I’m a Biblical epic junkie, and geek historian. I’ve read Josephus. I’ve read scripture. And I’m currently working my way through all of theologian, pastor, and historian N.T. Wright’s sermons on the gospels. I am never NOT in the mood for a good Ancient Roman-Judean epic and… I’ve just found my proverbial new best friend. Literary and film crush. Whatever you want to call it. I really had no idea of what to expect going into this first season (hopefully, not the last) of A.D. on NBC, but … it blew away any preconceptions formed through The Bible miniseries. This is a full blown serial epic, featuring historical, Biblical, and fictional characters interacting at the crucifixion and in the aftermath. And, it’s awesome.
So far, the main character seems to be Caiaphas, High Priest of Israel, Leader of the Sanhedrin, and a man so desperate to preserve Israel in the face of Roman occupation that he throws the Messiah to the Romans and insists upon his death, merely to avoid any potential uprisings or contradictions to the ancient Judean laws. His “persecution” of Jesus leads one of his own priests, Joseph of Arimathea, to turn against him and indirectly fulfill prophecy by offering the fallen Messiah a resting place in his tomb. Not only that, but Caiapha’s insistence upon the crucifixion (urged on by his wife, who believes Israel must capitulate to Rome to survive the occupation) creates friction between him and Pontius Pilate, who is uneasy at his role in events… so much so that he takes a hard hand with his wife, Claudia, in convincing her that no one comes back from a Roman crucifixion.
Some of the lines of dialogue seem incredibly ironic, and even funny … but only in hindsight to our modern sensibilities, and the wake of what we know is coming. This Messiah is not dead, is not going anywhere, and His followers will not scatter permanently, but forever change the course of human history, however much Pilate and Caiaphas believe otherwise. At one point, Caiaphas shows concern over rumors that the Messiah’s followers believe he will rise again and Pilate deadpans, “Roman crucifixion really doesn’t allow for that…” and goes on to say that, like all other revolutionaries, this Messiah will be forgotten in a week. Claudia doesn’t believe him, but of course, Pilate doesn’t listen to Claudia! If the Messiah returns in your dreams, dearest, he snidely tells her, better remember him as he is now… a maggot-infested, rotting corpse.
Nice guy, huh?
Being a Pilate fanatic, I love what they are doing with him here … portraying him as he very likely was in real life. Too many films and books forget that he was a Roman governor and make him into a pale reflection of Rome, when in reality, as Josephus told us, he was the full embodiment of it — and believed in ruling through FORCE. I have a feeling we are going to see a lot of that this season, and I am eager to see it unfold. Not because it’s pleasant, but because… it happened. Pilate’s reason for being recalled to Rome included giving an order that massacred hundreds of Samaritans. He was not nice and not a pushover. Here, we see his antagonistic power-pull with Caiaphas nicely, two skilled politicians manipulating one another for their own purposes; Leah sweetly tells Caiaphas that he has done very well in manipulating the Roman governor … meanwhile, Pilate signs both the decree to break Jesus’ legs and speed on his death and Joseph of Arimathea’s request for the body, because if the high priests are preoccupied with one another, “they cannot wrap their hands around my throat.” (Surely, Caiaphas rages at him later, you knew this would case trouble?! And, stoically, Pilate answers that no, it never crossed his mind.)
Present in the background and soon to come to the forefront are the Messiah’s followers… Peter, who is so terrified that he cannot make his way back to the upper room until twenty four hours have passed. Simon the Zealot and Matthew slip in the next day, amid the crowd, only to run amuck of a fictional Zealot named Boaz who is trying to recruit Jesus’ followers to join his rebellion. Jesus’ mother observes all with gut-wrenching emotion, but staunchly believes Jesus will rise again on the third day … so much so that she berates the disciples for their doubt. Peter, shaken, agrees to stay, because “I owe him that at least.” Mary Magdalene hopes that Peter did not fulfill Jesus’ prophecy (that he would deny him three times). John, the bravest of all the disciples and the only one to witness the crucifixion without fear of arrest, goes over his final moments with gut-wrenching sadness. And a guilt-ridden Judas hangs himself after spilling his thirty pieces of silver at the high priest’s feet.
They are emotional, debating returning to Galilee, fearing arrest and persecution … but wanting to have faith that Jesus will return as promised. But what if he doesn’t? What if he does? You can see the indecision in them, and imagine what this is like for them … the agonizing reality that the man they have devoted three years of their life to is now gone, that most of them lacked the courage to remain at his side to the end. Now what? We see their indecision and torment, their internal pondering … playing out against a similar uneasy state of emotional restlessness in Caiaphas and Pilate. Everyone is waiting… but they do not understand why, or what will happen next. Yet, with the stirrings of earth and a blinding flash as an angel literally descends from heaven like a rain of fire, what they are all waiting for is about to unfold upon them…
The tomb has only just opened at the end of the first 43 minutes. For an hour, with commercials… we have seen so much characterization, so many conversations, so much insight into these people, their motivations, the politics of Judea’s uneasy alliance with Rome, the relationship between Caiaphas and Pilate and their wives, and the budding impending violence in Judea … and we have much more to look forward to… from the introduction of Saul to the conversion of the Roman at the cross… to the ongoing power dynamics at play… to the courts of Rome and the Emperors Tiberius and Caligula…
I’m excited. I really like the characters, particularly Caiaphas. They have managed to make him personable, a family man, a father, a husband … and someone who just happens to have been behind the Messiah’s death. Their Pilate is also superb, striking the right note between internal angst and absolute Roman authority, particularly with his wife. There has never been anything on this scale before for believers, set in and around this period, focusing on storytelling rather than flat out Biblical narration. Gone, is the annoying voice-over from The Bible, and in its place are … actual living, breathing characters that I am rapidly falling in love with. Many have scoffed at producer Roma Downey and her husband’s claims that it is part Rome, part House of Cards... but I can see it (thankfully, minus the foul language, gore, and sex). And, as I said last night as I re-watched the first episode with my parents, “If we thought the first hour was entertaining… wait until next week, and the aftermath of the Resurrection!”