It's not an easy task to produce a program on the Bible that will appeal equally to skeptics and believers. The A&E series The Mysteries of the Bible takes a shot at the project, giving us twenty-two episodes exploring the events described in the Bible and drawing on a variety of points of view about the material. How successful is it? I'd say that The Mysteries of the Bible is not terribly ambitious, but it does succeed in doing what it (modestly) sets out to do.
In terms of perspective, The Mysteries of the Bible takes a middle-of-the-road approach. Scholars and religious figures provide their thoughts on the meaning of the material; some take a skeptical approach, while others cautiously assert the orthodox view. I was pleased to note that all the interviewees are given enough time to articulate their views properly; while the interview clips are always fairly brief, there's none of the sound-bite abbreviation that plagues some documentaries. Whatever the point of view being presented, the expert in question gets to explain his or her thought reasonably completely. I'd have liked to have heard more from all of them, to get a fuller explanation of their ideas rather than just the summary, but I recognize that's not very likely to happen in a 45-minute episode, and at least I did always get the sense that the experts were fairly represented in their views. Overall, the program handles difficult questions by tossing it back at the viewer with a "Hey! Who knows?" kind of approach... but that's a refreshing change from dogmatism, at least.
The Mysteries of the Bible Collection covers figures and events from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, providing a buffet, as it were, of interesting bits from the Bible. From the Old Testament, we get episodes on "Abraham: One Man, One God," "The Ten Commandments," "Jacob's Ladder," "Joseph, Master of Dreams," "Cain and Abel," "Queen Esther," "King Solomon," "King David: Poet Warrior," and "Prophets: Soul Catchers." New Testament topics include "Herod the Great," "Jesus: Holy Child," "The Execution of Jesus," "The Lost Years of Jesus," "The Last Supper," "Paul the Apostle," and "Apocalypse: The Puzzle of Revelation." Episodes related mainly to the Bible in history include "Archenemy: The Philistines," "The Last Revolt," and "The Bible's Greatest Secrets." Lastly, a few more general topics include "Biblical Angels," "Heaven and Hell," and "Magic and Miracles." The episodes are in apparently random order, but since the episode titles are straightforward it's easy enough to pick and choose your own path through the material here.
The episodes are tastefully made. Rather than relying on re-enactments (though there are a few brief ones), the episodes are largely illustrated by images from religious art. Since historically there's an amazing depth and variety of artwork illustrating events from the Bible, this gives the program a lot of beautiful images to accompany the narrative. Archaeological evidence is brought up whenever it's relevant, with ruins and artifacts displayed. The voiceover narrators (Richard Kiley for the general narration and Jean Simmons for quotations from the Bible) do a nice job.
As far as the depth of the material goes... It's fairly introductory. I found the episodes to be moderately informative, but I was always hoping for a bit more depth, a bit more information, a bit more substance in general. Anyone who's moderately well-read in the Bible will probably find this to be too much of a retread, but it's not a bad introduction or overview of the topics. It's probably a good program for a family to watch and discuss together.
The Mysteries of the Bible is a big collection, with seven keepcases in a sturdy cardboard slipcase.
The episodes are all presented in their original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1. They're watchable but not particularly impressive. Some of the material looks good, with natural colors and contrast, while other parts are grainy and a bit faded-looking. There's heavy edge enhancement and quite a lot of artifacts visible.
The stereo soundtrack is clear and clean overall. In a few of the episodes, I felt that the interview segments sounded a bit tinny and harsh, but the voiceovers always sounded natural and attractive.
Three bonus programs are included from other series. Disc 1 has "The Lost Ark" from Ancient Mysteries; Disc 4 has "The Shroud of Turin" from History's Mysteries; Disc 7 has "The Quest for the Holy Lance" again from Ancient Mysteries.
The Mysteries of the Bible Collection doesn't break any new ground, but it does provide a moderately interesting overview of interesting pieces of the Bible from a reasonably neutral point of view. While it doesn't have a lot of substance to it, it does cover a lot of cultural ground that's just plain useful to know in order to appreciate a lot of Western art and literature. I'd recommend it particularly to families with children. Recommended.