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“A.D.”

Episode 5: May 3, 2015

The fifth episode of NBC’s series, “A.D.—The Bible Continues,” was aired this past Sunday, May 3.

While much of “A.D.” continues to be extra-biblical and extra-historical, much of the importance of the series can be summed up by a comment by Mary, the mother of Jesus, who said, “There is so much pain and despair.  That’s why my some came, to free us from it.”

All that goes on with Caiaphas, Pilate, their wives, the Iscarii and the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem) is speculation.  But still the extra material does accent the valid point that Jerusalem was an occupied city, with the Romans exercising control over the habitants of Jerusalem.  A conversation between Anna and Claudia, the wives of Caiaphas and Pilate, respectively, makes it clear that the Jews of Jerusalem are not free to do as they wish when it comes to the exercise of their religion.  They are beneath the sometimes-cruel thumb of the Roman Empire, represented by and epitomized by Pilate.

Peter and John gave much longer and more pointed speeches in the Temple courts than is depicted in “A.D.”  But those speeches did put them in prison and the Holy Spirit did miraculously release them from jail.  Also, there is no evidence to suggest that a member of the Sanhedrin defended them when they were brought before the ruling council.

“A.D.” has the new disciples of Jesus camped outside of Jerusalem in a tent village.  Most certainly not true.  The early converts were in Jerusalem.  Acts gives testimony that the first church was based in Jerusalem.  The first new disciples of Jesus outside the circle of those who followed Jesus in His lifetime were from the city, or were in the city during the festival of Passover.  And, while they may have been pilgrims in the city for Passover, Acts gives no hint that the early new converts camped outside Jerusalem.  They stayed close to where the action was.

Missing from “A.D.” and a crucial part of the first part of Acts is the central aspect of the early church—the teaching of the apostles to the early converts.  Several times in Acts it is clear that the foundation of the infant church was the teaching done by the apostles, those who had walked with Jesus.  They had to teach a lot in order to add the proper foundation for the early church.  With Jesus as the Messiah, the new center of the faith of the People of God, rather than the Temple in Jerusalem, the apostles had to work hard, with a strong assist from the Holy Spirit (and, I believe, Mary the mother of Jesus), to help the new Christians understand who Jesus was and what it meant to follow Him.

This episode ends with the stoning of Stephen, who was steadfast in his confession of Jesus as both Messiah (Christ) and Lord.  Missing (and the next episode will probably begin here) is the appearance of Saul, who would later be renamed as the Apostle Paul, who held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen.  Saul was a sympathizer of the Jews who saw Stephen as a blasphemer and wanted to see the new Christian church crushed and destroyed.

We’ll see what the next episode brings.

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“A.D.”

Episode 4: April 26, 2015

The fourth episode of NBC’s series, “A.D.—The Bible Continues,” was aired this past Sunday, April 26.

If you are following along in your Bible as you watch this series, you might get lost or confused.  There is not a linear progression of the biblical account in “A.D.”   Not only are there insertions of dialogue that have no historical or biblical warrant, even the biblical material is broken up and scattered throughout the episodes.

A significant amount of time was spent in episode four describing Pilate’s vendetta against the Jerusalem Jews.  He is angry and insulted because he is convinced that one the Iscarii, a violent insurgent group of Jews, a minority to be sure, tried to kill him.  One of his soldiers did get killed and now he is crucifying Jews until the real assassin either comes forward or is brought to him.

I couldn’t find any accounts from history of Pilate carrying out this kind of vendetta in Jerusalem.  There is no historical material that points to Jews being crucified by Pilate in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection.  Of course, some Jews were crucified, for various reasons.  But those executions were for specific crimes.  In “A.D.,” Pilate is rounding up random Jews and crucifying them.  It does, however, accurately portray Pilate as what he was historically known as, a brutal governor.

Among the scenes that have no biblical or historical warrant were Stephen’s encounter with Peter’s daughter and Caiaphas’ wife Anna giving the healed cripple a bribe to testify before the Sanhedrin that he could always walk and was not healed by Peter.  But the healed man didn’t follow the script and did tell the Jewish leaders that it was, indeed, Peter who had healed him in the name of Jesus.

One of the things to look for are signs of God’s activity throughout the series.  One of the more subtle portrayals of the activity of the Holy Spirit was wind blowing through Peter’s hair as he gave public testimony to Jesus the Messiah, crucified and risen.  Wind is almost always a sign of the Holy Spirit.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) is accurate in its essence, but not even close to chronology in the Bible.  In “A.D.” the account is split into two incidents, which took place in two locations.  In the biblical account, both Ananias and Sapphira die within a short time of one another, in the same location.

The story, however, highlighted how the infant church developed.  The Holy Spirit drew believers together and they pooled their resources, thereby creating a strong community.  Ananias and Sapphira died not because they had held back some of the proceeds from the sale of their property, but because they had lied to the Holy Spirit and had attempted to deceive the apostles and God.

Episode four of “A.D.” ends with the early church in Jerusalem, led by the apostles.  It is a rapidly growing community of believers experiencing together the power of God in their midst.

Episode 3: April 12, 2015

The third installment of NBC’s series, “A.D.—The Bible Continues,” was aired this past Sunday, April 19.

Jesus has risen, appeared numerous times to the apostles and others, and has ascended.  Ordered by Jesus to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, much of the episode has the disciples in the upper room in the Holy City.

Even more so than in the first two episodes, much of the show was carried by conversations that are based only on speculation.  Conversations between Pilate and his wife, Claudia, Caiaphas and his wife, Anna, Caiaphas and his father-in-law, Annas, Caiaphas and Joseph of Arimathea, Pilate and Caiaphas, Herod and Caiaphas, Peter and his daughter, and most notably between Pilate and Caiaphas, may have taken place, but there is no biblical evidence for them.

However, these conversations, with no biblical warrant, may have taken place and in this episode illustrate the point that Jesus’ resurrection caused quite a bit of trouble for those in charge of both the temple and the city.  Caiaphas, the high priest, represents the interests of the Temple, the official religion of the people of Jerusalem and the country.  Pilate, the governor, represents the interests of the occupying Roman Empire.  Herod Antipas, the “King of the Jews,” represents someone who stands in the middle of both the religious and secular interests.

Interesting to me is the emphasis placed upon the wives of Pilate and Caiaphas, along with the daughter of Peter.  Historically, women were not significant characters in public life.  They were for show, not substance.  “A.D.” presents these women, along with the daughter of Peter, as people with significant roles in the affairs of the men.  While such a presentation appeals to our twenty-first century sensitivities, it is probably not historically so.  There is no biblical warrant for such significant roles for these women.

However, within the burgeoning church, the opposite was the case.  The roles of women in the life of the believers in Jerusalem, and in the early church, were normal, expected and significant, as well as important.  It was the women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus.  It was Mary Magdelene who was the first to give testimony and witness to Jesus’ resurrection.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, was always important, not only after Jesus’ resurrection but also during Jesus’ public ministry and earlier years.

Society, as a rule, did not value women, except for their work in the home and in childbearing.  It was the church, beginning with the band of believers in Jerusalem following Jesus’ resurrection, who valued women in every way.  All people had a say in the church.  All were valued, from the very beginning.  But this was much different than the culture as a whole.

While this episode did cover the giving of the Holy Spirit, represented as tongues of fire from heaven, to the disciples in the upper room as they prayed, the bold preaching of Peter and the other disciples, John in particular, in the temple courts following the giving of the Spirit on Pentecost, and the healing of the man who could not walk, it did not present the deep and theologically rich sermons by Peter, which were why both he and John were brought before the Jewish ruling council of Jerusalem and then thrown in prison.

Also, Pilate’s visit to the Temple on Pentecost is not biblical.  And his killing of dissidents on the Temple steps is not biblical.  But the “abomination that makes desolation,” prophesied in Daniel 11 and carried out during the time of the Maccabees less than 200 years earlier, was a real fear of the Jews in Jerusalem.  While biblically and historically not accurate, Pilate’s desecration on the Temple in the way depicted in “A.D.” highlighted the increasing tenuousness of the Jewish religion in Jerusalem.

There is a lot of biblical material missing in this episode.  We travel through almost three chapters of Acts, barely skimming over the biblical material, with extra-biblical material, especially many side conversations, carrying most of the weight.

It says in 1 John 4:18 that perfect love casts out all fear.  It was inspiring to watch the fearful disciples, Peter especially, walk boldly out of the upper room  and into the Temple courts after receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  Peter preached with no fear.  This is even more dramatic in the biblical accounts in Acts 2 and 3; more so than in “A.D.”

I like the series so far.  The extra-biblical conversations and other scenes add to the drama, even if they are speculative.  This episode covered a lot of biblical ground, even if that ground, as it is described in the Bible itself, is missing.  However, there series is providing good fodder for conversations here and now, between both believers and those who don’t have faith in Jesus or the biblical message.

“A.D.” is a tool for Christians.  And I think that is the producers intent and purpose.

I didn’t realize NBC was going to play the previous week’s episode of “A.D.” at 8 p.m., an hour before the new episode, but apparently that is going to be the case.  At least it was this past Sunday, April 12.  So if you miss the previous week’s episode, you can still catch it right before the new one airs.

You can also watch episodes of “A.D.” on NBC’s website for the series.  Just google “A.D.” and you’ll be directed to the website.  Along with the episodes that have been aired, you can also view other shows that both summarize and give behind-the-scenes information related to the series.

Last Sunday’s (April 12) episode of “A.D.” depicted the gospel story from just after Jesus’ resurrection to His ascension.  This in-between time includes appearances of the risen Jesus, along with some scenes that were included for dramatic effect.

Conversations between Pontius Pilate and his wife, Claudia, are not found in the Bible, but they are plausible, if fictional.  Also fictional are the conversations between Caiaphas, the high priest, and his wife, Anna, whose father is Annas, the former high priest.  (Apparently it was good to marry into the high priest’s family if you wanted to become high priest yourself.)

Another conversation that was made-up for dramatic effect was a conversation that took place between Caiaphas and Pilate while Caiaphas was taking a bath.  This was not the only conversation between the high priest and the Roman governor that was included in this episode.  Again, they are all speculative in nature and are not included in the biblical accounts.

It is worth noting, however, that the priority of the governor, Pilate, was order.  He didn’t want trouble of any kind, especially from the “occupied” people of Jerusalem and their religious leaders.  Pilate wanted to be seen as a governor who was effective at keeping rebellion and insurrection at bay.  For him, to be perceived otherwise, was not only distasteful, but the worst that could happen to him.

Caiaphas had a similar agenda, but his centered on the Temple and the running of the Jewish religion in Jerusalem and, be extension, the entire country.  Of course, the center of the Jewish faith was the Temple and all of the rituals surrounding its life.  Jesus was a definite threat to that order, so he had to be dealt with.  Otherwise, as high priest, Caiaphas would be seen as an ineffective ruler of his religion and his people.

Pilate consider the “Jesus affair” to be a Jewish problem.  To make it his problem was to be a pain in his neck, which also might tarnish his image as an effective governor.  But because Caiaphas wanted the “Jesus problem” to be taken care of in such a way that Jesus would go away and stay away, he had to turn to Pilate to solve that problem.

The Jewish method of executing someone accused of blasphemy, of which Jesus was declared guilty by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council of 70 members in Jerusalem, was by stoning.  But, with the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, the Jews did not have the right to carry out a death sentence.  They had to get the Romans to kill Jesus.  The Roman method of execution was crucifixion.  Only Pilate could authorize a crucifixion.

The religious leaders harassed Pilate into solving their problem, which was getting rid of Jesus once and for all.  Needless to say, Pilate was not happy to be used by the Jewish leaders this way.  So he “washed his hands” of the problem, after pronouncing the death sentence on Jesus, and told the religious leaders that he was not responsible for Jesus’ death.  His blood was on their hands, not his.  Hence the symbolic washing of his hands.

The many extra-biblical conversations noted above illustrated this tension.  Everyone had his or her own interests that they insisted be attended to and taken care of.  Pilate wanted to get away from Jerusalem to his place on the Mediterranean and away from all of this annoying trouble.  Caiaphas wanted to get the machinery of the Temple running smoothly again.  They both wanted to look good, competent, effective.  Image mattered.

Even though the disciples stayed hidden because they were afraid, their fear was not of the Roman guards, as depicted in “A.D.,” but instead of the Temple guards.  The Temple had its own police force or legion of guards, separate from the Roman soldiers of the occupying army.  It was Temple guards who arrested Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.  It was Roman guards who flogged and crucified Jesus.  Getting Jesus from the shackles of the Temple guards to the deadly, crucifying hands of the Roman guards was what Caiaphas needed to pull off … and he did.

Roman guards chasing down the apostles and then pursuing them through Jerusalem?  Nothing biblical about that.  Nor is it biblical that the city was shut down so that no one could leave while a search for the apostles was on.

One interesting side note is the conspiring of the Sicarii, the insurrectionists known for their knives, with the apostles.  It is thought that Judas might have been a Sicarii, hence his biblical moniker, Iscariot.  The aid given to the apostles by the Sicarii in “A.D.” is speculation.  But it makes for good drama.

One of the most touching scenes of this episode takes place while the disciples are in hiding in Jerusalem and Peter says his deepest regret is that he didn’t have the chance to tell Jesus he was sorry for denying Him.  It is then that the risen Jesus appears in the locked room, puts his hand on Peter’s shoulder from behind and says Peter’s name, telling Peter to have peace.  The look on Peter’s face is priceless.  Forgiveness invades his heart and life.  He is given mercy by the only One who could adequately proffer it, Jesus Himself.  Liberation is granted.  Peter is free of guilt, shame and regret.  It was a moment of real, authentic and undiluted Christianity on display.

Jesus appears to His disciples in Galilee while they are fishing and it is after this that the famous series of questions and answers between Peter and Jesus takes place.  This is the conversation where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him.  We know that Peters answers yes each time the question is asked.  But, both in this episode and in the Bible, it is clear that the end of the conversation is not satisfying to either Jesus or Peter.  But nothing more is said by either one.  Not a perfect ending, but it’s what we’ve got.  It seems that Peter’s love for Jesus, and ours, still falls short of what is asked of us.  The good news is that grace fills the gap.

The episode ends with the ascension of Jesus which, if you follow the book of Acts, looks like it takes place near Jerusalem, probably on the Mount of Olives.  The small church of the Ascension is located at the top of the Mount of Olives today.  But this episode gives the clear impression that Jesus’ ascension took place in Galilee, following His appearances as the Risen Lord to His disciples there.  The end of the gospel of Matthew might lend itself to depicting the ascension this way.

Again, like at the tomb when Jesus was raised from the dead, the archangel Michael is “guarding” Jesus’ ascension, along with a number of other angels.  Shown this way for dramatic effect, it is not consistent with the biblical description of His ascension.  “A.D.” has Jesus commanding the disciples to “go into Jerusalem and preach.”  It would have been a lot longer walk to Jerusalem from Galilee than it would have been from the Mount of Olives, located just across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  The ascending Jesus could have pointed to the Temple Mount as He gave this command and the disciples could have turned their heads to see what He was pointing at if the ascension took place on the Mount of Olives.  Not so in Galilee.

Overall, I like the series so far.  The “dramatizations” are okay, even if they are extra-biblical.  The essential points are still being covered: Jesus was crucified, dead and buried.  He rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven.  Sounds a lot like the Apostles’ Creed.

(As an additional note, it is a distraction that both Peter’s eyes and the eyes of Caiaphas are blue.  That would not have been the case for people living in the ancient near east.  Today, if someone living in the middle east has blue eyes, they are outcast because people don’t want them to look at them, believing they have the “evil eye.”)

“A.D.”

Episode 1: April 5, 2015

The initial offering of “A.D.”, NBC’s 10-episode depiction of the first ten chapters of the biblical book of Acts, did not contain anything from Acts but did provide the necessary backstory.

Acts is a post-crucifixion, post-resurrection, post-ascension of Jesus account of the Acts of the Apostles (the traditional name of the book of Acts).  In other words, Acts is the story of the birth and early years of the Christian church.

The first episode covers the arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus, along with Jesus’ time in the tomb and His resurrection.  Last Sunday’s episode ended with the empty tomb.  It’s safe to assume that next Sunday’s episode will include resurrection appearances of Jesus.

While some of the conversations of episode one were fictitious, the liberties taken were fair.  Of particular note were the conversations between Pilate and his wife, and the one among the disciples following the death of Jesus.

Among the liberties taken that were not biblical took place around the resurrection of Jesus.  There is no biblical warrant to assume that the angel who descended on the tomb of Jesus during His resurrection was the archangel Michael, nor is there anything in the Bible that describes what happened at the moment of Jesus’ resurrection.

“A.D.” showed a brilliant light emanating from Jesus’ tomb while the stone was still in place, sealing the grave.  No such thing is described in the Bible.  One gospel (Matthew) does say that an earthquake occurred when the angel who rolled the stone away from the tomb came down and removed the sealing stone from the entrance to the grave.

Anything related to the moment of resurrection is speculation on our part, for the Bible is silent about that time.  It is nice to assume that there was a bright light, just like it’s nice to assume that the warrior archangel, Michael, was there to make it clear that no unauthorized person was to mess with the tomb of Jesus, but it is all speculation.  But both make for good television, so the producers can be forgiven for these additions for dramatic effect.

Episode one ends with the empty tomb.  We’ll see how far episode two leans into the actual book of Acts.

There is still some backstory to be told, such as the resurrection appearances of Jesus, before moving on to Acts, which depicts Jesus’ ascension, the selection of a replacement twelfth Apostle (taking the place of Judas Iscariot) and the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

(Note:  This is an article I wrote for the Bremen Enquirer at the beginning of Summer 2014.  Jim Morse)

My grandmother’s October death is shrouded in mystery, even 30 years later.
I had visited my mother’s mother the week before in the Springfield, Vermont, hospital, which was about two and one-half hours from the town in Massachusetts where I was living, about eight months into my first full-time pastorate after completing seminary and being ordained.
It was in that hospital where the medial collateral ligament of my left knee had been repaired.  During that week-long stay, in the middle of one of the nights, the curtain between my bed and the bed of my roommate, an older man, was suddenly yanked, waking me up.
People rushed into the room and, beneath the bottom of the curtain, I could see the mattress of my roommate’s bed deforming almost into a V as someone pushed it rhythmically down very hard, again and again.  In the morning I was told that he had died.  Our conversation the night before, just prior to saying good night, I remember as very comforting.
The first funeral I ever attended was that of my grandfather, twenty years before my grandmother died.  I missed school that day.
In the Springfield Cemetery, a sprawling municipal burying ground on a floodplain above the Black River, my grandmother took her place next to my grandfather in the family plot.
As the casket was descending slowly into the grave, I was shocked to see one of my aunts jump onto the coffin and begin riding it into the ground.  She cried out in a loud voice, filled with tears and grief, “Don’t go, mom!  Don’t go!”
Someone stopped the casket from being lowered further into the ground and got my aunt out of the grave.  My wife, Jan, and I did not know what to think.  We had nothing to say to each other about what we had just experienced.  But now Jan knew there was some weirdness on some of the branches of my family tree.  We are still married and, after my grandmother’s funeral, I am relieved and grateful.
The following summer, I did the funeral for a young man who had been killed by a drunk driver.  The other car crossed the center line and sliced into the vehicle in which he was the passenger in the front seat.  His mother lived in a tenement apartment building across the street from the front of the church.
We traveled west to the next town for the burial.  The young man’s friends and his family were clumped together in groups at the cemetery, weeping and sobbing and hugging each other at the end of the committal service.
I kept vigil to one side, as is my practice, praying for those grief-stricken people.  When we’ve lost someone we love to death, perhaps the most difficult thing we do is walk away from their grave.   It’s an act of finality.  There is nothing we can do to change things.  We are helpless and powerless in the face of that moment.
But walk away we must.  So I keep vigil, as a symbol that God will watch over their loved one and is ever-faithful.  When they get in their cars and begin their exit from the cemetery, their last glance back is to see this solitary pastor standing vigil over the grave they have just left.  My hope is that God will use that moment to assure them of His promises and goodness and that, somehow, they will turn their hearts toward Him.
As I stood vigil on this day and as the casket was being lowered into the grave, one of the grief-filled friends of the now-deceased young man jumped onto the coffin and sprawled on top of it.
He wailed, “Don’t leave!  I can’t stand it!  Don’t go!”
His friends reached down and drew his crumpled form out of the grave as the casket continued to descend.  I glanced at the mother whose son was descending into the earth and could see that this act of grief had only pierced her with greater sorrow.  She swooned and fell to her knees.
I have seen and experienced the impact of death on those who have no hope.  Without faith in God and the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ death brings a crushing finality and profound meaninglessness to human life.
And the bromides we tell ourselves, like people becoming angels or that the spectral spirits of those who have died still linger around, comforting us, or that our souls reincarnate to begin the cycle of karmic misery over again (and again), are, to be honest, just whistling in the dark, attempting to keep the fears and bleak hopelessness at bay, tolerable.
I am a Christian because Jesus is risen and has promised me, along with everyone else, a resurrection like his.
However, for now, death is still a formidable enemy, wreaking havoc and bringing sorrow.
I am a Christian because Jesus is risen and has conquered death.
There is hope and renewal beyond the grave.
As Christians, we bury our loved ones in the hope of the resurrection.
As Christians, we pray for those who have no hope, that the God and Father of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, will comfort them in their sorrow and continue to draw them into His love and goodness.
Because without Jesus and faith in Him, it makes a certain kind of macabre sense to ride the descending caskets of our loved ones into the grave.

Horizon’s Christmas Eve service will be this coming Tuesday, December 24, at 6 p.m.