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Tuesday, May 5, 2015
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Despite my aversion to television shows, I’m trying to catch up with NBC‘s “A.D., The Bible Continues“, a weekly 12-part series that began this past Easter Sunday (of course). There have been plenty of video renditions of the life of Jesus, but not a heck of a lot has been done regarding what happened after his death on the Roman cross. For almost 30 years (not counting infancy) I was a practicing Catholic, and was subject to a lot of this Jesus material, in Sunday school classes, adult education series, or via popular entertainment channels (TV shows, movies, etc.). I thus suspect that for most Catholics and other Christians, the matter of how the long story of world-wide Christianity unfolded from a small band of 1st Century Jews in Palestine reflects a huge gap in popular understanding of religious faith.

A.D. will no doubt serve to fill in some of this gap. But from what I’ve seen of the series thus far (I will admit that I haven’t seen every minute of each of the 5 episodes that have aired to date; but I have done some supplementary reading about the series, and I think I get the general flavor of it), I would say that the writers and producers of A.D. did not necessarily intend it to reinforce the official teachings of the various Christian churches. It does not directly contradict anything said in the Bible (the series is based on the first 10 chapters of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles); but it adds a whole lot of speculative material about what could have happened in-between the events of the early Christ-followers that are discussed in Scripture.

And it’s the flavor of this “added narrative” that points A.D. in an interesting direction. The faith-and-miracles stuff is all there, such that believing Christians can still bask in the glow of the Resurrection and the sacrifices suffered and the miracles brought about by Jesus’ followers in the months and years following his death. But a strong political theme unfolds amidst the “fictional side-stories” which envelope these events. By episode 4, the early Christian community starts to look a lot like a modern national liberation movement. The main inspiration is not so much eternal salvation, but freedom from a repressive political regime, i.e. the Romans and their lackeys (Herod Antipas and the Temple establishment).

But have no doubt, this liberation movement is not your usual armed rebellion. In fact, it is juxtaposed against an incipient anti-Roman movement that was willing to shed blood, i.e. the Zealots and the “Sicarii” (knife wielder) faction. Peter and the early Jesus-followers interact with characters from these groups in A.D., and explicitly reject their tactics. Good old Pete starts to look like a bit like Gandhi, a man dedicated to changing things through non-violence.

But there is a big difference between St. Peter and Gandhi. A.D. gets it right by having Peter state the underlying presumption of his group: i.e., that Jesus preached the imminent coming of the “Kingdom of God” to Jerusalem and Israel, an event which would sweep aside the Romans along with the corrupt Jews who have allied themselves with Rome, and leave a New Kingdom to the “righteous”, who would be led in God’s ways by a “Son of Man”. Gandhi hoped to bring about change by seizing on whatever shreds of moral conscience that could be roused amidst the people of the British kingdom and the world community (and ultimately succeeded, aided by some very savvy media / message management). By contrast, Peter hoped that God would use his miraculous powers to bring change directly to the nation of Israel, and that He would put the “Son” in place to make sure that the change was permanent.

Jesus probably had a candidate for this mystical “Son”, i.e. himself. His followers certainly seemed to agree. Jesus appeared to expect that God would do the dirty-work of removing the Romans and the corrupt Jews in a Judgement Day event in a dramatic fashion akin to Moses’ crossing of the Nile; and that following this event, he would be in the driver’s seat. The long-awaited reign of justice for the poor and the oppressed would soon follow.

Obviously, Peter and the other followers were a bit disheartened to learn that Jesus had been killed on the cross by the Romans, and that God did not come down from the clouds to set that terrible debacle straight. But hearing later reports that Jesus was seen on his feet bucked up their spirits, giving them reason to continue. Even though these Jesus spottings were only temporary, even though Jesus was not back full-time with them, the early followers reasoned that God had planned all along to delay the big apocalypse. God no doubt was giving them time to spread the word farther than Jesus had been able to do during his ministry, as to set more people to living righteous lives in anticipation of God’s upcoming revolution. Jesus was no doubt being held in reserve by God, and would make his glorious come-back once the apostles had done their work.

So it made sense for them to continue, and to keep their moral standards high. Which meant no killings, no assignations, no violence — no matter how much that might speed up the cause of bringing about change. Given their continued faith in apocalypse, it made sense to stay pure, even if that meant that some followers would risk being killed by the forces of evil. Hey, Judgement Day would soon arrive, and no doubt that a good martyr would be raised from the dead just as Jesus supposedly was. Nothing to worry about!!

A.D. does a service by making this apocalyptic inspiration quite clear. I don’t think that most Catholics or other Christians appreciate that an earthly apocalypse was really what Jesus was about. Sure, some evangelists continue to “preach the second coming”, but most Christian doctrine I’ve heard seems to minimize the apocalyptic passages in the Bible, and hardly mention the popularity in First Century Jewish circles of this notion (other than a nod towards John the Baptist — and even then, John is usually reduced to a “prophet of the coming of Jesus” and not a prophet of the coming of God).

I’m not sure that most Christians wish to admit that Jesus and his followers had as much an earthly political motive as a spiritual motive in what they did. And that their primary expectations and objectives turned out to be wrong and went unfulfilled. The Kingdom never came (even if a lot of other stuff, mostly good, did in fact happen; the world was changed by what they did, even if not in the way that they had anticipated).

I doubt if A.D. is going to harp on this viewpoint. But the emphasis on apocalypse and on the political context and inspirations of the early Jesus movement does strongly imply what I just said, at least if you connect the dots. I made this point today to my brother, who is a practicing Catholic (and I very much respect his dedication to the faith). He gave me something of a sour look in response. But he is watching A.D. too, and I hope this thought gives him something to chew on. The producers of A.D. are hiding this theme right in plain sight.

As a person holding faith and hope in the idea of a real, living and loving God, I don’t want to weaken anyone’s faith. But I do hope that A.D. will aid the cause of challenging old presumptions and in giving Christians room for growth in their understanding of who Jesus was, and what may have transpired along the eastern Mediterranean all those centuries ago. Real growth and greater truth never comes without some discomfort and even pain. I think that Peter himself would be OK with that idea!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:31 pm      

  1. Jim, There are a couple of things that always bother me about stories from previous times, and particularly stories from the Bible. (And by “Bible” I mean both the Old and New Testaments. Using the term “Bible” also excludes all the apocryphal books relatively recently found [19th century-ish in particular, to say nothing of those stories not even considered apocryphal], which when they were written had a profound impression on those who lived at the time.)

    First, it amazes me that people who profess to believe *only* in the Bible as a means of “getting into heaven”, who seem to be able to cite chapter and verse when some topic comes up, these individuals somehow never seem actually to *know* the stories and the meaning of the stories in the Bible. This lack of understanding the stories in the Bible never ceases to amaze me.

    Second, I always see a problem in stories from previous times. The presumption on the part of people today is that the people of the Bible tho’t the way we think now. Nothing was ever more incorrect. When it comes to the Bible “as history”, there is no such thing. Every story in the Bible was written by a people who had no concept of “history” as we have the concept, i.e., telling and explaining what *actually* happened. People of the times of the Bible (and much further on in history), had no interest in what *actually* happened; they had a concept that the stories told about the individuals they were interested in, who they tho’t important, must somehow reflect something inspiring about the person of which they were speaking or in whom they were interested, telling them how to live their lives in a good way, as they considered living a good life to be – which likely included many things we’d today reject. (Slavery is one idea that comes to mind immediately.)

    Thus, our attempt at telling the “history” of the times, as it *really* was, is useless, for the most part. Parts (smaller or larger) of stories may actually have happened, but for the most part most of any story in these religious books was “inspirational” and meant to convey a lesson. The thinking of that time, centuries of times, was simply different from the way we think now.

    So, as I see it, the whole “apocalyptic” approach to the times had its element of truth. But it very likely was an element that was meant more to “keep people in line” than perhaps an actual belief. Even today, preachers will speak about the “Last Judgment”, but whether or not they actually believe in a “last judgment where everyone will rise from the grave is another story. More likely, little real tho’t is given to the concept of the “last judgment”, except to say: “Better stay in line or you’ll “get it” when the last judgement comes.

    I have to admit that I have not followed this series you mention for the above reasons. The only way we’d be able to understand how the people of biblical times tho’t and lived would be to change our thinking and think exactly as those people tho’, and that probably won’t happen. . . ever! MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 7, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

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