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Blog Archive for 3/7/04 - 3/13/04

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

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Reflection: What Can We Learn from the Movie Judas ? (Part 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?"

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

Reflection: What Was the Core of Jesus' Preaching?
Part 2 of the series: "What Was the Message of Jesus?"
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 7, 2004

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