The Bible is inherently cinematic. it has the global story filled with dramatic tension, complicated personal lives, special effects, war, comedy, power, surprises, and much more. It is Game of Thrones with more violence and sex, but without Peter Dinklage.
So when The History Channel’s The Bible miniseries was announced, I was curious to see how a modern television version might put out a sweeping run of biblical stories. Along with millions of Americans, I watched the 10 hours of The Bible and I found those key elements – it was dramatic (the overbearing score reminded me of that), intense (the constant violence made sure I knew that), and passionate (all the shouting made sure I was aware they were playing IMPORTANT characters).
The Bible was produced by Mark Burnett (from Survivor) and Roma Downey (from Touched by an Angel) as a….well, passion product. They hope to bring over a billion new readers to the Bible. To help you on your journey there is the companion website, and they have created a merchandising machine – a companion novelization (Stephen Colbert had something to say about that), soundtrack,, DVD (on sale today!), mobile app, and more. Their “passion product” has also become a money making machine.
But while they attempted to make a family-friendly, marketable Bible for today, there were some areas of significant concern. And areas where I would have wished things were different.
TRUTH and ACCURACY
With a disclaimer at the beginning, the series plays a little fast and loose with the written Bible story. But who is to say what is accurate? Is the literal word? And even if it is, how does one represent conflicts and contradictions? It is a rewritten version for the purposes of condensed story telling. We do that when we tell any Bible story – leaving out sections, modifying for our audience. The teller tries to convey the “Truth” of the story without as much concern of the “truth”.
This is found in all cinematic storytelling – it is the big historical flaw in the “biopic”. Conversations, characters, timelines, events, facts are made up for the benefit of the narrative flow. For example, Roger Ebert defended the The Hurricane and distortions in biographical films in general, stating “those who seek the truth about a man from the film of his life might as well seek it from his loving grandmother. … The Hurricane is not a documentary but a parable.” From Lincoln to Argo to The Iron Lady – every biopic is flawed on its history. And so it is with The Bible.
Since people often remember movie versions (accessible, condensed, visual) over the page, The Bible may be how some learn about and remember the Biblical tale. That is the nature of biopics. We are perhaps doomed to have a generation that thinks of Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs and to live with its flaws.
Sex and Violence
The Bible mini-series was made for the long-term market. It will be shown in Christian Sunday Schools across the country. Sex is a no-no in that setting. So Lot doesn’t sleep with his daughters. David’s cuts off the Philistines’ foreskins – but it is only alluded to those already in the know. Sex scenes are only hinted at, but never shown. In this way it is nothing like Game of Thrones.
But violence. Apparently violence is just fine anywhere. So this production amps up the violence. Every battle, stabbing, stoning, beating is emphasized. Extra conflicts and battles, including a gladiator fight, are introduced. One of the angels (perhaps intentionally the Asian one) does a double-bladed stabbing in fine action film formula. Just as I always imagined the angels. While not as gory as the Mel Gibson pseudo-horror flick The Passion of the Christ, it is plenty bloody.
The Bible mini-series is about the Hebrews and the Israelites, but until the New Testament, it isn’t about the Jews. They may be Abraham’s or Moses’ people, but they are not a religious people. When Isaac is born there is no discussion of circumcision (too sexual anyway). When he is almost sacrificed, the animal doesn’t even have horns to become a shofar or to be caught in the thicket (like the text clearly says). When the Passover story is told, every single ritual aspect is omitted. But whenever a “religious” (i.e. bad) Jew is shown in the New Testament section, he is always wearing a tallit. Apparently, Jews wore their tallit gadol (the one over shoulders) all the time in Jesus’ time.
Clearly some thought was put into the prayers and Hebrew said in the series. It isn’t gibberish. But L’cha Dodi in the morning before reading scripture? While one wouldn’t count on the Judaism to be very accurate (Keeping the Faith takes place in modern times and they made tons of errors), I don’t think the High Priest walking among dead bodies was a good choice. But some things I liked. Intentional or not, the Last Supper is clearly NOT a seder as they are happily munching on bread and there is no matzah in sight.
I was naturally concerned on how Jews would be portrayed in the Jesus scenes. It appeared some efforts were made to limit blame to Caiaphas and the Priests among the Jews. It is certainly not any more antisemtic than what one already thinks of the written Gospels. At one point, the guards restrict who can appear before Pilate in the “Crucify him!” scene setting up a favorable crowd (sort of like entry to nightclub). No one shouts, “His blood be upon us and our children!” But the series won’t be doing any favors for Jewish-Christian relations.
The role of women in the Bible text is, at best, mixed. The miniseries doesn’t seem to make much of an effort to positively portray anyone woman in the Genesis story and others: Eve, Lot’s Wife, Sarah, Delilah. As the story goes on, there begin to be positive women models – typically in a role as a good wife or mother – Miriam, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Rahab (pictured), Samson’s mother (although she is inconsistent). The New Testament women are very strong – The Virgin Mary (played by Roma Downey as an older woman), Mary Magdalene, Pilate’s wife.
Positive stories with women at the lead are completely omitted such as all the other women in Moses’ life, Deborah, and Esther.
Rarely are Biblical characters portrayed as shorter, dark-skinned Middle Eastern types in American and British films.It is no different here. But they aren’t blond and blue eyed either. The beards are dark even the skin isn’t swarthy. Jesus, however, looks like a movie star at all times – even when bloody and beaten – especially around the average looks of the “Jews”.
But the racial issues is noteworthy because in contract to the “white” actors in all the leads, several roles were cast otherwise:
- The Angels – Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel are White, Black, and Asian.
- Samson – For no reason I can gather, Samson is a very dark-skinned actor. This is not color blind casting as his mother is also played by someone black. With the Philistines being completely white, it sets us an interracial tale or as one article called, a Mandingo fairy tale.
- Satan – Much has been made how the actor playing Satan looked like Barack Obama. You be the judge from this picture. Let’s accept Downey and Burnett’s claim it is not true. But what is true is that the actor playing Satan is not dark skinned and was made more “black” for the role. So even if it isn’t anti-Obama, it is a bit racist.
A note on other casting. Saul should be very tall and handsome according to the text. David should be a red head. Saul wasn’t that good looking or charismatic (above right). And in fact, Saul, David, and Jonathan in the series are all brunettes and all are 6’1”.
The Old Testament scenes have a very basic theology.
- Trust in God
- Trust in God
- Trust in God
- The land of Israel is “ours” thanks to God’s promise
The New Testament scenes have an overriding theology too.
- Trust in Jesus
Such an approach makes sense given the diversity of churches that they hope will use the video. The basic Zionistic element of Abraham and Moses and David is in keeping with a standard religious right approach to Israel today. Christians are more frequent visitors and to Israel than Jews (some say 58% to 25% of visitors). Israel is a big part of the ultimate belief in Jesus’ return and this fits nicely with Christian Zionism.
As a mini-series it was fair. Like many mini-serieses it was often plodding – parting of the sea, Sodom, road to Golgotha – as scenes dragged. The Samson story was interminable. The need to jump from story to story made for curious omissions. A novice to the Bible story would have trouble following big chunks, despite the smooth narration of the great Keith David. The actors were also always reminding you that this was the Bible with their extremely intense portrayals, which were always followed by more violence. And it was not in any way “inspiring”.
While it has nice costumes and sets and animals that feel “biblical,” it also was clearly limited in its budget. Crowd scenes were enhanced with CGI that didn’t match up to the final battle in The Lord of the Rings. Other times, the scene was tightly cropped and poorly realized such as Samson destroying the arena. Most notably was how few Hebrews were standing on the shore of the Sea when Pharaoh’s army approach. It wasn’t 600,000. I’m not even sure it was 60.
When fast-forwarding through the commercials, I kept stopping at the preview for The Vikings thinking the show was back. I guess if it is more than 500 years old, one bearded guy looks like another.
The series got incredible ratings – the most-watched cable entertainment telecast of the year. The ratings did skew older in age.
Therefore, Hollywood and TV will now embrace religious themed productions since they are sheep. Even with all its controversies, The Passion of the Christ still made $600 million in box office. As this is mostly clear of such issues (even the ADL hasn’t said anything), expect numerous religious and biblical focused shows. There is a lot on the way already including the Jesus of Nazareth miniseries from Michael Landon, Jr.
This was a decently done, but generally slow and bombastic telling. It didn’t live up to the cinematic version in my head when I read these texts.
Read the book. Not the companion book, but the actual book.
Rabbi Mark Kaiserman is currently living in Southern California where he is the Interim Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley. This blog originally appeared on RaMaKBlog.