One of my co-workers, a Muslim, kept asking me if I had been watching the Bible miniseries. When I told him that I had not, he said, “You should, you would like it.”
“I usually don’t like it when Hollywood does a Bible movie,” I told him. “They usually add all kinds of stuff to it that’s not in the Bible. Like in the movie The Ten Commandments, they made it as though Moses and Pharaoh’s wife had once been in love, which is completely extra-biblical. I mean, the Bible is the best-selling book of all-time, it’s not like they can improve on it.”
“No, man, you’ve got to see it,” he said. “They made Samson this huge black guy.” (My co-worker was black.)
After he said that I was thinking, “Samson, a Jewish leader, was a big black guy?” I almost made a joke and said, “Sammy Davis Jr. is the only black Jewish guy I’ve ever seen,” but I didn’t.
But he continued: “And the angels who went into Sodom and Gomorrah, they were like Ninjas, man. Just one of them was like killing all these guys with his sword.”
This, of course, meant that the story was already diverging from Scripture since we read in Genesis that when the angels of God visited Sodom, Lot took them into his home to protect them while the men of the city came out and demanded that Lot send out the strangers saying, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so we might have sex with them.” (Read Genesis chapter 19.) The angels then struck the men with blindness. That was all. And, certainly, that was good enough. Miraculous. No need for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon stuff.
Knowing the climate of Hollywood, I asked my co-worker, “So did the story of Sodom and Gomorrah avoid the most obvious sin of Sodom? The one usually associated with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah?”
“No,” he admitted. “Of course, not, you know they weren’t going to do that.”
And that was my point.
However, I did finally DVR all the episodes, and my wife and I sat and watched each one, culminating in the final episode on the evening of Resurrection Sunday. And I was divided as I watched it. There were times I was moved by it, there were times I was disappointed by things that were left out, and, finally, there were times I really did not like it.
Okay, so I understand that each episode began with a disclaimer which read as follows: “THIS PROGRAM IS AN ADAPTATION OF BIBLE STORIES. IT ENDEAVORS TO STAY TRUE TO THE SPIRIT OF THE BOOK.” But some of the synonyms for “adaptation” are “altered copy, revision, reworked copy, variation, alteration, and adjustment.” Such a word can be problematic when it comes to the Bible. When I first saw the disclaimer I hoped what it meant was “We took some artistic license with the texts, in order to provide a bit more dialogue and we had to leave some things out because of time limitation.” In some cases I think they made mistakes, even made major errors.
So here’s my take on it. I understand that people will disagree with me on some things, but it is my perspective none-the-less. I begin with the negatives and end with the positives.
1. I did not like how Jesus’ resurrection appearances were always overwhelmed with bright light and fogginess giving His resurrection appearances a dreamlike quality, as opposed to them being actual historic, flesh and blood events. Since true Christians believe in a historic factual and physical resurrection and since it is the hinge-pin of our faith, any treatment of it that makes it appear less than real, or any treatment of it which seems to detract from these facts, make me highly suspect. (We confess that without Jesus’ historic and physical resurrection our faith is in vain: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” writes Paul. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” [1 Corinthians 15:14 & 17].) In my opinion the mini-series left the door open for those who might think Jesus’ resurrection was spiritual or for those who believe the disciples were simply seeing visions. I understand if others disagree with my take on how the series portrayed this.
2. I did not like how the miniseries portrayed the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Jesus speaks to Martha and gives the eternal message, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). After that, Jesus went to the tomb and had those nearby remove the stone. He prayed in a loud voice to His Father and then cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out of the grave still wrapped in the cloths in which they had buried him. This is the Gospel story. Yet in the movie Jesus goes into the cave with Martha, and says, “Lazarus, I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me, even if he dies, he will still have life.” He kisses Lazarus on the forehead and Lazarus wakes up. Even actor-Jesus seems amazed and surprised. Then the three walk out of the tomb together. That is not the biblical account. The change in Jesus’ statement is subtle, but makes what Jesus says more ambiguous. And we know that our enemy Satan is an expert at saying, “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:1). Just tell it as it in the Bible. The Gospel version is more powerful than any Hollywood version. It cannot be improved upon.
3. The depiction of the Stoning of Stephen, with the exception of a few details, was almost completely false. Stephen was portrayed as simply a young Christian who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He believed in Jesus but he didn’t know much and was unable to answer the person accusing him of leading others astray. He was then stoned to death by a crowd that had been whipped into a fury by a ruffian. In the account in the book of Acts, chapters six and seven, we read: “These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (Acts 6:9 & 10). Stephen was then called before the Jewish leadership, the same group that tried Jesus (see Acts 6:12 and Mark 14:55), after giving them a long lecture on the Israel’s history he rebuked them for being as bad as pagan rebels and said, “Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him” (Acts 7:52). In their fury they dragged Stephen outside of the city and then stoned him to death.
4. The portrayal of Paul as being nothing but an uncouth ruffian is completely out of sorts with the biblical account: “The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee” (Acts 26:4 & 5). “Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers…. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (Acts 22:3 & 4). “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:13 & 14). Paul was certainly well educated as he sometimes quoted poets and sources outside of Scripture. He was an able debater (Acts 9:29) and even in Athens, center of philosophic movements, he reasoned with Jews as well as the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (see Acts chapter 17). Read any of his New Testament letters, he was a brilliant man. His portrayal in the mini-series does him and the Bible itself an injustice.
Now on to the things the mini-series left out, the absence of which disappointed me:
1. In the real ministry of Jesus, He was constantly telling His disciples that He was going to be crucified and that He would rise from the dead on the third day (see Matthew 16:21 for example). In the mini-series, however, He never once mentioned either of these things. Though it showed Him having occasional visions of what He would go through, He did not share these things with His disciples. How can they portray the Word (John 1:14), the greatest Teacher ever (Mark 1:22, John 8:28), as not being such a great communicator when it came to warning His disciples about His impending death and resurrection?
2. In the account of Moses encountering God in the burning bush (which is found in Exodus 3), they left out the following: “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’
God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you”’” (Exodus 3:13 & 14). This is hugely important, especially when Jesus tells the Jews, “I tell you the truth… before Abraham was born I am!” (John 8:58).
3. Of course, in the mini-series, Jesus never says that line. For me, there were a bit too many of Jesus’ amazing statements omitted. And though in the movie Jesus did say, “I am the way, the truth, the life” the next sentence, “No one comes to the Father except through me” was left out (see John 14:6). Also, most of Jesus’ blatant confessions that He was the Messiah were left out, such as in John 4:25 & 26. Even Peter’s confession of Christ is a bit muddled. In the Gospels Jesus asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter answers, “You are the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of God” (see Matthew 16:15-17), but in the miniseries, Jesus asks, “Who do you think I am?” Think? And Peter answers, “You are the Son of God.” These are subtle differences that could become chasms in the wrong hands. The series also left out the fact that Jesus constantly called God “my Father” as opposed to calling Him “our Father” or just “God”. This is, again, a subtle, yet important, distinction. In response to Peter’s confession of Christ in the series, Jesus says, basically, “Blessed are you, Peter, because this was revealed to you by God,” but in the Gospels He says, “This was revealed to you by my Father.”
4. As far as I can remember, Jesus never mentions a word about hell in the mini-series. And yet in the Gospels Jesus actually talks more about hell and afterlife punishment for sins than He talks about love. Therefore, when Jesus is beaten and crucified, there is little if any connection made to the fact that Jesus Christ was dying in our place, in the place of sinners, giving up His perfect sinless life as a ransom. In the Gospels Jesus says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). In fact, that is another very important line which was omitted. It would have both showed that He continually warned His disciples that He was going to be killed, and made the connection of His death being a payment for sin. Since these things are missing, the mini-series seems to play into the secular idea that Jesus was simply killed because He was upsetting the political power structure. That, of course, was the intention of His enemies, but it was not the intention of the Father or of Jesus Himself.
But let me now turn toward the positive.
I begin by giving two examples where I thought the artistic license was used positively and powerfully:
First, when we first saw Matthew and the tax collectors, the Jews and even the disciples were noticeably disgusted by them since they were collaborators with Rome. The writers then inserted the following: One teacher of Jewish law in particular wanted Jesus to condemn or rebuke the tax collectors. And here the mini-series found a good spot to insert Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector….’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (Luke 18:10-14). It’s one of my favorite of Jesus’ parables. It was a perfect place to insert it.
My other example is something that was added during the scene when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His betrayal. The creative, and effectual, license they took was showing the High Priest and his cadre lifting up their hands in prayer to Jehovah (all the while plotting the murder of Jesus) and Pilate and his wife praying to their ancestor false gods, while at the same time Jesus was struggling in prayer with His Father. I found that a powerful moment and an interesting juxtaposition.
And now, onto some of things that I really, really liked:
1. Narrator: “In the synagogue, Jesus reads from one of the most popular Scriptures of the time, a prophecy describing the coming of the Messiah.” And Jesus reads, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to declare freedom for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, to set free those who are oppressed. Today this Scripture is fulfilled.” This is based upon the account in Luke 4:14-21 where Jesus reads from the beginning of Isaiah chapter 61. It is a good moment where Jesus declares that He is the Messiah.
2. They did show Jesus telling the paralyzed man that his sins were forgiven (see Mark 2:1-11). When the synagogue leader or teacher of the law takes offense, saying only God has the right to forgive sin, Jesus responds by saying, “Tell me, which is easier? To say his sins are forgiven, or say ‘Get up and walk’?” which the man then does. Still, the teacher of the law was correct in saying that only God can forgive sins. Jesus’ answer to him, in the mini-series, was, “The Son of Man has authority to forgive sins.” The biblical account remains a proof text for Jesus being the Messiah, the Son of God, and the second person of the Trinity. I’m glad they included this.
3. In the account of Daniel, when King Cyrus of Persia finally allowed the people of Israel to return to their homeland, I expected the segment to end there abruptly. However, I was pleasantly surprised when Daniel told Azariah about his dream, saying, (in the movie), “I saw a great beast, dreadful and terrible and unimaginably strong, it had great iron teeth and it devoured the whole world, but God will not abandon us. I saw a great new leader. In my dream, there before me was one like a Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power. Nations and men of every language will worship him…” The first half, though changed, is based upon Daniel 7:7 and the second half is based upon Daniel 7:13 & 14. The movie rightly has these verses pointing to Rome and to Jesus Christ.
4. Thus when the mini-series shows Jesus on trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, and He is questioned, “Tell us this: Are you the Chosen One? Are you the Son of God?” He responds, “I am. And you will see me coming with the clouds of heaven, sitting at the right hand of God.” Or as the Gospel tells us: “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). This is one of my favorite parts in all of Scripture and I was glad it was included. And here we see that, for those who were paying good attention, even the miniseries makes the connection between Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man and Jesus’ confession of who He truly was: the One with sovereign power Whom all should worship. “You are worthy…” we read in Scripture, “because you were slain and with your blood you purchased men… from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
5. The crucifixion is pretty well portrayed, with most, if not all, of Jesus’ important statements given: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother” (John 19:26-27). “I thirst” (John 19:28). “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). “It is finished” (John 19:30) “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). One can’t argue with the fact that the miniseries left in these things. I thank God for that.
6. The series ends with John, exiled on the Island of Patmos, having a dreamlike vision of Jesus (the dreamlike vision looks no different than Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances from the gospels, however, which helps to underscore why I did not exactly like the treatment of Jesus’ resurrection). Jesus then says to John (in the series), “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End… There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. I am making everything new… Yes, I am coming soon. May the grace of the Lord be with God’s people.” The first line comes from Revelation 1:8, Revelation 1:17, Revelation 21:6, and Revelation 22:13. To Christians this is a proof text of the Trinity, since we know that Jehovah God (YHWH, “I AM”) said of Himself, “I am the first and the last, apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6). So attributing these words to Jesus, as the book of Revelation does, and as the mini-series writers/producers did, clearly points to Jesus as being God. The second sentence comes from Revelation 21:4-5 and the final sentences are, in fact, the final sentences of the book of Revelation 22:20-21. It was a good way to end the series. Jesus is God and He is coming again. Next time He comes as the reigning King, to reward His followers and to judge the rebellious and disobedient. As John says to end the mini-series, and to end the final book of the Bible: “Amen” which means “So be it.”
In conclusion, as I watched the series, I was both moved and torn. Still, today, I feel divided. On one hand I was reminded of some of the final verses of Revelation, which say, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city which are described in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19). Granted, that was written about the book of Revelation specifically but, in a way, does it not apply to all of the Bible?
But there was another verse mulling around in my head, the words of Jesus when He said, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). I cannot and would not say that the motive behind the series was wicked; far be it from me. It may very well be from God. I certainly expect God to use it. And from what I have heard, the husband and wife producers, actress Roma Downey, from the Touched by an Angel television show, and Mark Burnett, famous for producing Survivor, The Apprentice, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, Shark Tank, and The Voice, have both professed to being Christians. That’s wonderful news. We need more Christians in Hollywood. God bless them for using their gifts and resources to bring Jesus Christ to millions. (Tens of millions actually!)
I know for a fact that God uses all kinds of methods and all kinds of people to spread His Gospel. As our pastor pointed out on Sunday morning, God has communicated in many unusual ways: He once used the fingers of a hand to write a prophecy on a wall (Daniel chapter 5). Another time He allowed an ass to rebuke a wayward prophet (Numbers chapter 22). So most certainly God can speak through this mini-series, and there is also hope that He can also speak through me! So even if I have many reservations about how the biblical accounts were portrayed, and even if my disagreements are valid, it does not mean that God cannot use it. I know that God helped open my eyes to the fact that Jesus Christ was real and historic and not just a fairy tale when, as a teenager, I disobeyed my parents and watched the completely heretical movie Jesus Christ Superstar. God works in wonderful, mysterious ways. And I pray that God will save thousands upon thousands of people through the airing of the series.
"Hosanna, Lord!" (Save!)
One final note: Unfortunately, I saw a book at Walmart yesterday entitled, “A Story of God and All of Us: A Novel Based on the Epic Miniseries THE BIBLE.”
A novel based on an adaptation which was based on the Bible? (Remember that “adaptation” means “revision, reworked copy, variation, alteration, and adjustment.”) Satan is the most intelligent and crafty evil being in existence. It seems he always finds new angles and constantly exploits old ones. It’s bad enough that many in this country know nothing of the Bible itself and now will think that the mini-series 100 percent accurately portrayed the biblical accounts. Many will feel they have no need to read it now. But this book takes it all one step further, turning the Bible into a novel is one more way of confusing lost people today. There are already enough people who think the Bible is filled with myths; Satan now turns it into a novel for post-moderns.
But “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18).
I would encourage all people to read the Bible for themselves.
“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.”
To see a list of my bible.org columns visit http://blogs.bible.org/blog/26077
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved. (Bold, italic, or underlining emphasis added.)
THE BIBLE Miniseries: My Perspective
One of my co-workers, a Muslim, kept asking me if I had been watching the Bible miniseries. When I told him that I had not, he said, “You should, you would like it.”