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

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Season 1, Episode 9 — ‘Saul’s Return’
Acts 9:20-27

Editing Acts, redux. The ninth episode of A.D. The Bible Continues, like a couple of the episodes that preceded it, dwells on just a few verses from the book of Acts.

A bit of dialogue at the beginning alludes to Saul’s efforts to preach in the synagogues of Damascus (9:20-22), while the episode as a whole depicts his escape from the city (9:23-25) and his efforts to meet and be reconciled to the apostles (9:26-27).

Notably, the episode does not make use of the autobiographical information in Paul’s letters that overlaps with this section of Acts.

In his letters, we learn that Saul went to Arabia immediately after his conversion and then returned to Damascus (Galatians 1:17), that he had to escape from Damascus partly because an Arabian governor was trying to arrest him (2 Corinthians 11:32-33),1 that he went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion and stayed with Peter for fifteen days (Galatians 1:18), and that he did not see any of the other apostles on his visit to Jerusalem except for James the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19).

A few movies, such as Peter and Paul and Paul the Apostle, have integrated the book of Acts with the letters of Paul by incorporating details like these. But A.D. The Bible Continues, like A.D. Anno Domini, relies on Acts alone for its biblical storyline.

This episode also introduces Tabitha, who comes up in a slightly later section of Acts; presumably a future episode will show her dying and being brought back to life by Peter, as per Acts 9:36-42. In this episode, she is introduced as a seamstress working for the Herods, which is a cute nod to the bit in Acts where the widows mourning her death show Peter “the robes and other clothing” that she had made for them.

Scripture references, redux. Caligula declares that he will put a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple, and both Caiaphas and the apostle John state that this statue could fulfill a prophecy in Daniel about the “abomination of desolation”.

This prophecy was already mentioned in episode three, when one of Boaz’s friends said Pilate’s visit to the temple at Pentecost was the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The phrase “abomination of desolation” is mentioned three times in Daniel, but Mary Magdalene adds to John’s speculation by saying that “war will come like a flood,” which indicates that she is probably thinking of Daniel 9 specifically.2

John also states that Jesus himself quoted this prophecy when he spoke about his return to earth. It is true that Jesus quotes this prophecy in Mark 13 and Matthew 24,3 and that he also quotes Daniel 7 to the effect that people will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” — but it is not clear that he was predicting the Second Coming, per se. Some theologians have noted that the Son of Man in Daniel, and thus presumably in Jesus’ prophecy, comes to heaven and not to earth.

Other Bible passages are quoted in this episode too.

Caiaphas quotes Leviticus 19 and its commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” when he tries to persuade his wife that Saul should not be killed but should, instead, be won back to the non-Christian form of Judaism that they practice.

Interestingly, Jesus himself said that this is the second-greatest commandment (following the commandment to love God) in Mark 12, Matthew 22 and Luke 10, and he also cited it in a list of commandments that need to be kept in Matthew 19. It is also cited by Paul in Romans 13 and Galatians 5, and by James in James 2.

This episode also refers, directly or indirectly, to specific passages in the gospels.

Joanna gives Mary Magdalene some money “for the cause”, which reflects how both of these women supported Jesus and his followers “out of their own means” in Luke 8.

Barnabas talks to Peter about the time Jesus washed Peter’s feet, as per John 13.

And Saul recites the Matthew 6 version of the Lord’s Prayer in prison. (Jesus taught a slightly different version of this prayer to his followers in Luke 11.)

Introducing Saul, redux. Saul the Christian has all the zeal of Saul of persecutor of Christians, but now his zeal comes across as joyful enthusiasm rather than pathological obsession. And his joy is, indeed, rather infectious.

There’s something a tad glib about it, though. The Paul of the Bible was still writing, years later, that he didn’t deserve to be called an apostle because of how he had persecuted the Church, but the Saul of this series seems to expect everyone to accept him with open arms even though he was persecuting them just a few weeks ago — and at one point he even complains that Peter won’t “let go” of the past.

I do like how the apostles are very protective of their relationship with Jesus: the way Simon the Zealot tells Saul, “You don’t get to speak his name!” or the way Peter tells Barnabas, “He talks like he’s in charge and he never even knew Jesus.”

And Saul does, indeed, have a take-charge attitude, not least when he tells the apostles, “I’m worried you’re not fully engaged in Jesus’ message,” or when he pursues Simon the Zealot into the street and says, “Simon! Simon! If you’ll just listen to me, you’ll realize I’m right!”

There’s also some interesting competitiveness in the way Peter, referring to Jesus, tells Saul, “I miss him,” and Saul replies, “I don’t. I feel him,” and Peter has to clarify that Jesus is a living presence for him too by saying, “I feel him too.”

Of course, both of these men have encountered the risen Christ and are filled with his Spirit — but Peter knew Jesus in a way that Saul never did (and never will), and he misses that experience of Jesus, which he knows he will never have again.

Historical reference points, redux. Caligula, who had just become emperor at the end of last week’s episode, returns to Rome — but not before declaring that he will send a statue of himself to be installed in the Jerusalem temple.

The historical Caligula became emperor in AD 37 but did not try to install a statue of himself in the temple until AD 40, after a string of other incidents.

Political friction, redux. Even Caligula’s buddy Agrippa is bothered by Caligula’s intention to desecrate the temple. Agrippa — who is Jewish, after all — says he hopes Caligula will have forgotten all about this by the time they get back to Rome.

Herodias hopes the turmoil caused by the desecration will lead to Pilate’s downfall, and thus make it possible for Herod Antipas to take Pilate’s place.

Simon the Zealot makes contact with the, uh, Zealots when he learns about the temple’s possible fate. I guess this is supposed to be how he got his name? (This is the first time we have seen Boaz’s fiancée Eva or her father since the fifth episode.)

Violence, redux. One of the first things Caligula does, upon becoming emperor, is to get one of the advisors he inherited from Tiberius to commit suicide. The camera lingers on the point of the sword coming through the advisor’s back.

Leah really wants to kill Saul. First she tells her husband Caiaphas to find Saul, shame him, and kill him. Then she tells Herodias and Claudia that they might be able to satisfy Caligula’s bloodlust by making Saul a scapegoat and killing him.

Sexualization, redux. For the third episode in a row, Caligula sexually harasses the women he comes across in Pilate’s palace. He apparently does something (we know not what) to Tabitha, and he also expresses an unhealthy interest in Claudia.

Family matters, redux. Pilate apologizes to Claudia for the way Caligula looked at her. Claudia tells Cornelius the emperor will use her to punish Pilate. Cornelius says Pilate would never let that happen, but Claudia isn’t entirely convinced.

Tabitha expresses interest in Jesus after Joanna says Jesus gave her the strength to stand up to her husband, instead of just being “quiet and good” around him.

Odds and ends. Claudia prays to the Roman gods Mars and Vesta.

Barnabas finds the Christian hideout when he spots a door with a fish carved in the corner. The fish symbol can be a sort of Greek code: the word “ichthus”, meaning “fish”, consists of the initials for the Greek words for “Jesus Christ God’s Son Saviour”. But I wonder if the Aramaic-speaking Christians in Jerusalem would have used the symbol this way. Maybe they just use it because some of them are fishermen.

1. Acts 9 says “the Jews . . . kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill” Saul, while in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul himself writes that “the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.” Aretas was the king of the Nabateans, an Arabian kingdom, from about 9 BC to AD 40. (One of Aretas’s daughters was Herod Antipas’s first wife, and the two kings went to war sometime after Antipas left Aretas’s daughter for Herodias. A garbled version of these events forms the back-story to the 1959 film The Big Fisherman, in which Aretas’s granddaughter seeks revenge against Antipas.)

2. Daniel 9 is noteworthy for predicting that an “anointed one” — or “messiah” — will be “cut off” about 483 years after the Persian king gives instructions to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. By some calculations, this “cutting off” would coincide with the death of Jesus circa AD 30.

3. Luke 21 is very similar to Mark 13 and Matthew 24, but in this version of the prophecy, Jesus refers to “Jerusalem being surrounded by armies” and not to an “abomination of desolation”.

CT Movies recaps: one | two | three | four | five | six | seven | eight | nine | ten | eleven | twelve
FilmChat recaps: one | two | three | four | five | six | seven | eight | nine | ten | eleven | twelve

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