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The Savior on Earth

(José Sarmento Matos/A+E)

Television

The Savior on Earth

Documentary presents a mostly Biblical account of Jesus’ life—but with some liberal chaff offered as fact

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.

Comments

  •  Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Sun, 03/24/2019 01:05 pm

    Giving the benefit of the doublt, it may be that the History Channel was trying to appear objective by sprinkling in anti-biblical scholars.  Because belief in absolute truth is considered archane and primitive, the only alternative to creating a subjective feeling of objectivity is to present all sides.  This is how we end up having to sit through clearly false opinions in media reports in order to get the "whole story".

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 03/25/2019 05:43 am

    Thanks for this review. I find it helpful to know what these documentaries, or other movies, are about since I rarely watch them. Regardless of how objective they are, or claim to be, I find these documentaries to be mostly annoying and rarely of value. Even more I can’t watch movies about the life of Christ. I guess they have value for evangelism. Maybe?

    We live out the life of Christ in our daily lives, albeit imprefectly, in the warp and woof of our earthly trek. There are ups and downs and challenges and failures and successes. All the while as we seek to honor God, to read his word and meditate on it, we are growing to know him and his truths in a way that surpasses these movies. Why watch a movie that tries to depict what someone thinks Jesus did or said? Or when they try to recreate his life? No matter how faithfully someone attempts to depict Jesus it falls short. Even when the script supposedly consists of only the words of scripture, it is still an actor who at best has human charisma.

    I wonder why I want to watch some human actor quoting the Bible. Why not read it and meditate on it for myself without the distraction of actors and music and sets? And in regards to the “History Channel” or other documentaries of course they bring underlying worldviews and presuppositions that will overtly or subtly infuse the purported objective truths they produce. Aside from some academic exercise I find it unprofitable.

    And thus back to this review, thanks for saving me the trouble!

  • BjW
    Posted: Mon, 03/25/2019 09:02 am

    I love history, but I seldom watch historic documentaries because I cannot discern truth from untruth or error.  So, it would be most helpful if some skilled Christians would point out the errors in each episode that could be posted in social media.

    I believe it is impossivle for man to depict God, Christ etc. accurately. Some try humbly to teach and reach searchers., While others do for money. Thank you for your discerning review.

     

  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 03/29/2019 06:37 pm

    Other than that movies/TV present easily accessible content for a site like World without requiring a travel budget, I've long puzzled over the fact that World spills so much ink on media-related content. I'm much more interested in the news than in the latest deliverances of Hollywood, but perhaps I'm more of a minority than I fancy myself to be.

    Portrayals of Jesus, of course, strike a little closer to home than most media content for God-fearing Christians. If someone steps to the plate and tries to do a documentary, of sorts, on the life of Jesus, we want the story to be true. But, at the same time, any expectations we bring to a secular production company would likely be dashed.

    Maybe the best strategy for us here is to be prepared to pick up the story and say, "But if you would understand who the real Jesus is, let's pick up Scripture and see what it has to say."

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sun, 03/31/2019 10:19 am

    I for one appreciate it. Especially for something like this, it helps to know whether it's worth inviting people to see it with me. Sometimes people will come to a movie when they won't come to church, and then you can always continue that conversation afterward. Actually, now that I think about it, as much as I like to know what's going on in the world, this sort of news is probably more practically useful to my life than news about large-scale geopolitical issues.

  • char3g
    Posted: Mon, 04/01/2019 01:29 pm

    I was disappointed in "The Bible" series. I felt like they omitted things. Such as the Sodom & Gomorrah story line wasn't true to scripture.  Yet Christiandom, as this column reiterates, thinks it is a great example of biblical TV.  It was outstsnding, but they too twisted the scriptures. Am I missing something?