Explainer: The Chosen

Jesus at the wedding in Cana, from "The Chosen". Image credit: press.thechosen.tv CC-BY-SA

It’s the most successful media crowdfund in history. The Chosen, the multi-series drama about the life of Jesus, is now on it fourth series, available via YouTube, its app and many kinds of media access points. It began with crowd funding which raised more than $50 million and is consistently one of the most-searched-for shows on streaming platforms. The team behind the drama wanted to reach one billion viewers and, according to its creator, director and co-writer, they’ve already achieved that. Now they’re aiming for the next billion. Here’s all you need to know about The Chosen

What is The Chosen?

The Chosen is a multi-episode, seven-series television drama based on the life of Jesus that is offered to viewers without charge. It depicts Jesus’s life and ministry seen through the eyes of the people who knew him.

Why is it called The Chosen?

The title reflects Jesus’s choosing of his apostles. The recurring logo of The Chosen is of fish swimming in a circle with 13 — depicting Jesus and his 12 apostles — swimming against the tide.

What have fish got to do with it?

Several of Jesus’s apostles were fishermen, and at one point in the Gospel stories about his life, Jesus tells them: “I will make you fishers of men.” A fish has long been a Christian symbol.

It’s just about Jesus and these 12 guys?

No, the cast is huge with all the characters mentioned in the Gospel stories about Jesus’s life, including his mother, Mary, her husband, Joseph, John the Baptist, and enemies of Jesus, too. His women disciples, especially Mary Magdalene, are prominent characters. And then there are others, too, not in the Gospels, who provide a backstory for important figures. In the episode released this week — episode one of series three — the parents of the Apostle Matthew are seen arguing with their son, and Devorah, the sister of Judas Iscariot, is fretting over his latest plan to change his life, by following Jesus.

There are new characters. Is it a ‘new’ script?

Yes — and no. It weaves together a narrative based on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but it also makes use new material, written to help make the characters surrounding Jesus have backstories, so the audience can work out why these particular individuals are drawn to Jesus or not.

Who’s behind this drama?

Dallas Jenkins is the son of a Christian novelist, Jerry B. Jenkins, whose books have sold more than 60 million copies. Dallas Jenkins used to be part of the leadership team at an Illinois megachurch but has spent most of his career creating faith-based films. Jenkins works with a team of nine writers and 33 producers but The Chosen is effectively his vision of what a Christian drama should be. He has worked so far with more than 200 actors on The Chosen.

Do we get to watch big stars?

Forget the way in which previous film-makers went for stars to draw in the crowds. John Wayne was a mere centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told; Franco Zeffirelli went for Hollywood royalty with Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate and Anthony Quinn as Caiaphas in Jesus of Nazareth. Cast of The Chosen are not well-known performers, meaning you don’t watch with preconceived ideas about them.

Is it all a bit amateur, then?

No, this is a drama of quality. It’s beautifully shot, with strong, convincing performances.

Any drawbacks?

The low budget means it feels like it’s on a soundstage in Texas rather than out near the Mediterranean where this story happened. The producers try to remind you of the Middle East setting by all the characters having rather irritating faux Med accents. The dialogue occasionally jars with its 21st-century psychobabble — “this has been a healing time for me”; “You’re great, Peter, but I don’t say it enough.” Then there are clunky bits of script, added in as if the audience might nudge one another in the ribs and say — whoah! For example, Devorah to her brother Judas Iscariot: “You’re the last of our name, and if anything happens to you, our name will be forgotten.”

So far, Dallas Jenkins and his team have been setting up this drama, focusing on complicated backstories of the disciples and it doesn’t always hang together — it’s all a bit here and there. But with series three there’s evidence of the drama getting more into its stride, with the real meat of the story — Jesus’s ministry — and episode one features the Sermon on the Mount early on. The efforts at making Jesus seem more than just another wandering rabbi consist so far of him being a bit soft focus and his followers telling one another how special he makes them feel and how when what he has to say includes a message that seems to be focused specially on them. And there are some odd choices: why have they decided to make Matthew autistic?

What are the people behind The Chosen aiming to do?

Like all film and TV content producers, they want their show to be a success and, in this case, success is measured by audience reach. But the greater ambition is clearly to alert people to the life and ministry of Jesus, and therefore his message. Jenkins is of an evangelical bent and the name of the show gives a clue. As well as the apostles being chosen by Jesus, there is a strong belief in evangelical Christianity that those who follow Jesus are chosen, that they are the elect.

The key question remains, though: are the makers of The Chosen, with their remarkable success in securing viewers, preaching to the converted, or are they reaching people who would otherwise have known nothing about Christianity, or until now, found it alien to them?

What of their methods?

The foundation of The Chosen is thousands of years old — a story from scripture — but this is very much a 21st-century enterprise. It started in 2017 being available via paid-for subscription services, but during the Covid lockdown, its makers made it available free of charge through their app.

It’s free because it’s been crowdfunded, raising more than $50 million from donations and venture capitalists. But there is a very strong focus on securing financial backing from its viewers. While The Chosen has been made available via platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, Dallas Jenkins and co are now plugging The Chosen app, through which viewers can watch the show without charge but there is also a donate button, enabling people to make tax-deductible donations to a new non-profit Come and See Foundation, the charitable arm of The Chosen, which will matchfund all donations, with proceeds used for making more episodes.

How is it sold?

The sell for donations is very heavy. Viewers of series three, episode one, must sit through 24 minutes of music and promotion before they get to the opening of the drama. Then, post-episode, after you’ve watched an hour of Jesus calling people to follow him and be The Chosen, there’s more encouragement to donate. The sell is pushed by Dallas Jenkins himself, who opts for a chatty style, as if he’s talking to his buddies, even to the extent of fluffing what he’s got to say. Dressed in a Christmas edition red Chosen hoodie, he encourages viewers to text him with their views, and promises special messages in return.

There are lots of mention of “gifts”, but these aren’t free. They are merchandise you can buy, perhaps as gifts for other people. They range from hoodies to books and a 2023 Chosen calendar — with all proceeds going to the project.

Amid promises of sneak peaks of a trailer for episode two and another for the whole series, there is a message from Jenkins about making The Chosen available to more audiences beyond the anglophone one. He tells viewers: “We are going to supercharge our language efforts. The goal is to have 100 languages dubbed and 600 languages subtitled.”

Viewers are encouraged to watch on The Chosen app by the promise of extra content, including Bible discussion and a new feature, an aftershow, with chats with cast and crew. They tend to not only wear Chosen hoodies but ones declaring Binge Jesus. There is talk in the aftershow of Jenkins’s wife being a prayer warrior, supporting The Chosen’s success.

Finally, how many people does it take to film the feeding of the 5,000?

A lot more than 5,000. Contributors to The Chosen funds can be extras in the drama, and they certainly needed them for the filming of one of the most famous of Jesus’s miracles. The scene was filmed in the summer in Texas and took four days, with 12,000 men, women and children descending on the set on land owned by the Salvation Army.

Updated January 2024 – Catherine Pepinster reports on the fourth series of The Chosen which premiered in Leicester Square


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