The Bible … on the History Channel?
A review of the TV series The Bible
Published: 1 March 2013 (GMT+10)
You may have heard that this Sunday, March 3rd, 2013, the History Channel (USA) will premier the first of five 2-hour episodes of the “epic docudrama”, The Bible.
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 adaptation
Any 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.
There’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.
Creation doesn’t only feature in the first minutes of the film. It’s notably a constant reference. When Abraham tells Sarah that God has promised him a son, he says, “Our Creator who made the stars will give us descendants to populate our land.” When Moses first appears in front of the elders of Israel, they are skeptical and say, “Pharaoh is the only god we have to fear.” Moses replies, “Who created the earth, the sea, the sky? Who created you? Pharaoh or God?” And when Jesus multiplies the fish he prays, “We thank you Lord by whose word everything comes to be.”
Miracles and talking to God
It 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
From Noah to Abraham to Moses and the other protagonists, faith in an invisible God who has spoken and given promises, even in the face of impossible odds, is a constant theme in the film. “God is with us”, “God has promised”, and “trust in God” are very frequent lines. The powerful portrayal of faith even in the face of great uncertainty and danger, even death, is a constant theme. We can often read the stories of biblical people ‘knowing the ending’ and not realizing the great struggle they would have had in maintaining their belief over periods of years with no discernible action by God. Yet the series highlights how faith is always proved right in the end, as God is always faithful to those who trust in Him.
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 Bible
The 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 history
It’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).
The Bible—worth watching
The Bible is a brilliant production that brings the history of the Bible to life, and it’s immensely encouraging that a series of this caliber will be airing on The History Channel. No series could possibly perfectly convey the message of Scripture given the constraints of the medium. But I believe The Bible could expose people to these stories for perhaps the first time. People who won’t pick up a Bible will perhaps switch on The History Channel. And if we as Christians ‘get behind’ efforts like these, perhaps we will see more high-quality productions based on the biblical message.Addendum, 19 March, 2013
Since the original review article was published (above) more than half of the series’ installments have been aired. In addition, the producers (Burnett and Downey) have conducted several interviews as to why they would invest c. 22 million dollars of their own money to make it. They have consistently commented that biblical literacy is at an all time low (referring to the US in particular), and that even if people do not go to church, it is important that all should be exposed to the biblical stories, because they have shaped our culture. They also stated another purpose for the series was to encourage discussion and dialogue, or ‘water cooler’ talk. To that end they appear to have been successful, because the series is the no. 1 rated program in its time slot. In short, when it has aired, it has beaten everything else on every other channel. In a day when we complain about less interest in the faith, this is no small achievement and certainly encouraging. Even if the program is not your ‘cup of tea’, disparaging it around the water cooler in front of non-believers would not be very wise. We encourage all believers to be prepared to engage others regardless of how questions arise and to do this “with gentleness and respect” as the Scriptures command. CREATION.com is a great way to help find answers for the questions people ask, and are likely to ask, as a result of this series. We pray that it at least encourages more people to read the Bible and find out what it actually says.