from Film Forum, 03/11/04

The Bible does not say much about Judas. We know he was the treasurer for Jesus and his disciples, a job that was notably not given to the former tax collector Matthew. We know that he took money from that collection for his own use. And, of course, the love of money eventually overpowered his love of Jesus, and he sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Overcome with shame, he hung himself soon after that.

But why did he betray Jesus? Why was he the one at the table willing to make such a decisive act against the one he had followed? Monday night's ABC-TV movie Judas explored what might have been the case.

The movie has been sitting on the shelf since 2001, and suddenly ABC programmers have decided that this is the right time to broadcast it. Why now? Hmmm … could it be … The Passion of The Christ? Yes, director Charles Carner told Christianity Today Movies. As Mel Gibson's blockbuster Jesus film continues to earn a place in box office history, people continue to talk about what they like and what they dislike about the film. So ABC cleverly delivered the film right in the heat of Jesus fever.

The movie starred Johnathon Schaech (That Thing You Do) as the "great betrayer," Jonathan Scarfe as Jesus, Tim Matheson (Animal House) as Pontius Pilate, and Bob Gunton (The Shawshank Redemption) as Caiaphas. Written by Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide: Life on the Street), the movie represents the last production of the late Father Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, C.S.P., founder of the Humanitas Prize and Paulist Productions.

For the record, the TV movie was passed over by most viewers, who gave the highest ratings for the evening to reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men, and C.S.I. Miami.

You might think religious press critics would be overjoyed to see another Jesus film on television at the same time a Jesus film is on top at the multiplex. But Judas (originally titled Jesus and Judas) tells the story in a way that discomforts some.

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) is a bit skeptical of the "dramatic liberties" taken by the storytellers, and he adds, "Had Jesus been portrayed with a bit more authority and a little less like an overly friendly weatherman, the proceedings may have had more of an impact."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) comments on the performance more forgivingly: "Scarfe brings a lively, disarmingly playful presence to the role, if one rather lacking in authority and gravitas." He also disputes a rewritten quote that has Jesus saying to Peter, "Peter, your faith is like a rock, and on this rock I will build much church." "Today even Protestant scholars admit that the rock is Peter himself, not his faith," says Greydanus. "Why would a Catholic production water down this passage?" He concludes that the movie is "a well-intentioned film that may well convey something of Jesus' message to curious and receptive viewers."

Article continues below

"Scarfe plays Jesus a bit too wimpishly for my tastes," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The script has him apologizing for losing his temper when overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. We should remember that Jesus did have great love and compassion, but he also demonstrated righteous anger that needs no apology."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) protests this portrayal of Judas. "The movie accurately depicts Judas being put in charge of the moneybox the disciples used, but it neglects showing how he used to pilfer money out of it. Another key element that is excluded is the fact that Satan entered Judas before he betrayed Jesus to the high priests. Judas' betrayal of Jesus is very certain in the biblical account. Judas entreats the high priests, asking what price they would give him if he hands Jesus over to them. He knew what he was doing. In this film, he is more a victim of circumstance."

Steve Beard (Thunderstruck) stands up for the movie: "Everyone will be comparing Judas … to The Passion. There is simply no comparison to the artistry and the casting. TV simply cannot compete with a Mel Gibson production. The two projects deserve to be judged on their individual merit—but that is not going to occur. Nevertheless, while The Passion focuses solely on the final 12 hours of Christ's life, Judas attempts to fill in the gaps about why Jesus was considered such a divisive, controversial, and polemical personality."

But he too has trouble with Scarfe as Jesus. "The Jesus character … comes across more as a hippy-trippy 1970s peacenik as he talks about his regret for disrupting the moneychangers in the temple."

Only Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) praises this portrayal of Jesus. "Jesus here is more human than other portrayals, but the approach works. The movie ticks right along, adequately showing the 'outlandishness' of Jesus' claims and why they would have created a firestorm leading to his execution. Judas is a conspiracy movie, and a highly engaging one at that."

In an interview by Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk), Schaech says, "We're hoping that people who don't go to see The Passion will go to see this, and that those who do go will want to see this, too."

Personally, I hope that The Passion of The Christ prompts people to read the Gospels or seek out greater manifestations of Jesus' life in art. My own misgivings about this television movie are posted at Looking Closer.