The Mark Burnett-produced 2013 TV miniseries The Bible is far from the best television you’ll ever see, but if you find Western culture to be at all relevant to your daily life, you have to watch it. Like it or not, the Bible and its teachings undergird much of the West’s laws, mores, and ethics, and even if you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to see it dramatized, even imperfectly.
Burnett’s miniseries doesn’t hide the fact that much of the Bible concerns Jews: how we (As a Jew myself, I get to use that pronoun) were chosen by God, the deeds and misdeeds of our greatest leaders and prophets, the various cultures that tried to destroy us, and why we resisted Jesus’s claims of being the Messiah. The Passover holiday figures strongly in both the story of Moses (Exodus) and centuries later, when the Sanhedrin (a Jewish council of leaders) worked with the Romans to rid Jerusalem of Jesus before Passover.
Nevertheless, the miniseries gives the Old Testament short shrift compared to the New Testament. Perhaps that’s to be understood, given that the producers are Christians and they’d naturally want to focus on what they see as the most important part of the Bible. Unfortunately, this made the earlier episodes the weakest: too many events were shoehorned into too little time, and the first half of the program suffered as a result.
- The first episode, featuring Abraham, touched on many themes but didn’t delve into any of them: Sarah’s yearning for a child, her jealousy of Hagar, Abraham’s love for Ishmael, Abraham’s agony at God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. The angels were neat, but we didn’t need to see them slice and dice their way through Sodom to get Lot’s family out. I wanted more pathos and less blood.
- The story of Moses took up the second episode, but there was little to recommend it: you’d be better off watching The Ten Commandments or even Prince of Egypt.
- In the third episode, we saw the Jews, led by Joshua, fighting to claim the land God promised them, which was quite a lot of fun. It was paired with a terrible depiction of the story of Samson, which lacked any semblance of relevance. I liked the casting choices, particularly the ones that made Samson and his family black, but Delilah’s betrayal felt pro-forma and his revenge on the Philistines lacked punch.
- Saul was decently slimy in the fourth episode, though he couldn’t hold a candle to Edward Woodward’s performance in King David. This was another ho-hum episode that simply went by the numbers. I did feel bad for Uriah, though.
- The Old Testament wrapped up with Daniel in the fifth episode, which wasn’t bad. They didn’t include the writing on the wall, which is one of my favorite Bible stories.
- Episodes six through ten focused on the story of Jesus, and this is where the series hit its stride. Herod was a horrible, disgusting figure, thoroughly evil. The Satan character was kind of unnecessary, creeping around on the periphery, but Pilate’s businesslike menace made up for it. Diogo Morgado made a smiling, if decent-enough Jesus, though the cheap make-up effects didn’t do the production any good with the extreme close-ups of His agonies on the Cross. (Max von Sydow is still my favorite, though a close second is Jim Caviezel.) The apostles were mostly forgettable but for Thomas (go figure). The martyrdom of the disciples in the last episode showed us that early Christianity was in great danger of being stamped out, much as Christians are right now being murdered in the Middle East. The machinations of the Sanhedrin and the Romans added depth to the presentation that the earlier episodes lacked.
What The Bible presents is not a story of individuals, but the story of us as a people, a culture. And that’s where it shines brightest. Take a look.