A.D. The Bible Continues, Episode 8

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Talk about a humbling experience.

One minute you’re on top of the world, with the full authority of the Temple behind you, and a mandate to wipe out the spread of Christianity. The next, you are struck blind in the desert, and must be lead into the city, where you wait three days for someone to come to you.

Reading N.T. Wright’s commentary on Acts recently, he went into how it was a common practice for Jews at the time, during long journeys, to fixate on a mythological vision of God, in the hope that in mediating on it, they might be enabled to see God’s glory. Imagine, therefore, that Saul might have been dwelling on such a vision, on that long, dusty road, only to look up and see—Christ, in all His glory, with an accusation on his lips: “Saul, why do you persecute me?” In a single act, Jesus embodied and fulfilled the vision, and also transcended it, utterly transforming Saul’s life. No wonder it took him three days to recover!

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From Saul’s introduction, I have been looking forward to the turn-around, because Saul’s take-charge attitude is precisely why God chose him. The ending, where the others are begging him not to march into the Temple at Damascus and preach the word of Christ, made me laugh, because… that’s who this man was. Once he had the truth, he was going to share it to anyone who would (and often wouldn’t) listen. No matter the danger, no matter the pitfalls, no matter who stood against him, Paul was a force to be reckoned with. Here, he is the fire and might to Peter’s intense compassion and mercy. We will see two different methods, once of unflinching strength and the other of intense compassion.

The only negative thing about this series having a finite number of episodes is that Peter is given an enormous amount of screen time, enough for us to fall in love with him as a man of God, and a father. Saul, meanwhile, spends his first significant amount of screen time persecuting people, bullying people, threatening people, and railing against them … so while Peter is healing people, Saul is persecuting them. But that is over, done with. Saul is now Paul, and even Barnabas has forgiven him, “little man” that he is. His torments are shown in shrewd contrast this week with Peter’s dealings with Simon the Sorcerer, who very nearly bought himself instant death by thinking he could buy the holy spirit. The Bible doesn’t tell us why he begged Peter to be released from the curse; but the visual representation was a good explanation.

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Caligula is … well, Caligula. Debauched. Temperamental. Intense. Vindictive. Historically, he had tantrums over being called “Caligula” instead of his true name, Gaius, because it meant “little boots.” It was a pet name the soldiers had for him from childhood, when he used to prance about in full Roman armor, child-size. He was known for his cruelty and teasing of other people, including his own Praetorian Guard… who turned around and murdered him later. (Was it for the good of Rome, or because he teased the man about his high-pitched voice? We’ll never know.) He quite enjoyed being in charge and the liberties it gave him, unlike his uncle Tiberius, who came rather reluctantly to the position of emperor and much preferred total isolation from the senate. History is actually blurred when it comes to Caligula, since we don’t know how much is true and how much is wild rumor and myth turned into “actual events” through merciless biographers.

Historically, Josephus tells us that Pilate was deposed from Judea and sent to Tiberius in Rome to account for the slaughter of the Samaritans, who were on a holy progress when the Roman army wiped them out, under the guise of “putting to rest a potential uprising.” By the time Pilate arrived, Tiberius was dead… and history doesn’t know what became of Pilate, if he went before Caligula, if Caligula even cared what happened in a backwater like Judea. This actually gave me some leeway in writing my own book, since from that point on there is no information about Pilate or his wife. But here, Pilate is on the wrong side of Caligula, stripped of his newly appointed position, and left to await … whatever Caligula has planned for him, which will not be pleasant.

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I think they did a nice job, without becoming too graphic, of what it was like to experience Roman culture, and how others were supposed to bend the knee and submit. Agrippa taking rather a fancy to a serving girl, enough that he would probably force her if given half the chance, is nothing if not likely. Servants and slaves had few rights, and had to do as they were told. Caligula inviting two prostitutes home for the night for a drunken orgy is… predictable. It’s interesting, though, how they chose to interpret Claudia’s back story as the daughter of a prostitute. Claudia in this series has always been an enigmatic creature, with hidden motives; I never entirely believe her assertions, because they seem ever-shifting. Is she in love with her brutal husband or does she tolerate and defend him to protect their position? I do think she dislikes Judea and its Jewish inhabitants, and would gladly go to Rome, but … I don’t know, she baffles me, since her motivations seem shadier than they are. Still, her dream about Tiberius came true, which does not speak well for her other predictions this season.

Finally, Tiberius. Truth is, he was never in Judea, much less Jerusalem. But he did die suddenly and under somewhat suspicious circumstances (then again, didn’t everyone in those days?). There were indeed rumors in Rome at the time that Caligula had “dispensed” with his uncle, with the assistance of his uncle’s Praetorian Guard…

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