The Bible: final episode, first impressions

The Bible: final episode, first impressions April 1, 2013

And so it ends. Here are my first impressions of the final episode of The Bible, which aired last night.

Continuity between Bible stories, redux. Once again, I am impressed by the fact that this adaptation-of-the-whole-Bible approach — whatever its limitations — has allowed the filmmakers to emphasize the continuity between Bible stories in a way that you rarely see in other films.

For example, there are many films about the life of Jesus, and there are even a few films based on the Book of Acts, which covers what the followers of Jesus did for the next three decades or so after his death and resurrection. But I can’t think of more than one or two films that covered both of these periods, thus allowing, say, the Peter who followed Christ around Galilee and the Peter who led the early church in Jerusalem to be played by the same actor.

So kudos to The Bible for keeping and, indeed, emphasizing that continuity — not only by having the same actors play the apostles throughout the entire final episode, but also by extending the role of certain characters who appear only in the gospels into the period covered by the Book of Acts. I refer, specifically, to the temple guard Malchus, whose ear was healed by Jesus — and who, in this episode, continues to work for Caiaphas against the early Christians — and to Mary Magdalene, who is present when the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost and who later draws a lame man to the attention of Peter and John, thereby facilitating on some level the miracle that cures him.

(At this point I must link to Mark Goodacre’s “celebration” of this mini-series’ depiction of Mary Magdalene. He rightly notes, among other things, that most films about Jesus to date have followed the western tradition of identifying Mary Magdalene with the “sinful women” of Luke 7 and John 8, and that The Bible thankfully does not go this route. Alas, the mini-series also neglects to include the one bit of back-story that the Bible does give us about Mary — namely that Jesus cast seven demons out of her — but that’s the sort of detail that can easily go missing when a mini-series has to compress as much narrative material as this one does.)

As much as I like these efforts to strengthen New Testament continuity, I cannot help but note that they go in only one direction, from the gospels into the Book of Acts. Characters who appear for the first time in the Book of Acts are kept out of the mini-series until the biblical narrative calls for them, so there is no effort to show what, say, Stephen and Paul were doing during Jesus’ ministry; we only see them in relation to the early church.

(Unless I’m forgetting something, the only film I can think of that depicts Paul before the death of Jesus is The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), where Paul — who has definitely not converted to Christianity yet — is one of the Jews who conspire to kill Lazarus after Jesus raises him from the dead.)

I should probably also note that the mini-series extends the appearances of Jesus into the Book of Acts and beyond. And this gets into some interesting, tricky territory.

For one thing, the Resurrection itself was such a mysterious thing that some of the people who encountered the risen Christ did not recognize him at first, not even after traveling long distances with him and talking to him, as on the road to Emmaus. (The fact that the men on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus is all the more remarkable if you consider that one of them, Cleopas, might be identical to the Clopas who is identified by another early Christian writer as Jesus’ uncle!)

For another, it is generally held that the Ascension, which took place 40 days after the Resurrection, marked the end of Jesus’ resurrection appearances — and indeed, the reports of his subsequent appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus all mention a bright light from heaven but say nothing about him appearing to Paul in physical form.

And the later visions of Jesus described in the Book of Revelation are even more bizarre, with references to blazing eyes and multiple crowns and a sword coming out of his mouth and whatnot.

The mini-series, on the other hand, flattens everything out and makes pretty much every single one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances identical. In every one of them, it brings back the actor who played Jesus, and has him appear more or less the same — though sometimes the camera is out-of-focus, as if to suggest that the vision of those who beheld him was impaired or obscured somewhat.

To be fair, the Book of Acts does indicate that Jesus may have appeared, visibly, to at least some people after the Ascension, as when he “called to” Ananias in a vision, in Acts 9, or as when Paul “fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking” to him, in Acts 22. So there’s room for some ambiguity, there.

But as we’ve seen, this mini-series doesn’t really do ambiguity, at least not intentionally.

Where did Satan and the angels go? For all the continuity that this mini-series does maintain, it does miss a few obvious opportunities to continue in that vein.

For example, what happened to the angels? We saw them in the first three episodes as they appeared to Abraham, Joshua, Mary and others — and they were all dressed in identical garb, which nicely underscored that the angels who appear in the Old and New Testaments are all part of the same crew. But they are utterly absent from this episode’s depiction of the Resurrection and the Ascension. Is it because those passages tend to describe the angels as dressed in white robes, whereas the angels we saw earlier in this mini-series all had red cloaks and armour?

(There are several other references to angelic activity in the Book of Acts, too, though I believe the mini-series skips over every single one of those incidents in their entirety, so it only makes sense that those references would not be depicted here.)

I am also struck by the fact that Satan, who appears several times in this mini-series — including three appearances during this episode’s depiction of the Passion alone — does not appear again after the Crucifixion. In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), the frequent glimpses of Satan culminate in a final shot of Satan howling in agony as he or she realizes that Christ has won, but there is no similar pay-off in this mini-series. The appearances of Satan simply stop.

Incidentally, it dawned on me after last week’s episode that this mini-series did not place Satan in Gethsemane, unlike some other recent films that had extended Satan’s role beyond the initial temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Instead, unless I blinked and missed something, he appears on four other occasions related to the Passion: once when Judas leaves the Last Supper; once, in the crowd, when Malchus announces the sentence against Jesus, and Judas returns the 30 pieces of silver; once, behind the Roman soldier who is about to scourge Jesus; and finally, in the crowd that watches as the Romans nail Jesus to the cross.

In this, the Satan of this series is reminiscent not only of the Satan in Mel Gibson’s film, but of the Satan played by Donald Pleasance in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). It has been far too long since I have watched that film, so I can’t remember how many times we saw him exactly, but I do recall that he was in at least one of the crowd scenes outside Pilate’s fortress.

No Gamaliel, sigh. One last note about curious absences and missed opportunities with regard to continuity: We never see Gamaliel in this episode, but we do hear someone refer to him in one of the later scenes.

Gamaliel was one of the greatest Jewish authorities of that era, and is revered within the Jewish tradition to this day. He is also mentioned twice in the Book of Acts: In Acts 22, Paul tells his fellow Jews that, although he was born outside the Holy Land, he was trained in Jerusalem by Gamaliel; and in Acts 5, it is Gamaliel who advises the Sanhedrin not to be too aggressive in persecuting the early church, lest it find itself opposing God.

In the mini-series A.D. Anno Domini (1985), Gamaliel becomes a major character, who not only plays both of the roles described in Acts but also serves as a positive example of non-Christian Judaism; the high priest Caiaphas and his cronies might persecute the early Christians, but through Gamaliel, we are allowed to see that it was possible for Jews even in Jesus’ day to reject his messianic claims while still being tolerant of his followers.

But The Bible, alas, has no time for this character, so it omits him entirely — until a point very late in the episode when Caiaphas decides to stop persecuting the Christians and, to justify his decision, says to Malchus, “As Gamaliel said…” Dramatically, it’s just kind of odd, to have Caiaphas cite an earlier incident that we’ve never even seen.

Echoes of other Bible movies, redux. I haven’t seen The Passion of the Christ in a few years, but boy, did this episode’s lengthy treatment of the trial, scourging and crucifixion of Jesus bring that to mind. From the appearance of Satan at certain key moments, to Mary watching the scourging through the closed gate, to the frequent slow-motion shots and skewed camera angles as Jesus falls to the ground, to the flashback Jesus has to Palm Sunday as he faces the crowd on the Via Dolorosa, to the sheer amount of blood that covers the face and body of Jesus as he is crucified, to the earthquake that shakes the Temple when Jesus finally dies, it’s all Mel, Mel, Mel.

As noted above, I was also reminded of The Greatest Story Ever Told, but not just because of Satan’s appearance in the crowd. There is also something about Jesus’ accent — the way he sounds like a continental European, in contrast to the primarily British actors who surround him — that reminded me of Max von Sydow’s Jesus, whose Swedish accent could not help but make him seem quite otherworldly in a film populated mostly by American actors.

I also note that Simon of Cyrene is played by a clearly black actor here, just as Sidney Poitier played him in The Greatest Story Ever Told. (Jarreth Merz, the Swiss-born actor who played him in The Passion of the Christ, is also of part-African descent.) The casting here is no doubt a nod to the fact that Cyrene is in Libya, which in turn is in Africa, though it’s worth noting that Cyrene had a significant Jewish population at the time.

Finally, the way Mary Magdalene screams for Jesus to be released, instead of Barabbas, reminded me of a similar moment in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), though it is staged quite differently.

The clouds! The clouds! It’s not just an earthquake that strikes the Temple when Jesus dies; before the ground starts to shake, Nicodemus sees some dark clouds amassing in the sky overhead.

Similarly, when the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost and the disciples begin to speak in foreign languages, the crowds outside notice not just the sound of the disciples’ voices coming through the window, but the wind and the gathering clouds as well. This is the opposite of how, say, A.D. Anno Domini treated Pentecost, where the wind exists only inside the house where the disciples are meeting, and the air outside is still.

Sensitivity to Judaism. For the past several decades, filmmakers have made a point of beefing up references to the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers, and they have generally tried to avoid perpetuating those aspects of previous plays and films that have lent themselves to charges of anti-Semitism. And on the rare occasion that the filmmakers have come across, rightly or wrongly, as indifferent to such charges (see, e.g., Mel Gibson), there has often been quite a bit of controversy.

Whatever else we might say about The Bible, the people who made it are clearly not indifferent on this point. They make a point of showing that the crowd which called for Jesus’ death was selected by the Temple guards — therefore the actions of that crowd cannot be held against Jews as a whole — and they also make a point of having Nicodemus sing in Hebrew as the body of Jesus is prepared for burial.

Fitful, arbitrary use of later traditions. I really like the fact that this episode has brief glimpses of Matthew and Thomas ministering to people in other parts of the world prior to their martyrdoms. The fates of these disciples are never disclosed in the Bible itself, but there are traditions to this effect, so it’s good to see that incorporated here.

On the other hand, it’s a little puzzling how the mini-series can include the scene where the crucified Jesus tells John to look after Mary (as per John 19), as well as a scene where John tells Peter he’s thinking of moving to Ephesus (as per later tradition), but completely omit the fact that Mary lived with John (as per John 19) and may have even moved with him to Ephesus (as per some traditions).

In fact, the last time we see Mary, it is after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus but before the resurrection, as Mary Magdalene tells her, “Have a safe journey back to Galilee.” Let’s set aside for now the unlikelihood that a middle-aged woman would have gone on such a journey by herself; it’s simply strange to see the mini-series suggest that Mary never got to witness the resurrection of her son.

(Though there are no accounts in the Bible of Jesus appearing to his mother, it is traditionally assumed that he did appear to her; and in any case, the Bible does tell us not only that Mary lived with John, but that she was with the disciples during that ten-day period between the Ascension and Pentecost.)

A very tactile Jesus. The Jesus of this mini-series definitely likes to touch people, especially after his resurrection.

He touches the foreheads of Peter and the others when he appears to them — an allusion to the tongues of fire which appeared on their foreheads in Acts 2, perhaps? — and he makes a point of touching Thomas instead of inviting Thomas to touch him (which is how it happens in John 20).

Later, when he appears to Ananias in Damascus — an encounter described in the text as a “vision” — he puts his hand on Ananias’s neck and kisses his forehead!

Chronology. The part of the episode that deals with the early church makes some slight adjustments to the chronology of Acts.

It follows the order of events up to Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, but then it jumps ahead to the execution of James in Acts 12, and then it proceeds even further to the first meeting between Paul and Luke (which is never described in the New Testament, but probably corresponds to Acts 16, since that is when the author of Acts, traditionally believed to be Luke, starts writing in the first person), and then it jumps back to the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 before jumping ahead again to the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, which come from later tradition rather than the New Testament.

I’m not entirely sure why the chronology was rearranged this way, but if I had to guess, I would say it’s because the makers of this mini-series wanted to alternate between Peter and Paul instead of simply dropping Peter to focus on Paul, the way the Book of Acts does about half-way through.

Rearranging the chronology this way also simplifies the geographical trajectory of the episode: while Ananias might have fled to Damascus, the twelve apostles stay in Jerusalem until one of them, James, is executed, at which point the others all leave, thereby freeing Peter to baptize Cornelius in Caesarea. In the Book of Acts, Peter travels back-and-forth a bit more, but that might have been harder to depict in a mini-series as compressed as this one is.

I would also note that this episode’s depiction of the Passion seems to follow the Johannine chronology, where the sacrifice of the Passover lambs coincides with the crucifixion of Jesus, rather than the Synoptic chronology, where the lambs are sacrificed the day before. In this episode, the procession to Golgotha is even cross-cut with the sacrifice of lambs — and doves, which is odd. (Doves are permitted, by Leviticus and Numbers, as an affordable substitute for larger animals in connection with other rituals, but the whole point of sacrificing the Passover lamb is to eat it, and I’ve never heard of anyone eating doves at Passover.)

The violence, redux. No need to elaborate on the episode’s violent, bloody depiction of the Passion.

I note, though, that a few key episodes from the early church are depicted in a more-violent fashion than usual, too. I am thinking particularly of the bit where Peter is arrested in Rome. Unlike other films, which simply show him being taken away by soldiers or hanging from a cross, this film shows people beating him repeatedly.

And that, I think, about covers it for now.

The mini-series comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray tomorrow, so there should be plenty of opportunities to analyze it later. But this will do for now, I think.

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