Simon Peter & Andrew in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)

Updated: Aug 14

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Simon Peter is a favorite subject of Bible Art and biblical adaptations so it's no surprise that he and his brother, Andrew, are primary protagonists in The Chosen. Perhaps due to his notable boldness in the Gospels, the character of Peter has often served as an idealized portrait of masculinity in film adaptations of Jesus' life and The Chosen continues this tradition. The Gospels also portray Peter as a complex character - a significant leader and a significant failure - and this complexity makes him an ideal protagonist for The Chosen to follow. The show has relatively less interest in Andrew, Peter's brother, giving less attention to his role in the Gospels and instead using him as a dramatic foil that casts light on Peter's character and make him more three-dimensional.

The Masculine Ideal

In my recent post about Mary Magdalene, I noticed an interesting parallel between the role of her character in Cecil de Mille's 1927 The King of Kings and in The Chosen. Both adaptations begin by following her character, a prostitute, until she eventually leads us to Jesus, has her demonization healed, and becomes his follower. I won't claim there's quite a close of a parallel between the portrayal of Simon Peter in The King of Kings and The Chosen, but there are similarities in characterization that are worth noting.

The similarity between the two portrayals that first struck me was the emphatic masculinity of Simon Peter's character. Although Ernest Torrence, who played Peter in The King of Kings, and Shahar Isaac, who plays Peter in The Chosen, may look very different, they each embody masculine ideals of their own respective eras. Torrence, who was best known for his villainous roles, looms high over his fellow actors like an early twentieth century circus show strongman. Isaac, on the other hand, is short but toned, and reflects a modern preference for agility and and wittiness in males over brute strength.

Both films highlight the masculinity of Simon Peter's character by contrasting him with a more effeminate foil. In The King of Kings, the strong but kind-hearted Peter is paired against the foppish but calculating Judas. In The Chosen, the tough and street smart Peter is set alongside the bookish and cowardly Matthew. What comes of these contrasts is very different though, as one might expect given the different trajectories of Judas and Matthew as characters.

In The King of Kings, the contrast is clearly meant to inspire judgment. Peter is very clearly the good guy. Judas is very clearly the bad guy. As a result, the masculinity of Peter is held up as praiseworthy, while the effeminacy of Judas is made to inspire contempt.

The Chosen, however, presents us with a much more complex and ambiguous comparison. Although Simon Peter looks down on Matthew with complete scorn, especially given his status as a compromiser, the audience is invited to have a more compassionate gaze. Although we are prompted to see Matthew's behavior as odd and sometimes questionable, we're also shown Matthew's virtues and we're cued to write off his eccentricities as a consequence of his condition and therefore sympathetic and not contemptible. On the other hand, Peter's bravado, while inherently charming, almost ends up proving his downfall and often finds itself met by Jesus' rebuke. Moreover, Peter finds himself in a position not all that different from Matthew as a near-informant for Rome. So, while the contrast between Peter's masculinity and Matthew's lack-thereof is clear and simple, the conclusion that we're meant to draw is more complex. Normative masculinity is still upheld as honorable and attractive, but it's also chastened for being unreliable and potentially dangerous. Meanwhile, the "non-masculine" is shown to be equally valuable and sympathetic. Most importantly, both types of characters receive the exact same call from Jesus to "Come, follow me."

The Sinful Leader

I've suggested that The Chosen tends to prefer stories about how the marginalized need Jesus' love and acceptance over stories of how sinners need Jesus' forgiveness and transformation, but the character arc of Simon Peter is a significant counterpoint to that argument. We see the moral flaws in his character from the very first moment when we meet Peter, attempting to rig a fight so that he can cheat his in-laws out of money, we're given clear indications that he's willing to do whatever is necessary to survive, even if it means violating the trust of others. His wife, Eden, also brings this point home on a few occasions as she rebukes his behavior and recalls the potential she once saw in him that he's long since fallen short of. A perfect saint Peter is not.

That being said, while The Chosen calls attention to Simon Peter's sins, it also attenuates our judgment of his character. Yes, he is a bit dishonest, but ultimately he has good intentions - he's just trying to provide for his family in the midst of an impossible financial situation. The taxes levied against him are depicted as unfair and exorbitant and his difficult financial situation seems to be due more to bad luck than it is to immorality (though there is a hint that his penchant for gambling has played a role). Moreover, the dishonest acts that he engages in are directed at characters that seem to deserve it - his unpleasant in-laws, the greedy merchant class, and the oppressive Roman regime. There is one time when he's in danger of harming likable characters - when he leads the Romans in search of Jews evading taxation by fishing on Shabat and nearly comes upon Zebedee and his sons - but as soon as he realizes what's about to happen, he does the right thing and saves them from getting caught. By qualifying of Peter's sin with good intentions, The Chosen makes it easier for viewers to like him as a protagonist but it takes the edge off his his moral imperfection a little too much.

Fortunately, though Simon Peter is made a little too palatable and family-friendly, his struggle still has the right center. By the end of the first couple episodes, we understand that Simon Peter is driven by an instinct to survive, even if it means betraying others, and that this instinct is rooted in a lack of faith in God. This is also the core of the biblical Peter's struggle, a struggle which, when push comes to shove during the arrest of Jesus, he will ultimately lose.

Indeed, the Chosen invites us to make a connection between how Simon Peter's faithless survivalism leads him to betray his own people and how the same instinct will one day lead him to betray his own teacher. The scene in which Peter leads a band of Roman soldiers at night in search of the merchants and ends up getting his ear cut is ominously reminiscent of a future scene in which Judas will lead a band in search of Jesus and Peter will cut the ear off the High Priest's servant. Peter's role in the two scenes is almost completely different - from complicit traitor to confused follower - but what's consistent is his impulse to do what he has to in order to save himself instead of entrusting himself to God's care.

The Other Brother

I have relatively less to say about Andrew's character in large part because The Chosen does as well. His character is better developed than many of the other secondary characters - we know that he's a loving brother who is willing to challenge his foolhardy sibling but also dependable enough to stick by him when it's necessary. But his characterization seems to function primarily in the service of Peter's character. Without him, Peter's recklessness and selfishness would be much less clear. We get very little of Andrew apart from Peter's own story.

Case in point, I found myself disappointed at how little we're given from Andrew's story in connection to John the Baptist. Before Andrew starts telling Simon Peter that he's found the Messiah, I don't think there's any hint that he's a follower of John. I understand how, for dramatic purposes, the show shielded us from seeing Andrew's first encounter with Jesus, so as to make Peter's encounter more climactic, but I still think it would have been possible to weave in the idea that Andrew had been going off from time to time in order to hear John speak. In fact, making Andrew more clearly a follower of John could have increased the tension between the two brothers, as it would give Andrew more motivation to call out Peter's sin.

Hopefully season 2 will provide Andrew with more opportunities to shine outside the shadow of his more famous sibling. While he didn't get a lot to do on his own, the actor, Noah James, did a great job, and I'd love to see him do more.

Season 2 Update

Simon Peter and Andrew continue to be central characters throughout Season 2 of The Chosen, and we see a few developments in their characterization that are interesting from the standpoint of adaptation.

The most significant development we see is the growing rivalry between the sons of Jonah (Simon and Andrew) and the sons of Zebedee (John and Big James). In Episode 1 of Season 2, we see each pair of brothers seeking to set the agenda for the ministry of Jesus and his followers, convinced that they have better insight into Jesus and have what it takes to lead. To further complicate matters, in Episode 3 of Season 2 The Chosen introduces another source of division between the two families. While Simon and Andrew continue to hold a grudge against Matthew for his exploitive work as a tax collector, John and Big James are protective of Matthew. Unfortunately, their rivalry takes a backseat for most of the remainder of the season, re-emerging only briefly in Episode 7 in the fall out of Jesus' detainment, as the disciples fight over what to do next. By that point, Simon and Matthew have ended up on better terms as a result of their buddy cop excursion in Episode 6, so there isn't as strong of a philosophical difference between the families as earlier.

This tension between Simon/Andrew and John/Big James does have biblical roots. For example, in the Gospels we see John and James (and their mother) jockeying for a higher place in Jesus' kingdom, which brings the ire of the rest of the disciples (Mark 10:35-45; Matthew 20:20-28). Even in the writing of the Gospel of John we see evidence of competition between the two families, as John (the narrator) goes out of his way to point out how he ("the other disciple") outran Simon Peter on their way to Jesus' tomb and also how he was the first one to come to understand the resurrection (John 20:3-9). Similarly, John goes out of his way to recall how Simon Peter was bothered when Jesus foretold Simon's death, while leaving John's fate ambiguous (John 21:20-23). This was one the biggest adaptive successes of The Chosen Season 2: it took the rather abstract tension among the disciples over leadership in the Gospels and concretized it around specific issues.

Since I complained about how underused Andrew was in Season 1 of The Chosen, I also want to give credit to how Season 2 gives him a lot more to do on his own. In particular, Season 2 effectively retcons Andrew by suggesting that he was much more involved with the disciples of John the Baptist than he actually appeared to be in Season 1. As a result, the arrest of John the Baptist becomes a central plot point in Andrew's story arc, first provoking grief and mourning in Episode 6, and then causing him to respond to Jesus' detainment in Episode 7 with a surprising degree of anger, fear, and frenzy. This makes a lot of sense dramatically, but it also fits with the biblical portrait of Andrew. The Gospel of John makes it clear that Andrew is one of the disciples of John the Baptist (John 1:35-40), so it makes perfect sense that he would be grieved and respond the way he's depicted in The Chosen.

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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

Exploring the Chosen with Youth [Guides for Youth Leaders]

Season 2

Season 1

Posts on the Nature of Adaptation

Youth Ministry and the Arts