Simon the Zealot and Nathanael in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)

Updated: 5 days ago


The Bible gives us very little information about Simon the Zealot and Nathanael - two of the more significant disciples The Chosen introduces in Season 2. As a result, there's a lot of latitude for how they can be depicted in Bible adaptation. Fortunately, creating sympathetic and believable backstories for under-developed biblical characters is what The Chosen does best. Today we'll be exploring what the Bible says about Simon and Nathanael and how The Chosen adapts them to the screen.


Simon the Zealot in the Bible

The only biblical references to Simon the Zealot are found in listings of the 12 disciples (Matthew 10:4, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13). Based on these references, we only know a few facts:

  1. Simon was one of Jesus' original apostles

  2. Simon continued to be one of the apostles after the Ascension

  3. Simon was known for being (or once having been) a Zealot.

Facts 1 and 2 are true of most of the disciples. Fact 3, however, is unique. The Zealots (as The Chosen shows) were a group of religious insurgents, who sought to push back against the oppressive practices of Rome through violence, terrorism, and assassination.


The Bible itself never explains Simon's relationship to the Zealot movement. Did he leave the Zealots in order to join the Jesus movement, while continuing to be known for his past association? Or did he in fact find a way to straddle the two movements? Or maybe he simply had a personality that resembled that of the Zealots. We can't know for sure, but it's hard to imagine that someone could follow the peaceful way of Jesus and still participate in a violent insurrection. I'm sure that's why The Chosen decided to make Simon a former Zealot who has repented and turned to Jesus.


Nathanael in the Bible

The Bible mentions Nathanael less frequently than Simon the Zealot; he only comes up twice in the Gospel of John [although he may correspond to Bartholomew, who is mentioned in the list of Jesus' disciples (e.g., Matthew 10:3)]. Nevertheless, what John gives us about Nathanael is much more substantial and evocative than what we get concerning Simon.


The appearances of Nathanael (in John 1 and John 21) function as a kind of framing device for John's Gospel. The first is the more substantial:

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-51 ESV)

Commentators throughout history have puzzled over the significance of Jesus telling Nathanael that he saw him while he was sitting under the fig tree. Some have suggested that Jesus is cryptically alluding to the fig leaves of Genesis 3. Others have seen a connection to the description of the peaceful abundance of Solomon's reign, when every Israelite sat under his own fig tree (1 Kings 4:25). Of course, within the frame of the narrative itself, Jesus appears to be demonstrating his super-human knowledge - a common theme in the Gospel of John.


There's no evidence to suggest Nathanael was a failed architect. On the other hand, there also isn't strong evidence to the contrary. That being said, the show hasn't created Nathanael's vocation out of whole clothe. Jesus is depicting himself as the stairway between heaven and earth that Jacob once saw at Bethel. In the cultural context of the time, the idea of a stairway between heaven and earth would have evoked the image of a Babylonian ziggurat - one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world. So The Chosen has made Nathanael an architect in order to make this image of Jesus as a stairway/ziggurat particularly relevant to his character.


The second story including Nathanael takes place in the final chapter of John:

After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. (John 21:1-8, ESV)

The relationship between these two narratives is really interesting and worth further study, but I won't get into that right now. From the perspective of understanding Nathanael, this story suggests (but doesn't require) that Nathanael may have had a background in fishing. It also makes it clear that Nathanael continued to be a disciple of Jesus into the resurrection period.



The Chosen and the Demands of Adaptation

People often complain when a biblical adaptation adds to what the Bible says. Having examined what the Bible says about Simon the Zealot and Nathanael, however, it should be clear why it's necessary for The Chosen to build on what the Bible says.


In a book - and especially in a book that's written in a laconic style like the Gospels - it's possible to introduce characters like Simon and Nathanael without giving readers very much detail. In a modern screen adaptation, however, audiences expect more. Simon the Zealot can't simply be another name on a list - we want to have at least a basic understanding of where he came from and what he contributes as a disciple. Jesus can't just throw out tantalizing lines about seeing Nathanael under the fig tree and then never explain what he means - we need to see the backstory and understand the personal significance of Jesus' words.


This is why, in order to understand how The Chosen adapts the characters of Simon and Nathanael, it’s important for us to not just focus on the handful of facts that the Bible tells us about them. We also need to think about how their characters are shaped by the structure of The Chosen and the demands of modern screen adaptation.


The Backstories of Simon the Zealot & Nathanael in The Chosen

The Chosen introduces Simon the Zealot and Nathanael (as well as Judas) in similar ways, using teaser segments/prologues. At first glance, this may seem like a rather minor structural detail. Such details are often quite instructive though if we pause and consider how they function.


After the first three episodes of Season 2, I prematurely predicted that The Chosen was departing from its Season 1 emphasis on personal encounters with Jesus in order to focus instead on the formation of a community surrounding Jesus. I was half-right. Community formation does take precedence over the individual encounters in Season 2 of The Chosen, but individual encounters continue to be a source of great interest for the show. Season 1 of The Chosen was able to unfold the pre-Jesus backstory of its primary characters gradually over the course of an episode (in the case of Mary) or more (in the case of Matthew, Simon Peter, Andrew, and Nicodemus). Because Season 2 of The Chosen is more focused on the drama of the budding Jesus community, however, the pre-Jesus backstories of its major new characters (Nathanael, Simon the Zealot, and Judas) have to be condensed and delivered in the episode prologues.


This draws our attention to something significant about the way The Chosen is adapting the figures of Simon the Zealot and Nathanael. As The Chosen shifted its attention toward the formation of the church in Season 2, it would have been quite easy for the show to fill up the remaining roster of the disciples with two-dimensional background characters. Older adaptations of the Gospels tended to depict Simon the Zealot and Nathanael in this way, if they depicted them at all. In a post-GOT world, however, audiences are more willing than they once were to engage with a broad cast of well-developed characters. Indeed, for most viewers, the ability to relate to the characters on a show is paramount. That's why The Chosen works to portray each new disciple as a fully-realized, three-dimensional person with a unique set of longings, gifts, and vices that ultimately demand a saving encounter with the person of Jesus.


The Longings of Simon the Zealot & Nathanael

Poorly-made religious films make the mistake of boiling down the diverse longings that lead people to God into a single uniform desire (usually a desire for love or for forgiveness). But humans are complex creatures. While there may only be one path that saves us, that path can be entered through a variety doorways. The Chosen recognizes this. Nathanael and Simon the Zealot (and Judas) are each drawn into an encounter with Jesus by distinct longings.


Nathanael's prologue establishes his aspiration to be a great architect. Over the course of his story, we see that underneath his professional aspiration is a deep longing to create something beautiful and fulfill his sense of purpose in life. When his building collapses, Nathanael fears that his dream of building something great for God has collapsed as well. Instead, Jesus shows up and provides him with a new and unexpected way to fulfill his longing, by contributing to the construction of God's spiritual temple, the church.


Nathanael sitting under a fig tree in Season 2 of The Chosen
Nathanael sitting under a fig tree in Season 2 of The Chosen

Simon the Zealot's prologue establishes his longing to combat evil and injustice. We are exposed to the indignities and oppression he witnessed as a young man and sympathize with his desire to make things right. When Simon joins the Zealots, we understand that he is being driven by his longing for justice. When his assassination attempt is thwarted, however, it seems like Simon's dream of justice will also be thwarted. Instead, Jesus shows up and provides Simon with a new vision of justice and of how to make things right - not through violence but through the healing hand of the Messiah.


The Gifts of Simon the Zealot & Nathanael

In order for characters to contribute to an ensemble in a meaningful way, it's important for each of them to have unique gifts or abilities. In a smaller ensemble, it's common for character abilities to fall into basic archetypal patterns like the power trio (the logical brain, the emotional friend, and the balanced hero) or the five-man band (the charismatic leader, the edgy anti-hero, the brain, the tank, and the token girl). With a group as large as the twelve + disciples, however, the gifts and personality of each character needs to be more specialized.


By making Nathanael an architect, The Chosen has assigned his character a unique (albeit rarely needed) skill (building/design). The show also is also trying to distinguish his personality from the other disciples - his role as an architect suggests precision, intelligence, and creativity, while his encounter with Jesus suggests that he is honest and candid. Although Nathanael will probably never be a key figure in The Chosen, by giving his character these clear traits, the show makes it possible for him to contribute on occasion in meaningful ways.


Like Nathanael, Simon the Zealot's skills and personality are tied to his past vocation. As a former assassin, he is the most physically formidable of the disciples. Simon's background as a Zealot also establishes that he is a serious, disciplined, and *surprise* zealous person. Again, I doubt that Simon the Zealot will be as central to The Chosen as Mary Magdalene or Matthew, but by establishing these key traits in his initial appearances, the show ensures that he can play a role and be recognized by audiences, even when he isn't driving the plot of the show.


The Vices of Simon the Zealot and Nathanael

Just as it's important for every character in an ensemble to contribute in a meaningful way, it's also important for each of them to have unique weaknesses, vulnerabilities, or vices. Weaknesses prevent characters from appearing over-powered and instead provide a hook that helps connect them to viewers. After all, when we see a glaring vice in a character, most of us can either see it in ourselves or in other people we know.


Nathanael's vices are tied to both his longings and his gifts . The backstory prologues gives us a thumbnail sketch of the pride and arrogance that Nathanael is prone to as a result of his great skill and intelligence. Nathanael's aspiration to build great things for God becomes a kind of excuse/justification that allows his arrogance to grow out of control, until it finally lands him in tragedy. To overcome his vice, Nathanael needs to recognize what happens when he trusts too much in himself and his skill and he instead needs to learn how to entrust himself to the greater architect, Jesus, and find hope for meaning and purpose in humbly submitting to the guidance of someone wiser.



Simon the Zealot's greatest vice is also tied to his longings and his gifts. His painful backstory and longing for justice serve as an excuse/justification for him to engage in acts of violent vengeance. This is what drives him to become so disciplined and formidable - because instead of handing his anger over to God, he's sought to turn himself into a destructive force who can take justice into his own hands. To overcome his vice, Simon needs to recognize that there is a greater justice at work in the world - a Chosen King who has come to make things right not through the sword but through healing - and he needs to reorient his discipline and zeal around Him.


Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  • Before watching The Chosen, had you ever given much thought to Simon the Zealot or Nathanael? Why or why not?

  • How do you think the show will influence the way you read biblical stories about them going forward?

  • How could you relate to Simon the Zealot and/or Nathanael, as they were depicted in The Chosen? What aspects of these characters stuck out to you?

 

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!

 

Simon the Zealot and Nathanael in The Chosen and in Scripture FAQ

Did Simon the Zealot have a brother named Jesse? Did Simon the Zealot have a brother who was paralyzed?

In the Bible there is no indication that Simon the Zealot was related to the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda. The Bible gives us very little information about Simon the Zealot and no information about his family.


In The Chosen, during Season 2 Episode 4, Simon the Zealot is depicted as being the brother of the paralyzed man Jesus heals by the Pool of Bethesda, who is named Jesse in the show. The connection between the two figures is invented in order to add depth to Simon's character and suggest thematic connections between their stories.


How did Simon the Zealot meet Jesus?

The Bible does not describe how Simon the Zealot met Jesus. By the time the Gospels mention Simon (e.g. Matthew 10:1-4), he appears to have already been established as a disciple of Jesus.


In The Chosen, during Season 2, Episode 4, Simon the Zealot is reunited with his brother, Jesse, after years of separation. He discovers that Jesse has been healed by Jesus. In Season 2, Episode 5, Simon seeks out Jesus and joins the disciples.


What did Simon the Zealot do before he met Jesus?

The Bible does not tell us anything about Simon the Zealot before he met Jesus. However, his title "the Zealot" suggests that he may have been a member of a band of violent Jewish revolutionaries. The Chosen follows this theory and portrays Simon as a Zealot who gives up his violent ways in order to follow Jesus.


What did Jesus see Nathanael doing under the fig tree?

In the Bible, when Jesus says he saw Nathanael under the fig tree (John 1:43-51), there is no indication what Jesus saw Nathanael doing under the fig tree or why this phrase was so significant. Some interpreters have seen it as an allusion to 1 Kings 4:25, which describes the reign of King Solomon, to whom "son of God" language is sometimes applied (e.g., Psalm 2).


Was Nathanael an architect?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Nathanael was an architect. In The Chosen, Nathanael is portrayed as an architect in order to give his character depth and perhaps because the biblical story that features him contains a reference to Jacob's ladder.


Who is Bartholomew in The Chosen?

Bartholomew was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus (e.g., Matthew 10:3). Traditionally, it has been believed that Bartholomew was another name for Nathanael/Nathaniel.

 

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.

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

 

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

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