It’s common these days for each new episode of a TV series to begin with a montage that sums up all the relevant plot points from previous episodes. So it was only natural that, when the History Channel aired its five-part mini-series The Bible over the month of March, all but one of the episodes began with narrator Keith David intoning, in his deep baritone voice, “Previously, on The Bible…”
All of the show’s strengths and weaknesses are captured in that one phrase. Produced by Mark Burnett (a TV mogul best known for unscripted “reality” shows like Survivor and The Apprentice) and his wife Roma Downey (who once starred in Touched by an Angel), the mini-series rushes through the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in ten hours — though it’s more like seven, once you bracket off the commercial breaks — and it zips through the stories so quickly that you barely notice when they are compressed even further in those opening sequences. But the mini-series also makes a point of emphasizing the continuity between Bible stories in a way that is quite rare among Bible films, and in a way that sometimes allows individual stories to shed light profitably on others.
So, praise where praise is due. The Bible covers some awfully familiar territory — there have been many films about Moses and Jesus over the years, and there are more in development as we speak — but it also covers stories that aren’t brought to life on the big or small screen all that often, such as the Babylonian exile and the rise of the early church. Even better, the mini-series connects the familiar and unfamiliar stories, so that, for example, the Peter who followed Christ around Galilee and the Peter who led the church in Jerusalem are played by the same actor. Very few films have allowed for that. (The Visual Bible’s adaptations of Matthew and Acts featured the same actor as Jesus, but changed most of the rest of the cast.)
Even more intriguingly, The Bible comes from an unabashedly Christian perspective, so that, for example, when Abraham speaks to “the LORD” (as per Genesis 18), it is strongly hinted that the person he is speaking to might actually be a pre-incarnate version of Christ. (We never get a good look at the person’s face, but his voice and hair seem awfully familiar.) Later, when Daniel describes his prophetic vision of “a son of man coming on the clouds,” it allows the mini-series to segue quite smoothly into the New Testament.
The mini-series also features several scenes in which characters from a later Bible story are conscious of the characters who have come before them. Moses, for example, says on a few occasions that he is leading the Israelites out of Egypt in order to fulfill a promise that God made to Abraham — a point that other Moses movies don’t always make.
Sometimes the enhanced continuity leads the filmmakers into more dubious territory. For example, the Ascension marks the traditional end of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances in bodily form, but in the mini-series, Jesus makes a number of appearances after the Ascension that are indistinguishable from the ones he made before it: the Book of Acts describes what Paul saw on the road to Damascus as a bright light from heaven, but the mini-series has Jesus stand by the side of the road, like someone waiting to hitch a ride; and where the Book of Acts says “the Spirit” gave instructions to Peter regarding the conversion of Cornelius, the mini-series has Jesus pay Peter a visit instead. Later on, Jesus appears to the elderly apostle John on Patmos and raises the hole in his hand for our contemplation, just as he did on the first Easter.
Still more problematic is the way the mini-series smoothes over certain tensions within the Bible until it cannot hide them any longer, at which point it doesn’t really give us any way to deal with them. The Old Testament pulls in different directions on a number of issues, such as whether foreign races ought to be exterminated and/or excluded from the assembly of Israel (compare Deuteronomy 23:1-8 and its ruthless enforcement by Ezra and Nehemiah with Isaiah 56:1-7 and the punchline to the Book of Ruth), and, if anything, the mini-series seems to tilt in favor of ancient Israelite chest-thumping when, say, the soldiers led by Joshua wave their swords and chant “Israel! Israel! Israel!” But then, a couple of episodes later, Jesus feeds the multitude and the crowd replies by chanting “Israel! Israel! Israel!” and demanding that Jesus be their king — and this greatly disturbs Jesus, who protests, “No, this is not the way! Not by force!” A suppler film might have offered some way to understand this apparent change in divine tactic, but this mini-series isn’t up to the task.
The nationalism itself is sometimes expressed in ways that are problematic for the current viewer. One of the show’s recurring themes is that “God is with us” — but this sometimes seems to carry the connotation that God is, therefore, not with someone else, not with them. Violent acts that receive no particular divine sanction in the Bible, such as the raid Abraham stages to rescue Lot and his family, are here presented as evidence of what you can do when you “trust in God.” And where the Bible depicts the miracle in the fiery furnace as something that forced Nebuchadnezzar to acknowledge the sovereignty of God, the mini-series depicts it as a morale-booster for the Jewish exiles — while leaving Nebuchadnezzar to languish in the ancient Babylonian equivalent of an insane asylum, without reprieve.
This last detail, of course, is symptomatic of an even larger problem, which is the way the mini-series loses much of the narrative and emotional nuance of the Bible by rushing through it so quickly, especially with regard to the Old Testament stories. The Pharaoh yells “No!” to Moses’ demands for liberation after each and every plague, instead of sometimes saying “yes” and then breaking his word, as he does in Exodus. Samson, for some reason, is played by a black actor even though virtually every other Israelite is not — so the Philistines kill his wife just because they’re racist, and not because of any escalating antagonism between them and him. (Later, Samson tells Delilah the secret to his strength the very first time she asks, which itself is an oversimplification of the story.) John the Baptist is sent to prison and executed immediately, so that we never experience his moment of doubt. And so on.
And yet, despite all these narrative short-cuts, the mini-series still finds time to insert a fair bit of violence, some of it warranted by the biblical source material and some of it not. The angels who visit Sodom do not merely blind the crowd outside Lot’s house, but pull out swords and start slashing away. The spies in Jericho get into a swordfight in the streets and, ducking into Rahab’s house, actually hold swords to both her throat and that of her son to keep them quiet. Herod personally stabs a Jewish rebel in the neck and lets him bleed to death. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary while her fellow Nazarenes are fighting the Romans in the streets. Pilate, while practicing his swordplay at home, deliberately slashes his partner’s chest after he has already defeated him — and the camera and the soundtrack linger for a few seconds on this moment of pain. Other examples abound.
Some of this can be justified on the basis that it provides historical context — it is especially helpful to be reminded that Pilate could be quite brutal at times, as Luke 13 attests — but the sense one gets is that the producers were constantly looking for opportunities to make the show “exciting,” and that the easiest way to do this was to keep jacking up the “action.”
The mini-series caters to modern sensibilities in other ways, too. Aesthetically, it borrows from other Bible movies — most notably Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — and it employs a soundtrack by Hans Zimmer that sounds virtually identical to the music he and his associates have written for popular movies like Gladiator and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The dialogue also leans towards banal anachronisms, such as when Delilah tells her fellow Philistines that Samson has “changed. He’s a different man since he met me!”
More significantly, when Jesus first meets Peter and gives him a miraculous catch of fish, the script omits any reference to Peter’s awareness of his own sinfulness (as per Luke 5) and, instead, has Jesus make bland pronouncements such as, “Give me an hour, and I will give you a whole new life.” Later, Jesus tells Peter he’s giving him “the chance to change your life” and says that, together, they will “change the world.” This is the language of talk shows and infomercials, not the language of first-century Jews and Christians.
That being said, the mini-series does put some clever spins on these stories. For example, while the Book of Daniel generally refers to Daniel’s three friends by their Babylonian names (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), the mini-series has one of them insist on using his Hebrew name, Azariah, and it builds up the relationship between Daniel and Azariah in a way that allows each of them to bear witness as the other is put to the test: first Azariah in the fiery furnace, and then, years later, Daniel in the lions’ den.
Later, in the episodes based on the gospels, Nicodemus is depicted as an early critic of Jesus — it is he who asks Jesus whether the Jews ought to pay taxes to Caesar — who gradually turns around and comes over to Jesus’ side. The mini-series even makes a point of cross-cutting between Nicodemus’ encounters with Jesus and Judas’ meeting with the high priest, so that Nicodemus, in a sense, “betrays” Caiaphas just as Judas betrays Jesus.
There is also a striking moment when Jesus calls on Matthew, the tax collector, to join him and his followers. When the scene begins, Jesus is surrounded by disciples and critics who agree on little except that tax collectors are “vermin” — so Jesus tells the parable of the publican and the Pharisee, and as he reaches the words that the publican spoke in humble prayer, Matthew recites them in sync with Jesus and starts to cry. The parable, it seems, is more than just a story; it is evidence of Jesus’ prophetic or divine knowledge, and it gives Matthew, who now knows that his prayers have been heard, an emotionally compelling reason to drop his work and join the Jesus movement right then and there.
There are several other moments like these scattered throughout the mini-series, and they are sometimes quite brilliant, even if the filmmakers never quite know how to follow through on them. (Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is accompanied by flash-forwards to the Passion — but he seems to be caught off-guard when he has yet another set of premonitions during the Last Supper.) Bible adaptations like this are at their best when they hit on an aspect of the story that the viewer might never have considered before, or when they juxtapose texts in a way that prompts the viewer to think about the story from a fresh angle. In a nutshell, they work best when they open the story up for the viewer. (One excellent recent example is the Oscar-nominated animated short film Adam and Dog, which re-imagines the story of Creation and the Fall from the point of view of man’s first best friend.)
But the rush-rush-rush of this particular mini-series, which relies heavily on the narration to smoothe over narrative gaps and explain the meaning of individual scenes, runs the risk of closing the stories and their meaning to the average viewer. Instead of coming away changed, the viewer comes away feeling good about a story of “change.” And that is not quite the same thing.
Peter T. Chattaway is a freelance film critic and blogger at Patheos.com with a special interest in Bible movies. His episode-by-episode blog posts on The Bible can be found here. He lives with his family in Surrey, B.C.
— A version of this article was first published on the Books & Culture website.