Charlton Heston is the actor, perhaps more than any other, who is associated with the great Biblical dramas from the Golden Age of Hollywood. As Moses, he led the children of Israel through the parted waters of the Red Sea and received the Ten Commandments from the finger of God. He baptized Jesus as John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told. And, as the title character in Ben Hur, he met Jesus, who changed his life.
So it is no surprise that he would be tapped to narrate a series of DVDs on the stories of the Bible. Warner Brothers is releasing today a four DVD set, Charlton Heston Presents The Bible, in which Heston narrates the stories of Genesis, Moses, Jesus, and the Passion of Christ. Heston's signature voice is the draw here, more interesting than the brief glimpses of the Holy Land or the artwork that is intercut to illustrate the scenes Heston is narrating.
Heston died in 2008, and this series, shot in the 1990s, is a repackaged treatment, coming out alongside a new 2-disc release of The Ten Commandments – arguably Heston's most famous film. The Ten Commandments still holds up well; it is a classic for good reasons. In Charlton Heston Presents The Bible, Heston confesses that he is neither a priest not a theologian, but simply an actor, a storyteller. And in this DVD set, he does act, and he does recite the Scriptures, and while it may be comforting to watch an aging icon bring that singular voice to bear on ancient texts, some of his scripted lines will leave evangelicals scratching their heads.
A couple of examples should suffice.
On the first disc, "Genesis," Heston tells us that the stories of the Bible were an oral tradition, "these stories were meant to be told aloud, in the dark, to people sitting around a campfire listening." Later, in the disc "Moses," Heston notes, "Blurred by the centuries, no one can really mark the birth of the early stories of the Bible, or put them firmly in any time or place. We can't even be sure when the Bible passed beyond the fragile grasp of simple oral tradition and began, at last, to be written down."
While Heston does not claim to be a scholar, his words place him firmly in the dispute between historical and textual critics of the Bible. Historical critics argue for a late writing of the Old Testament and deny that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), arguing instead that the books have multiple authors whose works were eventually edited into what we now possess. But theologians, such as Norman Geisler and William Nix, disagree. Not only would Moses, being literate, been able to write the Pentateuch, but other Old Testament authors and Jesus identify Moses as the author. While not blatant, Heston's comments could cast doubt upon the historicity of what he continually calls "stories."
Later, in the disc "Jesus of Nazareth," Heston notes, "Of the four men who first wrote the whole story down, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it is possible that at least one knew the disciples, or may have even been one himself." He is correct, of course. Luke – a physician – clearly knew the disciples, and explains at the beginning of his gospel that he consulted earlier sources. The Apostle John wrote the gospel that bears his name. It is Heston's inclusion of the word "possible" that faintly undermines authorship.
Heston reads from the King James Bible, an indicator of the audience for this set. Some of the readings are majestic, but his reading of the Nativity story is problematic. He seems more interested in recreating a birth of Christ in the image of a Hallmark card, rather than a historical narrative. Taken as read on "Jesus of Nazareth," one would believe that the shepherds and the wise men arrived together to worship Christ who was lying in a manger at the time. Then Joseph and Mary spirit Jesus away to Egypt, but are almost immediately recalled, seemingly in time for Jesus to be circumcised in the Temple on the 8th day. But the Gospels explain that the magi, or wise men, did not appear until much later, where they found the toddler Jesus in a house, not a manger. It was after the wise men left that Jesus was taken to Egypt. This may not fit with the manger scene in most people's nativity set, but it is the biblical narrative.
The point here is not to be picky, but to be historically accurate. The Bible is not merely a set of stories, it is a history of the redemptive acts of God, culminating in the death, burial, and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus, for the forgiveness of the sins of humanity. God's redemptive acts continue, to this day, spread by the Church, and based upon this historical truth. When Heston notes on "The Passion" that the resurrection is "neither provable nor disprovable" I guess it all depends on what is meant by "proof." Books on the evidence for the resurrection abound. Belief in the resurrection is certainly much more than blind faith.
So, if you like Charlton Heston, and would enjoy listening to him recite the Scriptures, and can overlook some lapses in historical accuracy or orthodox teaching, then this may be a set for you. But to hear Heston intone, at the end of the series, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. And the Word endures. Words enrich us, define us, they mark our place in time, and in the universe," conflates the idea of Jesus as The Word, and the idea of stories as words, our words, in a way that diminishes the former. That is unfortunate – because I really enjoy Charlton Heston.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org