Episode 9: “Saul's Return”

Peter talks to Saul.
Image: NBC

Peter talks to Saul.

Peter and Paul loom so large in the history of the Church, and are so frequently linked in the traditions of the Church—from icons and special feast days to the tradition that they were both executed by the emperor Nero—that it comes as a bit of a surprise to realize that, if all you had to go by was the book of Acts, it wouldn't be clear whether Peter and Paul had ever met, much less spoken to each other.

It's certainly implied that they meet when Barnabas introduces Saul to "the apostles" in Acts 9, and Peter and Paul both make presentations to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15—but if they ever spoke to each other specifically, the book of Acts never says so.

Filmmakers, of course, can't leave it at that. If you're going to make a movie about the book of Acts, you have to show its two most important characters meeting at some point, and that means writing dialogue for them and so on.

Thankfully, Paul himself tells us about some of his meetings with Peter in the early chapters of Galatians—and not all of those meetings went well. But many filmmakers tend to ignore Paul's letters when they dramatize the rise of the early Church—they tend to rely on Acts exclusively for their dramatic framework—so when they do show Peter and Paul meeting each other, they have to make something up.

A.D. The Bible Continues, it seems, is one of these Acts-only adaptations.

The episode begins with Saul—as Paul is still called—fleeing the city of Damascus because some of his fellow Jews are out to get him, as per Acts 9:23–25; there is no mention of the Arabian governor who was also out to get him, as per 2 Corinthians 11:32–33 (see also Gal. 1:17).

Immediately afterwards, Saul goes to Jerusalem and meets several of the apostles; there is no recognition of the fact that, according to Galatians 1:18–20, Saul went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion and met only Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. (A.D. has not yet introduced James.)

And then, after Saul meets the apostles, Peter demands to speak to Saul privately—and the ensuing conversation is quite interesting, if not always plausible.

Saul, as depicted here, is so radically transformed by his encounter with the resurrected Jesus that he's itching to spread the gospel in a take-charge kind of way—but of course, Saul was busy persecuting the Christians and even killing some of them just a week or two earlier, so Peter and the others don't take kindly to Saul's presumptuousness.

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It's not clear whether the episode expects us to take Saul's side in this exchange.

When Saul critiques Peter and the others for "judging" him and forgetting Jesus' message of "forgiveness", it sure sounds like the makers of this series expect us to learn a lesson from him, just as Peter and the others are learning their lesson.

Saul and Barnabas
Image: NBC

Saul and Barnabas

But it takes time to build trust, and you'd think the man who said he didn't deserve to be called an apostle because of his past actions (1 Cor. 15:9) might take it down a notch and show more evidence of his contrition, instead of complaining almost immediately that Peter won't "let go" of what Saul did to them.

Still, the episode does communicate quite effectively how difficult it must have been for the apostles who knew Jesus personally to accept that Jesus had now appeared to one of their persecutors, and had given that persecutor a special mission to fulfill.

And once again, I am impressed by how Emmett J. Scanlan conveys the radical change to Saul's personality following his conversion. The intensity and the zeal are still there, but they now come across as enthusiasm, rather than obsession, and his newfound joy is infectious.

Meanwhile, the emperor Caligula decides to go back to Rome—but before he goes, he tells Pilate and Herod Antipas that he intends to plant a statue of himself inside the Jerusalem temple, thereby desecrating it.

The historical Caligula did, in fact, try to put a statue of himself inside the temple, but the book of Acts never mentions this fact, so one of the things I like about shows like this is the way they explore how the early Christians—and others—might have responded to this crisis.

Image: NBC


The 1985 miniseries A.D. Anno Domini, for example, showed pagan Romans and Christians alike undergoing a sort of identity crisis as a result of Caligula's decree: the centurion Cornelius, tasked with carrying out Caligula's orders, abandons paganism altogether and becomes a Christian, while the apostles argue over whether the temple is still "theirs," now that Gentiles are being admitted into the Church.

A.D. The Bible Continues goes a different route, and shows the apostles arguing over whether or not they should intervene to prevent the desecration.

John says they should do nothing because Caligula's statue could fulfill a prophecy in Daniel and bring about the end times, including the return of Jesus.

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Simon the Zealot, on the other hand, says they have to take action, so he goes and joins the, uh, Zealots. (Fraser Ayres, the actor who plays Simon, played the rebel Barabbas in The Bible two years ago. Talk about typecasting!)

We'll see how this plays out over the next three episodes. But for now, I think it's rather interesting how some of the apostles seem to be falling into two camps, neither of which are particularly appealing: those who seem to be advocating violent resistance, and those who advocate apathy and inaction out of a misguided (and even self-serving) eschatology.

Let's hope the series can resolve these dilemmas in a satisfying way.

Incidentally, while this episode does ignore Paul's epistles, it makes good use of other Scriptures.

Mary Magdalene
Image: NBC

Mary Magdalene

First, this episode introduces Tabitha, a woman who will presumably die and be raised from the dead by Peter in a future episode (as per Acts 9:36-42). The Bible doesn't tell us much about Tabitha, but in this series she is a seamstress working in Herod's household, which is a cute nod to the bit in Acts which describes how, while she was dead, some widows showed Peter "the robes and other clothing" that she had made for them.

Also, Joanna—who also works for the Herods—gives Mary Magdalene some money to pass on to the Christian community, which is a nice nod to the bit in Luke 8:1–3 which tells us that both Joanna and Mary Magdalene supported Jesus and his followers "out of their own means."

And Caiaphas, of all people, quotes the verse in Leviticus about loving your neighbour as yourself when his wife tells him to kill Saul. Caiaphas had very little to do in the last couple of episodes, but now—with the future of Judaism at stake, thanks to Caligula's decree—he's back in a big way, and in the middle of all this chaos he wants to win Saul back to what he, Caiaphas, believes is Jewish orthodoxy.

As the man who handed Jesus over to the Romans, Caiaphas could very easily have been portrayed as a simple villain. But to this series' credit, his motivations are a lot more complicated than that, and his Jewish faith is sincere. The final shot in this episode shows Saul saying the Lord's Prayer in his prison cell, and Caiaphas watching from a distance, wondering what to do. I'm really keen to see where things go from here.

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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