Season 1, Episode 6 — ‘The Persecution’
Editing Acts, redux. The first five episodes of A.D. The Bible Continues zipped through the gospels and the book of Acts at a brisk pace, covering multiple chapters at a time. But the sixth episode slows things down in a big way and covers just three verses in Acts: it begins with the burial of Stephen (8:2) and then goes on to show how Saul persecuted the church (8:3) and scattered the followers of Jesus (8:1).
The episode slows things down partly so that it can give us a proper introduction to Saul, who was briefly glimpsed at the end of the last episode. And in giving us this introduction, the episode incorporates elements from other parts of Acts, too.
For example, the teacher-student relationship between Gamaliel and Saul, mentioned in Acts 22, is reflected here in the conversations between the two characters.
Also, Saul’s education and argumentative nature are established in a scene where he debates Peter in front of the other Christians — and along the way, Peter uses a phrase or two from the sermon in Acts 2 that was omitted from the third episode.
Scripture references, redux. There’s a fair bit of Isaiah in this episode. John recites a passage from Isaiah 60 as Peter prepares Stephen for burial. Peter recites a passage from Isaiah 35 at the burial itself. And Peter quotes the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah 53, and applies it to Jesus, during his debate with Saul.
Other passages get tossed around in the debate between Peter and Saul, too. Peter says Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and no one gets to the Father but through him, which is something Jesus said about himself in John 14. And Saul quotes Deuteronomy 21 (“anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse”) as part of his argument that Jesus could not have been raised by God from the dead.
In another scene, Peter preaches in the streets of Jerusalem that Jesus is “the light of the world”, which is something that Jesus said about himself in John 8.
Introducing Saul. I don’t know if “foreshadowing” is quite the right word here, but this episode introduces Saul in a way that is kind of ironic, given what will happen to Saul once he becomes a Christian and starts going by his Roman name Paul.
For example, the first Christians Saul meets as he approaches the Christian camp are Philip and Barnabas. Saul is an enemy of theirs now, but he will eventually become their friend, going so far as to travel with Barnabas on a missionary journey (Acts 13-14) and to stay in Philip’s home with Philip’s family (as per Acts 21).
Also, the passage from Deuteronomy 21 that Saul cites here as evidence of why Jesus could not have been raised from the dead will eventually be quoted by Saul himself in Galatians 3, to demonstrate that Jesus’ victory over death is complete precisely because he suffered the worst kind of death imaginable under the law.
And finally, Peter tells Saul that his knowledge means nothing without love, which will of course become a big theme for Saul when he writes I Corinthians 13.
Most of these future developments fall outside the scope of the current season of A.D., which will only go as far as the events of Acts 10. But it’s good to see that the writers and producers are setting these things up, or are at least aware of these ironies.
Meanwhile, Saul has difficulty getting an audience with Caiaphas, which seems unlikely if Saul is so chummy with Gamaliel and has, indeed, been studying under him for a while. The 1985 miniseries A.D. Anno Domini did a much better job of establishing Saul as someone who is intimately connected with multiple members of the Sanhedrin before he finally embarks on his persecution of the Church.
Historical reference points. The fourth episode began the day after Pentecost. The sixth episode takes place during Purim. Purim takes place about nine months after Pentecost. Does it seem like nine months went by over the last two episodes?
It’s amusing, by the way, that characters would make a point — twice! — of saying that Herod Antipas has come to Jerusalem to celebrate Purim, given that Antipas is played by James Callis, who previously played Haman, the villain of the Purim story, in One Night with the King. Did the filmmakers discuss this at all behind the scenes?
Caiaphas also remarks that it is the tenth anniversary of his first meeting with Antipas as high priest. This is… odd, since the historical Caiaphas was high priest from AD 18 to AD 36. The producers have indicated that this series begins in AD 33, just three years before Caiaphas lost his job, so it would seem that Caiaphas didn’t meet Antipas until several years after becoming high priest, which seems unlikely.
Violence, redux. This might be the first episode in which no one dies. It depends on what Saul does to the followers of the Nazarene after he imprisons them, I guess. There are still plenty of beatings when the Christians are arrested, though.
Caiaphas tells Annas to get out of his house before he slips a blade through Annas’s ribs, which is a particularly nasty threat to make to one’s father-in-law.
Aggression, redux. When Saul first visits the Christian camp, Barnabas asks him to explain why the Christians are wrong in their beliefs, and then, after saying, “Have you no tongue,” he turns to Philip and says, “Or no brain?” This seems a tad rude, especially coming from the apostle whose nickname means “son of encouragement.”
Family matters, redux. Like the 1985 miniseries, the new A.D. introduces a grieving mother for Stephen. In the earlier miniseries, she ran down to the street to try to stop the crowd from dragging her son out to be stoned; in the new series, she mourns for Stephen as the disciples carry his body through the street.
Caiaphas finds his position as high priest threatened by his father-in-law Annas and his brother-in-law Jonathan (who will succeed him eventually, at least historically). At one point Caiaphas tells his wife Leah that her family gives him “indigestion”.
Herod Antipas tells Caiaphas that Peter, the “ringleader” of the early Church, “is from Galilee. This reflects very badly on me.” This, I think, is the first time the series has shown Antipas acknowledging the fact that the Jesus movement sort of falls under his jurisdiction. (In Luke’s gospel, Pilate sent Jesus to be tried by Antipas before his crucifixion, but the first episode of this series had no time for that.)
Pilate prays to a small idol of Minerva in the presence of Caiaphas and his in-laws before deciding which of them will be high priest, and thus rubs in their faces the fact that Judaism is subject to Roman occupation not only politically but religiously as well. The strong implication is that the high priest who serves the Jewish God in his Temple will be picked not by the Jewish God but by a pagan deity instead.
However, Pilate then undermines this by saying Minerva has given him no direction, so he is going to toss a coin instead and let blind luck decide who gets to be high priest. But Caiaphas discovers afterwards that the coin has two heads, which means the decision was Pilate’s all along. But only Caiaphas knows that at this point.
Elsewhere, Cornelius watches as Saul’s men barge into homes, beat people up and arrest them. He seems increasingly uncomfortable with this sort of thing.
The episode also suggests that Caiaphas may have stepped up his persecution of the Christians (via Saul and his men) because of the pressure he faced from Pilate, Antipas and his own in-laws to do something about these people.
Interestingly, Stephen’s mother tells Peter that her son’s death was the result of Peter and his “politics”. And sure enough, this episode shows John telling people in the streets that the current Temple authorities are too cozy with the Romans, among other things. So there is a political edge to the Jesus movement, as depicted here.
Incidentally, this is the first episode with no Zealot scenes whatsoever.
Bribes, redux. It’s not exactly a bribe, per se, but Caiaphas does tell Saul he will pay the men that Saul hires to persecute the Church. And so, after one episode in which neither Caiaphas nor his wife bribed anyone to do something, Caiaphas goes back to handing out money just like he and his wife did in the first four episodes.
Amplified effects, redux. Mary Magdalene tells Peter to let his emotions out, so Peter throws his arms back and screams, and the wind blows through his hair as if to indicate the Holy Spirit’s approval. And then Peter launches right into a sermon.
Incidentally, Mary Magdalene prefaces this by telling Peter to stop being a man, and to start letting his emotions out like the women who mourned at Stephen’s funeral. But, um, we didn’t see Mary Magdalene wail like that at Stephen’s funeral.
Odds and ends. Matthew wonders why Peter won’t ask God to raise Stephen from the dead. It’s a not unreasonable question, given that other people have been raised from the dead, and given that no Christians have died before (apart from Ananias and Sapphira, who were struck down by the Holy Spirit two episodes ago).
In his debate with Peter, Saul refers to a few Jewish leaders whose movements ended in failure. One of these is Simon of Peraea, a former slave of Herod the Great’s who led a rebellion after Herod died. Saul also mentions a “Zachary of Beersheba” whose followers drowned in the Red Sea, though I can’t find a source for this right now.
Saul also asks if any of the Christians watching the debate have seen the risen Jesus. Saul assumes that none of them have, and that the Twelve are lying to all the others — and indeed, as far as the series is concerned, Jesus didn’t appear to anyone except for Mary Magdalene and the Twelve. But as Saul himself will write in I Corinthians 15, over 500 people saw the resurrected Jesus, which would have been about a tenth of the 5,000 people who were part of the Church at this point according to Acts 4.
Finally, I’m not sure what to make of the way Peter tells Saul at the end of the episode, “Let’s see whose fire burns brightest now!” In an earlier scene, Peter used the word “fire” to describe the Holy Spirit that motivated him and the other Christians — but at the end of the episode, it refers to mere flames, which seems like a poor pay-off.