Nicodemus in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)

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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.


Why Nicodemus?

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 only makes a handful of appearances: the well known "Born Again" conversation (John 3:1-21), in a brief argument with 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 Chosen must have other reasons taking interest in Nicodemus. After all, there are plenty of other minor characters in the biblical accounts that are arguably more significant in 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 unanswered questions about how well the messianic cousins know each other. So what does Nicodemus have that John doesn't?


Nicodemus & 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 other traditions, which place the church hierarchy as a mediator between the individual and God, evangelicals, because of their belief in the Priesthood of All Believers, talk about Jesus as someone 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 a key reason why Nicodemus plays such an important role in The Chosen. A character like John the Baptist may have had a more significant role from a historical perspective, but Nicodemus is better known for having the kind of personal encounter with Jesus 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, in response to Nicodemus' honest questions. It's a perfect embodiment the evangelical vision of what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus.


Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene in The Chosen
Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene in The Chosen

Nicodemus, the Genuine Seeker

The Heal-Face Turn is a very popular trope in Christian fiction. Because evangelicals tend value art primarily 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 he has 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.


Nicodemus is clearly the perfect candidate for the role of the Heal-Face skeptic in The Chosen. That being said, I'm not 100% sold on every aspect of how The Chosen ends up depicting his character and interactions with Jesus.


I've always been intrigued by how the Gospel of John cuts way from the Born Again conversation before we can see how Nicodemus' response 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 the 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. Or did Jesus' teaching in John 3 leave Nicodemus still questioning and doubtful? In that case, when Nicodemus suggests that the Sanhedrin should investigate Jesus' actions and words, it 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 would have been difficult for The Chosen to mirror the exact shape of Nicodemus' arc in The Gospel of John. As a more fully realized narrative, 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. By having Nicodemus demonstrate that he clearly has faith in Jesus during their secret meeting, it emphasizes 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 it seems like Nicodemus could have struggled with both skepticism and fear. Imagine if, after Jesus concludes his teaching about New Birth, Nicodemus responded 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." Nicodemus' decision to not follow Jesus would have been even more significant, since it would be a set back in both his struggle against fear and skepticism.


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 jump 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 should allow its characters to embrace faith in Jesus with a more incomplete or tentative understanding of who he actually is.


Nicodemus, 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 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 clearly associates Nicodemus with the fear of man. First, John calls attention to how Nicodemus' meeting with Jesus is at night (i.e. when it wouldn't be noticed). Then John shows Nicodemus timidly defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin. Finally, John associates Nicodemus with Joseph of Arimathea, who is described as "a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews" (John 19:38). Taking these cues from the Gospel of John, The Chosen uses Nicodemus' story to explore the 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 that causes Nicodemus to abuse his role as an esteemed teacher and serve Roman interests. Fear also plays an important role in the conversations that Nicodemus has with his wife. On more than one occasion, he expresses theological questions and doubts, only to get batted down by his wife, who reminds Nicodemus 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. We see this especially in the veiled threat that Shmuel 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.


Nicodemus in The Chosen & in Scripture (FAQ)


Who is Nicodemus in the Bible and why is he important?

The Gospel of John says Nicodemus was a "Pharisee" and a "ruler of the Jews" (John 3:1). Jesus calls him by an honorific title, "the Teacher of Israel" (John 3:10). The Gospel of John also tells us Nicodemus was among the elite leaders in Jerusalem (John 7:45-52) and describes Nicodemus bringing an extremely expensive 75 pounds of spices to Jesus' burial (John 19:39). We can conclude that Nicodemus was a highly honored Jewish teacher who also happened to be very rich and very powerful. Ultimately, he appears to have become a secret follower of Jesus.


Where is Nicodemus mentioned in Scripture?

Nicodemus makes three appearances in Scripture, all in the Gospel of John: in the Born Again conversation with Jesus (John 3:1-21), in a debate among the Jewish leaders (John 7:45-52), and at the burial of Jesus (John 19:38-42). There are no mentions of Nicodemus in Scripture outside of the Gospel of John.


Did Jesus ask Nicodemus to follow him?

There is no explicit indication in the Bible that Jesus asked Nicodemus to follow him. However, it's important to keep in mind that the Bible does not give us a complete description of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21). The Gospel of John does not describe how their conversation ended. By the end of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus appears to have become a disciple, and so it's possible that Jesus did invite Nicodemus to follow him.


In The Chosen, Jesus asks Nicodemus to follow him . After wrestling with the question in Episode 8, Nicodemus does not accept the invitation to follow Jesus.


Did Nicodemus leave money for Jesus?

There is no indication in the Bible that Nicodemus left money for Jesus.


In The Chosen, during Season 1 Episode 8 Nicodemus secretly leaves money for Jesus and his disciples instead of choosing to follow Jesus himself.


Did Nicodemus visit John the Baptist in jail?

There is no indication in the Bible that Nicodemus met John the Baptist, talked to him, or visited him in jail.


In The Chosen, during Season 1 Episode 5 Nicodemus visits John the Baptist in jail and asks him questions about miracles and the coming of the Messiah.


Did Nicodemus have a wife? Who was Nicodemus' wife in the Bible?

The Bible does not mention Nicodemus' wife. However, based on what we know of Jewish culture, it's almost certain that Nicodemus was married. It's not strange that Nicodemus' wife is not mentioned by the Gospel of John. Typically the Bible only mentions figures who play a role in the narrative or who were well-known among the followers of Jesus.


In The Chosen, Nicodemus has a wife named Zohara. She is an invented character, but she represents a perspective that is historically plausible.


Why didn't Nicodemus follow Jesus?

In The Chosen, during Season 1, Episode 8, Nicodemus chooses to not follow Jesus. Nicodemus appears to be afraid of losing his comfort and his place of respect in Jewish society. It also seems like following Jesus would create significant issues in his marriage with Zohara.


Did Nicodemus follow Jesus?

In the Bible, it isn't completely clear when Nicodemus began to follow Jesus, if he did at all. We are not given the end of their initial conversation (John 3:1-21), and so we don't know how Nicodemus ultimately responded to Jesus' teaching. The next time we encounter Nicodemus, he is trying to convince the Sanhedrin to give Jesus a fair hearing and is accused of sympathizing with him (John 7:45-52). In his final appearance, Nicodemus aids Joseph of Arimathea, a secret follower of Jesus, in Jesus' burial, at great expense (John 19:38-42). By this point, it seems like Nicodemus is participating in the Jesus movement. It's unlikely Nicodemus ever physically followed Jesus in his travels.


In The Chosen, during Season 1, Episode 7, Jesus invites Nicodemus to follow him. In Season 1, Episode 8, Nicodemus turns down the invitation.


Who plays Nicodemus in The Chosen?

In The Chosen, Nicodemus is played by Erick Avari.


Is Nicodemus in The Chosen Season 3?

Nicodemus has not yet appeared in The Chosen Season 3. However, Yussif, a Pharisee that is interested in Jesus, writes a letter to Nicodemus about Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. This letter is placed in the keeping of his synagogue administrator, Jairus, to give Yussif time to reconsider his words before sending it.

 

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 creators of The Chosen have published interactive Bible Studies that are meant to explore some of the Scripture and biblical themes that inspired Season 1 and help viewers apply them to everyday life.

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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!

 

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