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'The First Martyr' episode of 'A.D.' culminates with powerful scene
"A.D. The Bible Continues" is currently airing on NBC. - photo by Eric Huntsman
The approach that the Bible-inspired series "A.D. The Bible Continues" has settled upon is now clear. The first half of the average episode and sometimes more than the first half consists of historical drama based only loosely on the period. The episode then climaxes with stirring scenes taken more or less from the biblical text.

The historical drama sections tend to focus more on the political side of events, featuring characters such as Pilate and Caiaphas known from the biblical text but fleshed out from other historical sources. Other characters are largely made up. Portrayals of Romans tend to fall back on exaggerated stereotypes, playing up the harshness of their occupation or the venality of the governor. The depiction of Jewish characters is more well-rounded: Caiaphas, for instance, while almost blindly opposed to Peter and the growing Christian movement, is portrayed as a genuinely religious man who overall has the best interest of the Jewish people at heart.

Fleshing out the actual scriptural characters such as Stephen requires the screenwriters to guess at their backgrounds, and the series must be very creative to give added depth and personality to the nascent Christian community. Their camp outside the city is a fictional construct, as is Peters daughter, Maia, and the whole relationship that she builds with the orphaned girl, Tamar.

The most recent episode, the fifth, which aired Sunday, May 3, is called "The First Martyr." The dramatized scenes from actual episodes from Acts such as the disciples being freed from prison, their speeches before the Jewish authorities, and Stephens confrontation with the Sanhedrin and his martyrdom are quite powerful. But they could have been even more so if more of the actual text from the Bible was used.

Historical issues

Claudia Proclas efforts to save Jews: As has been noted before, Pilates wife appears only in Matthew 27:19, where her sole role is to warn Pilate not to deal unjustly with Jesus during his trial. Although she does appear in some later apocryphal literature, nothing else is known about her from history. The series has drawn upon what is known about the influence and behavior of elite Roman women to create a likely role for her. Her effort to save innocent Jewish women at a wedding whom Pilate intends to have crucified makes her the sole sympathetic Roman character in the series. Her interactions, and in this episode fight, with Caiaphas wife provide opportunities to illustrate dramatically some of the political and cultural tensions involved in Roman-Jewish relationships.

Pilates despicable character: In the first two episodes, Pilate seemed a very real and plausible character: committed to Roman power and justice but open-minded to Jesus while frustrated with the intractability of Jewish-Roman relations. Since the series proceeded beyond the gospels and added a role for Pilate in the period of Acts, Pilates figure has become a caricature of an evil Roman. He continues to engage in retaliatory actions against the population of Jerusalem that go beyond what is known about the four occasions of harshness known from historical sources. The threat to crucify women, for instance, is absolutely unprecedented. There is no record of Romans ever doing this.

Caiaphas interesting character: While Caiaphas is only mentioned once in the narrative of Acts (4:6), the series has not only created a plausible role for him that is connected with these events, it has also developed a relatable character who is torn between his own religious sensibilities and love for his people on the one hand and his concern for his position and his blind opposition to the Christian movement on the other.

This is perhaps best seen by the interesting scene between Caiaphas and Peter when they recite a psalm together over the corpse of Boaz. United with Peter briefly in a common love of God and in sadness over the fate of this misguided revolutionary, the high priest quickly flies into opposition as soon as Peter mentions the name of Jesus, illustrating that for many good Jews of this period, Jesus role as Messiah was, in fact, the deciding factor.

Boaz and Eva: The role of revolutionary zealots, including and especially the figure of Boaz, in this period has been amplified for dramatic effect. Boaz and his fiance, in this episode named Eva, are free creations. There is no indication that there were any interactions between zealots and the early Christian movement, let alone that one of the revolutionary leaders either sought shelter with Christians or had any interaction with Peter or Caiaphas. The development of the Eva character does add a nice dramatic touch, however, bringing yet another female character to the fore, humanizing Boaz, and providing some interesting interaction between her and Caiaphas wife.

Peter and Boaz: Peters refusal to turn Boaz in to the Jewish or Roman authorities and his similar refusal to support him seems a prevarication at first. But the argument between the two does allow Peter to teach important Christian principles, including suspension of judgment, love and forgiveness. Boaz is not converted but does turn himself in to Caiaphas.

Scriptural analysis

Arrest of the apostles: In Act 5:1718, the apostles are arrested as a result of their healing and other miracle-working activity in Acts 5:1216. But in this episode, Peter is first arrested because of his falling out with Caiaphas in the fictionalized scene involving Boazs death. The other apostles are then arrested when they come into the city to aid their leader.

Their miraculous deliverance from prison by an angel is well-depicted, although the presence of Roman guards seems incorrect. The apostles were arrested by Jewish authorities and put in a common prison (Acts 5:18) and not into Roman custody. Likewise, the apostles march to the temple and their bold preaching there is in accord with Acts 5:2021 and 25.

Apostles trial before the Sanhedrin: Although Caiaphas is not mentioned by name, the reference to the high priests questioning in Acts 5:2728 supports his depiction and speech here. Peters defense is taken from Acts 5:2932 and is one of the high points of the episode.

Intervention of Gamaliel: This leader of the Pharisees is known from both Acts 5:34 and from Jewish sources. From the latter come the amplification of his role as president of the Sanhedrin, although this later Jewish assumption is at odds with the fact that the Sadducean high priest was clearly the presiding figure in this period. Gamaliels speech is taken accurately from Acts 5:3539.

Tender Peter and Maia scene: This of course was completely fictionalized because Maia, Peters ostensible daughter, is a creation of the series. Her interaction with the young orphan Tamar gives Maia some depth, just as she is seems about to be removed from the series by her plan to return to Galilee to keep Tamar safe. Generally I feel that introducing and developing female characters is always a positive move given the paucity of females in both scripture and the history of the period. Here her decision to leave her father and Peters anguish over this does underscore the sacrifices that he needed to make for the gospel cause, though it also falls into the series pattern of removing the apostles from clear family contexts.

Omission of Acts 6:17: An early division within the Christian movement between Greek-speaking Jewish Christians (Grecians, King James Version) and local Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians (Hebrews," KJV) over the way the community lived in common is completely omitted from the episode. This may have been done partially to make the early church seem more united and to avoid depicting internal conflict, but in that regard an important opportunity was lost. One of the strengths in this series has been familiarizing viewers with the story of the early church, allowing them to see how challenges facing Christians today has precedent in the Bible. Christian churches are not always perfectly united, and they could benefit from seeing how conflict resolution was provided by inspiration in the apostolic church.

In this incident, the apostles were inspired to call seven Greek-speakers to serve in ways the apostles could not (Acts 6:26). Two of these seven, Stephen and Philip, were instead developed in fictitious ways. Stephen, introduced in the last episode, is given a completely new role teaching Peter to read (the need for which is based upon a misunderstanding of Acts 4:13), and Philip is introduced as someone James baptized who can serve as a leader of the fictionalized Christian camp outside of the city rather than as the servant of Greek-speaking Christian widows.

Stephen, of course, is the first martyr from whom the episode takes its title, and Philip will play an important role in the next episode in taking the gospel to the Samaritans.

Also left out is the surprising adherence of many lower-ranking Jewish priests to the new Christian movement.

Stephens arrest, trial, and stoning: In Acts 6:8, Stephen is described as a disciple who works great miracles because of the power of the Holy Spirit. His arrest is the result of debates that he has with other Jews in a synagogue in the city, whereas in this episode it occurs because he marches into the temple and confronts the Jewish authorities directly.

His trial, and especially his long defense speech, which comprises the greater portion of Acts 7, is greatly abbreviated in this episode. Some of the main points, however, such as his avowal that God cannot be contained in a temple made by hands, are included, though his discussion of Moses and the law are omitted.

His summary execution by stoning is poignant, though the creators chose to avoid depicting his vision of the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. This may well have been done to maintain denominational neutrality, since different Christians interpret the meaning of this vision differently.

Introduction of Saul: The later apostle Paul is introduced, as he is in Acts 7:58 and 8:1, as a witness of Stephens death, one who was culpable because he held the cloaks of those involved in the stoning. He is made a bit more complicit in the dramatic portrayal by having him actually hand the fatal stone to one of the participants. He will play a pivotal role in subsequent episodes.

Suggestions and points to keep in mind as the series moves forward

  1. Remember that "A.D." has two purposes: first, to provide quality, wholesome entertainment; and second, increase viewers interest in the Bible. To that end it is effectively engaging in historical fiction while trying to be historically accurate and staying true to the spirit of the text. It is not intended to be a dramatization that simply accompanies a reading of any particular English translation of the Bible.
  2. I have repeatedly emphasized in my reviews of previous episodes that it is important that after viewing each installment, people should go back and read the actual text of the Bible. Now that we know the general approach that the series is taking in regard to its balance of fictional historical drama and dramatized scriptural episodes, I actually suggest that viewers read before watching an episode as well. Read the next couple of chapters before next weeks new episode.
  3. Appreciate the attempts to provide background through the historical drama sections. The history of the apostolic church did not take place in a vacuum. The opponents of the early Christian movement were motivated by a complex equation of competing political, cultural and personal considerations. Though these scenes are fictionalized, by and large they are based on historical research and reflect many of these real issues of the period.
  4. That said, we have seen some patterns that distort the historical record somewhat. Going forward we need to be wary of the overly negative portrayal of Romans and the playing up of the role of revolutionary zealots, both of which are largely absent from the book of Acts (though not necessarily from the gospels or historical sources). Additionally, these add elements of brutality that seem unnecessary.
  5. Understand that the development of biblical characters, especially minor figures, is necessary to flesh them out and give the episodes, and the story, depth. Just be certain to separate these additions from what the text actually says about these figures.
  6. Allow yourself to be moved. Some of the highlights of this series so far all of the portrayals of Jesus in the first two episodes, the depiction of Pentecost in the third, stirring testimonies and speeches of Peter, and Stephens martyrdom in this episode touch upon the core of the Christian message and the early church. It is all right to be stirred emotionally or spiritually by these scenes even if you have differences about the particulars of their portrayal.
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