Have any scholars written about The Chosen?
March 7, 2022 11:31 AM   Subscribe

I've been watching The Chosen, about the life of Jesus of Nazareth (yeah - I'm usually at least a year behind on media). I'm wondering about its historical accuracy, but I'm not finding anything.

I'm in the middle of the second episode, and I feel like it's an interesting take and worth watching, though I think some of the dialogue is not great (e.g., Americanized expressions, obvious references to evangelical talking points). I've found that the program used three "Biblical consultants": a priest, a rabbi, and an evangelical minister. I've found a bunch of articles about how Christians like it or should watch it. (And I really think it's a cool idea to explore the Apostles as ordinary working people who had lives before they met Jesus.)

What I'm not finding are articles by scholars or theologians who are unconnected with the series. I'm wondering, for instance, if the emphasis on unjust, ruinous taxes in the first two episode is kind of a right-wing take. So I'd really love to read a serious analysis of this show and not just "rah rah, this is great," which is what even my favorite Jesuit magazine is giving me.
posted by FencingGal to Media & Arts (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You'll probably have better luck if you look for scholars writing about fictional depictions of Jesus/first century Palestine more broadly, and then see how that compares to The Chosen. I hadn't heard of this series until I read your post, and after poking around online a bit it seems like most coverage of the series has been done by either Evangelical or Catholic outlets. I, too, am curious about how people in Jesus' day understood and felt about the hierarchies they found themselves in. And that curiosity is often renewed when I see modern-day depictions that, as art, have to identify stakes that make sense to a contemporary audience while simultaneously depicting a different time and place. But I'm wondering if this particular series isn't quite mainstream enough at this point, and/or is too new for scholars to be digging into it yet. Scholars and theologians who are in line with the general framing of the series might be hesitant to nitpick the historical accuracy of something that feels fresh and important in other ways to them and their peers. Similarly, those who would otherwise be eager to examine how historical inaccuracies reflect issues with the framing or messaging of an Evangelical-led project like this might not have encountered it yet (or might not want to invest in stand-alone analysis of this show).

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (who, admittedly, is not popular with Evangelicals) taught a class about Jesus in film that might offer some jumping off points. I don't know if more than just the syllabus is available online, but you could start with some of the readings as well as perusing Ehrman's "Jesus and film" tag on his blog. Likewise, Scott Korb's book Life in Year One might be a useful text. I haven't read it, but cued it up as a result of this question. Korb is Catholic writer (and writing professor) with a theology degree from Union Seminary, so his discipline isn't precisely theology or history/archaeology, but his book is meant to delve into the daily lives of Jesus's neighbors and contemporaries, which to me seems like an interesting source to compare to a show like The Chosen.
posted by theotherdurassister at 12:41 PM on March 7, 2022 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: theotherdurassister, thanks especially for the references to Ehrman's class (wish I could take it) and blog as well as Korb's book. A lot of my own writing is playing around with Biblical texts, so it's good to have new sources. I've been using Jennie Ebeling's Women's Lives in Biblical Times. Ebeling is an archeology professor who wrote this book because she saw so many novels based on Biblical stories that were historically inaccurate.

But it does look like the answer to my overall question is no.
posted by FencingGal at 5:26 AM on March 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Hi, just stumbled across this post after watching two episodes of the series myself, so I'm commenting. I'd be curious about your thoughts if you watched further.

I haven't found much discussion of its historical accuracy or even signs of its engagement with that research. Essentially all Google results discuss, from their various theological perspectives, its "Biblical accuracy." My own knowledge of the historical context after watching the first two episodes would say that it's an extremely inaccurate, but it is interesting and somewhat engaging to see it apply the beats of "prestige TV" to the Gospels. I also think that given how interesting the stories themselves are, Americanizing it and making it "relatable" can't escape the series' apparent focus on Roman occupation and empire (based on a Franciscan Friar on Youtube bringing that up as a sort of criticism), which is probably the only thing that would keep me watching. This question of empire is also useful to think about with regards to the question of taxation, which within the American context can so easily be part of a right-wing anti-tax libertarianism, but is pretty different in a colonial, imperial, pre-welfare state context. In this context I recently encountered this discussion of economic relationships in the 1st century Empire, where the city [polis] was supported by massive exploitation of the countryside [chōra], in Roland Boer and Christina Pettersen's Time of Troubles: A New Economic Framework for Early Christianity (2017, Fortress Press) (Roland Boer seems to quietly upload full PDFs of his academic work onto his website). That doesn't mean the producers of the show aren't coming to that topic from a typical right-wing American anti-tax libertarianism.

My final recommendation is to go check out the wonderful community around the subreddit r/AcademicBiblical. It is fantastic for asking and discussing these questions from an academic, historical-critical perspective, with a number of academics participating. I haven't found any discussion of the series yet, but I'm sure people would appreciate answering there, especially if particular details of the series stood out to you where people can bring their particular areas of expertise and don't need to have seen the whole series.

As for the dialogue, by the second episode I switched the audio track to Arabic and watched with subtitles because the attempts at accents (instead of just having everyone speak with their actual accent) and some of the awkward phrasing were distracting me too much.
posted by Gnatcho at 5:35 AM on January 15

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