Season 1, Episode 12 — ‘The Abomination’
Editing Acts, redux. The final episode of A.D. The Bible Continues kicks off with the conversion of Cornelius as described in Acts 10, but changes some of the details.
This episode depicts the angel that appeared to Cornelius (10:1-8), Peter’s vision of the unclean animals (10:9-23), Peter’s visit to Cornelius’s home, including the baptism of Cornelius and his family (10:24-48), and Peter’s return to Jerusalem (11:1-3).
The episode rushes through Peter’s vision, and his subsequent sermon to Cornelius’s household, so that it can get to the secular storyline as soon as possible.
Here, the voice that accompanies the vision does not tell Peter to kill and eat, and Peter does not resist the command; instead, the voice begins by telling Peter that some people (but not necessarily Peter himself?) regard these animals as unclean, and then it says Peter should not consider these animals impure if God does not.
As for the sermon to Cornelius’s household, it is reduced to just a few sentences that end with Peter saying he should baptize Cornelius, and it is after this that Cornelius and his family start to speak in tongues. In the book of Acts — which gives this story a more humorous spin — Peter is still preaching when the speaking in tongues begins, and it is this miracle that convinces him he should baptize the Gentiles.
Interestingly, the episode does follow Acts 10:48 in having Cornelius ask Peter to stay with his family for a few days, but both Cornelius and Peter have to leave right away when they hear that Caligula’s statue has arrived in Jerusalem.
Also: in Acts, the news that Peter baptized some Gentiles spreads so quickly that it reaches Jerusalem before he gets back, and the believers confront him over this as soon as he returns. But in this episode, it is Peter himself who tells James the Just that he baptized Cornelius, which prompts James to reply, “You did what!?”
Peter’s defense of his actions, in Acts 11:4-18, is not quite covered by this episode (though he does have a few lines of dialogue that parallel verses 5 to 10), because the conversation between Peter and James is interrupted by a Roman who summons Peter at swordpoint. And that is where the episode — and the season — ends.
Scripture references, redux. Caiaphas recites a passage from Psalm 57 while kneeling on the ground during the climactic battle.
There are also references to a few of Jesus’ sayings in this episode:
The apostles discuss whether Caligula’s statue might be the “abomination” that Jesus referred to in Mark 13 and Matthew 24, and they debate whether they should flee to the hills like Jesus said; Thomas also quotes the bit from those passages where Jesus said not one of the temple’s stones will be left standing when the end comes.
But Peter says they shouldn’t run away and abandon the temple, because Jesus himself said the temple was “his Father’s house” (in Luke 2 and John 2), and because abandoning their fellow Jews would make them just like the priest who ignored the man beaten by the robbers in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (in Luke 10).
Caiaphas also speaks a line of dialogue that harks back to the gospels’ depiction of him. During his argument with his wife Leah, he says, “Who cares about you, about an individual, a family?” This line echoes the passage in John 11 where Caiaphas says it would be better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish.
Historical reference points, redux. This is the episode in which the Romans finally try to put Caligula’s statue inside the Jerusalem temple — and they get much, much further in this episode than they ever did in real life.
Here’s what really happened, according to our historical sources:
The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo reports that the Roman governor Petronius ordered the construction of a statue in Sidon. The first-century historian Josephus tells us that Petronius was then met by tens of thousands of protestors in Galilee who bared their necks and said they would rather be slain in cold blood than live to see the temple desecrated. Petronius, wanting to avoid a major war — and wanting to protect the food supply, which was endangered while all these Jews refused to work the land — decided to stall, and sent a letter to Caligula asking him to reconsider.
Caligula, who had just been persuaded to leave the temple alone by his friend Herod Agrippa, was incensed that Petronius had disobeyed him, so he sent the governor a letter ordering him to kill himself. The letter was delayed by some storms, however, and by the time it arrived, Petronius had already received word that Caligula was dead — assassinated by his own guards in AD 41. So Petronius did not have to kill himself, and Josephus suggests that the arrival of Caligula’s letter was delayed by divine providence, to reward Petronius for risking his life on behalf of the Jews.
A.D. The Bible Continues has almost none of this. There is no Petronius, only Pilate (who, historically, had left Judea for good four years earlier). The statue does not stay in Sidon or wherever; instead, the Romans successfully bring it onto the temple mount, to the Court of the Gentiles (and Pilate has instructed his soldiers to leave the statue in the Court of the Women, so it doesn’t have much further to go).
The one historical detail that does remain is the Jewish protestors baring their necks and volunteering to die — though they do this within the temple courts after the statue arrives, rather than up north in Galilee before the statue is even finished.
But these protestors do not persuade the Romans to change their minds, and they do not save the temple in the end. Instead, as far as A.D. is concerned, the temple is saved because the Zealots (and other Jewish protestors) attack the Romans and shatter Caligula’s statue. Violence, not peaceful protest, wins the day in this episode.
Interestingly, A.D. fictionalizes this storyline even further — and Christianizes it — by making the newly-baptized Cornelius the Roman official in charge of installing the statue, and Peter the first Jew who kneels before him in peaceful protest (though Peter does not bare his neck; that is left to Caiaphas, who kneels in imitation of Peter).
This is an amazing co-opting of secular history, when you think about it. Why do the Jews volunteer to die? Because a Christian shows them the way. And why do the Romans not kill them all? Because the centurion in charge is a Christian too. The possibility that non-Christian Jews or Gentiles could have resolved this issue peacefully is eclipsed by the Christianization of the key figures involved — and by the utterly non-historical skirmish that erupts between the Zealots and the Romans.
One other historical reference worthy of note is that Reuben, the temple guard, tells Caiaphas that “the schools of Shammai and Hillel” are ready to stand with Caiaphas in opposition to Caligula’s statue. Shammai and Hillel were two rabbis in the century before Christ whose followers frequently debated how to interpret Jewish law. Their teachings are cited in the Talmud and influence Jewish practice to this day.
Political friction, redux. Pilate gets under Caiaphas’s skin by revealing — in front of both Caiaphas and Leah — that Leah went behind Caiaphas’s back in the previous episode. Caiaphas tries to save face by saying it was his idea, similar to how he told the Jews that Pilate’s visit to the temple in the third episode was planned in advance.
Caiaphas tells James he expects the Christians to support the temple in its moment of crisis, but James says they cannot help. Caiaphas threatens to beat and flog and stone the Christians because they have no interest in anything but themselves.
After she is disowned by Caiaphas, a desperate Leah tries to play the various Jewish factions against each other, but none of them will have it.
Violence, redux. The episode concludes with a bloody skirmish between Zealots and Romans that leaves both Eva and Reuben dead. (Reuben did not take part in the fighting, but a couple of stray arrows hit him just the same.)
Caiaphas also finds Leah with her throat slashed. The episode never reveals who did this, but it offers at least two possibilities:
First, Leah’s brother Jonathan tells their father Annas that Leah will “drag us down if we’re not careful.” Annas replies, “So what should we do with her?”
But, there is also a scene in which Reuben — who has been watching Leah as she goes from one place to another, trying to stir up trouble — tells Caiaphas he needs to talk to him about his wife. The next time we see these men in the same scene, Caiaphas is getting ready to confront the Romans, and Reuben approaches him and gives him a slight nod. Perhaps Caiaphas sent Reuben to kill Leah. (But in his own home?)
Family matters, redux. See above for the family dynamics that may have led to the assassination of Caiaphas’s wife (and Annas’s daughter) Leah.
Claudia slaps Pilate’s face, and Pilate responds by throwing her to the ground and grabbing her by the throat. In a later scene, Claudia threatens to leave Pilate — but in another scene shortly after that, she says it would be impossible for her to do so.
This is the only episode in which we see Cornelius’s wife and children.
Amplified effects, redux. Supernatural light pours through a “crack” in Cornelius’s ceiling just before the angel appears to him.
And the speaking in tongues by Cornelius and his family is accompanied by tongues of fire, just as it was at Pentecost in the third episode — but there is no reference to tongues of fire in the story of Cornelius’s conversion in the book of Acts.
This raises an interesting question: if the series continues and depicts the speaking in tongues that happened on other occasions, will there be tongues of fire on those occasions too? It has long been observed that the tongues-speaking at Pentecost was different in kind from the tongues-speaking that happened afterwards, since the people who spoke in tongues at Pentecost could be understood by everybody (as per Acts 2), whereas the tongues-speaking that has happened since then has been unintelligible or has needed an interpreter (see I Corinthians 14).
Pre-conversion narratives, redux. Cornelius, like the Ethiopian eunuch in the previous episode, has a fictitious history of bad deeds that he needs to repent of before he can become a Christian. Thus, the angel that appears to Cornelius commends him for his “sorrow and repentance” rather than his “prayers and gifts to the poor”.
Another effect of this change to Cornelius’s back-story is that, when Cornelius kneels before Peter now, it is less out of recognition of Peter’s authority and more out of contrition for his own role in the deaths of Jesus, Joanna and others.
Odds and ends. Several episodes ago, I wondered if the series was setting up an affair between Cornelius and Claudia, but I said nothing about it because the evidence seemed too slight. In this episode, however, Cornelius tells Claudia she can leave her abusive husband — and she seems open to the idea when she thinks it would mean running away with Cornelius. But when she realizes Cornelius is actually telling her to join the Christians, she seems disappointed, and decides to stay with Pilate.