Season 1, Episode 7 — ‘Invitations’
Mark 2; Matthew 9; Luke 5; John 3
Synopsis. In the 13th century BC, Moses is making a bronze serpent, so that all of the Israelites who have been attacked by poisonous snakes can look at it and be healed. In the 1st century AD, Jesus tells his followers that they will start moving from town to town, now that the miracles he did yesterday are attracting lots of attention. Mary Magdalene tells Jesus Nicodemus wants to meet with him. Matthew, who has been estranged from his family since he took up tax collecting, has an awkward meeting with his mother. Simon warns Jesus that the meeting with Nicodemus could be a trap, so Jesus takes a few precautions but goes ahead with the meeting anyway. Jesus explains his mission to Nicodemus — comparing himself to the bronze serpent in Moses’ day, and telling him that people must be born again — and he asks Nicodemus to join his movement. Nicodemus is clearly interested but says he cannot. The next day, Jesus is walking past Matthew’s tax booth. He calls Matthew, and Matthew follows him at once.
Gospels. The bulk of the episode is based on Nicodemus’s secret late-night meeting with Jesus (John 3:1-21), but it also ends with Jesus calling Matthew to be one of his disciples, and Matthew following him immediately (Mark 2:14, Matthew 9:9, Luke 5:27-28).
The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus follows John 3:1-18 fairly closely, though some bits are added or revised to make their chat seem more casual or informal.
For example, when Jesus says people must be “born again”, Nicodemus does not merely respond literalistically that people cannot go back to their mother’s wombs. First he asks if Jesus is speaking metaphorically about Gentiles becoming Jewish, and then he says, with intentional humour, that he cannot be born again because his mother passed away.
Other revisions flesh out some of the show’s theological themes. For example, Jesus says he came to save people not from the Romans, but from sin and spiritual death.
The filmed conversation skips the bit in John 3:19-21 that draws a contrast between those who like the light and those who like the dark, but there may be a hint of that passage at the beginning of the scene, when Jesus says the human eye is drawn to light.
Notably, Jesus asks Nicodemus to follow him — but Nicodemus turns the offer down, which makes him the first character in this series to say “no” to a call from Jesus.
Also, in John 3:2, Nicodemus begins the conversation by saying “we” know that Jesus is a teacher sent by God, but in the episode he says “I” know this. The Nicodemus of the gospel seems to be identifying with some larger group of people who are curious about Jesus’ mission, but in The Chosen, he is pretty much a loner in that regard.
When Jesus calls Matthew to follow him, he addresses him as “Matthew son of Alphaeus”.
That specific phrase is never used in the gospels, because the gospels use different names for the tax collector who was called by Jesus. Mark calls the tax collector Levi son of Alphaeus. Luke calls him Levi, but never mentions his father. It is only Matthew’s gospel that calls him Matthew — but Matthew, like Luke, never mentions his father either.
Curiously, all three Synoptic gospels agree that someone named Matthew was one of the Twelve (Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:3, Luke 6:15; cf. Acts 1:13). Matthew’s gospel even specifies that this disciple was the tax collector mentioned earlier. But the gospels of Mark and Luke don’t draw any link between Levi the tax collector and Matthew the disciple.
Jesus tells Matthew to host a dinner party for him that night.
The Synoptic gospels all say Matthew (or Levi) hosted a dinner attended by Jesus, but they don’t specify that it happened that night. However, there is another story in the gospels about a tax collector, named Zacchaeus, and in that story, Jesus tells him, “I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:1-10). So this scene has overtones of that story.
Jesus tells Matthew to hold on to his tablet, as he may find a use for it.
This presumably refers to the fact that the disciple Matthew is traditionally believed to be the author of the gospel that bears his name. In future episodes, we may see Matthew using his tablet to jot down the words and actions of Jesus as he witnesses them.
Most scholars, however, do not believe that the gospel named for Matthew was actually written by him, or even that it was an original document. Most scholars believe that Matthew is essentially a rewrite of Mark’s gospel that adds some extra material, at least some of which may have come from other sources that are now lost to us.
Similarly, the episode shows John eavesdropping on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the implication being that the biblical story was based on the notes he took back then.
Most scholars would argue that the extended speeches and dialogues in the gospels were at least partly created, rather than remembered, by the writers of the gospels.
Putting words in a historical figure’s mouth to flesh out the themes of his or her story was an accepted practice in ancient Greek writing at least as far back as Thucydides and his History of the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC. And it is because John’s gospel fleshes out the theology of Jesus’ ministry so thoroughly — often through dialogue attributed to Jesus — that John himself is known in some churches as “St. John the Theologian”.
That being said, there is some evidence that John’s gospel, at least in its current form, was written or edited by the apostle of that name and the community that followed him.
For one thing, the final verses of the gospel seem to indicate that “the beloved disciple” — commonly believed to be John — died before the gospel assumed its current form, and that his death caused a crisis for some Christians who had believed mistakenly that Jesus said the disciple in question would live until the Second Coming (John 21:20-23).
This passage is then followed by a statement from the gospel’s editors, who assert their personal knowledge of the disciple in question: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24).
Jesus says that, after the miracles that happened yesterday, he and the disciples will have to keep moving from town to town — and he says he is happy to not stay in one place.
In the gospels, Jesus left Capernaum and began traveling to other villages before he healed the leper and the paralytic, and after he had already healed other people (Mark 1:38-39, Luke 4:43-44). But Mark’s gospel does say that Jesus “could no longer enter a town openly” after he healed the leper (Mark 1:45; cf. Luke 5:16), which suggests that healing the leper took Jesus’ fame to a newer level that was even harder to manage.
The disciples seem to be camping with Jesus somewhere on the outskirts of Capernaum, even though most of them have homes within that town.
Mark 1:29-35 indicates that Jesus spent at least one night in Simon and Andrew’s house, but this series has not shown Jesus spending the night under anyone’s roof yet.
Jesus tells Mary Magdalene he needs to be alone, to pray and to think.
The gospels talk about how Jesus often went places by himself, often up a mountain, to pray in isolation (Mark 1:35, 6:46-47; Matthew 14:23; Luke 5:16, 6:12).
Simon, who jokingly asked in Episode 4 if Jesus could repeat the miraculous catch of fish, is keeping his mother-in-law’s illness a secret from Jesus, even when Jesus visits their house. Simon tells Eden he doesn’t want their family’s burdens to become Jesus’ burdens.
There is no such reticence on the biblical Simon’s part. Mark 1:30 says Simon told Jesus about his mother-in-law’s illness “immediately” when Jesus visited his house for the first time. Mark also seems to indicate that Jesus healed her very soon after he called the fishermen — and in Luke, Jesus healed her before he called them (Luke 4:38-39)!
Nicodemus tells Quintus he would be creating a martyr and emboldening Jesus’ followers if he went after Jesus, because “some flora spread their seed when trampled”.
This sounds reminiscent of the parable of the sower (Luke 8:1-15; cf. Mark 4:1-20, Matthew 13:1-23), but it actually makes an opposite point. Jesus said the seeds that fall on the path and are trampled in his parable represent the people who hear the word of God but do not believe it, whereas Nicodemus is talking about the spreading of belief in Jesus.
Old Testament. The prologue shows Moses making a bronze serpent, which he says will cure the Israelites who have been bitten by poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:4-9).
The story about the snakes is cited in the New Testament by Jesus (who mentions the bronze serpent during his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:14-15) and Paul (who mentions the poisonous snakes but not the bronze serpent in I Corinthians 10:9).
Joshua objects to the bronze serpent because it is “a pagan symbol”. As it happens, the bronze serpent was destroyed by King Hezekiah several hundred years later because the Judeans had begun to offer incense to it as though it were an idol (II Kings 18:4).
In his conversation with Joshua, Moses alludes to several earlier incidents, including the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 13:17-15:21), the pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-22, etc.), the manna and quail (Exodus 16), and his disobedience at Meribah (Numbers 20:1-13).
Nicodemus kneels before Jesus because he is standing on “holy ground” — or, as he puts it, on a “holy roof”. This has overtones of the stories in the Old Testament about the angels that appeared to Moses (Exodus 3:5-6; cf. Acts 7:32-33) and Joshua (Joshua 5:14-15).
When Nicodemus bids farewell to Jesus, he kisses his hand and says, “Kiss the son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way.” Jesus replies, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” They are quoting verse 12 of Psalm 2, a royal psalm that was used at coronations.
Themes. The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is, of course, the source of the Christian belief in being “born again”, as well as the source of the famous verse which says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”
Like some earlier episodes, this one emphasizes the limits of rational thought.
In the prologue, Joshua says there is nothing rational about people being healed when they look at the bronze serpent, and Moses replies, “It’s an act of faith! Not reason. Faith.”
And when Gaius tells Matthew, “For a fool, your brain has taken you far,” Matthew — who is still puzzling over the miracles he has witnessed — replies, “I thought so too.”
Historical quibbles. Jesus asks Nicodemus how things are going at the synagogue.
This raises an important point: We have not seen Jesus inside a synagogue at any point in the series so far, despite the fact that the gospels say repeatedly that Jesus taught in the synagogues and performed miracles there (e.g. Mark 1:21-28, 38-39; Matthew 4:23; Luke 4:14-37, 43-44; just to cite the passages that take place before this episode does).
So far, going all the way back to the pilot episode, this series has depicted synagogues as the domain of the judgmental Pharisees. Jesus and his followers wouldn’t be welcome there, and they might not want to step inside them in the first place anyway.
Some films, such as Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, have emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus by setting some of his teachings and miracles in the synagogues. The Chosen emphasizes Jesus’ Jewishness too, but it’s a very personal or individualistic version of the Jewish faith that this Jesus embodies, rather than a social or communal faith.
Geography. The prologue says it is set in the Sinai peninsula, but the story of the bronze serpent takes place after the Israelites had already moved north of the Gulf of Aqaba towards the east side of the Dead Sea, in what is now the state of Jordan.
Joshua says they could send a messenger to Ezion-Geber to beg for aid. Ezion-Geber was on the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, in the region where the modern city of Aqaba is.
In the episode, the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus takes place in Capernaum, in Galilee. But in John’s gospel, it seems to take place in Jerusalem, in Judea; note how it is preceded by John 2:23, which takes place in Jerusalem, and how it is followed by John 3:22, which says that Jesus and his followers “went out into the Judean countryside”.
Miracles. This is one of only three episodes without any miracles. The others — Episodes 2 and 3 — were the only episodes that were not based on any stories from the gospels.
Humanization. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The human eye is drawn to light. We can’t help it. It just happens.” This is a remarkable line, when you think about it, as it underscores Jesus’ identification with humanity even to the point of having involuntary reactions.
Timeline. The prologue with Moses and Joshua is set in the 13th century BC.
Scholars don’t agree on when Moses would have lived. It is fairly easy to set a timeline for the Israelite kings, who reigned between the 10th and 6th centuries BC. But anything earlier than that is notoriously difficult to pin down, for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, the Bible doesn’t use specific names very often; it says that Moses spoke to “Pharaoh” but does not say which Pharaoh he spoke to. For another, many of the year-counts between certain events in the Bible are multiples of 40, which might be a symbolic way of counting generations rather than an exact measurement of time.
As a result, estimates for the dating of the Exodus range anywhere from the 15th to 12th centuries BC, and this wide range is reflected in popular culture. The Sight & Sound musical Moses shows Moses being adopted by the Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who ruled circa 1500 BC. But films like The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt have shown Moses confronting Rameses II or his son Merneptah, who ruled Egypt in the 1200s BC.
Suffice it to say that The Chosen follows the later chronology.
The series may or may not have lost track of which day of the week it is on.
Jesus says in this episode that he is planning to leave Capernaum in two days, “on the morning of the fifth day.” This presumably means he is leaving on a Thursday — and that, in turn, would mean that this episode takes place on a Tuesday.
Jesus also states very clearly that the events of this episode are taking place one day after the healing of the paralytic in Episode 6, so that episode took place on a Monday.
These episodes are thus taking place right after a weekend. But the episodes before them took place before a weekend, which would seem to mean that several days, including a Sabbath, went by between Episodes 5 and 6 — but has that much time really passed?
To recap: In Episode 4, Simon told Matthew the Sabbath was still “three days” away. The episode ended the next morning, with the miraculous catch of fish.
And then Episode 5 took place on the same day as that miracle — so it took place two days before the Sabbath, on a Wednesday or Thursday (depending on whether Simon was thinking of Friday night or Saturday morning when he mentioned the Sabbath).
So, from the Wednesday or Thursday of Episode 5 to the Monday of Episode 6, it would appear that four or five days passed between the wedding in Cana and the healing of the paralytic — and that there was an entire Sabbath day in the interim. Does it look or feel like that much time passed between those episodes, while Jesus and the disciples were walking home and Matthew was collecting Simon’s tax payment from Zebedee?
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in season two, when Jesus is supposed to meet Thomas in Samaria twelve days after the events of Episode 5.
Language issues. “Get used to different.” That is what Jesus says when Simon objects to a tax collector joining their group. It is also one of the slogans for the series as a whole.
It’s a little reminiscent of how the miniseries The Bible had Jesus telling Simon that they could “change the world” together: both phrases are non-biblical but reflect the contemporary spin that the filmmakers are putting on their interpretation of the Bible.
Matthew is puzzled that Jesus’ miracles seem to have overturned the “laws of nature”.
It is not clear to me that a first-century Jew would have thought in those terms. The idea that there are self-sustaining “laws of nature” that might be intruded upon by divine action has its roots in the ancient Greco-Roman philosophers — particularly the Romans, who had a highly developed concept of “law” in general — and the concept took its modern form in the Enlightenment, a 17th-century philosophy that aimed to separate science and theology. But to an ancient Jew who believed that the created order was sustained by God himself, such a concept might have been somewhat foreign.
So this may be a case where the impulse to have the 1st-century characters speak in 21st-century idioms goes beyond merely assuming that there were equivalent idioms back then, and leads to an entire worldview being smuggled in anachronistically.
Miscellaneous. Jesus tells his followers to leave a few days’ worth of firewood behind for the next traveler when they pull up stakes. He is essentially telling them to “pay it forward”, as the modern saying goes — which is also how The Chosen’s producers have been asking their viewers to help finance and distribute the series!
In the gospels, when Jesus calls people to follow him, they tend to drop what they are doing immediately — and we are never given any reason for why they answered his call so quickly. The gospels thus focus our attention on Jesus’ personal charisma or authority, and on our need to follow the disciples’ example by answering his call as well.
The Chosen, on the other hand, creates back-stories for Simon, Matthew, and others to give them some sort of motivation for following him. The focus thus shifts somewhat from Jesus’ personal authority to the disciples’ personal circumstances, which are fictitious.
How does this affect our relationship to the stories in which Jesus calls his followers?
Is it easier to see ourselves in the call to follow Jesus when the personal details of the disciples’ lives are left out, as in the gospels, or when fictitious details are put in, as in the series? What if we don’t see our own stories reflected in the disciples’ stories?
Fortunately, there are quite a few disciples, and the producers hope to keep this series going for several seasons — so there should be plenty of opportunities to tell a wide range of stories. Presumably most viewers will be able to identify with someone along the way, and will feel that the series reflects their own relationship to Jesus somehow.
Clip: John 3:16:
Clip: Jesus calls the misfit tax collector:
Behind the scenes: Bringing John 3:16 to screen:
The entire episode was also livestreamed on April 4, with an intro by director Dallas Jenkins and a chat with Erick Avari, who plays Nicodemus.