Continuing in our evaluation of the five-part series The Bible on History Channel, Episode Four weaves story threads artfully if not completely accurately. The span of time shortens now, from hundreds of years to just two or three, the period of Jesus’ public ministry. There are some great scenes that could be used as clips for a Sunday school class, but as usual, I have some quibbles about details. Today I will explore the “ministry and miracles” (M & M) part, which appeared in the first half of the episode. In my next post, I will analyze the depiction of Christ’s last week.
The major M & M scenes covered in this episode (in this order) are these: Telling the parable of the sower, forgiving and healing the paralytic lowered from the roof, healing the leper. We see him overturning the money-changers’ tables, calling the tax-collector Matthew to discipleship, preaching the Beatitudes to a multitude, feeding the 5,000, teaching the Lord’s Prayer, and redeeming the woman caught in adultery. There is the stormy sailing on the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus walking on water, calling Peter to join him. At this point, not at the beginning of his ministry as depicted in Luke 4, Jesus reads the Isaiah 61 scroll in his home synagogue, announcing the purpose of his ministry. [This appears to be the chosen bridge between his Galilean ministry and the conflict with religious elites in Jerusalem.] We then hear that John the Baptist has been beheaded, and the political stakes are elevated.
Not a bad sampling of Jesus’ life and work!
The writers are a little coy about the conclusions people were coming to, as they see Jesus in action. Some of this is attributable, I think, to the legitimate interpretation that the people might be coming to Jesus only for the benefits: healing and food, for instance. Take the “Who do you say I am?” conversation (found in Mark 8:27-30). In the Scripture’s account, Jesus asks what the people are saying about him, and the answers range from identification with Elijah and “the prophets” to John the Baptist. These would be messengers from God to the Jewish people. But in the movie, the only answer is, “They think you are the [political] Messiah,” and the benefit would be political liberation. Or consider the stormy sea scene in Matthew 14:23-33. Jesus appears to the frightened disciples, walking on the water toward their boat. Peter demonstrates his trust in Jesus by getting out of the boat to walk on the water also. When he falters, the Scriptures say Jesus immediately plucks him out of the water with a “Hey, why did you doubt me?” As the wind dies down, the other disciples’ exclaim, “Truly you are the Son of God!” The television version has Peter sinking and almost drowning, hearing the words “O ye of little faith . . .” underwater, and then waking up suddenly on the beach with a look that says to the viewer, “What just happened here? Was this a dream?” A missed opportunity to connect Jesus to the Lord of all creation and to observe that faith in Jesus as Son of God was embraced by the other disciples, not just Peter.
I think what is happening is that the political ramifications of Jesus’ M & M are being emphasized at the expense of the theological underpinnings. Since I more closely identify with a theological approach, I am of course disappointed in the missed opportunities to make these links. There may also be an attempt to leave enough unsaid to encourage the viewer to put two and two together. However, the 21st century television viewer is much less likely to know enough background to make those connections. When the Scripture is overt in its claims about Jesus’ identity, that needs to be part of the story, don’t you think?
What I liked about this episode was the depiction of Jesus’ teaching dynamic, taking those “teachable moments” and using common elements to illustrate his points. It is highly unlikely that Jesus taught by lecture method (at least not often; maybe once), as the structure of the Sermon on the Mount might suggest. We might feel the movie-makers took his teachings “out of order,” but what is the proper order? The gospel writers themselves had different stories appear at different stages in Jesus’ life, because they were taking the great body of material they had to work with and telling Jesus’ story with it. This is precisely the task, I believe, the producers of this TV series were undertaking also.
One notable example of this was the encounter with Nicodemus, which appears in only one gospel (John) and near the beginning of his narrative (chapter 3). In the movie, Nicodemus is a confidant/assistant to the High Priest Caiaphas, and his role as skeptic turned inquirer stretches out to the last week of Jesus’ life. If this is the way it actually happened, then John’s gospel used the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus as a thematic banner. “Here is what Jesus is going to be about, as I [John] tell the whole story—‘You must be born again!’”
Another more subtle choice was to have a “Mary” appear as part of the band of disciples from very early in the story. She is never really introduced; we do not know her background, but only that she was part of the group of followers. The only quibble would be that she appears to be the only woman, unlike indications in the gospels; but kudos to the producers for subtly capturing an important nuance here, from Matthew 27:55 (plus synoptic parallels), that women as well as men were close followers of the teacher from Galilee.
With that, I will conclude this post and turn attention next to the last week of Jesus’ life, leading up to his trial before Caiaphas.