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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Friday, March 30, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 10

    One of the delights of the 1985 series A.D. was the way the mix of biblical, historical and fictional material was blended together and allowed minor biblical characters to be developed a little bit, even if that was, at times, largely fictional. Early episodes of this version of A.D. The Bible Continues (a.k.a. A.D. Kingdom and Empire) didn't really seem interested in this approach. Taking the story right back to the crucifixion there were a host of male apostles, women followers and backers, and authority figures that needed introducing.

    Recently, however, this facet of the series has really started to develop and, in particular, it has come to the fore in this tenth episode as the apostles who dominate the early stages of Acts (and who are known from their time with Jesus) begin to fade into the background a little.

    Most notably for this episode is the introduction of James who, at the start of the episode, rather burst onto the scene a little like he does in Acts. The episode actually starts with a flash back as a way of introducing us to James as the brother of Jesus. Whilst some scholars speculate that this James had already been part of the twelve, this is not the case here where he is introduced as a new character. There's something a little off with the way he seemingly has access to the power structures in Jerusalem that the other apostles don't, even though he is the brother of an executed criminal and of no higher social class than Peter and the others, but nevertheless, it goes some way to explaining how James suddenly seems to come to prominence in Acts having played a minor, and perhaps slightly antagonistic, role in Luke and the other gospels.

    Meanwhile Caiaphas, fearing - once again - that things might blow-up, is desperately trying to persuade Saul to tone it down a bit. He's not alone. Whilst Peter and the others largely recognise there's a certain something about him, fear he is putting their reputation, if not their lives at risk. Simon the Zealot is the most vocally unhappy with this and after a few complaints, both in the last episode and this, he accepts a meeting with Levi the leader of his old resistance fighter colleagues.. Simon seems to be trying to have it both ways, seemingly wanting to silence Saul, but without ever telling anyone to kill him This is slightly odd as the pre-Christian Saul most likely had zealot connections of his own. When he describes his "zeal" in Philippians 3:6 this is likely not just a metaphor. Like the zealots he saw people hindering the coming of God's kingdom and saw violence as a way to further the coming kingdom.

    Other minor characters also get a good outing here as well. Joanna, to whom we were reintroduced in Episode 8, has now led another servant called Tabitha to become a follower of Jesus, but she's barely just prayed what, one assumes, is meant to be a version of the sinners prayer, when Claudia and Herodias burst in. Herodias is incensed and ignores Claudia's attempt to deal with the affair in a low key manner. She takes the issue to her husband in front of Pilate. The timing for poor Tabitha could not have been worse. Pilate, Herod and a high ranking Ethiopian official have become locked in a testosterone-charged struggle to see who can make their kingdom look most impressive. In the cold light of day it's a little silly, but deserves credit for depicting some of the dynamics of the power issues in that region at that time. Ethiopia was not subject to Roman rule, indeed at the time of these events its own Aksumite Empire was just starting to gain a footing in the country itself. Presumably then there was an uneasy trading relationship with Rome, both keen to project their power and independence to dissuade the other from attack whilst also recognising the mutual benefit of trade. Pilate invites Herod along, but it's really only to show how his Rome has subjugated Judea's king.

    So when Herodias arrives announcing a Christian amongst her staff, Pilate sees it as an affront to his posturing and has her flogged. The scene is reasonably disturbing - we're used to see men flogged in historical dramas but not women but is that 19th-21st century piety or a historical reality (I have no idea if women were flogged, even occasionally, like this, but it's quite possible they were). Tabitha survives badly scarred, and is secretly ushered off somewhere. I have a feeling that she'll be popping up in Philippi, if this series ever gets there...

    Also, lined up to appear in future episodes is the Ethiopian official (not sure I'm keen on the traditional use of "eunuch" in his title). In terms of biblical chronology he should already have had his encounter with Philip, but I guess that will feature in the next episode. Things have been nicely set out here though. The official has appeared in all his grandeur in Jerusalem which has left the ruling Roman powers feeling threatened enough to search his party upon entry and report it to Pilate, but canny enough to know they need to play things sensibly, hence Pilate's dinner party invite. The official visits Jerusalem's temple. He calls himself a "Humble believer" and he and Pilate discuss him celebrating Yom Kippur. When he meets Caiaphas, the high priest gives him a copy of the scriptures as a gift, which nicely sets things up for a later episode.

    What all of this does is give a very positive portrayal of Africa which is still all too rare in western output. The Ethiopian official cuts an impressive figure, and his self-assurance, wealth and confidence in how he should be treated, do much to speak of the magnificence of his country and of his continent in general. Modern times have very much encouraged westerners to look down on Ethiopia, and patronising stereotypes persist. (This is not helped by the enduring popularity of the problematic Band Aid Christmas song and, in particular, subsequent re-releases). This is despite the fact that Ethiopia is one of the world's fastest growing economies and for a lot of history has exhibited a higher degree of civilisation than equivalent nations in the west. Anyway, the series has been good on race as a whole, and this is just another example. Pilate's attempt to impress his Ethiopian guest fails, instead he turns his head in disgust, again, setting things up for (I presume) the next episode. Things are even worse for Joanna - Pilate decides to have her killed.

    Meanwhile, James (who looks like Christian Bale) has somehow negotiated a deal with Caiaphas, so long as the Christian's just "respect the temple". Peter, John and Simon seem to think it's reasonable, but Saul sees it as a compromise and preaches being "freed from the tyranny of the temple". But when Simon meets with Zealot he realises he cannot help his "brother" to be murdered just because they disagree on theology and approach. The zealots have been asked to murder Saul by Caiaphas' wife Leah and when they hear Saul preach against the temple for themselves they decide to act, asking Simon to deliver him to them. Simon is clearly unhappy with this and when he rejoins the disciples he finds Saul soothing Tabitha and reassuring her with an early version of Romans 8:38 and realises he needs to help Saul escape. The final scenes neatly intercut Saul saying goodbye to Peter, James, Simon, John and Barnabas in the desert with the scape goat being released at the culmination of Yom Kippur. The closing overhead wide shot of Saul walking into the desert leaving the Jerusalem disciples behind is a one of the series best.

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    • At 1:19 am, March 31, 2018, Blogger Peter T Chattaway said…

      Re: "James suddenly seems to come to prominence in Acts having played a minor, and perhaps slightly antagonistic, role in Luke and the other gospels."

      Actually, I'm not sure Luke mentions James at all. If anything, Luke-Acts seems to have put a more positive spin on the brothers of Jesus than the other gospels did -- partly, I assume, because the author of Luke-Acts knew James personally (as per Acts 21:18).

      The brothers of Jesus are cast in a somewhat negative light in Mark 3:21 and John 7:5, but there is no equivalent passage in Luke as far as I can tell. Luke does have the pericope about Jesus' mother and brothers wanting to speak to him (Matthew 12, Mark 3, Luke 8), but without the negative set-up that Mark has, and he omits the pericope in which the people of Nazareth say Jesus is no big deal because they know his four brothers (which is in Matthew 13 and Mark 6).

      Luke mentions that the mother and brothers of Jesus were praying with the disciples during the ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost (Acts 1:14), and as far as I can tell there is nothing in his writings to lead you to think that there had been a change of heart on any of their parts. It is only by integrating all the references to James and the other brothers of Jesus that we can infer that the brothers did not believe in him during his ministry (as per Mark and John), but then James was one of those who saw the risen Jesus (as per I Corinthians 15:7), so he and his brothers were part of the Christian community before the Holy Spirit came (as per Acts).

    • At 9:53 am, April 03, 2018, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks Peter,

      I did wonder if the portrayal of James might differ between the different synoptics, but didn't have time to check it out!


    • At 2:14 am, December 04, 2020, Blogger CN said…

      Historians like Josephus and Eucebius do cite Jesus’ brother, James as a devout Christian with ties to Jerusalem’s Jewish community.

      Scholars think that it is why James is often antagonized. They argue that Paul wanted the Church to cut itself off from Judaism in order to grow.


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