Getting Jesus Right: 2 Quick Comments on Week 4 of “The Bible” on the History Channel

Bottom line, I think the New Testament is being handled a lot better than the Old. Here are two thoughts on the last episode.

1. A young adult I know was watching the last episode with a few of her friends. One friend, a young man, who wasn’t churched or familiar with the Bible, said, “I didn’t know Jesus was so loving.”

Whether or not a loving Jesus jumped out at me, that comment reminded me that my own sophisticated misgivings (an occupational hazard of a biblical scholars) may not be the standard by which to judge this mini-series, problems and all. It wasn’t written for the biblically knowledgable but for those whose biblical literacy minimal–perhaps at best a distant echo of children’s Sunday School (which may be why they spent so much time on familiar but minor stories like Samson and Daniel in the lion’s den).

2. One thing the last episode did very well was to get across something of theo-political tensions of 1st century Palestine.  In Jesus’ day you had,

(1) the Roman empire keeping a watchful eye on a percolating Jewish nationalism, and crushing it when need be,

(2) various Jewish groups with different ideas of how to get along (or not) with their Roman landlords, and

(3) keen interest among the Jewish religious leaders in following the law of the Old Testament.

On this last point, I was very glad to see that Judaism was not presented as a superficial “keep the law to get to heaven” cult as it is too often portrayed, at least among Protestants. Rather, Jewish attention to maintaining religious purity, and therefore separation from gentile influence, was an expression of faithfulness to the God of Israel in the midst of living under Roman rule.

Being zealous to keep the law was seen as a means of ushering in a new age–where the God of old returns to “save” his people. That “salvation” would come by means of God’s chosen warrior-king, whose title was “messiah” (anointed one). He was expected to lead the people of God in religious purity and political independence, the restoration of Israel’s (and God’s) glory and the meting out God’s judgment upon her enemies.

Jesus, however, preached a kingdom that supplied an alternate ending to Israel’s story. Not a miltary take-over of Jerusalem, but an inclusive kingdom of inner transformation–a kingdom that countered both the empire mindset of Rome–with its abuse of power and religious claims (Caesar was considered divine)–and the Jewish alternative, the messianic age, a Jewish empire of its own.

That is what all this “the meek shall inherit the earth” business is about. It is also why the various sides of this theo-political time-bomb-waiting-to-go-off were upset with Jesus.

In a lecture about 10 years ago, I heard New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan put it something like this (he may have written this somewhere, but I haven’t come across it–this is a good faith paraphrase):

If you knew nothing of Christianity and never heard of Jesus, but you understood the political and theological turmoil of 1st century Palestine–the clash of the various Jewish parties, Roman rule, and Greco-Roman thinking–and then someone handed you the Gospel of Mark and you began to read it for the first time, it wouldn’t be long before you started flipping ahead in the story to see when this Jesus was going to be killed.

Jesus’ death–the death of the messiah at the hands of the Romans–was proof positive that Jesus was not the messiah. The messiah is supposed to win, not be executed. This is where Paul will come in–explaining how a crucified and risen messiah is actually the true display of God’s justice and mercy to Jew and gentile alike. I wonder how “The Bible” will address that. I guess we’ll see this Sunday.

At any rate, a proper portrayal of the theo-political tensions of the time will allow a contemporary audience to sense the surprise, and even offense, of Jesus’ words and actions. In my opinion, given all the limitations, I think “The Bible” is doing a good job of this.

  • http://dpitch40.blogspot.com David P

    Great, constructive insights about the show. I haven’t seen any of it; does it give any mention to the backstory of the Maccabean revolt? I read a bit about this, about how people thought Judas Maccabeus was the Messiah until he was killed, and there was a good deal of expectation/fear of another Maccabeus coming along that may have contributed to the reactions people had to Jesus.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ Tim Chastain

    I have been very disappointed with this series, but I must say that last weekend’s episode was QUITE good. I felt that the characters were well developed, as opposed to the flat figures of the previous episodes. And the impacts of the Bible narrative were well presented. Perhaps they should have shot a film about Jeus instead of trying to cover the entire Bible.

    I would have done a few things differently, but overall I think they did a good job. I still think, however, that a more racially authentic ‘Jesus’ would be better than the white stereotype one. I look forward to the conclusion this weekend!

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    Peter, I’m not watching the show, but congratulations on an excellent summary of what the “Jesus event” was all about. As relevant–and misunderstood–now as it was then.

  • Dr. Laurel Mose

    After reading your review of the show on MSN, I had to write the first letter I’ve ever been spiritually ‘encouraged’ to write about a tv review. Working with secular and non-secular individuals at Harvard makes your comments particularly sad to me – what brings attention, encourages any and all to look to the content of the Bible is an act of planting the seeds for God to work with. It isn’t about whether this human depiction is ‘thumbs down’ due to the producer adding a specific factor that is secondary to the story; including a mother’s logical reaction to the loss of a child, a ‘sacrifice’, seems to have been so disruptive to you that it canceled out the purpose of telling the story to reach mankind in the first place. The only author who is going to write any of these stories is: God. Putting judgements on the humans trying – and the key word is trying – can come off as sanctimonious and hard heart-ed, and is exactly how Jesus told us not to be. It would have been good to hear your positives on the endeavor as strongly as your criticism.

    • Dr. Laurel Mose

      edit: ‘The only one who is going to write any of these stories [accurately’…

  • http://www.gospel-thomas.net Mike Grondin

    I agree with Dr. Mose that encouraging people to read the Bible is a good thing. In particular, they might want to check out what’s said about the slaughter of women and children by Joshua at Jericho (Josh 6.16-21) and by Saul at Amalek (1 Sam 15.3-ff). They might then think to ask “What kind of god would give such commands?” or perhaps “Is this the same god that I worship?”

    • James

      Mike, they might want to read to the end of the story of Jesus to find out! Which raises another interesting thought: We Christians bank heavily on New Testament revelation in order to get a clearer view of the ebb and flow of ‘salvation history’ as outlined in what we term the Old Testament. How do Jews interpret their own Scripture in light of its ‘unsavory underbelly’–that we modern folk get so exercised about? I suspect some use more sophisticated interpretive tools than we are accustomed to using and are able to envision a glorious end to human history not wholly unlike Christian hope.

  • http://www.gospel-thomas.net Mike Grondin

    Thanks, James. I couldn’t have asked for a more gracious response. Actually, I suspect that at least some of the ‘unsavory underbelly’ were stories made up to explain things that folks thought needed explaining – or that could be used in a larger narrative. (I have in mind here also the story of the destruction of Sodom – also featured in “The Bible”, and which, if people read the Bible, will be found to include Lot being seduced by and impregnating his two daughters. I suspect that that’s a fictional explanation of the origin of two peoples, supposedly the offspring of the two daughters.)

  • Robin

    I was very very disappointed in the series “The Bible” why? Because the main characters, Abraham to Moses to Jesus (which is not his real name) were seen as Europeans when in actually they were Africans – and Jesus’s real name is Yeshuah Ben Yosef an African. If you are in the business of telling history why not tell the truth about history.

  • http://www.gospel-thomas.net Mike Grondin

    Robin – I believe that the folks you mention – even Moses, who was born in Egypt – were ethnically Semitic, not African.

  • Jack

    I am very disappointed in the way the series ended.With so much garbage and untruths included there wasn’t any time left to finish the story.It was pitiful that they tried to tell the last half of the New Testament in 10 minutes time.How absurd Revelations was not included in the story except by name.So much of the whole story of the Bible was left out or changed that the book was barely recognizable,what a shame,what could have been an epic turned out to be a minor mini series.

  • Scott

    Why no mention of slavery in the show? Slaves are called “servants”. And how any of this, particularly the visible satan, can pass as “history” is ridiculous.

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