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What a popular TV series set in Jesus' time has to teach us about our own

 Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) and Nicodemus (Erick Avari) in episode 7 of "The Chosen." Crowd funding for the show has raised many millions of dollars.
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Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) and Nicodemus (Erick Avari) in episode 7 of "The Chosen." Crowd funding for the show has raised many millions of dollars.

The extraordinary global success of the television series, "The Chosen," speaks to a current burgeoning interest in its subject: the life of Jesus.

Crowd-funded to the unprecedented tune of $47 million, it has attracted 300 million viewers and been translated into 50 languages. Its charismatically rich Semitic landscape serves as a reminder that Christian tradition notwithstanding, Jesus lived and died a Jew.

Credit should be given to Dallas Jenkins, director of “The Chosen,” for his portrayal of Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish Pharisee and admirer of Jesus — credit because the Pharisees have long been scapegoats of tribal Christians who set them up as Jesus’ hypocritical opponents.

Most striking to me as an Episcopal priest is not their opposition to Jesus, but their presence as his fellow rabbis.

For they were fellow rabbis; some scholars believe Jesus was a Pharisee. They taught from the same Jewish law in an empire that mocked the love of God and neighbor. Jesus’s scraps with the Pharisees betray an in-house tension — not about the law itself, but about how to live it.

As a priest for 40 years, in-house institutional tensions have been directed at me: from complaints about why I’m so belligerent to whether I even believe in God. However insignificant, clergy tend to resist outsiders and change.

This is classic institutional behavior. Jesus challenged institutions, a trait that always attracted me, and in our time may help to explain the popularity of "The Chosen."

The word “Christian” wouldn’t even have been heard by Jesus. “Christian” was a term used by the Romans to demean his all-embracing spirit. Indeed, Jesus wasn’t the first Christian; he was a prophet of the Jewish God.

The alarming rise in antisemitism two millennia later attests to an enduring misunderstanding of Christian identity. Christians are no more separable from their Jewish roots than their love of God is separable from love of neighbor and one's self.

For Christians to doubt the Pharisees’ faith is to doubt our own. “The Chosen” offers a chance to return to the rabbi Jesus was, who said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.”

Christopher Carlisle is an Episcopal priest living in western Massachusetts. His novel, "For Theirs is The Kingdom," is based on his work ministering on the street.

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