The Celluloid Savior
Religious Studies 407

Prof. Stephenson Humphries-Brooks

Spring 1997
Student Project


Judas and the Betrayal of Jesus:
Evolving Attributions in History and Film

Christopher Leahy

16 May 1997

I am heavily indebted to the work of William Klassen for the discussion of Judas in the Gospels presented here. The first part of this paper is drawn primarily from his book,

Judas: Friend or Foe of Jesus.

The discussion of film relative to the Gospels would not have been possible without generous consultation with this scholarly work.


I am also indebted to class discussions with and the work in progress (The Celluloid Savior) by Stephenson Humphries-Brooks, Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York.

Master, I am confused.
You said that when an enemy strikes us
we should turn the other cheek.
I can't accept that.
Only an angel could do that - or a dog.

I am neither.

Judas, The Last Temptation of Christ

The name of Judas has achieved widespread value as a symbol. At different times, Judas has been portrayed as the epitome of evil in the form of hypocrisy, greed, unfaithfulness, ingratitude, and, above all, betrayal.1 It is possible to trace the evolution of the character of Judas over the course of the four Gospels. The early Gospel writers catered their stories to different audiences and communities with particular needs. As time passed in the first century of the common era, the character of Judas evolved in response to those factors and the needs of the early church. Eventually, Judas became much more of a character than a man in history.

The depiction of a character is a sort of living support for different motives. Once the Gospel writers began to use their artistic license to meld Judas into a more useful and illustrative character with unique motives, the reputation of this apostle was never the same again. The stigmatized Judas character exceeded the bounds of religion and became a cultural, philosophical, and moral entity all its own. For centuries, the world view of the betrayal and death of Jesus crystallized around the idea of Judas' purely evil deed. Only in recent years has scholarship prompted reconsideration of the true nature of Judas and his role in the arrest and execution of Jesus Christ.

There has been an interesting exploration of the story and nature of Jesus' betrayal in twentieth century film. Film makers have examined and addressed the character of Judas and the act of betrayal through both biographical and allusional stories of Jesus figures. The concept of betrayal has proved as alluring for modern storytellers as it did for ancient evangelists. Indeed, for many contemporary film makers the betrayal has become more of a centerpiece for the Jesus story than the earthly ministry - undoubtedly, in part, because it is good drama. The evolution of Judas' betrayal has made it into a compelling story. Directors can evoke more profound emotional responses from their audience by involving their minds and feelings in a tale of betrayal; the sacrifice of Jesus becomes much more poignant if we posit a traitor as part of the scene.2 By making the audience endure the betrayal and participate in the result, they become quickly and deeply involved in a powerful story. Betrayal makes for compelling characters as well as vibrant stories because there can be no betrayal without friendship. The audience must first watch and feel some level and friendship and trust develop between the Jesus figure and the symbol(s) of betrayal -- the betrayal of a friend is an experience with which almost all viewers can identify.

We can observe the use of the basic dramatic element of Jesus' betrayal as a central focus in contemporary films. Furthermore, we can trace a clear shift in the attribution of that betrayal across a chronological series of films. Much like the characterizations of Judas and Jesus' betrayal evolved alongside with the development of the early church, they have also devolved along with the development of modern cinema. This study indicates that film makers have moved away from the Judas myth and refocused blame for the Jesus figure's downfall on contemporary concerns. An examination of the Gospels provides a clear understanding of the transformation of Judas into the evil betrayer. A complementary analysis of a series of films about a Jesus figure reveals a definitive trend of redistributing blame for Jesus' betrayal away from a specific Judas figure towards more far-reaching symbols of religion and society. This confirms the assertion that it is the tendency of each social epoch to characterize particular characters' qualities and actions in light of standards and sentiments peculiar to the times.3

The Gospel of Mark says very little about Judas and attributes no particular motives for his actions.4 In fact, Judas is mentioned by name only three times in the entire work. Mark's Gospel was most likely the first to be completed, and this treatment of Judas indicates the very early church may have had little interest in Judas' role in the arrest of Jesus. In fact, scholars indicate that the earliest Christians were more interested in the idea that what happened with Jesus was willed by God and directed solely by divine force.5 In the Gospel of Matthew, a more ruthless Judas carries out his act, seeks repentance by trying to return the money, throws it down in the temple, and goes out and hangs himself.6 By describing Judas' remorse and his efforts to make restitution, Matthew's depiction of Jesus was most likely designed as an example to the Matthean community.

Matthew's Judas is a transgressor which is openly exposed. But a direct message is implied when the author has Jesus refer to Judas as 'friend' in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is evident that there is still hope at this point for the transgressor should he have the courage to seek God's mercy, a point that would not go unnoticed by the audience. Writing much later about the nature of Judas as revealed by Matthew, St. Augustine told his community that this Judas killed himself because he despaired of God's mercy and "no light shown in his heart to make him hurry for pardon from the one he had betrayed."7 This cowardly character knew he had violated the rules of God's community (on earth) and despaired of the result. When the two messages are united, a good picture of the possibility of redemption emerges. In Matthew, Judas fell short of that goal when he secured the noose.

While Matthew suggests that Judas betrayed Jesus because of greed, the author of the Gospel of Luke goes considerably beyond that and attributes it to the entrance of Satan into Judas.8 Judas acts under the direction of Satan and no longer seeks retribution or displays remorse. He reinforces the danger of falling prey to Satan to his audience by having Judas take part in the Last Supper after Satan enters into him. By doing so, Luke draws attention to the dangers of Satan entering into the very innermost groups of believers. In addition, Luke also portrays Judas as acting in partnership with the upper levels of authority in Judaism.9 His intention is clear -- he knits together Judas' now purely evil deed with that of the Jewish people through the actions of their leaders.

Both this characterization and further disparagement in the Gospel of John may have been the authors' response to the increasing need to combat 'evil' within new religious communities, and to the Jewish rejection of Christians which began to occur after 70 CE.10 Indeed, by the time Acts was complete, the new religious text blamed the Jews ("You have betrayed and murdered him") on the same level as the evil Judas. By the time the fourth Gospel was written, Judas was no longer a person. He had become a character in a morality play.11 Judas is unsparingly criticized in John. He emerges as the most blatant and blackest example of disloyalty. In John's view, Judas is chosen to be the traitor and as such becomes the son of perdition.12 As such a representation of evil, he has very little interaction with Jesus throughout the story. Judas' total darkness does not touch Jesus' Johannine light.

When the Gospels were finished, fundamentally all that remained of Judas was a bogey.13 He had become a man who fought under the leadership of Satan, and contemporary authors began to develop a myriad of new, evil motives for his actions. Soon those motives were imputed to all who defected from the church or were classified as heretics.14 In this way, the character of Judas was used as a negative moral model by the early church.15 The use of this character is demonstrated in a statement by a prominent leader,

"I have only one objective and one wish: to awaken in you such a revulsion for the man and Apostle Judas that once and for all you make the holy resolve to kill in yourselves every Judas spirit, destroy every similarity with the Judas mentality, to hate the soul of Judas."16

Religious leaders were so intent to fully develop this evil Judas persona that they did not hesitate to use supernatural elements of Satanic involvement to account for his actions. Both the devil and God were at work in Jesus' betrayal when all was said and done.17 Yet there were inherent problems with this character model. All early sources agreed that Judas did nothing until Jesus told him to do it, and it was consistently affirmed that the betrayal of Jesus was "according to scriptures," the will of God. In addition, there is no recorded saying of Jesus criticizing Judas or considering what he was doing to be a sin.18 Final editors of the Gospels found it very difficult to rationalize this with the character of Judas they had crafted over time, and so remained on a steady bent to ascribe dark motives to Judas' actions. Because of these contradictions, the evolution of Judas from irrelevancy to satanic evil betrayer left open the question of whether or not the act of betrayal was meant to further God's rule or to subvert it.19 This issue will become the locus of debate in the cinematic exploration of betrayal.

Cecil B. DeMille's groundbreaking King of Kings is the first major film production of the Jesus story. This black and white, silent film was released to the public in 1927. The cast was made up of silent film regulars. The story focuses on three major characters: Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene. At the outset of the film, it is implied that Judas and Magdalene are involved, but that Judas has left the court to follow Jesus. Judas is depicted as a good looking, vain man. His character is always soft-lit by DeMille, and he is dressed in good clothes. DeMille's Judas is an extension of Matthew's greedy transgressor.

He is introduced to us as one of the apostles and described as:

Narrator: Judas the ambitious, who joined the Disciples in the belief that Jesus would be the nation's King, and reward him with honor and high office.20

DeMille has added a degree of political as well as financial greed. Judas immediately reinforces this negative image by confiding to Peter,

Judas: Would he but shun the poor and heal the rich we could straightaway make him King - with me at his right hand!21

This Judas obviously has no sympathy or time for Jesus' earthly ministry and is only concerned with personal aggrandizement. Despite these greedy desires, the thought of betraying Jesus does not enter Judas' mind until after Jesus cleanses the temple. High Priest Caiaphas, painted in a particularly poor light, threatens Judas:

Caiaphas: Hearken thou, King Maker.
Thou shalt pay with thy life for this.22

Jesus then turns to Judas, who is pictured holding a crown, and confides:

Jesus: My Kingdom is not of this world.23

The combination of these two remarks leaves Judas shaken and afraid. He drops the crown to the ground. As events unfold, DeMille informs us:

Narrator: And so it was that Judas, bitter...panic-stricken...desperate...all hope of earthly kingdom gone, betrayed his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.24

DeMille goes to lengths to depict Judas as a cornered rat losing his grip on reality as his hopes disintegrate. We can see how DeMille shapes this impression by examining the actual passage from Matthew on which DeMille bases the aforementioned description of Judas' betrayal. The screen cites Matthew 26:14-15. But the actual reading of those verses is "Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, 'What will you give me if I deliver him to you.' And they paid him thirty pieces of silver."25 As we can see, DeMille's entire description of Judas' emotional state is fabricated to embellish the character. Each time Judas is shown between the betrayal and the end of the film he appears more and more disheveled and less sane. By the time of Jesus' beating, Judas has become totally unraveled. His last words mirror the Matthean text and verbalize recognition of the transgression:

Judas: I have sinned in that I have betrayed innocent blood.26

He hangs himself and his body falls into the fiery pit with DeMille's other villains (Jews, soldiers) after Jesus dies. This Judas is drawn heavily from the Gospel of Matthew. However, his greed and ambition are exaggerated to the point of insanity. DeMille's license with the Matthean text demonstrates how easily the Judas character can be manipulated into a monster.

We can follow the transition from Matthean to Lukan/Johannine models by examining the biographical film The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Director George Stevens' epic moves the Jesus story to the heroic American West. This film is plagued by questionable casting and acting, as well as mysterious plot decisions that cloud Stevens' vision. Despite a myriad of problems, it is still worthwhile to consider Stevens' characterization, as it provides a decent example of a Judas acting under the influence of Satan. This Judas, played by David McCallum, is a well-groomed, well-dressed, accented male among a group of relatively swarthy disciples. While McCallum lends very little energy to the role, he is effective at conveying the nervous, overwrought condition that descends upon Judas prior to the entry into Jerusalem. Stevens develops tension between Jesus and Judas through their argument over the expensive oil; their relationship is strained.

Before the Last Supper begins, we see Judas looking nervous and disturbed. He slips out of the house, passing Jesus' entourage. As he walks along the street, he comes to a point where the screen is evenly divided down the middle between light and dark shadow. He walks into the dark and collides with Donald Pleasance's Satan character. Their eyes meet, and Judas hurries away. The implication is clear - Satan has entered into Judas and controls his actions. Judas goes straight to the temple and offers to give Jesus up to Caiaphas. At this point, Stevens becomes ambiguous about his character. Judas struggles to profess his friendship with Jesus, describing him as:

Judas: The purest and kindest man I have ever known...his heart is so gentle. Old people worship him. Children adore him...I love him.27

This scene suggests that Judas is struggling with the act he must complete under Satan's influence. While this is to the character's credit, he quickly folds and commits the stereotypical betrayal. He returns to the Last Supper, where Jesus locks eyes with him and commands him:

Jesus: Do quickly what you have to do.28

The use of the word 'have' implies that at this point Jesus is aware of the influence of Satan in Judas. Stevens has Judas throw himself into the temple fires without further explanation as Jesus is crucified. Although the ambiguity of this film leaves the audience in some confusion over Judas' intentions, Stevens does assert the presence of Satan acting through Judas to be the direct cause of the betrayal. In this way he echoes the later Gospels and the early church. It is perhaps not a surprise that this glorified, traditional biographical film adopts the Satanic Judas of yore as its villain.

From this point on, we observe a dramatic devolution of the attribution of responsibility for Jesus' betrayal. This is first seen in the controversial musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), directed for the screen by Norman Jewison. It becomes immediately clear to the audience that particular attention will be drawn to Judas. He is the only major role to be cast with an African-American actor, and the film begins with Judas prominently singing the opening song. In that song he identifies himself as Jesus' "right-hand man" and foreshadows the plot:

Judas: I can see where we all will soon be/

Remember I want us to live/

Listen to the warning I give.29

Soon after, Jewison gives the audience a quick but telling moment in which Jesus touches Judas on the arm and locks eyes with him:

Jesus: Love me while you still have me/

You'll be lost when I'm gone.30

The look they share implies some shared knowledge between them of what will occur. Judas echoes throughout the film that things have gotten 'out of control'; Judas has no control over his role in the impending betrayal. He acts because he is forced to by Jesus/God.

When he arrives to speak with the high priest, Judas talks about his role:

Judas: I have no thought at all about my own reward/

Really didn't come here of my own accord/

Just don't say I'm damned for all time."31

He drives the point home:

Judas: Jesus wouldn't mind that I was here with you.32

The picture begins to clear. Judas is doing what Jesus wants -- he has no choice in the matter. After that meeting, Jesus and Judas meet in a grove. Judas still cannot understand his responsibility. He does not think it is the right way to proceed:

Judas: The saddest cut of all/

Someone had to turn you in.33

Despite this doubt, as Judas leaves he is chased on his way to betray Jesus by a herd of lambs -- symbolically urged on by God.

After Jesus is arrested, Judas starts to rebel against his role in the betrayal. He shouts at God:

Judas: I'd save him if I could/

I only did what you wanted me to.34

The point is stressed by Judas' cry before his suicide:

Judas: God, I've been used/

I'll never know why you chose me for your crime.35

When he comes back as an angel for the climactic musical number, he conveys to the audience his confusion about the entire event -- questions echoed by the chorus:

Judas: I only want to know/Don't you get me wrong/

Who are you/

What did you sacrifice.36

He wants to discover what it was, after all his pain, that he helped Jesus/God accomplish. As the cast boards the bus at the conclusion, Judas' actor is the last to board, and gives a lingering glance out to the scene of Jesus' death. His character has played a part a mystery of faith. Jewison's Superstar marks the first time a major film has depicted Judas as an necessary agent of Jesus or God in the plan for Christ's sacrifice. He is an unwilling and unhappy agent, but nonetheless on the side of good.

Martin Scorcese pushes this idea much further in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Not only is Judas an integral part of God's plan, but he now becomes a fully informed and responsible participant. Scorcese's Judas, played with understated but real emotion by Harvey Keitel, becomes Jesus' virtual partner in the inexorable journey to the cross. In the opening scene, it is Judas who must force a stagnant Jesus out of complacency and into self-discovery by declaring:

Judas: No more crosses -- we are ready.37

His conversations with Judas over time make the nature and importance of Judas' role clear. Early on, when Judas receives orders to kill Jesus from the Zealots, his talk with a still-unsure Jesus foreshadows later events:

Jesus: What you want, I want. That's why he brought us together. It's God's plan.

Judas: You want me to kill you, that's God's plan?

Jesus: You are the strongest of all my friends.38

After struggling through much of his ministry without guidance, Jesus is finally enlightened by God about the purpose of his mission. He converses with Judas plainly about his death:

Judas: If you are the messiah, why do you have to die? Every day you have a different plan. First it is love, then the ax, and now you have to die. What good could that do? After you die on the cross, what happens then?

Jesus: I come back to judge the living and the dead.

Judas: I don't believe you.

Jesus: You don't have to.39

Later, Jesus informs Judas he has no choice but to help him die according to God's plan:

Jesus: I wish there was another way but I'm sorry, there isn't. I have to die on the cross.

Judas: I won't let you die.

Jesus: You have no choice and neither do I.40

When the time comes for Judas to act, he balks. Jesus must convince him that God is at work.

Jesus: I am the sacrifice. Without you there can be no redemption. You must keep your promise.

You must kill me.

Judas: If that is what God wants, let God do it. I won't.

Jesus: He will do it - through you.41

Judas breaks down and cries. Jesus responds with one of the film's most powerful statements -- a profound characterization of the emotions behind betrayal:

Jesus: God gave me the easier job - to be crucified.

Judas: If you were me could you betray your master?

Jesus: No.42

Finally, Judas complies with Jesus' request and brings the soldiers to Gethsemane. After the crucifixion, Judas disappears while Jesus lives out his family life fantasy. When Jesus becomes complacent for the second time in the film, it is up to Scorcese's Judas to once again drive him forward to the completion of his mission on earth. Judas' diatribe at the bedside of the elderly Jesus reveals not only the complicity of Jesus/God in Judas' act, but the deep emotional effort and pain the betrayal caused in Judas' heart and mind:

Judas: Your place was on the cross. That's where God put you. We did what we were supposed to do - you didn't. You broke my heart. Sometimes I curse the day I met you.

Jesus: Judas, you don't understand...

Judas: Do you remember?

You held me in your arms and you begged me...betray me, betray me. I have to die - I am the lamb, you said, death is the door. Help me through that door...and I loved you so much I went and betrayed you.

If you die this way there is no sacrifice, no salvation.43

Judas has come full circle. Gone is the Satanic nemesis of Jesus Christ, the profound evil betrayer of good. He is now a confederate of God and Jesus -- the vital element in a master plan. He facilitates the salvation of the world by loving Jesus enough to obey his request. This Judas fights the will of God out of love for Jesus until it is clear to him there is but one route for the savior. Scorcese's portrayal of Judas and Jesus and the dramatic interactions written by book author Nikos Kazantzakos bring Judas into the light of friend of Jesus and servant of God. This is a picture of Judas never before encountered in film (and rarely anywhere but the upper echelons of scholarship); this affront to the traditional characterization of Judas provoked intense controversy and sparked world-wide protest. It also garnered much critical acclaim. This film became a benchmark in modern character study -- the inimitable Judas had been transformed from evil personified to a good man obeying God.

Allusional films of the later twentieth century seize upon this movement and continue the devolution of blame away from the Judas character. Ken Russell takes the first steps towards this end with his unique film interpretation of the Who's rock opera Tommy (1975). Russell's movie contains a dual betrayal of the Jesus figure (Tommy). These betrayals take place at the beginning of the film - when Tommy is an impressionable child, and throughout the second half of the film - when Tommy is a free adult on his mission.

At the start of the film, the character of Uncle of Frank acts as a betrayer by sleeping with Tommy's mother and killing his birth father. The murder is vital to our understanding of Uncle Frank's role. It seems clear the Tommy's birth father is Russell's symbol for God. This is implied in many signs and symbols, including the father's descent from the sun that opens the film. Viewing the father as a symbol for God, Uncle Frank symbolically affronts God by his sinful act. Tommy's mother reinforces our understanding of this betrayal by foreshadowing Tommy's ultimate doom:

Mother: How can he be saved/

From the eternal grave?44

While Russell uses this symbolic Judas to set the plot in motion, Uncle Frank is pointedly not at the center of Tommy's betrayal for the bulk of the film. After giving his nod to Judas, the director presents a careful and deliberate series of scenes that depict the real forces behind Tommy's betrayal -- specific ills and sins of the contemporary world. It is modern society, with all its corrupt social elements, that betrays Tommy and dooms his ministry. One at a time, through brilliant use of color and lyrics, we are introduced to characters that represent these evils. The Acid Queen, Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie, Tommy's mother, the Doctor, the Pinball Wizard, and the Preacher each bear part of the burden of Tommy's betrayal. They symbolize drugs, physical abuse, depravity, materialism, fame, excess, greed, and lust -- the corrupt and negative facets of modern culture.

The overpowering effect of these sins is the collective betrayal of Tommy by the society that traps his followers. When Tommy opens his camp near the end of the film, the people have the most fervor for all the materialism and greed displayed by the vendors outside the walls. They cannot follow Tommy's restrictive rules. They are not satisfied without the excesses of their world. Finally, his followers revolt against the 'new order' Tommy tries to establish:

Crowd: We're not gonna take it/

Never did and never will/

Don't want no religion now/

Not as far as we can tell.45

Russell's story shifts the attribution of betrayal to a markedly broader plane. Although the vestiges of a Judas are used to jump-start the story, the real betrayal is caused by sweeping societal forces that dominate the hearts and minds of the culture. Those forces find expression not through one character, but many. All of the participants in Russell's society bear some responsibility for Tommy's betrayal.

Canadian director Denis Arcand attributes responsibility for the Jesus figure's betrayal to larger elements of religion and society much more directly. In Jesus of Montreal (1989), Arcand's Jesus figure, Daniel, is betrayed by the elements of society he is particularly exposed to while directing a modern version of the Passion play -- specifically, the Catholic church that sponsors the play and the entertainment world that receives it. The entertainment business of Arcand's society has been subjugated to the will of commercial interests. Actors are judged based on appearance rather than talent. They are forced to degrade themselves for parts in advertisements instead of theatre.

The prominence of advertising and the materialism of modern society combine to betray the honest desire of our Jesus figure to engender respect for legitimate artistic effort. This is reflected in the commercial audition scene in which Muriel is forced to degrade herself for a role that highlights the very commercialization that is dragging her world down. The words of the commercial song drive home the point:

Actors: The young crowd's here/

We worship beer/

Nothings sacred to you but a good glass of brew.46

In addition to highlighting the ludicrous extent to which commercialism and popular, material culture have usurped art, this scene also provides a good segue for Arcand into his major source of betrayal -- the Catholic Church.

Arcand attacks the church directly through the representative characters of the priest and his superiors. He highlights the dependence of the priest on the very Church he pledged to support. The priest laments:

Priest: If I sent my resignation to Rome, they'd give me a pair of pants, a shirt, a jacket, and $50 cash.

That's it, bye-bye.47

At the outset the Church is thus depicted as a burden on the priests' back, a keeper he cannot escape and which affords him no freedom. In a well-written, ironic exchange with Daniel, that lack of freedom is painfully exposed:

Priest: I once tried to put on Brecht's Galileo at the Seminary. Imagine the scandal?

Daniel: They wore you down in the end?

Priest: It's understandable.

Institutions live longer than individuals.48

The combined implication here is not just that the Church has betrayed the priest (who joined the church because he loved theatre), but that it also betrayed Jesus, symbolized by Daniel, as well. This idea is reinforced by the dialogue in the opening scene of Daniel's Passion play:

Pilate: In Nazareth you are an outcast.

Here in Jerusalem the establishment opposes you.

How did you turn them against you?

Jesus: They hate me for no reason...

simply because I revealed the truth.49

The context of this exchange suggests the 'establishment' is the church and 'you' is both Daniel the actor and Jesus the figure. This powerful implication - that the Catholic Church has turned away from Jesus' true ideals - propels the story forward to inevitable confrontation between the church elders and Daniel. The priest confronts Daniel:

Priest: I asked for you to freshen up a play that has worked for 40 years. I didn't ask for this.50

The 'this' he refers to are the questions raised, both in the priests mind and for public view, about the Church and Jesus.

In the climactic confrontation between Daniel and the Church leaders, Daniel, as Jesus in the play, breaks from his script and lambastes the priests:

Jesus: Beware of priests who desire to walk in long robes and love greetings in the markets, the highest seats in the temples, the best rooms at feasts...

who devour women's houses, pretending prayer.

They shall receive a greater damnation.51

Arcand's meaning is clear. The same factors which have perverted the entertainment world have derailed the Catholic Church. The Church is more focused on itself than on Jesus, much like the entertainment world is more focused on money than art. The Church has betrayed the memory of Jesus by becoming more about the institution than the individual, much like the art world has become more about the project than the actor. Arcand makes powerful statements about the nature of the modern Church by painting it as the betrayer of Daniel/Jesus. He reiterates that point at the end of the film when Daniel is turned away by Catholic hospitals and can only find help at the Jewish medical center. The role reversal is complete. The modern Catholic Church has become the Jewish establishment of the time of Christ. They are responsible for betraying Jesus and for his representative death in the modern world.

Francis Ford Coppola provides the final step in the devolution of responsibility away from Judas. In his Bram Stoker's Dracula (1993), the legendary director goes beyond Tommy's society and Arcand's Church and, in an interesting character reversal, depicts God as the betrayer of the prince. Dracula is a Jesus counterpart, forced to enter the world of evil because of God's betrayal. That betrayal unfolds in the opening scenes of the film that are not present in the Stoker's novel and are clearly inserted by Coppola for this purpose.

Dracula is a prince fighting infidel Turks for the glory of God and his Church. At the end of his greatest battle, the servant speaks to his master:

Dracula: God be praised. I am victorious.52

But the audience knows that, deceived by a false message, his true love Elizabeta has taken her own life in despair of his supposed death. Upon his return, Dracula is informed of her damnation:

Priest: She is damned. Her soul cannot be saved.

It is God's law.53

Not only did God betray his most dedicated soldier by allowing his wife to die, but his laws damn her soul to hell; Dracula and his love can never be reunited. Dracula rages against this betrayal and by doing so dooms himself to eternal evil. He wails:

Dracula: Is this my reward for defending God's church?

I renounce God. I shall rise from my own death to avenge hers with all the powers of darkness.54

Dracula is to be resurrected, but on the side of evil, avenging God's betrayal. He stabs the cross and drinks the blood which flows forth, sealing his fate.

Dracula moves closer to a Jesus figure as the film progresses. But Coppola's character does not become a Jesus figure until after he is betrayed; the betrayal now comes first. By the time of the climactic love scene between Dracula and Mina, Dracula's character has been subsumed into a Jesus parallel. When Mina expresses her desire to join him, Dracula responds:

Dracula: To walk with me you must die to your life and be reborn to mine.55

With Dracula now firmly entrenched as a Jesus figure, God the betrayer, now represented by "light of all lights" Mina, has the opportunity to finish the job and make sure the original betrayal leads to a Christ-like demise. In the final scene, Mina follows a wounded Dracula into the chapel where his original betrayal took place hundreds of years before. We see a ceiling image of the two that obviously resembles Michelangelo's God and Adam together on the Cistine Chapel ceiling. God (Mina) and man (Dracula) are together again. Dracula cries out a deliberate twist of Jesus' words from the cross:

Dracula: Where is my God? He has forsaken me.56

He does not ask why, but rather makes clear his knowledge of God's action. He is painfully aware of God's betrayal. Mina kills him and a light shines upon him from heaven, an out-of-place, upbeat Hollywood ending, perhaps implying that despite God's betrayal there may be hope that God is still merciful.

It is possible to analyze the characterization of a Judas figure and identify the attribution of responsibility for the betrayal of a Jesus figure in both print and film. When examined both contextually and chronologically, the Gospels reveal dramatic changes in the characterization of Judas that paralleled changes in audience and evolving needs of the early church. At first, little importance was attached to Judas by the early church. As secular problems began to plague early religious communities, Judas was transformed into a worldly transgressor, an example of sin among men. Soon Judas became a tool used as a negative model in church teaching. He was vilified and made into an agent of Satan, a convenient and useful explanation of the evil and persecution of the times. That consummately evil Judas was adopted by the Church and history. In this manner, the concept of Judas has became part of our language and culture.

Film makers who tried to depict or allude to the Jesus story found betrayal to be a critical plot element. Based on screen time, they felt audiences were equally or more interested in the events surrounding the Passion than with the years of ministry. A distinct pattern also emerges in film. After initial films stayed close to the traditional characterization of Judas and the betrayal, directors moved dramatically away from that position in rapid sequence. The Judas role devolved into one of unwilling participant in events dictated by Jesus, and then further into one of willing, loving participation in God's plan. As blame moved away from the Judas character, it moved outward and was attributed in a series of films to larger, more pervasive elements of society. Blame was placed on social ills and the culture of modern society in general. Later the betrayal is attributed to more specific parts of society, including, importantly, the Catholic Church. Completing a full circle, most recently we have seen God personally assessed with the responsibility of betrayal.

Both print and film characterizations were prompted by the changing demands of the viewers' culture. Characters themselves are open-ended, subject to further speculations and enrichments, visions and revisions -- in essence, eternal characters function as open constructs.57 Those with creative control can engineer characters appropriate to their society. For the Gospel authors, the main focus had to be on individuals and the struggles of the early church. The culture of modern film is one of large scale questions about the very nature and value of society and religion. Hence, those very elements become integral parties of cinematic stories.

Betrayal is a universal concept with which all audiences can identify. The driving forces behind betrayal are particular to the social epoch. Different concerns lead directly to different motives. While new social foci have afforded the Judas character a respite from individual condemnation, the changing needs of our modern world may once again elevate him to pariah status. That remains to be seen. Today's cinema illustrates that the major concerns of our society lie with the sins and institutions of the modern world.



1 William Klassen, Judas: Friend of Foe of Jesus, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 4.

2 Ibid, 42.

3 Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978), 123.

4 Klassen, 79.

5 Ibid, 79.

6 Ibid, 103.

7 Ibid, 47.

8 Ibid, 120.

9 Ibid, 121.

10 Ibid, 154.

11 Ibid, 204.

12 Ibid, 142.

13 Ibid, 155.

14 Ibid, 142.

15 Ibid, 202.

16 Ibid, 155.

17 Ibid, 203.

18 Ibid, 44.

19 Ibid, 45.

20 Cecil B. DeMille, King of Kings, 1927.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Matthew 26:14-15, Revised Standard Version Holy Bible, (New York: World Bible Publishers, 1973).

26 DeMille, 1927.

27 George Stevens, The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965.

28 Ibid.

29 Norman Jewison, Jesus Christ Superstar, 1973.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Martin Scorcese, The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Ken Russell, Tommy, 1975.

45 Ibid.

46 Denis Arcand, Jesus of Montreal, 1989.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

52 Francis Ford Coppola, Bram Stoker's Dracula, 1993.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Chatman, 119-132.



Arcand, Denis. Jesus of Montreal. 1989.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

DeMille, Cecil B.. King of Kings. 1927.

Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Revised Standard Version Holy Bible. New York: World Bible Publishers, 1973.

Humphries-Brooks, Stephenson. The Celluloid Savior. Work in progress.

Jewison, Norman. Jesus Christ Superstar. 1973.

Klassen, William. Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Russell, Ken. Tommy. 1975.

Scorcese, Martin. The Last Temptation of Christ. 1988.

Stevens, George. The Greatest Story Ever Told. 1965.