John the Baptist in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)
Updated: 6 days ago
With The Chosen Season 3 just around the corner, the death of John the Baptist (aka. John the Baptizer) is drawing nigh. Christians don't always know what to make of John the Baptist as he's depicted in the Bible, and so adapting him into a show like The Chosen is tricky. Today we'll be exploring what the Bible says about John the Baptist and how David Amito and The Chosen have brought his character to life.
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John the Baptist in the Bible
The New Testament makes the role of John the Baptist pretty clear: as the last of the Old Covenant prophets, John was called to prepare the people of Israel for the Messiah. Indeed, John begins to carry out this divine calling before he's even born:
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:39-45, ESV)
Even as a fetus in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth, John the Baptist joyfully hailed the approach of God's chosen Messiah.The Gospels go on to describe John's adult ministry and how he baptized the people of Israel to prepare them for the coming king:
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:2-8, ESV)
The Gospels typically don't give us a very detailed description of the appearance or habits of most characters, but we get several evocative details about John the Baptist: he is clothed in camel's hair, he wore a leather belt, and he ate locusts and honey. These details might seem random to modern readers, but original readers would have understood the description of John's apparel as a subtle allusion to Elijah, one of the most significant Old Testament prophets. During a confrontation with an Israelite ruler in the Book of Kings, Elijah is described in a very similar fashion:
The messengers returned to the king, and he said to them, “Why have you returned?” And they said to him, “There came a man to meet us, and said to us, ‘Go back to the king who sent you, and say to him, Thus says the Lord, Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.’” He said to them, “What kind of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?” They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.” Then the king sent to him a captain of fifty men with his fifty. He went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’” But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty. (2 Kings 1:5-10, ESV)
The Gospels want us to connect Elijah and John the Baptist for a couple reasons. On the most basic level, the Gospels are engaging in characterization. The obvious similarities between the appearance of Elijah and the appearance of John draw our attention to the more significant similarities between the calling of Elijah and the calling of John. Elijah and John the Baptist are both prophets called to challenge the rulers of God's people. Ahab, the King of Israel in Elijah's day, and Herod Antipas, the King of Galilee in John's day, both deserve to be condemned for leading the people of God astray into religious and political compromise. Elijah and John the Baptist carry out their calling with boldness and self-abandon, even in the face of violent opposition and the threat of death. And yet Elijah and John's fierce opposition to the rich and powerful is matched by an equally fierce compassion for the poor and oppressed. Elijah protects a poor widow from predatory lenders (1 Kings 17) while John the Baptist confronts the predatory practices of soldiers and tax collectors (Luke 3:12-14).
Of course, there's a deeper significance to the connection between Elijah and John the Baptist. Malachi, the last of the biblical prophets, prophesied that before the coming of the Messiah and the Day of the Lord, God would first send "Elijah" back to his people in order to call them to repentance:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6, ESV)
Some Jews understood this prophecy in a very literal sense and expected Elijah to come down from heaven - where he had ascended in a chariot of fire at the end of his ministry (2 Kings 2). Jesus had to explain to his disciples that Malachi's prophecy was fulfilled not through the literal appearance of Elijah but rather through the ministry of John the Baptist, who was filled with the spirit of Elijah:
He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:11-13, ESV)
The biblical picture of John is nuanced. On the one hand, Jesus praises him as the greatest of the Old Covenant prophets (Matthew 11:11). On the other hand, just as Elijah struggled with doubt and despair in the face of violent opposition (1 Kings 19), John had doubts about Jesus while he suffered in prison:
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:2-6, ESV)
Unfortunately for John, there was one significant dissimilarity between him and Elijah: their fate. Unlike Elijah, one of the only Old Testament figures to escape death by ascending into heaven (2 Kings 2), John the Baptist faced a grisly end. Though Herod Antipas feared John because of his righteousness, he ultimately had John executed at the request of his wife and daughter:
For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias's daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:17-29, ESV)
All the signs suggest that John's death will be one of the more significant moments in Season 3 of The Chosen.
John the Baptist in The Chosen
Even though The Chosen has given us relatively few scenes with John the Baptist, it's been able capture a great deal of what the Bible has to say about him. We first meet John in jail, where he's been imprisoned for disturbing the peace and preaching in a manner that concerns the Jewish and Roman leaders. As Nicodemus questions John about the significance of Mary's miraculous exorcism, the Baptizer drives two points home. First, John shows nothing but contempt for the rich Pharisees who engage in formal religiosity while compromising with Rome in the oppression of the poor. Second, John makes it clear that he is eagerly preparing for the revelation of a divine Messiah.
John's advocacy for the poor and his opposition to the rich and complacent Pharisees clearly fits with his biblical portrait, but at first I questioned the degree of knowledge that The Chosen gave John about Jesus' divine status. After all, the Gospels seem to suggest that it took Jesus' disciples time to recognize the full extent of his divine identity. But then I recalled John's testimony to Jesus in the Gospel of John:
John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’" (John 1:15, ESV)
John's testimony is intentionally cryptic but in the context of the Gospel of John, it's clear that he's referring to Jesus' divine preexistence. Though John may have struggled with questions and doubts in his darkest moments, The Chosen correctly gives him a significant degree of insight into Jesus' identity.
I've already discussed the controversy over how Simon and Andrew refer to John the Baptist as "creepy John" and so I won't revisit that point in depth. However, it's worth noting how this description of John resonates with how many of the other prophets are perceived by other characters in the Bible. Jesus himself is called "out of his mind" by his own family members (Mark 3:21). It's not hard to believe that some of the disciples would view a bold and idiosyncratic prophet like John as a little crazy or a bit creepy - or at least jokingly call him creepy.
There's one other aspect of the portrayal of John the Baptist in The Chosen that causes discomfort among modern evangelicals. In Episode 5 of The Chosen Season 2, we see John and Jesus having a frank conversation about the status and future of their respective ministries. During this conversation, John pointedly questions Jesus' approach to ministry and expresses impatience at Jesus' preference for speaking cryptic parables and ministering on the margins of society. John is planning to denounce Herod Antipas openly for his sin and he wants Jesus to adopt the same confrontational approach. Jesus, for his part, questions John about whether confronting Herod is a good idea, although he ultimately affirms John's decision.
For some Christians, it's hard to believe that John the Baptist and Jesus would have had disagreements about how to approach ministry. For my part, I find the disagreement between John and Jesus to be quite believable and true to life. We know that, although Jewish leaders were equally opposed to both John the Baptist and Jesus, one was considered a dancing flute and one was considered a funeral dirge - that is to say, they each had a distinct personality and ministry style (Luke 7:31-34). The fact that John was different from Jesus wasn't just because he was less perfect; their distinct personalities were fit for their respective callings. In my own experience in ministry, many of those I've served with have had very different personalities. Often serving with someone who is different is fun and stimulating, but just as often it can lead to disagreement. God's gifts lead us to have conflicting approaches to ministry and that creates tension. Such moments of tension aren't inherently sinful. What I enjoyed about the exchange between John the Baptist and Jesus in The Chosen is that we got to see the tension created by their unique personalities and approaches and yet we also saw them navigate that tension in a healthy and loving fashion.
Was there anything else about the portrayal of John the Baptist in The Chosen that you found interesting? Please feel free to share your thoughts, questions, and feedback in the comments below or to reach out over email or Twitter. Assuming we see the imprisonment and death of John in The Chosen Season 3, you can expect an update to this post in the coming weeks.
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John the Baptist in The Chosen & in Scripture: FAQ
How did John the Baptist die?
In the Bible, Herod Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded. In violation of Jewish Law, Herod had taken Herodias, the wife of his brother, as his own. When John publicly denounced Herod's action, Herod had him arrested. Originally, Herod did not intend to execute John, but Herodias and her daughter were able to persuade him (Matthew 14:1-11).
In The Chosen, John the Baptist will most likely die during Season 3.
Did people think John the Baptist was creepy or crazy?
In the Bible, there is no record of people calling John the Baptist creepy or crazy. However, people did accuse John of having a demon (Matthew 11:18), which at the time would have similar connotations.
In The Chosen, Simon Peter sometimes calls John the Baptist "Creepy John" when talking with Andrew. Even after they realize John is a true prophet, they continue to use this phrase as a term of endearment.
Did John the Baptist and Jesus disagree?
In the Bible, there is no indication that Jesus and John the Baptist had disagreements.
In The Chosen, during Season 2, Episode 5, we see John the Baptist and Jesus have a minor disagreement about whether John should go and confront Herod.
Who plays John the Baptist in The Chosen?
In The Chosen, John the Baptist is played by David Amito.
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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If you liked this post, you might want to check out some of my other posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation. I have Bible studies/discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1-3, blogs exploring how The Chosen adapts key biblical figures, and articles exploring the controversial nature of adaptation. I hope you enjoy them!
The Chosen Season 3
Reflecting on The Chosen Season 3 & Anticipating Season 4: What Worked & What to Fix
The Chosen Season 3 Episode 1 & Episode 2: Reaction and Analysis
The Chosen Season 3 Episodes 7 & 8: Recap, Review, & Analysis
The Chosen Season 3 Episodes 1 & 2: Questions to Discuss Before the Premiere
Adapting Biblical Characters Series
Thomas & Ramah in The Chosen & Scripture ***Season 3***
Yussif, Jairus, & Shmuel in The Chosen ***Season 3***
Quintus, Gaius, Atticus, and the Romans in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Little James in The Chosen & Scripture ***Season 3***
Pontius Pilate & his Wife in The Chosen ***Season 3***
Judas in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Matthew in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Simon and Andrew in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]
Episode 1 Guide: Homecoming
Episode 2 Guide: Two by Two
Episode 3 Guide: Physician, Heal Thyself
Episode 4 Guide: Clean Part 1
Episode 5 Guide: Clean Part 2
Episode 6 Guide: Intensity in Tent City
Episode 7 Guide: Ears to Hear
Episode 8 Guide: The Feeding of the 5,000
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