Two things stand out about the latest “Jesus movie.” First, it is not actually a movie, and second, Jesus does not seem to be the main character. The Chosen is the brainchild of Dallas Jenkins, an evangelical filmmaker who has cast a Catholic actor as the ostensible lead. Projected to unfold over seven seasons, The Chosen is a bingeable TV series about the life of Christ that debuted in 2019, just in time for the pandemic. Call it serendipity. With so much spare time on their hands, viewers have made it the most successful crowd-funded project of its kind, with nearly 300 million streams and counting.
Movie-length productions rarely have the space for developing characters in the depth necessary to make them as compelling as authors can accomplish on the page. This is especially true when it comes to such a singular figure as Jesus. For better or for worse, the most memorable cinematic Jesuses are those in movies that diverge sharply from the standard plotline constructed from a harmonization of the Gospels, such as Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). The others are mostly forgettable. Given the constraints of the two-hours-and-change movie format, it is surprising that so few longform attempts to tell the Good News have been made until now, though the lower distribution costs made possible by the internet may be a factor in the timing.
More unusual, however, is how much time Jesus spends off screen in The Chosen. Only Ben-Hur, the 1959 blockbuster starring Charlton Heston, gives so little of the spotlight to Jesus, and it is really the exception that proves the rule. Ben-Hur’s subtitle— “A Tale of the Christ”—is misleading since the story, based on the 1880 novel by Civil War general Lew Wallace, is really about Jewish resistance to Rome, with the story of Jesus as little more than a tangent.
No other production puts as much focus as does The Chosen on the apostles and other minor figures from the Gospels. Mary Magdalene and Nicodemus, along with Peter and Matthew, receive nearly as much dialogue as Jesus through the first two seasons. As much as Jesus, they are “the chosen” to whom the title refers.
These and other characters are fleshed out far beyond their profiles in the Bible, as happens with any exercise in translating a written text for a visual medium. Some of the artistic choices made by the director in interpreting the story and characters will resonate with viewers more so than others. Peter, for instance, is portrayed as hotheaded and bossy, while Matthew, about whom the Bible says almost nothing, is somewhere on the Aspergers’s spectrum.
While many viewers will be uncomfortable with any effort to expand on the sparse details of the Gospel narratives in the manner of devout “fan fiction,” the undertaking is not a peculiarly modern one. Beginning in the second century (if not earlier), apocryphal stories about the apostles and other figures circulate far and wide throughout the Mediterranean. This predates most of the “Lives of the Saints” material that will be familiar to many Catholic readers. Many of these stories are preserved in documents that purport to chronicle their later careers, after the resurrection when Jesus sends them out to evangelize the nations.
For example, in the second-century Acts of John, the eponymous hero causes a pagan temple in Ephesus to collapse and uses his miraculous powers the next day to ward off an infestation of bedbugs. In the Revelation of Stephen, Rasputin has nothing on Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who dies only after being crucified, having molten lead poured in his ears and mouth and nails driven into his feet and heart, and then stoned. Medieval legends alluded to in William Blake’s “Jerusalem” tell of Joseph of Arimathea traveling on business with a teenage Jesus to visit England.
Orthodox Christianity has passed down stories about the Samaritan woman at the well according to which she proselytizes several relatives as well as Nero’s daughter before being killed by being thrown down a dry well shaft. Mystery plays of the Middle Ages recount the story of Lazarus becoming bishop of Cyprus but never laughing again until his second death, so traumatized was he by the sight of the unredeemed souls he saw during his four days in the grave.
Most of these stories were regarded as nothing more than pious entertainment. A few of them, in some times and in some regions, may have been accorded quasi-scriptural status before the contents of the Christian canon were fixed in synods at Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419). Some contained material deemed heretical, though much of it posed no doctrinal problems in the eyes of church authorities. Historians believe very little of this body of literature reveals anything new about what really happened in the ministry of Jesus or in the activities of his disciples after his death, even if it is a valuable witness to the theological controversies and to the popular imagination of the ancient Church.
Hollywood has occasionally ventured into this territory. Richard Burton plays the Roman soldier who casts lots at the foot of the cross and wins Jesus’s garment but is wracked by guilt for his complicity in Jesus’s death in The Robe (1953). Barabbas (1962), based on a novel by Nobel laureate Pär Lagerkvist, likewise features a conscious-stricken protagonist who converts to Christianity but is ultimately scapegoated by Nero for the Great Fire in Rome and executed. The second-century Acts of Peter supplies the title and the basis for several scenes in Quo Vadis (1951), in which Peter is crucified upside-down.
The Chosen has yet to reach this stage in the greatest story ever told, to borrow the title of George Stevens’s 1965 entry in the Jesus movie genre. Jenkins has not said whether he plans to take the series past Easter and into the period when the apostles are carrying out the Great Commission. (Mel Gibson, who is reported to be making a sequel to The Passion of the Christ, may beat him to the punch.)
Instead, the series’ elaborations and embellishments are focused on the backstories of Jesus’s followers and on their subsequent interactions with their teacher and with each other. It is not a Marvel-like attempt to wring every last cent out of the universe it has constructed. Rather, it is a creative meditation on narratives that are, given their significance in the eyes of their authors, notoriously thin on specifics. Of course, Jenkins also wants to entertain a modern audience. The size of that audience, judged by number of downloads, suggests he is succeeding.
Was Thomas’s doubting an ingrained character trait or merely an understandable reaction upon hearing that Jesus was no longer dead? What circumstances led Nicodemus to meet Jesus under cover of night? Were Peter and Andrew skilled fishermen? Had Simon the Zealot been active in an underground resistance movement opposing Rome? Did he and the other apostles have lingering resentment against Matthew, who had extracted taxes from his fellow Jews on behalf of their imperial overlords? How had they come to be Jesus’s disciples, and how well did they understand him?
Each episode imaginatively fills in these and other gaps left by the biblical authors. The results are uneven, naturally. Occasionally efforts at coordinating plot developments with the details of the Gospels or providing cultural context are predictable or come off as pedantic, but just as often, various threads are tied together in an ingenious fashion over a multi-episode arc.
Here again, the impulse to answer such questions is already evident in apocryphal texts written between the second and fourth centuries. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the religious fancy when the biblical text is reticent. Already in the second century, for example, the Protevangelium of James shows that questions about the “logistics” of the Virgin Birth arise very early, as does speculation about what it might imply about not only baby Jesus but also about mother Mary.
In the third century, the Syriac Revelations of the Magi describes the wise men as descendants of Adam and Eve’s third son Seth, who are told by the Christ child that this is not the first time he has appeared to the peoples of the world. (They are said to hail from a silk-producing land with a great wall at its border.) Nathanael is identified as an infant survivor of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents in the thirteenth-century Nestorian Book of the Bee. More controversially, texts such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip may depict Mary Magdalene as having a closer relationship with Jesus than his other disciples, though the claim that they are presented as romantic partners—or married, as in the discredited “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”—is not as obvious as it appears to some readers.
In the apocryphal literature, the process of teasing out details from the Gospels to produce three-dimensional characters does not always take the form of invented episodes. More often, it consists of commentary voiced in dialogue between Jesus and other characters. This dialogue will often seem very strange to modern ears, not simply because it is expressed in unfamiliar language but because if frequently expresses ideas at odds with traditional Christian theology.
According to the Gospel of Judas, which sat untranslated in a safe deposit box on Long Island for over a decade, Jesus is misunderstood by the other eleven apostles and only confides his true teachings to Judas, including his rejection of “cannibalism” (an apparent reference to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist) and the doctrine of the atonement.
Two different texts called the Apocalypse of Peter profess to reveal divine teachings given to the prince of the apostles by Jesus. A document that was very popular in the second century contains the earliest Christian description of hell, complete with a Dantesque classification of sins and their corresponding punishments. A Gnostic text with the same title features a sardonic “spirit Jesus” laughing at his tormentors for thinking they could kill him by nailing his physical body to the cross. The Questions of Bartholomew provides a transcript of Bartholomew’s “interviews” with Jesus, Satan, and Mary on such subjects as the population of heaven and hell, mortal sins, and the nature of the virginal conception. (Mary warns that if she were to answer the last question, fire would come out of her mouth and destroy the world.)
From these examples and many others that could be given, it is clear that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John could have looked very different. By comparison, the relative sobriety of the canonical Gospels, as well as The Chosen, is conspicuous. Dallas Jenkins may be producing fan fiction of a sort, but it is not science fiction or fantasy. Notwithstanding the imaginative leaps and poetic license taken by their authors, be they ancient or modern, attending to these works can be very valuable. They not only make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. They also serve as a reminder on two crucial points.
First, the earliest believers were not passive recipients of divine revelation. Christians have never been blank slates onto which the word of God was inscribed. They have heard the good news and done their best to process it, variously embracing it with joy, resisting its implications, plumbing its mysteries, misunderstanding its significance, or asking “what if?” questions that spring from normal human curiosity. The ensemble cast of The Chosen makes this range of responses vicariously available to viewers.
Second, whatever one makes of the message, it has always been more than a static, detached body of knowledge. Jesus made a deep personal impact on the people he met. What he was like, exactly, was and still is hard to capture or convey in any medium, be it on the page or on the screen. That something profound happened between Jesus and his followers is beyond doubt, even if precisely what happened remains a mystery. Part of “who Jesus is” cannot be separated from the effect he has had on others, and The Chosen tries to depict what that might have looked like. Whether it is ultimately plausible or persuasive is a question on which reasonable people will disagree.
And whether or not one embraces the perspectives of the characters who cross Jesus’s path, at a time when more and more people find it difficult to fathom how many of their neighbors can believe and behave as they do, we might benefit from the opportunity to see things through the eyes of others.