Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Bible Series: The Consultants' Role

I have been blogging off and on for a few weeks on the forthcoming History Channel series, The Bible, which begins airing in the USA tonight, 8/7C.  There are ten episodes and two are broadcast each week, culminating with the final two on Easter Day, 31 March.  There are now tons of video clips available, but here's one of my favourites, a nice montage of scenes set to The Script's "Hall of Fame":

One of the reason for scholarly types to be encouraged is that the executive producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, did hire a large group of academic consultants.  The group is so large that I must admit that I don't know everyone who was involved, but I can confirm that I was involved, and so were  Helen Bond, Craig Evans, Joshua Garroway, Paula Gooder and Candida Moss.

Garroway comments on his experiences as a consultant in an article on CNN's Belief Blog:
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.
Craig Evans comments in an article in the Herald:
Craig Evans, professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, was one of about 40 consultants and faith leaders recruited from around the world to ensure the show’s historical and scriptural accuracy.
“We have loved our relationship with Craig,” said Downey, adding that the well-known scholar and his wife became close friends as Evans guided the New Testament parts of the project with his “expertise and love of Scripture. … He’s been a great blessing.”
Evans’s task involved reading and re-reading the script, initially to correct mistakes and then to examine dialogue and the authentic representation of the culture and history of the Middle East in New Testament times.
“This was a challenge,” said Evans, who has previously consulted for National Geographic documentaries, among other projects. “How do you work it all into a movie?”
And I talked to the Huffington Post about the project the other day:
Mark Goodacre, a New Testament scholar at Duke University who was one of several academics who consulted on Downey and Burnett's script, said there are bound to be questions of interpretation, accuracy and “what's included and not included” in any Bible adaptation.
“We tried to make sure things held together historically, but in any adaptation that's a compelling drama you have to draw lines and make connections through dialogue, scenes and narrative,” said Goodacre, who noted the series relies on a mix of Biblical translations with dialogue that appeals to modern viewers.
“You don't want people talking King James English, but there are recognizable lines and, of course, iconic places," he said. "But [Downey and Burnett] are also not afraid to provide some linking pieces and do things that are not direct. It's very naturally done.”
Broadly speaking, the role of the consultants began back in 2011 when planning on the series was beginning.  I first met the producers in Greenwich, London, in July that year.  Our main role was to look at scripts as they were produced and to offer comments, but also to answer emails and phone-calls, and to advise on details in the scripts from the scholar's perspective.

Last year, in the autumn, we got to view early cuts of the episodes and once again to offer comments, and to draw attention to anything we thought required special attention.  It was a fascinating experience because it gave you an insight into the world of TV production to see the partially finished episodes, and to watch things coming together.  I had the same experience watching these early edits that I had when watching the BBC / HBO Passion in 2008 -- it's a profoundly moving experience to see scripts with which one has become very familiar now becoming reality.  And although these were early edits, and one watched them out of sequence, I have to say that I was not disappointed.  It's a superb series.

The consultant's role is always, inevitably, a very minor role in something like this.  The producers themselves are the ones calling the shots, and they don't need to talk to people like us at all.  And it must be frustrating for them to be talking to people like us who really don't know anything about film-making.  But it's greatly to their credit that they were willing to spend so much time asking the views of academics and taking their views seriously, and I was impressed throughout the experience with the time they took to listen to all the little suggestions we had.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if we'll get it legally back here in the motherland.

I wondered about the comment of making the NT material avoid anti-Semitic connotations. While sensible for material that will be put out in a society with substantial anti-Semitic sentiment, is this not at odds with the goal of being faithful to the narrative? Are not some parts of the NT, intrinsically anti-Semitic?

Anonymous said...

Whose idea was it to have a snake crawl across a prone Christ? That never happened and the devil only entered the snake once in the biblical record.

Keen Reader said...

I don't understand the attraction of this series for those of us, professional and amateur, who are interested in biblical studies.

Unknown said...

I do agree @theologyarchaeology. I had never heard in biblical record about it too.