A.D. The Bible Continues — season one, episode three

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Season 1, Episode 3 — ‘The Spirit Arrives’
Acts 2-4

Editing Acts. The third episode of A.D. The Bible Continues is the first one that takes place entirely within the timeframe of the book of Acts, and it zips through the first few chapters so quickly that the final scenes are taken from Acts 4.

This is remarkable, when you consider that there are still nine episodes to go and the season as a whole is only supposed to get as far as Acts 10.

How does this episode get through the first few chapters of Acts so quickly? Partly by omitting entire stories.

The Ascension (1:1-11) was already covered in last week’s episode, of course. But this episode also leaves out the appointment of Matthias (1:12-26), the first sermon that Peter delivered to the crowds in Jerusalem (2:13-40), and the baptism and discipling of the many people who responded to that first sermon (2:41-47).

Instead of exploring the growth of the Church, the series goes straight to the first confrontation between the Christians and the Jewish leaders. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-12) leads directly to the healing of the beggar at the Temple (3:1-10), a heavily abbreviated version of the speech that Peter gives to the people who witnessed the healing (3:11-26), and the arrest of Peter and John (4:1-4).

Admittedly, the series doesn’t completely ignore the sermon that Peter gives in Acts 2. The speech that Peter gives after healing the beggar in this episode actually includes a few lines from that sermon, in addition to the sermon he gives in Acts 3.

But it’s worth noting that this episode’s version of the speech completely leaves out all references to repentance, to the role that Peter’s audience played in the execution of Jesus, to the multiple Old Testament prophecies that the biblical Peter quotes, and to the fact that the Holy Spirit has been poured out for the entire world.

As written here, Peter seems to be telling the people that they should join the Church primarily for the power boost they can get from the Holy Spirit. And as evangelistic messages go, that seems somewhat… insufficient, to me.

Also worth noting: Acts 1:14-15 says the followers of Jesus numbered about 120 before the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that this group included a number of women in addition to members of Jesus’ family (i.e. his mother and his brothers). And it was from this group of 120 that Matthias was chosen to replace Judas.

But as far as this episode is concerned, the followers of Jesus amount to barely a tenth of that at this point. Aside from the Twelve — or should I say the Eleven, given that Judas died in the first episode — the only other people we see praying when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost are Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, and Peter’s daughter Maya. No Matthias, no brothers of Jesus, and no other women.

This episode also neglects to show how the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from all over the world could hear the apostles preaching in their own native languages.

This is something that The Bible did better, arguably, by providing subtitles for each of the apostles as they spoke in tongues, though in that case the apostles simply spoke within the upper room and let the crowds listen in from outside.

Pacing, redux. I do appreciate the way the first half of this episode takes time to explore what it might have been like for the apostles to wait, and wait, for the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s only in the second half that the episode starts to rush through the various parts of Acts that it doesn’t omit entirely.

Political friction, redux. This is the episode that introduces Herod Antipas (played by Battlestar Galactica and One Night with the King veteran James Callis) and his wife Herodias.

Antipas finds himself in an interesting situation: he is a political authority like Pilate, but he is also Jewish like the high priest Caiaphas (religiously, that is; ethnically, he was Samaritan on his mother’s side and Arabic-Edomite on his father’s side). So he finds himself actively negotiating the space between those two leaders.

Here, too, the series deviates from the Bible. Both Luke and Acts tell us that Antipas was partly responsible for the execution of Jesus; Acts says he “conspired” with Pilate and others to kill Jesus, while Luke says Pilate and Antipas were “enemies” beforehand but became “friends” on the day that Jesus was crucified.

The first episode of A.D., on the other hand, blitzed through the trials and death of Jesus so quickly that it left no time for Antipas. So when Antipas appears in this episode, he had no involvement in the death of Jesus — indeed, he chastises poor, put-upon Caiaphas for mishandling the Nazarene’s case — and he and Pilate still get on each other’s nerves as much as they presumably did before Jesus’ death.

Indeed, in this episode, it is because Antipas asks Pilate to scale back the troops’ presence in the streets that Pilate decides to do something even more provocative and enter the Temple himself on the feast of Pentecost.

The historical Pilate was a provocative kind of guy and loved to snub the Jewish leaders whenever he could, but I wonder if he would have been quite this brazen about it, given that he had already been rebuked by the emperor Tiberius for similar incidents earlier in his career. In any case, I do like the way Caiaphas and Antipas try to defuse the situation by preemptively welcoming Pilate to the Temple and telling their fellow Jews that this was all planned ahead of time.

The bit where Caiaphas speaks in Hebrew does make me wonder what language the characters are supposed to be speaking the rest of the time, though.

It’s interesting, by the way, to see how Caiaphas’s wife Leah basically makes excuses for the Romans, even going so far as to call the murder of the temple guards in last week’s episode a “necessary sacrifice”. Is she simply trying to make the most of a bad situation — placating Caiaphas, as it were, before he reacts too drastically to Pilate’s actions — or is she really as ruthless as her words suggest?

Also: Antipas declares at one point that Caiaphas needs his “endorsement” to keep his position as high priest. Is there any historical basis for that? Antipas was the tetrarch of Galilee and had no jurisdiction in Judea — and if the high priest needed the endorsement of a member of the Herodian family, then why Antipas and not, say, his half-brother Philip, the tetrarch of Iturea (and Herodias’s first husband)?

Violence, redux. It wouldn’t be an episode of A.D. without gratuitous violence.

So, of course, Pilate’s visit to the Temple ends with an assassination attempt, followed by Boaz the Zealot slashing a Roman officer’s throat (with a spring-loaded knife that was hidden under his sleeve!) and Pilate getting his revenge by rounding up some random Jews and slaughtering them on the Temple’s steps.

Meanwhile, Peter and John are savagely beaten by the Temple guards before they are thrown in prison. Suffice it to say that there is no beating in Acts 4.

Aggression. Aside from the outright violence, there is also an aggressive quality to the apostles and their actions here, starting with the way they are practically shouting as they pray — demanding God’s attention — before the Holy Spirit comes.

Note also how, after the Holy Spirit comes, Peter says, “Now, we can leave this place! Now, spread his word!” Nobody better stand in his way!

And note the final close-up on Peter’s face as he glares at Caiaphas through the prison bars. He does look kind of menacing. The trial scene in next week’s episode — assuming the series depicts it — should be pretty intense.

The same, but different, redux. Antipas tells Caiaphas it was against Jewish law to hold Jesus’ trial at night, which is a point Nicodemus made in The Bible.

Scripture references, redux. One of Boaz’s fellow Zealots, describing Pilate’s visit to the Temple, says, “This desecration of our space is the abomination the prophets talked about.” This is almost certainly a reference to the passage in Daniel that speaks about an “abomination of desolation” that will be set up within the Temple.

In the first book of Maccabees, the phrase “abomination of desolation” refers to how the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the Temple in the 2nd century BC, and many scholars think Daniel was referring to this incident, too.

In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus cites Daniel’s prophecy as a reference to the end of the age, and possibly the end of the world.1

Some scholars have speculated that the authors of Mark and Matthew were also thinking of the Roman emperor Caligula, and his attempt to install a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple circa AD 40, when they wrote those passages.

In any case, the Temple had clearly been desecrated many years before the events of this series, and it isn’t hard to see how some Jews in Jesus’ day would have seen present and future desecrations as recurrences of that earlier desecration.

Also worth noting: When John and Peter are in prison, they pray the Shema, a Jewish prayer that consists of two parts. The first part (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one”) comes from Deuteronomy 6, while the second part (“Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever”) comes from the Talmud.

And of course, just before the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, the disciples are praying the Lord’s Prayer, versions of which appear in Matthew 6 and Luke 11. The more famous version from Matthew is the one the apostles speak here.

Family matters. This is the episode that introduces Peter’s daughter Maya.

The Bible doesn’t say whether Peter had any children, but it does say that Peter had a mother-in-law, who was healed by Jesus, and a wife, who was apparently still traveling with him on his journeys more than two decades later.

There is a tradition to the effect that Peter may have had a daughter, but her name is said to have been Petronilla, and some interpreters believe that she was more of a “spiritual daughter”, i.e. a follower or convert rather than Peter’s offspring.

A.D. does acknowledge the existence of Peter’s mother-in-law — Peter tells Maya she should stay with her “grandmother” in Galilee — but his wife is dead long before this episode begins. (In this, A.D. resembles the 1959 film The Big Fisherman, which also imagined that Peter was a widower, albeit a childless one in that case.)

Luke’s gospel hints that some of the other apostles may have had wives and children too, but none are specified in the text, and A.D. — like most dramatizations of the New Testament — simply never addresses the issue. So as far as this series is concerned, Peter is the only apostle who has ever had a family of his own.

I do like the scenes between Peter and Maya in the first part of the episode, when the disciples are sitting around waiting for the Holy Spirit, and father and daughter are getting reacquainted. But the dialogue does lapse into clichés occasionally, as when Peter tells Maya to stop asking so many questions, Maya replies that Peter taught her to ask questions, and John says, “She’s definitely your daughter.”

Turning to other families, this episode also focuses on the negative effect that Pilate’s violence has had on his marriage to Claudia. She is offended that Pilate killed his soldiers “here, in my house,” and she declines to go to bed with him.

Meanwhile, Caiaphas’s wife Leah is still in the habit of pronouncing things. See, for example, how she tells her husband that Pilate killed the temple guards “to ensure that the ridiculous story of the Resurrection garners no credence among the gullible.” Who talks like this? …to her own husband? …in the privacy of their home?

Odds and ends. Right after one of the temple guards’ widows says her husband was guarding the Nazarene’s tomb, Caiaphas says “we will leave no stone unturned” in looking for her husband’s murderer. Unintentional pun?

The disciples are praying at Pentecost because Peter’s daughter Maya asked him, the night before, what Jesus would do if he were there. “He would pray,” says Peter, and then it dawns on him that maybe he and the others should pray too — so apparently they hadn’t been doing that in the nine days since the Ascension. The book of Acts, on the other hand, says they were praying constantly during this period.

The Holy Spirit comes down like a meteor, the same way the angel at the tomb did in the first episode. A spectacular cloud also forms above the upper room, and a light opens up from inside it, as if to suggest that a portal is being opened, similar to the portal in the cloud at Jesus’ ascension in the second episode. But it seems the Holy Spirit is really just falling through the cloud on its way to the apostles.

Jesus’ mother Mary is one of the Christians praying when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost. There is certainly a scriptural basis for this, as Acts 1 says she was with the apostles during the ten-day window between the Ascension and Pentecost.

But I find myself wondering what it would mean for Mary to be filled with the Holy Spirit when she had already carried the Son of God himself within her womb for nine months (and indeed, Luke 1 says the Holy Spirit came upon her back then).

I am also curious to see whether this series will show anyone speaking in tongues after Pentecost. It’s a key part of the biblical story of the conversion of Cornelius (in Acts 10), and we know this season of A.D. will get that far at least — but I can’t think of any other adaptation of Acts that has depicted any speaking in tongues there.2

1. In the equivalent passage in Luke’s gospel, Jesus refers not to an “abomination” but to Jerusalem being surrounded by armies — presumably the Roman armies that destroyed the city in AD 70.

2. Even the Visual Bible’s word-for-word adaptation of Acts doesn’t really show any speaking in tongues at Cornelius’s conversion. The narrator mentions it, but all we see are people looking up and smiling.

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