Movies depicting the Gospels are usually not very good. I prefer the book. As a rule, theatrical depictions of the Jesus story are terrible. The acting comes off stiff, the dialogue sounds artificial, and the storytelling stumbles clumsily toward its inevitable destiny on the cross.
Typically, the only people in the cast that look Jewish are the ones playing the Pharisees—always depicted as bad guys draped in prayer shawls. It’s like the anti-Semitic medieval passion plays projected onto the silver screen.
Then comes The Chosen, a streaming-exclusive television dramatization that sets out to, once more, retell the greatest story ever told. With two eight-episode seasons already under his belt, creator and director Dallas Jenkins intends to extend the story over five more seasons. The show has met with rave reviews and enthusiastic viewers—more than 100 million of them.
What makes The Chosen different from all the other dramatizations in the Jesus genre is that it’s not bad. Honestly, it’s really good. The acting is terrific, the dialogue sounds witty and authentic, and the creative storytelling engages the viewer. The episodic format creates ample space for character development and good narrative. It’s clear that the show’s creators did their homework on the details of life in first-century, Roman-occupied Judea and Galilee.
Best of all, the whole production makes a serious effort to depict Jesus and his disciples as Jews within a Jewish context. We see Jesus and his followers observing the Sabbath, reciting traditional blessings, and interacting with their religious environment. Jenkins wanted to get the historical, political, geographical, and cultural details right, and his team has done an admirable job. Even if the Pharisees are still walking around with prayer shawls draped over their heads, at least Jesus and his disciples look like Jews. An Israeli actor plays Simon Peter. Jesus sports ritual tassels on his garment. Sure, it might be nice to see some covered heads and curly sidelocks (anachronistic as they might be), but the entertainment world needs nice hair.
What’s the story behind the Jewish sensibilities in The Chosen? Dallas Jenkins, son of Left Behind co-author Jerry B. Jenkins, has deep roots in a mainstream Evangelical perspective. That’s a world largely unfamiliar with a Jewish reading of the Gospels. I was curious. Who are The Chosen people responsible for the Jewish vibe in the show? Turns out they’re Messianic Jews.
When a Messianic Jewish friend of Jenkins heard about his vision for a TV show, he put him in touch with Los Angeles-based Rabbi Jason Sobel. Jenkins’ Jewish friend wanted to make sure that The Chosen would depict the Jewishness of Jesus and not a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white Christ. Rabbi Sobel, who is ordained through the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), already had scored some celebrity-level clout. He co-authored a book with Kathie Lee Gifford titled The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi, which has sold about 700,000 copies. Rabbi Sobel says, “They came to me before they ever raised money, while the show was still a hope and a dream. As they began to write, I took Dallas and a couple of key team members to Israel on a tour.”
Jenkins says he caught the vision for faithfully depicting the Jewish character of the gospel story on that trip to Israel with Rabbi Sobel. The trip landed Sobel a position as a spiritual advisor and the unofficial rabbi to the creative team behind the production. In a recent interview, Jenkins explained, “I really want my Jewish brothers and sisters to appreciate the sincere attempts we are making to not shy away from the Jewishness of Jesus, but to love and embrace it.” Mission accomplished. Most Messianic Jews that I know not only enjoy the series but eagerly recommend it to their mainstream Christian friends because of its positive portrayal of Jesus as a Jew.
It probably helps that Jenkins didn’t need to argue over the production or the writing with studio execs. Instead, The Chosen is completely crowd-funded and happily independent of outside control. Jenkins has raised more than 10 million dollars from nearly 20,000 donors, making it the most successful crowd-funded movie or TV show of all time. If he wants to depict Jesus as Jewish, no Hollywood executive can say otherwise.
In what sounds like the setup for a joke about a priest, a pastor, and a rabbi walking into a bar, Jenkins confirms that each episode gets reviewed by an Evangelical scholar, a Catholic priest, and Rabbi Sobel. Scriptwriter Tyler Thompson says that, after collaborating with Jenkins, he and co-author Ryan M. Swanson submit the scripts to a team of advisors that includes the show’s rabbi. “If we go way over the line … one of the scholars like our rabbi or our teachers— Evangelical historians who look at the scripts—will set us straight.”
Rabbi Sobel explains, “I don’t do the writing. They write the scripts and then they give me the scripts to read, and they ask me for my input, like, ‘Is there anything that you feel biblically, Jewishly, or culturally should be altered?’ Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t. I mean, there’s some things that I’d like to tell you that, thank God, they didn’t do.”
An example of Sobel’s influence occurs in the second episode of season 1, titled “Shabbat.” Viewers are introduced to the holiness and joy of Sabbath observance through the eyes of the show’s characters. When Rabbi Sobel saw the script, however, he objected to the idea that Simon Peter would violate the Sabbath by fishing on a Friday night. “I said, ‘I’m against it. I don’t think it’s accurate. I don’t think he would do it. He was clearly an observant Jew. But if you’re not going to change it, you have to at least put it in a context where it doesn’t seem like he’s just throwing out the Torah.’ So, I explained the idea of pikuach nefesh [violating Shabbat for the sake of saving a life]. They wound up writing that into the story.”
Sobel insisted on a positive portrayal of Jews and Jewish practice in general. “That’s something we’ve fought for … to make sure that they love their Jewishness and they love the Torah as part of the story. You have to show that. And so far, they have tried to honor that.”
He’s also made efforts to introduce the cast to Jewish practice. For example, Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus, is a practicing Catholic, but he gets to participate in the Jewish holidays in the Sobel home. “He’s a great guy who has become a friend, and he comes over for most of the holidays when he’s in town. He was at Passover in our home, and we had a bunch of people over. And my kids turned to me and said, ‘Abba, um, it’s kind of weird that Yeshua is sitting at the table and you’re leading the Seder!’”
When is season 3 coming out? It’s not yet fully funded. “We haven’t seen any scripts yet. I know they pushed it back a little bit,” Rabbi Sobel says. In the meantime, he has created a TBN spinoff series of teachings about the biblical backgrounds and Jewish themes in each episode from the first season titled The Chosen Unveiled. Rabbi Sobel is also actively teaching the Jewish roots of Yeshua faith through his ministry at fusionglobal.org.
By all measures, The Chosen has been an enormous success, not just for Dallas Jenkins, but for the kingdom. With over 100 million viewers worldwide, it’s fair to say that The Chosen has reached more people with a positive presentation of the Jewishness of Jesus than any other venture in history.