MIDLOTHIAN, Texas — In the biblical account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus uses two fish and five loaves of bread to feed a large crowd. The small amount of food supernaturally multiplies to satisfy 5,000 people who have gathered to hear him speak near the Sea of Galilee.
Re-enacting that scene for television could be viewed as a miracle of its own: 9,000 extras gathered over the course of three days at a Salvation Army camp south of Dallas this summer. They were not paid actors, but devotees of the television show they were making. Many of them had traveled from across the country to stand in the Texas heat, a reward for giving up to $1,000 each to fund the show.
“The Chosen,” a surprise hit television series, is billed as the first multi-season show about the life of Jesus — and one of the biggest crowd-funded media projects ever produced. The show’s third season will begin streaming online in mid-December.
Conceived by a little-known creator, featuring no major stars and funded primarily, at first, through small contributions without the support of a Hollywood studio, the series began on an obscure proprietary app and is now given away for free. Its I.P. is 2,000 years old. But despite the long odds, the faith-based drama series has become a bona fide phenomenon in many parts of Christian culture, attracting a fervent ecumenical fandom while remaining almost invisible to others.
Globally, 108 million people have watched at least part of one episode of “The Chosen,” according to an analysis prepared at its producers’ behest by Sandy Padula, an independent consultant. The show now also streams on platforms including Peacock, Amazon Prime Video, and, as of this week, Netflix. Producers recently announced that the third season of the show would also be available on a new “The Chosen” app.
The first two episodes of the show’s third season premiered together in theaters on Nov. 18, and brought in more than $8 million, coming in third at the weekend box office behind mainstream movies that screened in more theaters. A limited-run theatrical release of a Christmas special last year was extended weeks beyond its planned run and topped $13.5 million in ticket sales — a fraction of the box office for mainstream Hollywood films, but a record for Fathom Events, a large distributor that specializes in special events and short-run screenings.
The show first appeared in 2019, but it wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic that it found its audience. The first two seasons are eight episodes each.
When Felicia Maize’s large evangelical church in the suburbs of Dallas temporarily closed down in March 2020, friends texted her and her family to urge them to tune in.
“This Jesus blinks his eyes,” Mrs. Maize recalled one friend telling her. He wasn’t some stiff and remote character from an old painting; he was relatable, like a best friend, she said. A few episodes in, they were hooked. The show spread among their friend group by word of mouth, and “sustained everyone,” she said. “We binged Jesus.”
Mrs. Maize had come to the Texas set with her husband and two sons, who stood in the baking afternoon sun waiting to be summoned to the cameras. “We’re not lukewarm!” she said cheerfully, a reference to the Book of Revelation’s warning against tepid faith, and a description of their burning fandom.
Part of the camp was an Instagram-friendly playground, where extras spent their downtime posing with life-size cutouts of cast members and browsing at a large gift shop. Other areas were transformed into first-century Galilee, including a replica of the seaside city of Capernaum, where the Gospels describe Jesus attending synagogue and healing people.
The series is based on the four Gospels, which follow Jesus from his birth in a stable to his resurrection after being crucified by the Roman Empire. But the show’s creator and director, Dallas Jenkins, an evangelical Christian, has fleshed out elaborate new back stories and personalities for the people around his central character.
The Jesus of “The Chosen” is serene, charismatic and intimate — something like a roving therapist. In the world of “The Chosen,” Mary Magdalene is an alcoholic and a victim of sexual assault. Matthew, the tax-collector disciple, is portrayed as on the autism spectrum, and the disciple Little James has a physical disability expressed as a limp. (The actor who plays Little James, Jordan Walker Ross, has scoliosis and mild cerebral palsy.)
Mr. Jenkins’s tactic of expanding the characters around Jesus means there’s enough material to fill out a planned seven seasons, and enough new story lines to warrant fears of “spoilers” in one of the most well-known narratives in human history. The show includes complex relationships, suspense, political intrigue, and charged emotional moments.
Ryan Swanson and Tyler Thompson, who write with Mr. Jenkins, list influences including “Game of Thrones,” “The Wire,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Star Trek” — the last one because it’s about “a captain and about 12 other people,” Mr. Swanson said.
The fact that “The Chosen” aspires to secular prestige TV quality is part of its appeal for an audience that has grown resigned to entertainment products that are often lesser imitations of mainstream hits. Many fans say the show’s production values drew them in. “It was far less cheesy than what I’m used to seeing,” said Luke Burgis, a Catholic writer who wrote an essay titled “Why We Love ‘The Chosen’ So Much” last year for the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. He generally eschews Christian media, he said, but the show is “like anything I’d find on Netflix.”
Neal Harmon, co-founder of Angel Studios, the distributor of the first two seasons, says the show was its first breakout hit: “What ‘House of Cards’ was for Netflix, ‘The Chosen’ was for Angel Studios,” he said. (As a marketing team, Mr. Harmon and his brother, Jeff, are behind viral advertising campaigns for products like the Squatty Potty and Poo-Pourri.)
Accounts abound of skeptical viewers unexpectedly ending up in tears as they watch scenes like one in the first episode, in which Jesus approaches a devastated Mary Magdalene, whom he has never met. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you,” he tells her, looking deeply into her eyes. “I have called you by name,” he continues. “You are mine.” The soundtrack soars.
The show can also border on the corny, with Bible characters using phrases like “not too shabby” and “I’ll be in touch.” But what stands out are the countless moments in which Jesus pauses what he is doing to witness and name a character’s struggle, even if he does not fix the problem. “I see you,” he tells the wife of one of his disciples. “I know it is not easy to be at home when your husband is out doing all of this.”
The title “The Chosen” can be interpreted as referring to Jesus himself, his disciples or even any of his followers — including those watching a television show about him in 2022.
“I think that’s what the banner over the whole show is: Jesus is a personal God,” Mr. Jenkins said. Mr. Jenkins grew up with an intimate view of what it looked like for a piece of Christian pop culture to blow up into the mainstream: He’s the son of Jerry B. Jenkins, who co-wrote the best-selling “Left Behind” series of Christian apocalyptic thrillers.
Mr. Jenkins relies on a panel of one evangelical Christian, one Catholic scholar and one Messianic rabbi to consult on the scripts. But controversies flare up occasionally. During the second season, Mr. Jenkins addressed accusations of blasphemy over issues including the depiction of Mary Magdalene’s “backsliding” into sin after being saved.
For many viewers, the appeal of the show is that it is pointedly not political.
“You can’t infuse American politics into first-century Judea,” said Erin Moon, an evangelical podcaster in Birmingham, Ala., who has recommended the show to her listeners. “There’s something very pure, or focused, that you’re not seeing with a lot of American churches right now.”
“Just preach the Gospel” is a cliché among some Christians tired of litigating cultural and political battles in spiritual spaces, Ms. Moon said. But in her view, “The Chosen” pulls it off.
“The Chosen” is “my literal favorite TV show,” she said. “It’s the thing I evangelize about.”
Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus on the show, has played the same role in three short films directed by Mr. Jenkins. Like most of the actors on the show, he also looks like he could have actually been born in the Middle East: His father is Egyptian.
For some viewers, it’s hard not to conflate Mr. Roumie with his role as the son of God.
The actor has in some ways taken on the role of spiritual leader himself. He has a partnership with Hallow, a Catholic meditation and prayer app that has also worked with celebrities like Mark Wahlberg and Brett Favre. In the spring, he collaborated on a Hallow production with Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ,” directed by Mel Gibson. (The two men have never met in person, Mr. Roumie said, joking that “the universe might implode.”)
In the early months of the pandemic, Mr. Roumie led a daily prayer session on Instagram, praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and the Rosary for thousands of people. Tuning into the prayers “became part of my routine,” said Anusha Jebanasam, the moderator of a Facebook fan page for Mr. Roumie.
Mr. Jenkins, the other face of the show, introduces episodes online, and interacts frequently with fans; he is often recognized in public. The fact that the show is crowd-funded means many viewers feel personally invested in its success and see themselves as part of a community. When Mr. Jenkins posts on social media about a streaming event, he said, “people will respond in the comments, ‘I can’t make it, I’m going to be at Bible study.’”
In June, Ms. Jebanasam traveled from her home in Sydney, Australia, to serve as an extra on set in Texas.
“All these 5,000 people here are new friends,” said Lori Mejaly, a Catholic from Detroit who was sitting at a folding table during a break with George Pechulis, a Baptist from Wyoming whom she had just met. “We’re all under one God.”
To prepare for the taping, Mr. Pechulis stopped trimming his beard a few months back, and Ms. Mejaly did a Google search for “first-century clothes.” She settled on Birkenstock-style sandals, an orange tunic and a bright head scarf.
Ben and Crystal Woods, who had traveled from Indiana, said “The Chosen” was a touchstone throughout the most difficult period of their lives. Their middle child, Calla, died at age 9 in 2019. Then came the isolation of the pandemic. Grieving at home, and unable to attend church in person, they began watching the drama with their other two children.
Mrs. Woods often prays as she watches the show, imagining herself in place of the characters as they interact with Jesus and receive his help and attention. She has watched episodes with a small group from church, with her neighbor and her family.
To prepare for the family’s appearances as extras, Mrs. Woods tried her hand at sewing for the first time, stitching a tunic for their 7-year-old, Lila.
Watching the show is “good for my soul,” she said.
Hours later, on the other side of the camp, Mr. Roumie, the actor who plays Jesus, was standing in front of the crowd of extras in a short burlap tunic, waiting for the cameras to start rolling again.
It was almost 6 p.m., and temperatures were still in the 90s. Piles of store-bought pita bread and dried croaker fish acquired from local Asian supermarkets were mounded in large baskets. Crew members circulated to distribute water bottles and umbrellas. The air smelled like hot seafood. But when Mr. Roumie lifted his phone during a break and smiled into the camera for a selfie, the crowd erupted in cheers.