Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

The overarching power of the story, even through the toughest times in the Old Testament, is that God doesn’t give up.

But the point is, from a pure storytelling point of view, think what’s happened to the Jewish people. Many, many things and many, many battles; they’ve been enslaved by Egypt, escaped because of Moses, the Red Sea parts. That’s showing the awesome power of God.

So we used a number of translations of the Bible and just added around it. It isn’t modern because that just wouldn’t work, but on the other hand people, viewers are happy to have a more ancient dialogue. I mean if you look at things like The Hobbit, Lord of Rings, Game of Thrones, many people are comfortable with ancient stories.

Abraham and Isaac

You’ve got the birth of Isaac and then the sacrifice of Isaac. And if you look at the way we did that, we let the camera linger on Sara longer so you could feel the mother’s pain. And so many people have seen this, especially church leaders and theologians, and it’s a beautiful connective way of doing it and people are really affected by it.

Abraham and Isaac

Lemuel (Stephan Rahman Hughes) appears and Abraham (Gary Oliver) and Sarah (Josephine Butler) are concerned for Lot (Antonio Magro).

Abraham and Isaac

Lemuel (Stephan Rahman Hughes) appears and Abraham (Gary Oliver) and Sarah (Josephine Butler) are concerned for Lot (Antonio Magro).

Abraham and Isaac

Sarah (Josephine Butler) watches little Isaac grow up.

Joshua and Jericho

With the receiving of the Ten Commandments, [Moses] comes down from the mountain and Joshua says, "It’s for the future." And Moses says, "No, you’re our people’s future, Joshua. You have to take the land that God promised," which allows you, in a segue to forty years later, to put Joshua praying outside Jericho before the Ark of the Covenant. I’ve got to tell you, I know I’ve made enough television to know we did a great job. This moves very fast but it’s very connective.

Joshua and Jericho

With the receiving of the Ten Commandments, [Moses] comes down from the mountain and Joshua says, "It’s for the future." And Moses says, "No, you’re our people’s future, Joshua. You have to take the land that God promised," which allows you, in a segue to forty years later, to put Joshua praying outside Jericho before the Ark of the Covenant. I’ve got to tell you, I know I’ve made enough television to know we did a great job. This moves very fast but it’s very connective.

The Kings

Zedekiah, the 21st king of Judah, manages to lose Jerusalem by not paying attention and conspiring with Egypt against Babylon, who is only serving because Babylon let him at Jerusalem. He thinks Nebuchadnezzar won’t come and get him [from] 500 miles away. He was very wrong. He obviously never cared. He brought an enormous army, an 18-month siege of Jerusalem and took Jerusalem.

The Kings

Zedekiah, the 21st king of Judah, manages to lose Jerusalem by not paying attention and conspiring with Egypt against Babylon, who is only serving because Babylon let him at Jerusalem. He thinks Nebuchadnezzar won’t come and get him [from] 500 miles away. He was very wrong. He obviously never cared. He brought an enormous army, an 18-month siege of Jerusalem and took Jerusalem.

The Kings

Zedekiah, the 21st king of Judah, manages to lose Jerusalem by not paying attention and conspiring with Egypt against Babylon, who is only serving because Babylon let him at Jerusalem. He thinks Nebuchadnezzar won’t come and get him [from] 500 miles away. He was very wrong. He obviously never cared. He brought an enormous army, an 18-month siege of Jerusalem and took Jerusalem.

The Kings

Zedekiah, the 21st king of Judah, manages to lose Jerusalem by not paying attention and conspiring with Egypt against Babylon, who is only serving because Babylon let him at Jerusalem. He thinks Nebuchadnezzar won’t come and get him [from] 500 miles away. He was very wrong. He obviously never cared. He brought an enormous army, an 18-month siege of Jerusalem and took Jerusalem.

Moses and the Exodus

Clearly the parting of the Red Sea has to be epic. I mean it’s like The Ten Commandments -- everybody talks about that, right? On the other hand we showed our teenagers The Ten Commandments and they were bored with the parting of the Red Sea because they’re watching The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And they’re like, "Are you kidding us?" And that doesn’t hold up now, in 2013, what was made in 1960 or whenever it was made. So we knew that was a big focus. As our teenagers said, "Whatever you do, don’t make the special effects lame. Make them work for teenagers." And we did. We hired the right people and we got that done.

Moses and the Exodus

One of the through lines for us was that Pharaoh’s child dies. But the emotional connection there is that Moses didn’t want that. If Pharaoh would have let [the Israelites] go in the first place, the kid wouldn’t have died. So we were very cautious to make sure it never felt like Moses -- while Moses was happy that [his] people were released, he wasn’t happy that Pharaoh’s son died. He didn’t want that. Moses was a good guy. We only have so much limited time and so within that limited time you know it was a pretty easy, connective story to make.

Moses and the Exodus

One of the through lines for us was that Pharaoh’s child dies. But the emotional connection there is that Moses didn’t want that. If Pharaoh would have let [the Israelites] go in the first place, the kid wouldn’t have died. So we were very cautious to make sure it never felt like Moses -- while Moses was happy that [his] people were released, he wasn’t happy that Pharaoh’s son died. He didn’t want that. Moses was a good guy. We only have so much limited time and so within that limited time you know it was a pretty easy, connective story to make.

Moses and the Exodus

Saul (Francis Magee) stares into his empty cup and talks to the Lord.

Birth and Rise of Jesus

And the Romans come and it’s through the Romans’ brutality, the worst beast so far, that Christ is born, and that gives you the bridge into the New Testament. The temptation after 40 days from Satan with Christ in the desert goes into the recruitment of Peter and the miracle of fishing Galilee, and suddenly there’s an abundance of fish. And the bridge at the end of that is when Jesus finds it and changes the world.

Birth and Rise of Jesus

A woman is about to be stoned and Jesus (Diogio Morcaldo) confronts Simon (Paul Marc Davis) and the Pharisees.

Birth and Rise of Jesus

Jesus and his disciples

Birth and Rise of Jesus

Jesus and his disciples

Birth and Rise of Jesus

The last of the crowd mills around with the disciples watching.

Birth and Rise of Jesus

The last of the crowd mills around with the disciples watching.

Birth and Rise of Jesus

The last of the crowd mills around with the disciples watching.

Birth and Rise of Jesus

The last of the crowd mills around with the disciples watching.

Birth and Rise of Jesus

The last of the crowd mills around with the disciples watching.

Co.Create

"The voice you hear inside you is God": Mark Burnett Takes On The Bible

How do you boil the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments down to 10 hours of television? Mark Burnett, who coproduced the new miniseries The Bible,, talks about how he harnessed the storytelling skills he uses on shows like Survivor to do just that.

If you haven’t leafed through the Bible recently, you’ll probably be surprised at how much sheer material there is in it. In the King James version, there are a total of 66 books in the Old and New Testaments, brimming with wars, betrayal, miracles, sacrifices, plagues, and even more betrayal.

There aren’t many television producers who would have the confidence to take this volume of work, familiar to billions around the world, and boil it down to 10 hours of scripted TV. Mark Burnett, though, hasn’t faced a production challenge he hasn’t been able to meet, and he says it’s his faith that has helped him achieve the clarity he’s needed to produce ambitious reality shows like Survivor, The Voice, and The Apprentice.

"I think if you’re a person of faith, which I am, you understand that the voice you hear inside you and instinct you get is God," he says. "Many people just don’t act upon that. That’s all. And why don’t they act upon being called? Well, they feel it’s inconvenient or they tell themselves they didn’t really feel that or hear that or it seems too difficult." But after the notion of producing a miniseries about the Bible kept popping up in Burnett’s head, "in this case it felt clear."

The result is the History Channel miniseries The Bible, which begins on March 3. The 10-part series covers both testaments, dedicating half its time to the Old Testament, in which the Israelites constantly fight for their freedom and right to build a state for themselves, and the New Testament, win which the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is documented.

Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey

Burnett and especially his wife, Roma Downey--who also plays Jesus’s mother Mary--were concerned that documentaries about the Bible were "maligning" the work. "We should do the love story of the bible, the true love story of the bible, Genesis through Revelation, as a drama," is what he recalls her saying. At a certain point, he knew he could take this on.

"I’m a very straight, clear person; it’s not like there’s a blinding light that goes off and you hear a loud voice, like sometimes it says in the Bible. I haven’t heard that. I just felt and knew it was the right thing to do," he says. "And once I decided, something said to me, Are you really sure you want to do this? This is kind of a bit "out there," and people are going to say. Well, why would the guy who makes The Voice or Shark Tank or Survivor do this? What gives you the qualifications to do this? You know, actually you only need one qualification. That qualification is for me, Do you believe in it? Yes. Do you have experience in making complicated television in remote, faraway places? Yes. Do you have a heart for the story? Are you good at stories in general?"

The series begins, well, in the beginning, but to winnow down the wealth of material, Burnett and Downey, who coproduces the series, needed two years and a team of writers and producers to figure out how to creatively tackle such sweeping stories.

"I mean you’ve got to realize it took a year of thinking about how to approach the 10 hours," says Burnett. "Obviously we wanted more hours, but we ended up getting 10. So, [we had] a year of how to approach that, and then you have to pitch it and get it sold so it’s going to be on television." There was a thought of covering all the stories in short segments, but they liked the idea of doing "fewer stories, which are emotionally connected as an arc. Then the question was, Okay, which ones and how do they connect and what’s the entry point? We decided to do five hours [of] Old Testament and five hours [of] New Testament. We decided that the bridge, the pivot point between old and new would be Daniel surviving the lion’s den," which he feels anyone familiar with the Bible knows is an obvious choice.

He and his writing team have had to make some creative decisions. For instance, in order to cover the earliest parts of the creation story, he has Noah, in a tradition of oral storytelling that kept the Bible stories alive for centuries before the King James bible ever existed, relay the story to his family as they’re rollicking in the ark he built to survive the epic flood God sent to cleanse the earth of sin. "You know it’s much more complicated than a quick conservation with you. It’s not stories. It’s one story. You know clearly your end point is [John of] Patmos, and you know the beginning point is creation. Except we did [the creation story] on Noah’s ark because we knew we needed to grab people for a few minutes, and so an incredible ark in an incredible storm is the telling of creation, which I think is really, really beautifully done."

Mark Burnett in the Babylon Throne Room, on set at the Ouarzazate Museum

To Burnett, the most important factor in picking the stories and making them dramatic was how they’d resonate with the audience. "We have to make an emotional connection to make something last 50 years, because I’ve met more people in the last year going city to city, church to church who have told me 'We’re glad you made it because my life changed by seeing Jesus of Nazareth or The Ten Commandments' or whatever it was. Art has been a big connector and attractor to faith for centuries."

It’s the storytelling that matters, according to Burnett, and he feels his ability to tell a story is matched by few in the entertainment industry. "It’s an experience, but I’ve made 2,000 hours on American prime-time TV. Character and story are the key to storytelling. Well, I don’t know where you’re ever going to find better character and better story than in the Bible. There’s only one perfect character; that’s Jesus. Everybody else is flawed, and through the story line we chose to take is [that] despite all those flaws, God didn’t give up."

In the slide show above, Burnett walks us through some of his Bible highlights.

[Images Courtesy of Joe Alblas/Casey Crafford/Lightworkers Media/Hearst Productions Inc.]

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6 Comments

  • Bronson Page

    The idea that our intuition, or the "voice we hear inside" is god isn't a new one; it's whether the speaker of that voice is inside or outside of us in the first place that matters.  That distinction marks the difference between an old world, patriarchal religion and something more personal, universal, and human.

  • JaiGuru

    The exodus has been objectively proven to be a mythology, by JEWISH scientists from ISRAEL.

    If the story of the old testament is that god doesn't give up, that's nice and all. But it didn't happen. It's just a fairy tale.

  • AugustineThomas

    (It's important when they're right but it takes a lot of being wrong to get there and, believe it or not, even the priests of leftism who you worship will sometimes publish peer reviewed falsehoods. So, in other words, a lot of your godless leftist religion is based on demonstrable myths, not just suggested ones.)

  • AugustineThomas

    DO you have any proof of this or, like any good leftist, do you just say it really authoritatively and hope that magically makes it true?

    Furthermore I'll remind you that scientists have been wrong more often than they've been right.