The Bible was a huge success when it aired on the History Channel two years ago, and it was a huge hit again when it came out on DVD. It was even spun off into a big-screen movie, Son of God, that raked in $67.8 million worldwide despite having no marquee names and consisting almost entirely of footage recycled from the TV show.
So it was probably inevitable that producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey would produce a sequel of sorts. But the series they’re working on now — A.D.: The Bible Continues, which premieres this Sunday on NBC — isn’t a sequel in the strictest sense. In some ways, it’s more of a reboot.
The Bible covered the entire book for which it is named, from Genesis to Revelation, including the life of Jesus and the rise of the early Church. The first episode of A.D., on the other hand, goes back to the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as told in the gospels — and it covers these events from very different angles than the earlier series did.
Burnett, speaking over the phone along with Downey from their office in Los Angeles, says it was necessary to “reset” the story because “the whole point of A.D. is the Resurrection and what happened to build the early Church.”
It was also necessary to go back to the gospels, he says, because the apostles and their converts need to be built up as characters with their own season-long arcs. Future episodes of A.D. will flesh out the stories told in the first ten chapters of Acts, from the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to the conversions of Paul and Cornelius, and A.D. will have much more time to explore these events than The Bible did.
“So this was a great episode, Easter Sunday, to work on the Resurrection,” he says, “and building also how Peter felt, the fact that he denied Jesus three times, how Mary Magdalene and John felt that they were there, at the crucifixion with Mary, and Peter wasn’t! He ran away! And Mary tells him, in no uncertain terms, ‘I never had you for a coward.’ So we’ve really layered it in, so you can feel what it would have been like to be one of them.”
Downey says they wanted to “take a deeper dive into this part of the story” in order to create an emotional connection with the audience. “It’s all about the pathway to the heart, and allowing you to really feel what these characters would be feeling, to step back in time with them and walk in their footsteps, remembering that they didn’t know they were characters in the Bible, that they didn’t know the outcome.”
As with The Bible, Burnett and Downey consulted with numerous pastors and scholars to ensure that A.D. would hit all the major points in the first ten chapters of Acts. (They hope to cover the rest of Acts in seasons two and three.) But they emphasize that they are storytellers first and foremost, and that they blended biblical history with secular history and fictitious elements to keep the audience engaged.
“This needs to pass the test of, ‘Would a secular audience enjoy it and be intrigued to learn more?’ And that is the purpose of this, is to make fantastic television,” says Burnett.
“We’re not Bible teachers — we’re not qualified, we’re not pastors — so if you think about something like the scripture in Mark 4, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, it’s a story where the disciples are asking Jesus, ‘Why do you speak in parables? Why don’t you tell the details in these big groups?’ And Jesus says, ‘No, for these big groups, I want to talk in parables, but when we get together in small groups, I’ll break it down for you. I’ll really get into the nitty-gritty for you.’
“Well, we look at ourselves in that way. We’re talking to, globally, hundreds of millions of people. We need to tell the very broad, engaging, ‘parable’ version, and people will then be seeking more. In America, you’d be hard-pressed to go more than a block and not find a church. There are many places for you to seek more information, and we think the job of the church is to provide the micro details.”
Burnett and Downey already sprinkled a bit of secular history into The Bible and Son of God — dramatizing a story from Josephus in which Pilate’s soldiers attack a Jewish crowd for protesting his misuse of the Temple funds, for example — and the new series promises to do even more of that sort of thing.
A.D. will look at how the rise of the Church may have interacted with the ambitions of the high priest Caiaphas, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the puppet king Herod Antipas — and Burnett, perhaps inevitably, compares the political maneuverings on his series to those on shows like House of Cards.
“You know, both Pilate and Caiaphas were fired from their jobs ’round about the same time, around about A.D. 36, so both of them lost their jobs three years after the crucifixion,” says Burnett. “And for the Roman Empire, keeping peace and money flowing in Judea was critical. So [fleshing out their stories] added all those contextual elements.”
“In the end,” he adds, “had Rome not converted to Christianity, the world would be a very different place. It’s very important, I think, that we establish Rome at the beginning. We had such a great team on this. Josephus was the obvious [source], but Cornelius Tacitus and Pliny were both great writers, who all confirmed that Jesus in fact wasn’t only referenced in the Judeo-Christian Bible, but in actual Roman records.
“Most of those Roman writers were anti-Christian, which obviously led in a huge way to the enormous persecution that happened in Rome, which we’re going to end up getting there, I would say, in two or three years’ time on this series. We’ll probably move most of it to Rome, and less of it in Jerusalem, which is natural, as the word spreads.
“And as you know, it was spreading ever westward. Interestingly, it didn’t spread eastward. Anybody who went east was quickly killed. But the word settled and Christianity became a western-spreading faith. And every place it settled became the most powerful place on Earth.”
In addition to the Jewish and Roman politics, there was politics within the Church itself. The later sections of the book of Acts, and the epistles written by Paul, both allude to conflicts between the early Christians over questions like whether Gentile converts ought to be circumcised or follow the Jewish food laws.
One figure who looms large over the latter portion of Acts — which takes place after the events of the first season of A.D. — is James the Just, the so-called brother of Jesus. And instead of waiting until future seasons to introduce this character, the series will introduce him near the end of this season.
“James the Just appears in episode ten, I think,” says Burnett. “James the Just comes on the scene in episode ten. Because you’ve got to. When the Council of Jerusalem happens [in Acts 15], he’s the one who’s the adjudicator. It’s probably one of the first cases, legally, in recorded history, where a judge did what’s known as split the baby, right?
“Everybody wanted all of their stuff. Certain people wanted Gentiles to have no rules, to just receive the word, and certain of them wanted that you had to be circumcised, you had to follow the food rules, and James the Just very smartly decided that the circumcision was a great barrier to entry for middle-aged men, or anybody over 20 probably, to have to convert, and so decided that wasn’t essential, but he said they do have to keep the food rules.”
As they did with The Bible and Son of God, Burnett and Downey have gone out of their way to promote A.D. to church groups of all sorts, with a special emphasis on the Latin American community (Jesus is played by Argentinian actor Juan Pablo di Pace) and the black community (John, James, Mary Magdalene and others are played by actors of at least partial African descent).
Some black pastors at a screening in Washington, DC last month argued that Jesus himself should have been black, because a vision of him in Revelation 1 describes his hair as “white like wool, as white as snow” and his feet as “like bronze glowing in a furnace” — and Burnett says he may follow that advice in any future productions of his that revisit this material.
“We’re involved with the African-American churches in a huge way, and we understand we didn’t quite do a good enough job on that, but I think we’ve done a really good job of showing the diversity of the region,” he says. “It was the centre place of trade from the east, from Persia and beyond, and Africa clearly, as we see from the Ethiopian eunuch coming through, and then with the lighter-skinned Europeans from Rome.
“So certainly people wouldn’t have been white, in that sense of the word, and we’ve tried the best we could, and I think your question leads to why didn’t we have a darker-skinned Jesus. We have a Hispanic Jesus, and I think we’re looking at that for the future.”
Through their connection with various church groups, Burnett and Downey have also encouraged the creation of study programs that will use the series as an opportunity to dig deeper into the gospels and the book of Acts — and Downey says it’s connections like this that make the series more than just entertainment for the masses.
“The Catholic Church, led by Cardinal Wuerl out of the Archdiocese of Washington, have prepared a lovely sort of weekly teaching, and Outreach has prepared a series of curriculum,” she says, “and we’re just excited as filmmakers that there’s an opportunity, through the series, a bigger opportunity to actually educate and entertain and hopefully reach the youth, a younger generation who may not be having any kind of formal religious education but will have an opportunity here to maybe for the first time learn these stories, and it may have an impact on their lives.”