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The People Behind ‘The Chosen’

Jewish advisers help a hit television show about the life of Jesus grapple with Judaism

Maggie Phillips
February 06, 2024
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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The No. 2 movie in the U.S. this weekend was The Chosen, beating out such Hollywood releases as The Beekeeper (starring Jason Statham) and the critically acclaimed American Fiction. It’s an unusual success story. First of all, The Chosen isn’t really a movie; it’s a television show, a stealth streaming hit that initially premiered in 2019, that’s also being released in movie theaters as its fourth season begins. “We have the ability to try new things, such as putting a TV show in theaters, because our fans are so passionate and supportive,” showrunner Dallas Jenkins said when the first two episodes of Season 3 were theatrically released in 2022. Audience demand led to an extension of its original five-day run. The third season’s finale was also theatrically released, debuting in February 2023 at No. 1, ahead of Avatar: The Way of Water. This season, all eight episodes will show in theaters, rolling out a few episodes a time over the next month.

The Chosen is an even more unusual success story because it doesn’t have any big stars, and it’s not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or based on a toy or video game. The Chosen is, instead, about the life of Jesus.

Faith-based Christian entertainment has long existed in parallel to mainstream film and TV, with an occasional breakout hit like The Passion of the Christ. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Chosen’s success is that it has managed to attract Jewish fans.

Jenkins is keenly aware of the show’s Jewish following. While he has endeavored to convey the life and times of Jesus with historical accuracy and religious sensitivity since the beginning, the new season presents special challenges. Season 4 deals with the events leading up to the arrest of Jesus, which ultimately leads to his crucifixion. Jenkins knew he was navigating into dangerous waters, with subject matter that has long been the basis for antisemitic tropes and stereotypes. That’s why The Chosen’s creators developed a Jewish Advisory Board, to help them treat the events leading up to Jesus’ arrest and trial with careful consideration. The goal isn’t simply to avoid ugly historical hatreds, however. Jenkins also hopes to increase his fellow Christians’ appreciation of Judaism.

Faydra Shapiro, the founding director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian relations, is on the Jewish Advisory Board for The Chosen. In a 2023 op-ed, she said she “mentally cringed” when she first heard about the show. “All the Christians were talking about it on Facebook,” she wrote, “and that of course couldn’t be a good sign.” She watched the first three seasons in preparation for her work as a consultant, and while she acknowledges there are elements that are “kitschy,” or even “just plain wrong,” she eventually came around. The mere fact that she was approached was something. “Until now, all the advisers for The Chosen were Christian, aside from one Messianic Jewish leader,” she wrote. “That a group of Christian professionals with a multi-season Christian mega-hit would seek us out for extended conversations about Jewish practice, Jewish sensitivities, Jewish texts, and Jewish holidays in order to better present Jesus and his disciples is unprecedented, and reflects an extraordinary moment in healing the relationship between Jews and Christians.” Shapiro even encouraged her fellow Jews to seek out The Chosen as a way to appreciate the profoundly Jewish nature of the New Testament, which can serve as a sort of time capsule of Jewish practice just decades before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Dallas Jenkins is practically evangelical royalty. He is the son of Jerry B. Jenkins, one half of the writing team behind the Left Behind books, a landmark of evangelical Christian culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But he also grew up among a dynamic Jewish population in Deerfield, Illinois, singing both Hanukkah and Christmas songs at school holiday concerts. Later, when he moved away and began attending Christian schools, “at least in my experience,” Jenkins told me in a phone interview, “the majority of Christians that I knew in America were actually raised to be quite not only respectful of the Jewish faith, but grateful” for the Jewish origins of their faith. Raised with what he calls “a profound respect” for Judaism, he said he was surprised to learn as he got older about the history of Christian antisemitism that persists up to the present day.

Therefore, when he began work on The Chosen, Jenkins said he was determined not to “whitewash” the time and place in which Jesus lived. “We’re going to do our best to capture the authenticity of the story and particularly the Jewishness of it,” he said. Even if there is profound disagreement over the central claim of Christianity, that Jesus is who he claimed to be, “I would contend,” Jenkins said, “that you would at least appreciate our fair treatment of the different sides of the issue, and that we do not just stack the deck against those who disagree, that we actually give them a fair hearing as well.”

Prior to Season 4, Jenkins and his team had pursued historical and theological accuracy by consulting with their multifaith team, running things past Jewish friends, or going down internet rabbit holes. The problem was that the answers didn’t always agree, he said, “even within the Jewish community and even among Jewish scholars.” Meanwhile, he said that when members of The Chosen production team visited Israel, they began to hear from Jews who liked the show. With the help of the Christian organization The Philos Project, which works to develop productive relationships between Christians and Jews with regard to the Middle East, a Jewish Advisory Board for The Chosen was established. “We thought it would be good,” he told me, “to get a more formal perspective from current Israeli Jews” who were steeped in the history and practices of Christ’s time period. “Even if there’s disagreement about specific things, at least we have a deeper and wider perspective.”

Jenkins gives some examples of the show’s approach to historicity. Sometimes, characters will serve as audience proxies, to whom certain practices must be explained. Other times, breaches of practice are deliberately written into the show, precisely to highlight the significance of the practice within the culture and time. He cites an instance in the first season, where the Apostle Peter is portrayed as fishing during Shabbat. Jenkins admits that he and his writers initially didn’t realize the seriousness of such an action. But after feedback that he said ranged from “that never would have happened” to “highly unlikely,” they made the decision to keep the scene, careful to portray that it was “a huge deal.” Although the consultants remained skeptical, Jenkins said they were satisfied that the severity of the infraction was highlighted. It’s an approach the show has kept, he said, in the name of world-building. “Sometimes they do the wrong thing, even if it’s unlikely that they would have done it. It helps expose the viewer to what would have been considered a big deal at that time,” he said. “If no one ever violates a rule, then, in many ways, in our show, you’d never know it was a rule, you’d never know it was a law, you’d never know it was tradition.”

A Shabbat scene in 'The Chosen'
A Shabbat scene in ‘The Chosen’

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Edifying viewers is one thing. But the dramatic events leading up to Jesus’ arrest by the Roman authorities in Season 4 raise the stakes for inaccuracy. The Pharisees present a particularly sticky problem heading into this phase of the story. In Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, they are portrayed as priggish and self-righteous hysterics, out to get Robert Powell’s blue-eyed Jesus. The walls of the Temple echo with his epithets against them—“blind guides” and “whited sepulchres” who “bow before the letter of the law, and violate the heart of the law”—accusations taken directly from the Gospels.

Angel Studios, the crowdfunded distributor that originally distributed The Chosen, and which still offers the show via streaming, provided an explanation of the Pharisees in a 2022 blog post. “The Pharisees hated Jesus because He regularly exposed their hypocrisy and inconsistencies,” it said. “The Pharisees focused on following the exact letter of the law, without focusing on the reasons for those laws and the people in need around them. As shown in the New Testament, Jesus taught a higher law to love everyone and serve them—and to serve them in secret without public praise. Jesus taught a new and better way, something the Pharisees didn’t like.”

This is a widely shared perception in the Christian world. “In my upbringing, it was always Jesus versus the Pharisees,” Jenkins said. “The Pharisees represented, you know, the bad guys and Jesus was the good guy.” But he said that the Jewish Advisory Board pointed out to the show’s writers that Jesus was likely a Pharisee himself.

Professor Amy-Jill Levine is the professor of New Testament and Jewish studies emerita at Vanderbilt University, and the author of The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. She is also the editor of “The Pharisees,” a collection of papers presented at a 2019 convening of international scholars at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In an email to Tablet, she described the Pharisees as a sort of prototypical Chabad. They were, she wrote, “a lay organization [that] sought in an egalitarian way to expand priestly privileges to all Israel; they were known for making Halacha easier to follow, for teaching others rather than remaining aloof, and for helping to preserve Jewish identity apart from the Jerusalem Temple.”

While Jesus debated with the Pharisees over issues of practice, Levine said, there are only some Gospels that heighten the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees, who emerge as rivals to his teachings. Indeed, she points out, in places where the Gospel of Matthew references the Pharisees, the Gospel of Mark may tell the same story, but with more benignly portrayed scribes. Whereas in Matthew, one of the Pharisees is described as “testing” Jesus by asking which commandment is greatest, in Mark, an impressed scribe overhears a discussion in which Jesus is taking part, and asks the same question.

Jenkins considers it the show’s responsibility to give audiences context, so that the Pharisees are not simply “mustache-twirling villains.” He is keen that viewers should understand the Pharisees as they would have understood themselves: the sincere protectors of a belief system and theological perspective, to which Jesus himself subscribed. “Jesus was a threat to the roots of their faith,” he said.

This Jesus-versus-Pharisees script has contributed to what Levine said are some common Christian misconceptions about Jesus and Judaism: that Halacha is seen as an oppressive burden, rather than a blessing, and that Jews are obsessed with ritual purity. The widespread Christian belief that Jesus freed his followers from these perceived constraints, she said, overlooks that Jesus’ work restored people to ritual purity, and rather than abrogating the law, could make it stricter (for example, a prohibition against murder is extended to include anger).

As a believing Christian, Jenkins is convinced by the interpretation of Jewish law offered by Jesus, but he said it is the same law “that they had all received years before.” Characters like the Pharisee Shmuel, he said, may resonate with a Jewish audience. Shmuel is conflicted about Jesus over the course of many seasons, before finally rejecting him and his teachings, Jenkins said, “for legitimate reasons.”

“We know that there are significant things that we disagree on,” he said. “But this show is not an attempt to push a particular perspective on anyone. It’s an attempt to accurately portray the historicity of it, and then what you conclude about this portrayal is up to you.”

In the first century, those who confessed Christ as the messiah knew a great deal about Judaism because, in fact, they were Jews.

For her part, Levine sees the historical Jesus a legitimate object of interest for Jews. “I find, as a Jew,” she said, “that Jesus’ parables are brilliant ways of raising ethical questions. Correctly understood in their historical contexts, Jews may find of interest such stories as the ‘Prodigal son,’ the ‘Good Samaritan’ and the ‘Laborers in the Vineyard.’”

Jenkins estimates that about two-thirds of his cast is non-Christian. I spoke over Zoom with the actor Noah James, who plays the Apostle Andrew. “I really did not know what to expect,” he said, and was “a little bit apprehensive.” James, who was raised culturally Jewish, said he had a “totally secular upbringing,” and while he was familiar with Christianity in “an academic sense,” he admits he didn’t know much about Jesus.

James isn’t alone in this. Jenkins said he had a Jewish friend who had always thought Jesus was Hispanic. Levine, herself Jewish, said that a frequent Jewish misunderstanding is that Christianity is distinct from, rather than a form of, late Second Temple Judaism. “Church and synagogue are not parent and child, but church and synagogue are siblings, and like most siblings, we are fighting over our parents’ legacy,” Levine said in a 2008 UCSD lecture. “In the first century, those who confessed Christ as the messiah knew a great deal about Judaism because, in fact, they were Jews.”

While James describes The Chosen as “a fascinating historical drama,” for him, it is also a personal story. At one point, he said, he remembered thinking, “This is what Shabbat dinner feels like.” Over Thanksgiving, when James’ father shared with him some of his favorite stories from the Hebrew Bible, he was excited to hear them, because, he said with a laugh, “his favorite story actually is included in some of what we deal with this season.”

James said working on The Chosen has made him more appreciative of his own Jewish heritage, and more observant. Moreover, he sees in The Chosen a story of Jews fighting for self-determination. He described an upcoming scene in the new season that depicts the beginning of what would become Hanukkah. “[It] pays homage to some of the stories of Jewish history, including maybe the Maccabees, and that whole story, in a really fun and interesting way,” he said. “Jews will understand what we’re doing.”

“I see my family in the stories,” said James. “I don’t see that story portrayed on TV almost ever.”

Another Jewish actor on The Chosen, Shahar Isaac, is Israeli. His character, the Apostle Simon Peter, is a key part of Season 4. The IDF reservist was called up on active duty in the wake of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, but was at the Season 4 theatrical premiere in London in January. The show is filmed in Texas and Utah, so the war will not affect shooting the remaining three seasons. Chosen YouTubers are saying that Jenkins said at the Los Angeles premiere in January that Isaac will be available to film Season 5, but this is currently unconfirmed.

For Jenkins, an authentic portrayal of Judaism goes beyond the respect for the sensibilities of its Jewish fans. Many Christians are operating with a two-dimensional portrait of Judaism drawn from their Bibles, misunderstanding it as a monolithic faith community that is frozen in time. “We are a living tradition that changes over time,” Levine said via email, something more than a faith community, but “a people, with a common language, ancestry, and homeland.”

In an assertion he acknowledges might sound harsh out of context, Jenkins takes a strong stance with regard to his fellow Christians. “I would argue that if you are or if you claim to be a Christian, who does not appreciate or understand the Jewishness of your faith, then you may not be a true Christian,” he said. “Because ‘Christian’ [means] follower of Christ. And if you do not understand and appreciate Jesus’ Jewishness, you might not be following the correct Jesus.”

In fairness, there are many U.S. Christians in particular who are endeavoring to get in touch with the Jewish roots of their faith, whether it’s holding a Seder for Passover, blowing shofars, or observing the Sabbath from Friday to Saturday, in an effort to connect with the Judaism they believe Jesus would have observed.

But Levine said it is more complicated than that. “Not all pastors have had sufficient interactions with Jews to understand Jewish practice and belief,” she said, let alone to read back from contemporary practice to late Second Temple times. “For many of my divinity students, I am the first Jew they have ever met.” Indeed, she said many of her students show up under the impression that Leviticus is a sufficient primer on present-day Judaism. “They miss over two millennia of Jewish history,” she said.

Most of the Christians adopting these practices are Protestants from faith backgrounds that lack much in the way of ritual. Wishing to avoid liturgical faiths like Anglicanism, Catholicism, or Orthodox Christianity, they “adopt Jewish practice without knowing how we Jews understand those practices,” said Levine. She points out that this is contrary to the writings of Paul the Apostle, also known as Paul of Tarsus: “For Paul, Jewish and gentile followers of Jesus maintain distinct identities.” Paul, Levine noted, is the only Pharisee from whom there are written records (and, for what it’s worth, he was very proud to be one). He was, she said, “a Jew who, believing the messianic age had begun, saw his role as turning gentiles away from their own deities to worship the God of Israel, but without converting to Judaism.”

Jenkins said The Chosen’s Jewish Advisory Board is especially focused on getting the prayers and traditions right. “There are some things that aren’t necessarily going to be factual,” he said, referring to the need to serve a larger story arc, “but they are going to be true.” For Jenkins, this is crucial. “We have heard from—I’m not exaggerating when I say this—tens of thousands of viewers who are not Jewish, that ‘I am learning and practicing any of these prayers and traditions as a result of the show.’ And we want to get that right and/or at the very least, point them in the right direction.”

The Chosen is entering its final three seasons, and Jenkins is aware the show is walking a tightrope as it approaches Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death. “That’s the most obviously controversial moment in history,” he said, “and also the portrayal of everyone involved is so important. And for what we just talked about, we cannot show that it was just this violent, evil mob of people who were just irrationally killing Jesus, because they wanted to be wealthy or whatever. There were very serious and nuanced, sociopolitical and religious issues being weighed, and navigated through, and debated.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.