Season 1, Episode 8 — ‘The Road to Damascus’
Editing Acts, redux. The eighth episode of A.D. The Bible Continues covers two stories from the book of Acts, but it skips the story between them.
It depicts the encounter between Peter and Simon the Magician in Samaria (8:14-25), as well as the conversion of Saul on his journey to Damascus (9:1-20), but it omits Philip’s meeting with the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza (8:26-40).
Time will tell if the story about the eunuch is covered in future episodes. But if it isn’t, then this series has missed another opportunity to explore the growing ethnic diversification of the early church. (See also how it omitted any reference to the friction between the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews in episode five.)
It’s worth noting that the conversion of Saul is actually described three times in the book of Acts. Chapter 9 tells the story as part of its regular narrative, while in chapters 22 and 26, Saul — then known as Paul — tells the story to different audiences.
As it happens, this episode of A.D. does take at least one of those other chapters into account. When Ananias tells Saul, “He has chosen you to know his will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear the words from his mouth,” he is quoting Acts 22:14.
Scripture references, redux. Once again, for the second episode in a row, there are no references to the Old Testament. Is this a permanent change?
In other news: This is the episode that introduces Joanna, a woman with connections to the royal family who is mentioned only twice in the New Testament.
In Luke 8, she is one of the women who sponsored the Jesus movement during his ministry, while in Luke 24, she is one of the women who discovered the empty tomb. Luke also tells us that her husband Chuza managed Herod Antipas’s household.
A.D., following Luke, depicts both Chuza and Joanna as people who work for Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias. The series also indicates that Joanna and Mary Magdalene were both cured of demons by Jesus in Galilee, as per Luke.1
But because Mary Magdalene was the only woman who went to the empty tomb in the second episode of A.D., Joanna is not aware that Jesus has come back from the dead when we first meet her. So it falls to Mary Magdalene to tell her the good news.
To underscore the fact that Joanna is in a precarious position because of her faith in Jesus, the episode also has her remind us that her employer, Herod Antipas, killed John the Baptist, which is mentioned in Mark 6, Matthew 14 and Luke 9.
Also worth noting: This episode puts Barnabas in Damascus when Saul goes there. The text never specifies that Barnabas was there, but Barnabas does introduce Saul to the apostles when Saul returns to Jerusalem later on in Acts 9, and Barnabas even tells the apostles the story of how Saul became a Christian and preached in Damascus. So it’s certainly possible that Barnabas witnessed these things first-hand.
Saul tells Barnabas that he hopes the Christians will forgive him because “I was blind, now I see.” While this sentence does refer to Paul’s literal and spiritual blindness, it also echoes something said by the blind man healed by Jesus in John 9.
While Peter heals people in Samaria, John tells the Samaritans watching them that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus said this about himself in John 14, and this phrase was already used by Peter to describe Jesus in the sixth episode.
Pilate’s wife Claudia has a dream in which Caligula suffocates the emperor Tiberius — and the dream comes true. This echoes her dream about Jesus in Matthew 27.
Introducing Saul, redux. Saul was first introduced a couple episodes ago, when he began persecuting the Christians. This episode focuses primarily on his conversion, and it captures quite well how his personality changes and doesn’t change afterwards: on the one hand, Saul’s arrogance and contempt are replaced by joy and contrition, but on the other hand, he now strides into a synagogue ready to preach the message of Jesus with the same zeal that he once brought to his persecution of the Christians.
Caiaphas tells the temple guard Reuben to accompany Saul and his men on their journey to Damascus. Interestingly, while the others go on foot (this is the first film since the 1960s that I can think of in which Saul and his men walk to Damascus), Reuben rides a horse — until it collapses, and then he has to go on foot too.
Saul tells his men Peter is a “snake oil trader”, which is a glaring anachronism. The stereotype of the “snake oil salesman” goes back to the 19th century, when Chinese labourers working on the Pacific Railroad gave snake oil to Europeans with joint pain. As far as I know, “snake oil” was unknown in the ancient Middle East.
Reuben asks Saul why he hates Peter, and Saul — who stops in mid-sentence when he realizes what he’s saying — replies by essentially saying it’s ridiculous to think that God would spread his word through a simple fisherman and not a more cultured, educated man like himself. Mere seconds later, Jesus appears to Saul and reveals that he is going to spread his word through a cultured, educated man like Saul.
The scene where Saul tells the men who came with him from Jerusalem to come down to the river to be baptized with him by Ananias is pretty funny.
Historical reference points, redux. Tiberius worries about the close relationship between Caligula and Agrippa and wonders how to separate them. The historical Tiberius had no such worries: he simply threw Agrippa in prison.
Caligula smothers Tiberius in his bed, just a few days’ journey out from Jerusalem, and thus becomes the new Emperor of Rome. The historical Tiberius died in an Italian town called Misenum in AD 37, and his death was a bit more complicated.
Tacitus, a Roman historian writing in AD 109, says Caligula’s followers were waiting for Tiberius’s death, and at one point, when it seemed that Tiberius had died, they began to celebrate Caligula’s ascension to the throne — but then Tiberius stirred and asked for some food, and everyone panicked, until an associate of Caligula’s named Macro ordered that Tiberius be “smothered under a huge heap of clothes”.
The 1985 miniseries A.D. Anno Domini also showed Caligula smothering Tiberius under a pillow, though in that case the death of Tiberius coincided with the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, rather than the conversion of Saul in Acts 9.
Note: The historical Pilate was no longer prefect of Judea when Tiberius died. (Pilate had, in fact, been sent back to Rome to report to Tiberius, but Tiberius was dead before he got there.) Also, Caiaphas ceased to be high priest in AD 36, one year before Tiberius’s death. But both men still have their jobs at the end of this episode.
Violence, redux. Tiberius contemplates killing Agrippa, but doesn’t.
Pilate holds a knife to Caligula’s throat when Caligula insults his wife. Pilate goes on to tell Claudia, in another scene, how much he would like to cut Caligula’s throat.
Simon the Magician begins bleeding from his face just as Ananias and Sapphira did when they were struck down by the Holy Spirit in the fourth episode.
Caligula suffocates Tiberius in his sleep and becomes the new Emperor of Rome.
Sexualization. The threat of violence has taken a sexual turn in the last couple of episodes, thanks to Caligula and Agrippa.
In the previous episode, the two men sexually harassed one of Pilate’s servant girls, and Caligula personally grabbed Mary Magdalene by the hips. In this episode, Agrippa sexually harasses Joanna, until he is interrupted by his sister Herodias.
This episode also includes a scene in which Caligula, Agrippa and two prostitutes are found asleep and in a state of semi-undress in one of Pilate’s rooms.
Political friction, redux. Pilate — who thinks he’s going to be promoted to a new position in Rome — tells Herod Antipas he made a good case for letting Antipas take over as ruler of Judea. These plans are ruined when they learn Tiberius is dead.
This episode doesn’t get into it, but the territories ruled by Antipas and Pilate will be combined in a new kingdom ruled by Agrippa just a few years later.
Family matters, redux. Claudia speaks well of her husband to Tiberius, and he in turn promises to give her husband a promotion, telling him always to listen to his wife. Claudia then tells Pilate, “It’s official. Always listen to your wife.”
Alas, the plan that Claudia cooked up, for separating Caligula and Agrippa, backfires when Caligula kills Tiberius so that he can be reunited with Agrippa.
Amplified effects, redux. Saul does not merely see a light on the road to Damascus, as the book of Acts describes; he sees an apparition of Jesus himself in full bodily form. But, perhaps to signify that these apparitions are different from the resurrection appearances in the second episode, there is a luminous glow around Jesus in this episode that he never had in the previous appearances.
Jesus also appears to Ananias in Damascus, though in this case the text seems to support the depiction: Acts 9:10 says Jesus “called to” Ananias “in a vision”.
The scene where Peter condemns Simon the Magician’s money is transformed in this episode from a simple conversation to a major special-effects sequence, with dark skies, lightning, blood flowing from Simon’s face, and lots of shouting.
Aggression, redux. Peter throws the money Simon gave him back at Simon, and John has to hold Peter back from getting even more aggressive with Simon.
Odds and ends. Saul says it will take two days to walk to Damascus from Jerusalem, including rest stops. Google Maps says the journey takes 60 hours on foot — i.e. two and a half 24-hour days — and presumably that’s without any rest stops.
Tiberius’s death is foreshadowed not only by Claudia’s nightmares, but by an “omen” consisting of four vultures, seen by both Tiberius and Claudia. This series — like its predecessor, The Bible — has acknowledged pagan Roman beliefs in the past, but this may be the first time it has granted those beliefs any sort of objective validity.
1. Luke doesn’t specifically say that Joanna had demons, but he does include her in a list of “women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases”. So she apparently had either demons or a disease.