Bible on History Channel
The Bible … on the History Channel?
A review of the TV series The Bible
All images supplied by Motive Entertainment
Last October, highly-acclaimed producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice, The Apprentice, Shark Tank, etc.) and his wife, actress Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel) invited Creation Ministries International’s (US) CEO Gary Bates and myself (Scott Gillis) to join with 25 other Christian leaders to attend a special private preview of their upcoming film. After dinner and viewing a handful of scenes from the rough cut footage, Gary and I had the opportunity to personally discuss CMI’s mission with Mark, and he consequently asked if we would be willing to review the opening Creation scene and give him some feedback. The producers, fully knowing that we were Bible-believing creationists, ultimately not only sent us the opening scene, but we were one of the few organizations trusted to review the entire 10 hour production before it airs for the first time this weekend.
Despite their undeniable success in the industry, Mark and his wife Roma described the film as “the most important project we have ever undertaken”. In fact Mark told us that the majority of the production costs came out of their own pockets. They explained that this project was seen by many of their friends in the industry as a move that might risk their own reputation and careers. Although the History Channel on occasion had asked for input into the film’s content, Mark and Roma said they wanted only to “honor the integrity of scripture”. Roma described to us how she fell in love with the Bible when she was just a “wee girl in Ireland”, but making a TV series out of it only made her love it more.
I’m sure you can imagine that an endeavor to reduce the entire biblical narrative into a 10 hour dramatization would be a difficult challenge for anyone. In fact, anyone making a movie about the Bible is going to be open to all sorts of criticism from many directions. For example, as to be expected in a made-for-TV dramatization, most of the time the dialogue does not incorporate the scriptural text. However, the stated goal of Mark and Roma was to take the written biblical account, and translate it effectively for the television medium to a largely Bible-illiterate audience.
Overall, anyone watching will see that this is a first-rate production. In this day and age where the Bible is under attack from secularists and atheists like never before, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey should be commended for taking a stand on the true claims of Scripture. They have attempted to show the Bible as real history, and particularly that Jesus is the Savior of all mankind. We at CMI will be praying that God blesses this effort, that God uses this series to open the eyes of unbelievers, and of Christians who ‘reinterpret’ the Bible’s history.
What follows is a concise review and summary of the film by CMI’s Information Officer, Lita Cosner.
When the mainstream media sets out to cover the Bible, it’s usually time for Christians to prepare for an onslaught against our beliefs and Scripture. But The Bible is encouragingly different.
Challenges in adaptationAny television series of this type will have to add details not present in the narrative, and will have to ‘pick and choose’ stories to create a cohesive narrative that is appropriate for the television audience. Some people might see these decisions as ‘taking liberties’, but it is clear that the producers’ intent is to make an ancient text accessible to a modern audience, and the decisions they made are ‘respectful’ to the narrative. The sweeping story, condensed down to a mere 10 hours, covers from creation through the Old Testament, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the beginning of the Church.
In a few places, they depart from the details in the biblical narrative (for instance, when Jesus—and Peter, very briefly—walk on water, and during Lazarus’ resurrection). There are also some mostly-minor errors in depiction. For instance, the high priest is depicted surrounded by dead bodies at one point—but this is inconsistent with the Mosaic Law, which would forbid him to become unclean by being around dead bodies (even accidentally touching one of them would make him unclean and unable to perform his duties as high priest). Jesus and his disciples would have eaten the Last Supper reclining against pillows, not seated at a table. They also would not have ceremonially washed their hands (in fact, one rather notable argument with the Pharisees centered around this ceremonial hand washing). Slightly more seriously, at the Last Supper, ‘Jesus’ seems to have a sudden revelation about His death, but the Gospels unanimously affirm that Jesus had been teaching about His death and Resurrection since they set out for Jerusalem. However, the errors do not detract much from the whole, so it would be a shame to dwell on them too much.
The Bible is not a G-rated book, and occasionally The Bible reflects this. While never gratuitous, the series does depict scenes of violence (particularly during battles, and two scenes of people having their eyes gouged out). There is no nudity, but there are a few references to sex (nothing more ‘graphic’ than a view of Hagar’s and Bathsheba’s bare backs). Parents may want to exercise discernment in allowing younger viewers to see the violent scenes.
CreationThere’s a lot of room for error when people try to depict creation, so we were pleasantly surprised by the excellent portrayal in the opening scene of the first episode. Noah and his family are portrayed on the Ark, in the treacherous seas at the start of the Flood, and Noah narrates a paraphrase of Genesis 1, emphasizing the six days of creation. A wide pan shot of the Ark shows the truly massive scale of the vessel, and the camera zooms out to show the entire world underwater, which then morphs to the globe with the continents of today.
Miracles and talking to GodIt would be easy for a modern series on the Bible to ‘edit out’ the supernatural parts of the narrative, or to make them ridiculous, and that sort of a series would find a sympathetic audience in Hollywood. However, The Bible creatively and respectfully shows the miraculous events in the Bible.
At key points in the narrative, God talks directly to Abraham, Moses, and other characters, but with the exception of the burning bush, we only hear the human part of the conversation. At times, someone might wonder, “Is Abraham nuts?” But then the narrative clearly shows that Abraham did hear from God. When Samuel tells Saul that God has taken His favor away from Saul, we might wonder with Saul whether God, or Samuel’s political amibition, is talking. But the way things unfold clearly shows that God really did remove His blessing from Saul’s kingship.
One of the most awesome series of miracles in the Old Testament were the plagues on Egypt. Some theories try to explain them away with naturalistic events, but the producers of The Bible show them as clearly miraculous events. For instance, the Nile turns to blood (to the horror of Pharaoh, who is swimming in the Nile, and his servants) as Aaron’s staff hits the water, and is recognizable as blood (not red algae in the water, for instance).
Jesus’ miracles are also highlighted in the series—including healing a paralyzed person and a leper, multiplying fish and loaves, and walking on water. These are all presented as real miracles without any hint of there being a naturalistic explanation.
God in The Bible
Most of the time, God’s presence, words, and actions are explained through the human protagonists. This is ultimately a smart decision, since many would object to any depiction of God, and the ‘disembodied voice’ often comes across as cheesy.
There are a few exceptions however. When Abraham has the three visitors who promise Isaac’s birth, one of them, whose face is never shown, is clearly the actor who will later portray Jesus. This is actually a theologically sophisticated portrayal, as many believe that the Old Testament theophanies (places where God revealed Himself in a visible form) were appearances of the Second Person of the Trinity, who of course was to be incarnate as Jesus Christ.
The Gospel in The BibleThe Bible clearly presents sin as what broke our relationship with God, and what causes God's judgment. Characters throughout the series are saved by faith in God, and in the New Testament, faith in Jesus. The episode which includes Jesus’ ministry draws the dichotomy between the Pharisees, who believed that strict adherence to the Law was what led to salvation, and Jesus and His disciples, who emphasize faith in God and forgiveness for sinners. Substitutionary atonement isn't spelled out in detail, but it is made clear that the Resurrection was the basis for the disciples’ early preaching about Jesus.
A sweeping historyIt’s common for people to read the Bible as a disjointed narrative, as if each book and story of the Bible were disconnected from the rest of Scripture. One thing that The Bible does really well is connect the history of Scripture as one continuous whole. Abraham is Noah’s descendant, and the Israelite slaves in Egypt are Abraham’s descendants, and so on. A few lines of well-chosen narration continue this flow through gaps of hundreds of years. And there’s no hint that some characters are less historical than others.
One exception to this, surprisingly, was Jesus. I felt the series could have done a slightly better job of connecting Jesus to the rest of the narrative as David’s descendant and successor (the Eden part was far too short to include the ‘seed of Eve’ prophecy, or that would have been another possibility).
The depiction of the various protagonists may help people, especially those unfamiliar with Scripture, to see the characters of the Bible as real people, who took part in real historical events. Even the ‘bad guys’ were appropriately sympathetic (with the understandable exception of Herod the Great, who was as disgusting in real life as he is portrayed in the series).