• 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


    Monday, June 17, 2024

    The Chosen (2021) s2e03

    The third episode of The Chosen's season 2 is simply called "Matthew 4:24" which is one of those little verses that just casually mentions Jesus performing mass healings and exorcisms "and they brought to him all who were afflicted...". It sets up an interesting premise for the episode. I'm starting to get now that The Chosen is at least as interested in the disciples as it is in Jesus, and this season in particular, might be even more interested in them than in him. 

    So this time around Jesus is off screen for almost the entire episode. The group have arrived in a new place and those who are "afflicted" have sought him out to try and be healed. Jesus seems to have some kind of booth and there's a rather orderly queue. There are large numbers getting healed, "over 50", at least according to Matthew's counting, "not including lepers...". "He's scary good" one of the other disciples explains. But we're not actually seeing Jesus performing miracles, instead we're following round the disciples and watching their reaction.

    Philip the "Teacher"

    The episode starts by continuing where episode 2 left off, which in this instalment starts with Philip teaching Matthew about the Torah. "Sometimes you have to believe first" says Philip to Matthew who is still trying to understand the mechanics of it all while simultaneously demonstrating his apparent ability to memorise sentences having only heard them once.1 Philip doesn't seem particularly amazed that Matthew can do this. It's the kind of detail that appeals to those who hold the Bible is inerrant: if Matthew had an unusually good ability to recall words having only heard them once then that lends a deeper credibility to the reliability of his words. If this was unremarkable in his world then the same applies for the other Gospels. But it's unclear whether the recollection that it's sometimes claimed first century Jews could perform on scripture (the oral culture = heightened recollection) applies to every day conversations rather than particular, key texts.

    I'm curious as to where the writers would land in terms of the Synoptic problem. Does Matthew's advanced ability to memorise things mean they buy into Matthaean priority? Or do they (like the majority) ascribe to Markan priority but perhaps see his social awkwardness as also suggesting he would be less likely to write the kind of narrative that would engage a broader audience, but then once he had Mark to work off he was able to expand it with the bits he has memorised and written down. Incidentally, when his memory is so good and his available space/materials for writing so limited, what, exactly, is he writing down? 

    Anyway, the first verse they start with is Psalm 139:8 ("If I go up to Heaven you are there...", a slight variation on the actual wording which has "heavens". But right away Matthew is uncomfortable with the poetic language, and asking questions. I like this. They're the kind of questions I might like to ask, or would wish I had asked retrospectively. 

    Philip, who despite having only joined the group in the last episode, has almost supplanted Jesus' role as the teacher now. There's a power dynamic (a wisdom dynamic) between him and Matthew, or between him and Mary Magdalene, even though they have been following Jesus longer than him. Will Philip get brought down a peg or two in future episodes, or is the implication that because he knows more about God (from John)  he has important knowledge to pass on? If so it only makes the next exchange even more curious...

    Philip: "There's nowhere you can go -- no height you can climb to in your intellectual mind; no depths you can reach in your soul -- where God is not with you. Do you get it?

    Matthew: I think so. 

    Philip: No amount of learning can bring you closer to God or make you more or less precious to him. He's always right here, right now. With you. For you. 

    Matthew: I don't feel it.

    Philip: The feeling doesn't always come first sometime you have to believe first.

    Matthew: Believing a thing does not make it true.

    Philip: Ah, that is wisdom, but these are not just any words they are David's, and scripture

    Matthew: How do you know if David was only talking about himself and not everyone else? He did say 'If I ascend' not if people ascend.

    Philip: It almost sounds like you don't want it to be true.

    I feel I could probably write quite a lot on that passage which, perhaps because I feel I've been on the wrong end of conversations such as this too many times, rubs me up the wrong way. One thing I've often encountered in certain Christian circles is this sort of wisdom vs intellectualism paradox. Wisdom is always considered a good thing. It's often associated with knowledge. Intellectual understanding, though, is also often akin to knowledge, but there's also this sense that it's at best insufficient, and at its worst dangerous. Matthew here isn't even being intellectual, he's just asking reasonable questions.

    Right from the start, though, things are stacked against him. The passage is poetic and so could be taken in various ways. Philip though starts it off with a sort of jibe about the intellectual mind and follows it up with the line about learning. But if this is true then why is he in a position to teach Matthew. After all Matthew followed Jesus on his first encounter with Jesus. Philip met Jesus when he was hanging out with John, but didn't immediately follow him. I'm not saying that puts Matthew ahead of Philip, but it does make me question why Philip is so comfortable becoming this wise stand-in for Jesus ahead of all the others who have been following Jesus for longer. 

    Then we move onto feelings. Matthew doesn't feel God is close to him. But feelings, too, are insufficient. Both it and knowledge have to be subjugated to belief. But if neither of those are valid, what is the basis for this belief? In Matthew's case he at least has experience of Jesus, but given this exchange has (I was going to say one eye, but...) both eyes on the 21st century audience at home then. What experience do we have if it's not coming from feelings or from understanding? Why should one accept one series of beliefs (e.g. evangelical Christianity over, say Zoroastrianism? 

    Matthew points out that believing can also be faulty, and Philip responds by explaining that this is "scripture". But what is it about scripture that means we can (as is implied) automatically trust it? Feeling? Knowledge? Ironically, it's Matthew's own precise, forensic desire for the truth which is being used to shore up the automatic believability of the Bible against the very people in the audience who are most likely to ask similar kinds of questions.

    And then there's that final line "you don't want it to be true". Some level of intellectual discussion can be tolerated, celebrated even, but too much then it gets shut down. The only explanation is that you don't want it to be true. It's not just that you have different kinds of "learning styles", or  that the arguments don't add up. Pretty soon Philip has moved from open discussion to shutting Matthew down.

    The conversation ends with Philip passing on a couple of tips to help Matthew understand it. "Meditate on it for a few days and come back to me...Try writing it down several times. There's something about writing it down that makes it go a long way". There's two things here, firstly that Philip's made no attempt to answer a very reasonable, and indeed important, question. Secondly, this tip feels like it's more for the people at home than for a first century traveller. I suppose Philip could be thinking of a wax tablet, or even sand, but any writing method was a laborious and somewhat exclusive process. The idea that it was established as a learning technique seems phoney to me.

    Messianic expectations

    Meanwhile the disciples are discussing the pros and cons. They all seem to be in agreement that Jesus is the messiah even though he goes against their expectations of that term (and I don't recall him claiming that title for himself yet, at least in front of the disciples, but perhaps I'm wrong about that). Some are still after fame, big James in particular wonders what he would have thought if someone would have told him as in his younger days that he would be following the messiah. As a child he "trained every day with a wooden sword" and imagined killing Romans with the messiah. He hadn't expected that they would be spending their time standing around while the messiah healed people.

    For Thomas, it's clearly a military concept as well. And when Mary, who has few expectations about the messiah asks "Why is it you expect a warrior?" Thomas cites a lengthy part of Zechariah 14 to justify a military messiah. Philip seeks to lengthen out the time span for these expectations others cite later Jewish sources about how Jerusalem needs to be holy first.

    Little James's "malady"

    The discussion dissolves as Jesus' followers head off in various directions just as Little James arrives leaving just him and Thomas alone for a more intimate discussion. He worries that the crowds are only following Jesus because he's been healing them "I don't know how many of them would believe in him if he wasn't healing them." 

    This leads Thomas to probe about James' own disability (though James helpfully volunteers his answer before Thomas can quite find an appropriate term for disability). James tells him that it's "A form of paralysis. It's caused problems since birth". 

    It's noticeable that while the full 12 disciples are yet to join up there are now two amongst their growing number who might be considered in today's terms as having some form of disability2. (The other I'm thinking of is Matthew who Dallas Jenkins identified even before the first episode aired as someone with Asperger’s.3 Jenkins went on to say that it's something that he's "had experience with personally".4

    It's worth pointing out that the actor playing James, Jordan Walker Ross, has cerebral palsy and scoliosis. I don't know at what point the decision was made to incorporate Ross's experience into that of Little James. I'd like to think that they cast him on the basis of his ability as an actor and then wrote James' "malady" into the script. If so it's certainly a decision that comes to fruition in the conversation that follows. 

    Thomas (in a slightly doubting Thomas fashion) asks 

    Thomas: So then...why hasn't he healed you.How do you watch all these healings today? Does it bother you?

    James: Fair questions. I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about all of this. I mean, I suppose one big thing is that I haven't asked. 

    Thomas: Why not? 

    James: I don't know.

    Thomas: If I had your, er, struggle and I was watching what was happening today, I'd demand it

    James: I don't know if I should. It just doesn't feel right.

    In contrast to the conversation quoted in the previous section, this feels like a real conversation, because it doesn't feel like a point is being made to the audience, or at least if there is a point it's that Jesus healing people is a complex issue. James continues worried that if he tells Jesus about his partial paralysis Jesus might treat him differently. I do wonder if the lack of resolution at the end of this conversation also reflects the actors own feelings about it as well as that of the writing and directing team. They'd like to have a nice pat answer as to why not everyone is healed and they know sometimes it's because people don't ask, but they also know that when people do it doesn't always happen. And they also know that sometimes people don't feel comfortable seeking prayer for these things.


    As the episode progresses it becomes clear that this episode is going to take place mainly on the one set, back at camp and around the campfire. But more than that I start to realise that the one shot I'm watching, which has been moving to adjust as various characters come and go, is extremely long. Indeed, when I go back and check, I realise it's a 13½ minute shot which starts immediately after the opening credits, incorporating all of the conversations above. And it's a roving, weaving, fluid style which moves from group shots to intimate close-ups, often detaching from one conversation to latch onto another.

    I won't breakdown the whole thing, but after the conversations above the shot (now capturing the discussion between James and Thomas) shifts from a close-up of James, as he reveals these deep feelings about his disability; to an intimate two shot with Thomas, as Thomas affirms him; to a moving motion, capturing  the back of the two of them as they get up to join a larger group that Mother Mary has just joined; to then encircling the group, which enhances that sense of Mary being welcomed into the group; to another close-up on Philip; and then on Mary; and only ends when she walks off to prepare some food (at 14m51s).

    It's pretty masterful, actually. Tightly choreographed, smooth, and linking all the goings on behind the scenes of Jesus' day of healing into a whole piece. It gives a sense of that business, but also the progression of time. The light seems to shift radically as the shot takes place. Was that clever artificial lighting, great timing, Kubrick-like persistence over a series of evenings, or just a good dose of fortune? Sadly most of the Q&As with the filmmakers have little time for such questions.

    Mary and Joseph

    Just before the end of that shot Mary makes an interesting comment on hearing her son has been seeing people all day (following a long walk). "He's always been a worker. He gets that from his father. [long pause] Both of them I suppose." I'm tempted to make a flippant comment about Jesus being a workaholic, or about his movement's long hours culture, but it's an interesting line, even though I'm not sure it lines.

    It's actually the forerunner for further insights into Jesus's father which Mary will reveal later as the group unwinds around the campfire. Initially it starts within a conversation the others are having about money. When Mary interjects "I've never had much money my whole life and I've been happy" and you can't help wondering about the magi's gold, but the conversation goes in a different direction.

    Eventually though the conversation comes back round and Mary admits to having been worried about making mistakes when Jesus was younger. Mary Magdalene asks her "How did you feel when it happened?" and the group presses for the story. Mary starts with a nice couple of insights into the feelings she experienced behind those famous verses we find in the Gospels, before admitting "I don't know if I'm ready to give all the details, maybe some other time". But she opens back up again expressing her surprise at the human elements of motherhood when she'd wondered if it might be "completely different". Again I'll quote the extended passage

    When Joseph handed him to me it was like nothing I expected. It was like everything I'd heard about having a baby but I thought this would be completely different. [Peter asks "what do you mean"] I had to clean him off. He was covered in... I will be polite. He needed to be cleaned. And he was and cold and he was crying and he needed my help. My help. A teenager from Nazareth. It actually made me think for just one moment. "Is this really the Son of God?" Joseph told me later he briefly thought the same thing, but we knew he was. I don't know what I expected but he was crying and he needed me and I wondered how long that would last. He doesn't need me anymore..."

    It's an interesting moment, both moving, but also just allowing the viewer to recalibrate a little. Jesus has been performing al these miracles, but it's reminder the viewer of his humanity and vulnerability as well. And then Mary says, almost off-hand "After Joseph passed". The idea of Joseph having died during Jesus lifetime is is not something in the Gospels but it's long been understood from his absence in the main part of the story.5 

    Mary is vulnerable too. She's proud of her son and excited to see what he will do, but admit to missing him and that he no longer needs her, "...as a mum, it makes me a little sad sometimes". 

    Tensions emerge

    The camp-fire chat runs for the remainder of the show. Mary makes her excuses and goes off to sort out the dishes, leaving the disciples to chat a bit about their pasts too. Embolded, perhaps, by Mother Mary's revelations, Mary Magdalene's explains a little of her backstory, about the death of parents when she was young, how she left "everything" and tried to stop being a Jew. She continues "Worse things happened...Most of it is a blur". This continues the show's tendency to hint at the tradition that she was a prostitute, but without explicitly stating it.6

    Mary feels at a disadvantage to the male disciples, but they confess that they don't know as much as she thinks. Except that is, apparently, for Big James. He modestly tries to pass it off, but John doubles down: "You could recite half of Torah if you had to". Obviously this is exaggeration to prove a point in discussion not a literal statement of truth, but still the implication suggests something that would be quite extraordinary for a peasant fisherman in reality. Even being able to read or write would be rare and while there's some evidence to support transmission of information orally among the elite classes,7 we don't really know the extent to which it percolated down to the lower classes. Again it suits the series' apologetic aims to present some of the early church as knowing the Jewish scriptures really well  

     The conversation then veers into talking about the extent to which they maintain Jewish practice or rather the ways in which the various disciples broke the rules. "I tried pork once" one offers perhaps torn between his shame and the sense of one-upmanship that is beginning to emerge between them. Things turn more serious and they reflect on the difficulties and challenges of their identity. "I've come to love being Jewish" Thomas says to nods of approval. 

    And then Simon picks on Matthew. "And what about you?..Has it been difficult for you all this time?" John tries to settle things down, but when Matthew asks him what he wants him to do Andrew joins in "An apology" and it goes on. John points out how Simon nearly put them in trouble with the Romans. Thomas turns the attention back on to Matthew. Simon gets to his feet, ranting now. Big James stands to square up to him. And then, suddenly, there's the soft sound of weary footsteps traipsing into camp. Jesus has finally completed his very long day's labour. He has finally got to the end of the queue. There's no jokes just a would be Messiah, to emotionally exhausted to give more than the most basic of greetings.

    It's not just that Jesus is exhausted, but that it strikes such a contrast with all the conversations that have gone before, from the more obvious (Peter's bitter confrontation of Matthew), through the more mundane such as Big James recalling his own exhaustion at having to follow Sabbath rules, even through to the more spiritual and compassionate sounding such as Mother Mary's sense of loss that she no longer feels Jesus needs her. And all the time they have been chatting, he has been exhausting himself, being that good observant Jew (healing lepers but separately), that true follower, that person that does the caring for others. And now he is there, exhausted. He's a Jesus who still needs his feet cleaning and his Mum to look after him. And I find myself crying because my eldest just turned 18 and we're going through a similar thing to Mary. He's so grown up now, he needs me less and less. And yet he's still, occasionally, vulnerable. "What would I do without you Eema?" says Jesus as the credits roll. And I wonder if I'll hear a similar sentiment ever again.


    1. This appears to relate to the decision to portray Matthew as being on the autism spectrum, which I discuss below (3).

    2. I've been listening to an interview with Dr Isaac Soon (who is also worth following on Twitter) on the "Data over Dogma" podcast, who explains, among an array of interesting points, that what we consider disability is a "cultural construct".

    3. Cited by Peter T. Chattaway in 2019 in "The Chosen — Ethnic And Neurological Diversity In The Story Of Jesus" from an interview for a restricted-access article in Christianity Today "Jesus’ Life Chosen for Two Very Different TV Series" (2019). The term "Asperger's" is now generally not used these days (something where the momentum may have shifted even since then) due to both medical knowledge viewing it as more correctly as part of the broader autism spectrum and Dr. Asperger's involvement with the Nazi regime.

    4. Josh Shepherd (2019) "Jesus’ Life Chosen for Two Very Different TV Series" in Christianity Today March 29. Available online - https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/march-web-only/jesus-his-life-history-chosen-tv-series-vidangel.html 

    5. There is a counter narrative, namely that Joseph didn't really exist which goes right back to him being named as Jesus ben Pantera in the Babylonian Talmud, but this series isn't likely to go there.

    6. Kevin Keating highlights the mention of "The Red Quarter" and indications that Mary was raped by a Roman solidier as indications of this in "Mary Magdalene in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)" at The Bible Artist, May 30th 2020. Available online: https://www.thebibleartist.com/post/mary-magdalene-in-the-chosen-adapting-biblical-characters

    7. David Carr (2010) "Torah on the Heart: Literary Jewish Textuality Within Its Ancient Near Eastern Context" in Oral Tradition, 25/1. p.17-40. Available online: https://journal.oraltradition.org/wp-content/uploads/files/articles/25i/04_25.1.pdf



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