Updated: Aug 14
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If there's one aspect of The Chosen that elevates it above previous adaptations of the Gospels, it's the portrayal of Jesus. I've discussed before how adaptations tend to portray Jesus in ways that err either on the side of his humanity (emphasizing his struggle to the point of making him unsure of his own identity) or on the side of his divinity (emphasizing his authority to the point of making his suffering seem illusory). So far, however, The Chosen has maintained an impressive balance in depicting Jesus' two natures. What's even more impressive though, is how successfully the show makes Jesus not only relatably human and awe-inspiringly divine but also a genuinely likable person.
Lofty Jesus can inspire respect, mopey doubtful Jesus can inspire empathy, and charismatic hippy Jesus can inspire positivity, but I've seen fairly few depictions of Jesus that I'd actually want to spend an eternity with.
Encountering the God-Man
It's hard to know what exactly it means to portray someone as divine in a visual medium. Indeed, some have argued that trying to capture the divine essence in a visible form violates the second commandment and lessens God by bringing him down to our level. This puts adaptations of the Gospels in a terrible bind. They can either try to visualize Jesus' essentially invisible and inexpressible divine qualities or they can depict Jesus like anyone else and run the risk of being accused of making him into a mere mortal.
Early film adaptations of the Gospels, influenced by the then-still-prominent iconographic tradition of the glowing halo, often do their best to capture Jesus' divinity visually and through his characterization. Visually, the use of extra light or backlight on Jesus can make him literally appear to glow or shine - almost like an angel. Moreover, Jesus is characterized as being aloof and almost completely unperturbed and only half-concerned with the events that unfold around him. He enters into suffering like a stoic, with little evidence of fear, grief, or struggle. He almost seems unaware that his body is getting tortured - he's so focused on his purpose and his connection to God. All of this is meant to suggest to us that he sees things from an elevated divine perspective.
The glowing Jesus with one foot in heaven and one foot on earth can sometimes strike audiences as admirable and honorable, but he also often comes across as distant and even boring. In reaction against this, most filmmakers who have arisen since the Classical Era of Hollywood have given up on trying to visualize Jesus' divinity and have instead laid their focus on his humanity. Instead of a Jesus who seems almost half-aware of his earthly existence, they give us a Jesus who seems almost wholly unaware of his divine nature. This Jesus doesn't just struggle against sin; he struggles to know who he is and what he's here to do. Even faithful adaptations that avoid calling Jesus' divinity into question will lay most of their emphasis on the human aspects of his experience, particularly his suffering and emotion, and make little effort to suggest his divinity.
Instead of giving us decontextualized miracles, each encounter with Jesus is depicted as the culmination of an individual's relationship with God... right at the point when it seems like God should show up, instead we get Jesus.
I've mentioned before how The Chosen seems most interested in telling stories about personal encounters with Jesus. As a result, the audience sees Jesus from the distinct perspective of specific individuals instead of viewing events through a more detached and objective point of view. More than anything else, I think this subject, personal approach to Jesus is what allow The Chosen to capture both his divinity and his humanity in a way that feels balanced and authentic.
The objective perspective of traditional adaptations is what forces them to rely on visual cues like light or on a lofty persona to suggest Jesus' divinity. By contrast, The Chosen suggests that Jesus is divine, not through objective cues but rather through the role he plays in each character's story. Instead of giving us decontextualized miracles, each encounter with Jesus is depicted as the culmination of an individual's relationship with God. We don't follow Jesus as he goes from one needy person in need of healing to the next. Instead, we follow Mary as she wrestles with God over her possession or Peter as he wrestles with God over his inability to pay his taxes. Then right at the point when it seems like God should show up, instead we get Jesus. This is then further reinforced by the awestruck way each character reacts to Jesus when he shows up and how they talk about their encounters with him to others. Instead of seeing Jesus' divinity, we're led to feel it through our empathy with the characters he meets.
Because The Chosen doesn't have to worry about suggesting Jesus' divinity by characterizing him as lofty and inaccessible, it's also free to make him humble and human. His appearance is unremarkable, just as Isaiah foretold, and he comes across as earthy, physical, and genuinely focused on the people and events surrounding him. People recognize him from his youth and from construction jobs that they worked on with him. He doesn't come off as a ghost who descended from heaven just before his human ministry and who is floating a foot off the ground. Yet unlike other adaptations that try to humanize Jesus by making him self-doubting, Jesus in The Chosen clearly knows who he is and the purpose given to him by his heavenly Father.
A Friend You'd Actually Enjoy Having
Adaptations that err in either emphasis, divinity or humanity, are united in one aspect: their portrayals of Jesus rarely inspire affection. Lofty Jesus can inspire respect, mopey doubtful Jesus can inspire empathy, and charismatic hippy Jesus can inspire positivity, but I've seen fairly few depictions of Jesus that I'd actually want to spend an eternity with. By contrast, Jesus in The Chosen feels like the kind of person you'd genuinely want to leave everything behind to follow and live with for three years. He's funny but not desperate for laughs; he honestly challenges his disciples but doesn't come across as lofty and demanding; he shows compassion but doesn't feel like a sycophantic doormat. By focusing on personal encounters, The Chosen conveys Jesus' genuine care for individuals as individuals instead of making his miracles come across as bids for attention and respect. By sprinkling Jesus' practical teachings and parables throughout the story, we see the beauty of his teaching not just objectively but also subjectively as medicine that meets each character in the ways they need to be met. Jesus' welcome to the marginalized is also foregrounded, as I've noted before, showcasing his compassion and pity. To sum things up, the best aspects of Jesus' character in the Gospels are highlighted, the worst baggage from previous adaptations is eliminated, and he's given a personality that feels realistic and fitting in light of everything else.
My previous posts about The Chosen have had a healthy dose of critique and so it might have come across at times as if I had a low opinion of the show. Yet the portrayal of Jesus more than redeems the show from whatever deficiencies the other characters might have. How very meta.
Have these posts about The Chosen helped you understand The Chosen or explore it with your ministry or family? Would you consider giving a few bucks to support my work as a writer? It's really simple to do using my account on Buy Me a Coffee. Thanks so much!
If you liked this post, I've done several other posts on The Chosen that you might want to check out, including explorations of how the show adapts key biblical characters and guides on how to lead your youth group in discussing each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1 & 2. You may also be interested in some of my other content on adaptation and youth ministry.
Adapting Biblical Characters Series
Judas in The Chosen ***Season 2***
James & John in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Mary Magdalene in The Chosen ***Season 2 Update***
Simon and Andrew in The Chosen ***Season 2 Update***
Exploring the Chosen with Youth [Guides for Youth Leaders]
Season 2 Reflection P1: What is The Chosen Season 2 about?
Season 2 Reflection P2: What was The Chosen Season 2 about? (Plots & Theme)
Episode 1 Guide: The Beloved Disciple
Episode 2 Guide: Philip, Nathanael, & Matthew
Episode 3 Guide: Life Among the Disciples of Jesus
Episode 4 Guide: Simon the Zealot & the Man at the Bethesda Pool
Episode 5 Guide: Mary's Demons & the Destiny of John the Baptist
Episode 6 Guide: Mercy and Not Sacrifice
Episode 7 Guide: Quintus Returns
Episode 8 Guide: Judas, Matthew, & the Sermon on the Mount
Episode 1 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Lilith, and the Redeemer
Episode 2 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Shabbat
Episode 3 Guide: Depicting Jesus in Art, Film, and TV
Episode 4 Guide: When Jesus Met Simon (Peter)
Episode 5 Guide: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Episode 6 Guide: Jesus, Shmuel, & the Pharisees
Episode 7 Guide: Did Nicodemus Follow Jesus?
Episode 8 Guide: The Woman at the Well, Eden, & Zohara
Posts on the Nature of Adaptation
Youth Ministry and the Arts