History Channel’s Bible Series: The Good, the Bad, and the Minutiae

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 MinutiaeThe 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.

Dry indeed..

Dry indeed..

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.

Not quite the Desert! Galilee at the height of the rain season...

Not quite the Desert! Galilee at the height of the rain season…

2. Clothing = Separation (Jesus, his followers, vs. his apparent opponents):

Dyed linen tunic from the Judean desert.

Dyed linen tunic from the Judean desert.

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…”

Look familiar. Had Jesus existed today he would have worn a tallit, tzitzit, and tefilin (phylacteries), making him largely indistinguishable with his opponents in the Bible series.

Look familiar? Had Jesus existed today he would have worn a tallit, tzitzit, and tefilin (phylacteries), making him largely indistinguishable with his opponents in The Bible Series.

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.

Notice the lamb!

Notice the lamb!

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6 thoughts on “History Channel’s Bible Series: The Good, the Bad, and the Minutiae

  1. Thanks for catching the geographical piece. So much going on that I completely missed it. It did look like the wilderness of Zin or Sinai rather than Judah. And, FYI, Mark Goodacre tweeted that the Last Supper was following the Johanine chronology and therefore *not* a seder.

    • Thank you for the comment. The geographical distinction has been a mainstay in NT scholarship. Separating the Galilee from Judea has its roots in the now debunked, but not forgotten, concept that John Hyrcanus repopulated the Galilee with Itureans and forcefully converted them to Judaism. The result is then that the Jews of the Galilee are not “real Jews” (whatever that may means) and thus disconnected from the Jews of Jerusalem. Historical geographers and Galilean archaeologists have known for decades that this is far from the case. Unfortunately, this has yet to be picked up by the majority of NT scholars. Susannah Heschel has noted that this supposed forcible conversion becomes part of the Aryan-ization of Jesus in Nazi German (The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany).

      Regarding the Seder or lack thereof. I find it hard to ascribe, without examination, to the Johanine chronology over that of the Synoptics. Matt, Mk, and Luke agree that the meal was indeed a Passover meal (However, that may have looked prior to 70; See Z & S Safrai as referenced in the post). In fact, as noted above, Luke points out Lamb that Jesus desired to eat. I find it hard to believe that as Christianity develops, and begins to have a more distinct Gentile/Jewish identity, that scribes would have put in the Lamb (and changed the date; note: John’s last meal takes place prior to the Passover—which means that Jesus appears to be crucified on the 14th of Nisan, when the Lamb is to be offered [cf. c. 13]) thus depicting a more Jewish version of Jesus’ last meal rather than a re-imagining of the Eucharist.

      -Jeff

  2. I was so disappointed. After all the ridiculous tries at a Biblical movie or series, I thought maybe someone would get it right finally. Well, they went the way of all the others: Changed the Bible. That is a very dangerous thing. Should have known. Roma Downey’s other series, Touched by an Angel, was dangerous in the fact that the shows gave glory to the angels. Why is it so difficult to stick to the story? The Parables channel is a fantastic Biblically correct channel. Their Bible stories are acted out with only Scripture for lines, refreshing.

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