Yussif, Jairus, & Shmuel in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)
Updated: 5 days ago
In contrast to previous adaptations of the Gospels, which generally depict the Pharisees as a mob of nameless, mustache-twirling villains, The Chosen includes several Pharisees among its cast of recurring named characters. Today, we will be looking at Shmuel, Yussif, and Jairus, three of the most significant Pharisees that The Chosen has introduced so far (aside from Nicodemus).
The Diversity of the Pharisees
Modern Christians have come to use the term "Pharisee" as a derogatory label for a self-righteous, judgmental person who is very adamant about rule-keeping and adds a bunch of additional rules to Scripture in order to achieve a good standing with God. What we often fail to recognize is that the historical Pharisees didn't hold a monolithic view of the Law, righteousness, and many of the other issues that we associate with being "Pharisaical." Indeed, making broad generalizations about the historical Pharisees is about as helpful as making broad generalizations about "Catholics" or "Evangelicals." You can probably find someone who will fit your generalization but there are also plenty of others who will be lumped in unfairly.
Of course, there is a biblical reason for why Christians have come to talk this way: Jesus (and John the Baptist) did as well. On more than one occasion, Jesus lays into the Pharisees without any qualification. In his most extensive and scathing critique, found in Matthew 23, Jesus seems to categorically condemn the Pharisees as a whole:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15, ESV)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28, ESV)
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matthew 23:33-35, ESV)
Based on passages like these, it's understandable how the average Christian, reading the Bible at face value, with very limited knowledge of the historical context, often comes to the conclusion that the Pharisees were a unified group, deserving of condemnation. Unfortunately, this has led some Christians to become anti-Semitic or to look at the beliefs of their Jewish neighbors in an unfair and dismissive way.
Historically-informed Christian scholars have long been aware of the diversity of Judaism as a whole and Pharisaism in particular. Within Pharisaism, the most obvious divide was between rabbis in the House of Hillel (roughly speaking, the more lenient/humane school) and the House of Shammai (roughly speaking, the stricter school). More importantly, as anyone who has studied early Jewish tradition knows, it is filled with debates and disagreements. While there certainly were matters in which the Pharisees and Judaism were unified (just as there are matters on which most Catholics or Evangelicals are unified), the use of the label "Pharisee" in the Christian vernacular isn't a very fair representation of the diverse reality of Pharisaism.
Jesus himself was able to speak in a broader fashion because he was speaking to members of essentially the same camp. While Jesus may have introduced some novel theological revelation, his views aligned with mainstream Pharisaism in many key doctrines, like the belief in the resurrection and angels (see, for example, Acts 23:6-7). The difference between Jesus making statements about "Pharisees" compared modern Christians using "Pharisee" as an insult is like the difference between an American Evangelical Pastor critiquing American Evangelicalism in a sermon compared to a secular outsider using "Evangelical" as a insult on Twitter.
While the Gospels often do speak in broad, unitary terms about "the Pharisees," they do occasionally hint at the diversity of the movement, particularly in its approach to Jesus. Although "the Pharisees" generally function as a unified group of antagonists, criticizing, questioning, and condemning Jesus' ministry, the Gospels draw attention to a handful of Pharisees who supported or at least welcomed Jesus. The most famous example is Nicodemus, who appears to arc from being a seeker interested in Jesus in John 3 to an investigator who defends Jesus in John 7 to a secret supporter of Jesus in John 19. Joseph of Arimathea, while no longer as famous as Nicodemus, is notable for appearing in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Book of Acts also suggests that the early church was comprised of a significant number of Pharisees (Acts 15:5).
When it comes to capturing the complex state of Pharisaism in first century Palestine, a long-form series like The Chosen has significant advantages over a one-off Jesus film. Most films simply don't have enough time to portray a diverse array of Pharisees. They have to dedicate most of their time to the main events of the Gospels and can't invest a lot of screen time in a bunch of side characters who won't really make a significant contribution to the main event of the story. This is why films tend to treat Pharisees as a unitary group of antagonists. By contrast, The Chosen has all the time it needs to develop a large cast of characters that represent various nuances of first century Pharisaism.
Yussif & Jairus, the Secret Believers
The Gospel of John suggests that during the time of Jesus' earthly ministry people began to be expelled from synagogues for having a positive view of Jesus (e.g., John 9:22). This seems to be the reason why some Pharisees like Joseph of Arimathea became disciples of Jesus in secret (John 19:38) - they were afraid of being expelled or, to put it in modern terms, "canceled" by the anti-Jesus strain of Pharisaism, which held far more social and political power.
Here, it's important for us to remember that the original movement created by Jesus did not see itself as a new religion. Rather, Jesus and his disciples viewed themselves as a revival movement within Judaism. If a Jewish disciple got expelled from his synagogue community, there wasn't an established alternative. Moreover, in a non-pluralistic society, religion wasn't neatly compartmentalized from other spheres of activity. Because religion was baked into all of life, suffering religious expulsion would have had severe social, economic, and vocational consequences.
Getting expelled would also seem like a strategic defeat from a missional perspective. Anyone who has intentionally chosen to remain in a very flawed church can probably relate. You stay in the hope of slowly influencing and reforming the culture, but you're constantly walking a tight rope. On the one hand, you don't want to compromise on your values or principles. On the other hand, you don't want to attack problems too forcefully because you know it will only lead people to calcify and/or force you out - and its hard to influence a community that you're no longer a part of. And so you try to pick your battles and invest in people that are open-minded. Sometimes though, situations force your hand and it can feel quite defeating.
The characters of Yussif and Jairus seems to be designed to illustrate the complex dynamics that Pharisees who secretly supported Jesus would have faced. The fact that we get two characters in this position is intentional and a wise choice.
When you arrive at a position that you know is unpopular and could get you in trouble with the majority, it's hard to figure out with whom you'll be safe to share your thoughts. The process of feeling out where someone else is at, while trying to maintain a safe-degree of deniability, is awkward and stressful. The Chosen does a great job of illustrating these complex dynamics through the early interactions between Jairus and Yussif in Episode 1 and Episode 4 of Season 3. We, the audience, know that Yussif is beginning to believe in Jesus, but we don't yet know about Jairus. We're therefore forced to join Yussif in the game of reading subtext and inferring motive.
When Yussif and Jairus finally out themselves to one another, the relationship between the two of them continues to serve an important function. If we only had Yussif, it would be much harder for us to get inside his head and appreciate the tension that his situation creates. A novel could just give us his interior monologue, but in visual adaptation like The Chosen we need another character in a similar position so that the fears, doubts, and questions that they keep secret from the rest of society can come out through their private conversations and debates. Of course, having these private conversations isn't just useful for the purpose of storytelling. Anyone in a position like Yussif or Jairus would naturally want to process their hidden thoughts and doubts with another disciple in a similar position. Their conversations and debates in the later half of The Chosen Season 3 of struck me as totally believable and true to life.
Jairus, the Desperate Father
I have relatively little to say about the depiction of the actual biblical story that serves as source material for the Jairus character. Here's the version we're given in Mark:
And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” And he went with him.And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler's house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:21-43, ESV)
Episode 5 followed the outline of the story quite faithfully and in a fairly straightforward way. They did a great job of slowly building up the situation and the tension. It would have been easy to have had him run to find Jesus immediately after his daughter got sick, but I'm glad they had him try different options before finally being forced to bring Jesus in as a last resort. It allowed the situation to serve as a perfect catalyst in his development as a secret disciple.
I might have done a few things different, but mostly for personal reasons. For example, I would have depicted Jairus as being a little miffed/anxious when Veronica slowed them down on their way to heal his daughter, but I don't have any textual basis for that. I'm just reading in how I would feel if I was in a similar circumstance. I also would have done a little more to play up the disparity between Jairus' social status and Veronica's. The show did well enough at illustrating Veronica's low status, but it didn't really highlight Jairus' high status in contrast. In the original text, it seems like we're supposed to be a bit shocked at how Jesus is willing to interrupt helping a man of high status in order to show compassion toward a woman at the bottom of the totem pole. I didn't really get that out of the scene in Episode 5 of The Chosen Season 3, but I don't really blame the show. It was doing a lot during that scene and my preference probably wouldn't have worked well with all the other stories being told.
Is Yussif actually Joseph of Arimathea?
I'll admit that until I saw the title of this video by Grafted, I had never even considered the possibility that Yussif might in fact be the Joseph of Arimathea. After all, Joseph is simply an anglicized form of the Hebrew name "Yussif."
Now some may push back by pointing out that the Gospels tell us that Joseph was a respected member of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43) whereas in The Chosen Yussif seems to be a lowly Rabbi of Capernaum. We need to keep in mind though that we're about halfway through The Chosen. Even if it might not be historically plausible, from the perspective of storytelling, there's plenty of time for Yussif to rise and become a part of the Council. Indeed, it would make a lot of sense, since it would provide justification for keeping Yussif involved in the show when the focus shifts away from Capernaum. It would also provide some interesting new drama.
But wait! Joseph of Arimathea had a family tomb in Jerusalem, which he allowed Jesus to be buried in. If Yussif is from Capernaum, it wouldn't make sense for him to have a family tomb in Jerusalem, would it? Except that we know that Yussif's family isn't from Capernaum. During Season 3, in the context of discussing the repairs for the cistern, we learn that Yussif's family owns a wealthy construction business based out of Jerusalem. He appears to be to Capernaum to serve, not because it is his hometown. So, it's completely possible then that his family would have a tomb near Jerusalem.
It would also make a lot of sense for The Chosen to develop the character of Joseph of Arimathea over the course of multiple seasons given his historical importance. The Gospels don't tell us that much about Joseph, but what they do tell us - that he was the primary one responsible for burying Jesus - is more important than many of us realize. Ancient people took the duty of burying the dead seriously and those who risked their lives to ensure a proper burial were highly regarded (e.g., 1 Samuel 31:11-13, Acts 8:2). The fact that Joseph's role is mentioned in all four Gospels is remarkable and further establishes his significance.
The importance of Joseph of Arimathea also extends beyond the original biblical accounts. Hundreds of years after the Gospels were written, the Arthurian tradition brought renewed interest in the figure of Joseph of Arimathea. At the center of the King Arthur myth was the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper and into which his blood poured on the cross. According to Arthurian legends, Joseph of Arimathea received the Grail from Jesus and ended up bringing it to England, where it remained in the keeping of his followers until the time of King Arthur and the Quest for the Holy Grail.
There's very little reason to consider these legends as anything but apocryphal. Still, these stories have played an important role in shaping the popular imagination in Western culture for centuries. I would love if The Chosen made some kind of nod or easter egg in recognition of this narrative tradition, in a similar way to how it acknowledged the post-biblical narrative traditions about Mary Magdalene by having her live in the Red Quarter. It wouldn't need to be a major plot point - just a brief moment where Yussif ends up holding Jesus' cup after the Last Supper.
Regardless of whether the Grail element is included, retrieving the body of Jesus seems like a proper direction for the character of Yussif as he's been developed by The Chosen. After all, if the Yussif is going to remain a significant member of the cast long-term, he needs to grow. So far, it seems like the primary struggle he needs to overcome is fear. Is there a more dramatic arc than for a frightened secret believer to overcome his fear, take courage, and publicly claim Jesus' dead body? I certainly can't think of a better place for his character to end up.
Shmuel, the Theological Watchdog & Inept Politician
The Shmuel character serves as the primary face of Jesus' opposition in The Chosen. In order to achieve this effect, the show quite sensibly consolidates nameless Pharisees from several different Gospel stories into a single figure. So far, these stories include (remind me if I miss one):
The Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2:1-12)
Matthew/Levi's Feast (Mark 2:15-17)
The Healing of the Invalid at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5)
Regardless of whether it's historically plausible that all of these opponents were the same person, it makes a lot of sense for the purposes of storytelling. If The Chosen depicted Jesus facing a new opponent in each of the relevant Gospel narratives, it would be hard for us to feel emotionally invested. By giving us the same opponent each time, The Chosen encourages us to form a relationship with that character that develops over time. We're also able to learn more about the motives and psychology that could lead someone to oppose Jesus in the way that the biblical Pharisees do.
Although Shmuel can sometimes come across as a little cartoonish, I still find him fairly believable. If you spend enough time in the strange world of online christendom, you'll probably run into someone similar: driven by a desire to be seen as the smartest person in the room and the need to control others, yet completely lacking in that self-awareness, perfectionistic, fixated on pet issues, quick to judge and demonize people who don't agree, unable to put things into perspective. It's no wonder that a person like this would oppose the ministry of Jesus. I particularly like how, in Episode 8 of The Chosen Season 3, Shmuel quotes Psalm 13, which suggests that he sees himself as the real suffering servant of God. It all feels quite fitting.
I also appreciate how Shmuel is depicted as an inept politician. People like him are too prickly and anti-social to succeed in politics on their own. What often happens, however, is that more self-interested, cynical figures use the energy and drive of people like Shmuel to their own ends, while helping them navigate the complexities and nuances of politics. That's my understanding of how Yanni is approaching Shmuel. Of course, having Shmuel be ignorant of politics has an added bonus: it justifies having Yanni give exposition on the political intricacies of the Sanhedrin.
From a storytelling perspective, as I've noted elsewhere, I do wish that The Chosen allowed Shmuel to be a little more effective. By having him constantly lose, the show makes it hard to take him seriously as a threat. While it's obviously too early for him to succeed in his final aim of taking down Jesus, The Chosen could give him other victories against the broader Jesus movement or against particular disciples. Even when Shmuel gets a win, like the Edict against False Prophecy in Season 3 Episode 4, the show immediately undercuts the significance of it. This may sound horrible, but, for the sake of good storytelling, I'd really love Shmuel to catch a break.
It would also be interesting to see Shmuel be right on occasion. After all, false teaching is a real thing, and heresy hunters aren't always wrong. Part of what makes Shmuel feel cartoonish is that he only seems interested in hounding Jesus, who we know is always right, or in offering petty criticism of people like Nashon. If The Chosen showed us an occasion that justified Shmuel's hyper-vigilance - perhaps some clearl