On Easter Sunday I watched the first episode of A.D.: The Bible Continues. I’d been seeing posters and billboards for it all over Los Angeles. The slogan “the crucifixion was only the beginning” was too hilarious to resist.
As many of you must know by now, I’m a bit of an amateur scholar of the historical Jesus. I’m a big fan of well-researched books on the subject. I was particularly fond of Zealot by Reza Aslan and I like most of Bart Ehrman’s books on the subject, such as How Jesus Became God.
Although most of what you can find in books like these has been known to scholars for a century or more, it’s only recently that books about the historical research on Jesus have been published for mass audiences. It’s good to see these kinds of books gaining popularity.
But riding on the success of these books, there have been a number of very popular fake historic books on Jesus. The most popular and perhaps the worst of the lot is Killing Jesus, allegedly “written” by Bill O’Reilly. For those of you outside the USA, Bill O’Reilly is a loudmouth conservative fake news guy with a show on late-night TV. O’Reilly does not write the books that are published under his name, but pays real writers to write them for him. Lots of books on the “Eastern Religions” shelf at your local Book Barn are also written in a similar fashion.
I was particularly disappointed when I saw billboards and ads on the sides of busses announcing that National Geographic – of all companies – was making a TV movie based on Killing Jesus. It makes me wonder if I can trust anything in National Geographic. I only read bits and pieces of “O’Reilly’s” Jesus book, but it’s abundantly clear from even the most cursory examination that it’s a poorly researched piece of fundamentalist Christian propaganda that has very little to do with real history. Still, I would’ve watched the movie if I had cable. Maybe I will once it becomes available on DVD or streaming.
But back to A.D., which I did watch. Prior to showing the first episode of the 12-part series, NBC ran an hour-long special about the making of it. I tuned in late, so I missed the beginning. Most of what I did see consisted of long interviews with the husband and wife team behind the series, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
They were clearly Bible-believing fundamentalist Christians. So I knew that I couldn’t expect their show to be very historically accurate. They also seem very into the burgeoning “mega-church” phenomenon in the USA. From a business standpoint that makes perfect sense. The folks who attend these massive, high-tech pseudo-churches are obviously going to be their core audience.
But mega-churches are not churches. They’re far too big and impersonal to provide anything more than spectacle and flash. Nothing the least bit “spiritual” is possible in the carnival atmosphere they provide. It’s like the difference between seeing Bruce Springsteen at a bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey in the early 70s when you could still have some kind of real contact with him and seeing him now from half a mile away as a member of an anonymous crowd at the back of some massive stadium. Buddhist centers that grow too damn big will eventually end up the same way. The day is coming when we’ll have our own mega-Buddhist centers. You mark my words, whipper-snappers!
One of the things Burnett and Downey said in their interview really struck me. They were asked about movies like Noah and Exodus and why those films didn’t do as well as their makers hoped. They said that Christians don’t like it when filmmakers change or reinterpret the Bible as the makers of those movies did. Their series, they said, adheres strictly to what is written in Scripture.
Well, not really. A.D. is hardly any truer to Scripture than those other films. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew we get a single line about Pontius Pilate’s wife, who is unnamed in the Gospel, having a dream about Jesus. In Matthew 27:19 it says, “When he (Pilate) was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.” In the first episode of A.D. this is expanded into a large subplot concerning Pilate’s wife who is named Claudia in the series. Pilate’s wife did not gain the name Claudia until 1619 from a writer we now know as “pseudo-Dexter,” to differentiate him from the real Dexter, the serial killer who tracks down serial killers.
Furthermore we get a crucifixion scene that follows more or less Mark’s account followed by a resurrection scene that follows Matthew’s account. It’s commonplace these days for fundamentalist Christians to make mash-ups of the Gospels, ignoring their disagreements and simply including whatever parts they happen to like better.
These are just two of the most obvious examples of scriptural embellishment engaged in by these “fundamentalist” producers. Someone who was geekier than me about the story of Jesus could have spotted dozens more.
So what we get in A.D. is no more accurate than anything else we’ve seen on screen, even if you happen to hold the view that the New Testament is historically factual. It’s just more like what folks who go to mega-churches have been told is in the New Testament.
During the program NBC ran a commercial for Focus on the Family with adorable children quoting and embellishing John 3:16. According to Wikipedia, Focus on the Family, “promotes abstinence-only sexual education; adoption by married, opposite-sex parents; creationism; school prayer; and traditional gender roles. It opposes abortion; divorce; gambling; LGBT rights, particularly LGBT adoption and same-sex marriage; pornography; pre-marital sex; and substance abuse.” No comment there.
At the very least A.D. was entertaining. I’ll give it that much. The story of Jesus Christ and his early ministry is a damn good story. I’d have been interested in something more historical and real. But I suppose that’s asking too much from a company like NBC and executive producers like Burnett and Downey.
April 16, 2015 Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA HUMAN LIBRARY EVENT
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