Professor Richardson, who taught New Testament at the University of Toronto for many years, had invited me to join eight other Old and New Testament scholars on the Advisory Board of Visual Bible International, a company that makes Bible spectaculars. VBI had already made a few word-for-word films of New Testament books, but recently the company had brought in a new team headed by Garth Drabinsky, producer of the Broadway shows "Ragtime," "Show Boat," and "Kiss of the Spider Woman."
In May 2002, Garth, the creative team and the advisory board met in Toronto to make lists of books of the Bible that could readily be adapted to the screen. The Gospels got first priority, since they are so beloved and have narrative unity. Exodus, too, seemed a natural, but we realized the end of the book, with its laws and provisions for the tabernacle would be hard to film, and we postponed it for later. Filming Paul's Corinthian correspondence intrigued us, but the screenplay would be very tricky. In the end, we put two less often depicted Gospels-Mark and John-at the top of our list, followed by 1 and 2 Samuel. We still revisit the question frequently in our meetings.
The Gospel of John was chosen to be made first. A year and a fraction after that first meeting, a large number of very creative people had produced a professional retelling of the Fourth Gospel. Garth's experience and his drive for perfection was behind not only the amazing speed but the high production values. He had hired well-known professionals who in turn lured a superb cast. The set designers had found excellent locations in Spain (computer graphics fill in the shots of ancient Jerusalem) and built sets on giant soundstages back in Toronto.
In the planning period, we had assumed we'd be producing mostly for churches and synagogues, with an occasional commercial release eventually. Now we knew we had our first commercial release.
The Good News Bible translates "Ioudaioi" in Greek often as "Jewish leaders" or "Jewish authorities," and suggests the ambiguity of the word "Jew" in the first century, which could refer to a religion, an ethnic group, or even merely an inhabitant of a geographical locality.
We also asked that the casting emphasize people of appropriate coloring and features for the Eastern Mediterranean basin at the time. This, we thought, would include people with very dark complexion as well as medium complexions. This gave the film a feeling of a family feud, rather than a battle between religions. We felt some of the Romans might be depicted with fairer features or darker features because Rome encouraged military service throughout the Empire.
We also tried to give the creative staff an idea of the Johannine perspective. John makes Jesus divine from the very beginning of his gospel. (Notice how Jesus speaks in long, coherent discourses.) The Fourth Gospel considers Jesus' crucifixion and death the beginning of his victory and his exaltation, not a moment of anguish and despair. (Music played an important part on that point.) The creative team found many things of interest on their own. Indeed, the process of bringing the Gospel to the screen gave all of us new insights into what the Gospel really means.
Since we could not deviate from the text, we ended up with a highly reliable and valid depiction of the Gospel, and a very different experience of it. Even people who know the Gospel well rarely read the whole story at once. On film, the story emerges much more strongly than in print or previous renditions. What comes through is the importance of each Gospel's individual witness. The New Testament gives us four Gospels for an important reason; each is part of the Christian mystery of Jesus' identity. When we finish the Gospel of Mark, many in the filmgoing public will see for the first time the radically different portraits of Jesus the evangelists create.