Got a favorite Jesus-themed movie or TV show? Some love the original Ben-Hur (1959), featuring an iconic performance by Charlton Heston. Others prefer The Robe (1953), another classic with Jean Simmons and Richard Burton. But - while all of those are connected to the story of Jesus, they aren't "life of Christ" stories. It's a bit trickier to pick the best film adaptation that shows the tale of Jesus from carpenter to cross. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is frequently cringeworthy: watching John Wayne as a Roman soldier say - in his trademark drawl, "Truly this maaan was the son of God" - almost negates the wonderful Jesus of the movie brought to life by the late great Swedish-French actor Max Von Sydow (1929-2020). Until recently, our overall favorite was the 1977 series by the great director Franco Zeffirelli. Jesus of Nazareth, with Robert Powell as Christ, gave us a portrayal so stunning, that for decades Powell's look - a blue eyed, pale-skinned, bearded man with long dark hair - became 'the official look' of Jesus for many. Eight of the all-star cast of Jesus of Nazareth would win Oscars for later work, including Laurence Olivier, Antony Quinn, Rod Steiger, Anne Bancroft, Christopher Plummer, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Ustinov, and James Earl Jones.
Jesus of Nazareth was an instant classic and a re-watch today shows it's aged well... mostly. The Chosen, a Christian app, has just wrapped up its second season. And in many ways, it's the opposite of Zeffirelli's vision. The Chosen - now the planet's largest crowd-funded film or TV project - doesn't depict perfection. In this show, Jesus isn't an almost otherworldly figure. Jonathan Roumie's Jesus is, well, a human being. There's no hint of the cheesiness found in so many Bible-related shows, and oh, this Jesus doesn't have Powell's piercing blue eyes.
Among scholars, "Jesus looked like a first-century Jew" isn't much of a topic of debate, but this reality hasn't filtered down to all. For example, in the year of our Lord 2013, a person as 'knowledgeable' as Fox News host Megyn Kelly said on air, "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure that's a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?" Setting aside the silly idea that Santa Claus - in his modern iteration - is a "verifiable historical figure," the idea that Jesus was a "white man" was offensive to many, while also being extremely ignorant.
The entire cast of The Chosen looks like they belong in first-century Judaea, which wasn't a mono-ethnic society. A province of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ, it sits in an arc between the gateway to Europe, Asia Minor (today's Turkey), and the then-path into Africa, Egypt. Traders, soldiers, merchants, and all manner of peoples moved about and through this area; not to mention the ships and their crews that sailed between Mediterranean ports. But The Chosen wouldn't be racking up hundreds of millions of views just because they got people's skin tone right. The show gets the entire tone of the Jesus story right. This includes interesting invented backstories for characters that don't get a lot of description in the scriptures. The Chosen gives us a look at 'real life' issues - things likely even most Bible-readers haven't considered before. This is where the show shines; in humanizing both Christ and his followers. Matthew was a tax collector. The idea that tax collectors were despised by their own people isn't new... but The Chosen goes a step further and puts the man who becomes the Apostle Matthew on the autism spectrum.
Some will chuckle after reading the words, 'backstories' and 'humanizing.' They're thinking "So... the Jesus story gets a 'woke' makeover and that makes it cool?" It's a fair first thought. "Cool Jesus" portrayals have been tried and found wanting. But The Chosen isn't 'woke' or 'hip.' It's the brainchild of director Dallas Jenkins, a 'serious' Christian (Google him for interesting info on his family), and a serious filmmaker. The sets are gorgeous, the cast diverse, the acting is good, and we see genuinely new and thought-provoking ideas brought to a story most didn't imagine still had the power to surprise. For believers, The Chosen is a welcome return after wandering through a desert of modern versions of "Bible TV shows" such as the perhaps underrated 2009 drama Kings or the overwrought The Bible (2013). Dallas Jenkins wants you to see the life of Christ, but he's put storytelling front and center... and when you put a great story in the hands of a good storyteller, the result can be something close to magic.