Let’s get right to the moment everyone was talking about from last night’s two-hour installment of History’s The Bible. The actor who played Satan, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, looked very familiar. A Sith Lord, right, because of the hood? Nope. Think a little more earthbound. As in someone who resides in Washington D.C., and who the right-wing base that's the core audience for The Bible often despise. See what you think…
Yes, the Twitterverse exploded after Jesus encountered Satan in the wilderness and was tempted with the prospect of universal health care, bank and credit card reforms, and the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wait, no, that didn’t happen. But Satan did look a lot like President Obama. Shortly after the episode aired Glenn Beck even tweeted the following, so it must be true:
History denies the allegations, calling them "nonsense." And to be fair, Ouazanni has appeared in multiple Biblical movies, including David, Jeremiah, and The Satanic Angels, so he may have been cast for his experience with this kind of material, not for looking like the POTUS. That said, executive producer Mark Burnett also produces Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice. Just sayin’…
Before we get any further, let me introduce myself. I am Christian Blauvelt, the ‘Christian’ of the headline. Now, I’m not actually religious. I consider myself agnostic, though my family does have a Presbyterian background. But despite the fact that my parents were never adamant churchgoers, I devoured all of the Bible stories as a kid. I've never viewed the Good Book as the “Word of God” so much as a historical document that reflects the attitudes and prejudices of its time, and, as the Satan/Obama similarity in History’s version may show, continues to reflect the attitudes and prejudices of the people who interpret it today.
The biggest thing I’ve taken away from History's The Bible so far is that it’s not based on the King James Version so much as the George R.R. Martin version. Game of Thrones casts a sizable shadow over this interpretation of scripture, except for when it comes to sex. I mean, no one ever bathes on The Bible. Everyone has scraggly hair and scragglier beards. Torture and slaughter are constant. But is there any “knowing” in the Biblical sense? Nada. A sexy dance from Salome didn’t even precipitate John the Baptist’s beheading!
Nebuchadnezzer, for one, could just as easily be fighting for the Iron Throne of Westeros as laying waste to Jerusalem. He’s the kind of king who wears a Tin Man funnel hat, emphatically devours mutton, and says things like, “It begins,” “There’s a price for betrayal,” and “You know what Jerusalem means? ‘City of Peace.’” As in, he’s gonna go so Old Testament on the Israelites’ collective asses that Jerusalem damn well won’t be a City of Peace when he’s through with it.
At the court of Jerusalem’s king, Zedekiah, the prophet Jeremiah was experiencing a major failure to communicate. He was trying to convey that the city would fare better if they immediately surrendered to Nebuchadnezzer, rather than endure a prolonged siege from his Babylonian forces. But with his shock of wild, seemingly electrified hair, and his insistence upon strapping a wooden beam to his back to symbolize how Zedekiah should submit to the yoke of Babylon, Jeremiah was far too alienating to be taken seriously. This is why you’ve got to sweeten the message, man. So no one listened to Jeremiah, and Babylon began an 18 month siege of Jerusalem. At no time do the makers of The Bible ever make Jerusalem feel like a real, lived-in city. Even when we learn that some of its denizens turn to cannibalism, we only see like five or six people clawing at each other, rather than the Hieronymous Bosch-like hellscape of a people run amok that Cecil B. DeMille would surely have given us.
Oh yeah, so I talked about the gore. The Bible really went all Game of Thrones when it showed Nebuchadnezzer finally catching up with Zedekiah as he fled the city. In front of Zedekiah, he butchered the Israelite king's young sons, then declared, “A shame that is the last thing you will ever see.” He then proceeded to gouge out Zedekiah’s eyes the old-fashioned way — with his thumbs.
Thus began one of the darkest, but most influential, epochs in Jewish history: The Babylonian Captvity. Nebuchadnezzer’s armies drove the people of Jerusalem hundreds of miles in an epic trail of tears to Babylon, where, like they had been centuries earlier in Egypt, they would be slaves. The Israelites there would need a new kind of leader: one who lived by his faith more than by his sword. That man would be Daniel. Daniel followed in the tradition of Joseph as a man who could interpret dreams, and Nebuchadnezzer, like the Pharaoh of long before, was troubled with very bad dreams. He needed Daniel to tell him what they meant. Daniel said his vision of a golden head atop a wooden statue that shatters is symbolic of Babylon: the greatest of all empires, yet still doomed.
You could argue that Daniel is a sell-out, even a traitor for working so closely with Nebuchadnezzer. But this is what he needed to do to help his people survive. When his friends refused to bow before the Babylonian gods, Nebuchadnezzer threw them in a furnace. But the CGI flames didn’t sear their flesh! They lived, because their faith in God protected them, and they emerged from the inferno like the Mother of Dragons. Nebuchadnezzer shortly went mad, and ended up chained like a dog, while his empire crumbled around him.
Daniel’s dream proved correct. Babylon’s days were numbered, and soon Cyrus I (immortalized as Cyrus the Great), who had built Persia into a massive empire of its own, marched on the city and took it without firing an arrow. He didn’t immediately free the Jews, however. Partly because he really wanted to keep Daniel around so he also could have a dream interpreter. Cyrus’ other advisers were all threatened by this, so without the king knowing about it they threw Daniel into a lion’s den, which maybe isn’t as scary as being thrown into a furnace but is still pretty scary. (Whoever did CGI tiger Richard Parker in Life of Pi really should have been brought in to render these lions, because they kind of sucked. They certainly weren’t intimidating.) Cyrus found out about this, was really pissed that his advisers did this to his friend behind his back, and used this as an opportunity to let Daniel and his people go. Thus, the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple of Solomon, an act for which Cyrus is enshrined in Judaism as “The Anointed of the Lord.” The Iranian Culture Ministry, which is planning a lawsuit against Hollywood producers and directors for promoting Iranophobia (like in Argo) should take comfort in the fact that on The Bible the Persians are the good guys.
NEXT: The Babylonian Captivity ends, and a beloved character with a massive following makes his Bible debut. Yep, Jesus.
Thus ended the Babylonian Captivity. This period in Jewish history was significant because it began to herald the end of the Old Testament Era, and the transition of Judaism’s view of God (or Yahweh) as sectarian, warlike, and jealous, to a God of compassion, redemption, and forgiveness. A God who will always be there in your time of suffering, as long as you have faith. In a sense God went from being the God of the Jews to the God of Everyone.
Maybe that theme is why the producers of The Bible chose to end their Old Testament coverage there (sorry, Maccabees, this is very much a Protestant reading that cuts you out completely) and skip ahead directly to a beloved character with a massive following. A character who’s inspired ardent fan devotion and the creation of multiple appreciation societies (or, rather, denominations). A guy who’s so adored that you could call him the Daryl Dixon or Boba Fett of The Bible. I’m talking about Jesus.
Fast-forward five centuries to Nazareth in the time of Augustus Caesar. I thought at first Mary looked exactly like a young Roma Downey because Mark Burnett thinks his wife is so angelic and virginal that he wanted to cast someone who looks exactly like her, as a tribute. Actually, it’s because in subsequent installments Roma Downey really is playing Older Mary, so it’s just a craven set-up to cast the woman who’s sleeping with the showrunner in the star role.
Mary and Joseph are visited by Gabriel, who wears armor, and looks kind of badass, and they learn that God has found her hot and wants her to bear His child. It was important they explain this to Joseph, because in 1 A.D. if your fiancée gets pregnant before your wedding night your wedding present for her might be a bag of stones you hurl at her face. Oddly enough, in no versions of the Christmas story that I’ve ever seen depicted, nor read in the Bible itself, do we actually get an account of Joseph and Mary getting married. That’s just totally glossed over, like it’s too worldly of a detail to include in the account of the birth of Christ.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, the Romans’ puppet king, Herod, is like something out of a John Waters movie. He’s morbidly obese yet wearing nothing but a massage towel when we first meet him. Herod’s taking some healing vapors, while leaches are covering his skin to draw out the sickly humours that affect him. After this introduction, we’ll only ever see him wear a muumuu. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t even like to wash off the blood of the prisoners he’s personally executed before sitting down to dinner. We get it: he’s a bad dude.
Mary and Joseph make the journey to Bethlehem to be taxed. In this version there’s no interest in examining the identity of the donkey that carries Mary, who by this point is now very great with child. By my reckoning, there are at least two competing versions of who this donkey is in the annals of TV Christmas specials. There’s Rankin/Bass’ Nestor: The Long-Eared Donkey, which imagines the ass that carried Mary to Bethlehem as a quasi-Dumbo figure; and there’s also Disney’s The Small One, directed by Don Bluth, which imagines the donkey as old and frail, the beloved pet of a boy who has to sell him to support his family, and, lucky for him, sells him to Joseph! Both of those specials are more profound examinations of faith and love than anything I’ve seen on The Bible so far.
The depiction of the first Christmas itself was pretty low-key. The wise men showed up, but there were no angels overhead, and there were too few shepherds for my liking. This was not your idyllic Nativity scene.
The show then jumped ahead 31 years to when Jesus decided to begin his ministry. John the Baptist was taking a break from eating locusts to violently baptize some followers via total immersion in the River Jordan. Jesus, out of focus, walked forward slowly toward the camera like the way Bond is introduced in Skyfall, until we saw him in crystalline clarity. He gets baptized by John, then goes out into the desert where he meets Obama Satan. He resisted the temptations of socialism. Meanwhile, John had been captured by Herod Antipas, Herod’s son who’s now the self-proclaimed King of the Jews. In this version there was no creepy love triangle among him, his wife, and his stepdaughter, no sexy dance from Salome, no intoxicating commingling of eroticism and violence as Salome tells a hot-and-bothered Antipas that she wants John’s head on a silver platter in exchange for having gotten him horny. None of it. Not even a silver platter! John was merely beheaded off screen. End of story. What a letdown.
The episode ended with Jesus recruiting Simon Peter to his cause with an offer of fish, as Hans Zimmer’s pulsating, string-heavy score signaled the momentousness of the occasion. It sounded exactly like Zimmer’s final musical cues in The Dark Knight, because watching Batman ride his Batpod into the Gotham sunset is the equivalent of the start of Christ’s ministry. I’m surprised narrator Keith David didn’t say something like, “The Jews will find that Jesus is not the Messiah they need, but the one they deserve.”
So what did you think of last night’s episode of The Gospel According to Mark (Burnett)? Do you maintain that this is worthwhile television? Or is this the cheesiest damn thing you’ve ever seen? And did anyone else think this story is totally incomplete without the presence of Salome?
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: Joe Alblas/History Channel ]