Vote This Off the Island

Some of you may have watched the History Channel’s series The Bible and enjoyed it; please don’t take this essay as a personal criticism of you, your beliefs or your taste. Almost every generation adapts the Bible for contemporary media, and almost always promotes the prejudices of the producers and obscures key parts of the message. Jonathan Merritt unpacks 10 Inaccuracies in The Bible. . .the Miniseries, Not the Book,  with a sequel entitled Did the Bible Finale Stick to the Story?  and I will send you there for an initial course of problems with this series. Rabbi Michael Bernstein shares his take on this series from a Jewish perspective.  These are particular issues I have with how it’s turned out:

The Garden of Eden/Cain and Abel  Folks, this is how we went wrong in the first place, and it’s less than 30 seconds of screen time, total. Could we have some better sense why they went wrong? It sets up the whole story, and just saying they disobeyed God isn’t enough. Adam and Eve’s Sin is they wanted to be like God. Cain is a person worth spending a minute or two on, at least.

Noah’s Flood  The Covenant with Noah is an important point: God will not destroy the entire world in anger again.  This didn’t come through.

Abraham  He was always a shepherd and not a city boy, he didn’t choose to leave the city for the country. Sodom’s sin wasn’t being one endless orgy, or wasn’t only that (what city can maintain an endless orgy, anyway?). Hagar’s project of Ishmael was entirely Sarah’s idea, not God’s; the way it’s told makes God look fickle (stories that seems to make God look fickle shouldn’t be taken literally). Abraham comes off as completely irrational, not a leader people would follow (and he was a leader). Sarah didn’t know why Abraham took Isaac on the trip, didn’t figure out what they were doing and chase them down. The look she gives her husband at the end of their story means he’ll never feel blessed again, in any way, shape or form.

Moses/Joshua  Admitted: anything is going to look lame compared to Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston. The Golden Calf and the reason they had to wander 40 years in the desert are vital, and they’re not here. And they got some basic arithmetic as wrong Cecil B. did: Joshua would have had to be born during the desert trek, not in Egypt. The Torah says that God wanted the entire rebellious generation die off before they entered the Promised Land.

Samson  Other than the fact he wasn’t an NFL linebacker with waist long dreadlocks (they had dreadlocks in Biblical times?), he had a tragic flaw: he was an arrogant cuss who flouted his divine superiority over everyone, Jew and Philistine alike, that’s why his work was unfinished. Marriages didn’t happen for love in that time: he married Philistine women to demonstrate his power, not to preach some vague love message. Delilah tried many times to betray him, and that pattern is important: Samson knew better to confide in her out of love. The moral of Samson is not to let God’s call and commission make you feel bulletproof.

By the way, even within the time limits of the series, why tell Samson’s story and not Gideon’s? Gideon’s is just as interesting, maybe more instructive than Samson’s, and people fought in that story, too.  It might have been better to tell Gideon’s story and not Samson’s.

Saul: Toward the end of his story, he looks like someone who’s repenting and God refuses to listen. That theme is what got the Book of Enoch kicked out of the Old Testament, and is heresy in mainline Christianity. If God isn’t universally just and merciful to all who seek Him, then we’re not talking about the God of the Bible.

David and Bathsheba: Nathan’s Parable (2 Sam 12:1-12) is a masterpiece in diplomacy and conversion. Nathan was able to convince David he was wrong, got him mind and soul back on track, and that’s what turned him around. If Nathan acted like he did in this series, he would be as dead as Uriah the Hittite for disloyalty, regardless what he said. David doesn’t really repent here, or seem to accept his guilt, which can make one wonder why Saul repented and wasn’t forgiven, but David didn’t and was, which is very bad theology.

Jeremiah: Zedekiah was a lot more wishy-washy, which the episode of throwing Jeremiah into a dry well to starve and having him pulled out again would have shown. The agony the prophet went through having to bear bad news to a people he loved would make a great dramatic story. The King and his court didn’t try to repent too late (see the Saul comment): they were arrogant enough to think God would save them in spite of what they did without any repentance. Jeremiah didn’t choose to go to Egypt at the end, the survivors forced him after the assassination of the first Babylonian governor: he wanted to stay.

Daniel: The three young men were favored by Nebuchadnezzar, so much he gave them new names (Shadrack, Misach and Abed-Nego are Babylonian names). Nebuchadnezzar really didn’t want to throw them into the furnace: he invested a lot in them and had big plans for them, but he didn’t understand why they wouldn’t see things his way since he thought Yahweh didn’t exist or had been destroyed (he did win the war, after all). How did Daniel get to be such a buff old man after a lifetime of working a desk job? Cyrus didn’t permit the return of the Jews because of the lion’s den (his predecessor Darius was the one who threw Daniel in the lion’s den). If Daniel had been taken to Babylon from Jerusalem as a young adult, 56 years later he would have been much, much older, maybe too decrepit to return. Of course, he was running Persian Empire for them and couldn’t be spared.

Cyrus the Persian: He really believed every good God of the peoples he conquered was other name for the good God he worshiped, that’s why he wanted the Jews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. He really didn’t care about freedom of religion, or doing the Jews a favor: he thought he was helping himself and his deity. He definitely didn’t think he was giving anyone their freedom: they belonged to him and he wouldn’t have let them forget that.

Mary: Why does everything in this series have to revolve around a fight of some sort? The angel appears to her and Joseph while the Romans are beating up people around them? It seems they have a quota of fight scenes throughout the series, regardless which story they’re trying to tell. In the New Testament portion, it’s a scene of Romans oppressing people: we got the point the first time. I realize the Bible is a violent book and we shouldn’t pull away from that (see Psalm 137:7-9, which is left out of some monasteries’ breviaries), but this series adds violence for its own sake.

Mary’s five to seven months pregnant and everyone just notices and gets upset one day? This is a small town, under a thousand people after all, where everyone would know everything about everyone else pretty much all the time. The problem wasn’t her pregnancy: since she was betrothed it would have been all right.  Only Joseph would have known it was a problem, and the choice was his (after the angel visited him in a dream).

Mary and Joseph’s hometown is in dispute because we know how the Romans conducted a census, and they did it like we do: they counted people where they were. One of my scripture teachers in Jerusalem said the residents of Bethlehem wouldn’t have wanted a bunch of Galilean bandits descending on their town for a census. There would have been huge displacements of people that would have wrecked local economies, which even the Romans wouldn’t want, being pragmatic if vicious tyrants. Either Mary and Joseph went to a town called Bethlehem in Galilee, or they were from Judea around Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth after the flight to Egypt. I’ll vote for the latter, but won’t bet the farm on it.

Lastly, how many hairdressers were working in First Century Galilean villages? They seem to have had both men and women as customers: waves were very popular.

Satan: I would think he’d be more charming, persuasive. Anyone in their right mind wouldn’t listen to this guy. At least he’d have a pleasing voice rather than an indecipherable accent.

Peter: This wasn’t the man’s birth name, Jesus wouldn’t have called him that from the start, and he isn’t called this until Jesus gives him this name in recognition for his profession of faith. His name is Simon, and he’s called that frequently in the Gospels. He probably wouldn’t have been fishing alone, his brother Andrew probably would have been with him. In general, people didn’t work or travel as individuals or in small groups, and you almost always had family around.  Simon’s profession of faith is the turning point in the Gospel of Mark, and like Abram and many other Biblical figures, receiving a new name is a marker of a divine mission (oh wait, we didn’t have a re-naming scene for Abram, either).

Mary Magdalene: She wasn’t the only woman traveling with Jesus: Luke 8:1-3 lists two other women and mentions more that aren’t named. It would have been very scandalous for a single woman to be traveling with a group of men she wasn’t related to, as in, people didn’t do that (it’s not done often today). The men would have been just as scandalized as the woman, and they all might have been literally stoned.

The disciples: The scene at the Sea of Galilee where they’re launching a boat with a storm on the horizon doesn’t make sense. The Sea of Galilee sprouts such storms unpredictably, as anyone who sails these waters regularly knows, so there’s no need to heighten the story of Jesus’ water walking in a storm with: “He told us to do it, so we did went out, even though it was a stupid thing to do”.

Jesus: So many Biblical sayings are classic quotes in the English language, so their rewriting here doesn’t make sense. Why not use the phrases we know? I agree that one problem with Jesus seems to be terminal cuteness, but doubt any filmmaker would ever cast an ugly Jesus.

Gethsemane The soldiers would have grabbed any of Jesus’ followers they could, that’s why the whole group, including Peter, ran. Remember the scene from the end of Spartacus, with the crucified slaves along the Appian Way? That’s how the Romans did business, and the Temple guards (and High Priest) would have known that. “Let the others go, we have the one we want,” was really said by no one at that place and time, despite what the Gospels say. They would have killed innocent bystanders to make sure they got everyone, maybe everyone living nearby, to make an example, if nothing else.

Passion and Crucifixion  Stoning wasn’t a legal sentence whose execution was ever delayed: usually a crowd got incited that someone transgressed The Law, hauled them out and started throwing rocks.  (Actually, any legal sentence was carried out right away at that time, either punishment or execution.)  Annas and Caiaphas had bigger reasons to get the Romans to crucify Jesus than fear of a crowd: if they stoned him out of passion, they wouldn’t have had to calculate. The series got wrong what Hollywood generally gets wrong with the Crucifixion: He would have only carried the cross piece like the thieves did, the nails went through the wrists, it would have been next to the city walls on a public road to make an example of them, so the chief priests were there with a crowd to jeer as well.

After the Resurrection Mary, Jesus’ Mother, stayed with the Disciples in Jerusalem afterward, according to Acts. The disciples were in the Temple a lot after Jesus’ Resurrection; they didn’t set up a totally new religious movement in the beginning. Peter’s vision at the house of Simon the tanner would have set the baptism of Cornelius and his household up better. The deaths of most of the Apostles, other than James, aren’t told in the Bible.

These stories have been changed dramatically from the original, something the creators made no effort to hide. The problem is that every story in the Bible is full of significant, symbolic detail: when you change something for dramatic effect, you change the message, sometimes drastically. The disclaimer at the beginning of each episode says: “This program is an adaptation of Bible stories. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book.” If you’re trying to tell the Truth and change things, what are you left with? Playing fast and loose with these details is outrageous, and I’m tempted to vastly uncharitable language to express my feelings about it. Jonathan Merritt of thinks they got the Meta-stories right; I disagree and say they left them woefully incomplete and got a couple of them wrong. I’m not a Biblical literalist at all, but I think we have to deal with the stories as they are, no matter how we interpret them.  Massive rewrites court trouble.

I know folks who say we should be glad they’ve made a series about the Bible; I say: not if it’s screwed up like this. If you haven’t watched it, don’t bother. Don’t buy it or show it to your children, period. There’s other dramatizations of Biblical stories, such as the movie The Gospel of John which filmed the Gospel pretty much word for word, that are much better for basic instruction. The American Bible Challenge would seem to generate more relevant questions about what’s in the Bible than this series does. Hollywood almost never gets the gist of the Bible right, (I watched both versions of King of Kings to compare) why expect it to now?

The problem with trying to teach the Bible without any doctrinal basis is the show ends up having bias anyway. To some extent, this series heightens a perception the Old Testament God and New Testament God aren’t the same thing. God’s people are pretty much Lone Rangers throughout, which is ahistorical and unbiblical.

I am frightened with the damage control necessary with all the misconceptions and distortions this miniseries casually throws out: people could think they know the Bible from this series without reading it, and they won’t. It doesn’t do enough for people who don’t know the Bible, and too much for people who do. The greatest misconception it feeds is that the Bible is a unified Book: it’s better described as a library written over centuries, by different human authors from different perspectives. How do you make a movie or miniseries about a library and do it justice?

If you want to do a movie about any Biblical story, do that story alone: Samson, David, Abraham, Moses have been made into movies, and I think Gideon, Jeremiah and others could make good movies as well. Paul’s journeys would make an excellent miniseries. One could focus on telling that story well, working through the rich details, referencing the rest as needed. Even with the omissions this series makes, way too much is squeezed into way too little space. The squeezing leaves out too many essentials, falsely promising completeness.

The problem with The History Channel presenting this is the Bible isn’t history as we know it, and assuming this series gets the history right is also dangerous. Let’s not talk about The History Channel making the current daily lives of people in strange situations into history, or celebrating the Vikings, who lived by murder, terror and plunder (although I’m glad they seem to be done with Hitler).

Endeavoring to stay true to the spirit of the Bible is something Christians have done throughout history. How well this series does can be summed up with one word in my book:



One comment

  1. A few comments: One is that I like Fr. Michael Himes (Boston College) who said that the sin of Adam and Eve was not wanting to be like God—-it was their failure to believe that they were already like God.

    Secondly, I seem to remember a miniseries done on Peter and Paul about 30 or more years ago.

    My overall problem with putting scripture tofilm/ video is that generally the meaning is lost. For the most part people have little understanding of proper ways to read and understand the scriptures. Interpreting them on film just exacerbates this.

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