A.D. The Bible Continues: “The First Martyr” Review

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A.D. The Bible Continues on NBC TV progresses with episode five, “The First Martyr.” This show, a sequel to the popular The Bible series, is supposed to show how the early church began based on the final chapters of the Gospels and the book of Acts. The show got off to a fairly good start with episodes one and two, but since then we’ve been very disappointed with how the writers and producers have chosen to portray the events in Acts as well as the obvious lack of the gospel message.

Each week Avery Foley, a talented writer and researcher, has been writing a detailed review of each episode. You can read her review of last week’s episode here. Avery provides the following review of episode five:

Last week’s episode was disappointing, and the trend continues with “The First Martyr.” Like the past three episodes, this episode spent most of its screen time focusing on continuing tensions and heightening drama between the Jewish community and the Roman governor Pilate. This drama is certainly not included in Scripture and takes heavy artistic license. So much emphasis has been put on Pilate and the failed assassination attempt since episode three that the growth of the church and the actual events in the book of Acts have become more of a side story. This is a far cry from what the show claims to be: “an uplifting spiritual journey through the later chapters of biblical history. ‘A.D. The Bible Continues’ picks up where the smash hit miniseries ‘The Bible’ left off, continuing the greatest story ever told and exploring the exciting and inspiring events that followed the Crucifixion of Christ.” The show includes little of the “greatest story ever told,” ignores many of the “exciting and inspiring events” that actually happened to the early church, and contains far too much blood and torture—and so little spirituality—to be considered “an uplifting spiritual journey.” The show has largely become a hypothetical history of Pilate, Caiaphas, and the Jewish nation with a little bit of the early church thrown in on the side.

The episode shows the disciples and the early church living in a communal village outside of Jerusalem. This contradicts several statements in Acts which clearly show the early church dwelling in Jerusalem (Acts 6:7) and meeting in Solomon’s Porch (Acts 5:12). The disciples decide to go back into Jerusalem to help the suffering Jews who are languishing under Pilate’s brutal hand. Again, as with other episodes, the disciples are rarely shown preaching and there are no healings despite clear statements in the Bible to the contrary (Acts 5:12–16).

While in Jerusalem, the disciples bump into Phillip who is hiding a group of Jews. He joins the disciples at the Christian colony, and Peter wants to put him and Stephen in charge of looking over the growing camp. Now, in the book of Acts, we read of friction between the Hellenistic and the Hebraic Jews regarding the distribution of the food to their widows (Acts 6:1). In response, the Apostles say to the church, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2–4). Seven men from among the church are chosen, two being Stephen and Phillip. Now, in the show, Peter happens to bump into Phillip and decides, without consulting anyone, to put him and Stephen in charge of the camp. Stephen, however, informs Peter that he is far too learned and well studied to be merely in charge of running the camp. He tells Peter that he has been called to preach. Peter decides he must be right and proceeds to study under him. Peter, who walked with the Lord Jesus and trained under Him, has to sit and study basic Hebrew under Stephen. The show even portrays Peter as ignorant of Genesis 1:5. No Jew would be ignorant of the creation account in Genesis! The show seems to be making Peter—the author of two books of the New Testament and a leader of the early church personally selected by Jesus Himself—out to be rather ignorant and ill qualified for the Commission appointed to him By Christ (Matthew 28:19–20).

Much of the episode revolves around trying to find the would-be assassin and murderer, Boaz, who, unbeknownst to the Christians, is hiding with them. Peter finally finds out that Boaz is a fugitive and tells him, “All I can do is forgive you,”* and that they will harbor him, but he should do what’s right and turn himself in. Boaz does and is, as expected, tortured by the Romans until another zealot shoots him with an arrow to end the Roman’s torture. Caiaphas and Peter then sing a lament, taken from Psalm 69, over the dead zealot’s body. Of course, none of this is recorded in Scripture. The brief moment of peace between the two is broken when Peter begins preaching to Caiaphas and says that when we forgive and love people “only then will we find salvation when our Lord, Jesus Christ, returns to establish a new kingdom of God in Jerusalem.” Of course, this is not the gospel message. We do not find salvation when we forgive and love others. We find salvation when we “confess with [our] mouth[s] the Lord Jesus and believe in [our] heart[s] that God has raised Him from the dead” (Romans 10:9). Peter’s short sermon angers Caiaphas, and Peter is arrested. The disciples come in later to see after Peter and are all arrested.

Now, Acts does record that all of the disciples were arrested and thrown into prison (Acts 5:18). But this event occurs before—not after—Stephen, Phillip, and five others are appointed as deacons. Also, Acts records that they were arrested not because Peter preached to Caiaphas, but because Caiaphas and the other Jewish leaders were “filled with indignation” (Acts 5:17) at the teaching and healing ministry of the Apostles that was going on in Solomon’s Colonnade and that was adding multitudes to the church (Acts 5:12–16). None of this incredible teaching and healing ministry is shown in A.D.

After the disciples are arrested, a very ghostly looking angel comes and frees them from prison. This loosely follows Acts 5, which records a rescue by an angel (Acts 5:19). But the angel says nothing in the show, and it is Peter who says that they are going to the temple. In Acts the angel speaks to the disciples and tells them to go to the temple and preach (Acts 5:20). The disciples then journey to the temple and begin preaching. They say things like, “Our nation is poisoned. Turn away from violence. Turn away from hate. Jesus is the light of the world”; “Open your hearts. Hear our message of love and hope for all people. Come”; “Jesus is the Good Shepherd. People would not act this way if they knew the kingdom of our Lord, Jesus Christ, is coming to Jerusalem”; and “He is the Resurrection and the Life.” While some of these quotations come from sayings of Christ (John 8:12, 10:11, 11:25), which is an improvement, this is still not the gospel. There is no mention of repentance from your sins, trusting in Christ, being forgiven by His sacrifice, and receiving eternal life because of His Resurrection.

The episode then completely skips the events in Acts 5:21–24 which show the guards finding the cell doors locked and guards posted but no one inside. The guards merely show up in the temple complex and re-arrest the disciples and drag them before Caiaphas. This is done with force despite Acts 5:26, which says they did not arrest them with force because the guards were worried that they would be stoned by the people.

In the show, Peter offers this “defense” before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin: “We will not seek to defend our beliefs. We only know them to be true. There can be no defense or clarification or mitigation of the truth—it simply is.” Now, this pathetic defense of the gospel is clearly in discord with Peter’s command in 1 Peter 3:15 to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.” Peter then replies to Caiaphas’ question about what the truth is with, “That God raised Jesus from the dead to sit at His right hand as Prince and Savior. And it was His Spirit that freed us from your chains.” The writers would have been better to use Peter’s actual words from Acts: “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:29–32). Also, contrary to Peter’s statement in the episode, it was an angel, not the Spirit, who freed them from their cells (Acts 5:19).

After Peter makes his “defense,” Caiaphas accuses them of being false prophets and says they will all be stoned. But before the sentence can be carried out, the aged Gamaliel stands up and rather glibly defends them by comparing their zeal to Caiaphas’ days of being young and carried away. He then says that if this is of God, the Jewish leaders will find themselves fighting against God, so it’s best not to kill them. This is similar to Acts 5:38–39. However, Acts records that Gamaliel was “a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people” (Acts 5:34), but Caiaphas seems to barely tolerate his advice in A.D. Also, in Scripture Gamaliel commanded that the disciples be put outside while they talk (Acts 5:34), but the disciples remain present, listening to the whole exchange. Lastly, Acts 5:40 says that the Jewish leaders agree with Gamaliel but in the episode they seem to be merely humoring an older man.

According to Acts 5:41–42, the disciples are flogged and then they “departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” But the disciples do not rejoice in their suffering in the episode and, instead of teaching and preaching about Christ, they retreat to their commune. Indeed, back at the camp, instead of rejoicing in his suffering, Peter stoically tells Stephen, “We all knew we’d have to make sacrifices.” Peter is not joyous but is instead resigned to his painful fate. Stephen responds with, “not like this.” What Peter should have done in response to Stephen is quoted some of Christ’s words such as, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves . . . But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles . . . And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake” (Matthew 10:16–18, 22), but Peter says nothing.

The episode then turns to focus the last few minutes on the church’s first martyr, Stephen. Now, Acts describes Stephen as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5) and “full of God’s grace and power” who did miraculous signs and wonders among the people (Acts 6:8). Nowhere is the biblical Stephen shown in the episode. There is no sign that the Holy Spirit is with him, and he is not shown as being full of faith, grace, or power, but rather full of anger, rashness, and pride. After his conversation with Peter, Stephen is filled with indignation that the disciples were beaten and storms into a Sanhedrin meeting, shouting, “Are these the men who claim to keep the Law of Moses? You—You who have received the law through angels but who had not obeyed it! You’re just like our ancestors. Was there ever a prophet they didn’t persecute? . . . Do you really think that God would confine himself to a house built by men, when he made all of creation? And didn’t Jesus say ‘I will tear down this temple and rebuild it in three days’ before he rose from the death you condemned him to?” Stephen is then surrounded by a mob.

Part of Stephen’s brief sermon is pulled from the final portions of his much lengthier sermon in Acts 7, but Jesus’ quotation about the temple is an addition and is being used out of context. Jesus did say this, but it was in reference to His own body, not the physical temple (John 2:21). Also, Acts says that Stephen was arrested because no one could stand against the “wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (Acts 6:10), so they incited others to lie about him, which stirred the people up, and they seized him and dragged him before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:11–12). But A.D. has Stephen bursting into the Sanhedrin virtually unknown, not as a renowned preacher and miracle worker. During his brief moment before the Sanhedrin in the episode, no false witnesses come forth and, contrary to the account in Acts, no one sees Stephen’s face “as the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). Although the episode does have Stephen saying, “Look here with me. I see the heavens open and Christ standing at the right hand of God,” which is similar to Stephen’s words in Acts 7:56, there was no sign of Stephen being filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:55) and, as far as viewers can tell, Stephen did not actually see the heavens open or Christ standing at God’s right hand.

Stephen is then surrounded and dragged kicking and struggling out of the city where he is lashed to a tree. He is then stoned by the mob. Before he dies he says, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit. Do not hold this sin against them,” which matches with Acts 7:59–60. However, Acts 7:60 says that he knelt down but, since he is lashed to a tree in the episode, he does not kneel down. A man, presumably Saul, is standing with the mob holding the cloak of one of the men who stoned Stephen, but Acts 7:58 says that they laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet, not that he was holding the cloak of one man. It does, however, show Saul approving of Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1).

It should be noted that, while the Holy Spirit plays a big role in the book of Acts, He was missing almost entirely from this episode. The disciples do not appear to be doing anything by the power of the Spirit but by their own wisdom (or impulsively). This neglect of the Holy Spirit is a major deviation from what we read in Acts.

All in all, this episode was another missed opportunity. Instead of focusing so much on a story that may or may not have happened involving Pilate and the Jews, the writers would have done better to stick with the accounts given us in the book of Acts. The account of the early church is inspiring and exciting—it does not deserve to be relegated to just a subplot!

As with the other episodes, I encourage you to use A.D. to start gospel-centered conversations. A.D. might neglect the gospel, but we certainly shouldn’t! I encourage you to use this episode to ask those you know who are watching the show if they know why those in the early church, like Stephen, were willing to die and use that as a platform to share the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ—a message truly worth dying for—with them.

Thanks for stopping by and thanks for praying,
Ken

This item was written with the assistance of AiG’s research team.

*All quotations from the episode are taken from the subtitles provided by NBC in the video on their website.

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