This month brings two profoundly different takes on the biblical Gospels to the small screen. In Jesus: His Life, which premiered Monday and runs through Easter, History seeks to commemorate the Lenten season with a reverent, fast-paced, inclusive miniseries.
“The story of Jesus is one of the cornerstones of Western civilization,” says Mary Donahue, executive producer of the series and senior vice president of programming for History. “Our production partners at Nutopia came to us with this new angle on the life of Jesus. As a network always looking for fresh ways to tell great stories, we were fascinated by the concept.”
History’s docudrama series combines dramatic vignettes filmed on location in Morocco with a wide spectrum of talking-head faith scholars. Its narrative scenes bring to life first-century Judea with desert vistas, elaborate palace sets, and other fitting locales over eight episodes.
Meanwhile, the other TV project has less emphasis on visual spectacle and more on character development. Independent show The Chosen is already turning heads in Hollywood. When upstart platform VidAngel Studios pitched the concept to followers online, they brought in $11 million—a new crowdfunding record for any media project.
Debuting online April 15, The Chosen will reimagine the radical ministry of Christ upending societal norms in a multi-season show. Creators aim for it to be faithful to the biblical text while gritty in tone. “A lot of Jesus projects on-screen are intentionally formal, which often means emotionally detached and less human,” says writer/director Dallas Jenkins.
“We’re striving in this show to lift the curtain and get to what is authentic and real,” he says. “The approach to storytelling and how we film it, often with handheld cameras, is very raw.”
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Behind-the-scenes on History’s Jesus: His Life, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight of Northern Seminary served as an advisor. After script revisions, he praises where the miniseries has landed.
“Coming at Jesus from the angle of eight different peoples’ views of him is helpful and realistic,” says McKnight, noting the installments on Peter, Pontius Pilate, and John the Baptist as standouts. “Each episode affirms a positive, accurate presentation of the Gospels.”
Over two dozen faith leaders provide on-screen commentary including Joshua DuBois, former head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama administration. Calling the series’ diversity of Christian perspectives “unprecedented,” he points to scholarship from McKnight and Miroslav Volf of Yale University Divinity School as grounding the narrative.
“Sometimes you’re forced to choose,” says DuBois. “Either you have a historically rigorous documentary approach, but you feel like they’re trying to critique the Bible. I’m not comfortable with that. Or you have an approach that is more about the spiritual themes but lacks historical scholarship. This weaves both of them together in a powerful way.”
Though only two of eight episodes have aired, Jesus: His Life already has its critics. One Catholic writer claims it “reinterprets and questions the authenticity of certain Bible passages.”
Other reviewers are wary of featured voices like televangelist Joel Osteen, known for his emphasis on believers receiving prosperity and blessing; and Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry, the minister who presided over Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding and whose views on the sacrament of marriage do not comport with many orthodox Christian traditions.
“At times, I was surprised by the people chosen to offer commentary,” McKnight says diplomatically, in answer to critics. “But if one canvasses the broad church of the United States, one can see why the various people were chosen—from Michael Curry to Joel Osteen.
“In this series, they are not criticizing what the text is rather they share their perspective and angle on what it says.”
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With every segment wrapped up before the next commercial break, viewers of History’s docudrama always have clarity on what Gospel events are being depicted and discussed. By contrast, the first episodes of The Chosen drop audiences midstream into the story with little context.
Episode one opens mysteriously. A young girl and her father light a candle and repeat a sacred promise in dim light, referenced visually at show’s end during a significant character reveal. It reflects how the small-budget drama seeks to surprise viewers while faithfully retelling events from two millennia ago.
“We make these characters so human,” says Jenkins, whose previous credits include faith-based comedy The Resurrection of Gavin Stone released by Walden Media in 2017.
“For example, we portray Matthew the tax collector as someone with Asperger’s, which I’ve had experience with personally,” notes the writer/director. “Because of what we can glean from the Gospels, we thought: That’s not completely out of line. Matthew was a numbers and facts guy, and he didn’t mind a job that made him socially unacceptable.”
With its storytelling approach yet to be seen, headlines have focused on the funding model pioneered by VidAngel Studios—producers of viral sensation Dry Bar Comedy. Using a little-known online public offering, or Regulation A+, The Chosen drew over 16,000 mostly small-dollar investors to back season one at $11 million. These backers receive equity in the show.
“This is not like Kickstarter or Indiegogo,” says Jenkins. “Anyone who contributed to this project wasn’t just donating; they are actually investing. It took us a few months to get approved by the SEC. Once we did, we released the pilot for free out on Facebook and said to people: ‘If you’re interested in investing in a show like this, join us in this equity crowdfunding.’”
Last year, Jenkins and his team scouted locations and landed in Weatherford, Texas—an hour outside of Dallas. They built up an existing Capernaum Village that had been used for religious tourism, in addition to filming interior scenes on a sound stage. Producers found some topography in rural Texas “similar to Israel,” they say, while visual effects will also supplement.
Four initial episodes have been filmed, with pre-production underway on the next four. Despite Jenkins’ résumé—mostly light dramas and comedies for Hallmark and PureFlix—he warns that this subject matter is hardly for children. Set to be distributed by VidAngel, a streaming service that filters profanity, violence, and mature content, the series will have its own filtering options.
“This is for sure a TV-14 show,” says Jenkins. “In fact, episode one of The Chosen is not for kids—there is demonic possession and physical violence. The setting in which Jesus came was a very depressed and oppressive time period. On the surface, little about the Gospels is bright, happy, clean, fun, and family-friendly.”
“What makes the redemption of the gospel so powerful is the depth of what they’re being redeemed from, which this show will portray.”
Seeking to Engage Diverse Audiences
Producers of both TV series say they aspire to reflect historically accurate Mideast ethnic diversity—and, through the power of story, bridge what divides various faith traditions.
History’s miniseries has a “beautifully diverse tapestry,” notes DuBois. “Angels are portrayed by actors of African descent, as well as other roles with people of color,” he says. “Even more, it’s the voices who shape the series. People like Reverend Otis Moss III and Professor Nyasha Junior from Temple University represent strong black church traditions as on-screen commentators.”
The series seeks to appeal to three different audiences, according to Donahue. “Devout Christians will find new insights they may not have heard before,” she says. “Our History fans will learn more about Jesus’ time and his political context. And people who just love great stories will find a lot of drama, excellent acting, and powerful storytelling from each episode.”
Nearly 30 advisers and faith leaders helped craft Jesus: His Life, from Fr. Jonathan Morris, who often appears on Fox News, to evangelical scholar Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary to Rabbi Joshua Garroway of Hebrew Union College.
“Just as Pilate saw Jesus in a very different way than how his mother Mary saw him, each person brings their own relationship to this story to the table,” says Donahue. “We each have our own contexts and experiences. Having a diverse team of contributors helped us consider and hold all of those perspectives into one telling.”
The team behind The Chosen also rejects past Gospel adaptations’ “traditional white European look,” to quote Jenkins. Filming in Texas, their casting process proved challenging.
“Capernaum, where season one is based, was a melting pot,” says the showrunner. “It was on a trade route, so there were travelers from all over: people with Asian influences, Latin influences, and African influences. When you’re shooting outside of Hollywood or New York, it’s harder to find that, [yet] we were aggressive in looking to reflect the ethnic diversity of that time.”
To ensure accuracy in the storytelling, a board of three scholars reviewed all scripts. They include Fr. David Guffey of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Santa Monica, California; New Testament professor Doug Huffman of Biola University; and Messianic Rabbi Jason Sobel, who grew up in a Jewish family and has since “become a follower of Yeshua,” his website states.
“Each of them has impeccable credentials in biblical, historical research,” says Jenkins. “They provided facts and context on the political and social structures of the day. Each has said: “This character wouldn’t say it that way.” Or, “She wouldn’t be in that location.” They had an impact on several episodes, which were going to go some other directions.”
In addition, The Chosen team welcomed input from religious experts to open up broad appeal to Judeo-Christian audiences. “From the Jewish and Catholic perspectives, because I am neither one of those, I always wanted to know how their communities would view each episode,” says the director, son of evangelical author Jerry Jenkins.
“At times, we changed how characters express themselves to have the widest audience,” he says. “We don’t mind offending people—we just want to be doing it for the right reasons.”
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Among the highest-rated cable TV networks, History clearly hopes to replicate its success with 2013’s hit series The Bible. Yet advisers contend Jesus: His Life is more than a ratings ploy.
“This is not a series that avoids tough stories and issues,” says DuBois. “The life of Jesus is central, but there’s also Judas and Pilate. It grapples with evil in the world, as we have to engage with these things today. There is an element of hope, as ultimately Jesus overcomes.”
Days from its premiere, The Chosen showrunners are forging ahead with plans for a multi-season retelling of the Gospels. However, the recent demise of a similar show invites comparisons.
After premiering Easter Sunday on NBC in 2015, an episodic adaptation of the Book of Acts called A.D.: The Bible Continues faced a ratings decline. Only one third into its source material, plans for further seasons never materialized.
With its novel funding and distribution model, production of The Chosen will not be dependent on TV network metrics. Nonetheless, Jenkins, who says he admired the 2015 show, sees its fate as a cautionary tale. “To be honest with you, I don’t know that we’re going to succeed where others have fallen short,” he says. “But we are in this for the long haul.”
“Hopefully, these first few episodes people see will excite them for how much time we really are going to spend with Jesus and the characters around him.”
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets includingThe Stream and The Federalist. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, DC, area with their son.