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Hit Christian TV show ‘The Chosen’ is all about Jesus. So why is it so Jewish?

An old man lays down his prayer tassels, his tzitzit, in front of a tax collector. They are, he says, the most valuable thing he has. But he’s not trying to pay off his debt; they are simply a gift.

“It wasn’t about the tassels — they’re just a symbol. That man wanted you to have his faith,” the tax collector’s friend tells him when he recounts the story years later. “That man wanted you to be Jewish again, and you are.”

The scene, from the TV drama The Chosen, feels straightforward, if perhaps a little didactic. Its message about the power of ritual and the beauty of continuing generations of tradition is familiar to any Jew.

Until you realize that the Jews in question are, rather famously, remembered as the first Christians; the tax collector in question is the Apostle Matthew and his friend is Mary Magdalene.

The Chosen, which just finished airing its third season out of a planned eight, is a crowd-funded TV show about the life of Jesus and his followers, directed by evangelical filmmaker Dallas Jenkins. 

Jonathan Roumie stars as a serene and supremely gentle Jesus. Courtesy of The Chosen

Each episode features a recognizable event from the Gospel texts, adding side plots and embroidering each one to flesh out the disciples as characters. Unlike a lot of Christian media, the production value is high, and there’s sex and controversy — it’s not all a droning lecture. And, unlike most of Christianity, it’s full of Judaism.

Over and over, the disciples call Jesus their rabbi. They observe Rosh Hashanah, Purim and, of course, Shabbat. Some of Jesus’ followers apologize for not attending beit midrash study. (Jesus tells them it is unnecessary.) They talk about keeping kosher and women’s menstrual purity laws; the mikveh is at the center of a lengthy plot about a broken cistern in season three.

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.

But historically, Christianity has not emphasized Jesus’ Judaism; he is remembered as the founder of Christianity.

To the Christian disciples of the first century the conception of Jesus as Rabbi was self-evident, to the Christian disciples of the second century it was embarrassing, to the Christian disciples of the third century and beyond it was obscure,” wrote scholar Jaroslav Pelikan for a PBS series on Jesus.

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.

‘Shalom, man’

Simon greets his wife, Eden, in one of the detailed side plots writers constructed to flesh out the show and the internal lives of the apostles. Courtesy of The Chosen

“We started, literally, as a garage band,” said Ryan Swanson, one of the writers and executive producers on The Chosen, when I spoke with him and fellow writer and producer Tyler Thompson on Good Friday. (Jenkins was unavailable since he was busy filming season four.)

“We were less than an independent film. It was literally Tyler, Dallas and I in a basement,” Swanson said. “It was all a wing and a prayer.”

Today, the show has become something of an institution; it has a distributor, screens episodes in theaters and raises millions of dollars for each episode, breaking crowd-funding records. Its audience is devoted; not only do they donate to the show, they even pay for the opportunity to be extras. (Though outside of the show’s fanbase, it remains relatively unknown; Swanson said that in his Los Angeles neighborhood full of television writers, “ours might be the only show that the five people on my block don’t watch.”)

Its popularity stems in part from the fact that the writers room is well aware that they are trying to make good TV, not a sermon. All three of the writers have worked previously in other roles in the TV and film industry, and written some short films. “We’re screenwriters. As crass as it might sound, we’re not here to proselytize — we’re here to present something entertaining,” Swanson said.

Which means they’ve added a lot of details, including characters and moments they invented entirely for the sake of bingeable TV. (Jenkins often wears a sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan, “#BingeJesus.”)

The disciples greet each other with “Shalom, man,” tease each other for being “salty” and use other American vernacular, albeit all in an exotic accent that sounds, by turns, Arabic, Israeli and Yiddish. The Apostle Simon has a tempestuous and flirtatious relationship with his wife, and Thomas has a crush on the winemaker whose wine Jesus multiplied. Matthew seems to be on the autism spectrum. Jesus sucks at sports.

“We’re trying to make this a little bit more personal, intimate, immediate,” Jenkins told the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Jesus] tells jokes, he laughs, he dances with his friends; we don’t normally see that in other Bible projects.”

But that requires a careful balance. After all, for Christians, Jesus is much more than just a nice dude; he is the son of God. He needs to feel different, and exceptional.

This is, in part, where the foreignness of Jewishness comes in handy. “We balance out those modern idioms by also using phrases that sound startling to the viewers’ ears, like referring to parents as ‘Ima’ and ‘Abba,’ calling Sabbath ‘Shabbat,’ using the term ‘Adonai’ instead of ‘Lord,’” said Thompson. “These are things that might bump them additionally.”

Religion meets history

Unlike a lot of representations of Jesus and his disciples, the cast of The Chosen is notably diverse. Courtesy of The Chosen

The show has received plenty of criticism for its willingness to add to the biblical text. But when we spoke, the writers brushed off any concerns; they said they focused on conveying an emotional truth, not on being so true to the biblical text that the show becomes dour and boring.

“We write to spirit, sometimes to principle,” said Swanson.

Still, as the show has grown, they’ve added consultants, whom Thompson referred to as “guardrails”: an evangelical historian, a Catholic priest and a Messianic rabbi, Jason Sobel. Some of the cast is also Jewish, and Shahar Isaac, who plays Simon, is Israeli, so the writers are able to ask for input on rituals and customs.

The team is particularly concerned with the portrayal of the Jews, such as the Pharisees, who were not followers of Jesus. The writers were careful not to criticize other media about the life of Jesus, but for me, it is hard not to think of the antisemitism rife within Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Both Thompson and Swanson emphasized that they wanted to make it absolutely clear that Roman governmental forces killed Jesus, not Jews. The writers room is extremely aware of rising antisemitism; it’s obvious that they are careful in their presentation of Jews, trying to avoid the criticism of The Chosen’s predecessors.

“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,” said Thompson.

Even the legalistic Pharisees, whose name has become an insult in many Christian circles, get a nuanced treatment. While they still feel like sticklers for the rules, and their hostility to Jesus is obvious, they’re far from villainous.

“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 Torah, and making sure that they preserve the most important parts of their faith,” said Thompson. “So that’s why characters like Shmuel and Youssif and even Nicodemus are portrayed as extremely sympathetic. While they have questions about Jesus, those questions are not motivated by any sort of hate, they’re motivated by fidelity.”

When I asked why they did not have a Jewish rabbi to advise on these issues, Thompson said he didn’t know; Swanson said they just hadn’t gotten around to it yet, thanks to the show’s scrappy beginnings.

“I would be interested in that perspective,” Thompson said. “I cannot tell you how much time we spend on the site,” (My Jewish Learning is run by 70 Faces Media, which also owns the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a wire service that the Forward uses.)

Thompson also said they lean heavily on the ancient Jewish historian Josephus: “He’s one of the tabs on my Chrome browser at all times.”

In the meantime, both writers emphasized their attempts to authentically understand the milieu in which Jesus lives. And a big part of those efforts have been the writers and some of the cast visiting Israel in order to, as Swanson said, see “what it’s like to be steeped in the world in which Jesus’ story takes place.”

Christianity’s Judaism

A group of the disciples listen to Jesus. Courtesy of The Chosen

Neither Swanson nor Thompson seemed particularly concerned with the fact that modern Israel is far removed from the Israel of Jesus’ time, nor that modern rabbinic Judaism bears little resemblance to the Temple Judaism of Jesus’ era. But this is in keeping with a trend within the Evangelical world: Zionism.

I reached out to about half a dozen professors, hoping to discuss the rising interest in Judaism within the evangelical world; nearly every one of them referenced Christian Zionism as a likely force behind the show’s emphasis on Jesus’ Judaism. One pointed me to the Left Behind book series co-authored by Jerry B. Jenkins, in which Jesus returns to earth to rule over the land of Israel, as an example of evangelical imagination about Israel. As it turns out, the author is the father of the creator of The Chosen.

Israel is at the center of many Christians’ understanding of Israel, holding such great theological weight that the distance between modern Jews and ancient Israelites can collapse.

“Evangelical celebration of Jesus’ Jewishness fits into, often, a kind of larger Christian Zionist project,” said Adam Gregerman, an associate professor of Jewish studies at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “That idea that Jews have a role to play in the Christian eschatological scenario has led to more of an embrace of Jews and Judaism.”

Gregerman was referring, in part, to the belief embraced by some Evangelicals that the return of Jews to Israel will precede the return of Jesus to earth. But Gregerman said the Evangelical orientation toward Jews also comes from the bible’s emphasis on God’s promises to Israel.

This support of Israel has led many Christians to become increasingly interested in Jewish tradition. (It’s a trend Jews usually have mixed feelings about, thanks to a long history of Christian appropriation and supersessionism regarding Jewish texts and traditions.)

In my conversations over the years with Christians interested in ancient Judaism or Israel, many are unaware of the difference between modern Jewish practice and Jesus’ Israel — hence Christian Seders, when the Seder did not yet exist in Jesus’ time, for example. Instead, they see Jewish practice as a way of getting closer to Jesus.

“It’s pretty striking, because traditionally, Christians did not make much of Jesus’ Jewishness,” said Gregerman. “To reclaim Jesus’ Jewishness risks distancing him from the later Christian tradition. And that’s a tension.”

I asked Thompson and Swanson how The Chosen was shifting its viewers’ understanding of Jesus or Christianity.

“I can think of a really fun one,” said Swanson. “Somebody in the heart of Indiana posted that they’re now celebrating Shabbat. They’re doing full Shabbat dinners, and asking their kids to chill out at sundown. I thought that was kind of amazing — to put into context the Gospels that people have read their entire lives and have people start to go, ‘These people were Jewish.’”

Thompson agreed, but pointed out it’s not just their viewers. “Shabbat is in vogue,” he said.

The post Hit Christian TV show ‘The Chosen’ is all about Jesus. So why is it so Jewish? appeared first on The Forward.

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