Exclusive Interview with The Chosen Producers

Leading up to Easter, my family was looking for something to watch. Our typical Easter plans were ruined by the quarantine, and we hoped to find a digital experience that would help to fill that void. My wife suggested The Chosen. I am not really a fan of media attempts to capture gospel stories. I was more interested in finding a lecture by a theologian. I was outvoted, however, and we settled on the chosen. I opened my laptop to absentmindedly peruse Facebook. There’s no way this show is any good. 

I was wrong.

It wasn’t long into the first episode that I realized this show is different. It isn’t cheesy. The production value is solid. The acting is good. The writing is good. It struck such a unique balance. Everything is in English, but it is peppered with Hebrew words and concepts. The result is accessible, and yet not overly anachronistic. The result is very impressive. 

I teach a course on the Synoptic Gospels at Life Pacific University – Virginia. I’m always looking for multimedia to use to engage my students. Up until now, I’ve been content with the Bible Project, as well as the wealth of Interactive Media resources in Logos. While I’ll keep using all of those, I’m definitely looking forward to using several of the scenes in my course this fall.

One of the elements that struck me about the entire show was the level of research it displays for the careful viewer. I reached out to The Chosen team to discuss how they integrate research into their creative process.  

Many portrayals of Jesus either emphasize his humanity and then somehow shoehorn in his divinity or portray him as barely human. In The Chosen, Jesus’s humor is incredibly human, but his wisdom is so incredibly divine. How did you build his character in such a balanced way?

With all respect to the Athanasian theologians who centuries ago agreed upon the Hypostatic Union, they were not thinking ahead to the problems this would pose to TV writers. The dance between Jesus’s full humanity and full divinity is one of the greatest challenges we face. The way we build balance is by agreeing on the fact that divinity is a somewhat invisible, mysterious thing, while flesh and humanity are plain, visible, relatable. So, we lean hard on showing the visual aspects of his humanity:  he’s funny, bloody, tired, weepy, sarcastic, sweaty, exhausted, joyful, teasing, etc. And then we rely upon the whole of Scripture to inform the wisdom he imparts verbally, from a divine perspective.

Could you describe your research methodology? Did you start with a script and then work your research into it? Is there a research group, some kind of scholarly oversight? 

We start with the source material (the gospels), look for stories and characters that could be fleshed out and given story arcs, and then build an outline. I use Logos Bible Software for my research into any perplexing or disputed interpretations (usually the gospels are plain in their meaning, but everyone knows there is the occasional head-scratcher that requires a deep dive into commentaries [thanks, Logos!]). There is no research group, but the scripts are evaluated by a team of professionals who provide feedback: NT scholar Dr. Doug Huffman, Messianic Rabbi Jason Sobel, and Catholic priest Fr. David Guffee.

How did you choose your scriptural references and allusions? Some seem like obvious choices, like Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah to the children. Nicodemus’ quotation of Psalm 2 seems a little less of an obvious choice (but might be my favorite part of the show). Even more counterintuitive is John the Baptizer quoting Proverbs to Nicodemus (especially when Nicodemus mistakes the author of the proverb for Solomon). How did you choose what to include and what to leave out?

The Jewish people in the first century were steeped in the language of what we now call the Old Testament. It’s all they had. The men who were educated in Hebrew school had large portions of it memorized. It would be natural for Psalm 2 to come spilling out of Nicodemus when he recognized who Jesus was. John the Baptist is so quirky that it makes sense he would fixate on a passage as obscure and startling as the Oracle of Agur, Son of Jakeh found in Proverbs 30. Mary Magdalene’s father taught her a passage from Isaiah to help her cope with her fear and insomnia. We just try to match texts to the personalities of the characters.

What other creative portrayals of Jesus have inspired you? Are there any that you deliberately ignored or avoided?

We’ve basically ignored and avoided every previous creative portrayal of Jesus. We have drawn some inspiration from Dorothy Sayers’ Introduction to the printed text of her BBC radio drama play cycle The Man Born to Be King. 

What are your thoughts on the connection or disconnection between Jesus the historical person and Christ who has been portrayed through the centuries? How much has our culture influenced your choices of how you portray Jesus?

It’s generally agreed upon that the historical Jesus was very different from the one who has been portrayed in art through the centuries. Since our aim is to influence the current culture through art, we portray a Jesus who speaks English (the historical Jesus obviously did not), uses modern idioms, and is sarcastic and funny in ways we have no guarantee of knowing would be true of the actual person in A.D. 30. But it’s all generally in keeping with the spirit of what we do know about Jesus, and what would make him appealing, authentic and understandable to a 21st century audience.

It’s sometimes said one ought not allow the facts get in the way of a good story. How have you worked with this tension? Changes were made in The Chosen from the biblical text. None of these seem particularly substantial. Most deal with chronology, etc. What guided these decisions? Has this led to any conflict with religious groups?

The gospels themselves do not agree on the chronology of events. Just try reading all four versions of the calling of Simon Peter, or the resurrection, and you’ve got a lot of conflicting material to work with. Each of the four gospel writers remember or recount things differently. We either try to harmonize accounts or choose the anecdote that works best for the story we are trying to tell for the greatest impact. Some Christians object to the minor deviations, or lines added (always for clarification purposes), but at the end of the day, The Chosen is not a sermon or doctrinal statement – it’s a TV show. Everything that is not a direct quote from the gospels is simply plausible fiction that explores how Jesus may have been experienced through the eyes of those he chose to surround himself with.

What prompted your decisions regarding, Mary Magdalene’s presence with the disciples?

This decision was prompted by Luke 8:1-3 – “And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” You might ask, “Then where are the rest of those women who are mentioned?” Hang tight, we’re working on it. ;) It takes a lot of time and character/context-building to earn the emotion audiences feel when someone like Simon or Matthew finally reach the tipping point.

Nicodemus’ desire to follow Jesus

John 3 is a fascinating character study. It’s clear Nicodemus was powerful (“a ruler of the Jews”), afraid for his reputation (“came to Jesus by night”) and had seen something he couldn’t unsee (“No one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”). But he also cared enough to push back. If you read John 3, you’ll see he’s not content to just accept Jesus’ answers. He presses for clarification, he pokes holes in the literal logic (“how can a man enter back into his mother’s womb?”), he’s, as the kids these days say, “shook.” Shook, but invested. And those who are familiar with the gospels know that Nicodemus re-appears in the narrative two more times, signaling at both junctures evidence that he respected, revered, believed Jesus. He just had limits, hoops he couldn’t jump through. This still happens all the time. People see it. They get it. They want it. But they have burdensome external forces they can’t bring themselves to push past: reputation, status, family, religious upbringing, status quo, fear of exclusion from the tribe, loss of relationships, etc. It’s primal.

Matthew’s autism 

This was Dallas’ idea. He has a close personal and familial history with the autism spectrum and has studied it extensively. He noticed that Matthew’s gospel is more detail-oriented than the others, almost to the point of fastidiousness. And it was important to all of us that we show that people with differences — or possessing what society perceives as weaknesses — are exactly the kind of people Jesus would surround himself with. 

Peter’s conspiring with the Romans 

The answer to this question boils down to 2 words, from 1 verse in Luke 5. After Jesus tells Simon to let down his net for another catch, he answers, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing.” All. Night. Simon’s arc in episodes 1-4 is entirely built around those two words. How high would the stakes have to be for a Jewish man and his brother and their friends to stay out all night “toiling”, not sleeping, trying in vain to catch fish? Simply being behind on his taxes wasn’t enough. Everyone was behind on their taxes. He had to have more skin in the game. Most of The Chosen takes place between the lines of Scripture. The Bible never says or gives any clues as to why he was out all night. So, we get to imagine, and fill in in-between the lines. It’s a holy exercise.

One of the most striking elements of the show is how Jesus treats women. Would you describe the theological reasoning that you are bringing to how you’re telling this larger narrative about Jesus’ attitude toward women?

Every text, biblical or extra-biblical, describes the historical Jesus’ treatment of women to be, for the most part, a radical departure from the norms of the first century, particularly within Judaism. People at the time were shocked by it. We have the benefit of the Letter to the Galatians, which paints a more cosmic picture of why he behaved this way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Level playing field.    

Were there any restraints on your imagination? What would be considered off-limits?

The general rule is: “generously creative exploration, not contradiction.” Allow me to break that down, working backwards. 

  • Contradiction: anything that directly contradicts the spirit and truth of what Scripture communicates in the story or nature of Jesus is off limits.
  • Exploration: There is so much the Bible doesn’t tell us. Consider Luke 5 (Matthew was also called Levi) – “After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” Why did he “leave everything” so immediately? The guy had a great job, he had it made. What would have to happen for him to abandon his post so readily? We’re not told. That’s Exploration. 
  • Generously Creative: Sure, we might add a line or two into Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, but it’s only in order to help the audience understand more clearly. It comes from a place of generosity. Pastors stop and explain things in Scripture all the time. In a narrative TV show, we can’t stop and explain something. A character has to speak words that help illuminate the truth, and sometimes that means adding little clarifying lines that a first century Jewish audience wouldn’t need because it would be so baked into their consciousness, but that a 21st century, largely Gentile audience desperately needs in order to grasp what’s going on.     

The character of Mary Magdalene has often been inaccurately portrayed as a prostitute. The Chosen seems to flirt with this idea. It does not overtly affirm it, nor does it reject it. What led this decision? 

We take the position she was not a prostitute. But I get where you’re coming from. Scripture says seven demons were cast out of Mary. In the very first scene of the show, young Mary emerges from the tent in the night to tell her father she can’t sleep. He asks if she has a headache again, and she speaks of an unknown fear she can’t explain, suggesting she may have been affected from an early age by some physical or mental affliction, or form of spiritual warfare. In later flashbacks, we learn her father died when she was still a child, and that she was later sexually assaulted by a Roman soldier (all too common at that time). A homeless, fatherless, mentally ill woman in First Century Palestine would be vulnerable to predatory relationships, exploitation, and other forms of sexual brokenness. It’s not pleasant to think about, it’s just the way things were, and, unfortunately, are in many parts of the world today, even America. 

I’m so glad that I was wrong about this show (and my wife, as usual, was right). I’ve bought the DVDs, and the BluRays as gifts, and we’ve watched through the first season multiple times. It’s so well done, and obviously meticulously researched. I will say, there is one minor mistake that I noticed. If you find it, comment below. 

The Chosen is available on YouTube, their Website (streaming, DVD, & BluRay), and their App (Apple & Google Play).

Written by
Ryan Lytton

Ryan Lytton is Assistant Professor & Director of Academic Services at Life Pacific University-Virginia (https://virginia.lifepacific.edu/). He earned a Bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies from Life Pacific University where he graduated in 2007. From there he went on to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he focused on how the Bible was interpreted in the Patristic Period (100-800 AD). He's currently pursuing a Ph.D. through Ridley College, continuing his study of Patristic Exegesis by looking at the reception of Proverbs 8:22-31 up to 381 CE.

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Written by Ryan Lytton