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Reality TV Goliath takes up Bible miniseries challenge, hopes for better outcome
Mark Burnett and Roma Downey on the set of "The Bible," the 10-hour miniseries Burnett produced and directed.
March 2nd, 2013
11:00 PM ET

Reality TV Goliath takes up Bible miniseries challenge, hopes for better outcome

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) - Mark Burnett is the king of reality television. His shows and spinoffs command hours of prime-time television real estate. The seal of his production company One Three Media appears at the end of “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank,” “The Job” and “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”

He will tell you each show was No. 1 in the time slot. He will tell you he will take on all comers in his bare-knuckle, ratings-driven world and beat them. He will tell you on any given day he has 150 video-editing systems churning through edits on his dossier, which spans the three major broadcast networks.

But if you suggest he may not have the chops to take on a massive scripted dramatic presentation of the Bible as a 10-hour miniseries, his eyes will tell you he wants to throttle you.

My bad.

Burnett and wife, Roma Downey, have been barnstorming the country like roving preachers on horseback trying to evangelize the West. Their gospel is spreading the news of “The Bible” - their ambitious project that aims to tell the story of the Bible in 10 installments. It begins its weeklong premiere on the History Channel Sunday night.

We met in the lobby of the Washington Hilton the night before last month’s National Prayer Breakfast. They were in town to speak to Washington journalists and show clips from their project.

Burnett and Downey’s project tackles the narrative of the Bible, a story woven through 66 books of the Old Testament and New Testament. It’s a story revered by billions as divine revelation – and one they’ve compressed into 10 hours of television. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot.

Many have taken aim at dramatizing the stories of the Bible. Few of those productions stood the test of time. They knew all that going in 3 1/2 years ago when “the light bulb went off,” as Downey puts it.

“It’s been a great fun journey right, Roma?” Burnett said to his wife of nearly six years.

“And we’re still talking to each other,” Downey said, smiling.

Both Downey and Burnett were raised Catholic, Burnett in England and Downey in Ireland. They still regularly attend Mass in Los Angeles. Growing up, both watched the classic Biblical films that the Hollywood of yesteryear churned out, like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

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“In Ireland, we used to sit up and wait for John Wayne to say, ‘Surely that man was the Son of God,’ at the end of 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' every Easter,” Downey said, with her thick Irish brogue dipping into a delightfully terrible John Wayne impersonation.

After showing their kids "The Ten Commandments" with Charlton Heston, their three teenagers had one request for the Bible project. They told their parents, “Please don’t make it lame.”

Making it work

The project is personal for Burnett and Downey, coming from a deep spiritual desire for more people to see and experience the stories of their faith. As Europeans, now naturalized U.S. citizens, they are stunned the Bible is not taught in public schools.

“It was time for an updating. Adding fresh visual life to a sacred text,” Burnett said.

“People have great hearts and great knowledge but no experience of filmmaking and no budgets,” Burnett said of past telling of the stories on film and television.

“Or the resources,” Downey chimed in. “We wanted to create something that was gritty and authentic. We certainly didn’t want everyone to look like they stepped out of the dry cleaners.”

Burnett and Downey may not have been high on the list of many studios as producers and directors to put a massive scripted project like this together. "All-Star Celebrity Apprentice" starring Donald Trump and Gary Busey is not exactly" Ben-Hur," and Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green spinning in chairs on the singing competition "The Voice" isn’t often (or ever) compared to the "Ten Commandments."

When I asked Burnett about this, he seemed genuinely insulted.

“Based on viewership, maybe I should be giving a few lessons to the people who are doing stories. Because we have five nights of No. 1 wins on prime-time television,” he started. “As a family we’ve made over 2,000 hours of American television and 8,000 worldwide.”

As he cooled down, ticking off a list of reasons why he and his wife were best suited for the job, he delved into how this project was made.

The production, he insisted, was a lot more like the production that goes into "Survivor" than nearly any feature film or television show in production.

"Survivor" typically includes a cast and crew of 400 people in a remote location with multiple helicopters and boats.

To film the Bible series, they set off for the southern tip of Morocco in Africa with a similar-size crew and hundreds of extras. Not to mention the chariots and horses.

“It was epic,” Downey said.

“Our experience with large-scale productions was very, very important,” Burnett said.

To help further bring the story to life, they brought in Lola, an Oscar-winning CGI team from London who created similar scenes for the film "Gladiator."

They went with an international ensemble for the cast because they didn’t want to distract the audience with recognizable celebrities.

Jesus was played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado. Many other actors came from the Theatre District in London.

An actor portrays an Egyptian slave driver in 'The Bible' miniseries

Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus in 'The Bible' miniseries

The most recognizable face to most in North America will be Downey herself, who stepped into the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is portrayed in the series as a young woman at the Nativity, then later in life.

“It was a privilege to play it,” Downey said. For nine seasons, Downey starred in the CBS show “Touched by an Angel,” then went on to star in a number of TV movies.

“The scripts at one point just said Young Mary, and then as the scripts progressed it said Old Mary. I said, ‘OK, we have to change that right now.’ The last thing I need to see is ‘Old Mary’ played by Roma Downey,” she said with a laugh. “So we changed it to Mother Mary.”

The budget for the 10 hours was under $22 million, Burnett said, a small price tag for a production on such a grand scale. (NBC paid $4 million per episode for the show “Smash” this season, according to an estimate by the New York Times)

“It’s not easy, even for us, to sell and get placed on prime time television, 10 hours – Genesis to Revelation,” Burnett said. “Do we wish we had 25 or 100 [hours], yes but we got 10. We got a great budget. It looks like it’s a $200 million movie. Of course it’s not. It’s just our combined experiences, our hearts and efforts that make it look like that.”

Getting it right

As they considered which parts of the Bible to shoot, they had to pare down hundreds of stories.

“The first decision was, it’s one story,” Burnett said. “It’s not a series of unconnected stories, it’s one grand narrative.”

“You could call it the meta narrative.”

The series encompasses five hours of the Old Testament and five hours of the New Testament.

They took many artistic liberties to compress the story lines while hoping to remain true to the story.

A public relations manager for the project described the liberties to me as “extra-biblical but not contra-biblical.”

For instance, in the series opener, the Book of Genesis stories of Adam and Eve and Noah unfold together. Noah and his family are already on the ark while the flood waters batter their boat. To calm his family, Noah tells them the story of creation: “In the beginning! ... ” Noah bellows as he runs around plugging leaks and comforting his family and the animals.

An actor portrays an Egyptian slave driver in 'The Bible' miniseries

An actor portrays an Egyptian slave driver in 'The Bible' miniseries

Similarly, in the story of David and Goliath, when David heads out to face the giant Philistine foe, he clutches his sling and quietly begins to recite the 23rd Psalm, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” David is considered the author of the psalm, but nowhere in the text of the David and Goliath story does it address what he said as he walked out to battle and slay Goliath.

The dialogue in much of the story is similarly constructed along the lines of the bare-bones text. When Jesus calls Peter to be his disciple, Peter asks, “What are we going to do?” Jesus answers, “We’re going to change the world.” Those lines never appear in the Gospel accounts, but Burnett and Downey insist it is consistent with the text.

“Every step of the way we’ve had scholars and theologians working with us,” Downey said.

Burnett and Downey consulted a wide range of pastors and academics, including a major evangelical leader and a Catholic cardinal.

Their advisory panel consisted of many people from varied backgrounds familiar with sharing the stories of the Bible rather than of a "who’s who" of Biblical academics.

Joel Osteen, a popular television preacher and pastor of the 30,000-member Lakewood church in Houston, was among those consulted. Osteen and Burnett are friends and were developing a television series together that went on the back burner during the production of this series. Osteen even took his family to Morocco during some of the filming.

“[Burnett] would send scripts our way and ask doctrinal or Bible questions about it, but a lot of it was a friendship and an advisory role,” Osteen said.

CNN Belief: Five things we learned from Joel Osteen's visit

Osteen said much of his work was confirming if the extrabiblical material stayed true to the Bible.

His encouragement to Burnett was to “use your creativity to fill in between the lines.”

Another consultant was Rabbi Joshua Garroway, an assistant professor at the Hebrew Union College and an expert on early Christianity and the Second Jewish commonwealth (circa 530 B.C. to 70 A.D.) Judaism. He was a paid consultant on the project.

“One of the issues that came up frequently in the comments was the goal of the production was to remain faithful, or at least as faithful as possible, to the narrative and text of the Bible, as opposed to a historical critical approach,” he said.

“The series is not meant to be a historical feature but as a representation of the biblical narrative which is at times historical and at times not,” Garroway said.

One reason Garroway thought he was brought in was because in parts of the New Testament, “there are less than generous depictions of Jews, Jewish leaders and Jewish traditions.”

One of several Jewish scholars involved, his role as a New Testament scholar was to help the production stay faithful to the text but also “diminish as much as possible scenes or statements that could be construed as overly negative toward Jews and Jewish judgment.”

While he thinks the project has an overall Christian orientation, “I think they did well.”

“I don’t think it will run into the same problems that Mel Gibson’s movie ("The Passion of the Christ") did because the producers have been somewhat conscientious about forestalling some of the things that could produce that effect in the Jewish community,” he said, referring to perceptions of anti-Semitism from the 2004 film.

Osteen thinks the project will have a lasting impact in churches. He plans to use pieces of the project in his services to help illustrate points he’ll make in his sermons.

“I know I’m biased because I’m their friend, but I think it’ll be something that will live on for generations because it’s done with excellence, not knocking anything else, it’s just this is production 50 years past where some of the other films were made,” he said.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

Burnett and Downey also think this project will be their most lasting and most viewed.

Burnett said the couple have deferred all their fees for the project. They probably don’t need the money anyway. Forbes lists Burnett as among its 100 highest-earning celebrities with an estimated income of $55 million in 2012.

While the History Channel owns the exclusive North American rights to the project, Burnett and Downey own the rights to global distribution and theatrical airings, which are in the works. There is also a book tie-in, games and apps attached to the project.

For the couple, the project was not about turning a profit, though they likely will. Instead, it was about bringing new life to the stories of their faith for a new audience.

“Will it be screened in movie theaters? Yes, for sure. "Already been approached. Arenas, churches, every way you can imagine,” Burnett said.

Burnett ticked through the shows he and Downey have put together over the years. “Over the next 25 years," he said, "more people will see this than all the others combined.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Bible • Catholic Church • Christianity • Entertainment • TV

soundoff (2,068 Responses)
  1. tkp353

    No matter how "accurate" this show will be, it still comes down to simple faith. It pains me to read so many negative comments about such hatred for the greatest gift ever given. I'm no Saint, so I can pray forgiveness for myself as well as those who either cannot, or will not give God a chance in their lives.

    March 3, 2013 at 6:34 am |
    • Dana

      Please don't pray for me and I'll try not to feel sorry for you.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:19 am |
  2. Bev

    i love roma downey i think what is wrong with this country is that we have taken god out of everything maybe it's time to put him back

    March 3, 2013 at 6:32 am |
    • more_religion_sheit

      your impotent god should try Viagra!

      March 3, 2013 at 6:35 am |
    • JWT

      And how do you choose which version of which god ?

      March 3, 2013 at 6:44 am |
    • sqeptiq

      No, let's get any gods out and put some ethics in. Far more effective.

      March 3, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  3. sick of christian phonies

    "All Star celebrity Apprentice". "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader". "The Bible". Fits right in with such portentous, classy, stimulating material . I see Donald Trump as Pontius Pilate- "You're crucified!!!".

    March 3, 2013 at 6:32 am |
  4. SixDegrees

    So, what happens when Jesus gets voted off the island?

    March 3, 2013 at 6:27 am |
    • more_religion_sheit

      he has to beat off at home or when he visits the Vatican! 🙂

      March 3, 2013 at 6:31 am |
    • more_religion_sheit

      only one man could/would die for others' sins? Bull & W T F!

      March 3, 2013 at 6:33 am |
  5. Semper Cogitatus

    This is a great project to do. No matter how you do it you will probably offend more people than not and no one will say you got it right, but a huge number of people will watch it, and the commercials that come with it, just to be offended and see what he did wrong. He can just ignore what people think and make what he likes, knowing the outcome will be that same, and make him millions, no matter what.

    Burnett is generally a pretty poor excuse for a human being, but he is one smart dude. I'll watch this, but I won;t be seeing the commercials.

    March 3, 2013 at 6:26 am |
    • DaProfit

      haha – takes one to know one – tard.

      March 3, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  6. sick of christian phonies

    I guess he decided to move away from reality TV.

    March 3, 2013 at 6:26 am |
    • Semper Cogitatus

      This will be about as real as any of his other shows.

      March 3, 2013 at 6:28 am |
  7. Frank

    Please Share https://vimeo.com/60887570 See all three films at http://www.beyondmefilm.com. Beyond Belief is all about Jesus and how the Bible narrative is completely wrong.

    March 3, 2013 at 6:24 am |
  8. David

    Fantastic!

    March 3, 2013 at 6:20 am |
  9. Dave Green

    Perfect! This is exactly where the bible stories belong...Told by a reality show director on American prime time, where all moderately boring fictional stories should be told.

    March 3, 2013 at 6:07 am |
    • Oh boy

      Exactly Mr. Green. And further...

      "They took many artistic liberties to compress the story lines while hoping to remain true to the story." Like Argo? Let me guess, David was just a kid from Iowa who happened to be in Palistine when he slew Goliath?

      March 3, 2013 at 6:25 am |
  10. Filthy Hind I love to Mithrism lick and talk Islam bunk

    Read Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman's book, "Who Wrote the Bible". I guarantee you will not believe one word in it when you're done.

    March 3, 2013 at 3:28 am |
    • Semper Cogitatus

      I love this sentence, it can be read two ways and one of the two is almost certainly true for anyone that reads the book he recommends.

      March 3, 2013 at 6:29 am |
    • DaProfit

      Why would I read it if I'm not going to believe it??? I'd rather read the Holy Book anyway – more truthful.

      March 3, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  11. Whatever

    Yeah, the whores who cashed in on reality TV slop are going Jesusy for some more money. The Chads and Tophers will go ga-ga over it, but to the rest of us, it'll he the next "Battlefield Earth."

    Rich producers. Camel. Needle.

    March 3, 2013 at 2:55 am |
  12. Pastor Danny

    I wish them both lots of great success. Whether people believe the Bible is real or not, this will be an epic event. As a Christian and someone that loves the Bible, I am grateful that this film was made rather than another blockbuster. We need more Biblical stories, the good, the bad and the not so pretty.
    Much love

    March 3, 2013 at 1:47 am |
    • Religion is

      Superstition!
      Actually, we need fewer bible stories. And more truth.

      March 3, 2013 at 1:51 am |
    • Filthy Hind I love to Mithrism lick and talk Islam bunk

      Yeah we need to hear more about that Iron Age war god some more. No really we do. The 40th son of El Elyon, the chief Sumerian god. His name was Yahweh Sabaoth. How many people know he was one of many of their gods, and he had a wife. Will THAT be in this series ?

      March 3, 2013 at 3:26 am |
    • Science

      Maybe ! it is going to expose the fairy in the sky as the fraud it is !

      According to Topher the history channel is not good to religion !

      March 3, 2013 at 5:35 am |
    • UncleBenny

      There's actually a great deal of truth in the Bible. Just not a lot of facts.

      March 3, 2013 at 6:28 am |
    • Science

      There is the truth Uncle Benny The secrets of life going to be patented . you might have it too!!!

      Supreme Court to Decide if Human Genes Can Be ... – Reason Online

      reason.com/24-7/2012/.../supreme-court-to-decide-if-human-genes-c

      Nov 30, 2012 – The justices' decision will likely resolve an ongoing battle between scientists who believe that genes carrying the secrets of life should not be exploited for commercial gain and companies that argue that a patent is a reward ...

      No god(s) needed for patent !!!!!

      March 3, 2013 at 7:00 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Actually, we need more bable stories that show things like Jobs family being killed by god to settle a bet and the jews slaughtering helpless babies and raping virgins. And let's not forget the angels of the lord passing through egypt killing all (innocent) first born sons.

      March 3, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  13. hypatia

    And no one called Karloff a c___$ucker during a swimming pool baptism to make it this time.

    March 3, 2013 at 12:37 am |
    • Religion is

      Superstition!

      That line didn't occur in the pool baptism scene.

      March 3, 2013 at 2:03 am |
  14. realbuckyball

    Ok Eric Marapodi,
    And you never asked them about which version they were doing, or labeling the mythical parts, (Genesis and the Patriarchs)as such ? I would bet that Downey and Burnett between them have what, 1 class in Sunday School Bible ? ANother Hollywood version that totally ignores all the scholarship of the last 100 years, and does a re-do if Third Grade Bible stories. Like the world need another one of those.

    March 3, 2013 at 12:14 am |
  15. Topher

    I really hope this is good. The History Channel has a really bad reputation when it comes to programs on Christianity.

    March 3, 2013 at 12:14 am |
    • Religion is

      Superstition!

      Our local fish wrapper gave it a rather negative review. But you religies will probably all like it.

      March 3, 2013 at 1:54 am |
    • Science

      Hey topher you helped exposed it (bible) as junk already so maybe they are setting it up for the faity in the sky to take a dive.

      Peace

      March 3, 2013 at 5:24 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Topher, they don't have much actual history to work with when it comes to The Babble – it's fiction!

      March 3, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  16. End Religion

    It is really kinda creepy to think about all the people choosing to be anesthetized with religious fantasy programming. Meanwhile there's folks watching the Science channel choosing to learn more about our reality. Do you take the blue pill or the red pill?

    March 2, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
    • mark

      You would know about colors in pills since you are obviously on several mood swing mind numbing ADHD meds.

      March 3, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  17. Bootyfunk

    the lamest story ever sold...

    March 2, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
  18. Reality

    Save yourself ten hours and read the following summaries:

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob•a•bly
    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

    The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

    . For instance, an essay on Ancient Near Eastern Mythology," by Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, states that on the basis of modern scholarship, it seems unlikely that the story of Genesis originated in Palestine. More likely, Mr. Wexler says, it arose in Mesopotamia, the influence of which is most apparent in the story of the Flood, which probably grew out of the periodic overflowing of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The story of Noah, Mr. Wexler adds, was probably borrowed from the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh.

    Equally striking for many readers will be the essay "Biblical Archaeology," by Lee I. Levine, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "There is no reference in Egyptian sources to Israel's sojourn in that country," he writes, "and the evidence that does exist is negligible and indirect." The few indirect pieces of evidence, like the use of Egyptian names, he adds, "are far from adequate to corroborate the historicity of the biblical account."

    Similarly ambiguous, Mr. Levine writes, is the evidence of the conquest and settlement of Canaan, the ancient name for the area including Israel. Excavations showing that Jericho was unwalled and uninhabited, he says, "clearly seem to contradict the violent and complete conquest portrayed in the Book of Joshua." What's more, he says, there is an "almost total absence of archaeological evidence" backing up the Bible's grand descriptions of the Jerusalem of David and Solomon. ":

    Continued below:

    March 2, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • Reality

      Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

      The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.

      earlychristianwritings.com/

      For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

      March 2, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
    • Realist

      Thanks for your efforts at digging up an eleven year old article and doing a cut and paste. Are you able to articulate any credible and historically accurate thoughts on your own?

      March 3, 2013 at 9:21 am |
  19. Esquire

    “Are You Smarter than a First Grader?”??? Did this writer come over from Yahoo? It's "FIFTH" grader? Apparently not the writer.

    March 2, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
  20. End Religion

    and nary a fact to be found within it....

    March 2, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.