Peter T. Chattaway
It's common these days for each new episode of a TV series to begin with a montage that sums up all the relevant plot points from previous episodes. So it was only natural that, when the History Channel aired its five-part mini-series The Bible over the month of March, all but one of the episodes began with narrator Keith David intoning, in his deep baritone voice, "Previously, on The Bible …"
All of the show's strengths and weaknesses are captured in that one phrase. Produced by Mark Burnett (a TV mogul best known for unscripted "reality" shows like Survivor and The Apprentice) and his wife Roma Downey (who once starred in Touched by an Angel), the mini-series rushes through the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in ten hours—though it's more like seven, once you bracket off the commercial breaks—and it zips through the stories so quickly that you barely notice when they are compressed even further in those opening sequences. But the mini-series also makes a point of emphasizing the continuity between Bible stories in a way that is quite rare among Bible films, and in a way that sometimes allows individual stories to shed light profitably on others.
So, praise where praise is due. The Bible covers some awfully familiar territory—there have been many films about Moses and Jesus over the years, and there are more in development as we speak—but it also covers stories that aren't brought to life on the big or small screen all that often, such as the Babylonian exile and the rise of the early church. Even better, the mini-series connects the familiar and unfamiliar stories, so that, for example, the Peter who followed Christ around Galilee and the Peter who led the church in Jerusalem are played by the same actor. Very few films have allowed for that. (The Visual Bible's adaptations of Matthew and Acts featured the same actor as Jesus, but changed most of the rest of the cast.)
Even more intriguingly, The Bible comes from an unabashedly Christian perspective, so that, for example, when Abraham speaks to "the LORD" (as per Genesis 18), it is strongly hinted that the person he is speaking to might actually be a pre-incarnate version of Christ. (We never get a good look at the person's face, but his voice and hair seem awfully familiar.) Later, when Daniel describes his prophetic vision of "a son of man coming on the clouds," it allows the mini-series to segue quite smoothly into the New Testament.
The mini-series also features several scenes in which characters from a later Bible story are conscious of the characters who have come before them. Moses, for example, says on a few occasions that he is leading the Israelites out of Egypt in order to fulfill a promise that God made to Abraham—a point that other Moses movies don't always make.
Sometimes the enhanced continuity leads the filmmakers into more dubious territory. For example, the Ascension marks the traditional end of Jesus' post-Resurrection appearances in bodily form, but in the mini-series, Jesus makes a number of appearances after the Ascension that are indistinguishable from the ones he made before it: the Book of Acts describes what Paul saw on the road to Damascus as a bright light from heaven, but the mini-series has Jesus stand by the side of the road, like someone waiting to hitch a ride; and where the Book of Acts says "the Spirit" gave instructions to Peter regarding the conversion of Cornelius, the mini-series has Jesus pay Peter a visit instead. Later on, Jesus appears to the elderly apostle John on Patmos and raises the hole in his hand for our contemplation, just as he did on the first Easter.
Still more problematic is the way the mini-series smoothes over certain tensions within the Bible until it cannot hide them any longer, at which point it doesn't really give us any way to deal with them. The Old Testament pulls in different directions on a number of issues, such as whether foreign races ought to be exterminated and/or excluded from the assembly of Israel (compare Deuteronomy 23:1-8 and its ruthless enforcement by Ezra and Nehemiah with Isaiah 56:1-7 and the punchline to the Book of Ruth), and, if anything, the mini-series seems to tilt in favor of ancient Israelite chest-thumping when, say, the soldiers led by Joshua wave their swords and chant "Israel! Israel! Israel!" But then, a couple of episodes later, Jesus feeds the multitude and the crowd replies by chanting "Israel! Israel! Israel!" and demanding that Jesus be their king—and this greatly disturbs Jesus, who protests, "No, this is not the way! Not by force!" A suppler film might have offered some way to understand this apparent change in divine tactic, but this mini-series isn't up to the task.