As both a Christian and a pastor, I hope you can believe me when I say that I’ve seen a lot of Jesus movies. It comes with the territory. And despite this being the “greatest story ever told,” most movies centered around the life and person of Christ suffer from a bit of a disconnect. The actors tend to play this role as a bit serious and aloof, kind of a mythic figure who isn’t relatable (or even that human). Those movies also follow the gospels closely, which tend to be concentrated storytelling in and of themselves — which means that the movies end up feeling rushed highlight reels.
That’s why The Chosen, the first multi-season television series about Jesus, felt so refreshing and relatable in contrast. It’s not a perfect show, but it is astoundingly good at giving us a Jesus who is both divine and human while immersing us in the ancient world of Palestine in the first century. Our family got hooked on this show, finding joy, humor, and inspiring moments of faith within.
The team that made The Chosen decided on a few interesting approaches. The first was to center the story around the calling of Jesus’ male and female disciples — the initial “Chosen” of the title — and how their life situations and stories end up intersecting with Jesus. We have a tormented Mary Magdalene, austistic and shunned tax collector Matthew, hotheaded fisherman Peter, assassin-in-training Simon, Jesus’s mother Mary, and many others gradually called to learn at Jesus’ feet.
The second decision was to carefully take liberties with the biblical text. As much as possible (at least from where I’m sitting), The Chosen sticks to the Bible as closely as possible. But it also “fills in the blanks,” so to speak, with extra characters, situations, and moments. We know that Simon was a zealot from Scripture, for instance, but little else about him. Therefore, the series comes up with a plausible account of how he was preparing to kill a Roman official but was shaken from that course when he saw how his crippled brother was healed by Christ. That sort of thing.
The third approach is to immerse us as much into the ancient world as possible through painstaking attention to detail. This is something I love about the show, because it makes ancient Israel feel like a real place. You see how they make wine, catch food, engage in commerce, celebrate the Sabbath, and so on. The clothes, the prejudices, the Roman occupation… it all comes together to give an authentic feel. Also lending to this feel is a very ethnically diverse cast.
But all of this wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the central character of Jesus, masterfully played here by Jonathan Roumie. Seriously, words cannot express how amazing this guy does in what is a very complicated role. His Jesus is down-to-earth but not flippant, focused on his ministry but also able to make a joke and enjoy fellowship with friends, and absolutely driven to minister to people in miracles and messages. You can see — and believe — his compassion and love for these people, even as some of them frustrate him, oppose him, or are blatantly being mean to each other in front of him.
The first season roughly covers a week or so in Jesus’ ministry amid the calling of the first batch of disciples. My big criticism here is that it almost starts too slowly, with the first couple of episodes only giving us a peek or two at Jesus while gradually meandering in the way of momentum. Things pick up as the storyline starts to pick up Peter and his fishing woes, Matthew’s despair at being outcast from the community, Nicodemus’ fascination with this new preacher, a party at a wedding, and several initial miracles.
It’s not just good times and happy healings with these episodes. Jesus’ movement rubs both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman occupiers the wrong way, and we see confrontation brewing with both of those camps. I will say that the guy that they got to play the Roman commander in Capernaum is really magnetic with a blend of humor and authority that makes you see why he’d be put in charge of a whole city.
The second season is not quite as groundbreaking as the first, mostly due to some storylines that seem to meander more than they should. That whole season led up to the Sermon on the Mount, although it’s disappointing that it concludes right before Jesus’ most famous sermon takes place. The bickering between the disciples started to feel old and awkward, like having to sit at someone else’s home when family members are sniping at each other.
It’s still a good season, though, and I liked how the makers tie different eras of the Bible into the show through pre-credit sequences (such as John later in his life when he’s writing his gospel or David coming to the temple to eat the sacred showbread). The scope of the show feels like it’s broadening here, and watching Jesus perform a miracle or exorcism never gets old.
It may not be a completely faithful adaptation of the gospels (but what could?), but The Chosen lands more than misses with its attempts at helping us to imagine the life of Jesus through the eyes of the often bewildered, troubled, quirky, and captivated followers who were drawn to him.