And I know there’s the thing where we joke that you think we killed your Lord (“we” being us Jews and “you” being you Christians, for the purposes of this sentence), and that’s fine when it’s for fun, but the thing is, everything I know about the New Testament and the gospels I learned from Jesus Christ Superstar (and some Godspell — my Christian friends have informed me in the past that Godspell is a more accurate/more revelatory musical theatre interpretation of the Jesus story, and that JCS leaves a lot more open to artistic interpretation. Would you say that’s true? Maybe I just have to listen to Godspell more — anyone have .mp3s for me?) — everything I know about the New Testament I learned from anecdotal evidence, popular culture, and Jesus Christ Superstar, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past few days, driving back and forth from Pasadena in dead traffic with JCS on the stereo, and I have concluded that I don’t see Judas having any other choice! Had I been in Judas’ position, in the Gospel according to Andrew Lloyd Webber, I would have done exactly the same thing.
There are so many places along the way where I could have become misinformed that I’m making it a point to learn more about the Gospels, which is where I turn to the internets for help. I’m looking for any secular type gospels — I think we in the secular world call it “historical fiction” — that describe the Jesus/Judas/Gethsemane/blood money/Caiphas/Annas betrayal. I have Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son which was, if nothing else, more straightforward than Gore Vidal’s gospel, but I would like more, particularly about Judas Iscariot. All the biographies/gospels I’ve found on Judas tend to be lifted from the Christian Inspiration area of the bookstore, rather than the fiction area or history area, which makes me nervous, and I sat for a long time in Barnes & Noble carefully dismissing any gospel that had red letters or Los or Thees or Thous or O Lord!s in them — and was left with Mailer, Vidal, and Anne Rice. Good thing Anne Rice is crazy (and good thing her big Jesus tetrology hasn’t reached the Gethsemane chapter yet) or I’d have come home with more books than three.
I’m trying to get a handle on the political environment of the day, on the conflict between the Romans and the Jews of the Middle East, Caesar feeling threatened by the rise of other powers, the desert populus of Jews just trying to survive day to day in the hot unforgiving sand, local lords and governors paying tribute to Caesar and charged with keeping their flocks in line. I mean — Caesar was a force to be reckoned with, no? I wouldn’t go up against the Roman Empire without good backup either, and even then I’d be careful where I stepped. It’s like trying to mount a revolution under an oppressive dictator. You gotta be cunning!
So — let me see if I’ve got this right? And you tell me where I’m wrong, or lead me to texts where I can expand my knowledge? This is me retelling JCS, trying to squeeze fact from interpretive dance.
Jesus and Judas start a nonprofit, basically, in Galilee, stirring up grassroots support to help the poor and suffering. Judas is eager to help his fellow suffering Jews, and hopes they can continue their work under the radar for as long as possible before Caesar comes stomping in demanding tribute.
The poor and meek and so forth really take to Jesus, and for a couple of years their nonprofit does great work around Galilee, healing the sick and feeding the poor in the desert! Then Jesus’s popularity grows to such a degree that the local leaders, folks with a real fear of Caesar and their ears to the ground, folks who have been at war before, people like Caiaphas and Annas, start getting nervous that Mr. Nazareth’s cult of personality will bring the attention and the wrath of Rome upon their little struggling neck of the desert.
Judas, meanwhile, wonders how his well-meaning and humble nonprofit somehow launched into a one-man Jesus Revue, and also worries that with all the singing and dancing Jesus is doing, and with all the crowds that have flocked to Jesus, the wrath of Rome will come to Galilee and see Jesus as a threat and take out the whole lot of ’em. Judas wonders why Jesus is spending their group’s hard-raised money on fine ointments and massage oils for him to use with his prostitute girlfriend, when insteaad they could use that money to feed and clothe the poor. Jesus replies that he will only be on this earth for a short time, and that they should all make the most out of having him here, and that he’d be more useful to the organization if he were relaxed, which Mary understands, hence all the deep-tissue massaging. Jews continue to flock from miles around, and everyone starts calling Jesus the King of the Jews for some reason.
Judas now seriously bugs out, because all he wanted to do was help his fellow Jews in Galilee, not throne a King. Caiaphas comes to Judas and says, we know this isn’t what you signed up for, we need to take care of Jesus ourselves before Rome smites us. Judas says no WAY, he’s my BEST FRIEND, I’m not turning him over to you. Meanwhile, Judas watches as Jesus gets the whole country to sing and dance his praises. Judas, for the good of the Jews, agrees that Jesus is a threat that must be stopped.
Then there’s dinner and some more singing, and then there’s the betrayal with a kiss. Judas, appropriately, can’t live with himself, can’t take the blood money, after all that, kills himself and dies a villian. Elsewhere, Pilate doesn’t want to have to make a ruling regarding Jesus’s case, because whoever chooses to punish Jesus is going to be, among many things, supremely unpopular with the groundswell of Jesus fans, and Pilate had a dream where they all hated him. So he sends Jesus to Herod, figuring it’s up to one Jew to deal with another. Herod ALSO doesn’t want to punish Jesus, and gives Jesus every opportunity to admit he’s not the King of the Jews and get out of there unscathed, but Jesus refuses to admit it. Sure, he says, “you named me that,” but he also proposes that there might be a kingdom for him somewhere. All this talk of being the son of god makes Herod think Jesus is in fact just crazy, but Herod can no more punish a crazy man than he can punish an innocent man. There’s 40 lashes, because the crowd INSISTS that Jesus be punished some way and the crowd’s getting restless. Then they send Jesus back to Pilate, because the crowd keeps insisting that JEsus be killed or else they’ll be stuck facing the wrath of Rome, and Jews don’t have capital punishment. Pilate goes ahead and nails Jesus up, hating himself for it all the while.
I feel — if Jesus was indeed a real guy who walked around Israel 2000 years ago — which is quite likely — I feel he really put his friends in a tough position, put his people in a tough position, sold out the needs of the many in exchange for his own cult of personality, got high on fame and was a threat to Judaism everywhere. And then of course, he was a threat to Judaism, because after all that, we get Christianity. Judas, on the other hand, strikes me as the type who never wanted fame, but wanted to find a way to help his people — more of a Socialist than a King.
And I lose control here. I don’t know why a new religion sprung up because of this one guy. I don’t know what we did that was so wrong. I don’t know what Jesus did that was so great.
I don’t get out much, so I read. I will tell you more after I’ve finished Mailer. Any clarifications or pointing out where I’m completely all wet eagerly appreciated.