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In 2013, the History Channel scored cable’s most-watched entertainment show with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s miniseries The Bible. The series proved so popular the filmmakers were able to cobble together a successful 2014 film, Son of God, just from select scenes and unaired footage. So it’s no surprise, as Easter approaches, that the network is returning to the subject of Scripture.
History’s new eight-part documentary series, Jesus: His Life, premieres this Sunday. Through dramatic re-enactments and interviews with scholars, each episode examines Christ’s earthly ministry through the eyes of a Biblical figure who knew him: Joseph, John the Baptist, Mary, Caiaphas, Judas, Pilate, Mary Magdalene, and Peter.
While it’s certainly one of the more worthwhile, engaging new shows you could be watching, it does contain a few moments likely to make Christian brows wrinkle.
To start with the good, the unique approach of focusing on the perspective of one person from Jesus’ life at a time allows for intriguing historical context rarely covered for laypeople. For example, after a lifetime of church and Sunday school attendance, I was still surprised to learn about Herod the Great’s racial background and how his insecurity over it may have impacted his response to the Magi.
At other times, however, the show takes speculation too far, giving priority to Scripture-skeptics who present their views as fact with little counter-response from serious conservative scholars.
Robert Cargill, a self-described agnostic, progressive Bible scholar from the University of Iowa, features especially heavily. In both episodes screened for critics—“Joseph” and “John the Baptist”—he describes the Gospel writers making independent literary choices to lend credibility to their accounts, rather than acting as divinely inspired faithful reporters. For example, Cargill says, “Most scholars think that Luke used the census as a device to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem because the prophecies say the Messiah will be born in the City of David.”
Later, Cargill drops a fairly eyebrow-raising statement he never explains: that John the Baptist came preaching a message of social justice. Other experts, meanwhile, make claims like, “In the Gospel of Mark, when John the Baptist sees Jesus, he doesn’t recognize Him at all,” that a quick passage skim proves false. Not only does Mark’s account assert no such thing, but Matthew’s suggests the direct opposite.
Such unsubstantiated claims to facthood are most concerning, however, when they read into Jesus’ mind thoughts that aren’t consistent with a holistic understanding of the Bible. Without citing Scriptural support, a well-known liberal Catholic, Father James Martin, frames the Holy Spirit’s descent and God’s announcement, “This is my beloved son,” at Christ’s baptism as an eye-opening experience for Him, saying, “Jesus understands His identity which is revealed to Him very clearly for the first time.”
At the very least, this flies in the face of Luke’s account of 12-year-old Jesus being quite aware He was in His Father’s house.
While the series claims to offer views from across the ideological spectrum, with the exception of Ben Witherington, evangelicals who adhere to a literal reading of Scripture won’t find their views much represented. This doesn’t mean the show presents rampant heresy—the two episodes screened for critics featured mostly wheat with a bit of troubling chaff sprinkled in. And I doubt there was any malicious intent even in that, as least as far as the History Channel is concerned. Based on my experience with producers, they likely have no idea that some of the ideas presented in their series might pose a problem for Christians.
As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the shortcomings that crop up when secular studios take on the Bible have an easy solution: Consult teachers and theologians like Tim Keller, John MacArthur, John Piper, or countless others who fall on the conservative side of the ideological spectrum.
Downey and Burnett did just that with The Bible series, soliciting input from, among others, Luis Palau, Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly, and Young Life’s Denny Rydberg. So History Channel, if you’re listening, including diverse Biblical scholarship will make your Easter-season productions more accurate and more entertaining. It’ll probably also bring back those sweet, sweet ratings.