Season 1, Episode 5 — ‘The First Martyr’
Editing Acts, redux. Last week’s episode of A.D. The Bible Continues took time to develop a few simple stories from Acts. No such luck this week. Instead, this episode skips over some pretty major developments, all so that it can focus on the capture, torture and death of a fictitious Zealot, while also cramming in the brutal death of the first Christian martyr — a character that we had only just begun to get to know.
The episode does depict the fear that gripped the early Church following the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (5:11), the imprisonment of the apostles and their angelic escape (5:17-26), the second trial of the apostles (5:27-33), the speech that Gamaliel makes in the apostles’ defense (5:34-39), the flogging of the apostles (5:40-42), the stoning of Stephen (7:54-60) and Saul’s approval of Stephen’s death (8:1).
The episode does not depict the appointment of the seven Hellenistic Jewish deacons (6:1-7), the false allegations against Stephen (6:8-15) or Stephen’s trial before the Sanhedrin (7:1-53) — though a few words from Stephen’s speech do make it into the scene where Stephen strides into the Sanhedrin and starts haranguing the elders.
The omission of the appointment of the seven deacons is a major, major flaw, in my books. It’s made worse by the fact that, when Peter tells Stephen he wants Stephen to run the camp, Stephen actually replies that such a job is beneath him — he’s too educated! — and that he wants to preach instead. This is the exact opposite of what happens in Acts, where Stephen is one of the deacons who oversee the distribution of food so that the apostles can focus on “prayer and the ministry of the word.”
To make things even worse, this episode introduces Philip, who was also one of the seven deacons, but the episode never associates him with Stephen or the diaconate or anything else (apart from a single line of dialogue in which Peter says he wants Stephen and Philip to look after the camp): it just turns him into a guy who bumps into Peter while trying to save some Jews from Pilate’s executioners.
There’s one other connection that this episode fails to make: This is the first episode to feature either Gamaliel or Saul, yet it never acknowledges the fact that Gamaliel was Saul’s teacher (as per Acts 22). Other films have used the Saul-Gamaliel relationship to explore the tensions within Judaism between Gamaliel’s tolerance of the Christians and Saul’s dogmatic persecution of them, but this episode couldn’t be bothered.
Scripture references, redux. Stephen teaches Peter how to read, using Genesis 1.1
Peter sings a mournful passage from Psalm 69 when he and Caiaphas find themselves standing before the dead body of Boaz, and Caiaphas briefly joins in.
Caiaphas recites a list of curses from Deuteronomy 28 while the apostles are flogged.
This isn’t scripture, exactly, but Caiaphas tells Boaz at one point that a monster cannot be slain, because if you cut its head off, it grows another one that bites back twice as hard. I am not aware of any Jewish legends to this effect, but it sounds like something from Greek myth (e.g. the Hydra, which grew two heads for every head it lost).
Jerusalem. This episode makes much of the fact that the Christians are living in a camp somewhere outside Jerusalem, where people can be “safe” from the authorities. This is not at all what one finds in the book of Acts, which says the early Christians preached every day “in the temple courts and from house to house”.
Interestingly, this episode also features two scenes in which Peter proclaims that Jesus is going to come back to establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. This is not part of the message Peter preaches in Acts; he does mention the Second Coming once, in Acts 3, but the language of “kingdoms” and “Jerusalem” comes from somewhere else.2
Will this series show how early Christian eschatology changed as people realized the Second Coming wasn’t happening as soon as they had thought it would? Or is it taking modern ideas about the end times and imposing them on the past, the same way it imposed certain ideas about the Second Coming onto the Ascension?
Violence, redux. Cornelius arrests and executes more Jews, though most of this takes place offscreen. Finally, to stop the reprisals, Boaz turns himself in to Caiaphas, who hands him over to Pilate, who promises Boaz that he will die slowly.
Pilate himself delivers the first blow, by sticking a knife in Boaz and twisting it. Then Boaz is tortured under Cornelius’s supervision, as a brand is placed on Boaz’s arm. Finally Boaz’s father-in-law Levi shows up and mercy-kills him with an arrow.
The apostles are flogged by the Sanhedrin. I don’t think any other film has actually depicted this. Rossellini’s Acts of the Apostles shows the apostles returning from their flogging with torn robes, while A.D. Anno Domini shows Caiaphas giving the order to whip the apostles — but neither of those films shows the actual flogging itself. Even The Visual Bible merely narrates this passage, instead of dramatizing it.
And, of course, Stephen is stoned to death, with close-ups on his face as a few of the rocks hit his head.
Interestingly, at one point Boaz justifies his own violence by saying that Peter killed a man and woman (i.e. Ananias and Sapphira, who died supernaturally in last week’s episode). Peter replies that only God decides who lives and dies. And so the series does make an effort to differentiate between the different kinds of violence in the Bible.
Aggression, redux. The moment of shared Psalm-singing between Peter and Caiaphas comes to an end when Peter decides to use the death of Boaz as a witnessing tool and starts proclaiming the name of Jesus right in Caiaphas’s face.
Stephen also strides into the Sanhedrin and starts chewing out the elders without any warning. As Nicola A. Menzie put it to me on Twitter, the Stephen of the Bible was full of the Holy Spirit, but the Stephen of this episode is “full of pride.” (Last week’s episode showed gusts of wind blowing across Peter’s face to signify that he was full of the Spirit. This week’s episode did no such thing for Stephen.)
Amplified effects, redux. Speaking of those gusts of wind, a similar breath-like sound is heard on the soundtrack when Peter decides how to deal with the Boaz situation. So rather than justify the characters’ decisions based on internal narrative logic, the writers are invoking the Holy Spirit as a sort of deus ex machina.
Sympathy for Caiaphas. More and more, Caiaphas is the most interesting character, to me. Yes, he’s an antagonist to the early Christians, but he also expresses sincere concern for them because of their shared Jewish heritage.
In the Christian camp, Caiaphas tells Peter, “There are hundreds of innocent people here. I pray to God for their sake.” And when Stephen bursts in on the Sanhedrin and starts ranting at them, Caiaphas actually looks a little concerned that Stephen might have wandered into a much more dangerous situation than he anticipated.
Family matters, redux. Mary Magdalene gets Peter’s daughter Maya to look after the daughter of the Zealot who died in last week’s episode. Maya ends up telling Peter that she plans to move back to Galilee, to a place far from the turmoil in Jerusalem.
This makes me wonder if the producers have decided to abandon the back-story that they were developing for Peter. Episode one introduced Boaz the Zealot as a childhood friend of Peter’s; episode three introduced Peter’s daughter Maya. But now, as of episode five, Boaz is dead and Maya says she’s going back home. So is that it, then?
Interestingly, Mary Magdalene tells Maya, “You’re still a child yourself,” but Maya is a teenager, which in this culture would make her old enough to marry, etc., yes?
The Virgin Mary has another of her morale-boosting conversations with Peter, which I’m beginning to find kind of interesting, because according to Christian tradition (as per John 19), Mary lived with the apostle John after the Crucifixion, but we haven’t really seen her interact one-to-one with John all that much in this series.
Boaz’s fiancée Eva asks her father Levi, who is also a Zealot, to teach her how to kill. This is starting to sound like one of the subplots from The Dovekeepers.
Claudia begins to act behind Pilate’s back, hoping to save at least some of the Jews from her husband’s wrath. Cornelius notices this, but covers up for her.
Political friction, redux. Pilate and Caiaphas keep things relatively civil this time, but their wives get into a bit of a spat that ends with Claudia slapping Leah.
Caiaphas does make a point of telling Pilate that “knowledge can be as effective as force” when Pilate asks how Caiaphas found Boaz.
Curiously, when Caiaphas goes to the Christian camp looking for Boaz, he warns Peter that the Romans will be there to destroy the camp “in less than an hour” if Peter doesn’t give Boaz up… but Boaz doesn’t turn himself in until hours later, at night, and the Christian camp remains untouched. Was it just an empty threat?
After Boaz turns himself in to Caiaphas, and before Caiaphas hands him over to Pilate, Boaz intuits that Caiaphas hates Pilate as much as Boaz does.
Bribes, redux — or not, as the case may be. Amazingly, when Leah tries to persuade Eva to give up Boaz, she does not offer Eva any money. That makes this the first episode in which neither Caiaphas nor his wife tries to bribe anyone.
Odds and ends. It’s awfully banal, how Gamaliel begins his speech to the Sanhedrin by asking if Caiaphas really can’t recall being carried away by his own enthusiasms when he was young. And just how young are the apostles, anyway?
1. My friend Steve Pahl tells me that the Hebrew text used in this episode doesn’t quite match the standard text used by Bible translators. In a discussion of this scene on my Facebook wall, he wrote that, just within the first few lines, “there are spelling mistakes and some dropped words, etc. The concept of the Spirit of Elohim hovering is dropped in favor of just Elohim hovering. . . . The pen is pointing to the word ‘light’ and the word that precedes it is ‘and let there be’ (although . . . the consonant ‘heh’ is poorly written and looks a little odd). But the next word should be ‘and there was light’ but the next word here is probably ‘and he said’ but I can’t make out the word following ‘and he said…’ so I don’t know what he said!!” He wonders if the producers hired a consultant who had access to “some obscure early text”.