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Matthew in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)

Updated: Feb 8

***Read on for a Season 3 update***

Out of all of the characters in The Chosen, the adaptation of Matthew is the most innovative and original. Although the Gospels give us relatively little information about who Matthew was or what his personality was like, The Chosen makes Matthew quite distinctive as a person with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome and a variety of accompanying tics and anxieties. What makes this creative choice effective is that it actually serves a role both in explaining the biblical account and in fitting into the kind of stories that The Chosen wants to tell.

 

Just like Mary Magdalene, the main problem that Matthew struggles with isn’t sin; it’s rejection. And therefore the main solution that The Chosen offers for his struggle isn’t heart transformation and forgiveness; it’s acceptance and inclusion.

 

Explaining the Biblical Matthew

What we can actually know about Matthew based on the Gospels is relatively limited. The only story that he plays a dramatic role in is short and shows us very little about his character:

After this [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” [Luke 5:27-32 (ESV)]

Based on this short story, we know a few things:

  • Matthew was a tax collector working for the Roman Empire

  • Matthew was rich enough to host a great feast on the spur of the moment

  • Matthew had connections to other tax collectors and "sinners"

  • Matthew was held in disrepute by the Pharisees, most likely because he was seen as a traitor working for the foreign occupation

  • Matthew left his work for the Roman empire apparently on the spur of a moment to follow Jesus

In addition to these explicit facts given to us in the Gospels, The Chosen also draws conclusions about Matthew's character based on the style of the Gospel of Matthew:

  • Matthew had a good memory and was very attentive to detail, as is presumably seen in how his gospel is longer and more detailed than Mark and contains things like genealogies

  • Matthew was fascinated with Jesus' teaching, as is presumably seen in how his gospel carries much more of what Jesus taught and more parables

  • Matthew had detailed knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, as is seen in the amount of quotations and allusions present in his gospel

  • Matthew was keenly aware of God's inclusion of sinners and other unlikely sorts, as is presumably seen in how his genealogy of Jesus includes figures like Tamar and Rahab.

In order to adapt Matthew’s character, it’s not enough to clump all these facts and conclusions together into one long list. By making Matthew into a person with Aspergers, The Chosen reconciles what might initially seem like desperate character details into a three-dimensional and realistic person.


Why would someone be willing to endure social alienation in order to serve the Roman Empire? The Chosen suggests it’s because Matthew already was isolated and rejected because of his condition. This is also the explanation for why Matthew was so quick to abandon his service of Rome in order to follow Jesus. Contrary to what we might have assumed, he wasn’t in it for the money; he was just looking for a place where he could belong and use his prodigious attention to detail – the kind of role that Jesus is able to provide him as his personal scribe. The ability of people with Aspergers to learn quickly also explains how Matthew, who as a tax collector presumably wasn’t trained to be a Bible scholar, ended up becoming so prodigious in his knowledge of not only Jesus’ teaching but also the Hebrew Scriptures.


Matthew: Misunderstood Outsider or Sick Sinner?

In general, I find the unique way that The Chosen was able to tie together and explain so much of what we know about Matthew from the Bible to be very satisfying. But there is one detail about Matthew’s character that The Chosen fails to account for. When the Pharisees confront Jesus about his friendship with Matthew and the other tax collectors, Jesus’ response isn’t that the tax collectors are just lonely and misunderstood. He agrees with the Pharisees’ diagnosis: Matthew and his friends are indeed sick sinners. Showing love and acceptance is part of what Dr. Jesus prescribes in order to heal Matthew, but that isn’t the final cure. Ultimately Jesus has come to “call…sinners to repentance.” Just like Mary Magdalene though, the main problem that Matthew struggles with isn’t sin; it’s rejection. And therefore the main solution that The Chosen offers for his struggle isn’t heart transformation and forgiveness; it’s acceptance and inclusion.


To be clear, I don’t think The Chosen is trying to completely eliminate the idea of sin, repentance, and forgiveness from the character of Matthew and others. Jesus still says the famous words about coming to call sinners to repentance when confronted by the tax collectors. But the words feel a bit hollow when we've been exposed to relatively few defects in Matthew’s character. Even the flaws we do see seem to be tied more to his condition than they are to simple selfishness or idolatry, which makes his sin seem to be more of a byproduct of being a misfit than the overflow of a sinful heart.


It would have been interesting if The Chosen had framed his interactions with Quintus as being driven by an inordinate desire for approval and acceptance (making Quintus into a kind of false replacement for Matthew’s father Alphaeus). In that case, Matthew’s decision to follow Jesus would have involved rejecting a false and sinful source of acceptance in favor of the true inclusion found in the community of Jesus. This would allow Matthew’s character to be sympathetic as an outsider, while at the same time demonstrating how inclusion in the family of Jesus does come at a cost. That being said, Matthew’s character doesn’t appear to have been sidelined like Mary was, so we can hope that season 2 will show us a little more struggle on his part with turning from his former way of life.


***Update: Matthew in The Chosen Season 2 & Season 3***

In my original post about Matthew, I questioned whether The Chosen was focusing too much on Matthew's struggles for acceptance and inclusion while neglecting his struggles with sin. At the end of Season 1, when Jesus invited Matthew to follow him and be a part of his movement, it initially seemed like Matthew's search for acceptance and inclusion had been fulfilled, and so I wondered whether our attention would finally turn toward Matthew's struggle with sin. Instead, Season 2 of The Chosen continued to focus on Matthew's search for acceptance - and for good reason.


Almost all churches claim to welcome sinners - and most are willing to baptize and share the gospel with just about anyone. But it's easy to welcome people in a superficial sense without fully including them into your community. Too often, when "the wrong sort of people" are welcomed into a church, they are still kept at a distance and never recognized as true members of the community who can contribute in meaningful ways. These are exactly the kinds of dynamics at work in the nascent Jesus community in Season 2 of The Chosen.


Jesus' invitation secures Matthew's place in the community. But some of the other disciples - particularly Simon - are unwilling to recognize Matthew as a full member of their movement. They take every opportunity they can to cast shade on Matthew's past and keep him at arm's length. Nevertheless, over the course of Season 2, Matthew gradually becomes more integrated into the community. He makes friends like Mary Magdalene, Ramah, and Phillip. He grows in his knowledge of Scripture. He's included significant moments like the healing of Jesse. Jesus forces Simon to work with him so that he can see Matthew's heart and his gifts. Perhaps most significantly, Jesus elevates Matthew's status by employing him as an editor for the Sermon on the Mount. By the end of Season 2, Matthew isn't exactly popular, but he finally seems to be accepted as a full member of the community by the other disciples, including Simon. Indeed, by the beginning of Season 3, other disciples are willing to nominate Matthew as treasurer and defend his character when Simon the Zealot learns about his past.


In Season 3, The Chosen continues to follow Matthew's search for acceptance, but it finally gives us a more complicated portrait of Matthew that acknowledges his status as both a victim of marginalization and a sinner who is culpable for his actions. At first I was surprised that they chose to begin the new season by giving us a flashback to the falling out between Matthew and his father, Alphaeus, but on further reflection I'm glad they did. On one level, the scene is a reminder of the conflict between Matthew and his parents that sets up the significance of the final moment in episode 1, when Alphaeus calls Matthew his son. But it does much more than that. It also reframes our picture of Matthew's past as a tax collector in a more negative light. During Season 1 of The Chosen, people like Simon hate Matthew for being a tax collector, but to viewers Matthew never actually comes across as a jerk. As one of its main protagonists, The Chosen Season 1 is focused on giving us a picture of Matthew that we could sympathize with and so it never really shows us the dark side of being a tax collector. Now that we have become attached to Matthew, however, Season 3 has more freedom and so we get a glimpse into one of his darker moments, when he nearly sold out his own father.


But The Chosen Season 3 doesn't treat Matthew's sin as a simple matter of the past; the show acknowledges how Matthew will need to continue to reflect on and repent of his sinful desires in the present. During Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, we see Matthew wrestling with his sin under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Then we see the outcome of that struggle embodied in Matthew's reluctant choice to visit the home of his parents to pursue reconciliation. Over the course of the conversation between Matthew and his parents in Season 3 Episode 2, he explicitly acknowledges that he was at fault and he repudiates his inordinate desire for comfort and superiority. To further drive home the fact that Matthew is finally grappling with sin, the show has him turn down the nomination to act as the treasurer of the community and admit that he doesn't trust himself with money. That's a particularly significant act for Matthew, because it means losing out on a position of prestige in the community (which would further secure his acceptance and inclusion) while publicly reminding the group about his past as a tax collector (which could lead to more rejection and exclusion). All in all, I think Season 3 has done a great job at handling Matthew's character and I'm excited to see what's next.


Now that Season 3 has dealt with Matthew's sin, I've become much more sympathetic to how The Chosen has developed his character up to this point. Matthew's journey reflects the journey of many. Some of us come to Jesus already aware of our sin and our need for atonement. But for many people, what first draws them to Jesus is not the promise of forgiveness but rather the promise of love and acceptance. Unfortunately, churches aren't always as loving and accepting as their Lord and so it can take some time for sinners to feel fully embraced and loved by their community. It's usually not until people are fully included and loved by their community that they feel safe enough to become vulnerable and deal honestly with the sins of their past - and their ongoing temptations in the present. That's a journey I can resonate with myself, and so I'm glad to see The Chosen capturing it in the portrayal of Matthew.

 

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!

 

Matthew in The Chosen and in Scripture (FAQ)

Who was Matthew in the Bible and why was he important?

In the Bible, Matthew (or Levi, as he's sometimes called) is listed as one of the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:1-4). His presence among the twelve disciples is particularly notable because he served as a tax collector for the Roman occupation until he was called to follow Jesus (Matthew 9:9-13). Matthew has traditionally been considered the author of the Gospel of Matthew.


Was Matthew autistic? Did Matthew have Asperger's Syndrome or OCD?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Matthew had autism, Asperger's Syndrome, or OCD. When the Bible was written, there were not specific terms for what we now refer to as "autism," "Asperger's," and "OCD." People exhibiting mild forms of these conditions would most likely have been labelled as odd or strange, while those exhibiting extreme forms might have been viewed as sick, insane, or demonically possessed.


In The Chosen, Matthew is depicted as behaving in a way that could be consistent with mild autism, Asperger's Syndrome, or OCD. The show invented this aspect of Matthew's character in order to include the experience of a person with a disability.


Did Matthew love Mary Magdalene?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Matthew had romantic feelings for Mary Magdalene or that they were in love. The Bible rarely tells us about the romantic interests of secondary characters except when it necessary for the plot of the story.


In The Chosen, Matthew is depicted as being particularly fond of Mary Magdalene's company and shows care and compassion toward her. At this point, we don't know for sure whether Matthew loves Mary or simply views her as a close friend.


Did Matthew have a dog?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Matthew had a dog.


In The Chosen, Matthew builds a relationship with a dog by sharing his food with it. He leaves the dog to watch over his parents at the end of Season 1.


 

A New Resource for Studying The Chosen

If you're like me, watching The Chosen is about more than entertainment. Bible movies & shows like The Chosen provide us with fresh eyes to see the significance of the Bible and the beauty of the Gospel. That's why I'm excited to share with you a new resource that I've created to help you study biblical adaptations & reflect on how they apply to everyday life. Come and See is a devotional journal designed specifically for studying Bible movies and shows like The Chosen. It includes sections for you to take notes on each episode's plot, your favorite quotes, personal connections, questions, and, of course, Scripture references. Whether you're studying on your own or with your small group or ministry, Come and See is a perfect resource to help you dig deeper into The Chosen.

FYI: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Click here for my affiliation policy.

 

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 4


The Chosen Season 3


Adapting Biblical Characters Series


Artist Interviews (The Bible Artist Podcast)


Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]

Season 3

Season 2

Season 1

Specials


The Chosen Controversies Series


How to Discuss The Chosen - and Why


Themes & Theology of The Chosen [Exclusive for BMC Members]

Season 4


Season 1

Specials


Mailbag Q&R


The Chosen Thematic Viewing Guides


Beyond The Chosen


Other Bible Adaptations

13 Comments


Heather Marie
Heather Marie
Apr 04, 2023

I have a HUGE problem with saying Matthew has Asperger’s. First, Asperger’s is no longer recognized by the DSM-V. Secondly, and most importantly, Asperger’s is named for Hans Asperger who was a Nazi And responsible for the murder of countless Jewish children. I would think a religious show focusing on 1st century Jews and the Messiah who was also Jewish would be more careful.

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Kevin Keating
Kevin Keating
Apr 04, 2023
Replying to

Hi Heather - the creators of The Chosen might capture that nuance better - I'm not sure. I'll admit that I was unaware of the history of the term and was writing without an intent to be insensitive but rather based on my outdated and underinformed understanding of the terminology - as people often do. I'll certainly keep that in mind for the future. Thanks!

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Christopher Lyons
Christopher Lyons
Jan 26, 2023

The dog interests me (partly because it's a Shepherd, perhaps a Belgian Shepherd, which are often black--and because I have always loved dogs, and identified with them). So here I am, trying to find out if there's any biblical basis for Matthew having a dog, even though I know a great deal of what we see in The Chosen--arguably most of it--is an invention of the writers, fleshing out the sparse and often contradictory gospel accounts.


There are three possible explanations for this choice (other than the undeniable fact that people love to see dogs on television).


First, that it makes Matthew more sympathetic, as someone who shows kindness to animals.


Second, that it addresses the show's depiction of him…


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Kevin Keating
Kevin Keating
Jan 26, 2023
Replying to

Haha I like the idea that Matthew (or those carrying on his traditions) held onto the fullest version of the pagan woman story because of his affection for dogs. I find all three of your potential explanations plausible - and it's completely possible that all of these things factored in. Having characters show kindness to animals in order to win over the audience is a well-known writing technique called "Save the Cat." And it also makes sense given how he's on the spectrum.

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Kay
Kay
Apr 26, 2022

Hello random folks I've never met! I'm one of those atheist things, and I am an aspie as well. Just wanted to share my thoughts so far, as even if we have different worldviews, I think we can both agree it's very positive. Just yesterday, my mother stopped by. My aunt had a stroke and they had just got back from the hospital several states away and wanted to see me. We were talking about my upcoming birthday and how they were planning to visit. We decided on some board games and pizza, and as a joke I told her that for my birthday she had to sit through one lecture on evolution. Thankfully she knew it was a joke, but…


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Sharon Annichino
Sharon Annichino
Sep 24, 2022
Replying to

I see you Kay! 😊 Sending cyber hugs! 🤗 And so much love to you and your family sweet girl!

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This is great! I like how you go into the characters. I learned so much reading your point of view. It made me delve into the character in the series as well. Here are my thoughts.


I do think you missed his sin because the series portrays Matthew as someone we would know today. Matthew lives the life of a wealthy Roman with his fine clothes and shoes that he can just toss. He doesn't seem to observe his faith like the others. I can tell by the reactions of the others that as a Jewish man, Matthew's entire way of life is a sin. But Matthew's character doesn't see it as sin, but he chose a logical pat…

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Kevin Keating
Kevin Keating
Sep 15, 2021
Replying to

This is a great point Janet & Tom! Because the show works hard to make Matthew sympathetic, it's easy to forget some of the significant sins that the show does reveal, which you've pointed out. And it helps to think of Matthew's journey of repentance beginning with his encounter with Jesus - as we see in Season 2, it certainly does require a lot of self denial on his part.

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Thank you for this summary! As a mom to two on the autism spectrum, it makes total sense! I just started watching and noticed his behaviors and started searching for info on Matthew in commentaries, my Bible notes, but couldn't find anything. I love how they cast him this way because ALL are chosen - Jesus loves us all! Thank you!

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