I mentally cringed when I first heard about The Chosen. Another Christian evangelistic tool that ends up making the Jews out to be the bad guys, the dramatic foil for some new message, the ones responsible, the persecutors. Another Jewish-Christian relations disaster? No thanks. Plus it all sounded a little, well…cheesy.
All the Christians were talking about it on Facebook, and that of course couldn’t be a good sign. I started getting private messages – including from people whose opinion I respect – encouraging me as a teacher and scholar of Jewish-Christian relations, to watch it. No way.
To my embarrassment, it wasn’t until The Chosen approached me to help on a small “Jewish advisory board” for Season 4 that I realized I probably should have some idea of what I had agreed to.
So there I was – a religious Jewish mother of six trying to prepare the house for Passover and binge-watch three seasons of The Chosen at the same time. My kids were a bit appalled that I was so intent on watching so much Jesus TV. “It’s work, kiddos. Sometimes work just has to get done.”
And then I started watching.
To my complete surprise, the Chosen presents the most intensely Jewish Jesus and the Gospels we’ve ever had.
Now look, don’t misunderstand me. As an educated Jew watching it, undoubtedly some of it is a bit kitschy. Some of it is anachronistic. Some of it is just plain wrong. But all that pales in the face of its value for building understanding between Jews and Christians. The series takes a fact that by now all Christians know, and makes it impossible to look away, fleshing out the Jewishness of Jesus and his earliest followers into something an inescapable, determinative and profoundly positive foundation for the Christian faith.
Creating this small Jewish advisory board tells us a lot. Until now, all the advisors for The Chosen have been Christian, aside from one Messianic Jewish leader. Which makes sense. But recognizing that the narrative was entering more complex terrain in terms of Jewish-Christian relations, the team realized some more traditional Jewish input should be solicited. And that in itself is remarkable.
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.
But what about Jews? Should Jews even be watching The Chosen at all?
There is an unfortunate tendency for many Jews to think that the New Testament is kind of threatening, that it is foreign, that it has nothing to do with us. That it belongs to “them.” Much of this is no doubt aided by well-meaning Christians seeking to shove it down our throats.
I wish that Jews could understand that the New Testament is thoroughly Jewish – replete with Jewish categories and Jewish practices, Jewish controversies, Jewish scripture, and brimming with Jews – I think we could reclaim some of our own history. Because let’s face it, if we want to understand something about the Judaism of our ancestors in this specific period, the New Testament has some real value. And if Jews could feel more comfortable with the New Testament as comprising an important piece of Jewish cultural literature, we might be able to engage more deeply together as Jews and Christians.
The Chosen has the possibility of transforming how Jews think about Jesus. Not in a missionary kind of way. But in recognition that this first-century rabbi, his family, his students and his earliest followers were Jewish. That Jesus was “one of ours” is something that all Jews know, but never think through the implications: that at the heart of Christianity lies a profoundly Jewish center, one of Pesach and Hannukah, one of prayer and sacrifice, one of morality and ethics. And while we absolutely must remember the harm that the church has done to our people over the centuries, we must also come to realize that Christian anti-Judaism is not something essential to Christianity, but rather a terrible detour based on amnesia about its own Jewishness.
The Chosen will, I believe, alter how a whole generation of Christians envisions and connects to the Jewishness of Jesus. And as such, it has the potential to radically impact how Christians encounter their Jewish neighbors, friends and co-workers. At a time of rapidly rising antisemitism in the West, this is no small thing.
[Season One of The Chosen is available on Netflix; Seasons One, Two and Three can be viewed for free on The Chosen app and on www.angelstudios.com]