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THE FIRST DAYS OF CHRISTIANITY

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Roger Moore, Martin Sheen
Director: Various
Audio:  Dolby 2.0
Video:  Full screen 1.33:1
Studio:  A&E Home Video
Features:  None
Length:  320 minutes
Release date:  January 15, 2008

“I think that it is foolish for someone to say there is no such thing as a miracle.  By their very nature, you cannot prove a miracle.  If it is repeatable, then it’s not miraculous.  Miracles are a phenomenon of faith and they are intended to be part of faith journeys.”

Dr. Daniel Smith-Christopher, Prof. of Biblical Studies, Loyola Marymount University

Films ****

This four-disc set includes “In the Footsteps of the Holy Family, Part 1 and 2,” and “The Apostles Collection,” Part 1 and 2, with each part on its own disc.  With all of the recent hype over best-selling books that either argue that Jesus was married, or was not divine, or that God does not even exist at all, I was curious to see if this special DVD set contained either a new historical look at the birth and life of Christ from an objective point of view or with a vendetta to ridicule the beliefs of about one third of humanity.  The above quote comes early in the first film so we know from the beginning that questions of faith are being developed by theologians and historians, not sensationalists eager to grab headlines with denunciations of faith.

The first special is narrated by the wonderfully voiced Roger Moore of many Bond films and the set itself is one of the most wonderfully designed packages I have ever seen, four discs in a box that is hinged on one side and opens like a book in a box.   The first special, “In the Footsteps of the Holy Family,” opens with historical descriptions of the times in which Jesus was born, as if we were really there.  This is naturally the strength of most History Channel specials.  They avoid the mystical romance of Ken Burns’ films and just attempt to present the origins and consequences of various events.

It presents many interesting traditions such as the “Milk Grotto” in which many pilgrims have come praying for assistance in conceiving children, and walls are covered with thank you notes and photos of such children, and we even meet modern pilgrims who have been blessed with miracles.  This segment is longer and more melodramatic than it should be, and it really has nothing to do with early Christianity, but the miracles are awe-inspiring.

The third and fourth discs are “The Story of the Twelve Apostles,” which focuses mainly on the Book of Acts and is narrated by the passionate Martin Sheen.  It is more of a traditional History Channel production with its mix of historical narrative, scholarly commentary, and reenactments, slightly less melodramatic than the first film.  It discusses the change from a community based on the living Christ to one that focuses on spreading the word of his resurrection and salvation, and how they were persecuted by the Jews and Romans alike.  One of the most interesting chapters talks about the legends and apocryphal stories about the travels, lives, and deaths of the apostles not discussed very much in Acts---which would be all of them other than Paul and to some extent Peter.  These books lacked “theological integrity” and were very popular among heretical groups, and so were not made part of the New Testament canon.  They are also not considered reliable, since one of the stories includes a lion who asks Peter to  baptize him….and then when the lion is thrown into the den with Peter, it does nothing.  Of course.  Fortunately Aesop did not sue the anonymous writer.

One of the most interesting martyrdom stories is about Andrew being able to escape many times after being condemned to death for converting the emperor’s wife, but he refuses to leave.  He is crucified on a cross in the shape of an X, and stayed alive for four days, preaching all the while, and encouraging his followers to sail past the desires of the world.  Peter’s encounter with Christ himself as he fled Rome is also described.  Apparently Peter was warned that he was to be put to death, so on the advice of his followers he flees, but crosses paths with Jesus himself, who says that since Peter was abandoning Rome, Jesus would have to go and die all over again.  So like his brother Andrew, Peter refused to flee, turned back to Rome, and died for the man he called “his all.”

Video ***1/2

Only full screen of course but good continuity and few artifacts or problems.  The menus are especially colorful and fun to navigate.  Once in a while there is a very sudden transition that appears to be an editing error, or was done to fit a television schedule, otherwise no problems.

Audio ****

Even more crisp and well-mixed than most television productions and well-mixed as usual with A&E releases.

Features (Zero Stars)

None, but after five and a half hours any viewer should be satisfied!

Summary:

The History Channel and A&E present three of the most sought-after films in their Christianity treasury, together for the first time in one DVD collection, a bargain at any price for such well-done and inspiring productions.

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