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What Can We Learn from the Movie Judas?

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          March 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Reflection: What Can We Learn from the Movie Judas ? (Pt. 1)
Posted at 11:35 p.m. on Monday, March 8, 2004

Tonight I'm interrupting my recent series, "What Was the Message of Jesus?" It's for a good cause, I think. I've just finished watching the movie Judas, which was shown on ABC tonight. I want to pause for a moment and reflect upon what we can learn from this film. Whether it reveals much about the historical Judas or not is debatable. And its picture of Jesus leaves much to be desired. But this movie does help us see something of the world in which Judas lived, which was, of course, the world of Jesus. So, what we learn from the movie provides helpful background to our study of the message of Jesus.

A couple observations about this film and its protagonist might be helpful. ABC chose to air the movie Judas tonight because of the extraordinary popularity of The Passion of the Christ, according to the director of Judas. But the juxtaposition of these two movies does not work in favor of Judas, because The Passion so overshadows it in budget, beauty, brilliance, and, pardon the pun, passion. Seeing Judas after seeing The Passion of the Christ is like hearing me sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" right after Luciano Pavarotti finishes "Ave Maria."
Jonathan Scarfe (l) as Jesus; Johnathon Schaech (r) as Judas, from the movie Judas

Although Judas is based upon the New Testament gospels, in fact these texts tell us very little about the real Judas. According to these sources he was: a disciple of Jesus, one of the "twelve" who made up Jesus' inner circle, the treasurer for Jesus' retinue, a schemer who colluded with Jewish officials to have Jesus arrested, the one who betrayed Jesus to the authorities in the Garden of Gethsemane, one who afterwards felt extreme remorse, and a man who died tragically.

Later Christian tradition fills in a few of the blanks in this minimalist portrait of Judas, but most of this material is clearly fictional, not to mention bizarre. For example, in the so-called Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior, Satan torments the boy Judas, whose mother brings him to meet Jesus' mother. At the instigation of Satan, little Judas strikes Jesus, at which point Satan leaves Judas "fleeing like a mad dog" (section 35). An orthodox second-century writer who mentions Judas seems primarily interested in the unusual fate of his postmortem guts (Papias, Fragments 3; see also Acts 1:18).

The film Judas, following the speculations of many scholars, supposes that Judas was a revolutionary of sorts, one who yearned for a Jewish rebellion against Rome. But in this regard he was just like thousands of other Jewish men in his day. The historical evidence for Judas' being a member of an organized terrorist organization is slight, though many recognized authorities endorse this theory. Consider this excerpt from The Encyclopedia Britannica:

Judas' surname is more probably a corruption of the Latin sicarius ("murderer" or "assassin") than an indication of family origin, suggesting that he would have belonged to the Sicarii, the most radical Jewish group, some of whom were terrorists.

Yet this understanding of "Iscariot" is not shared by most scholars, who see it rather as a version of ish-kerioth, a Hebrew phrase that means "a man from the town of Kerioth" (in Judea). In the end, we can't be sure about Judas' background or his motivation for betraying Jesus. The film Judas makes many educated guesses about such things, weaving these together into a work of historical fiction.

Even though Judas cannot be counted on for historically reliable data on Judas himself, and though it's picture of Jesus is flawed, I believe the film has some value as a relatively realistic portrait of certain aspects of Jewish life in the first-century A.D. It helps us understand the world of Judas, Jesus, and their compatriots. Let me note several points in this regard:

1. The movie attempts to portray the tyranny of Rome and how this colored everything in Judean Jewish life . It starts out on the right foot, with a shocking scene of multiple crucifixions. But, unfortunately, it fails to build upon the intensity of this scene. Frankly, it's hard for me to see in Tim Matheson, who plays Pilate, a clever, brutal, and self-serving politico. We'll never make sense of Jesus' ministry until we can feel what Roman oppression must have been like for the Jews. Though we have no evidence that Judas' father was actually crucified by the Romans in the presence of his son, thousands of Jewish children were in fact orphaned when their fathers were crucified in the cruel hands of Rome. In 4 B.C., for example, some Jews tried to take advantage of Herod's death by rebelling against Roman rule. Rome responded, in typical fashion, by crucifying two thousand Jewish men at one time (Josephus, Antiquities 17.10.10). This was only one of many such instances. So, although the experience of a crucified father may not have motivated Judas, this sort of thing did leave a profound impact upon thousands of Jews in the time of Jesus, and upon the psyche of the nation as a whole. Along with taxation and the presence of Roman troops in Judea, crucifixion was a powerful symbol of Jewish subjection to pagan despotism.

I'm going to pause here because this post is getting too long. I'll finish up tomorrow before returning to the next part in my series "What Was the Message of Jesus?"

Reflection: What Can We Learn from the Movie Judas ? (Pt. 2)
Posted at 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Yesterday I began reflecting on the movie Judas. This film, though a work of historical fiction based on little knowledge of the historical Judas, nevertheless paints a relatively realistic portrait of Jewish life in the first-century A.D. Therefore it helps us understand, not just Judas, but Jesus himself.

Today I'll review point 1 from yesterday before moving on to points 2-4.

1. The movie attempts to portray the tyranny of Rome and how this colored everything in Judean Jewish life. See yesterday's post for details.

2. The movie also paints a fairly accurate picture of Jewish efforts to resist Roman tyranny. In the movie, Judas hates the Romans for crucifying his father and for oppressing the Jewish people. Like thousands of others in his day, he looked forward to a Jewish military victory over the Romans. It's common to speak of the Zealots as the party within first-century Judaism that advocated armed rebellion against Rome, but the situation was more complex. In fact there were a variety of Zealot-like groups, some who were basically terrorists and assassins, others who were little more than thieves, others who saw their physical suffering as redemptive, and still others who were strategic in their efforts to eject the Romans from the Promised Land. In different ways, myriads of Jews were working and plotting to get rid of Rome through violent means. These efforts came to a head in the First Jewish War (A.D. 66-70), which led to the destruction of Jerusalem. Those who lived by the sword actually did die by the sword.

3. The film portrays a complex relationship among Judean leaders, both Jewish and Roman. Although the specifics of this movie are fictional, they rightly envision the kinds of relationships that existed in first-century Judea, especially Jerusalem. The temple hierarchy, though ultimately displeased with Roman rule, found it expedient to compromise with the Romans both to preserve their own lives and to augment their own power. Jews were often divided against themselves in conflicting efforts to attack or to appease Rome. Ultimately this "house divided against itself" contributed to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
The ruins of the fortress at Masada by the Dead Sea, where Jewish rebels, about to be taken captive by Rome, committed mass suicide in A.D. 74.

4. The movie provides an accurate snapshot of one version of first-century messianic hope. Judas expects Jesus to become the messiah, the person Judas believes will lead a successful Jewish revolt against Rome. When Jesus refuses to pursue this course, Judas is incensed and confused. Indeed, the historical Judas may well have felt betrayed by the historical Jesus, who refused to usher in the kingdom of God with military force. The cinematic picture of Judas, however fictitious it might be, accurately portrays both the expectation and disappointment that characterized the response of many Jews to Jesus. When they envisioned the messiah, they pictured a royal general leading victorious Jewish armies supported by the hosts of heaven. It's safe to say that the last thing they imagined was their messiah dying on a Roman cross. From their point of view, this would have been utter folly (1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

In conclusion, I would note that some of the most interesting questions raised by the movie Judas are more theological than historical in nature. If, as Christians believe, God ordained the death of Jesus, and if Jesus himself encouraged Judas at one point (John 13:27), to what extent should Judas be held responsible for the death of Jesus? Was Judas somehow foreordained by God to betray Jesus? Is he therefore guilty? This question, of course, opens the Pandora's Box of predestination and free will.

Moreover, the film asks us if Judas could have been forgiven for his betrayal of Jesus. Or, do we believe instead that he's "damned for all time," to quote Judas' plaintive words from Jesus Christ Superstar. When, on the cross, Jesus asks his Father to "forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34), who is included within "them"? Only the Roman guards who were physically crucifying Jesus? Or do Roman leaders get included too? And what about the Jewish leaders? And the other Jews who went along for the ride? Maybe even Judas? And what about you and me? Although answers to these questions will surely vary, they force us to consider exactly how wide God's mercy really is. Can we believe that even Judas could be forgiven? Moreover, if I truly believe that my sin put Jesus on the cross - as I do - on what grounds could I deny forgiveness to anyone else, even Judas?
Carl Anderson, who played Judas in the original Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Ironically, Anderson died two weeks ago, on February 23, 2004.
Some Links associated with Judas :
World Magazine review with a couple of links
Story about making of Judas
Paulist Productions website, including a study guide for movie
ABC's Judas webpage
Judas review from Fuller Seminary professor and his wife
Christianity Today interview with director of Judas
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