds here, not fully mature trees.

  • mark

    Thanks Ben for the review. I would be curious how you would approach telling the story of Jesus on film—and which of the various film versions do you think is the best? Unlike many scholars you have a gift for communicating complex ideas to a much broader audience. Would you leave in Matthew’s beautiful birth narrative, for instance? How much of a historical foundation would you first lay down, since the story is easily misunderstood without some historical framework? This may have been a primary concern for the Gospel writers, how to tell a story that is compelling and relatable to a broad audience without losing the facts while being true to the deeper subtext. Or, history and theology merged through the use of powerful symbolic elements and storytelling.

    It’s my belief that the Gospels are a kind of condensed, didactic history, overlaid with mythic elements that would have given their audience a context in which to understand the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Where those mythic elements begin and end is another matter, and extracting the “Historic” Jesus from them would be a big hurdle for any potential film maker.

    King of Kings, the 1961 film starring Jeffrey Hunter attempts a more stripped down approach and does it reasonably well. The most complete and powerful version is, I believe, Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” starring Michael Powell. Although the blonde haired, blue eyed actor portraying the young Jesus reflects the typical Anglo bias of the time. The film was very controversial, even before it was released, but, now is a staple of the Easter season. How things change. I personally think it’s time for a more authentic retelling. One deeply rooted in a genuine Near Eastern, Jewish culture as the setting, with Middle Eastern actors playing the roles. I’m not sure that it would be widely accepted, but, you never know.