Dallas Jenkins, the creator of The Chosen, often relates a story of how he directed The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, which ended up being a box office flop. Formerly viewed as a promising young director, Jenkins found himself out of favor in Hollywood and wondering if he would have a future as a filmmaker at all. He describes the experience as one of the lowest points of his life.
He tells that story partly to explain how The Chosen was originally born like a phoenix out of the ashes of his earlier aspirations, but also to explain how a lot of that experience went into his portrayal of Nathanael, who, along with Philip, are two future apostles introduced in this episode.
As always, the imagined backstories of these characters fleshes out what we see in the biblical text. The essentials of the two disciples’ introduction to Jesus is found in John 1:43-51. But as readers of scripture, we’re left with a lot of detail to fill in. Why does Philip seem to follow Jesus so readily? Why does Jesus’ mere mention of Nathanael being under a fig tree bring forth such a response of faith? These are questions that “I Saw You” explores.
The episode opens with Nathanael, whom we’ve only seen in the previous episode’s flashforward cold open, arguing with a foreman on a construction project. Nathanael, the architect, is arguing for sea water to be used to set concrete properly; the foreman, Leontes, (Brad Schmidt) is arguing that it will take too long and will be too expensive. Nathanael is blunt, asking if the resistance is because he is Jewish and calling Leontes incompetent. Just when Nathanael insists that if everyone would do things his way, it would work out, the construction collapses with people under it.
“You’re ruined, do you hear me?” Leontes yells at Nathanael. “It’s over!”
Later, Nathanael walks into a bar, distraught. When the bartender (Noah Kershisnik) asks if someone died, Nathanael begins telling a story of an architect who wanted to build majestic synagogues to the glory of God.
Still later, we see Nathanael walking in the wilderness toward a large tree. He sits down, pulls his drawings out of his pack, and lifts them up toward the heavens. He prays the Shema, and as he sets fire to the plans, he begins to quote Psalm 102: “Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress. Incline your ear to me.”
When there is no response, he cries out, “Do you see me?” He tears his clothes and sprinkles a fist full of ashes and dust on his head.
Meanwhile, Thomas, Simon, James, and John are all out gathering wood and see an unfamiliar, solitary person in the distance. Suspicious of who it might be, they ask, “What do you want?”
“For the Romans to go away. For a pretty wife someday. I ate a fattened goose once. I'd love that again,” is what they hear from the traveler who turns out to be Philip (Yoshi Barrigas), a disciple of John the Baptizer and friend of Andrew.
Philip meets other disciples of Jesus back at their camp, and recognizes the tension between Matthew and Simon. He takes Matthew back to where he had found damp wood, in order to help him learn how to dry it. As they talk, Matthew reveals that he had previously been a tax collector, and Philip doesn’t react negatively, but when Matthew tells Philip that his father had disowned him, Philip takes that in stride as well. Matthew is confused, so Philip tries to explain: “Everybody in your old life is playing a different game than you now…. Do you get it?”
Finally, Matthew breaks in frustration. “No! Everyone speaks in riddles.” He draws a circle in the dirt. “Here's a circle. It represents everything in the world and all the people that have ever been.” Then he stabs at a point well outside the circle. “And that's me. That's how I feel.”
Philip responds with compassion, and later, while teaching Matthew how to strip bark from the damp wood, he asks Matthew if it was difficult to leave his wealthy, comfortable life behind. Matthew responds that it wasn’t, although it should have been, and reveals that he feels unworthy of his calling. “I just don't know what He sees in me. He's a religious teacher, and I know very little about religion.”
“From what I understand,” Philip reassures him, “Jesus doesn't love everything about religion. Matthew, what you think you know, it doesn't matter. Only that Jesus chose you. That's where your confidence comes from now.”
Back at the camp after nightfall, Philip meets Jesus at the campfire. Jesus recognizes him by sight, having seen Philip when he had been baptized by John. Each says he has a short message for the other, which they deliver simultaneously:
“You and John are really cut from the same cloth,” Philip says. “If I didn't know any better, I'd say you each have a death wish.”
“I wouldn't exactly call it a wish,” Jesus responds, without elaborating further.
The next day, Philip lets Simon know that Matthew prepped the wood to dry, and suggests that Simon should thank him. Simon later finds Matthew talking with Thaddaeus and writing in his book, and reacts. “That's not a good idea…. We have enemies. There are people trying to trap Jesus in his words. They could twist something he said to defame him.”
“They will find it easier to twist something he is reported to have said than if it's confirmed in writing,” Matthew answers back. When Simon throws back in his face that he once used that book to spy on Simon for the Romans, Matthew responds with a line Philip had suggested. “People out there want to define all of us by our pasts. But we do things differently because of him.”
Still angry, but not knowing how else to respond, Simon reasserts “It’s a bad idea,” and stalks off. He later talks to Jesus privately while the group is on their journey to Syria, and is surprised that Jesus knows and approves of Matthew writing down what he does. Simon also tries to suggest a hierarchy of authority among the disciples, with himself at the top. Jesus suggests that some sort of structure would be necessary in the future, but for the present, he cautions Simon to slow down and recognize that everyone in the group has been chosen for a purpose and has important things to contribute.
Matthew, meanwhile, is approached by Mary Magdalene and Ramah to copy some passages in Torah that they could study. Mary is planning to teaching Ramah to read, and both of them want to study the scriptures so they can recite it as the men who went to Torah school can. Matthew agrees, and also mentions that Philip and Thaddaeus are kind to him. “I'm sorry they're the exception, Matthew,” Mary says with concern.
In Caesarea, Philip comes to Nathanael’s house. Worried when Nathanael doesn’t answer his call, Philip climbs in through a window and asks Nathanael, in bed, whether he is sick. After Nathanael explains what has happened, Philip tries to cheer him up. He begins talking about Jesus. “He’s the one. Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.”
Nathanael starts laughing. “Nazareth?! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He describes it as a negligible, poor, backwater town.
“Just … come and see,” Philip urges. “I promise, you will not regret it. And if you do, I'll refund your misery.”
When they find Jesus in town, he appears to know Nathanael already, calling him “the truth teller.” He discusses how Israel began with Jacob, a deceiver. “But one of the great thing about you is you are a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.”
Nathanael protests. “How do you know me?”
“I have known you long before Philip called you to come and see…. When you were in your lowest moment, and you were alone. I did not turn my face from you. I saw you under the fig tree.”
Knowing that Jesus had seen this intensely private moment, Nathanael instantly believes and calls Jesus the Son of God, king of Israel.”
After Andrew and Simon interrupt to tell Jesus that his fame is spreading and people are gathering to seek healing, Jesus asks Nathanael, “You wanted to help build something that would cause prayer and songs, something to bring souls closer to God, yes? Can you start tomorrow?”
Since the text of the Gospels is intentionally focused almost exclusively on Jesus himself, many of the disciples are barely names in the text. Apart from a few incidents in the gospel of John, we know practically nothing about Philip, and even less about Nathanael (most likely the same as the Bartholomew who appears in the lists of apostles in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts). Philip seems to have followed Jesus readily—at least there is no incident related that elaborates on his calling. All we know is that he was from Bethsaida, where Andrew and Simon were also from, and that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptizer. By the time he reaches out to Nathanael, he is describing Jesus as the one “whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote,” so clearly Jesus as a fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures is the way that he looked at Jesus.
The Chosen takes this bare-bones portrayal and crafts a character who stands out from the others by having already been a long-time disciple of John. Where the rest of the disciples are quite relatably human in their clashes, rivalries, and shortsightedness, Philip seems on another plane, like a hippie in the midst of working-class Joes. He has the leadership capacity of Simon, but isn’t actively pursuing it as Simon is. He recognizes Matthew as a fellow outsider and actively works to befriend him. He’s neither appalled at Matthew’s having been a tax collector nor condemning of Matthew’s father disowning him for it. He describes ordinary people as “sleepers,” but tells Matthew, “we're different, we're awake.” When Matthew gets frustrated by such esoteric talk, Philip has the humility to recognize the problem and apologize: “I don't mean to sound like an oracle here. It's a force of habit. Spend all your time with a rogue preacher in the wilderness and you get to be a little obtuse.”
With Philip, we get a glimpse into the future, an idea of what the process of discipleship may do to the other disciples. Philip is well accustomed to the hardships of nomadic life that the other disciples are trying to get used to. He’s further along in his understanding and more disconnected with the outside world. He’s also more open to the circuitous path that the Messiah might take: unlike James, John, and Simon, who want to plan out a strategy for building a movement leading to independence from Rome, Philip knows that the leader leads where he chooses and all the disciple can do is follow and learn.
But even Philip can be surprised. When he meets Jesus, he puts into the mouth of John the Baptizer his own surprise that Jesus could call a Pharisee a friend. His experience with John has prepared him for ways in which Jesus is similar to John, but it actually puts him at a disadvantage in situations when Jesus will be different from John. Nonetheless, Jesus acknowledges that Philip will be “the most experienced of all my followers.”
Nathanael is yet another unique character. Imagined as an architect who wanted to build great synagogues to God’s glory (synagogues that are described like cathedrals; I wonder if there ever were such grand synagogues at the time), Nathanael is also blunt and stubborn. So much of his self-image is tied into his advancing career that losing it feels like a death knell for him. He doesn’t seem to have family or other interests; in his loss, he first wanders alone into a bar and then out to a solitary tree in the middle of nowhere.
He sits, broken, under the tree, crying out to a God who is all-too silent, offering his architectural plans to that God and then burning them, pleading for the Lord not to hide his face, to answer him speedily, but there is nothing. Anyone who has gone through a deep loss can relate to this; all the more when what has been lost was intended for good, to glorify God, in the first place. Surely this is something God should have supported and rewarded! And yet it all fell apart. And even the romantic pathos of it all has to come to an end. Eventually there is nothing for Nathanael to do except to get up and walk away.
As we are getting to know these two characters, the ones we already know, and their relationships, are developing. Simon, who protested Matthew being called as a disciple, still feels resentful and is irritated at every practical inability that illustrates Matthew’s privileged former life. Of course he doesn’t know how to find dry wood! Why would he ever have needed to? And then, to see Matthew writing Jesus’ words into the little book he had previously used to spy for the Romans—it’s all too much.
But we also see Matthew, finally able to share with someone the disconnection he feels with everyone else, the unworthiness he feels as a disciple. In an odd way, he agrees with Simon: he doesn’t belong, he has nothing useful to offer, and he has no idea why Jesus called him. He desperately needs what Philip tells him: that being chosen is enough, and what he thinks he knows or doesn’t know has nothing to do with it.
Matthew mentions to Mary Magdalene and Ramah that Philip and Thaddaeus are kind to him, and Mary is disquieted, picking up on the implication that the others are not. The three of them share a common handicap: that none of them had the benefit of being schooled in the Hebrew scriptures, but Matthew can get scriptures from Philip to copy down and share with Mary, who is going to teach Ramah to read. We can see them banding together, willing to help one another, working on overcoming their obstacles.
When Philip seeks out Nathanael, he has no idea that Nathanael’s world has just caved in. He kindly and patiently listens to Nathanael’s story before revealing why he came, but we see his excitement as he tells Nathanael about Jesus. And Nathanael proceeds to illustrate how, no matter how much we think we’ve been humbled and come to the end of ourselves, we still bring ourselves along for the ride in the aftermath. Low as he is, Nathanael scorns the idea of the Messiah coming from Nazareth, calling it almost blasphemy. All the jokes about Nazareth in the series have led to this moment (and been inspired by this passage in John): Nazareth is some miserable little podunk town easily dismissed, like a modern slum or Appalachian hamlet. No matter how low we are, there’s always someone else we can find to scorn.
But Philip doesn’t bother challenging the stereotype. He just answers, “Come and see,” gently pointing out that Nathanael’s “telling it like it is” can be an excuse for being mean, and that he really has nothing to lose. So Nathanael comes.
And Jesus meets him. As always, Jesus knows exactly what each person needs. He begins by addressing the positive side of Nathanael’s blunt honesty: that although descended from a deceiver, in him there is no deceit. Jesus continues to address Nathanael as someone who already knows him, and specifically citing the incident under the fig tree.
And here we have a plausible reason for Nathanael’s astonishment in John 1. In The Chosen’s retelling, Nathanael didn’t just happen to be sitting under a fig tree. Jesus was calling out an incident so private and personal that no one could have known about it without supernatural knowledge. When Jesus says, “I did not turn my face from you,” he is calling back Nathanael’s recitation of Psalm 102: “Do not hide your face from me.” He echoes Nathanael’s conversation with the bartender, reminding him, “I know you like to be clear.” And then Jesus takes the very ambition that Nathanael had, the one he had called “hubris” and thought had brought him to ruin, and offers it back to Nathanael in a new form.
We’ve seen this same pattern in so many of the characters of The Chosen, although perhaps not in quite so obvious a form. Mary Magdalene, Simon, Photina, the paralytic, in some ways Matthew and Nicodemus. How many of them had circumstances tear from them what they thought their life would look like, only to have Jesus come in and offer it back to them in some new form? Isn’t that often the way it is with us? Having to lose everything before being able to change, and then finding it again, in a new and different and better form?