The Jewish Jesus of The Chosen

A Redemptive Change in Christian Drama

The Bible-based streaming series, The Chosen recently began filming its fourth season, its third season having included very successful theatrical releases of the first two and last two episodes. The former graced theatres in the U.S. in November of 2022, the latter in February of 2023. With no major studio backing, no distribution arrangements with any global services, hardly any publicity beyond word-of-mouth and mentions in Christian media, the series nevertheless achieved more than 300 million views by the end of 2021. In the five years since its premier, the series has also garnered attention for its nigh-unprecedented attention to biblical authenticity. And this aspect of The Chosen, the series’s dedication to presenting the Gospel narrative with cultural accuracy,  is now getting serious media attention.

It is not that there have been no attempts to depict the life of Christ in a way that is authentic to the New Testament. Pier Paolo Pasolini´s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, for example, drew every single line of its dialogue from the Gospels, while Mel Gibson´s The Passion of the Christ drew attention for dialogue spoken only in ancient biblical languages (Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin). This was also the approach of the Lumo project´s Four Gospels.

What sets The Chosen´s take on biblical authenticity quite apart from these and other dramatic depictions is the emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus. This aspect of the series has already attracted the attention of Jewish media commentators such as The Daily Wire´s Ben Shapiro, who raised the issue in an interview with the show´s director and co-writer, Dallas Jenkins. Jenkins called The Chosen “probably the most Jewish show in the world”.

Jewish Media Reactions

While that assertion is debatable with shows like Shtisel, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Fauda all enjoying streaming success, The Chosen´s depiction of Jesus and the Apostles may be the most Jewish Jesus that has yet been attempted in filmed drama. Messianic Pastor D. Thomas Lancaster, writing for the Messiah Magazine, tidily summed up the typical screen depictions of Jews in New Testament-based dramas:

Typically, the only people in the cast that look Jewish are the ones playing the Pharisees—always depicted as bad guys draped in prayer shawls. It’s like the anti-Semitic medieval passion plays projected onto the silver screen.

The Chosen´s departure from that long and lamentable dramatic tradition prompts Lancaster to write:

Best of all, the whole production makes a serious effort to depict Jesus and his disciples as Jews within a Jewish context. We see Jesus and his followers observing the Sabbath, reciting traditional blessings, and interacting with their religious environment. Jenkins wanted to get the historical, political, geographical, and cultural details right, and his team has done an admirable job. Even if the Pharisees are still walking around with prayer shawls draped over their heads, at least Jesus and his disciples look like Jews.

Jenkins´s decision to depict the key persons from the Gospels accurately flows in part from his friendship with Messianic Rabbi Jason Sobel, who is one of the three spiritual/biblical consultants for the series, the others being a Catholic priest (Father David Guffey C.S.C.) and a Professor of Theology from the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University (Dr. Doug Huffman). The intent of the show is to be good biblical drama, emphasis on “good” and “biblical” being in this case completely intertwined. Which means that the Jewish nature of the context and the characters is here, at last, receiving the attention it always deserved.

And (non-Messianic) Jewish media are noticing. Writing for the online edition of Forward, Mira Fox recently commented at length on The Chosen. Among her observations:

This is, to be clear, accurate; Jesus was, after all, a first-century Jew. He lived in a Jewish society, as did his followers, and their Judaism would have informed every part of their lives. Though modern Christianity often focuses on Jesus’ disagreements with other Jews at the time, such as the Pharisees, their debates were squarely within Judaism, just as Jews still love to argue today; he likely did not see himself as founding a new religion.

Later in the article, she notes:

Over time, of course, Christianity became entirely separate from Judaism, so much so that Christian persecution of Jews has become one of the major themes of Western history. Jews are accused of killing Jesus, of stealing Christian children to bake matzo with their blood and, more simply, portrayed as backwards non-believers blinded by useless traditions.

But now, in the contemporary American evangelical landscape, Jesus’ Judaism is taking center stage again. Evangelicals are turning to Christianity’s Jewish roots, adopting rituals such as Seders and shofars in a search for meaning and authentic connection to Jesus. And nowhere is it so obvious as in The Chosen.

A Philo-Judaic Shift in Christian Pop-Culture

So, what is happening in the broader Christian culture that The Chosen is now making accessible to broader audiences? What strikes me in all the media reactions to the Jewishness of Jonathan Roumie´s Jesus, Shahar Isaac´s Simon (he has yet to be called “Peter” in the series), Liz Tabish´s Mary of Magdala, and the other characters  in the series, is that the embrace of Judaism reflected in Jenkins´s series is only a logical outgrowth of the reconciliation and rapprochement between Jews and Christians that has been gaining spiritual ground among Christians in the United States (and the world broadly) since at least the 1960s.

Some attribute this development solely to the influence of Christian Zionism, and that factor has certainly been significant, but the broader cultural milieu since the end of the Second World War has been one of increasing interaction and appreciation of Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewish literature in the still predominantly Christian West.

The media culture in this case is finally catching up to the general trends among Evangelicals and Catholics, who have been open to dialogue with Jews and even to adopting some Jewish practices for decades now. Use the search engine of your choice and look up “Christian Seder” to see just one good example. There is even a rather controversial group of non-Jewish believers in Jesus - Yeshua to use his Hebrew name - who eschew more traditional Gentile Christian practices and - thoroughly embrace Torah, Talmud, and the New Testament, namely the Hebrew Roots movement. What we seem to be experiencing today, reflected prominently in the popularity of this streaming series, is another flowering of Philo-Judaism in the broader culture in the West.

Historical Precursors

Another? Yes, another. Jews have been the most significant religious minority in the West since there has been a West. To give a fair account of Western history, one must point out that there have been other flowerings of Philo-Judaism in the predominantly Christian West since the late Middle Ages.

There were the Reformation Hebraists, such as Johannes Reuchlin, Sebastian Münster and Andreas Osiander (a solid scholarly overview of their work can be found in Christian Hebraism in the Reformation Era), who wrote in the sixteenth century, then Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Philipp Jakob Spener (link in German), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and  Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (in the Netherlands, note that the link is in Dutch), who followed later.

These were all influential Philo-Judaic thinkers, writers, or pastors. They strove to improve both Christian knowledge of the Jewish origins of Christianity and the social status of Jews in Christian Europe. What was significant about those efforts was that those making them were at the time fighting against entrenched anti-Judaism in the church and a nascent form of racialist anti-Semitism in the culture at large.

It took centuries and the monstrous evil of eliminationist anti-Semitism in the Holocaust before their views became widely accepted in the late 20th century. In light of this history, The Chosen expresses in filmed, serial drama a great improvement in the Christian understanding of the Jewish nature of Christianity. My sincere hope is that the series reaches non-believers with the Gospel of the Rabbi from Nazareth, who saves the world and draws Gentile Christians into a deeper engagement with the origins of their faith.

is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.

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