Was Matthew Autistic?
The Chosen uses a few unique devices in order to bring the story of Jesus to life in a fresh, impactful way. One of these unique tactics is to dive into Jesus' disciples’ lives in greater depths than ever before. These semi-fictional elements of the story draw on what’s known about each individual and are created to present a full, fleshed-out picture of who they were and the kind of lives they lead.
Matthew is generally believed to have been a prolific author of the records of the New Testament. The account of Jesus’ life according to him was one of the most careful and detailed of the records we have, suggesting a particular attention to detail. The filmmakers of The Chosen chose to represent Matthew as a careful, meticulous introvert, and his mannerisms have led many to ask, is The Chosen’s Matthew autistic?
If Matthew’s character is indeed autistic, this piece of the story teaches an important truth: that individuals with neurodivergence (divergence in neurological function from what is considered typical) have always existed, and have played vitally important roles in significant historical and religious events.
Matthew's Character in the Bible and The Chosen
Before Matthew, also known as Levi, began following Jesus and became one of His twelve disciples, we know that he worked as a tax collector. During the time of Jesus’ life and ministry, the Jewish people lived under the forcible rule of the Romans, who imposed severe taxes on their subjects and conquered peoples. Tax collectors were therefore considered oppressors–often stealing extra from the people and keeping for themselves–and someone like Matthew, a Jewish man employed by Rome as a tax collector, would be considered a traitor.
We know that when Jesus invited Matthew to follow Him, He made it clear to all that He chose His disciples intentionally; He wanted each one in His corner–background, strengths, flaws, and all. Though incessantly harassed for associating with a tax collector, Jesus stood by His decision to call a tax collector to His ministry.
Not much is known about Matthew’s life beyond his profession, including the way he interacted with the other disciples. We do know from the Bible, however, about his interactions with Jesus; Jesus saw Matthew not as a tax collector, but for what he could become as he ministered with Jesus.
Matthew’s portrayal in The Chosen hints at his potentially having autism. Matthew’s gift for mathematics and attention to detail points at a hyper fixation characteristic of autistic individuals. Some of Matthew’s behavioral tics tend to indicate this fact as well, including his tendency not to make direct eye contact, as well as his lack of understanding of unclear language and other social cues.
Exploring the Possibility of Autism in Matthew
There is a set of behaviors and mannerisms that are typically indicative of autism in an individual. People who are on the spectrum and have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to exhibit any of the following characteristics, among others:
Fixation on a single subject or hobby
Minimal facial expression
Avoids or frequently breaks eye contact
Has difficulty carrying on conversations, or understanding certain phrases
Misses certain social cues, such as reading the feelings or reactions of others, understanding sarcasm, etc.
Conveys limited emotion
Has difficulty understanding nonverbal cues from others
So, is Matthew autistic in The Chosen? While people who experience autism live on a wide spectrum (and we’re not seeking to diagnose this particular character), Matthew has some characteristics of autism. Matthew’s job as a tax collector, even as a Jewish man (a fact that is accurate to his biblical counterpart) infers that he was particularly gifted with math and logic, to the point of being offered a job with his people’s oppressing class. Matthew also tends to avoid and quickly break eye contact with other characters in the show. A significant sign of Matthew’s potential autism arises when he finds it particularly difficult to understand Jesus’ parables. The disciples attempt to help him understand, but Matthew has trouble seeing a spiritual undertone behind the literal language of the parables Jesus teaches. Matthew’s incredible intellect, and simultaneous difficulty in reading emotion and understanding unspoken messages, point to his possibly having autism spectrum disorder.
The Significance of Neurodivergent Representation in Religious Narratives
While it may seem like a mere stylistic addition to portray Matthew as potentially being autistic, this choice by the makers of The Chosen can be very meaningful for individuals on the autism spectrum.
In modern media, there’s a certain focus on having adequate representation for people with different characteristics and circumstances, including those with disabilities or neurodivergent diagnoses. For Matthew in The Chosen to be portrayed as a person with potential autism, means that audience members who are also neurodivergent–or who live with a disability–can relate to a historically essential figure that was singled out by Jesus Himself for his strengths, as well as what he could contribute to the work that no one else could. This type of representation of individuals with neurodivergence and disability in the media fuels inclusivity, greater understanding of what they experience, and even more representation in other media.
While the writers, directors and producers of The Chosen do take some degree of creative license in their portrayals of biblical figures, it’s important to note that all media creators–including those that make religious content–have a responsibility to depict characters with disabilities in a respectful manner, and in one that is accurate to the experience of real people with the disability. Matthew, for example, is represented as careful and thoughtful, with subtle and accurate behaviors that indicate his autism. His neurodivergence isn’t represented in a humorous, exaggerated, or cartoonish way.
The Importance of Recognizing Diverse Abilities Among Historical Figures
There are countless historical figures whose disabilities and neurodivergence did not define them, but instead empowered them to change the world for the better. Some are speculated, due in part to a historical lack of understanding regarding disability, but others were accurately recorded for us to respect and learn from.
For example, it’s speculated that Albert Einstein fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. This speculation stems from his hyper fixation on scientific subjects, a fixation which ultimately led him to be considered one of the greatest scientific minds in history.
It’s an essential, yet far too recent, practice to acknowledge and recognize the diversity in ability among historically significant figures. What The Chosen has done with Matthew is acknowledge the immense importance of neurodivergent people. Each of us is called to specific purposes that only we can serve.
When we understand the contributions made by people with neurodivergence and disability throughout history, we begin to dismantle stereotypes and learn the history of humanity through a more inclusive lens.
Matthew in The Chosen is an expanded, partially fictionalized version of his counterpart, the Apostle Matthew in the New Testament. The show portrays the studious former tax collector as exhibiting characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which explains certain elements of his story. This type of representation of people in the popular media–and the conversations that stem from viewing–is vital to increasing understanding, inclusivity and empathy for neurodivergent individuals. People of all levels of ability need to be able to see themselves in their religion and their history.
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