To judge from the controversy sparked by early screenings of Russell Crowe’s Noah, Hollywood directors walk on thin ice when they start tinkering with the details of the Bible for the sake of a movie.
Son of God, a movie about the life of Jesus Christ, has met with a better reception from Christians in part because producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey worked assiduously to enlist the support of religious leaders and denominations through events such as private screenings of The Bible, the History Channel miniseries that gave rise to the new movie.
“Roma and I are praying that this movie will be a blessing for the church,” Burnett said in a promotional video for the movie. “We sincerely hope it will lead to many having a deeper relationship with Christ.” In an earlier interview about the miniseries, Downey acknowledged that they “breathed creative expansion” while portraying the Bible stories. At the same time, they turned to prominent pastors such as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren for theological advice.
The “creative expansion” resulted in some decisions at odds with mainstream Christians throughout the history of the church. It’s not simply that Burnett and Downey changed the story (there is a long tradition in Christian writing of expanding or abridging biblical stories to make a given point, such as the Old English poem Genesis B’s sympathetic portrait of Eve). Son of God gives oxygen to a claim that early church leaders denounced as historically and theologically false because it contradicts the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life. The movie’s portrayal of Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples creates the impression that Jesus ordered Judas to betray him.
They aren’t the first to do that. An ancient Gnostic sect known as the Cainites honored traditional villains such as Cain and Judas, praising the latter as the closest confidant of Jesus, according to the second-century church father Irenaeus of Lyons.
“They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion,” Irenaeus wrote in his book Against Heresies. “They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.”
That Cainite text made international headlines when the National Geographic Society unveiled a translation of the text, finding that it “challenges one of the most firmly rooted beliefs in Christian tradition.” The “Gospel of Judas” manuscript dates to 280 A.D., according to a researcher commissioned by the National Geographic Society, and was written in Coptic, the Egyptian language of the time.
Son of God is hardly a Trojan horse for Cainite gnosticism – you won’t hear anything about Jesus wanting to be freed from his material body, or taking Judas aside for private revelations – but the movie reflects a series of editorial decisions that give an ambiguous understanding of Judas’ role in his master’s death.
In the movie, Judas’ alliance with the chief priests who deliver Jesus to Pontius Pilate for crucifixion takes place in the movie against a backdrop of civil unrest and concern that the citizens of Jerusalem will riot against their Roman oppressors. Jesus’ acclaimed entry into Jerusalem, surrounded by crowds shouting ‘hosanna,’ intensifies these fears.
Judas meets with the chief priest, Caiaphas, who assures him that they only want to talk to Jesus, because the Romans will close the Temple during the Passover festival if the people riot for any reason. He also sows a seed of doubt in Judas about whether Jesus is the Messiah. Burnett and Downey establish that Judas is acting out of bad motives, though, by showing him ask Caiaphas “what’s in it for me?” a question that leads to his bribery.
At the ensuing last supper, Jesus announces that one of the disciples will betray him. He identifies Judas as the traitor by giving him a piece of bread, as detailed in the Gospel of John.
When Jesus identifies his betrayer in the movie, Judas resists. “I will not,” he says through gritted teeth to Jesus, who is holding a piece of bread to Judas’ mouth. “I will not betray you.” Jesus leans in closer and says, “do it quickly,” as he inserts the bread into Judas’ mouth. When Peter tries to prevent Judas from leaving, Jesus orders him to let Judas go.
The impression that Judas is acting pursuant to Jesus’ directive is heightened by the fact that, in a previous scene, Caiaphas has decided to move forward with Jesus’ arrest without Judas’ help because Judas’ has not delivered Jesus quickly enough.
The ‘do it quickly’ moment is echoed, mildly, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Upon Judas’ approach with the guards, Jesus tells him to “do what you came for.” When Jesus and his captors reach the Temple, Judas’ is surprised to be barred from entering with the rest of the group. His story ends in after he throws the money back to the priests’ guards and hangs himself. In the movie, Judas commits suicide by hanging, a scene juxtaposed with the Roman guards whipping Jesus.
The gospels accepted by mainstream Christians tell a story that differs from Son of God in some respects, most notably in its portrayal of the Last Supper (which you can watch in this clip from the miniseries).
The movie seems to use the Gospel of John as the source for that scene, as that gospel depicts Jesus as identifying his traitor by giving him the piece of bread and as saying that Judas should act quickly. No biblical account quotes Judas as declaring to Jesus, “I will not betray you,” though. That line is written only in the movie script.
The other mainstream gospels give somewhat different accounts of the supper: Matthew shows Jesus saying that the disciple who dips his bread in the dish with Jesus is the traitor, at which point Judas – who has already cut a deal with the chief priests, asks Jesus “Is it I?” Jesus replies ‘thou hast said it.” The Gospel of Mark doesn’t have that question-and-answer, but does quote Jesus referring to dipping in the dish. Luke records Jesus only as predicting the betrayal, which set the disciples to asking each other who would do it. So it appears that the creators of Son of God selected the Last Supper account most congenial to the idea that Judas was acting at Jesus’ behest, and then exaggerated that account by having Judas resist the order.
They made a similar decision in their portrayal of the Garden of Gethsemane scene. Rather than quote Jesus’ famous rebuke of Judas, ‘would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” from the Gospel of Luke, the movie follows Matthew’s account, but even their choice of translation tends towards the idea that Judas is acting with Jesus’ approval. Diogo Morgado, who plays Jesus, quotes the New International Version of Matthew, by saying “do what you came for” rather than having him ask Judas why he has come to the garden, as other translations render the passage. The disagreement between translators stems from an ambiguity in the Greek text (the relevant verb can be read as an imperative or as an active verb suited to a question). Faced with the choice, Son of God picked the imperative.
On scale, Downey and Burnett made a series of interpretive decisions in their portrayal of Judas that mitigate his culpability for Jesus’ death: they offered an explanation for his willingness to betray Jesus that is not found in the gospels (his concern that Jesus’ appearance in Jerusalem would lead to a riot); they chose the gospel account that has Jesus tell him to “do it quickly,” rather than one that emphasized the predictive aspect of Jesus’ comments; when it comes to Gethsemane, they abjured the gospel account that quotes Jesus as asking Judas’ if he’ll really “betray the Son of Man with a kiss” in favor of one that allows them to show Jesus once again telling Judas to follow through with the planned betrayal.
When Joel Osteen praises Downey and Burnett’s portrayal of the Last Supper, he says that the scene shows Jesus’ grace to the disciples would fall away from him. “He still took up for them, he forgave them, he believed the best in them,” Osteen says.
It appears that Burnett and Downey want to believe the best about Judas. They do a good job of communicating the political unrest of Jerusalem in the time of Pontius Pilate, which makes for a dramatic story of Jesus’ ministry and provides a cause for Judas’ contact with Jesus’ enemies.
Downey said in the promotional video that she and Burnett “believe the love of God will jump right off the movie screen and into the hearts of many, especially those who are far from him.” If it inspires attendees to take a closer look at the traditional Bible, they might find that the book is better than the movie. At the very least, it’s different.