• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Sunday, April 02, 2023

    The Chosen (2019) s1e07

    In many ways the seventh episode of The Chosen feels like a season finale. A number of the longer running story arcs, particularly those of Nicodemus and Matthew, seem to reach their conclusion in this instalment. 

    Unusually however, this penultimate episode of season 1, starts back in the 13th century BC. Poisonous snakes are sweeping the Israelite camp and Moses and Joshua are debating the acceptability of fashioning a bronze snake to heal all the snake-bitten Israelites who gaze upon it. Num 21:4-9 is not a passage that has been dramatised very often and it's always nice to see a relatively obscure passage getting covered. Here it's either a metaphor for how breaking the rules/doing the wrong thing can be the right thing to do in exceptional circumstances; or its a metaphor for how unclean things can be used for Gods glory; or its both. The latter seems like it might be a nod to Matthew's pending appointment to join Jesus' disciples; the former might be more of a nod to the difficulties Nicodemus is having in what he's discovering about Jesus. And, of course, amidst Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus in John 3 that Jesus refers to this incident

    This episode is also fairly short and the scenes are fairly long, particularly Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus which lasts for 10 minutes straight – getting on for a third of the episode's run time. After the flashback above and the opening credits a handful of minor scenes slip by. The cosy relationship between Matthew and his supervisor Gaius, as the rather genteel Roman soldier picks up his charge for work; Nicodemus hears news of a new grandchild just as his Roman minder, Praetor Quintus, pops in for a status update; Jesus and his disciples set up a new camp on the outskirts of town.

    While there are other Romans depicted, I'm starting to be bothered about the leading soldiers lack of power and menace. Gaius carries all the threat of a supply teacher; Quintus – channelling elements of Jay Robinson's Caligula in The Robe – implies some sort of threat, but by the end of their scene, it's clear Nicodemus is more scared of his wife than his imperialist superior. And this is a problem. I can't help but recall Suzy/Eddie Izzard's routine about how the Romans didn't just wander in new territories and say "Hello, we are the Romans" in a James Mason voice. There's little to suggest the power dynamic that should be a key element in these scenes. I wouldn't even talk to my manager in the slightly brusque way that Nicodemus does to Quintus and, unless I missed something in my contract, they don't have the power to have me stabbed for being too snippy.

    All this matters because the Romans and the Jews were not on level footing. The Romans were the invading force, backed up by the most feared army in the world. Some will have collaborated more willingly than others, but it's hard to imagine they were this snippy, and the problem is that this implies that Jews were much more heavily implicated in the opposition to, and demise of, Jesus than is likely to have been the case.

    Prior to the meet-up between Nicodemus and Jesus we witness things being orchestrated behind the scenes to make the meeting happen, as if it's an episode of The West Wing where Leo is trying to make a crucial breakthrough in Israeli-Palestian diplomacy. John 3:1 just says Nicodemus "came to him by night". This might suggest secrecy, it could just suggest a busy diary, but here it's not really clear why Nicodemus is being quite so cautious.

    When it finally comes, the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is pretty good. I'm sure there is analysis online somewhere that go through, line-by-line, which bits are direct from John, which bits are  paraphrased and which bits are made up, so I've no wish to do that. That said the dialogue broadly follows the order and arguments of the original text, only paraphrased an expanded for clarity and flow for a modern audience. 

    However, it does import this element of the religious leaders being in opposition / a threat to Jesus. Nicodemus explains that his "mind is consumed with what a stir these words would cause among the teachers of the law" and Jesus says "Yes, and I do not expect otherwise... and it has not been received by the religious leaders". Then Nicodemus expands "I just fear you may not have a chance to speak many more of them before you are silenced".

    The Gospels record Jesus debating the interpretation of the Jewish law with other religious groups, including the "teachers of the law" (though that phrase is from the synoptics rather than John which is being used here), and it's clear that he does not always make them see his point of view. Nevertheless in the early pars of the Gospels this is mainly in the form of in-house discussion and debate. It is mainly when the action moves to Jerusalem that we get some of these scribes specifically aligned with the Chief Priests (i.e. the political as much as religious establishment) that trying to silence Jesus becomes an issue.

    Eventually we get the discussion about Moses and the bronze serpent. Jesus uses this as a metaphor for his crucifixion and we get a paraphrase of the famous "For God so loved the world" from John 3:16; but this part of the discussion also imports the idea of sin, right before Jesus speaks those famous words. Nicodemus' reaction then is not so much to be moved by the words that have adorned countless banners, posters, and sandwich boards, but to clarify the bit just before it. "So this has nothing to do with Rome, it's all... about... sin?"

    While up to this point in the conversation the script has tended to expand and elaborate on the original text, now it can't quite see it through to the end of the passage. Jesus paraphrases v17, refers back to the snake and then starts of on v18, but the camera cuts away so the only negative bit on the passage "but those who does not believe, stands condemned already",  the camera cuts away to the nearby disciples, so the last part is muffled. Once the camera returns to Nicodemus and Jesus the biblical part of the discussion is over and the conversation takes a fresh turn, almost as if time has passed in the edit.

    What moves Nicodemus to faith and even tears is not Jesus' words, but his recollection of having seen Jesus acts of healing (specifically his exorcism of Mary Magdalene). Indeed as the conclusion reaches its apex is not Jesus' words, but his actions days before and finally being in his presence.. Jesus asks Nicodemus to join him and gives him a few days. Nicodemus kneels and begins citing Psalm 2:12, only for Jesus to respond with its final line, "Blessed are all who take refuge in him". The scene ends.

    In many ways, the, this scene is a microcosm of the series' whole approach. The words of Jesus are taken, tweaked a little to make dramatic sense, but then those elements are left behind for a more emotional yet fictional encounter. As if words are not enough. In the Bible you sense Nicodemus is drawn in by Jesus' mysteries. Jesus offers him no deadline, no ultimatum and he appears to disappear from view. When he pops up briefly in John 7:50 he's with the chief priests again, though still sympathetic. And then nothing, until John 19:39 when he pops up at Jesus' burial, one of the few that have stuck with him. 

    Here though that's not enough. Nicodemus is drawn in not so much because of Jesus' words – which only seem to confuse him – but because he witnessed a miracle he could only assign to God. And similarly, the overall production seems to recognise that the text itself needs something more emotional and drama-tic, something that comes from encounter.

    If Nicodemus' response to the challenge from Jesus still remains a little ambiguous (with Nicodemus thinking over Jesus' altar call) then the same cannot be said for Matthew and the challenge Jesus offers him in the final scene. Having been similarly fascinated of, but cautious about Jesus for much of the season, Jesus finally shows up at his tax collection booth. 

    The first shot of Matthew is of him in his booth (above), but this is designed in such a way that Matthew is behind bars, as if he is imprisoned. This is highlighted again with the first shot of Jesus in this scene, taken from Matthew's point of view with the bars in shot, to emphasise further this sense of him being imprisoned. The two make eye contact, Jesus walks on knowing Matthew's eyes are following him and simply asks "follow me".

    Peter tries to dissuade him and for once he and his sworn enemy Gaius agree, but Matthew and Jesus are certain. "I don't get it" says Peter. "You didn't get it when I chose you either". "But this is different" retorts Peter, "I'm not a tax collector". "Get used to different" says Jesus with a wry smile. It's a line that has become one of the show's taglines, with a range of t-shirts, hoodies and reusable coffee cups proudly bearing the slogan

    Being a Matthew myself I always notice the little details that Christian tradition has ascribed to Matthew and its interesting to see some of these played out. Firstly I always recall the line William Barclay's Daily Study Bible commentary, "Matthew rose up and followed him and left everything behind him except one thing – his pen" (p.6 in the 2001 version). Here he brings a tablet instead but the ideas the same. "Keep it, you may yet find use for it" says Jesus verbally winking at the camera. When Jesus tells Matthew "We have a celebration to prepare for", Matthew says  "I'm not welcome at dinner parties". "That's not going to be a problem tonight" counters Jesus "you're the host". 

    It's a real zinger of a last line, delivered in pitch perfect fashion by Jonathan Roumie as Jesus. Just compare it, for example, with the same basic set-up in Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which tries a similar thing but falls flat (though, to be fair it leaves its emotional wallop for the conclusion of the whole sequence). I guess I will see, when I move onto the final episode of the season how the obvious tension between Peter and Matthew will play out here, but, with over an hour's running time, I'm kind of curious to see what else gets thrown into the mix.



    • At 8:26 am, April 13, 2023, Blogger Donald Fruz said…

      I just wanted to thank you for the blog post you wrote on Bible films blog. I loved reading your blog and the writing style you have. I found it very easy to read and it was interesting to see what movies you thought were good and what movies you thought weren't so good. I've seen a few of the movies you mentioned and they were all pretty good. I agree with you on your review of the movie "God's Not Dead" and I agree with you on your review of the movie "The Shack". I haven't seen "Divergent" yet, but it sounds like it's your favorite!0Gomovies

    • At 9:26 am, April 15, 2023, Blogger Donald Fruz said…

      I love the comment about identity! I think it's really cool that you have a comment section where you ask people to provide their identity. If people want to leave a comment, it's a great way to get to know them a little better!


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