As is often the case around the time of Easter, a lot of Jesus movies are shown on television, and last Easter I decided to binge-watch a bunch of them. I like to compare the story of Jesus as told in the movies, one with another, and all of them with the Bible. My reasons for doing so are various.
One reason is rather silly, but I like it too much to give it up. When Jesus was born, the three wise men saw his star and decided to follow it. We often see paintings depicting their journey, with the star about twenty or thirty degrees above the horizon, and occasionally such a scene occurs in a movie. Oddly enough, even when the wise men are close enough to see at a distance the place where Jesus is lying in the manger, the star still marks off the same angle above the horizon. I keep hoping that one of these days they will make a movie in which we see the three wise men leaning way back on their camels, looking straight up, whereupon one of them says, “Well, the star is directly overhead, so I guess this barn must be the place.”
On a more serious note, I like to see how miracles are presented. While The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) is unabashed in its presentation of the miraculous, so that we see Jesus walking on water, the other movies downplay this element. In King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), for example, we do not see such miracles, but only hear about them. The recently produced Killing Jesus (2015) similarly eschews the outrageously miraculous, only showing Jesus curing people of bodily ailments, which might easily be thought of as conditions that were temporary anyway, or as hysterical conditions alleviated through the power of suggestion. In other words, the people who make movies know that many in the audience do not believe in miracles or even that Jesus was the Son of God. If they were to see a multitude being fed with a basket of loaves and fishes, they would snicker and begin to distance themselves from the movie. To appeal to those of a secular bent, the producers tend to keep the supernatural to a minimum, to tell the story as it might have happened even if there is no God.
In a similar vein, Jesus is no longer good enough for modern audiences, and the producers realize that they need to clean up his act. In fact, if you made a movie in which Jesus were shown saying some of the things he actually said in the Bible, audiences would get up from their seats and walk out, and many people would be calling for a boycott. For example, Matthew 5:32, “…whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” If someone were to put that in a Jesus movie, he would be taken out into the market place and stoned.
The most important part of Jesus’s rehabilitation is the purging of all references to Hell, damnation, and punishment of sinners. Once again, the great exception is The Gospel According to St. Matthew, in which Jesus speaks at length about people going to Hell and being punished for their sins, just as he does in the title Gospel. In The Big Fisherman (1959), when Jesus gives Peter the keys of the Kingdom, he makes a passing reference to Hell, as he does in Matthew 6:18, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” But in presenting this scene in The Greatest Story Ever Told and in Killing Jesus, the last part of that line is suppressed, innocuous though it is.
It occurred to me that the reason for bowdlerizing the Bible in this way was to make the movies suitable for children. But these same movies have no problem having other characters, such as John the Baptist, talk about lust, fornication, adultery, incest, and Hell. In The Greatest Story Ever Told, a man talks of sinners being punished by God, and even though Jesus says pretty much the same thing in the Bible, the movie Jesus rebukes him, saying God is all about forgiveness.
But while the rehabilitation of Jesus is understandable, owing to the need to bring his moral character in line with what is agreeable to modern thinking, as I watched these movies, I was struck by the parallel rehabilitation of Judas. The Bible gives us a straightforward reason as to why Judas betrayed Jesus. He did it for thirty pieces of silver. As a motive, money is sufficient to explain any crime, no matter how evil it may be. Not all crimes have money as a motive, and not all people can be moved to commit such crimes for money. But given that it is the motive for some evil deed, we have no trouble accepting it.
And yet, most of the movies I watched were at pains to give Judas another motive. Once again, the major exception was The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which told the story straight. The Passion of the Christ (2004) does so as well. But all others felt the need to conjure up another reason. In Killing Jesus, Judas is shown to be fearing for his life. And when he makes the deal, he is told that his life will be spared, to which he replies, “That must be why I do this.” The same motive, along with a couple of others, is given in the silent version of King of Kings (1927). On the intertitle, it says, “And so it was that Judas, bitter…panic stricken…desperate…all hope of earthly kingdom gone, betrayed his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.” At the bottom of the intertitle, there is a citation of chapter and verse: Matthew 26:14-15.
I didn’t remember that one, so I looked it up. In my Bible, at Matthew 26:14-15, it says, “Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.” I guess Cecil B. DeMille, who directed this movie, must have had a different translation.
Apparently, all this business about Judas being bitter, panic stricken, and filled with despair was DeMille’s substitute motive for what he really thought was going on, according to Doug McClelland in his book, The Unkindest Cuts: The Scissors and the Cinema:
[DeMille’s] feelings were close to shock when the Cinema people lopped off virtually all of the opening episodes containing the affair between Mary Magdalene and Judas. After this, neither Magdalene nor Judas made much sense to him as characters. He viewed it as unlikely that a man would betray a King for “a lousy 30 pieces of silver. There must have been a dame in the background,” he told us in a tone of finality. [page 59]
Cherchez la femme! Well, you can look for the woman, if you like, but you won’t find anything about Mary Magdalene and Judas having an affair in the Bible. And how would that explain anything, anyway? If Judas and Mary were already having sex, what would be the point in betraying Jesus? Well, I suppose we should not try to criticize a plot point that was cut out of the picture. We can simply content ourselves with adding sex to the fabricated motives that are attributed to Judas.
In the remake of King of Kings (1961), Judas is given a very different motive. According to the narrator, Judas betrays Jesus “to test and prove forever the divine power of the Messiah.” The idea, I suppose, is that when Jesus made short work of the Roman legion, laying them waste, everyone would see that he was the Son of God. The only problem with that is it’s not in the Bible.
In The Greatest Story Ever Told, no motive is given at all. Judas appears to be confused. He goes to the priests and says he will tell them where Jesus is, but they have to promise not to hurt him, because Jesus is a wonderful person, who never did an unkind thing in his life. Except for getting them to promise not to hurt Jesus, he asks for nothing in return. Later, we see the high priest counting out thirty pieces of silver, to which Judas says that he didn’t do it for the money. Needless to say, that is not in the Bible either.
In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Jesus conspires with Judas. He asks Judas to betray him so that he can bring salvation to all. This is actually an old theory, put forth in the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, thought to have been written in the second century, so apparently people have been making excuses for Judas for a long time.
Part of the reason may be due to the long struggle over free will versus predestination. On the one hand, Judas cannot be thought evil unless he acted of his own free will. On the other hand, it appears that Judas was destined to betray Jesus, suggesting that he was compelled. With too much free will, one gets the Pelagian heresy, in which Jesus’s death on the cross was unnecessary, because man is capable of salvation without help from God. Without free will, however, it would seem that man cannot be blamed for his sins. Some argue that Jesus simply knew in advance what Judas would do of his own free will, a theory known as single predestination. Others, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, deny that man has free will. In their theory, known as double predestination, God does not merely know what will happen, he ordained it from the beginning. But whether it was an act of free will or predestination, there is no reason to find another motive for Judas. Either he was greedy and betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver of his own free will; or God ordained in advance that Judas would betray Jesus for money, using Satan as his instrument (John 13:27).
The motive of money being equally compatible with free will and predestination, there must be another reason why so many movies, along with the books they are based on, feel the need to root around for other motives. Either Judas was afraid for his life, or he wanted to keep having sex with Mary Magdalene without any interference from Jesus, or he thought he could prove Jesus was the Messiah, or he was confused, or he was acting at the behest of Jesus. What they all have in common is that they exonerate Judas or mitigate his act of betrayal. Unlike Dante, who placed Judas in the frozen lake at the bottom of Hell, right next to Satan, we no longer want to think of Judas as evil.
The rehabilitation of Judas is a necessary corollary to the rehabilitation of Jesus. We cannot have a movie depicting a Jesus who never mentions Hell or eternal punishment, who is all about love and forgiveness, and still keep the same old Judas, who deserves to burn in the everlasting fire. In order to change Jesus into a better person than the one we find in the Gospels, we have to make Judas a better person as well.