Today’s student essay comes from Flo Cardon, another student who took our Bible and Pop Culture class earlier this year. Flo is currently in the middle of completing her Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in Classics and a minor in Ancient History. She loves art and history and in her spare time, enjoys painting. Unsurprisingly, her primarily subject matter in her art relates to religion and mythology. She also loves watching films, particularly musicals (which can probably be deducted from her essay topic!).
Flo chose a controversial biblical character to focus on in her essay – Judas – considering his (equally controversial) afterlife in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s a great essay, so read on, and enjoy.
Heaven on Their Minds: Judas in the Bible and Popular Culture
The name ‘Judas’ has become synonymous with ideas of betrayal, disloyalty and treachery. It is commonly known that in the Bible, Jesus Christ was betrayed by the only ex-disciple, Judas Iscariot, in exchange for money. The Bible presents Judas as a two dimensional person, simplified down to only that one moment in his life where he gave Jesus over to the Romans and sealed his fate as ‘Judas, the one that would betray him’ forever. Norman Jewison’s musical film Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) presents Judas as a complex and tragic character that plays an important part in the story of Jesus Christs’ life. By comparing Jewison’s Judas with his biblical counterpart, many investigations can be made into the history of Judas as a character and his portrayal as the one who brought down Jesus Christ.
Carl Anderson as Judas in Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar
In comparison to the Bible, Jewison’s Judas is presented as the tragic figure and the one who the audience should sympathise with. He is shown as only wanting the best for Jesus and the Jews, and uses the entire first musical number as a soliloquy as to how he thinks Jesus is going to doom all his followers and friends as well as himself. Here Judas is not presented as a villain but Jesus’ worried friend. His motivation is to get Jesus to listen to him so that they can prevent Jesus’ movement from getting too large that it will get attention from Roman authorities. This is not a man with evil intent, but one that cares for his friends and the danger he sees they are bringing upon themselves. Biblical Judas is a stark contrast to this; Judas is referred to as ‘Judas, the one that would betray [Jesus]’ more often than not. In the Gospel of John, Judas criticises Jesus’ use of expensive perfume on himself and voices that he thinks the money used on this perfume could have gone to the poor, and is subsequently labelled as a thief (John 12.5-6). This shows that Biblical Judas is motivated to betray Jesus through money, and not friendship like in the film. Judas’ realisation of the inevitability of Jesus’ fate at the beginning of the film contrasted with his obliviousness of the fact that he would be the one that brought Jesus’ downfall brings about an extremely tragic aspect to Judas’ character that isn’t found in the Bible. Before Judas’ death, he sings about how he did not know he was handing Jesus over to die, which is another tragic contrast to how he only intended to betray Jesus so that he would protect the fate of all those that followed his growing movement, including Jesus himself. This emphasises the tragic nature of Judas’ part in this story, as he was unknowingly playing into Jesus’ inevitable arrest and crucifixion much more than he was let on.
However, in the Bible during the last supper, it is written in the Gospel of John that ‘the devil had already prompted Judas to betray Jesus’ (John 13.2), meaning that Biblical Judas only needed to be prompted in order to actually betray Jesus in exchange for money. Both versions of Judas hang themselves in response to Jesus’ sentence to be crucified, but in the film we feel much sorrier for Judas here than the Judas in the Bible. In the Bible, Judas’ death is short and sweet, with no sympathy or remorse shown towards him, just that ‘he went away and hanged himself’ (Matt. 27.5). This seems to imply that he did deserve this tragic ending, as he was shown as the villain who handed Jesus over to the Romans and only that, nothing more. However, just after Jewison’s Judas dies, we hear ‘So long Judas, poor old Judas…’ sung repeatedly as the outro of his death song, reinforcing the idea that Judas was the victim of this story and that he did not deserve this outcome. No one listened to his accurate predictions of what would happen to Jesus and his movement, and he died as a result. Judas in Norman Jewison’s musical film compared to the Bible provides us with insight into the complexity of his character and differing nature of interpretations of it. Judas is clearly the villain in the Bible because of his betrayal of Jesus, but Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) presents us with a Judas with a much more composite, and therefore human, nature.
The Judas kiss
An important aspect of the change in Judas between the Bible and Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is Judas’ race. It is known that Judas was a Palestinian Jew born in Jericho and one of the most well-educated among the Apostles. However, in the film, Judas is played by Carl Anderson, a black man, which caused a variety of controversy when the film was released. Among the controversy was the accusation that making the ‘villain’ of the narrative black was anti-Semitic. It was argued that by making Judas the only black person gave the character evil connotations, as the ‘true villains’ of the story, the Jewish priests, are also primarily clad in black (Hebron 2016, 157). When the film was initially released, Rabbi Marc Tenenbaum described it as ‘a witch’s brew of anti-black and anti-Semitic venom’ (Bennette 2016). This is in reference to how Judas has been depicted as the prototype of an evil Jewish figure throughout history, with offensive and stereotypical anti-Semitic features like a hooked nose, large eyes and black hair (Meyer 2009, 2). This dehumanized Judas as a biblical figure, cutting him down to being the villain who sold off Jesus Christ to be executed.
The decision to make Judas black, as Marc Tenenbaum mentioned, also stirred up discussion of the portrayal as anti-black. This is the reversal of the anti-Semitic idea, as people thought Jewison’s Judas to be anti-black through the fact that the only black character is Judas, the primary image of betrayal and evil, according to the Bible. Carl Anderson being cast to play Judas is also argued to be ‘a comment on the history of African Americans’ (Grace 2009, 98). This can primarily be seen in Judas’ death scene, in which his suicide is clearly reminiscent of the lynching, especially the large amounts of black Americans that were lynched in the first half of the twentieth century as a result of extreme racial oppression and tension in the United States. This blurred the line between the actor and his role, as Judas knew of the violence and oppression that was being carried out by the Romans like no one else did (Hebron 2016, 159), which is a parallel to the racial suppression of black people that was still being carried out when the film was released, and still continues to this day, with the numerous racist responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. Judas understood violence and oppression like no one else did, yet no one listened to him. This afterlife of Judas is vastly different to that of the original biblical Judas, which can be seen in these varying responses to the choice to make Judas a black man in the musical film.
An interesting yet unique aspect of Jewison’s film is that it is told primarily through Judas’ point of view. It is obvious that Jesus is the hero in the Bible but that is because it is written by his devout followers, whereas it can be argued that Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) was created as a reaction to the lack of investigation into Judas’ side of the story, where Judas himself is the protagonist. This is because of Judas’ character development in the narrative; Judas started off as a follower of Jesus, he believed and supported him, subsequently betrayed him, and then felt such an overwhelming guilt at what he had done that he committed suicide. This is true for both the 1973 film and the gospels. But whereas in the Bible Judas’ feelings and thoughts are ambiguous, the film allows us a look into Judas as the main character and as someone who changes and learns (Miller 2011). The fact that the film is from Judas’ point of view means that the audience is being shown the story of Jesus through the eyes of someone who is critiquing him. Judas is allowed to critique Jesus here, as the audience goes into the narrative knowing the famous story of Judas’ betrayal, and knows that he is seen by many as the ‘villain’ of the musical. Judas’ critique of Jesus shows us mainly that he sees Jesus as not the son of God but a human man who put himself in danger by putting the focus on himself rather than the philosophies he preaches.
In the Bible, Judas is only mentioned in relation to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, which does not allow as much character development as the film. This contrast fills in a lot of gaps in the Bible, like what Judas’ thoughts, motives and opinions were when it came to Jesus and the last week of his life. He shows us a Jesus that is human enough to get angry, flip tables at the temple, get overwhelmed at his popularity and even doubt his own faith in his cause. Compared to the cool, calm and collected Jesus shown in the Gospels, this musical Jesus is a lot more unpredictable and human, as shown through Judas’ perspective. Judas can also be seen as he central character through the fact that in the film, Judas is the one resurrected, and not Jesus, as it is more commonly shown. Whether Judas’ reappearance after death is Jesus’ dream or, as some have put it, Satan himself appearing to Jesus to taunt him, Judas uses this last song of his to interrogate Jesus as well as apologise for what he did. Judas doesn’t get to apologise in the Bible, he is just said to have hanged himself and that was the end of biblical Judas. Judas in this film is not the hero, but he is more of one than Jesus is shown to be. Jesus, with his short temper and doubting faith, seems to be more of a villain than Judas in this film, showing how Judas’ point of view presents a unique take on the constantly retold biblical story.
In conclusion, Judas in the Bible can be compared to his counterpart in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) to reveal some in depth conclusions about his character and reactions to it. While the film may not change too much of the narrative presented to us in the Bible, Norman Jewison fills in gaps surrounding Judas’ thought processes and motivations as a complex character and puzzle piece in Jesus Christ’s last week alive. We are given the ending we expect to see but with new depth and details, which is what a successful rendition of a biblical tale, like Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), should aim to do.
 This is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Cassandra, who was a prophet that no one listened to before she was killed; She is known as a central figure of epic tragedy, which shows how clearly Judas’ portrayal in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is one of the most tragic nature, emphasising how the complexity of this version of Judas is a stark contrast to the two dimensionality of Biblical Judas.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV
Bennette, Georgette, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar Resurrected’, The Huffington Post, 8 October 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/georgette-bennett-phd/jesus-christ-superstar-resurrected_b_1712061.html
Grace, Pamela, New Approaches to Film Genre: Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic. Great Britain, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Hebron, Carol A., Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed: A Critical Examination of the Portrayal of Judas in Jesus Films (1902-2014). Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.
Meyer, Marvin W., Judas: The Definitive Collection of Gospels and Legends About the Infamous Apostle of Jesus. Harper Collins, 2009.
Miller, Scott, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 2011.