The Bible—Episode Three: Jesus Enters a Real World

March 19, 2013

Episode Three of History Channel’s The Bible makes the leap from Old Testament to New Testament times. The fast-forward is appropriate to the feeling one has as one turns the page from Malachi’s prophecy in the Old to the gospel of Matthew in the New. What happened? Circumstances have changed dramatically.

We enter the world dominated by Rome. Yes, the producers choose to illustrate the desecration of the Temple in an extra-biblical way (my readers may be able to help me find the source for this, if it exists beyond the producers’ imaginations). And yes, the emphasis is again on violence, which makes for stimulating TV (I guess for some; I am getting tired of it myself). But there is no question of the sea-change that has taken place, and Rome is a brutal regime with its power in evidence everywhere.

When I visited the Holy Land in 1987, I was bowled over by the overwhelming presence of Herod. The Romans were builders, and they built to last: aqueducts, palaces, monuments, fortresses, seaports . . . and, of course, the Temple for the Jews of which only one wall is left now. It is fitting for the New Testament to open with this observation, even though the Scriptures do not focus on that history very much. Some think the brutality and disgusting character of Herod may be over-acted in this production, but I do not hold that opinion. A guy who weighs well over 300 pounds and has to be lifted by mini-crane into and out of his swimming pool, who has his family members killed in cold blood, and who is paranoid enough about his power to murder male babies must be portrayed in the most vicious and cunning way possible. We are not disappointed in this case.

For the record, the show is off on some details: I don’t know what that eagle on the face of the Temple was about and can find no reference to it (the installation of Zeus’ image in the Temple was far more serious in the Hasmonian period), and the magi from the east (well played in this production) were not present on Jesus’ birthday, nor were the Innocents slain that soon either.

The visit of Gabriel to Mary falls squarely in the middle of a Roman-caused disturbance in Galilee. Their divine encounter is an isle of sanity and calm, even as Mary processes the angelic message. Joseph is also visited, consistent with the Matthew account, and his particular courage comes through amidst the ugly social pressure to make Mary an outcast for an unexplained pregnancy. We must not forget that here were two disciples of the living God responding to extraordinary circumstances. I am glad for the reminder of how much it cost them both to say “Yes” to God.

The storytelling at this point creates a mosaic of images, cutting back and forth between the Roman oppression, the frantic search for lodging in Bethlehem, the curiosity of the shepherds, the search by the magi following the star, with voice-overs of the messianic prophecies while Mary gives birth. The wonder of the Incarnation (minus a chorus of angels) comes through beautifully, and I found the birth scene and the arrival of the gift-bearers particularly moving. Jesus was born into real time, for a real world, to real hardship, with a real mission that only God could have designed and accomplished. It feels like a very fragile beginning built upon the faith of two people responding in humility to a very challenging divine call.

Fast forward, again through indications of Roman brutality and oppression, to the crowning of Herod Antipas and the arrival of Pontius Pilate. Their appearance sets up the political backdrop to Jesus’ story. (N. T. Wright would appreciate the acknowledgment of earthly empire here.) John the Baptist rattles official cages with his prophecies of the coming Kingdom. Caesar back in Rome interprets the growing movement as an organized dissent against the empire. So we know that John is in the crosshairs.

As John is immersing the repentant in the Jordan River, an adult Jesus enters the scene and asks for and receives baptism. Unfortunately, we do not get the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved Son,” or even a dove to mark the significance of the moment, the mission, and the identity of Jesus as the Son of God—a missed opportunity in my book.

Jesus leaves the river and heads for the wilderness, where his temptation in the desert is vividly portrayed. He is in a very bad way, depleted and weakened physically, when the snake slithers by and morphs into a black-hooded Satan. The spiritual face-off involving three temptations is chillingly done. One must appreciate the quality of the photography and effects.

In a scene reminiscent of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, the third temptation to worship Satan causes Jesus to weigh the merits of wealthy prestige on one hand with humiliating crucifixion on the other. He of course chooses rightly, but he does not choose lightly. The encounter is over when he says, “Get away from me, Satan. I worship the Lord my God, and serve him only.” 

With the news that John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod, we see Jesus begin his mission in Galilee. Watching Peter clean up after a fruitless night of fishing, Jesus walks out to the boat and hauls himself in with Peter’s help. No, the Bible does not record Jesus saying, “Just give me an hour, and I will give you a whole new life,” but he sure did help Peter catch a bunch of fish at midday in sort of an amalgam of Matthew 4 and Luke 5. We miss Andrew in the scene, and the other disciples, but maybe they will appear in the next episode. Artistic license was rather liberally applied here, attributing to Jesus beyond the verifiable, “I will make you a fisher of men” (Matthew 4:18), the answer to Peter’s question of what they were going to do, “Change the world.” There was something very attractive about Jesus, but I do not think the Scriptures emphasize a world-changing mission just yet. The messianic hope was palpable at the time (Simeon and Anna, Luke 2, show us that), but it was not seen as a global hope this early (it took the Great Commission and Pentecost for that impact to come into focus).

In my next post, some more devotional thoughts stimulated by the program so far.

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7 Responses to “The Bible—Episode Three: Jesus Enters a Real World”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Thank you and thank you, Mary, for your responses to The Bible. May the many viewers log on and be amazed as well as challenged by your perspective and wisdom and your love for God’s Word. The Lord is drawing out truth through you again. That is a praise. May it continue.

  2. Bill Goff Says:

    Dear Mary, Thank you for your analysis of “The Bible.” I agree with most of your observations. I differ with you on the characterization of Herod the Great. I have read a lot about Herod from which I learned that he was a handsome man with many outstanding leadership qualities, but was also a paranoid murder who killed anyone who could be a challenge to his power. I believe it would have been more effective and meaningful to portray Herod the Great as handsome, accomplished leader. People who are capable of great evil often do not look evil.
    Conversely those who are good people are not always beautiful. I am not impressed that an actor who is a Brad Pitt look-alike was cast to play Jesus. To me it would have been much more meaningful to have cast an actor who at least looks like a Palestinian Jew.

  3. Linda Lee, mukilteo Says:

    Mary, thanks for your post on these movies.
    I’ve found them to have some inspiring moments, though agree the violence detracts at times from the whole message.

    I was especially disappointed in the last answer Jesus gave to satan in this movie when He says “I worship The Lord God” instead of quoting Scripture. It seemed like Jesus was saying to Satan….i worship the Lord and you should too, and this did not point to Jesus as God to be worshiped.
    In the bible account from Matthew Jesus says, “It is written”
    And “For it is written” and then quotes scripture:
    “You shall worship The Lord your God, and Him only shall you
    Worship.” I am not sure, but it seemed like Jesus was not presented as equal to God, to be worshiped as God.

    We saw omissions in the baptism part where God indicates Jesus as Son of God in whom He is pleased and as being from God.
    These may be minor points??………or it could be problematic
    In that it puts Jesus as just another god leader and not Divinely God.

  4. Jodie Says:

    Nobody expects a movie adaptation of a book to exactly follow the book. But some movies make you want to read the book and some movies turn you off to the book. Sometimes the book is better, sometimes the movie is better.

    I don’t expect any movie adaptation of the Bible to be “better” than the Book, although there are folks who think Charlton Heston was a better Moses than Moses.

    If we want to judge a movie adaptation to the Bible, I think the only standard that really matters is whether or not it is making people want to read the Book. That’s a question better answered by folks do not know the Bible.

    Anybody know what they are saying?

  5. Adel Thalos Says:

    I have found this movie adaptation to be seriously flawed on many accounts…and found it of little value. I pray that many who have not previously been exposed to truth and history of the Bible will come to an evangelical church and ask questions.

    Did anyone else find the portrayal of the angel to Mary somewhat creepy? He appeared initially as a Roman soldier. I was wondering if they were playing into the liberal view that she was raped by a Roman soldier. Did anyone else notice the casual comment that the Old Testament was compiled during the period of exile? Once again a liberal view…

  6. Harvey Cedar Says:

    I would add that Daniel was already in Babylon at the time of Jerusalem’s fall, having been carried off in an earlier attack, and that Jeremiah was imprisoned at the time of the Babylonian capture and was pulled out of a pit by them.

    The eagle on the temple was extra-Biblical, there were attempts at putting emblems of Roman domination on the temple but the Jews felt that this was idolatry and i don’t think any of them succeeded.
    BTW In addition to the Hasmonian Zeus, there was Hadrian’s attempt to build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the temple which led to the Bar Khoba Revolt.
    In reviewing “The Passion” someone commented on how the writings of Catholic mystics were used as source authorities for events portrayed in the movie. I’m wondering if that’s happening here, if true, that would concern me.

    I remember someone preaching on the Temptation who said that “if you are the Christ” leads to a misunderstanding of what was being said. There was no question, no need for Jesus to prove Who He was. It would be better translated as SINCE you are the Christ…i.e., you don’t have to put up with this, you deserve better, use your power to meet your physical needs.

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