The Bible Series: Viewer Discretion Advised

For the past three weeks I’ve turned on the History Channel with over 68 million viewers to watch The Bible. The mini-series produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey has taken Hollywood by storm; it has surprised millions with its popularity; and it has caused the religious to stand up and cheer that the sacred is getting a in positive portrayal. As one review put it, “This time, Hollywood got it right.” Yet in the midst of all the positive hype there are some who have held back their praise, frustrated or downright upset with how it is interpreting the biblical narrative.

This has left me with the following question: did Hollywood get it right, or is this min-series an interpretive failure? Whether you are a Christian who is familiar with the narrative of the Bible or someone newly exposed to its stories, this is an important question. The Bible makes extraordinary claims about its authority and the priority it should have in our lives. For example, 2 Timothy 3:16 states:

All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, and for training in righteousness.

And 2 Peter 1:20-21 claims:

Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, it seems only right that we move from passive TV watchers to evaluating if The Bible series is worthy of our praise. Rather than go into all of my reasons for or against the series, I’d like to suggest three discretionary tips for your consideration as you continue to watch this series unfold.

Discretionary Tip #1: Know what the series claims about itself

The most important thing you can do when watching and interpreting The Bible is to pay attention to the announcement that appears before the beginning of each episode. It states:

“This program is an adaption of the Bible stories. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book.” (emphasis mine)

If you pay attention to nothing else throughout the series you need to pay attention to this. Why, you may ask? This sets the tone for all that will follow. Any adaption of a book that attempts to stay true to its spirit means the door has been left wide open for adding to, subtracting from, and changing the book’s story. It means poetic license will abound and subjective interpretations are more than likely to occur.

In other words, right from the beginning this series is not claiming 100% accuracy. This means that we, as the audience, need to show discretion in how we approach and process each episode.

Discretionary Tip #2: Accept tentatively and ask questions

The next important tip has two parts that interconnect and flow out of recognizing that The Bible is an adaption of stories. Because there will be poetic license and subjective interpretations we need to accept its accuracy tentatively and ask questions while we watch. There are two key questions to ask.

  1. Is this how the Bible records this story happening?

For example, in episode one Sarah tries to stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. In episode two we see the murder of Sampson’s wife in a fire by the Philistines. In episode three Daniel tries to protect Azariah by insinuating he should bow down to the king’s statue. And also in episode three Jesus tells Peter “We’re going to change the world.”

Did these things really happen? Are they recorded in the Bible? Each example above is a key turning point in the main plot and each sub-plot. So it would be wise for us to ask ourselves if these instances are in the Biblical record itself.

This leads to the second question to ask.

  1. Does this series stay true to the spirit of the Bible when it changes its message?

As you are watching and asking if elements of the series really happened in the Bible, you need to ask yourself if the moments of “poetic license” stay true to, or alter, the Bible’s message. For example, when Daniel tries to protect Azariah from King Nebuchadnezzar’s anger, is that depiction staying true to the spirit of the character of Daniel portrayed in the Bible?

Another example is Jesus’s temptation by Satan in episode three. Jesus looks at Satan and says,

I shall worship the Lord my God and him only shall I serve.”

However, Jesus’ response as recorded in Matthew and Luke is both subtly and dramatically different. He says,

“It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (Matt. 3:10; Luke 4:8)

Considering Satan was tempting Jesus as “the Son of God,” this rewording of Jesus’ response has major interpretive implications for who Jesus was and who he claimed he was. So in this instance, did the series stay true to the spirit of the Bible?

We also need to ask if the series stays true to the spirit of the Bible from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. The central theme of the Bible is God’s plan to rescue sinful humanity by taking on humanity in Jesus Christ. The Old Testament anticipates him; the Gospels and Acts announce him; and the Epistles through Revelation instruct Christ-followers how to live with the anticipation of his return. Does the series stay true to this spirit, or does the poetic license get in the way?

Discretionary Tip #3: Read the Bible

Finally, as you watch The Bible, keeping its goal in mind and tentatively asking questions, make sure to actually read the Bible! Let the series fill you with questions about what the Bible actually says and what really happened. Then go find out. Move from a passive watcher to an active participant. Rather than relying on a Hollywood movie to interpret for you how the story progresses, find out for yourself. Open its pages and let the story unfold through the words that have been preserved and cherished for centuries.  Discover for yourself what the Bible says, the stories it records, and God it claims to make known to us.

In summary, as millions watch The Bible series we need to move from the role of passive audience to actively evaluating if it stays true to the Bible itself. Know the series’ goal, accept its interpretation with caution and questions, and read the Bible for yourself. I can guarantee you that doing so will open up the Bible to you like no TV series can.


I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is The Bible series an example of Hollywood getting it right, or is it an interpretive failure?

22 thoughts on “The Bible Series: Viewer Discretion Advised

  1. I have found it a fun and engaging series. It certainly makes the Bible ‘interesting’ to those who have never read it. However, I have also been frustrated at certain small changes, but others have not bothered me like they have other people.

    So the scenes in Sodom with the angels killing people with swords all martial-arts style (despite being racially stereotyping) did not bother me at all even though it is not strictly in the text. The Bible portrays angels as warriors, the armies of heaven who bring judgement and smash enemy armies. That angels in the series always wear military armour is a great touch and portrays the ‘spirit’ of the Bible even if we don’t get a kung-fu sword dance described in Genesis. That said, they also should not have left out Lot’s despicable offering of his daughters to the depraved men of Sodom. And the Bible is very clear that homosexuality was part of the problem and why the men wanted the angels – this was looked over.

    I thought the treatment of the sacrifice of Isaac was problematic, but also had praiseworthy points, On the positive side it showed the humanity of those involved, the fear, and struggles, and despair. It showed at the end very clearly that such a thing would have been rather traumatic for Isaac and undoubtedly had an impact on his relationship to his father. However, the screwed up the entire point of the story – Jesus. As they go up the hill Isaac asks where the lamb is and Abraham says God will provide ‘the sacrifice.; However in the text he says ‘lamb’ which is important. To make it worse the programme then shows a LAMB caught in the bush. In the text it is very clear and of great importance that it is a RAM not a lamb, for Jesus is the Lamb of God who is provided, who is later crucified on that same hill. Without this background the words of John the Baptist ‘behold the Lamb of God’ make little sense – the people were still waiting for the Lamb that was promised.

    I thought that the dealing with the three visitors to Abraham was pretty good, two were clearly angels and the other The Lord (which we know must be Jesus as no-one has seen the Father but the Son) and the hair of the third ‘man’ is such that it bears a resemblance and makes you ask ‘is that Jesus.’ This was great. But then when it came to Joshua at Jericho the text is clear that the ‘commander of the armies of Heaven’ is God – hence why the ground is Holy and Joshua speaks of seeing the Lord ‘face to face’. But they portray this character as just an angel, indeed one of the ones seen before.

    I didn’t quite understand the whole making Samson black – he was a Hebrew. Whilst the use of an international cast is commendable, it makes the ‘people of God’ in the OT seem like a mixed bunch when actually they were a very specific people who very few outsiders could get in with and be accepted. This is also important when considering the work of Christ and the type of the elect.

    I thought the Saul-David episode was one of the best ones, though I was disappointed by the insistence of the series to seemingly demand numbers of people involved in all the narratives were seriously reduced from the Biblical accounts – CGI could have overcome a lack of actors.

    Overall I think the above article is right on stressing that this is a drama intending to keep to the ‘spirit’ of the Bible not the literal word. It certainly brings the stories to vivid life and its portrayal of the miracles from the burning bush to the parting of the Red-Sea, from the extra man (Jesus) in the fire to the narratives of creation were epic. However, it’s seeming insistence on removing the central aspect of the OT (Jesus) and replacing it with the refrain ‘God is with us’ or ‘trust in God’ is to do violence to the revelation we have received. Jesus made very clear that the Scriptures all point towards Him, and that if people don’t see that they know neither the Scriptures nor God. It seems that those who wrote this are in danger of portraying themselves in the latter category.

    Churches could use this resource positively to ignite people’s imaginations – but it would have to be followed by true Biblical teaching which pointed out the faults (and the pros) of the series. I haven’t watched past the episode where John the Baptist dies at the end and Jesus calls Peter, but I am looking forward to it, especially what they do with the Revelation of John.

    • I noticed the same things Adam. You highlighted something I was trying to hint at. If you didn’t know those stories well, you wouldn’t have known about the importance of the differences.

  2. I only watched the first episode. I was expecting the bible to come to life. Instead, it’s just picked apart, “cherry-picked” and turned into something that can be “sold” to the mainstream audience. Jesus wasn’t mainstream. He wasn’t viewer friendly nor politically correct.

  3. Have not been able to watch it, as we do not have the History Channel. Have heard from some who thought it was helpful.
    As one person told me, “The Book is always better than the movie.” If this gets people to read the Book, it could be very positive.

  4. This is a great article and a thoughtful response to The Bible series. I have had my issues with how many things are portrayed and what the producers chose to portray and what they left out. Despite its shortcomings, there have been some very powerful images that are very moving. I know the wisemen were not at the manger to worship the newborn King, but I still cried when they knelt down to worship Him.

  5. Interesting take and a good one here. Mark Burnett spoke at Catalyst East last year and basically said his goal was to interest people and drive them to the church; church leaders were responsible once they got there. They’ve never said it’s an attempt to be exact. I think it’s better than most things we’ve gotten in movie form – and some of the imagery has caused me to think about the humanity of the individuals involved. All that said, nothing trumps the real word of God. This has opened the door with some colleagues to talk about the actual stories and I’ve shared the gospel multiple times.

  6. With any telling of any story, fact or fiction, there are likely going to be mis interpretations. The various religions based on Christ reflect the statement. The embellishment of the Bible’s books or omissions, while annoying allow us the opportunity to share the gospel and good news. I don’t think we should be too quick to point out the flaws, there are so many positive aspects. The popularity of the TV Series illustrates the desire of people to learn(or their curiosity), and if done well, they will come back to learn more. As Christians we should embrace this moment and embrace those that are lost. Show them what grace is, and how only Jesus is the path to eternity with our Heavenly Father. Coming to Christ later in life, I had many “stories” wrong or confused. The time spent with other Christians and Bible class/reading has allowed for a better understanding. It will be my prayer that this series be the catalyst that will bring many to the Gospel and to an eternal change in their lives.

  7. I only watched a short portion of the first episode. One thing I noticed that did not sit right with me was when the Lord tests Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham basically falls to his knees and cries something along the lines of “Haven’t I proven my faith enough?!” The narrator then mentions something about Abraham being made to prove his faith “again and again”. Then when the angels of the Lord were trying to get Lot and his family out of Sodom, they busted out swords and began slaying Sodomites Walking Dead zombie killing style. I thought I was watching an action/ninja movie for a second. I understand this miniseries is a drama and it’s intention is to make money and this is exactly the reason I chose not to watch any more of it. I would caution anyone who watches it to be alert. The bible speaks often of false teachings that lead people astray and I feel that this is a false teaching.

    • Great question. There are no actual crucifixions recorded prior to Jesus that I can think of, however we do know from history that crucifixion was a common Roman form of execution prior to Jesus’ death on a cross.

    • It is possible that Hamaan in Esther was crucified in some way. Crucifixion originated in Persia though was perfected by the Romans. The Hebrew word used for ‘gallows’ is simply ‘tree.’ The Septuagint, translated from the Hebrew a couple of hundred years before Jesus into Greek by Jews, refers to Hamaan being crucified. Jospehus the 1st century Jewish historian and commentator also says that Hamaan was crucified.

      So whilst it is not explicit in the Bible that Hamaan was crucified, it is quite possible some form of early crucifixion was used – the idea of him being hung on gallows is certainly not in the text and we have no record of that as a method of execution in Persia.

      • Thanks for clarifying Adam. I thought I had heard something about this, but couldn’t remember. Do you have a source for this? I’d like it for future reference.

      • I checked in the Septuagint (and it is worth remembering this is the OT the NT almost always quotes and was the authoritative OT of the whole church for hundreds of years and still is for the Orthodox) and it certainly calls it a ‘tree’ and uses the exact same word as the NT for crucifixion when it refers to Hamaan being killed. I don’t know the exact reference for Josephus. I first came across this in Mark Driscoll’s sermon series on Esther. I know he used the commentaries by Jobes (NIVAC), Breneman (NAC), McConville (DSB), Allen (NIBCOT), and Bush (TOTC) plus probably more. So it will be in them. I am pretty certain it will be in Jobes and Breneman at least. I also remember reading that the Jews created a whole anti-christian polemic based on comparing Hamaan and Jesus as evil men crucified on the exact same day (Driscoll mentions it was possibly the same day but doesn’t expand). I know that isn’t precise but I hope it helps!

    • Since Jesus told Disciples to “take up their cross…” seems reasonable to assume crucifixions were common enough at that time in that region for them to understand the metaphor.

  8. Growing up Catholic doesn’t exactly teach us the bible but this mini series has sparked my interest in finding a good bible study. The old testament is off putting for me because of all the violence that took place. I thought the Bible was a good depiction of many characters in the bible that I did not have a strong knowing of. However I wish Jesus childhood had been portrayed more such has his teaching in the temple. The series has gone from Jesus’s birth to his baptism by his cousin John. Also where did the three kings get their message? They tell of getting a message but it’s rather vague. I’m thankful for the series as I came to know Abraham, Lot, Moses, Samuel, David & Daniel better but I missed learning more about Jesus’s youth. There is a lot of violence in the old testament which has always been very off putting for me but I’ll try to seek to learn more. Those are my thought. Judy

Thoughts or comments? I'd love to hear them!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s