The Good: The History Channel has done some of us a favor. The Bible Series, which depicts some of the major stories of the Bible, has provided both the layperson and the aficionado room to discuss a book that is regarded sacred by billions. Adding to all this is that there is nothing that scholars like more than to have something to fight over discuss. The Bible Series has even given a chance to those previously unacquainted with the Bible an opportunity to ask questions—hopefully deep, thought provoking ones. Marc Goodacre has some thoughts on the good (here, here, here).
See also the daily posts during Holy Week from Marc Turnage for some historical background (The Pilate Inscription from Caesarea; The Enemies of Jesus). In fact, the Bible Series has advertised (click bottom right) The Center for Holy Lands Studies, of whom Marc is the director, as a way of learning the Land.
•The Bad: Scholars have come out to discuss some of the more serious matters dealing with the miniseries. None have been more prolific than Dr. Gafney (here, here, here). My students have also voiced their concerns, many of them due to the work that we do on Hebrew Bible & NT backgrounds throughout this semester. Some critiques have come from outside of academia (here).
•The Minutiae — The Devil is in the Details: For me, it is some of the details that speak the loudest, because it echoes a lack of sensitivity to the cultural and geographical world of Jesus and lays the groundwork for older viewpoints that have set a wedge between Jesus and Judaism. This specifically relates to the most recent episode.
1. Land of Israel as an arid Desert:
Images from Sunday’s episode present Jerusalem and the Galilee as a barren desert, with only occasional points of green that are accented rarely by a desert oasis and, of course, the Garden of Gethsemane. Far from it! While parts of the Land of Israel are arid desert, especially by the Dead Sea (although your occasional oasis is known, cf. Ein Feshka) large portions of the land can be quite green, especially during the rain season of which we are at the tail end. The Galilee is actually quite lush, especially nearest to the lake. The land’s beauty reflects precisely why the small strip of land has been central to the greatest biblical narratives. Sandwiched between the Mediterranean and a vast desert, it is the vitality of the land that draws the nations. The Bible series has failed greatly in this regard.
2. Clothing = Separation (Jesus, his followers, vs. his apparent opponents):
On the show there is a clear difference between those who oppose Jesus and his followers. Those characters that are concerned with the so-called “tradition of elders” appear to have what looks like a modern day tallit (prayer shawl), while everyone else, in particular Jesus, wears various colored tunics. Some Jews would have worn a mantle to which tzitzit (fringes) were attached (See, J. Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit, 117). Accordingly, the Gospels appear to place Jesus among those who wore such a thing (Lk 8:43; Matt 14:34-35). The Bible series, from what I have seen, lacks this important distinction. But who cares? Its importance is that the modern mind will draw a insidious line of separation that has survived in Christian theology, namely, that Jesus stands against the religious Jewish establishment of his day and was intended on starting something new. If that is case, how do we understand Jesus’ statement in Matt 5:19: “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”
On the contrary, all of our sources indicate that Jesus was a fully observant Jew and his critiques of the priestly hierarchal corruption were opinions held by others not part of the Jesus movement.
3. Geography = Separation (from the religion and culture of Jerusalem)
One of characters, perhaps Caiaphas, said, “What good has ever come out of Galilee?” Is this a play on John 1:46 or attitudes critiquing the Galilee in Rabbinic Literature? Either way, we cannot make too much of it. See my post here. The bottom-line is that while there were differences between Judea and Galilee, the Galilee was not some foreign outpost of Jews disconnected from the culture and religion of Jerusalem. If this were so, why would Jesus’ parents travel to Jerusalem on a yearly basis for Passover (Luke 2:41).
4. The Missing Lamb
The show missed a huge detail during the scene of the Last Supper. I understand this is the traditional place where Communion is established but this small detail is ironic because we are currently in the midst of Passover week. But…THERE WAS NO LAMB! Surely Jesus met with his disciples in the city because THE SACRIFICIAL LAMB was required to be eaten within the city walls. Even in Luke, the Lamb is preserved! Luke 22:15 “And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer…’” The Greek, τοῦτο τὸ πάσχα, “this Passover,” is referring to lamb and not the holiday, otherwise we lack a referent for the Greek infinitive “to eat” (φαγεῖν). What does Jesus desire to eat if not the Passover (lamb)!? Furthermore, I know we are used to seeing in art and films that Jesus eats his last Supper only with his disciples but women and children were expected as participants; it was a family event (Shmuel & Ze’ev Safrai, Haggadah of the Sages, 13)!
Missing the lamb is no small matter; it disconnects Jesus from a sacred Jewish holiday—and implies that Jesus’ last meal was in fact not a Seder, which I argue was quite the opposite. At least Luke himself saw it fit to preserve for us that Jesus’ meal was a Passover one.