Why did Judas Iscariot betray Jesus Christ? Many will of course say the betrayal was divinely ordained, and they’ll leave it at that. They won’t seek to understand historical context or human motive.
Not so with ABC’s upcoming movie “Judas” (Monday, March 8, 9-11 p.m. ET). This “interpretive dramatization” from the pen of Tom Fontana (“Oz”) and directorial vision of Charles Carner delves into the circumstances swirling around Judas and his relationship to his teacher.
When the end credits finally roll, there can be no mistake about the thrust of this interpretation: Jesus was indeed crucified as part of God’s plan, but that plan was carried out by agents of a conspiracy.
Yes, “Judas” is a conspiracy movie, and a highly engaging one at that.
The two-hour special actually begins with a young Judas witnessing his own father’s execution—by crucifixion. This brief backstory becomes critical as Judas, who grows up without a father, becomes intrigued by the Jesus he meets who constantly talks about his heavenly father.
Judas seeks out Jesus after he witnesses Jesus cleanse the temple of the moneychangers. The politically minded Judas believes that Jesus’ boldness will make him the right man for the all-important job of liberating the Jews from their Roman oppressors.
This context of Roman occupation of Judea is essential to the movie’s interpretation of events. Judas, played ably by Johnathon Schaech, is portrayed as a revolutionary who latches on to Jesus for political reasons. Schaech’s Judas is angry, confused, strong-willed and searching.
His search leads him to Jesus (Jonathan Scarfe), who tells him: “You’ve been searching your whole life for someone to believe in, for someone to believe in you. I am that someone. Follow me, and the misery that you have known will be replaced by something far greater.”
Jesus here is more human than other portrayals, but the approach works. Judas and Jesus scuffle in the dirt and exchange quick wits. Their bond is unique among the disciples, even as it’s troubling.
For example, the other disciples dislike Judas because he is cast as a “city boy,” whereas the others are generally portrayed as rural. Nevertheless, Jesus entrusts what little money the disciples have to Judas, who promptly suggests they start charging for miracles in order to pay for their lodgings.
That’s evidence of the fact that Judas just doesn’t get it when it comes to Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. Time and again, Judas fails to understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship, preferring instead to imagine a Jesus whose kingdom will displace the Romans here and now.
The tension between Romans and Jews is highlighted and is especially dramatized by the relationship between Pontius Pilate (Tim Matheson of “West Wing”) and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Bob Gunton of “Shawshank Redemption”).
Pilate and Caiaphas exist in an uneasy alliance, each trying to manage an increasingly chaotic situation where people like John the Baptist have inflamed crowds and seemingly given newcomers like Jesus license to preach even more subversive messages.
Caiaphas is shown here as Judas’ manipulator, trying to get Judas to make Jesus “tone down the rhetoric,” for Caiaphas, like Judas, believes Jesus can help Jewish causes if only he’ll play by the rules, so to speak. Caiaphas believes the differences between Jesus and the Jewish leadership are just “semantics.”
Nevertheless, the high priest warns Judas that if Jesus “decides to continue attacking traditional values, he’ll end up like his cousin,” meaning John the Baptist.
The political machinations are thus set in motion, with various figures trying to manipulate others for selfish ends. The movie ticks right along, adequately showing the “outlandishness” of Jesus’ claims and why they would have created a firestorm leading to his execution.
The filmmakers build the conspiracy against Jesus from the ground up. It includes fickle crowds, traditional leaders and a misguided Judas—not to mention a Claudia who tells her husband Pilate, “I think you need to fix it so that the Jews themselves are held responsible.”
“Judas” is, no doubt, an interpretation, and it is being marketed as such. Judas’ story as presented in the Gospels is full of gaps, and the filmmakers have filled them in. The result, however, is a quickly paced foray into the circumstances that led a man not only to betray a friend and teacher, but then to take his own life in despair.
And interpretations aside, when the movie reaches its sober conclusion, audiences will be prompted to treat Judas as his savior would have wished.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Director: Charles Carner
Writer: Tom Fontana
Cast: Judas: Johnathon Schaech; Jesus: Jonathan Scarfe; Caiaphas: Bob Gunton; Pilate: Tim Matheson.
Click here for a “Judas” study guide by Paulist President Frank Desiderio.
Read our interview with director Charles Carner.
Read our interview with Frank Desiderio.