It’s Eastertime, so we can expect to be inundated with religious programming of one kind or another. This year there’s a lot more on offer than usual; the runaway success of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett’s The Bible means a glut of Bible-related content has arrived on the small screen. But in this Survivor-style showdown between the networks, how is the discerning religiously interested viewer to know which shows will have them feeling the spirit and which will leave them cold?
Disclaimer: I was personally involved as a consultant and contributor to a number of these shows (AD; The Siege of Masada; and Finding Jesus). So I’m not completely impartial. Reviewing these shows is much like choosing a favorite child. This is something my married-with-kids friends tell me one shouldn’t do in public. So I’ll be sure to be as effusive about my pot-smoking-C-student kid as my running-for-student-body-president-and-volunteers-at-the-soup-kitchen kid. But I’m not going to tell you which is which.
AD: The Bible Continues (Sundays, 9 p.m. EST, Premieres April 5, NBC)
Nobody, I mean nobody, does cutthroat reality shows or biblical reenactments like Mark Burnett. The Bible (the TV series based on the book) was a huge success, in part because it had the backing of important religious leaders but also because the visuals were just so gosh-darned good. In the sequel, AD, we pick up with the Apostles after the crucifixion and watch as Peter, Saul, and the rest find themselves struggling to stay alive and spread the good news in first-century Jerusalem. The series is loosely based on the Acts of the Apostles, but in fleshing out the plot and character details it necessarily turns into historical fiction. In some ways this makes AD better, less predictable, and more engaging than The Bible. As one of many historical consultants who read scripts for the series, I sometimes found myself shaking my head, but I still desperately wanted to read what happened next.
Watch if: You enjoyed The Bible and you’re cool with the kind of history found in Gladiator and The Tudors.
The Dovekeepers (9 p.m. EST, March 31 & April 1, CBS)
If you don’t have big-budget fatigue and you’re looking to hear about someone other than Christian men for a change, tune into The Dovekeepers. This Game of Thrones-quality adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s novel tells the story of four fictional women whose lives intersect around the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. These women become our eyes during the last days of the siege of Masada—the Jewish equivalent of the Alamo. The miniseries, which features an all-star cast (Sam Neill, Cote de Pablo) is another Burnett-Downey production. Which just goes to show that if you’re good enough at something, you don’t need to exhibit any network loyalty.
Watch if: You like good stories and you’re sick of everything being about the men all the time.
The Siege of Masada (March 27, 9 p.m., Smithsonian)
The Dovekeepers is fiction, but the siege of Masada is not. Heck, you can still walk up the ramp that the Romans erected to destroy the rebel holdouts there and, until recently, Israeli soldiers used to swear that “Masada will not fall again” on top of the mountain. That said, the last days of the siege of Masada are the subject of voracious scholarly debate. This documentary, commissioned to accompany the CBS drama, uses archeology, history, and the stunning visuals of The Dovekeepers to ask, “What really happened at Masada?”
Watch if: You want to know the history behind one of history’s most influential showdowns.
Killing Jesus (March 29, 8pm EST, The National Geographic Channel)
I haven’t seen Killing Jesus yet, but I’m sure it’s even better than the book. Based on Bill O’Reilly’s New York Times bestseller, this show is a “historical” take on the person, mission, and fate of Jesus. Assuming that the film follows the same line as the book, Jesus will be shown as an establishment-bucking revolutionary who died to free us from big government and excessive taxation. A number of biblical scholars, including me, criticized the book when it was released, but there is one aspect of the film that is interestingly accurate: Killing Jesus is the first production to cast a Middle Eastern actor as the film’s hero. Jesus will be played by Lebanese-born Haaz Sleiman, a 24-year-old Muslim. And for that it has to be commended.
Watch if: You want a biblical excuse to cheat on your taxes.
Finding Jesus (Sundays, 9pm EST, CNN)
CNN’s series Finding Jesus takes six artifacts—recently discovered ancient texts, relics, and boxes—and asks the novel question, “What’s the material evidence for Jesus’s existence?” Each artifact is scrutinized by scientists, while a medley of scholars, journalists, and ministers relays the relevant Bible stories. From an academic perspective, the production company Nutopia did an excellent job of recruiting a wide range of top-notch scholars to serve as our Sunday School guides—Noel Lenski on Constantine, Christopher Rollston on forged ossuaries, April DeConick, Elaine Pagels, Stephen Emmel, and Nicola Denzey Lewis on the Gospel of Judas, to name but a few. In the end, though, the relics are the stars and the show is surprisingly reverent. Even when a relic fails to pass scholarly muster, Christian tradition remains blessedly unscathed.
Watch if: You want to see your Bible stories, but you want to feel like you’re on CSI: Jerusalem while doing it.
If none of these big-budget productions shows does it for you, or if despite the plethora of programming you just can’t get enough of your Bible, you could, as a last resort, you know, go to church.