Updated: Aug 14
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One feature that distinguishes The Chosen from other TV or film adaptations of the Gospel is how it introduces us to Jesus. Instead of giving us immediate access, The Chosen invites us into the lives of Nicodemus and a diverse array of first century Jews who have their lives turned upside down by their personal encounters with the Messiah.
Nicodemus may seem like strange choice for a primary POV character in a show about the life of Jesus. After all, he only shows up in one Gospel (John) and there only makes a handful of appearances: the well known "Born Again" conversation (John 3:1-21), a brief argument Nicodemus has with others in the Sanhedrin about whether Jesus should get a full hearing (John 7:45-52), and at the burial of Jesus, to which he brings an exorbitant amount of spices (John 19:38-42). The amount that we know about Nicodemus based on these three episodes is pretty limited, although that actually may serve the purpose of adaptation well, since it leaves plenty of white space for The Chosen to fill in.
From the very first moments of The Chosen, fear exerts a powerful influence over Nicodemus' character.
But the mere lack of detail and room for creative freedom can't be the only reason that The Chosen takes interest in the character of Nicodemus. After all, there are plenty of other minor characters in the biblical accounts that are arguably more significant to the story of Jesus. Case in point, The Chosen shows relatively little interest in exploring the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, even though the biblical account leaves a lot of questions unanswered about how well the messianic cousins know each other. This begs the question, what does Nicodemus have that John doesn't?
The Primacy of Personal Encounters
Modern evangelical culture has a particularly strong attachment to the idea of a personal relationship with God. In contrast to how other traditions place the church hierarchy between the individual and God as a mediator, evangelicals, because of their belief in the Priesthood of All Believers, talk about Jesus as someone who we can encounter in a direct and personal way.
Most characters that encounter Jesus in the Gospels are either stubbornly opposed to him (the Pharisees) or already inclined to at least a modicum of faith.
It seems like no accident, then, that the kinds of Jesus stories that The Chosen takes interest in are personal encounters. Yes, we see Jesus teaching crowds from time to time, but such moments are merely set pieces that provide context for more private interactions. As a product of evangelical culture, The Chosen presents us with a Jesus who is distinctly intimate and personal.
This focus on the personal side of Jesus is one key reasons why Nicodemus plays such an important role in The Chosen. Whereas a character like John the Baptist may have had a more significant role from a biblical historical perspective, Nicodemus' key moment in The Gospel of John has all the hallmarks of the kind of encounter that The Chosen is interested in. Jesus isn't using his conversation with Nicodemus as a teaching moment for a crowd; he's engaging Nicodemus in a private (it's at night) 1-1 conversation, responding to his honest questions. It's a perfect embodiment the evangelical vision of what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus.
The Genuine Seeker
The Heal-Face Turn is a very popular trope in Christian fiction. Because evangelicals tend to see value only in art that can serve as an instrument of evangelism, skeptic conversion side-plots are ubiquitous. The theoretical goal of such side stories is to provide non-Christian viewers with an ideal model of what it looks like to wrestle with Jesus and embrace the faith.
Despite the evangelical obsession with the Heel-Face Turn, there are actually relatively few stories in the Gospels themselves that follow this pattern. Most characters that encounter Jesus in the Gospels are either stubbornly opposed to him (the Pharisees) or already inclined to at least a modicum of faith. We don't get a lot of in-between characters that are trying to explore and evaluate Jesus in the way that a modern convert would.
...by the time Nicodemus participates in the burial of Jesus' body, it seems that his faith has grown, but we still don't know how well he understands who Jesus is.
Nicodemus is one of the few in-betweeners present in the Gospels. On the one hand, he's a Pharisee, a group that the Gospel of John unequivocally associates with opposition to Jesus. On the other hand, when he has his encounter with Jesus, the questions that he asks aren't intended to trick or catch Jesus like the questions of his peers. He seems to show genuine respect for Jesus' miracles and real interest in what Jesus has to say. Moreover, later on, when the other Pharisees display a reckless disregard for investigating the claims of Jesus, it is Nicodemus who presses them with exactly the kind of point an ideal seeker would make: "Does our law judge a man before first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?" (John 7:51). Finally, to conclude his story, the Gospel of John suggests that Nicodemus has indeed attained nascent faith, demonstrated through his willingness to side with the dead Jesus by burying him.
These details from the Gospel of John make Nicodemus the perfect candidate for the role of the Heal-Face skeptic in The Chosen, that much is clear. But I do call into question the way that Nicodemus' conversion story is adapted.
One of the intriguing aspects of how the Gospel of John depicts the Born Again conversation is that it cuts away before we can see how Nicodemus responds to Jesus' teaching. As a result, we're left to wonder whether the teacher will accept Jesus' claims or reject them. This ambiguity is never fully resolved throughout the remainder of the Gospel. When Nicodemus argues that Pharisees need to investigate Jesus before judging him, it's unclear what his motivation is. Did Jesus' teaching back in John 3 already bring him to faith? In that case, Nicodemus is trying to hide his faith while at the same time secretly supporting his master, perhaps hoping to see some of his fellow Pharisees get converted. Or did Jesus' teaching in John 3 leave him still questioning and doubtful? In that case, Nicodemus' suggestion that they investigate Jesus' actions and words may reflect his own genuine desire to look more deeply into what Jesus is saying. In either case, by the time Nicodemus participates in the burial of Jesus' body, it seems that his faith has grown, but we still don't know how well he understands who Jesus is.
It may have been difficult for The Chosen to mirror the shape of The Gospel of John exactly. As a more fully realized depiction of Nicodemus' story, we expect it to fill in some of the gaps that are left by the Gospel. Even so, a degree of ambiguity could still have been retained. Instead of having Nicodemus respond to Jesus' Born Again speech by falling to his knees and confessing his faith, we could have been given a much more ambiguous response, communicated solely through facial expressions or perhaps by having him ask even more questions.
It seems like The Chosen brings a conclusion to Nicodemus' conversion story because it wants to shift the focus of his narrative to the struggle between faith and fear. Nicodemus' open display of faith in secret highlights how his refusal to follow Jesus in public is due to his fear of man (more on that plot arc below). Now, I like the faith vs. fear arc in Nicodemus' character. But we don't need Nicodemus' struggle with doubts and questions to come to a conclusion in order for his struggle with fear to take off. Imagine if, after Jesus concludes his teaching about New Birth, Nicodemus responds with more questions and doubts instead of a clear display of faith. Jesus could then respond, "I know you have many more questions and doubts. Come and see what I am doing and all will be answered. Come, follow me." In that case, Nicodemus' decision to not follow Jesus due to his fear would be a set back for both his struggle between faith and fear and in his struggle with doubt.
One other small critique of Nicodemus' conversion story: he understands far too much about Jesus far too quickly. This seems to be a general tendency of The Chosen. Out of a typically evangelical concern for proclaiming accurate theology, the characters seem to have jumped to the conclusion that Jesus is divine far too quickly. By contrast, the Gospels suggest that the process of understanding Jesus' full identity was gradual and progressive for the disciples. Peter doesn't even make his triumphant confession that Jesus is the Messiah until a significant way into each Gospel. In the show, Nicodemus seems to already understand that Jesus is not just the Messiah but also divine, which isn't at all obvious from what Jesus actually says. The Chosen would do better to allow its characters to embrace faith in Jesus with a more incomplete or tentative understanding of who he actually is.
The Fearful Follower
The Gospel of John, which appears to be a primary source for much of The Chosen's first season, is particularly interested in the tension between the fear of man and faith in Jesus (e.g. John 7:13; 9:22; 12:42; 19:38; 20:19). Throughout the Gospel, we're frequently shown examples of figures who have the seeds of faith in Jesus but who don't allow these seeds to come to fruition in a gospel witness because they know that the consequences could be socially or even physically disastrous. Unchecked this fear we see that this fear can lead followers of Jesus to distance themselves from the Messiah and even fall away.
What does it look like to sit on the sidelines - of the opposing side - while you watch the Jesus movement take off, knowing that you could have been a part of it?
The Gospel of John seems to associate Nicodemus with this same fear, both through how it emphasizes that his conversation with Jesus was at night (i.e. when it wouldn't be noticed) and by associating him with Joseph of Arimathea, who is described as "a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews" (John 19:38). Taking this cue from the Gospel, The Chosen seems to be using Nicodemus' character to further explore this tension between faith and fear.
From the very first moments of The Chosen, fear exerts a powerful influence over Nicodemus' character. It is the fear of Rome (itself a sub-theme in John) that leads him to abuse his role as an esteemed teacher in order to serve Roman interests. Fear also plays an important role in the conversations that he has with his wife. On more than one occasion, he begins to wonder thoughts aloud in a direction that the show thinks that he should take, only to get batted down by his wife, who reminds him of the potentially negative social ramifications if someone else heard him talking that way. There's also a lot of fear at work in the back and forth conflict that Nicodemus has with Shmuel. Shmuel himself is quite evidently ruled by a desire for respect that makes him fearful of the great Nicodemus when he first arrives. Over time, however, as Shmuel and Nicodemus part ways theologically, the students begins to leverage the fear of his teacher to his own advantage, as we see especially in the veiled threat he makes toward the end of season 1.
Of course, the most significant moment we see fear at play is in Nicodemus' decision to not accept Jesus' invitation to follow him. I found this to be a very affecting moment. The show does a great job of showing us real tension in Nicodemus' heart. The failure of his character to follow out of his fear of societal disapproval sets up an interesting plot trajectory for his future development. What does it look like to sit on the sidelines - of the opposing side - while you watch the Jesus movement take off, knowing that you could have been a part of it? I'm intrigued to find out and can't wait for season 2.
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