A lot of cherished church tradition about Christianity's beginnings is central to the 12-hour miniseries "A.D."--so much so that it would be easy to get the impression that this is one biblical production that sticks to history.
However, when it comes to what most likely happened in those crucial years, "A.D." will be no more historically reliable than its ancient church sources: the New Testament's Book of Acts and later Christian legend.
The few things that an eyewitness--the Apostle Paul--wrote about some of the events in the 1st Century were apparently rejected by the NBC producers in favor of the more colorful and expansive accounts in the Book of Acts, written 30 years later.
As one New Testament consultant to the film put it, if the five-part NBC-TV production had decided to draw upon a scholarly historical reconstruction, the authentic material would have been so sparse that "you would have wound up with a 30-minute series."
The consultant, Thomas L. Robinson, professor of the New Testament at the ecumenical Union Theological Seminary in New York, was one of several widely recognized biblical scholars asked to critique an early script for the fictionalized story of Jewish, Christian and Roman conflicts in the years AD 30 to 69.
Robinson was pleased, it must be noted, with the way producers invited Christian and Jewish scholars to save the miniseries from fundamental historical errors. And he could see the film's value for acquainting people with traditional stories about Peter, Paul and other early Christians as told in Acts and embellished by subsequent church lore.
"I personally don't have any objections to them telling the story of Acts, but it shouldn't be envisioned that one is doing deep historical work," said Robinson, currently a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School.
Another consultant, Princeton's Bruce Metzger, who chairs the committee working on a new edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, said he was looking for major inaccuracies when he examined the script. Metzger said he made a big point only about using the Christian fish symbol too soon in history. (The symbol was kept in the story, however.) "It's probably an anachronism to have it even in the 1st Century," Metzger said.
The portrayal of the different Jewish religious parties in the 1st Century gets sympathetic treatment in "A.D.," and the input of Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee probably helped in that regard. Watchful for scenes that could have an anti-Semitic tone, Tannenbaum has been quoted as saying that at last a film has been made in which the Pharisees are not portrayed as "cardboard characters" determined to destroy Jesus.
The Roman Empire emerges as a kind of Darth Vader to the just and compassionate Jewish and Christian heroes. Robinson said that accounts of Roman historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius were followed by the film's writers as uncritically as were the biblical materials. "The (Roman historians) thought the era of the emperors was a disaster, and in large part they may have been correct, but they wrote 75 years after the events, with a jaundiced view and complete with rumors," he said.
Nonetheless, Vincenzo Labella, the producer and co-writer of "A.D.," should be praised by Christians for his willingness to tackle a subject about which Protestants, Catholics and other believers can find innumerable points to dispute.
Among those points: Baptists might prefer to see full-immersion baptisms depicted rather than baptisms by sprinkling. Some Christians might object to the references to the Book of Isaiah in which the word maiden is used instead of virgin , but in this prophecy of a young girl bearing a savior, the film accurately follows the Hebrew rather than a later Greek translation of Isaiah that was used by Christian writers.
James of Jerusalem, a brother of Jesus (according to Paul, who had met him), is identified in the film as "the one they call the brother of Jesus" in a concession to Roman Catholicism, which considers Jesus' brothers as merely "relatives" in view of the church doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. The point may seem minor, but it illustrates how "A.D." is no more at fault than most churches for often ignoring the earliest-written biblical material in favor of later versions. The uncritical approach also tends to treat opposing traditions as somehow both right.
Theologically conservative churches tend to find no historical problem with Acts, even when Paul's versions seem to be at variance, because of the guiding principle that the Bible is true in every respect. But biblical scholarship has undergone an information explosion no less than other disciplines, even if members of the possibly receptive moderate-to-liberal churches are rarely kept abreast of the findings.