A.D. The Bible Continues — season one, episode four

A.D. The Bible Continues — season one, episode four May 3, 2015

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Season 1, Episode 4 — ‘The Wrath’
Acts 4-5

Editing Acts, redux. The first three episodes of A.D. The Bible Continues rushed through the scriptures and skipped over major parts of the story, but this episode actually slows down long enough to let the book of Acts breathe a little.

The biblical parts of the episode basically cover four sections of the book of Acts: the trial of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin (4:5-22), the meeting of the apostles afterwards (4:23-31), the building up of the community (4:32-37) and the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11). There is also a hint of the way people in Jerusalem came to Peter, hoping he could heal the sick (5:12-16).

The episode does rearrange the material somewhat, though.

Most notably, it places the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira at a point long after they gave their money to the Church, whereas the text seems to indicate that they died immediately after they gave the money and lied about it, claiming that they had given all of their wealth to the Church when they had really given only part of it.

There are other minor deviations from scripture, as well.

For example, in keeping with the previous episodes, when Peter returns to the upper room, he tells the people there that, prior to Pentecost, “there was little more than a handful of us.” But Acts 1 says there were already about 120 followers and relatives of Jesus meeting together before Pentecost happened, and Acts 2 says literally thousands of people had already been baptized before Peter went to jail in Acts 4.1

Also, in the episode, Barnabas gives a plot of land to the Church so that the followers of Jesus can gather somewhere far from the hostile authorities in Jerusalem. But Acts 4 says Barnabas actually sold a field and gave the money to the Church.

Also worth noting is the fact that, when Peter speaks to the community upon his return from prison, he basically gives them a pep talk that is all focused on them; it concludes with the words, “The Kingdom of God is coming, and we will be fit to enter!” But in Acts 4, when Peter and John returned from prison, the community prayed to God and directed its attention towards him and his “holy servant Jesus.”

Scripture references, redux. One of the things I find increasingly intriguing about this series is the way it focuses on the spiritual side of Caiaphas. He’s not simply an anti-Christian antagonist; he’s a devout Jew trying to deal with Roman oppression on the one hand and what he sees as Jewish heresy on the other hand.

And so, once again, Caiaphas quotes scripture in his prayers, most remarkably when he joins other Jews in covering his head with ashes in the Temple, to mourn the deaths of Pilate’s victims. The prayer he recites here is taken from Psalm 77.

The other prayer Caiaphas recites in this episode — when he visits the crosses of Pilate’s victims — is of much, much more recent vintage. In fact, it was written less than a year ago by Trisha Arlin, a rabbinic student in New York, and it appears to have been used without her permission. You can read more about that here.

Meanwhile, there is a scene in which Boaz the Zealot seeks refuge in the Christian camp, and when Peter challenges his violent ways, Boaz replies by pointing out that there are pro-violence passages in the Jewish scriptures such as Psalm 144.

On a completely different note, I love the fact that Matthew — who is never mentioned in the book of Acts, aside from a list of the apostles in Acts 1 — is the one keeping the books as the new Christians make their offerings to the Church. Matthew was a tax collector, according to the gospels, and was thus good with money, after all.

And come to that, I like the fact that characters like Thomas and Simon the Zealot and Mary Magdalene — none of whom are mentioned in Acts, except for that brief list of apostles (and Mary Magdalene isn’t even mentioned there) — are all active parts of the Christian community here, as of course they would have been historically. It’s a nice way of emphasizing the continuity between the gospels and Acts.

Violence, redux. Not surprisingly, this episode begins with the Romans beating one of the Zealots and trying to get information about the whereabouts of Boaz, who killed a Roman officer last week. By the end of the episode, the Zealot is dead, and Pilate has executed dozens of Jews in revenge for Boaz’s assassination attempt.

At one point, Cornelius is leading some Jews to their death, and he bumps into Stephen, a recent convert to Christianity and, as any reader of Acts knows, the future first martyr of the Church. Stephen asks Cornelius what the young Jews have done to deserve their execution, and Cornelius replies by beating Stephen in the street.

Interestingly, when Peter confronts Boaz about his violence, Boaz replies by quoting Psalm 144 (“Blessed by the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war”) and reminding Peter that warriors like Joshua and David are a key part of the history of the Jewish faith. It will be interesting to see if this theme — the possible disconnect between early Christian pacifism and the more militaristic passages in the Old Testament — is explored any further in future episodes.

Political friction, redux. Pilate refuses to ask for Caiaphas’s help in looking for Boaz, feeling it would be beneath him to solicit help from one of his “subjects”.

Joseph of Arimathea, distressed that his own nephew has been crucified as part of Pilate’s vendetta, demands that Caiaphas do something about it, saying: “You’ve made a career out of being close to Pilate. Make it count for something now.”

When Caiaphas comes to Pilate at the end of the episode, warning him that his mass slaughter of the Jews has “provoked insurrection”, Pilate replies by taking the ashes of his slain Roman officer and force-feeding them to Caiaphas.

Amplified effects. There are no major special-effects sequences in this episode like there were in the first three episodes, which had the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost. But this episode does amplify a few scenes beyond what the text requires.

Most notably, when Ananias and Sapphira die, they do not merely drop dead like they do in Acts 5. Instead, blood begins to pour from their noses and their eye sockets.

Also, there is a recurring wind effect, which I assume is supposed to represent the Holy Spirit. The wind blows against Peter’s hair three times during his (and John’s) trial before Caiaphas, the repetition of which I found kind of cheesy, and it blows again when Peter realizes that Ananias has been lying to the Christian community.

In a related vein, Peter heals a girl who suddenly breathes in at the moment she is cured. (“Wind”, “breath” and “spirit” are all the same word in Hebrew and in Greek.)

Finally, the episode introduces two visions that have no scriptural basis at all.

In one, John has a dream about a cracked rock in the floor of the Temple, and when he goes looking for it, he meets Barnabas for the first time. By the end of their meeting, the crack in the floor of the Temple has miraculously disappeared, which confirms that John and Barnabas met through divine intervention.2

In the other, Peter sees Ananias and Sapphira hiding their extra money in a hole in a wall somewhere. The text certainly says that Peter knew Ananias and Sapphira had been lying to him — and it may indicate that his knowledge was of supernatural origin and not merely intuitive — but it says nothing about a vision.

Earthquakes, redux — or not, as the case may be. The first episode of A.D., taking its cue from Matthew’s gospel, had two earthquakes: one at the Crucifixion and one at the Resurrection. The fourth episode could have had an earthquake of its own, given that Acts 4 says the building in which the early Christians prayed (after Peter and John got back from prison) was “shaken”. But it doesn’t.

Bribes. It seems like an episode can’t go by without either Caiaphas or his wife Leah giving a bag of money to someone. In episode one, it was Judas. In episode two, it was the guards at the tomb. So far, so biblical. But in episode three, Leah tried to convince one of the guards’ widows to get out of the city. And now, she tries to get the beggar healed by Peter to say that he was only pretending to be lame for all these years.

Family matters, redux. Boaz has a love interest, and she has a father. And to judge from the clips that have already been released, it is these characters, rather than Boaz, who will be keeping the Zealot subplot going in future episodes.

Claudia openly wonders what is happening to her husband Pilate, and he replies that she will not involve herself in his affairs. So, naturally, she does, but behind his back: she goes to Caiaphas’s wife Leah and tells him they need help finding Boaz.

Odds and ends. Pilate has a weird obsession with the ashes of his former officer in this episode. He sits at his desk and piles the ashes in the shape of a stick-figure man, then he modifies the shape to that of a cross — which, here, is not a symbol of religious faith but a sign of the terror that he is imposing upon the Jews. And, as noted above, Pilate ends up force-feeding some of these ashes to Caiaphas. Twisted, that is.

The dialogue gets a bit modern and on-the-nose again, when John tells Caiaphas, “Peter is a nickname, a term of endearment. It simply means, ‘My rock.'”

Barnabas tells John that the Christians have “confined” themselves “to the poor and sick” so far, but that’s not necessarily true, if people like Ananias and Sapphira have already given significant resources to the Church and have more to spare besides.

1. Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, argues that Acts is exaggerating when it claims that there were 5,000 Christians in Jerusalem in the AD 30s and well over “many thousands” in AD 58: “Had there been that many converts in Jerusalem, it would have been the first Christian city, since there were probably no more than twenty thousand inhabitants at this time — J.C. Russell (1958) estimated only ten thousand.” Stark also notes that, in 1984, a Toronto magazine claimed that there were 10,000 Hare Krishnas living in that city, but on closer inspection, there turned out to be only 80 or so.

2. Barnabas is brand new to the Church in this episode, but there is an old Christian tradition to the effect that he was one of the seventy (or seventy-two) apostles sent out by Jesus himself in Luke 10.

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