Episode 12: 'The Abomination'

'A.D. The Bible Continues'
Image: NBC

'A.D. The Bible Continues'

The first episode of A.D. The Bible Continues was basically a dramatization of the death and burial of Jesus with a few fictitious bits thrown in. The season finale is the almost complete opposite of that: it's a heavily fictionalized version of secular history that gets the biblical stuff out of the way as quickly as it can—and it leaves many of its most important plot threads unresolved, presumably in the hope that the series will get renewed for a second season.

Let's start, as the episode more or less does, with the biblical stuff, most of which comes from Acts 10.

For the first time ever, we see the centurion Cornelius with his family, in his home in Caesarea. Cornelius is still shaken by the fact that he executed the Christian woman Joanna in the previous episode. But then an angel appears to him and says, "God has looked kindly on your sorrow and repentance." (In the Bible, the angel tells him, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God." I discussed the significance of differences like this in my recap of last week's episode.)

The angel tells Cornelius to send men to bring Peter back to Caesarea. We then cut to Peter, who has a vision of various animals while a voice tells him, "These are looked upon as unclean, but do not call anything impure that God has cleansed." This sequence feels utterly rushed, and it lacks the back-and-forth drama of the biblical story, in which the voice tells Peter to "kill and eat," and Peter actively resists. (The best cinematic version of this story by far is in the 1985 miniseries A.D. Anno Domini, which communicates the shock that Peter must have felt when he had this vision; it also has some fun with the fact that Peter had this vision while he happened to be hungry and was waiting for some food.)

Peter then goes to Cornelius's house, and A.D. The Bible Continues is, as far as I can tell, the only major adaptation of Acts that actually follows the Bible in showing Cornelius and his family speaking in tongues before Peter baptizes them. So, kudos for that. Granted, the series tweaks things a bit, by having Peter announce his decision to baptize Cornelius before the speaking in tongues begins—thus missing the humour in the book of Acts, where the speaking in tongues interrupts Peter's sermon and convinces him to get on with the baptizing—but oh well, you can't have everything.

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And then . . .

Well, after that, the series has exhausted its biblical material, and the rest of the season finale revolves around the tension between the Jews and Romans as Pilate's men try to put a statue of Caligula in the temple.

First, a bit of historical background: The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Petronius, the Roman governor in charge of Syria, was given the job of carrying out Caligula's orders, and that he was prepared to go to war to do so, but then tens of thousands of Jews met him in Galilee, bared their necks, and said they would rather be slain than live to see the temple desecrated. So Petronius stalled—and the only reason he got away with it was because Caligula's letter telling Petronius to kill himself arrived after news arrived that Caligula had been assassinated.

Very few of these historical details are used in A.D. The Bible Continues. The job of installing Caligula's statue falls not to Petronius but to Pilate. The statue doesn't stay in Phoenicia, where Petronius had it built, but actually seems to get as far as the temple's outer courtyards. The Roman governor in charge, rather than back down because it is the virtuous thing to do, stubbornly insists on killing every Jew who gets in the way. And rather than avert conflict, the Romans provoke a full-scale battle with the Zealots that results in lots of people dying.

'A.D. The Bible Continues'
Image: NBC

'A.D. The Bible Continues'

The one detail the series does keep is the peaceful baring of necks by some Jews who were willing to submit to death—and here things get interesting.

When the statue arrives at the temple, Caiaphas and the other priests step outside and face Cornelius, the centurion in charge. The two sides refuse to budge. And then Peter and the other disciples step between the two sides and kneel down on the ground, facing Cornelius; they are soon followed by Caiaphas and the other priests, who bare their necks and dare the centurion to kill them in cold blood.

And why does Cornelius not kill them? Because he has already become a Christian—and he was baptized by Peter himself, the man who was first to kneel down before him.

This is an amazing co-opting of secular history. Josephus wrote that thousands of Jews peacefully protested Caligula's plans, and that the Roman governor was swayed by their pious display of self-sacrifice. (Josephus even writes that Caligula's letter, demanding that Petronius kill himself, got lost in the mail because "God would not forget the dangers Petronius had undertaken on account of the Jews".) But in A.D., the key Roman and Jewish characters in this scene are both Christians.

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On the one hand, this is a powerful depiction of what faith-filled people can do, and I especially like the way the series resolves the tension it set up a few episodes ago, between those Christians who want to take up arms against the Romans and those who prefer a sort of pious apathy. Peter, remembering that Jesus himself called the temple "my Father's house," tells his fellow Christians that they must intervene on behalf of their fellow Jews—but in a peaceful, self-sacrificial way.

On the other hand, the series seems to suggest that the Romans were incapable of respecting peaceful protestors unless the Romans also happened to be Christian. Once again, the series shows no interest in righteous Gentiles unless they happen to be part of "us", the Christian audience that is the target demographic for this series.

This rather cynical vision of the non-Christian world is confirmed when the Zealots and the Romans get into a heated battle after all—and indeed, it is only because of the resulting bloody skirmish that the peaceful protestors are left alone. Ironically, it is not the Christians or the priests praying peacefully who save the temple from desecration, but the Jews who fight back and shatter Caligula's statue.

Violent methods work—at least for now. This is at odds with both secular history and the presumed intended message of this series.

'A.D. The Bible Continues'
Image: NBC

'A.D. The Bible Continues'

Maddeningly, the episode leaves the statue affair unresolved; yes, this statue is destroyed, but Pilate says Caligula will send another, and another, until his will is done. Other things are left unresolved, too: Caiaphas's wife Leah becomes such a loose cannon that someone murders her, and the episode doesn't reveal who did it; Cornelius returns to Pilate's palace and fears what his boss will do once he learns his centurion has become a Christian; Pilate attacks his wife Claudia physically for the first time ever, and she, traumatized, turns down Cornelius's offer to run away with the Christians; and, in the very last scene, a Roman officer arrests Peter.

And that's the note on which the season ends.

So many loose threads are left dangling, it's clear the producers were hoping this series would be renewed for a second season. But the series has been slipping in the ratings ever since it premiered over two months ago, and it seems unlikely now that that second season will ever happen.

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As mixed a bag as this series is, I can't say I want it to end here. There are lots of potential problems that the show would have to overcome (not least the fact that the historical Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod Antipas were all out of the picture before Caligula sent his statue to Judea, yet those characters are all still very much a part of this series), but I rather enjoyed A.D.'s depiction of Saul, post-conversion, and I want to see how the series handles his missionary journeys and his future clashes with Peter and James the Just.

Before A.D. premiered, producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey said they wanted to take a deeper dive into the book of Acts. That is still a worthy goal. But if the series is going to continue—and if it is going to hold on to the audience that made The Bible a hit—then they may have to put more effort into that deeper dive.

The first half of this season rushed through the stories of Acts and even ignored some of them altogether, while the second half was dominated by a secular political storyline and made the book of Acts subservient to that historical fiction.

Telling the story of the early Church in a way that speaks to modern Christians while keeping curious non-believers entertained is not easy, and you have to give the makers of A.D. credit for trying. If the network decides to go ahead with a second season, let's hope they can strike a better balance between those two things.

Peter T. Chattaway writes about films in general, and Bible films in particular, at FilmChat.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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