Who is Jesus? How Pop Culture and Makers of "The Chosen" Help Define His Life Amid Few Biographical Details

Racially diverse cast populates series

Who is Jesus Christ? This weekend, his 2.3 billion followers will observe Easter, the Christian high holy day marking his resurrection from death.

Every decade or so, a cottage industry of scholars, filmmakers, authors and clergy plow through the sparse biographical details of the man who claimed to be God in human form to discern how he lived his life.

More recently, artists, not theologians, have led the way, starting with Akiane Kramarik, a a homeschooled child from Mount Morris, Ill., whose striking head shots of a bearded, tousel-haired Jesus came from visions starting at the age of 4. By the age of 9, she was appearing on Oprah Winfrey.

Jesus with disciples in "The Chosen"
Jesus Christ (front right), played by Jonathan Roumie, walks alongside his disciples in an episode from the popular TV series "The Chosen." The Chosen

Film efforts range from the gritty "Last Days in the Desert" (2015) with Ewan McGregor portraying an emaciated and doubting Jesus enduring 40 days in the wilderness to the Lumo Project's "The Gospel Collection" (2014-2018), a word-for-word presentation shot in Morocco and featuring British-Tamil actor Selva Rasalingam. Cultural authenticity is key; Rasalingam looks convincingly Jewish and the actors – taking a cue from Mel Gibson's 2004 "The Passion of the Christ" – spoke in Aramaic with subtitles.

The most recent pop religious portrayal is The Chosen, a seven-season TV production that traces the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Some $45 million – mostly through crowdfunding – has been poured into the first two seasons of the production. A third will premiere in the fall. Hopes are to raise $100 million to eventually reach an audience of 1 billion. The show is closing in on 390 million views now.

Being that Capernaum – Jesus' Galilean headquarters – was on a trade route, producers have cast a variety of Caucasian, Black and Asian actors as the Roman soldiers and the pagan, Samaritan, African and Jewish characters who would have traversed first-century Israel.

The lead actor, Jonathan Roumie, has an Egyptian-Irish parentage and family roots in Syria. His followers include a mix of ethnicities: Tamar, an Ethiopian woman (Amber Shana Williams); the quasi-autistic disciple Matthew, played by Paras Patel, a South Asian, and Israeli-born actor Shahar Isaac, who plays the disciple Peter.

Regarding the cast, "We tried to run the gamut because that is authentic," says executive producer and director Dallas Jenkins. "Our story is that Jesus came for everyone."

Dallas Jenkins
Dallas Jenkins, lead producer for "The Chosen" TV series, directs an episode in season two. Vidangel Studios

A little artistic imagination

As Jesus' personal bio and vital stats are scanty, the producers have had to use what Jenkins calls "a combination of historical context, biblical context and a little artistic imagination" to construct additional details.

"I want people to feel, taste, smell. I want them to feel the dust, what it must have been like back then," he says.

"Back then" was first-century Israel, a bleak landscape overrun by Roman soldiers who could kill people on a whim. Jesus, who spent much time in wilderness areas on the run from Jewish authorities, is portrayed as a nomad in a brown knee-length tunic typical of working men of the time. Over that is a tattered mauve cloak – "they didn't have sewing machines, so hems were frayed," says costume designer Leila Heise – befitting a man who only owned one set of clothing.

"This is a person who sleeps outside, bathes outside, eats outside, builds fires – and builds things," says screenwriter and executive producer Tyler Thompson. Jesus is also depicted as a handyman who, in a scene from the second season, is found repairing a disabled cart.

"The Jesus that we imagine is a person of the people," says screenwriter and executive producer Ryan Swanson. "He has a real life... I just figured he might be nostalgic for working with his hands. It's like he missed tinkering under the hood. He was walking through a village and stopped to help someone."

Being that a Roman soldier could compel any Jew to carry his armor and other burdens for at least a mile (Jesus referred to this practice in Matthew 5:41), it behooved the locals to not stand out. Jesus' appearance was so nondescript, his traitorous disciple Judas had to point him out to soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane. He probably wore a beard, as was customary among Jewish men at the time, and despite popular art portraying him with shoulder-length locks, Jewish men wore their hair short.

Although The Chosen has been successful to date, its producers have had to deal with long-standing distrust from evangelical Christians who tend to look down on any kind of poetic license with the Scriptures.

"Movie Bible projects are usually stiff, formal – they go from Bible verse to Bible verse," says Jenkins, "and everything is very, very black and white. I think we have to round the edges a little bit making this show feel a lot more human," hence scenes showing Jesus dancing at a wedding or joking with his disciples.

"Imagination is something evangelicals are scared of," Jenkins admits. "Evangelicals think that if we imagine too much, well, we're relying on our own human brain, and we can't trust that."

And Jenkins comes from a family line that made its fortune in imagining extra-biblical scenes. His father, Jerry B. Jenkins, co-wrote (with Tim LaHaye) the "Left Behind" series about events leading up to the Second Coming that, after selling about 65 million copies, is one of the higher-selling series of all time. [In 2004, Newsweek estimated that one out of eight Americans was reading the books].

Dallas Jenkins and Jonathan Roumie
Dallas Jenkins, director of "The Chosen" TV series, confers with Jonathan Roumie, the actor playing Jesus, in a scene from season two. Vidangel Studios

Where it gets tricky is Jesus' interactions with women. The Chosen producers included a scene during the first season where he hugs a deranged Mary Magdalene, thereby healing her on the spot. In first-century culture, it was very rare for an unrelated Jewish man to touch a woman.

"The notion of him not being able to touch this woman who was suffering would come across as cruel to a modern audience," says Thompson.

However, Jesus was no modern-day feminist, says Amy-Jill Levine, the New Testament and Jewish Studies professor at Hartford International University, in Hartford, Conn. None of his disciples were women, she adds.

"I think he's actually quite conservative," she says. "The Pharisees allowed for divorce; Jesus does not," referring to a comment from Jesus in Matthew 5:31-32.

And he was soaked in the Scriptures, says Alabama psychiatrist Andrew Hodges, author of the 1986 book "Jesus: An Interview Across Time." Hodges portrays Jesus as a precocious child who realized, at age 12, that he was the Messiah through Hebrew scriptures and conversations with Jewish scholars at the temple in Jerusalem.

"Jesus had the perfect mind," he said, "but he had to learn that he was divine."

Although the New Testament does not record Jesus' teenage years, it is thought that his father, Joseph, died around that time, as his presence is not recorded during Jesus' adult life. The Gospels portray the Messiah as suffering setbacks, longing for human company and friendship, getting worn out by the constant crowds desiring healing, being harassed by Jewish leaders and getting mocked by his own brothers. Previous generations may have portrayed Jesus as impervious to his treatment, but the current trend is to emphasize how human he was, says Michigan pastor Kenneth Tanner, whose upcoming book "Vulnerable God" (Baker Books) explains how a fragile person can also be God.

The Chosen TV series Jesus and disciples
From left: The disciple Peter (Shahar Issac), Jesus (Jonathan Roumie), the disciple John (George Harrison Xanthis) and Matthew (Paras Patel) in a scene from season two of "The Chosen" TV series. Sam Sengoll

"He just wanted to serve. He is vulnerability, he is weakness," Tanner says. Referring to an incident on the Sea of Galilee where a storm nearly swamped a boat that Jesus and his disciples were in, "On that boat, he was just as in danger of drowning as they were," he says. "At the same time, he was this walking, talking tree of life."

The late Carmelite priest Joseph Girzone, whose best-selling "Joshua" book series portrayed a Jesus-like character in upstate New York, spent much of his life meditating on the Nazarene's life. He was struck by the constant criticism Jesus endured coupled with the high expectations of the crowds for whom Jesus was cheap entertainment.

"If you are a healer of Jesus' caliber, there must have been thousands of people around day and night," he said in a 2009 interview. "They must've come by the bus load."

At one point, Jesus headed north on a 100-mile trip to the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon to get away from the crowds because he was depressed about several setbacks.

"He was having emotional problems," Girzone said. "People ask: 'How can you say this about God?' I say, 'Well, he was one of us.' "

What scholars are now sayinng about Jesus' life

Scholars are likewise revisiting Jesus, whose sayings – depending on the decade – have been picked apart as historically inaccurate or somewhat less than true holy writ. During much of the 20th century, academics evaluated Scripture via a method that viewed many biblical texts as human-inspired writings devoid of any divine inspiration.

Scholars who've questioned whether Jesus or his environs actually existed – one 2008 book even called his hometown Nazareth a 'myth' – have been foiled by recent archeological discoveries showing that Nazareth was a bustling town of 1,000 people. A "Jesus Seminar" of 74 New Testament scholars who guessed that only 20 percent of the statements attributed to Christ in the Gospels actually came from him no longer carries the punch it once did. Begun in the 1980s, the seminar featured several dozen scholars voting on the authenticity of biblical passages by dropping colored beads into a ballot box.

Jesus played by Jonathan Roumie
Actor Jonathan Roumie portrays Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount in this scene from season three of "The Chosen" TV series Vidangel Studios

"In the 1990s, the bubble burst on how ridiculous this approach was," says Nijay Gupta, author of the 2019 book "The State of New Testament Studies" and a New Testament professor at Northern Seminary in Chicago.

Today, scholars are approaching the New Testament in a variety of ways, he adds, that respect the fact that the Gospels were based on eyewitness testimony, the best the ancient world had to offer.

"You can trust eyewitnesses to get things right," he says, "but not perfect."

Because of the many first-person accounts of miracles, it's not illogical to believe Jesus actually healed people, says Rob Plummer, a biblical studies professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

"What else would it have taken to have drawn crowds of thousands of people?" he asks. "You need charismatic power to draw those crowds and loyalty. Jesus' opponents did not deny that he did miracles – they just said he did it by sorcery. They accused him of satanic power.

Levine says it's difficult to determine the extent of Jesus' powers, but "I think he healed people. Miraculous healings do happen."

Gupta says at least the pendulum has swung back to believing the Bible on its own merits. Unlike past scholarly treatments, "Post-modern approaches won't rule out God or spirituality," he says. "Most scholars would now say that Jesus was Jewish, he was a real figure in history, he had disciples, died on a cross, created a stir and then it's a free-for-all as to where you go next."

The Chosen female actresses
From left, an ethnically diverse cast includes Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Tabish), Ramah (partially hidden and played by Yasmine Al-Bustami); Tamar (Amber Shana Williams), Mary, the mother of Jesus (Vanessa Benavente), and Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) in a scene from season two of "The Chosen" TV show The Chosen

Producers and filmmakers tackle the Resurrection

The Chosen's producers have indicated that the entire final (seventh) season – slated for 2026 – will be devoted to the Resurrection and the days following, material not often covered in film depictions.

"We want to cover the period between Jesus' death and Resurrection: what were the disciples doing, were they in hiding and what was that like?" says Jenkins.

"I imagine there were repeated encounters with Christ," says Jonathan Lunde, associate professor of biblical studies and theology at Biola University's Talbot School of Theology in California. "These men were convinced they had encountered the risen Christ. You might explain away this encounter or that, but you don't have group hallucinations over a 40-day period."

There are others considering the same real estate. Filmmaker Mel Gibson, whose 2004 biblical epic "The Passion of the Christ" stunned observers by raking in around $612 million, has been announcing a sequel that would include Jesus' pre-Resurrection visit to hell to rescue the souls of the just dead. However, there's no word of pre-production in the works, although Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus in the original, says he has been asked to reprise the role.

How to depict Jesus during this period has vexed filmmakers.

At the end of "The Passion," Caviezel was shown as naked with holes cut through both hands, waiting to exit his tomb. But when Jesus appeared on the first Easter, he looked so normal, says Tanner. Mary Magdalene – the first person on the scene – mistook him for a gardener.

"He wasn't floating three inches above the grass," Tanner says. "He wasn't glowing with ghostly energy. God was not interested in throwing out our humanity. God became human forever."

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts