How I Would Have Plotted Out “The Bible” Series on the The History Channel Had I Been Asked (and I wasn’t)

O.K., let’s try to be constructive here. I’m not crazy about the TV series “The Bible” on the History Channel, but neither am I losing sleep over it, and I’m sure plenty of people are enjoying it, learning from it, etc.

But, had I been asked what should and shouldn’t be covered, here’s how I would have done it–and as I continue, keep in mind I know that I know less about TV producing than the people responsible for “The Bible ” know about the Bible, so you can put that criticism back in your holster.

I teach a first year undergrad course at Eastern University, “The Nature and Meaning of the Old Testament,” your proverbial Bible 101 course. I use as my one and only text a wonderful little book by Victor Matthews, Old Testament Turning Points: The Narratives That Shaped a Nation.

Matthews has 8 “turning points” to the Old Testament, episodes that, if grasped, take you a long way toward getting the overall narrative of the Old Testament. These 8 episodes act as “hooks” upon which to hang the sometimes confusing details of the Old Testament.

These 8 turning points are: Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, divided monarchy, fall of the northern kingdom, fall of the southern kingdom, return from exile.

Note that 5 of the 8 turning points cover from David to the return form the exile–about 500 years. That may sound boring, but 29 of the 39 books (75%) of the Old Testament deal with this period.

Why so many books for such a relatively brief period? Because most of the Old Testament is concerned about land: getting it, settling in it, keeping it, getting kicked out of it, and in the case of the southern kingdom of Judah, coming back home.

If you think that sounds boring, go ask a modern Palestinian.

Anyway, “The Bible” puts the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle. Although the series follows the storyline of the Old Testament, the producers opted to go more with the “big names”–let’s call it “celebrity”–approach to teaching the Bible than than the “stages of the story” approach as Matthews does.

That’s why Samson and Daniel each get their own hour and all we see of  Solomon is him playing with a model of the temple as a boy rather than lingering for a few minutes on how he caused a civil war.  Sheesh.

So, given the precious 10 hours, here’s what I would have done.

I would have given the last 3 hours to Jesus and the book of Acts, ending with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Telling the story of the Christian Bible is, after all, the point of the series, and giving about 65 years of history 1/3 of the airtime sounds right to me.

The remaining 7 hours I would divide this way.

Adam (and the flood as a transition to Abraham): .5 hours

Abraham (with Jacob and Joseph as a transition to Moses): 1.5 hours

Moses (go nuts with the plagues and the Red Sea, but don’t forget to linger a bit on Mt. Sinai) 1 hour

David  (leading off with conquest and judges and ending with the birth of Solomon) 1.5 hours

Divided Monarchy and Fall of the Northern Kingdom (beginning with Solomon’s screw ups and ending with Assyrian invasions, include a prophet or two) 1 hour

Fall of the Southern Kingdom and Return from Exile (leading off with maybe Josiah’s reforms, including Babylonian invasion, and return and rebuilding of the temple) 1.5 hours

As a transition to the New Testament, they could talk about the challenges of maintaining Jewish ways of life and frustrated messianic hopes in the centuries after the exile. Then, enter Jesus to redefine Jewish messianic hope.

That’s a lot to cover and the same sorts of adaptations would need to happen as we see in the series now. A lot would have to be left out. Still, it’s better than giving Samson and Daniel about 2 of the 10 hours, dragging out Abraham, and dealing with the post exilic period in literally one sentence.

Thus far Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have NOT returned my many calls and registered letters, but I am sitting by patiently in case they want some input. I’m also available for a cameo.

 

 

  • Don Johnson

    I do not think you can take the 10 hours and divide it up as you do, it needs to be 10 1 hour shows.

  • http://flavors.me.gflagg Greg

    I think I would find this to be a much more faithful representation of the story weaved in the Bible. However, probably less faithful to the story most churches tell in Sunday School. I agree, it became quite apparent early on that this would be a “Sunday School Superstar” emphasis.

    I was a little surprised they left out any mention of the Passover meal and chose to focus on the lambs blood instead. And, the tough part with Solomon is that I think most churches trumpet his wisdom and portray him as a good king and blame the divided kingdom (if it is ever even addressed) on the sons. Rather than the enslavement, worldly and despotic reign which the Bible uses to question the validity of having a King in the first place. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not…and Solomon definitely wasn’t either.

  • http://markgoodacre.org Mark Goodacre

    Many thanks for an interesting post. A couple of questions:

    (1) “29 of the 39 books (75%) of the Old Testament deal with this period”. Right, but 75% of the readings in the synagogue aren’t from that stuff. Judaism has always placed the Torah at the centre, so spending two of the five hours on Adam to Moses seems more reasonable from that perspective.

    (2) “I would have given the last 3 hours to Jesus and the book of Acts”, in which case you’d be leaving to one side half of the NT (Romans-Rev.). That might also be a defensible decision, but what this shows is that however you cut up the ten hours, people are going to disagree.

    Disclaimer: I was one of the consultants, and I was asked my opinion about the way the piece was divided (not that they necessarily agreed with me or I with them).

    • peteenns

      Thanks for the comment, Mark!
      Are they planning on hitting the letters and Rev? I was only sticking with the historical/narrative portions in my break up of the NT.
      As for OT and Judaism, yes, to be sure, centrality of Torah. My scheme is just one way (and of course I don’t expect it to go any further than my little blog).

      • Keith

        I know the series ends with John on Patmos, so they definitely are going beyond simply the narrative portions of the bible.

  • Vickie

    So glad that someone else feels the same way I do. I was very upset that they left out the cloud and pillar of fire leading the Israelite’s out of Egypt. That was their assurance that God was with them. How can you ignore that??? I quit watching after that. I knew there would be more things that would get my dander up. Thanks for a better approach to this show.

    • Roberta

      I was sad to see so many blatant errors on this series. What an opportunity to display the beauty of the word of God. Instead we have things like Isaac as a child, which any little math can show that Isaac was a grown man when Abraham took him up the mountain.

      - Why not show the man coming with Abraham and Abraham telling them “we wil go up to worship and WE will come back”, which shows Abraham knew God was going to bring Isaac back to life and both would come down.
      - What was up with the ninja angel in Sodom? No where it shows the angels fought with people.
      - The terrible historical error on the life of Daniel! Even Veggie Tales got that one right.
      - Again, total silence about the northern tribe that is the main talking point of Jesus in all the gospels. The reunification of the House of Israel (North) and House of Juda (South). The northern tribes are the majority, it is alive and well. And they do believe in the Messiah, they are hiding in plain site, along with many many other people that are not blood descendents of Jacob, but recognized the voice of the Shepherd.

  • http://lawsonstone.seedbed.com Lawson Stone

    ” 29 of the 39 books (75%) of the Old Testament deal with this period.”
    This statement is misleading. The number of books means very little regarding the “percentage” of the OT dealing with a period. I suspect it also depends on a particular scholarly dating of the material, rather than the subject matter actually addressed in the books. In fact, the putative narrative world, the world that actually appears in the text, of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth and 1-Samuel is ca 1275-1050 B.C., or the Late Bronze/Iron 1 transition. That’s a lot of material, and more vital, it’s more foundational material, material that the other books interact with and use as a foil. Why set this up so propagandistically?

  • http://www.blackcoffeereflections.com Tim

    I think it’s a little weird that you left out the Song of Songs. Have we not learned anything from what works in modern day television? ;)

  • Jim

    Isn’t specifically breaking down the ten hours a form of retro-dispensationalism? :)

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

    I have watched every minute of this series so far and plan to watch the rest. However I am NO FAN! It seems a lot like children’s Sunday-school stories–and not particularly good ones. I think it is shallow and does not represent the rich development of Old Testament history; it is just a string of stories. It is also boring. The primary attraction is violence–intense and pervasive violence. I think this film is even more violent than the Bible itself.

    In addition, some of the choices baffle me. Why would they include the stories of Daniel and his friends as historical when most scholars consider them to be fictional stories of encouragement from a much later period. And while casting Samson as a black individual might have shown the series to be inclusive, the very white sterotypical Jesus was a terrible choice.

    Though I am committed to finish the entire series, I will just be glad when it is over…

    • Roberta

      Black Samson, ninja angel. The “inclusive” shows a lot of how much this whole thing was controlled. Unfortunately tv is dominated by evil and even these producers had to sign something, if you know what I mean.

  • David

    I’m tellin ya, “Vikings” is where it’s at.

  • Dean Chang

    Also, why did they make Satan look like Obama?

    http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2013/03/18/bible-creators-history-channel-deny-show-satan-resembles-president-obama/

    And even if it wasn’t on purpose, I don’t understand why Satan is always portrayed by Christians as a haggard old man (ala Emperor Palpatine), I thought he was supposed to be a beautiful angel? How the heck is he going to deceive anyone looking so creepy?!?

  • Karl A.

    I looked up the Matthews book you referenced on Amazon, and to date there are no reviews. Perhaps you, Pete, would like to be the first to recommend it there? (Free advert for your blog!)

  • gingoro

    Why should Adam be included when he is a fictional character?
    DaveW

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    Tim #1 – very funny. Tim #2 – with Jessica as your distant relative, you have great film sensibilities.

    This is a great post because it asks us to think about redaction in relation to film. And translating from a literary medium to a visual one is like going from French to Chinese. The bible is so large in scope trying to cover it in a mini-series format may indeed be part of the problem. Likewise, sometimes breaking from the linear structure – i.e. this is how it has to be done approach – helps the truth of the story unfold.

    The film might have more relevance if it had a contemporary vehicle or storyline into the ancient text. For instance since “Tree of Life” was discussed recently, although not a tale about the bible, there were some interesting biblical dimensions to it. If the bible could be truly explored and juxtaposed with the here and now in creative stimulating ways, the truth of the text might come forward in ways that don’t seem silly or like a high school pageant. Take for instance a current headline (the Steubenville rape trial or the much publicized rape/death of a woman in India or Laura Logan’s trauma in Egypt). Then think of the concubine’s ordeal in Judges and the thematic thrust (pun noted) – “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes…” And wow, what a need for a King – a true King – Jesus. And if the bible is about the covenant and God’s people and the turning away and coming together – sin and redemption – how does this get conveyed?

    The Shakespearean cannon is vast so repertory companies only produce a few plays a year. In one’s lifetime, hopefully one gets to know many of the plays. How cool would it be to have multiple films covering the various stories/themes you outline, Peter that really go into things in-depth in compelling innovative ways. For instance, what would it mean to explore the cloud, etc? And would that work cinematically? Of course it would special effects wise but would it work fundamentally? This is a vast task and I feel a little bad for slamming the producers of “The Bible.” Any creative attempt is a valiant one. And most often in finding out what doesn’t work, one discovers what does. It takes courage to create and God made us in His image which includes the ability to create.

  • Jon Hughes

    I think it would have been interesting if they could have told the story of the Old Testament in a way that would have subtley revealed how the Scriptures functioned for Israel as the covenant community of Yahweh. What if they created a group of fictional characters living either in Babylonian exile or in Israel after exile and show how they were struggling with God, his promises, and what it meant to be the covenant people of God. This would create some characters the audience could identify with over the course of the mini-series and give some insight into how they read, understood, and defined themselves through these narratives. They did this with Noah telling the Adam story to his family as they rode out the flood. This also lays some of the political and theological groundwork for Jesus to walk onto the screen. By the end of the series, you realize the fictional characters in this journey have really been you and you know have to decide what to do about Jesus.

    I think the challenges would be 1) finding a vehicle for looking back into the past, 2) being too long and complex, and 3) creating scenarios for the fictional characters that didn’t subtract too much time away from the main characters in the story: Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul. Maybe it could be done over a couple seasons as a regular television show. I think this would have the potential to be very fun, creative, instructional, and challenging for anyone watching. Just my two cents. : )

  • Jeff

    Dr. Enns,

    It would be interesting to see how you would portray the Adam episode (going with the theory that he was fictional and all).

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

      Interesting question! I do think Adam was fictional, but many viewers would want to have some sort of reference to his story rather than just ignoring it.

  • rvs

    A very brief foray into Ezekiel 1 might secure the coveted Marvell Universe audience, not to mention those who are still watching the X-Files now and then on Netflix. Thanks for the reference to OT Turning Points. I’ve checked it out of our library, and it is helpful to me.

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  • Paula

    Good article. It’s Samson though not Sampson.

  • http://johnmarkharris.net John Harris

    I think the centrality of the Torah should be the governing principle for the OT if someone is going to tell a compressed story of the whole Bible culminating in the NT. Noah would seem to be a major figure with whom the covenant is confirmed and is used as an example of “major events” in the NT itself. I have only watched the first episode though. Trying to find the time.


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