Since the late 19th century, there have been many movies and TV shows about Jesus, the longest of which — in English, at least — is probably Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, which runs about six and a half hours without commercials. But there has never been an ongoing multi-season series about the life of Christ — until now.
The Chosen is an ambitious series — co-written and directed by Dallas Jenkins, son of Left Behind co-author Jerry B. Jenkins and an experienced filmmaker in his own right — that aims to cover the adult ministry of Jesus over the course of seven seasons. The first eight-episode season was released in 2019, and the second is now being filmed in Utah.
Strikingly, despite the intended length of the show, it does not aim to cover every story in the gospels, nor does it take a conventional biographical approach to Jesus. The series skips right past the baptism and temptation of Jesus, for example, and goes straight to the calling of the first disciples — but first it spends some time developing their back-stories, to give added weight to the stories about them that we do know from the gospels.
The result is an interesting blend of the typical Jesus movie and, for lack of a better term, the typical evangelical movie.
Just as old-school Billy Graham movies focused on sinners whose lives were changed in the final reel by a conversion to Christ, so too the first episodes of The Chosen dwell on the spiritual and economic plights of figures like Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Tabish) and Simon Peter (Shahar Isaac) before Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) shows up in the final moments.
The series also follows characters like Nicodemus (Erick Avari), a member of the rabbinic establishment who is increasingly dissatisfied with the religion of his peers, and Matthew the tax collector (Paras Patel), whose facility with numbers and indifference to the hostility of others are linked to what we would now call undiagnosed Asperger syndrome.
The Chosen is also one of the very, very few productions to devote any screen time to the fact that at least some of the disciples were married. One major plot thread concerns Peter’s wife Eden (Lara Silva), who, like the spouse in many a Billy Graham film, worries that her husband has lost his way – until an encounter with Jesus restores her husband’s faith.
But if the series never quite plays like a conventional Jesus biopic, it does make a point of trying to get closer to the character of Jesus as a human being in his own right.
One episode is dedicated entirely to Jesus’ friendship with some children who find him living in a tent on the outskirts of Capernaum. When he is with them, he sings the psalms with them and tells them stories about the Israelite prophets; and when he is alone, he says his prayers and tends to the small injuries he incurs while working at his carpentry.
Another episode — for my money, easily the most moving of the bunch — juxtaposes Joseph and Mary’s search for Jesus when he was 12 years old (as per Luke 2:41-52) with the miracle he performed at the wedding in Cana (as per John 2:1-12).
The episode links the two stories with close-ups shot from Jesus’ point of view, as Mary speaks to the camera. By seeing things from Jesus’ perspective and remembering that he had a mother (who was close enough to him that he performed his first public miracle at her request), we viewers are encouraged to identify with Jesus and to consider how he shares in our humanity.
The Jesus of this series is also remarkably deferential to the people he meets, especially the women. He apologizes to the Samaritan woman when she objects to the way he introduced himself, and there are humorously awkward moments like the one in which Peter’s mother-in-law asks Jesus and his disciples to help her in the kitchen after he has healed her.
To its credit, the series also underlines the Jewishness of its characters, devoting an entire episode to Mary Magdalene’s preparations for the Sabbath. However, the series tends to minimize the role of the community in religious life. The gospels often say that Jesus went to the synagogues to teach, but neither he nor the disciples ever do that here.
Along the way, the series tackles the question of how to create a single cohesive narrative out of the four gospels, which have very different takes on the life of Jesus.
For example, the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all show Jesus calling Peter and the other fishermen to follow him by the Sea of Galilee, and Luke’s gospel adds that the call was accompanied by a miraculous catch of fish. But John’s gospel says the first “sign” performed by Jesus was the changing of water to wine at the wedding in Cana, an event that occurred after Peter and his brother Andrew had already started following Jesus.
The series resolves this by suggesting that the catch of fish was a private miracle, done for the benefit of Peter and the other fishermen when Jesus was recruiting them, while the water being turned to wine was the first public miracle that Jesus performed.
Similarly, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel tends to keep his messianic identity a secret, while the Jesus of John’s gospel proclaims it quite openly. So in the series, Jesus is open about who he is with his followers, but it is only when he meets the Samaritan woman by the well that he openly identifies himself as the Messiah and encourages her to spread the news.
Stylistically, The Chosen has a distinctly modern sensibility. Each episode begins with a blues-rock song over the opening credits, and the final episode concludes with another blues-rock song as Jesus and his disciples stride purposefully toward the Samaritan village. This is quite different from the symphonic scores and ethnic flourishes of other Jesus movies.
The show’s modernity is reflected in the dialogue, too, which can be strikingly colloquial. The disciples use terms like “teacher’s pet”, a fisherman tells the person steering his boat to go “hard to port”, a Roman soldier complains that he and Matthew are “sitting ducks”, and Jesus says the disciples’ constant “question-and-answer sessions” can be “very annoying”.
Similarly, the conversations that Jesus has with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are leavened with new dialogue that gives added social and theological context to their exchanges and is also intended to make them sound more like regular chats. But the series isn’t as consistent as it could be in its modernization. When Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer to some children, he gives them the familiar King James version, in 17th-century English.
There are other anachronisms one could point to. The series imposes relatively modern Jewish rituals on the ancient setting at times, and the characters are sometimes surprised by Jesus’ humanity — by the fact that he dances at parties and builds latrines — in a way that reflects later Christian tendencies to emphasize Jesus’ divinity above all else. Presumably the people who lived with Jesus were more fully conscious of his humanity at the time.
The acting is a bit of a mixed bag, but thankfully, at the centre of it all there is Roumie, who plays Jesus with a robust mix of strength, compassion, and the occasional playful wink. Isaac and Silva, as Peter and Eden, also have an engaging chemistry. And Avari’s Nicodemus is a sincere, thoughtful seeker long before he gets to have his big meeting with Jesus.
It will be interesting to see where future seasons take the story. While the series does depict a few healings and other miracles, it has so far avoided anything more explicitly supernatural, like the signs that appeared at Jesus’ baptism; and the show’s casual, relatable vibe does lead you to wonder how it would handle the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, or any other story that involved voices from Heaven or the appearance of angels.
But the show is off to a decent start, and, if it does omit some parts of the gospels that the viewer might wish it had included, it highlights other parts that have been virtually ignored until now. It also gives fresh emotional heft to stories that we thought we knew so well. On those levels, at least, The Chosen is an exciting addition to the Jesus-movie canon.
— A version of this review was first published in The Anglican Planet.