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James & John in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)

Updated: May 31

The Chosen Season 2 is here, and the Sons of Thunder (John and Big James) showed up in an appropriately big and surprising way. While The Chosen Season 2 premier this past Sunday had sooo much going on, I want to focus this post on some of the very interesting things The Chosen is doing with the sons of Zebedee.

James and John were really just background characters in The Chosen Season 1, but Episode 1 of the new season suggests that the tension between the two sibling pairs (i.e. James & John and Simon & Andrew) will function as a major plot line in the coming season(s) of The Chosen. Apart from the James & John vs. Simon & Andrew tension, The Chosen Season 2 also features John (and James, in a sense) in its very first post-Jesus frame narrative, an intriguing new development that will allow The Chosen to engage with the story of Jesus in some novel ways, which we'll also explore below.

Big James & John vs. Peter & Andrew

Season 1 focused on how a core group of disciples (Simon, Andrew, Matthew, Little James, Big James, John, Mary, Thomas, Ramah, and Thaddeus) encountered Jesus and accepted the call to follow him. Season 2 picks up with the disciples together on their very first "mission trip" to the town of Sychar, where Photina (the Samaritan Woman at the Well) has been stirring up a lot of interest in Jesus based on her testimony. Led by Simon, most of the disciples are busy attempting to manage Jesus, while Big James and John are out on their own special mission - Jesus has instructed the sons of Zebedee to till and sow a random field with seeds that will "feed generations." Hard as the work may be, John and Big James are grateful that they can avoid working among the Samaritans of Sychar and take the special task as a sign that Jesus likes them more than the others.

Armed with this sense of special entitlement, when John and Big James finally arrive at the disciples' headquarters in Sychar, they soon find themselves at odds with Simon, who has been acting as the de facto Alpha. To make matters worse, Jesus has "gotten lost" under Simon's watch, which John and James take as a sign that they need to implement their own agenda and measures of security. Moreover, Jesus gives them another special task, which John and James take as an occasion to order the other disciples about, much to the chagrin of Simon.

The attempt of James and John to elevate themselves over the other disciples is clearly setting up a power struggle among the disciples that will eventually lead to Jesus' famous speech about servant leadership. As the Gospel of Mark describes it:

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45 ESV)

When we see this power struggle described in the Gospels, the focus is on how foolish and misguided it is. That's still obvious in how The Chosen adapts the incident - the audience can clearly see that the proud entitlement of James and John is sinful and foolish. But one of the beautiful things about taking a conflict that's summarized in just a couple sentences and adapting it into a story arc that runs throughout an entire season or series is that The Chosen will also be able to show the types of rationalizations that undergird power struggles like this. John and Big James may be a bit power-hungry, but they aren't simply power-hungry. They are able to rationalize their hunger for power by looking at how disorganized and chaotic things have been under Simon's management and telling themselves that their leadership is needed in order to ensure Jesus' safety and to maximize the efficacy of his ministry. Simon, for his part, seems to have a similar mindset to James and John; the only difference is that Simon thinks that he's the one who needs to be in charge to maximize the efficacy of Jesus' ministry. It'll be interesting to see how this conflict between the two pairs of brothers will continue to evolve as the series continues.

Jesus walking with James, John, Simon, Andrew, and the other disciples in The Chosen
Jesus walking with James, John, Simon, Andrew, and the other disciples in The Chosen

Big James and John, the Sons of Thunder

As I noted above, John and Big James make it clear on several occasions that they hold a deep distaste for Samaritans like those that live in Sychar. It confounds them why Jesus would want to spend so much time among the historical enemies of the Jews, a people that they are suspicious of and see a defiling. This racial and religious animosity reaches a climax toward the end of the episode when a band of Samaritans spit and throw things at Jesus and the two of them. John, who has seen Jesus heal a man from afar, suggests using the same authority to bring down fire from heaven, adapting a scene from the Gospel of Luke:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village. (Luke 9:51-56 ESV)

Just as Luke describes, The Chosen has Jesus sternly rebuke John and James for their violent and merciless response. And yet, while rebuking their ruthlessness, Jesus affirms their bold and audacious spirit, giving them their nickname, "the Sons of Thunder" (cf. Mark 3:17).

During Season One, I commented on how The Chosen emphasized Jesus' heart for outcasts almost to the point of deemphasizing the sinfulness of those Jesus called. For example, Matthew, as a Tax Collector with Aspergers excluded by society, wasn't primarily in need of a Savior to redeem him from sin; rather, he was in need of a loving and accepting community.

The storyline of James and John in Season 2 seems to be balancing this tendency. The two sons of Zebedee aren't depicted as poor outcasts in need of love. The primary thing they need from Jesus isn't inclusion and acceptance. What they need is gracious but firm correction - and, ultimately, redemption.

The Gospel of John

The Chosen Season One begins most episodes with a prologue set decades or even centuries earlier - scenes from the Old Testament or set earlier in the life of a main character. The Chosen Season Two begins its first episode with a frame narrative set decades in the future, following the death of Big James. We watch as various disciples (now aged) are interviewed about the first time they met Jesus. If you're like me and you've listened to several sermons on the reliability of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:1-4), you probably initially assumed that the interviewer was Luke. Over time, however, we pick up on breadcrumbs that suggest a different identity: we're told that the interviewer was present when Simon first met Jesus (Matthew 4:18-22), Mary tells him he should be focused on mourning the death of James (Acts 12:1-3), points out no one could ever count all the wonders Jesus did (John 21:25), and she refers to John as her son (cf. when Jesus tells John to take Mary as his mother in John 19:25-27). Finally, we see John sit down to write his Gospel and, after contemplating several possible "beginnings" to begin with, he settles on the beginning and he settles down to write the opening lines of his Gospel.

Although we don't return back to the frame until the end of the episode, we see John and Big James marveling at the authority Jesus has to shape the Creation with his mere words when Jesus performs a long-distance healing of a man with a broken leg. Later, we see that John is contemplating what this act reveals about Jesus' nature. When Jesus asks him, "Who is worthy of anything?" (a reference to Revelation 5), John replies, "You, but no man apparently." When Jesus insists, "I'm a man, John," John pushes him further, saying, "And yet..." - and Jesus rewards his boldness by confiding, "I am who I am" (cf. Exodus 3:14; John 8:58). When Jesus then asks John what book from the Torah he should read from for the Samaritan synagogue, John's mind , when God shaped the Creation through his words. We then see Jesus reading Genesis 1 spliced with John writing the first words of his Gospel in the frame narrative:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 ESV)

I expect that there will be some mixed reactions to the introduction of a future frame narrative. If you don't like the frame, I wouldn't fret: I doubt it will to be present in every episode going forward. For my part, I found the frame to be a very interesting exploration of how the gospels were written. Contrary to the Dictation Theory of Inspiration (where God zaps a writer and he suddenly writes everything out word for word), The Chosen depicts the writing of the Gospel of John as a very human process. To be clear, The Chosen doesn't negate the role of the Holy Spirit, nor is it attacking the Divine Inspiration or authority of the Gospel of John, but it is attempting to show us the agency and role of John and the entire community of faithful witnesses that continued to follow Jesus after his Ascension.

Consider some of the human elements that we see going into the writing of the Gospel:

  • John seems to undertake writing the Gospel on his own initiative.

  • We see John recording a variety of eyewitnesses, and John also explains to these witnesses how he will eventually edit their testimonies and select which stories to include.

  • The Chosen shows us how particular experiences with Jesus led John to contemplate his divine identity and articulate christology in a bold and unique way

  • We also see how John's conversations with Jesus (i.e. the "who is worthy?" bit) were the seeds of his unique vision of heaven depicted in Revelation.

  • The Chosen also shows John processing his ideas both on his own and in dialogue with Mary.

  • Mary point out to John that his sense of being specially loved by Jesus (i.e. the disciple Jesus loved) is a matter of his own perspective and experience.

  • The Chosen also suggests that John borrows not only stories but theological ideas from others (i.e. Mary's disclaimer).

In little ways like this, The Chosen shows us that the writing of the Gospel of John was a communal effort, not just a spiritual lightning bolt to John's head.

The Disciple Jesus Loved

Scholars who study the Gospel of John have long debated the identity of "the disciple Jesus loved," (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2, 21:7; 21:20) - also sometimes referred to as "the other disciple" (John 1:35; 18:15-16). Some scholars have suggested that this is a title for Mary Magdalene or Nicodemus. More convincingly, Richard Bauckham has argued that the Beloved Disciple is a Jerusalemite follower of Jesus who also happened to be named John (Testimony of the Beloved Disciple). However, The Chosen opts for the traditional and (among Evangelicals) most popular identification of the Beloved Disciple, namely, John the son of Zebedee. This is, of course, related to the decision to depict John the son of Zebedee as the author of the Gospel of John, since the Beloved Disciple is also usually identified with the writer of the Gospel of John.

The Chosen has a bit of fun exploring why John might refer to him with such a singular way. As I've noted above, John and James initially conclude that they are special to Jesus because he asks them to till a field instead of having to mingle with the Samaritans [interestingly, the Gospel of John is particularly interested in seeds and agriculture (cf. John 12:24, John 15:1-5)]. We also see Big James and especially John getting pulled aside to receive special revelations (eg. when Jesus reveals to both of them how he's healed the injured man or, more importantly, when Jesus and John have their discussion of Jesus' divine identity). In the frame narrative, John concludes based on these encounters that he was in the inner circle and was specially loved by Jesus - a conclusion that does seem to be in keeping with how the writer of the Gospel of John thinks of himself.

Wow. That was a lot. And I didn't even cover several significant elements in The Chosen Season Two Episode One the prequel to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the story of Thomas, Ramah, and her father - to name just a few). I'd encourage you to watch it again if you haven't already, because there's a lot to take in! And keep your eyes open, because apparently The Chosen Season 2 is going to get released as each episode is completed - and the next episode might even be finished by the end of the week. What a fun season ahead!

Big James and John in The Chosen and in Scripture

Who are Big James and John in the Bible and why are they important?

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were two of Jesus' twelve disciples and a part of his inner circle, along with Simon Peter and sometimes Andrew (see Mark 5:35-42, Mark 13:3, Matthew 7:1-13). John is traditionally considered to be the author of the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John, and Revelation, and is therefore also believed to be "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 21:20-24). If John is the author of these writings, he is particularly noteworthy because he presents several events and teachings of Jesus that are unique and not found in other Gospels.

Who are the Sons of Thunder? Why are James and John called the Sons of Thunder?

In the Bible, we are told that Jesus gave James and John, the sons of Zebedee, the knickname, "the Sons of Thunder" or Boanerges (Mark 3:17). We are never explicitly told why Jesus calls James and John the Sons of Thunder, however, many interpreters have concluded it has to do with the brash and zealous character we see on display when they ask to call fire down on Samaritans for rejecting Jesus (Luke 9:51-56). The Chosen follows this theory - while also highlighting how the zeal of James and John can be directed to good purposes.

Why did Jesus rebuke James and John?

In the Bible, Jesus rebukes James and John after they ask him to call fire down on the Samaritans who rejected him (Luke 9:51-56). We are not told exactly what Jesus said. However, it seems like James and John are being rebuked for being too confrontational and violent, instead of embracing Jesus' way of loving enemies and praying for those who reject and persecute you.

Did James and John plow a field?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Jesus asked James and John to plow a field.

In The Chosen, during Season 2, Episode 1, Jesus asks Big James and John to plow a field. At first, we don't know why. By the end of the episode, we discover that Jesus is having them do this for a character in need. This story was invented by The Chosen.

Was Big James replaced in The Chosen?

Big James has been recast twice in The Chosen - once halfway through Season 1 and once in between Season 1 and Season 2.

Who plays John in The Chosen? Which actor played Big James in The Chosen?

In The Chosen, John, the son of Zebedee, is played by George Harrison Xanthis. Big James is played by Shayan Sobhian in the first half of Season 1 and by Kian Kavousi in the second half of Season 1 and by Abe Martell in Season 2 and beyond.


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 the events of Season 2 with Scripture and their own everyday lives.

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