Pilot Episode – ‘The Shepherd: A Story of the First Christmas’
Synopsis. Simon, a shepherd who is lame in one leg, suffers various forms of ostracism: he isn’t allowed in the synagogue, he can’t sell his sheep because it is blemished, and he is sent away from the campfire at night by his fellow shepherds. But then some angels appear to the shepherds and tell them about the newborn Messiah. The shepherds all go to see the baby, and Simon, in his joy, is apparently cured of his lameness.
Themes. The episode ends with a Pharisee asking if Simon has found “a spotless lamb for sacrifice.” Simon, who has just returned from visiting the newborn Jesus, smiles as if to indicate that, yes, he has. This is problematic, both dramatically and theologically.
Theologically, because the film seems to be imposing a Western Christian tradition onto the ancient Jewish setting – one that insists the primary way to think about Jesus’ death is to imagine it as a sort of legal transaction sealed by a kind of blood sacrifice.
And dramatically, because the episode has emphasized all along that the Jews of that era were praying for deliverance from the Roman occupation. Just a few scenes earlier, Simon asked this very same Pharisee if the Messiah would save them from the Romans, and the Pharisee replied that, yes, the Messiah will be a great military leader.
So the Jews of this period – decades before Jesus’ ministry – would not have conceived of the Messiah as any sort of sacrifice. They would not have thought of the Messiah as someone who had to die. And there is nothing in Simon’s personal story to explain why his conception of the Messiah would have changed since the earlier scenes.
The other major theme in this episode is that the coming of the Messiah was foretold in the Jewish scriptures — and that, of course, is a theme that one finds throughout the New Testament (e.g. Luke 24:25-27, John 1:45, I Corinthians 15:3-4, etc.).
Gospels. There are two accounts of the Nativity in the gospels, in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 2. Many dramatizations of the Nativity, such as The Star and The Nativity Story, try to combine these accounts, for example by having the Magi (mentioned in Matthew) and the shepherds (mentioned in Luke) pay homage to the newborn Jesus on the same night.
The Chosen does not combine the two accounts – at least, not at the dramatic level. Instead, the pilot episode states right up front that its depiction of the Nativity is based on just one account, that of Luke 2. (Specifically, the episode is based on Luke 2:1-20.)
However, the episode does play heavily on the idea that the birth of Jesus was predicted by the scriptures — and in this, the episode is following Matthew, rather than Luke.
For example, as the shepherds run to the stable, this episode features a voice-over of someone quoting Isaiah 7:14, which says that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son”. This passage is quoted more or less verbatim in Matthew 1:23, but not in Luke.
Similarly, this episode also features a scene in which someone quotes part of a prophecy from Micah 5. This resembles how Matthew 2:6 quotes an overlapping but slightly different part of Micah 5. (See below for more details about that.)
This episode also brings in an element from one of the other gospels:
Namely, when Simon meets Joseph and Mary and learns that they are from Nazareth, he starts to say that people say nothing good can come from Nazareth (which might not be the best thing to say about a stranger’s hometown when you’ve just met them!), and Joseph interrupts him, saying, “I know what they say about Nazareth.”
This exchange is based on John 1:46, in which Nathanael, one of Jesus’ future disciples, is told that Jesus, the messiah, comes from Nazareth, and Nathanael says, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” The gospels do not specify whether Nathanael was repeating a popular saying or simply expressing his own opinion of the place.
Old Testament. A title card says the prophets of Israel have been “silent for 400 years.” Historians and theologians would quibble with that on a number of levels.
For starters, there was no settled canon among the Jews of this period. The Sadducees, for example, did not accept any scriptures aside from the five books of Moses, while the Jews who created the Septuagint — the Greek translation of the Old Testament that is used throughout the New Testament — accepted many scriptures that were eventually left out of the Jewish canon (and, thus, were left out of most Protestant Christian Bibles).
So the list of books that Jews consider canonical or prophetic was very much in flux at the time. Some Jews might have thought that the prophets had been silent for 400 years. Others might have thought that the prophets were still speaking, even if their words were not being written down. (Indeed, Jesus and others will eventually say that John the Baptist was one of these prophets; cf. Mark 11:32, Matthew 11:9, Luke 7:26, etc.)
Also, many scholars would say that the Jewish canon does include texts that were written less than 400 years before the birth of Christ. For example, while the historical Daniel lived over five centuries before the life of Christ, the book that is named after him is widely dated to the 2nd century BC because parts of it are written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, and because the visions in chapters 7-12 seem to be referring to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek king who desecrated the Jewish temple in 167 BC.
In any case, this episode is filled with quotations from the Jewish scriptures, some of which are modified in interesting ways.
For example, here is the original version of Micah 5:2-6 (NIV):
2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” 3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. 4 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. 5 And he will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land and march through our fortresses. We will raise against them seven shepherds, even eight commanders, 6 who will rule the land of Assyria with the sword, the land of Nimrod with drawn sword. He will deliver us from the Assyrians when they invade our land and march across our borders.
Here is how Matthew 2:6 abbreviates that passage (using verses 2 and 4):
But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.
And here is how the episode abbreviates that passage (using verses 2, 3 and 5), when it is read in a synagogue:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth from me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days. Therefore, he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has given birth, and he shall be their peace.
Note how the episode quotes the part about the ruler being Israel’s “peace” but leaves out the reference to Israel’s wars with Assyria, which took place about seven or eight centuries before the life of Jesus. Presumably the Jews of Jesus’ day would have seen the Assyrians as a type of foreign oppressor that had re-emerged in the form of the Roman empire — so they would have read the full passage and interpreted it as a prophecy pointing to their ultimate liberation from the Romans. But this episode, like Matthew’s gospel, removes those details because, theologically, it is on an interpretive trajectory away from a military-political understanding of Jesus’ messiahship. It wants us to see Jesus as a spiritual messiah who brings his followers a different kind of “peace”.
Note also how the episode quotes the part about a woman giving birth but omits the part immediately after that, which talks about the son’s “brothers” returning “to join the Israelites.” This last bit presumably refers to how the northern ten tribes of Israel were sent into exile by the Assyrians, and it expresses a hope that the entire Israelite nation will one day be reunited. But if the woman’s son is meant to be Jesus, who would the “brothers” be? And if the trajectory of the early Church is that it began with Jews and then welcomed Gentiles and other outsiders, how would that square with the imagery of Israelites returning from exile and reclaiming their status as insiders? This could muddy the episode’s message somewhat, so that part of the prophecy is left out, too.
The readings in the synagogue are also taken from Isaiah, and they hop around a bit. First there is a quote from Isaiah 35:4, then from Isaiah 9:2-5, and then, in another scene, we’re back to Isaiah 35:3-6. Isaiah 9:1-2 is quoted in Matthew 4:15-16, as a prophecy that was fulfilled when Jesus began his mission in Galilee, but as far as I can tell, Isaiah 35 is not quoted in the New Testament anywhere. Isaiah 35 does, however, say that “feeble knees” will be made firm, and “the lame man” will “leap like a deer”, and these images of healing are dramatized within the episode when Simon throws away his crutch.
Finally, there are the voice-over scripture quotations as the episode reaches its climax.
As noted above, when the shepherds are running to see the new baby, we hear a voice-over quoting Isaiah 7:14, which says that a young woman — the underlying Hebrew word is commonly translated “virgin” — will conceive and bear a son.
In its original context, this prophecy was prompted by an impending invasion of Judah by an alliance of enemy states, roughly 700 years before the birth of Christ. Isaiah, to reassure the king that Judah would survive, said these enemies wouldn’t be around for very long; instead, he said they would be devastated by yet another invader in the time it takes for a newborn baby to grow old enough to tell right from wrong — and it seems Isaiah may have been referring to a child he had by his own wife (see Isaiah 8:3).
As N.T. Wright has noted, no Jewish interpreter thought that this passage had anything to do with virginal conception before the gospels were written. But, centuries after Isaiah’s day, Matthew applied this prophecy to the virgin birth of Jesus — and Luke did not.
The other passage we hear in voice-over is Isaiah 9:6-7 (“For to us, a child is born…”). To my knowledge, this passage is not quoted anywhere in the New Testament.
Simon also mentions at one point that he heard a priest read a passage from Ezekiel, but we are never told which passage this would have been.
Historical quibbles. A title card says “priests repeatedly said the old prophecies aloud in synagogues,” and Simon says he heard a “priest” read from Ezekiel a few days earlier. Meanwhile, a Pharisee inspects the sheep that are brought to him to see if they are fit to be sacrificed. I could be wrong, but this seems to get things backwards.
For starters, the priests were in charge of the animal-sacrifice system in Jerusalem, while the synagogues were run by the laity in local communities around the world, wherever there was a significant Jewish population. The priests also tended to be Sadducees, while the synagogues, as centres of lay activity, tended to be dominated by Pharisees — and it was the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, who considered the prophets canonical.
So, yes, the prophets would have been read aloud in the synagogues, but by local rabbis and probably not by priests. And, while local Pharisees would no doubt have ensured that their sacrificial offerings were up to snuff before they took their animals to the temple, the ultimate gatekeepers in that regard would have been the Sadducees.
The Pharisees, incidentally, are widely regarded as the spiritual ancestors of modern Judaism. After the Romans destroyed the Temple in AD 70, the Sadducee movement died out — the Sadducees were tied to the establishment, and when the establishment went away, so did they — but the Pharisees remained in synagogues around the world, and the teachings of their rabbis were collected and are studied by Jews to this day.
It is, thus, perhaps unfortunate that at one point in this episode, a shepherd jokes about how “cheap” the Pharisees are. In context, the line seems innocent enough, but, given the clear historic ties between the Pharisees and modern Judaism, the line does play into modern stereotypes about Jewish attitudes towards money, however unintentionally.
One other possible quibble: Simon says he studies the Torah every day, but would he have known how to read? Shepherds were not exactly from the better-educated classes.
Miracles. The episode shows Simon dropping his crutch and running for joy, in a literal fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah 35. The New Testament does not say that any healings took place when Jesus was born, but the depiction of miracles coinciding with Jesus’ birth sort of parallels that curious passage in Matthew’s gospel which says that a number of dead people came back to life when Jesus died (Matthew 27:51-53).
Language issues. It’s always interesting to see how English-language movies deal with linguistic matters when they take place in a non-English-speaking time or place.
Note, for example, the sign that says “Bethlehem” in Roman letters. It’s not impossible that such a sign would have existed back then — Romans need to find their way too, after all — but I doubt it would have had lowercase letters, and in any case you can’t help wondering if maybe the sign should have been in Hebrew or Aramaic, for the locals.
Other details. Mary experiences labour pains as she gives birth to Jesus. This has been fairly common in films going back to Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, but it differs from ancient and medieval traditions which say that Mary, as the new Eve, did not experience the pain in childbirth that Eve was cursed with as per Genesis 3:16.
You can watch the entire episode here: