Does “The Chosen” depict the “most intensely Jewish Jesus and Gospels we've ever had”?
That’s precisely how Faydra Shapiro, Times of Israel columnist and founding director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, sees the hit show.
Shapiro, who holds a Ph.D. in religious studies and is a teacher and scholar on Jewish-Christian relations, wrote that she “mentally cringed” upon hearing about "The Chosen," fearing the show would turn out to be just “another Christian evangelistic tool that ends up making the Jews out to be the bad guys.”
But that wasn’t the case.
“I was really struck by the central role given to Nicodemus in season one. Fleshing out this character as a Jew was really impactful, particularly as he functions as the central character lens on events for the opening of the series,” she told The Christian Post via email.
Shapiro lamented how some Christians overlook Nicodemus' status among the people of Israel and, in doing so, miss some critical context — something that “Chosen” was careful to include in its retelling.
“While the Gospel of John says Nicodemus was a Pharisee and has Jesus call him a teacher of Israel, most readers don’t make much of that and kind of rush through to focus on what Jesus teaches him,” said Shapiro. “Putting Nicodemus into his Jewish and human context was very powerful, and presents a profoundly Jewish character and leader that viewers end up having a great deal of sympathy for.”
Despite so much of Christian-themed entertainment getting a bad rap for either low production value or just being “too preachy,” the reputation carefully cultivated by “Chosen” creator Dallas Jenkins for compelling dialogue, storylines and performances has drawn praise from both Christian and non-Christian fans alike.
Shapiro said the show’s entertainment value also allowed her to relate more to Jesus, the disciples and other characters.
"I don’t find it particularly 'preachy,' and I guess that this is part of what allowed me to enjoy watching it so much. If I felt preached to, I don’t think I could have stood it,” she said.
“The places where the Gospel text was expanded and fleshed out really helped in this regard, rendering the characters as very relatable in a human sense, rather than some kind of idealized happy-clappy Christian image that could have emerged.”
But Shapiro is hardly your average “Chosen” fan — she’s also part of an advisory board that has included a Messianic rabbi, an Evangelical historian, and a Catholic priest, which she says helped producers bring a more authentically Jewish feel to the production.
“Our mission was to add a Jewish eye, particularly as we get into more complex areas of the narrative,” Shapiro said. “Unfortunately, we only began working together when filming for season four was already underway, so it’s hard to know yet how our feedback will be integrated.”
She said that, far from being a “rubber stamp” on content, the board had some “very far-reaching conversations about accuracy, authenticity and potential for offense.”
Still, said Shapiro, it’s not clear what the future holds for her role on the board or even the board itself.
“I think it’s incredibly telling that they sought us out and listened to us, even when we argued amongst ourselves,” she said. “I don’t know what the plan is for season five, but I personally have had a wonderful time in this process and would love to continue.”
Beyond the show, however, Shapiro hopes “The Chosen” reignites a conversation around Jewish-Christian relations and, in time, could even mark “an extraordinary moment in healing the relationship between Jews and Christians."
Part of that, she told CP, is learning more about the Jesus of history as well as the role that Jews play in the New Testament.
“It’s sometimes said casually by people that the difference between Jews and Christians is Jesus,” she said. “But that’s not really the case.
For Shapiro, “The Chosen” can teach Christians that the historical Jesus “has more in common with my 22-year-old Torah-observant, Hebrew-speaking son raised here in Israel than he has in common with a 22-year-old Evangelical Christian in Texas.”
She said the show also provides Jews with “an important opportunity … to understand that the Gospels are full of Jews, including the most positive figures.
“It’s an opportunity to realize that the New Testament is not ‘anti-Jewish’ or ‘pro-Jewish’ but a complex mix of challenges and resources for our relationship as Jews and Christians,” she added.
That idea echoes a similar sentiment held by “Chosen” writer and executive Ryan Swanson and writer and producer Tyler Thompson, who said in an April interview with the Jewish outlet Forward that they and their fellow writers want to “make it absolutely clear that Roman governmental forces killed Jesus, not Jews.”
“We’ve bent over backwards and gone as far as we can to make sure that we emphasize that this is a Jewish man who was brutally murdered by the state — by Rome,” Thompson told Forward.
The show, the writer said, even gives a “nuanced treatment” to the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders with whom Jesus frequently clashed and who ultimately appeal to Pilate for Jesus’ execution.
“In terms of some of the religious opposition to Jesus, we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that these people are portrayed as faithful Jewish scholars and rabbis who are just defending the Torah, and making sure that they preserve the most important parts of their faith,” Thompson was quoted as saying.
Translated in 62 languages and considered the most successful crowdfunded entertainment project ever, “The Chosen” began production on its fourth season in March and recently came under fire after a rainbow pride flag was spotted on-set during a recent film shoot.
In response to the controversy, Jenkins, an Evangelical Christian, released a statement stressing that he has "made it clear from the beginning we don't have a religious or political litmus test for who can work on our show."
"I love our cast and crew, especially because even though they all come from different backgrounds and beliefs, they work their butts off for the show and the viewers," Jenkins said.
Ian M. Giatti is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: email@example.com.