3 Reasons I Don’t Enthusiastically Recommend the History Channel’s “The Bible: The Epic Miniseries”

Andy Naselli —  May 14, 2013 — 16 Comments

epicAdapting a book to film is tricky. Sometimes books-to-film turn out surprisingly well (e.g., The Gospel of John—my favorite “Bible” film). Often they don’t (e.g., the recent Narnia films).

The History Channel aired The Bible: The Epic Miniseries throughout March 2013. About 100 million people watched all or part of the series. (I bought the series on DVD after reading two reviews.)

On the one hand, this series will doubtless serve as a means to a good end for some viewers:

  1. Some people think that the Bible is a boring old book filled with irrelevant or misguided rules. This series may spark an interest in the Bible that will compel them to actually read it. That’s good.
  2. Some people think that the Bible is a collection of unconnected or loosely connected short stories. This series may help people view the Bible as one big story with turning points: from creation to the fall to Noah to Abraham to the exodus to Israel and then climaxing with Jesus. That’s good.
  3. Some people are relatively unaware of what the world of the Bible was like culturally. This series may help people better understand what the political scenes were like or how people typically dressed or what various places may have looked like. That’s good.

On the other hand, the series could be far better. While watching it with my wife, we became increasingly disappointed with it. I was planning to watch it with my children but not anymore. I don’t enthusiastically recommend it for at least three reasons:

1. It does not consistently present God as great and good.

The OT stories in particular depict God as capricious, bloodthirsty, and vengeful. It doesn’t root God’s righteous wrath in his glorious holiness. It doesn’t explain, for example, why God pours out his wrath in Noah’s flood or why Jesus came to earth and then died on the cross. Instead, the series focuses on telling part of the Bible’s story in a hip, entertaining way.

Most serious of all, the series doesn’t emphasize the Bible’s ultimate doxological purpose. It doesn’t compel viewers to think, “Wow. God is amazing! God is glorious! God is great, and God is good.”

After my wife read a draft of this essay, she replied,

I am not sure point 1 is strong enough. This is a way bigger deal than getting Cyrus and Darius confused. It rather “turned off” my faith. I was left thinking, “Wow, these stories are really strange. I can’t believe people actually believe this.” It feels like Greek mythology or other weird religious stories. It does not ring true or make me worship God.

For the millions of viewers who are biblically illiterate or have a very sketchy understanding of the Bible, I’m not sure that this series helps them understand God much better. At best it may contribute to stirring up their interest about God so that they actually read the Bible.

2. It gratuitously displays graphic violence.

The Bible is a violent book, but it doesn’t glory in the gore like these films do. The graphic violence is relentless and gratuitous. It’s Peter Jackson-esque.

Samurai_angel

The Samurai-angel

For example, my wife and I couldn’t believe it when a Samurai-angel who was delivering Lot and his family from Sodom dramatically pulls two swords strapped to his back and starts slaying people in Sodom with flashy Samurai-moves. And we lost count of the number of times the film graphically shows executions by throat-slitting or sword-piercing or decapitation, complete with blood-squirting and intense sound effects.

We got to the point where I would fast-forward through gory scenes on 2x or 4x speed while my wife looked away. This is definitely not for children.

What is the warrant for displaying graphic violence like this? Is it to keep the interest of people who have become desensitized to graphic violence and no longer recoil at it? Whatever the reasons, I can’t think of a good one.

3. It repeatedly changes important details.

Obviously, a short video-overview of the Bible (like a children’s story-Bible book) can’t include all the details, but the details it chooses to include should be accurate. This series repeatedly changes important details in at least three ways:

  1. It portrays stories inaccurately. Nine examples:
    1. God’s people walk through the Red Sea on muddy ground in the midst of a rain storm (rather than on dry ground).
    2. azariah_daniel

      Azariah and Daniel

      In the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, no soldiers die, but instead the king intentionally burns his hand during the attempted execution to see if the fire is real (rather than the furnace burning so hot that the flames kill the soldiers who cast the three men into the fiery furnace).

    3. Satan temps Jesus on a desert cliff (rather than the Temple Mount).
    4. Herod Antipas orders John the Baptist’s execution when John tells him about Jesus the Messiah (rather than reluctantly decapitating him after Antipas rashly promises to grant the wish of a dancing girl at his birthday party).
    5. Jesus walks into Lazarus’s tomb and gives a mini-discourse in the presence of the sisters before raising Lazarus from the dead (rather than shouting from outside the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!”).
    6. Caiaphas tricks Judas to betray Jesus, and Judas basically sins against his will. The film portrays Judas as a sympathetic figure.
    7. When Peter tells Jesus that he is willing to die for Jesus, Jesus responds with gratitude and emotionally embraces Peter, but in the middle of the hug, he apparently receives a revelation that Peter will deny him and then sadly breaks that news to Peter. Then Peter denies Jesus the following day after Jesus is arrested (rather than that very night).
    8. After Peter heals the lame beggar in Acts 3, he says, “It is through Jesus. He did not die.” Similarly, Stephen later says, “They tried to kill him, but they failed.” That is a really poor choice of words. (I realize that they are trying to communicate that Jesus didn’t stay dead and that he is alive.)
    9. Stephen got stoned to death without a trial, and Saul instigated and led the stoning.
  2. It conflates important details. Five examples:
    1. David confronts King Saul with Saul’s torn robe in the cave immediately after he cuts the robe, and Saul responds with defiance rather than an apology.
    2. The king who throws Daniel into the lion’s den is Cyrus (not Darius), and when Daniel comes out of the lion’s den, the king promptly decrees to Daniel that the Jews can go back to Jerusalem.
    3. Lazarus’s sisters inform Jesus that Lazarus has died when Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, and the concerned Jesus asks to see the tomb immediately.
    4. The meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus (John 3) occurs on Wednesday of the Passion week.
    5. Thomas is present when Jesus appears to his disciples for the first time and expresses doubt that what they are seeing is actually Jesus.
  3. young_Moses

    Young Moses

    It adds subplots that are not in the Bible. One rationale that projects like this make for changing details is that they have such little time to present such a massive story. But if you have such limited time to present what is actually in the Bible, why spend so much time on subplots that are not in the Bible? Here are three examples:

    1. Moses and Ramses have a childhood rivalry.
    2. Daniel tries to persuade his three friends to bow down to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar.
    3. pilate_meets_Jesus

      Pilate

      During the life, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, prominent characters include Pilate, Caiaphas, Nicodemus, Malchus, and Barabbas with all sorts of added twists—mostly political ones, such as Pilate’s looming threat to cancel Passover and close the temple if there is further Jewish unrest.

(Wikipedia lists other discrepancies as well.)

The examples above don’t include less egregious changes. Four examples:

  1. David prepares to fight Goliath

    David prepares to fight Goliath

    David starts speaking Psalm 23 to himself while he walks to face Goliath.

  2. Jesus tells the story of the praying pharisee and tax collector when he calls Matthew to follow him.
  3. Paul quotes parts of 1 Corinthians 13 while defending himself to a group of Christians who are skeptical that he no longer persecutes Christians.
  4. Peter tells John, “Good luck,” when John leaves Jerusalem for Ephesus.

These sorts of changes may have only minor effects on people who watch this series and know little about the Bible. Many will think, “Oh! So that’s where that comes from! David spoke Psalm 23 right before he killed Goliath!'” Ideally, this will compel people to read the Bible for themselves. But I suspect that it will mislead and confuse people regarding details.

*******

That’s why I don’t enthusiastically recommend the series. I wish I could. I wanted to.

Catharsis:

  1. Read the Bible.
  2. Watch The Gospel of John.

Related: Why John Piper Doesn’t Own a TV

16 responses to 3 Reasons I Don’t Enthusiastically Recommend the History Channel’s “The Bible: The Epic Miniseries”

  1. Hi, I agree with you, and I don’t think I would recommend it either. I actually did not get to watch it b/c we can’t afford cable. Oh well.

    That being said, my mom, who is not a Christian, watched every minute of it. She hasn’t been in church for probably 40 years (other than Christmas Eve and Easter every now and then). Well this series got here reading the Bible to check out what the Bible actually says. She has literally been reading her Bible every single day since, and I am beginning to see an impact on her life because of it. Now she is reading Christian books and the Bible. She called me last week and told me that her and my dad have decided they were going to start going to church. I have been praying for almost 15 years now that my parents would fall under God’s conviction, and I believe I am beginning to see that happen…not because of The Bible series…but because God’s grace can work through something broken if he so chooses.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  2. What I find interesting is that this quote is pure Islam: “They tried to kill him, but they failed.”

    I wonder if not offending Muslims played a part here.

  3. We may be tempted to think that because God can use this miniseries, that it’s OK to make wildly inaccurate and mostly fictional adaptions of the Bible.

    But God’s use of flawed vessels is not an endorsement of the flaws.

    Just a general thought.

  4. Amen, Keith. I hope I can preach a sermon on that someday. Ultimate example: God used the murder of Christ for our salvation. Does that mean that God endorses the murder of Christ? How ridiculous. Yet so many people want to defend certain programs or ideas or people by saying, “Well, don’t you think God could use this/that/them?”

    Hell is full of men that God has used.

    God will use what he pleases, how he pleases. That is what it means to be God. The first question is not “What can God use?” but “What has God said?” And the final question is “Will I trust and obey?”

  5. Andy, this is a great article, and I completely agree with you on all points. You are far kinder than I was when I wrote my review of this pageant of errors.

    One thing I would add that I found extremely offensive was pushing a feminist hidden agenda (although I don’t know if you can really call it “hidden”—it seemed pretty blatant to me) by way of elevating Mary (Magdalene, I think; they don’t make it completely clear) to the position of the 13th disciple. Rather than Jesus’ inner circle of Peter, James, and John, it appeared to be Peter, James, and Mary. She is portrayed as one of the leaders, even correcting and instructing the rest of the disciples.

    I’m sure Mary was around, but Scripture doesn’t support the way in which she was portrayed.

    • I almost commented on Mary as well. I’m not sure what the basis for including Mary in the group is. Unfortunately, the Gospel of John film that I love so much includes Mary in the group as well, but since its script is the Gospel of John, it doesn’t give her prominence like the History Channel’s The Bible does.

  6. I also noticed that in the show Lot told Abram that he was going to seek greener pastures, and Abram begged him to stay. In the Bible it was Abram that suggested Lot take the greenest pastures, and there didn’t seem to be any kind of argument about that.

  7. Sharon Middleton May 14, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    I too had my reservations regarding the series. However, overall it is good. What did bother me was the Roman Catholic take at certain points, the small historic and literal inaccuracies no matter how traditional they may be, and the way it skips over so much with barely an explanation. That it might encourage people to actually read the Bible is the best thing. It was meant after all to be entertainment and was much more accurate than many of the “Biblical Epics” (10 Commandments) that have been done in the past.

  8. I also noticed that Nathan’s confrontation with David was butchered. I can’t figure out why, because it certainly wasn’t for time’s sake.
    Not only was the word-picture Nathan used left out, but David’s response was also off-base. Instead of saying, “I have sinned against the Lord,” he just kind of sneered at Nathan, says something snide under his breath, and walks off.

    That’s what is so curious about the series–I can understand filling in the blanks where Scripture is silent, but to completely change the dialogue is mystifying.

  9. One change that bothered me greatly was when the resurrected Jesus came into the upper room and confronted Thomas, Thomas said, “It’s really you!” or “It is you!” (like out of a Disney movie) instead of “My Lord and my God.” Huge blunder.

  10. This series is being displayed in Australia ATM.
    I have only yet watched the first episode, with a bible on my hand. Following the bible with The Bible.
    And I could not find a single verse saying that the Angels had swords and killed their way out of the city.
    Violence is used to tickle the brains of the audience.
    Definitely an emerging church production. Dissapointing.

  11. The series was on sale so I thought, why not, how bad can it be as I had heard good things about it on the net.
    As it stands. I’m not even sure I want to finish it as weak and incorrect as it is.
    it always astounds me that someone would find things to change about the greatest story ever told. some one didn’t want to offend with the truth contained in the scriptures is all I can think of in this watery mess.
    I did not follow Roma Downey’s previous series and now I’m happy I didn’t.
    All I can say is, I hope this series encourages people to actually pick up the bible and read the truths contain in it’s pages because there is not a lot of truth in the miniseries.

  12. We are not to make an image of God in any way,
    nor to worship him in any other manner
    than he has commanded in his Word.

    97. Q. May we then not make any image at all?

    A. God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way.
    Creatures may be portrayed,
    but God forbids us to make or have any images of them
    in order to worship them or to serve God through them.

    98. Q. But may images not be tolerated in the churches as “books for the laity”

    A. No, for we should not be wiser thanGod.
    He wants his people to be taught not by means of dumb images
    but by the living preaching of his Word.

    http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/pdf/lords-days/en/35.pdf

  13. The Gospel of John has ruined me for anything less.

    I did watch the beginning of the Gospel part of the Roma Downey series on youtube and was impressed that she had Mary speak the full prophesy- it was quite lovely. The rest of it was slow-moving and did not keep my attention, it was so chopped up.

    How I wish that the same crew that made the Gospel of John could do more, and I pray for God to raise up more artists of that caliber.

    Thank you for the review – I won’t bother to put any money out for it.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Feature Friday 5/31/13 | Preacher on the Run... - May 31, 2013

    [...] The History Channel’s The Bible: The Epic Miniseries – Adapting a book to film is tricky. Sometimes books-to-film turn out surprisingly well. Often they don’t. With the History Channel’s The Bible both sides of the coin can be stated. This review presents both affirmations and concerns with the miniseries. While some of his critiques seem to have a “family friendly” bent, take special note of critique #1. This is by far the most important take away I had from the review. Our view of God impacts everything else in life, how we live, relate, work, and play.  [...]

  2. The New “Son of God” Movie | Alex Chediak - March 3, 2014

    […] from the History Channel’s The Bible: The Epic Miniseries.” Elsewhere, Naselli gives three reasons why he doesn’t enthusiastically recommend The Bible: The Epic […]

Leave a Reply

*

Text formatting is available via select HTML.

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>