Superstar’s Judas: Larger Than Life

As we were reminded in its live TV performance on Easter Sunday, Judas is the real star of the show Jesus Christ Superstar, the title notwithstanding.  His portrayal in the show is tied inextricably to the Christology of its composers, for whom Judas is their preeminent spokesman. The historical Judas is a far more complicated character.

Patheos Media Library.

My memories of Superstar go back to just after its debut release on vinyl in late 1970. I was searching for Christ, like the person dying of thirst who will drink from any mud puddle. I listened to Superstar over and over again, hoping that I might find Jesus or get closer to him. What I did not notice or realize until I came to faith was that Superstar intends to present a purely human Jesus who is thoroughly confused about his mission, who meant well in what he started out to do, but who got in too deep for his own good.

Out of all the classic criteria of authenticity used to identify historical bedrock in the life of Jesus, the one criterion that Superstar gets right is the criterion of rejection: what explains why Jesus was crucified? While the show rejects such claims, Superstar correctly identifies all this talk of Jesus being God as the reason that prompted those in power to seek his death.

Enter Superstar’s Judas. He is the voice of reason. Everything was fine, he says, until Jesus lets the adoration of the crowds get to his head. Now, Jesus is on a collision course with disaster. When Judas can’t get Jesus to fix the problem, he turns Jesus over to the authorities to fix it. Meanwhile, Jesus wrestles with God, feeling trapped into a death that he questions will do any good, a stretch beyond the actual struggle of Jesus recorded in the Garden of Gethsemane (see my post http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tomhobson/2018/03/showdown-in-the-garden-of-gethsemane/).

Superstar’s Judas freaks out when he sees the beaten, bloody Jesus. (In Matthew 27:3-5, he does so much earlier, after the Jewish verdict, but before Jesus goes before Pilate or is ever scourged.) But then Judas screams that he has been used as a tool by God and blames God for murdering him. After Judas hangs himself, he then reappears from the dead to sing the hit theme song, where Judas moans that Jesus would have managed better if he’d had it planned: “Why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?”, which actually would not have been in his power to choose if he were purely human.

Finally, on behalf of the composers (who probably genuinely want to know), Judas asks Jesus, “Buddha, is he where it’s at? Is he where you are?” – a question that presumes that Jesus is dead and gone forever, and that Judas is not where Jesus is.  Superstar’s composers give us a very clear Christology, but a Christ who has no power to save anyone, a truly unfortunate figure.

The historical Judas is a character who is both more sober and yet much harder to understand than the larger-than-life quasi-hero in Superstar. Judas’ historicity is undeniable. His presence in the Gospels fits the criterion of multiple independent sources, and particularly the criterion of embarrassment. Why would the Gospels invent Jesus choosing a man as one of his twelve disciples who betrays him to his killers?

But scholars have puzzled over why Judas did what he did, with no solid conclusions. It has been suggested that Judas is a disappointed Zealot who finally figures out that Jesus is not going to fight the Romans, and decides he can at least make money on the deal.  A few have guessed that Judas is trying to put Jesus in a position where he is forced to act against the Romans. William Klassen argues in his book Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? that Judas was trying to arrange a place where Jesus could settle his differences with the authorities, a well-meaning attempt based on a horrible misjudgment on Judas’ part.

None of these possibilities makes much sense. I suggest a paranormal possibility to which the Gospels themselves point: “Satan entered into him.” (So John 13:27. See also Luke 22:3, John 13:2.) If one agrees with Scott Peck’s case in People of the Lie for the rare existence of demon possession, then one can argue that Judas would be a convincing case where an already flawed individual can be driven by supernatural forces to actions that otherwise do not make sense.

But as was pointed out in my adult class on the historical Jesus, ideology alone can drive zealots to actions that do not make sense. We lack proof that Judas was a Zealot, but it is possible that disenchantment of some kind could have been galvanized by direct influence of the Evil One to prompt Judas to betray Jesus.

Unlike Peter, Judas was directly responsible for Jesus’ death.  Raymond Brown demonstrates Jewish horror toward the shedding of innocent blood in his book The Death of the Messiah. He cites the Protevangelium (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/infancyjames-roberts.html), an early Christian legend where Joseph says that if he had charged Mary with adultery, he would “have given over innocent blood to the sentence of death.”  Brown writes, “Thus Judas has done something so heinous that no ordinary repentance affects it…Judas has come to the chief priests…seeking a form of absolution for his sin.  He has not sought out Jesus, who had forgiven many sinners; and thus one may suspect that…his remorse has not really meant belief.”

Jesus Christ Superstar portrays Jesus as the messed-up victim of his own success, and Judas as the voice of reason who was carjacked by God into delivering him to death. The historical bedrock preserved in the Bible reveals otherwise. Here, we find a Jesus who knows who he is and who controls events around him, while we find a messed-up Judas who ends up a victim of his own tragic miscalculation. How we see Jesus, determines how we see everyone else.


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