I am the Law of Moses (The Chosen Season 3 Controversy)

Updated: 16 hours ago

In the official trailer for The Chosen Season 3, the Pharisees warn Jesus that they may have to follow (the punishment for blasphemy in) the Law of Moses if he continues his (perceived) blasphemy. In response, Jesus says, "I am the Law of Moses." While this interaction is not directly taken from the Bible, it never would have occurred to me when I saw the The Chosen Season 3 trailer that this statement would be the spark of another controversy. Alas, the paranoia and conspiratorial thinking of some purveyors of "discernment" knows no bounds. In the recent livestream, Dallas Jenkins was forced to address this scene and make it clear that it was not intentionally based on the Book of Mormon as some people are claiming.


***Update: I wrote my initial post primarily in response to the idea that when Jesus says, "I am the Law of Moses" in the trailer for The Chosen Season 3, it is part of a secret scheme to teach Mormon theology. Since then, people have raised broader concerns about what "I am the Law of Moses" means - concerns that don't rely on the Mormon connection. I've added additional thoughts below explaining why I still find the statement quite defensible.


Background on The Chosen Season 3 Controversy

If you're relatively new to The Chosen or you haven't been following the online chatter surrounding it, it may help to have a little context for the current controversy. After all, the fact that a line in The Chosen bears a slight resemblance to a line in the Book of Mormon might not seem very significant on the surface. Context is everything though.


This isn't the first time that the creators of The Chosen have been accused of either intentionally or unintentionally smuggling Mormon beliefs into their depiction of the Gospels. From fairly early on, an ungrounded conspiracy theory has been circulating within the Fundamentalist "discernment" movement. Although Dallas Jenkins, creator of The Chosen, is an evangelical Christian (his dad is Jerry B Jenkins, creator of the Left Behind books), some of the owners of Angel Studios, the business that has helped produce and distribute The Chosen, are Mormons. The Chosen has also been marketed to Mormons and showed in Mormon universities and Dallas has made comments to the effect of how he's glad that the show can be enjoyed by people from a variety of faith backgrounds. Critics have taken these comments as evidence that The Chosen is, at best, watering down the Gospel to appeal to Mormons and, at worst, secretly importing Mormon beliefs into the biblical stories in order to undermine evangelicalism. Never mind how Dallas has explicitly denied that The Chosen is a Mormon work. Underlying this conspiracy there seems to be an assumption that Evangelicals and Mormons can't enjoy the same Gospel adaptations and that Mormons are all out there secretly scheming to convert us.


Up until this point, the only concrete moment in The Chosen that I've seen people point to as proof of the Mormon conspiracy is the Born Again conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. I've already explained why I don't think this scene shouldn't be controversial, but let me give you a short take. At one point during the scene, Nicodemus is beginning to reckon with Jesus' identity and he's like, "How can I know if this is true?" In response, Jesus says, "What does your heart tell you?" Those who were already suspicious of a connection between The Chosen and Mormonism saw this as a reference to how Mormons engage in evangelism.



If you haven't engaged with a Mormon before, it goes something like this: the Mormon will share his/her testimony and some passages from the Book of Mormon and then ask if you feel a burning in the bosom - a subjective feeling that these things are true. They'll then point to that feeling as the testimony of the Holy Spirit to the truth of Mormonism.


Is there a slight resemblance between what Jesus says and what Mormons do? Sure, but guess what? There's a resemblance between a lot of stuff Mormons do/say and what Jesus/Evangelicals do/say, because Mormonism and its writings are also based in the New Testament. Even if Evangelicals like me may object to some Mormon beliefs, we should also recognize how much we have in common. We may not lay the same emphasis on subjective response as Mormons do in their evangelism, but the idea of a heart responding to the truth of Jesus is completely biblical (Luke 24:32) and not a sign of some insidious plot to corrupt the Gospel.


3 Nephi 15 in The Book of Mormon: "I am the Law and the Light"

Like Dallas, I hadn't even spent much time in the Book of Mormon prior to hearing about this controversy, but I have a basic understanding of Mormon beliefs. The source of this controversy is tied to a discourse in the Book of Mormon that explains why Mormons believe they have replaced the Jews as God's chosen people. Jesus (as he's portrayed by the Book of Mormon) explains how he has fulfilled the Law that God gave to the Jewish people. At one point, (Mormon) Jesus says:

Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life. (3 Nephi 15:9)

This statement doesn't have an exact analogue in the New Testament, but it does closely parallel New Testament ideas and language.


The idea that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses is all over the New Testament. Here are a few of the most prominent examples:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17, ESV)
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:44-47, ESV)
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4, ESV)

The belief that Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses is thoroughly biblical. To be sure, the Book of Mormon takes this biblical belief and applies it in new and heterodox ways. There's plenty of stuff I saw in 3 Nephi 15 that I would object to as an evangelical. But both Mormons and historically-orthodox Christians should be able to agree to the assertion that 3 Nephi 15:9 is making: Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. I bet you could find past sermons from dozens of prominent Christians pastors in a variety of denominations expressing the same thought; indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to find if several pastors had said the exact phrase: "Jesus is the law."


Not only is 3 Nephi 15:9 a thoroughly biblical idea, it's also articulated in language that's meant to mirror the language of the Gospel of John. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus asserts that he is many things ["I am the light of the world" (John 8:12), "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," (John 14:6), etc.]. The Gospel of John also famously calls Jesus "the Word" (John 1:1), which in the original context would have been tantamount to calling Jesus the Law. When the Book of Mormon has Jesus say he is the Law, it isn't being innovative; it's simply articulating a biblical idea in the linguistic style of John. Instead of accusing The Chosen of copying the Book of Mormon, it's fairer to say that both the Book of Mormon and The Chosen are copying the ideas and language of the Gospel of John.



Conspiracy Theories and Criticism of The Chosen Season 3

The idea that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses is a thoroughly biblical idea and the expression "I am the Law" clearly reflects the type of language that John uses in his portrayal of Jesus. The Book of Mormon may contain a similar ideas and language, but that shouldn't surprise us, since it too is an adaptation of the Bible (albeit, one which does contain heterodox teachings in various places). Instead of assuming that The Chosen is relying on the Book of Mormon, it makes a lot more sense to conclude that the superficial similarities between them are due to their common biblical sources. The only reason to take all of this as evidence that The Chosen is smuggling in Mormon ideas is if you've already assumed your conclusion.


Of course, that's exactly how conspiracy theories work. You construct a narrative first, and then you make the facts fit your narrative, instead of making your narrative fit the facts. In our post-truth world, this is how many people approach culture and news, but his isn't the way we're called to live as Christians. Most of us don't like it when atheist skeptics approach the Bible or Christian writings with a hermeneutic of suspicion, taking lines out of context in order to make unfair criticisms. As people who follow the Golden Rule, we should seek to be charitable toward others, just as we would want them to be charitable toward us.


Imagine if the spiritual provocateurs behind this controversy were alive during the times when the biblical texts were written. Anyone who has studied the original context of the Old Testament knows that the Hebrew Bible contains all kinds of similarities to the writings of Israel's pagan neighbors: similar stories, similar proverbs, similar laws, similar descriptions of God, similar poetry. If these critics followed their reasoning to its logical conclusion, they'd end up accusing the prophets of secretly trying to smuggle in the beliefs of ancient Egypt or Babylon into the Bible.



Why The Chosen Controversies Matter

I am not an absolute, unquestioning apologist for The Chosen. I have openly critiqued the show on several occasions, because I believe healthy criticism can be a form of loving service. When the creators of an ongoing show like The Chosen receive criticism, it's a signal for them to make adjustments and improve and ultimately create a better product. [Speaking of improving in response to healthy criticism, I noticed how in a recent interview Dallas Jenkins said he's trying to focus on building ongoing storylines in Season 3 and avoid a "miracle of the week" approach. It made me wonder if Dallas has been reading this blog, since I have used that exact phrase (miracle of the week) and I have argued that The Chosen Season 3 needs to focus more on the overarching plot of the season.] All this to say, I'm okay with people engaging with The Chosen by offering reasonable, constructive criticism. But some criticism - like the claim that The Chosen is secret Mormon propaganda - is neither reasonable nor constructive.


To that, some people may say, "So what? If paranoid people want to be paranoid, what harm does that do to the rest of us? Just ignore them!" But there is harm being done, because the people peddling these theories aren't doing it in a corner. There are YouTube channels with tens of thousands of views that are spewing these absurdities. And all of this has an effect on the cultural ecosystem of evangelicalism. The stupid controversies that follow The Chosen send a signal to future artists, creatives, and producers: "Don't bother trying to adapt the Bible; you're just going to get a lot of grief. Even if you try to be faithful, peddlers in controversy are going to nitpick over the slightest possible similarity between your work and their favorite spiritual bogeyman." This is why we can't have nice things, friends. Christian artists are reticent about producing biblical adaptations, because Christian viewers are the most unfair of all critics. Meanwhile, those who do produce biblical adaptations have their attention drawn away from making good art and are instead mired down in pointless controversies and pressured to achieve a degree of historical precision and theological clarity that even the biblical texts fail to satisfy.


We can support our artists better than this. The Christian community should be a space where creators feel safe - where they don't have to be afraid of getting berated for anything that even slightly resembles an error. Before we create elaborate conspiracy theories and accuse artists of having deceitful motives, we should be willing to question our own motives and what our penchant for criticism is actually driven by: love of God or love of attention.


Update: What does "I am the Law of Moses" mean?

When I initially addressed the controversy over Jesus saying, "I am the Law of Moses" in The Chosen Season 3 trailer, I was mostly focused on combating the "The-Chosen-is-Mormon-propaganda" conspiracy theory. Since then, the conversation has evolved and I want to acknowledge that some critics of the "I am the Law of Moses" line have worries that are much more grounded. While I still think these concerns are overblown, they are certainly reasonable and deserve a thoughtful response. After all, the "I am the Law of Moses" line can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and not all of them would be theologically accurate.


Jonathan Roumie as Jesus in The Chosen Season 3
Jonathan Roumie as Jesus in The Chosen Season 3

Until we see the full context for what Jesus is saying, I'm not sure we'll be able to definitively determine what he means when he says that he is the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, I think it would help to take a moment and consider some of the issues that make the meaning of this line ambiguous. While I agree that there are ways of interpreting the line that would not fit with biblical teaching, there are also several senses that are completely consistent with historic Christian orthodoxy.


Issue 1: The Law of Moses has multiple senses

There's a certain type of Christian that puts a high value on the precise meaning of terms in order to ensure theologically consistency and systematic coherence. They put a lot of effort into policing what terms are used and dictating how they should be used. I have some sympathy for the careful use of language, particularly in academic discussions of theology and in doctrinal statements. But the reality is that language tends to be used in a complex way that doesn't always fit into our precise definitions and systems. That's true of our ordinary language - and that's also true of language in the Bible. Words like "justification" have a variety of different meanings depending on the context - and if you don't recognize that, you'll end up tossing out sections of the Bible because they use language in a way that doesn't fit into your precise schema (as Luther famously considered tossing out James because of how it used the word "justified").


Most biblical scholars recognize that the Bible uses phrases like "the Law" or "the Law of Moses" in a variety of ways, some of which don't map directly onto the ways we use the same phrases in our everyday language and in our theological systems. Sometimes "the Law" is shorthand for the whole Pentateuch, sometimes it's referring to the Ten Commandments, and sometimes it's referring to the whole ritual and political regime set forth in the Old Testament. Sometimes when authors refer to "the Law," they're talking about the embodiment of God's wisdom, which God's people are called to meditate on and internalize , at other times they're talking about a system of justice that's intended to protect the rights of the vulnerable, and still other times, they're describing a standard of righteousness and holiness by which our actions are judged.


Those who object to Jesus saying "I am the Law of Moses" can point to biblical passages that draw a distinction between the Law and grace or between the Law and faith (e.g., Romans 2-8, Galatians 2-4, John 1:17). In many of these passages, Paul is combating a sect that is seeking to impose circumcision and other ritualistic elements of the Old Testament law on Gentile Christians and so he tends to focus on negative functions of the Law of Moses (especially in so far as it is divorced from grace) and he sometimes uses "the Law" not in reference to a holistic biblical understanding of the Law of Moses but rather as a shorthand for the erroneous way that his opponents are applying the law. John also contrasts the law that came through Moses and the grace that comes in Christ (John 1:17). However, instead of contrasting opposite extremes, John seems to be contrasting the lesser thing/the shadow (i.e. the Law) with the greater thing/the substance (grace in Christ). So even when we're comparing Paul's use of the phrase "the Law" with John's, we can see significant differences.


If the Bible itself uses a phrase like "the Law of Moses" in a variety of ways, we should be cautious about how interpret what a Christian work like The Chosen means when it refers to the Law. Our own theological traditions may have a preferred sense of what "the Law" is, but we should have the humility to recognize that Christians from other traditions may be using the phrase in a different way. In order to evaluate what a statement like "I am the Law of Moses" means, we need to consider the wide range of potential meanings instead of assuming a particular understanding based on our default assumptions.


Issue 2: Metaphor is ambiguous

There's another dimension of the statement "I am the Law of Moses" that seems to have caused a degree of confusion. Like most of Jesus' famous "I am" statements (which are obviously the pattern it is imitating), "I am the Law of Moses" is not a literal expression of identity; it is a metaphorical comparison. When Jesus says "I am the true vine," he isn't literally saying that he's a plant. When he says, "I am the good shepherd," Jesus isn't claiming that he literally spent time tending sheep. And in the same way, when Jesus (in The Chosen) says, "I am the Law of Moses," he isn't literally claiming to be identical to the Torah or the 10 Commandments or the Old Testament system. He's making a comparison between who he is/what he's doing and certain aspects/functions of the Law of Moses.


The tricky thing about a metaphorical statement is that we don't always know the extent of the comparison that's being asserted. Unlike similes, which typically identify a specific point of comparison (e.g., her skin was as white as snow), metaphors force us to ponder the degree to which two things are and are not the same. This makes metaphors more interesting and evocative from an artistic standpoint - but also more ambiguous and controversial. Consider the controversy generated by one of the biblical Jesus' own metaphors: "I am the bread of life." Is Jesus talking about literally being transubstantiated into the Eucharist? Is he just simply talking about how we can receive life from him through faith? Or maybe something in-between? Blood has been spilled over the ambiguity in Jesus' words.


Even if we can pin down a precise definition of what Jesus in The Chosen is referring to when he mentions "the Law of Moses," we'll still need to figure out the manner and extent to which he is comparing himself to the Law. It seems to me that many of the critics of this line are assuming that it's a statement of total identity, when it seems much more likely that a more limited comparison is in view - just like in Jesus' other "I am" statements.


Obviously Unbiblical Senses of "I am the Law of Moses"

Like I said, I think there are senses of "I am the Law of Moses" that would be unbiblical. By the same token, I think there are ways of interpreting "I am the way" or "the Word was God" that would be unbiblical. Here are a few examples:

  • "I am the Law of Moses" means "I am a standard that you must live up to in order to achieve right standing with God

  • "I am the Law of Moses" means "I am here primarily to teach you how to live"

  • "I am the Law of Moses" means "I am here to make the Jewish people distinct and separate from the surrounding nations"

  • "I am the Law of Moses" means "I am here primarily to convict people of sin, without providing them with forgiveness or the internal power needed to change"

Potentially Biblical Senses of "I am the Law of Moses"

I don't think any of the unbiblical ideas above fit with what Jesus seems to be saying to the Pharisees in the trailer for The Chosen Season 3. One of these biblical senses seems much more likely:

  • "I am the Law of Moses" means "I am the true of embodiment of God's will on earth"

  • "I am the Law of Moses" means "I am the perfect expression of God's wisdom and beauty"

  • "I am the Law of Moses means "I am the full revelation of God's righteous and loving character"

  • "I am the Law of Moses" means "I am God's means of dealing with the sin and injustice of his people"

  • "I am the Law of Moses" means "I am the highest authority for judging truth and justice"


Am I wrong here? I'd like to think that I'm open to correction if I'm way off base, so please feel free to leave a comment or reach out by email or on Twitter if there's something about this controversy you think I'm missing!


I am the Law of Moses: The Chosen & Scripture FAQ

Does Jesus say, "I am the Law of Moses" in the Bible?

Jesus says, "I am the Law of Moses" in the trailer for Season 3 of The Chosen.


In the historic Christian Bible, Jesus never says, "I am the Law of Moses." It is debated whether certain understandings of this expression might fit with other things Jesus said about himself.


In the Book of Mormon, which is part of the LDS Bible, Jesus says, "I am the law and the light."


Is The Chosen based on the Book of Mormon? Is The Chosen quoting the Book of Mormon?

Dallas Jenkins, the creator of The Chosen, has denied claims that Jesus' statement in The Chosen, "I am the Law of Moses," was based on the Book of Mormon. According to Jenkins, he had hardly read anything from the Book of Mormon and did not know it said something similar until the controversy was brought to his attention. More generally, Jenkins has denied that The Chosen is a Mormon work. The context and meaning of what Jesus says in The Chosen appears to be very different from the similar statement in the Book of Mormon.


Is Dallas Jenkins Mormon. Is Dallas Jenkins LDS? What are his beliefs?

No, Dallas Jenkins is not Mormon or LDS. He is an evangelical Christian and appears to ascribe to beliefs that are fairly standard among evangelical Christians.


 

Further Reading

An adaptation like The Chosen isn't meant to replace the Bible; it's meant to drive us deeper into the Bible and spiritual reflection. The 40 Days with Jesus series helps readers connect what they watch in The Chosen with the Gospel stories that they're based on and then engage in spiritual reflection.

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Contributing to The Bible Artist

Have my posts about Bible adaptation helped you learn more about the Bible and explore it with your ministry or family? I offer my work for free and rely on the generous support of readers like you. Your contributions mean so much. Thank you!

 

If you liked this post, I've done several posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation that you might want to check out, including articles on how The Chosen adapts key biblical characters and discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Season 1 and Season 2. You may also be interested in some of my other content on adaptation and youth ministry.


The Chosen Season 3