Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #11

Re: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

I’m fascinated by your interpretation of The Last Temptation of Christ. Whilst recognising the sometimes blasphemous nature of the film, I can’t help but think you are somewhat wrong about Judas.

The betrayal of Christ is a necessity and was known to Jesus in advance. Judas may have been ostensibly motivated by money. However, his actions are crucial and therefore must in some way have had the tacit approval of Christ.

The crucifixion was not possible without Judas and while it may have hurt Christ to be betrayed, it was — as I said — necessary. Does that not leave you — like me — with some doubt about Judas and his real motivations?

I’m bemused and gratified by the interest in my Last Temptation essay thanks to Roger Ebert’s attention. That essay came fairly early in my career, and was written primarily for myself as an exercise in the approach to film writing that I wanted to take. Looking back, there are a few things I would change, but I think the piece still basically sums up my take on the film.

The question of Judas’s motivation, whether considered historically, narratively or theologically, is admittedly a thorny one. Certainly thirty pieces of silver was not exactly a fortune, so it seems unlikely that Judas was nothing more than an opportunist motivated by greed. For that matter, I’m sure greed-motivated opportunists had better career options in first-century Israel than becoming itinerant disciples of homeless prophets.

The New Testament offers very little information about Judas Iscariot. The Gospels do tell us that he approached the chief priests and asked what they would give him to betray them, and the price of thirty pieces of silver (so Matthew tells us) is set beforehand. (This is contradicted by the depiction in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, in which Judas never asks for money and a fictional “Zerah” offers him the money only after the fact, as an afterthought.) We also read that Judas felt remorse when he saw Jesus condemned, leading to his suicide.

Outside the passion narrative, Judas figures in only one story, the Johannine account in which Judas criticizes Mary of Bethany for anointing Jesus’ feet with costly ointment, which (Judas objected) could have been sold and the money given to the poor — and the evangelist adds that Judas’ real motivation was not that he cared about the poor, but that he was a thief who held the disciples’ common money box and stole from it.

This is obviously not a flattering picture, but neither is it enough data to build up any sort of psychological profile of Judas, or to say what he thought he was doing when he betrayed Jesus. From a dramatic point of view, therefore, I’m open to a wide range of speculative possibilities. Interesting 20th-century takes on Judas include Taylor Caldwell’s I, Judas and Dorothy Sayers’s The Man Born to be King.

However, the Gospels do offer two significant theological interpretations of Judas’s actions. First, Luke’s Gospel tells us that “Satan entered into Judas,” and it was then that he went to the chief priests to negotiate Jesus betrayal (Luke 22:3-6). That still doesn’t tell us what Judas thought he was doing, but we are told that it was Satan’s prompting, not God’s, that set him on that course.

Also, in Mark’s Gospel, after predicting his betrayal by one of the twelve, Jesus adds, “For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” This is often thought to be one of the strongest indication in all of scripture of the perdition of any particular person. It is hard to explain why Jesus would say “It would be better if he had not been born” if Judas had not by his actions completely rejected God.

The traditional, orthodox Christian interpretation of the role of Judas in Jesus’ passion is this: Judas’ actions were sinful and wrong, but God used his rebellion to accomplish His own ends, as He works in all things for the good, from the sin of Adam and Eve to Pharaoh’s hardness of heart regarding the Hebrews to the invading armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians. Just because Judas’ actions led to our redemption does not mean God approved of what he did. Presumably, had he repented beforehand and refused to betray Jesus, God could have found another way to deliver Jesus to His enemies.

The significance of the portrayal of Judas in Last Temptation seems to me to rest in part on the development of the figure of Judas in post-New Testament tradition.

On the one hand, orthodox Christian tradition increasingly demonized Judas to ever more grotesque degrees. For example, Papias in the second century describes Judas’s repulsive obesity, and Dante’s Inferno depicts Judas as history’s single greatest sinner and the damned soul in the lowest, most central, most abysmal circle of hell, forever chewed in the front mouth of Satan himself.

On the other hand, Gnostic tradition apparently began the exoneration of Judas in the second century with the so-called “Gospel of Judas.” This text has been thought to depict Jesus and Judas as Gnostic illuminati who arrange Jesus’ “betrayal” beforehand, though this interpretation has apparently been challenged.

At any rate, the heroic, prophetic depiction of Judas as a guiding voice in Jesus’ mission seems to me to evoke the same sort of subversive approach to the canonical account. Our age is skeptical not only of authority, but of traditional notions of right and wrong. Archetypal figures of evil, from the Wicked Witch of the West to Lucifer himself, are similarly reinterpreted as misunderstood or misrepresented by the dominant paradigm, rather than truly evil (cf. Wicked, His Dark Materials). The exoneration of Judas seems to me of a piece with this subversion of the traditional iconography of good and evil.

Link to this entry

Coming Soon

Recently Added

In Theaters – Latest

In Theaters – All