Matthew in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)

Updated: Nov 22


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.


 

Contributing to The Bible Artist

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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.


 

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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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

Adapting Biblical Characters Series

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


Season 3

Season 2

Season 1

Specials

The Chosen Controversies Series

Beyond The Chosen