Interview: Dr Mark Goodacre, The Passion's historical consultant

|PIC1|CT: Was the BBC's Passion something you immediately wanted to get involved in?

MG: I've always been interested with Jesus films anyway, so whatever had happened I would have been very interested in it. But it was a massive privilege to be asked to be involved even in a small way.

When you are someone like me, obsessed with the New Testament, and you have spent years pouring over the text - I am a bit of New Testament nerd - that means that sometimes you might be able to spot something that they haven't been able to spot. So I was able to go through the script and say 'have you thought about that?' or 'have you noticed this?'.

But having seen the completed production, I was just so relieved by how good it was, because obviously there is that anxiety at the early stage, before any scripts have even been written. You do think 'oh gosh, I am going to be attaching my name to something that could potentially be awful!'

But when I saw the tapes for the early edits I almost burst into tears because I was thrilled by how good it had come out.

CT: What would you say to people who are sceptical of a BBC rendition of the Passion and fear it is not going to be biblically accurate?

Frank (Deasy, writer) and others involved have worked hard to make sure it is faithful to the New Testament story but even though it is a famous and very compelling story, they haven't let that lead them into a wooden, literalistic re-telling.

They have used their imagination, and any dramatic re-telling of the Passion story was going to have to be imaginative to some extent anyway. But I personally don't think it ever crosses the boundary into which there is anything unacceptable.

Certain re-tellings in the past have gone so much into the realm of speculation that they have just offended Christians. I would be surprised if anyone is offended by this because if anyone does any thinking about the characters involved in the Passion they will understand that you've got to go a little bit further than just repeat a few select lines in the Gospel.

I mean, how many lines does Pontius Pilate have in the Gospels? Ten, maybe 11 lines? And they flesh out Pilate's wife and that is essentially made up. But the question is, is it made up in a way that coheres with what is in the Gospel? The answer is yes.

CT: Caiaphas is portrayed quite sympathetically in the Passion.

MG: Yes, Nigel (Stafford-Clark, producer) used the expression 'bad priests in big hats' and that is what a lot of older portrayals have been like. But if you are going to give a compelling story you've got to understand what his motivation is and that means understanding the politics.
That doesn't mean that the narrative in any sense condones what Caiaphas is doing. On the contrary, by the end of it you are thinking what a terrible thing it is that happens. But at the same time you feel the tragedy of it.

So, I think if people baulk at what has gone on with Caiaphas that would be a mistake.

CT: You said you really love films on Jesus. Was there anything that came to your mind when you were appointed as the advisor for The Passion that made you think 'ok, I really don't want them to do it like this'?

MG: Oh yeah, there were several things. One of them was the high priests. But the other one was Mary Magdalene. I actually went back and checked my notes on this the other day but I was really keen that they didn't depict Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Christians made her a prostitute for hundreds of years and it is a terrible slur on her character! There is no evidence whatsoever that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, zero evidence in the New Testament.

Every single Jesus film, drama and play has made her into a prostitute, admittedly a reformed one, but still a prostitute. And this one doesn't. I think that is a huge difference.

CT: There will be Christians as well as non-Christians watching the Passion. What do you want them to take away from the production?

MG: I was hoping that people who have never even heard the story before - and there are many people like that in the UK - I was hoping that it could introduce the story to them in such a compelling way that it might make them think about it, go to the New Testament, go to some of the other historical sources and have a look at it, and I think it achieves that. Time will tell. But I think there is enough there to draw in every viewer, both the person who knows the story very well and who will see it in a new way, but also the person who has never seen it before.