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In the beginning, ‘The Bible’ off to commanding ratings lead

Abraham (Gary Oliver) prepares Isaac (Hugo Rossi) for sacrifice Mt. Moriah 'The Bible' History. Phoby Joe Alblas

Abraham (Gary Oliver) prepares Isaac (Hugo Rossi) for the sacrifice at Mt. Moriah in "The Bible" on History. Photo by Joe Alblas

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Updated: April 11, 2013 6:33AM

‘The Bible” is proof that some stories never get old.

History network’s five-part miniseries made a divine debut last Sunday, booking 13.1 million viewers for its two-hour premiere.

The sprawling series — a Greatest Hits of sorts, spanning from Genesis through Revelation — attracted more eyeballs that night than any other show on television. It ranks as cable’s most-watched entertainment program this year. Network executives reported unprecedented traffic on History’s website last Sunday, when #TheBible was a top trend on Twitter.

“It’s not surprising to us; it’s more surprising that people don’t get that so many people in America care about the Bible,” said producer Mark Burnett, best known for other shows — “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice” — that sound like they could be books in the Scriptures.

The son of a Scottish Catholic father and Presbyterian mother, Burnett ventured out of his reality TV realm to co-create and produce “The Bible” with wife Roma Downey.

“People are hungry for this,” said Downey, who traveled with Burnett to Chicago a few months ago on a multi-city tour, screening portions of “The Bible” with the help of local religious leaders, such as Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington and the Rev. Charles Jenkins, pastor at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago.

Jenkins co-hosted a screening of various clips of the miniseries at the Gene Siskel Film Center. He said “The Bible” did an “amazing” job of “bringing the words from the pages of the best-selling book of all times to the screen.”

He added. “It has been said that this is the most biblically illiterate generation in history. For some people who might not read the Bible but will watch a television series, it will be impactful in unforeseen ways.”

Jenkins has encouraged congregation members to tune in at 7 p.m. Sundays in March for “The Bible.” He’s also tweeted about the program.

“We’ve had such an outreach from pastors and faith leaders from all denominations, all across the country,” Downey said.

Filmed in Morocco with a budget of $22 million, the 10-hour miniseries serves as “an introduction to the Bible with big, grand stories,” Burnett said.

These stories — Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus walking on water — get big, grand treatment with computer-generated special effects (some work better than others) and a musical score by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer (“The Lion King,” “Gladiator”).

Portuguese TV star Diogo Morgado plays Christ, while U.K. actors make up the bulk of the cast, including David Rintoul (“The Iron Lady”) as Noah and Nonso Anozie (“Game of Thrones”) as Samson. After nine seasons on CBS’ “Touched by an Angel,” Downey does a turn as Mother Mary.

“We tell the stories from a human point of view,” Downey said. “The story is faithful, but it’s also presented in a way that’s exciting and dynamic.”

The production can be a bit cheesy and overwrought, too — sins I’m willing to forgive in exchange for what boils down to an easy-to-follow, interesting overview of an epic tale.

Narrated by Keith David (“Coraline,” “Crash”), “The Bible” comes across as part educational video, part action film. It often ventures into Indiana Jones-like territory, with ninja-like angels wielding swords in Sodom, and Samson snapping a guy’s neck like he’s twisting off a screw cap.

“We wanted it gritty, real,” Burnett said. “There’s a difference between ancient battles and some of the awful things on television that are just gratuitous, disgusting violence.”

Downey called “The Bible” a love story. “That will become really clear in the finale episode on Easter Sunday, which includes scenes from the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension, Pentecost. Ultimately, the series is inspiring and hopeful.”

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