Judas (1929), MAGAZINE ARTICLES, PHOTOS, THEATRE
Comments 76

“The Jew on the Stage and the Screen” – 1929

A photo recently surfaced on Tumblr, of the Baz from the 1929 stage play Judas (co-written by Rathbone and Walter Ferris). I’ve decided to feature it here because it signifies a notable period in Basil’s life.

Judas3000a

It’s very high res, click on the images and enlarge them to full size and you can see all the details of the dust on the floor, the vein running over his forearm, and the homespun weave of…whatever that thing is he’s wearing. It makes it all quite immediate and real. A frozen moment in great clarity.

The moment was in January 1929. Things must have looked pretty great to him right then. Judas might not have been a hit with the critics (it only ran for twelve performances), but his theatre career was riding high; the year before he’d been touring The Command to Love all over America and playing in a festival of Shakespeare in New York. At 37 he was looking forward to a long and distinguished stage life on both sides of the Atlantic. Later that year he would travel to Hollywood to make his first talking picture – The Last of Mrs Cheyney, opposite the Queen of Hollywood, Norma Shearer. A second career as Hollywood leading man seemed there for the taking.

He couldn’t possibly have guessed it when this photo was taken, but in reality the great stage career was already all but over, and his leading man status would vanish completely and without explanation within the next five years. This photo represents a moment just before that odd process of loss began. So, it’s kind of notable for that. I also agree with Rosebette that it’s a strangely modern image of the Baz. Something about the stubble, something about the attitude combine to make him look almost kinda like he might be met now, walking down a street or slouching over a table in some Starbucks.

Ahh, reader…would that he were…

And what about Judas? It was fairly hated at the time. One critic described it as being full of “pretension and bombast,” and almost every Christian religious denomination deplored it for its attempt to find sympathy in the title character. But the perspective offered by William Z. Spiegelman in the B’Nai B’Rith Magazine from February 1929 offers the possibility it might have been ahead of its time. Spielgelman calls Judas a “splendid play”, and suggests “this interpretation…is so radically different from the Orthodox Christian point of view that it will hardly be acceptable to those who are unaware of the research work recently done.” In other words it might be intolerance and bigotry that is causing it to fail on Broadway as much as, if not more than, any artistic flaws. It’s such an interesting review, I’m gonna quote it in full:

The Jew on the Stage and Screen

The B’Nai B’Rith Magazine, February 1929.

image courtesy of http://www.solowey.com

Of more than passing interest is the drama, “Judas,” written by Walter Ferris and Basil Rathbone, presented at the Longacre Theatre. The events or the legend of the events which occurred in Galilee and Jerusalem some 1900 years ago, giving rise to Christianity, have not yet been historically or psychologically fully ascertained, explained, or understood. When theology mixes with history, the latter is undoubtedly the loser. So it is that despite the untold volumes written on the subject of the rise of Christianity, its origin and the exact nature of the events which led up to its development are still in the twilight region.

The drama of the crucifixion which has turned out to be, due to the interpretations and the legends springing from it, a Jewish tragedy for the past 1900 years, is certainly of a most stirring character. However, the exploitation of this drama outside the realm of the church, and its presentation on the secular stage is of comparatively recent date. The attempts at the dramatization of this material have in the past followed the official narratives. One of the major characters in this drama is undoubtedly that horrifying and repugnant figure, Judas Iscariot, painted in such dark and unredeeming colors that black is white next to him.

The authors of “Judas,” to their credit, it must be said, have adopted a totally new point of view in the interpretation of his character, faith, and fate. To be sure, the interpretation now given at the Longacre Theatre is not entirely new. It is based on the conclusions of impartial, modern historians, and particularly Jewish scholars who have attempted to reconstruct the story of Jesus of Nazareth on the background of the then-prevailing political conditions in Judea under the Roman yoke. This interpretation, nonetheless, is so radically different from the Orthodox Christian point of view that it will hardly be acceptable to those who are unaware of the research work recently done.

Judas Iscariot, as represented by Basil Rathbone, who plays the part, is not a born betrayer, but a highly dramatic human figure. He did what he did not for ulterior motives, but inspired by patriotic zeal and devotion to his Galilean master in order, as the lines have it, “to save him from himself.” It was the impatience of one of the Judean zealots, whose number during the Roman subjugation at that time was legion, and his irrepressible desire to see in Judea the return of the Kingdom of Freedom and Justice, that moved the disciple to force the hand of his master.

Walter Ferris and Basil Rathbone in their play of three acts tell the story of Judas-Brutus with outspoken sympathy and understanding. So conscientious were both in their treatment of the subject that not a single detail recorded in the Christian gospels was omitted or ignored. Surprising, however, as it may be to the uninitiated, these facts when stripped of the bias do not constitute the black indictment which theology has rendered. A human, fighting, and disappointed Judas, driven to an act of desperation, emerges out of Rathbone’s interpretation and presents a sincere plea for vindication, although he is aware that the “world will not understand.” Even the most indicting detail of the 30 pieces of silver is not omitted, but it really played no role in the act or the motive. Judas agrees to the high priest’s suggestion only to “bind the bargain,” but when the 30 pieces are thrown to him, he contemptuously lets them drop to the floor, walking away into the darkness to hang himself.

Act One takes place in the courtyard of the house of Simon Ish Kerioth in Judea on Passover in the year 30 of the Christian era. Act Two takes place in a house in Bethany near Jerusalem on the evening of March 28, the eighth of Nissan in the year 33. The last act takes place in one of the chambers of the Temple in Jerusalem and in the house in Bethany. The figure of the founder of Christianity is not visible but his presence is indicated by a light coming from the garden into the house in Bethany.

Judas, a son of a well-to-do Judean family, a student of the law, is fired with enthusiasm for the redemption of his country. He burns with indignation against the persecutions of the Romans and is most eager for action. He therefore gets into conflict with his pious father. When he is attracted to John the Baptist on the Jordan and meets the Galilean there, he is so absorbed by the hope of redemption for Judea which is to come through direct action and result in the restoration of the Kingdom of Justice and Freedom that he neglects to return home for the celebration of the Passover and the consummation of his betrothal to Naomi. He has a vision of an empire and thinks that he and the Galilean fulfill each other. He is somewhat impatient with the theory of meekness and of blessing the persecutors, but believes in the powers of his master and in his leadership and hopes to persuade him to action which will grip the people and arouse them against the foreign yoke. When the entry into Jerusalem materializes he is overcome with disappointment and when several days in Jerusalem pass without the leader calling for the uprising, he decides to bring it about by forcing his hand to choose between life and death. His leader, he knew, loved life and feared pain, and when confronted by the choice he would assume the leadership. Failure was all that he dreaded. When failure came by failure to act, he hanged himself.

The staging and costumes by Richard Boleslavsky and the settings by Jo Mielziner were chosen with care and skill, with an eye to historical accuracy. Dorothy Cumming in the role of Naomi, to whom Judas sings the Song of Songs, is pleasing to the eye. William Courtleigh in the role of the high priest Caiphas and also as Simon Ish Kerioth gives a dignified and impressive presentation. Basil Rathbone is the personification of a convincing and sincere Judas pleading for vindication.

It is interesting that some of the reviews in the metropolitan press did not predict a long run for this splendid play, nor are they favorable in their comment. It seems that with theology as an influence, a historical interpretation which sounds plausible and convincing on the face of the facts stands small chance.

In this man’s eyes at least, Judas was trying to say something that its audience didn’t want to hear. Its picture of a morally ambiguous, confused but sympathetic man was maybe too subtle for a 1929 that was still locked in a lot of Victorian religious absolutism.

So, maybe it’s not just the image in the photo that seems strangely modern? Maybe if the Baz really was around now, slouching over a table in some Starbucks, with Ferris beside him, drinking lattes and writing their play on a Macbook, their Judas might get a different reception? Maybe their view of this angry, confused man trying to do right by his oppressed people and only making things worse might catch on with our present confused generations who don’t know much for sure except that moral absolutes are rarely true or a good idea

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76 Comments

  1. Rosebette,not distributed would that mean they wont let you SELL copies. Or does it mean that you would not be alowed to share copies with say “friends”.If you recived no money[as such]for shareing? I understand the performance thing as many plays are copyright and as such you have to pay a [for local or school or collage theater] a small amount to use them.

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  2. rosebette says

    The only existing copy is in the archive collection at the Boston University Library. It’s typewritten, with I believe some of his notes on it. I understand that I may be able to obtain a personal photocopy of the manuscript, but that it can’t be distributed or performed, but I want to check into it.

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  3. Leo Hoffee says

    Wow, how incredibly in advance of his time this guy was. Someone should revive this play.

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  4. rosebette says

    I thought about B’s play last week-end during the Lenten reading about Jesus’ temptation in the desert by the devil. In IAOCC, B says that he interpreted the tempter to be Judas, acting as a friend of Jesus, but seeing Jesus’ role as more of a political messiah. The minister who led our reflections actually spoke a great deal of power and politics as temptation, and I thought of how contemporary B’s interpretation was. For instance, Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar was portrayed in that manner, as a friend of Jesus who tragically mistakes Jesus’ true mission.

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  5. I’m amazed that anyone should think we have no right to question the Bible? We should question? We must belive it’s true. But where in the Bible does it say,to shut off your mind and not think. Ask any beliver if you can find answers in the Bible? Of course you can they will tell you. If you do not have a queston why would you need an asnwer? Also IMHO Christ was not a victim.He was sent here to be the saviour of the world. He was in charge of his destiney. He knew Judas was going to betray him. In esence Judas was chosen to betray him.Christ told them at the last supper one of you will betray me. Basil could have portrayed Judas as a black and white villan..But he got into the mind of a man who has been chosen to betray his saviour and friend. I think his would be a verry insightfull portrayel IMHO

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  6. I think it is quite obvious from what Rathbone himself said that he did not approach this subject lightly or arrogantly. His intellectual honesty in the matter was obviously total. As was his courage.

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    • That’s why I don’t buy that he graduated near the bottom of his class at Reptonper his memoir,maybe there were only 3 students all total?

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      • Mabey he was just to smart. One of those kids who are borde with school..How many times do I have to repet this? I alredy read this,cant we get on with this, you know.Kids like that dont do well in school but can go on to be a genius.

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  7. frankinsense says

    I think Mr Rathbone needs to be appreciated as a genuinely conscientious and sincere artist, who strove to explore and express truth, not merely to aggrandise himself or court easy popularity

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  8. Grayson says

    I only wish he was around now – we need all the open minded intelligent human beings we can get in this current world!

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  9. innock McClaren says

    this is not blasphemous or hubristic, it’s humanistic and enlightened, religion would be better off for more people who thought like Rathbone and fewer of the ones who condemned him for daring to ask questions

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  10. bible scholar says

    I’m sorry but this feels rather like hubris on the part of an actor with more ego than learning

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  11. elaine says

    I wish more of his life outside his films had been included in his biography, as it’s given such a – well I won’t say distorted – but such an incomplete view of him as a man.

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  12. Lionel says

    What a brave and intelligent and free-thinking man he was. What an honor to have met him.

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  13. Paula says

    It was mistaken of him to presume to question the Bible, but I think understandable. I still admire him

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  14. Pingback: Walter

    • rosebette says

      See above posts between Marcia Jesen and me. It is not in print, but a copy may be in the Rathbone’s archive collection at Boston University. If you’re in the Boston area and have some time on your hands, maybe you could track it down!

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  15. Hannah says

    The clothes he’s wearing put me in mind of sixties hippy chic. I’m sorry if that’s inappropriate, but I thought I’d share. He was one extraordinarily beautiful man though.

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  16. rosebette says

    It depends what your definition of “hero” is. Our American idea of “hero” in film is someone who does noble and great acts; however, the definition of “hero” in dramatic and literary tradition is quite different. Many heroes in dramatic works, from the Greek tradition onward are extremely flawed human figures who may have gifts in certain areas (warriors, kings, intellectuals, etc.), but who through a tragic failure, come to a bad end. Also, many heroes in drama are beset by hubris, the belief that their own qualities and actions can affect the results that they desire. Therefore, many figures such as Oedipus, many of Shakespeare’s tragic figures, Faustus, some of Ibsen’s characters, right up through modern American theater, are heroes in the dramatic sense, even though they may do things that are morally wrong. I might see Judas as similar to Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, someone who had a great belief in his own ideas and abilities, but in the end uses them for evil, rather than good, and who commits the ultimate sinful but also prideful of despairing of God’s redemption in the end of the play. I also see Judas as similar to the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s A View to the Bridge, where the main character, Eddie, who betrays his niece’s lover to immigration authorities and has him deported because he desires her himself; he ends up dying tragically in the end. The audience feels both appalled by his actions, but at the same time compassion for the dilemmas he experiences. The chief purpose of drama is to provoke “catharsis”, emotion in the audience so that they understand and feel empathy with the humanity of the main character. This is a much more complex concept than the black and white view of villain vs. hero, but has been a dramatic mainstay of theater for centuries.

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  17. Jeremy Bentham says

    How moving that they tried to do this when they did. All credit to both of them. And it only deepens my respect for Rathbone.

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  18. Lilian says

    I now have a deep desire to be able to pick up a cab to the Longacre and settle back to watch this play.

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      • Eugene Tooms says

        And stage door afterwards! Was he good with his fans? or was he haughty and dismissive? You have to like and admire the ones who take the trouble. Bernadette Peters is a doll like that today. Others not so much. Was the Bazz a signer or a non-signer?

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    • rosebette says

      If you know that much, Claude, can you track down a copy of this play? I’ve had no luck so far.

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        • rosebette says

          Thanks for this. I live about an hour from Boston, and my daughter lives and works in the city. I looked the archive up on the Web, and they do have quite a collection of Rathbone’s letters, scripts, etc., but the site doesn’t specify exactly what’s in the collection. By the way, Claude, you have a huge archive over there, too, and a nice picture on the site!

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          • What a coincidence! My son works in Boston; he lives in Brighton, though. You should definitely visit the BU archive. I’ve been there twice and still haven’t seen all the Rathbone stuff they have. They showed me a list of all the holdings: seven boxes of stuff! But they wouldn’t let me photocopy the list! And since I don’t have a photographic memory (or eidetic memory, as Sheldon Cooper would say), I can’t be sure of the archive holdings. But I think the Judas script is there.

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            • rosebette says

              Looks like that might be my project for semester break. Right now, I’m too tied up with my teaching to pursue that level of research. My daughter, the theater maven, tried to track the play down, and she couldn’t find it through any of the venues she uses to get copies of scripts. Ferris was a fairly well-known playwright during his time; he wrote “Death Takes a Holiday,” which was a play before it was a film.

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                • rosebette says

                  No, Vassar College in New York. Her majors were theater and sociology. She is now working as an “interpreter” in costume doing historical tours for an agency, and for the Old State House . She’s also auditioning for some roles in Boston theater later this fall. We’re from North of Boston. My daughter and I are both huge theater and movie buffs.

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  19. gooseberry pie says

    Wow when you click on the pick and then click on the magnifying glass to enlarge it the detail is amazing. You can see the individual hairs on his arms. (he has amazingly great forearms!)

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  20. I think the failure of this play might have wounded him a great deal.He does not mention another play until 1932.He agreed to tour with Katherine Cornell.She mentions him and the tour in her book ” I Wanted To Be An Actress”.I bought it several yrs. ago,but,i think you can search it on Amazon.

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      • AnnaPindurka says

        Sorry to butt in, Embechtel, but I just have to, in my great Basil fandom I was a bit miffed with Katharine Cornell when I read this book. Admittedly, she publishes it in 1939, so it is not an autobiography as such, more a look at a career that is still going on.
        But! On the tour Basil did with her company, he had the lead roles in Romeo and Juliet, Candida and The Barretts of Wimpole Street, yet he does not feature once in the 32 pages of photos. The Romeo photo has Maurice Evans, who took over from Basil in New York. The Barretts photo has Brian Aherne – but that makes sense, he originated the role, Basil writes about this in his autobiography too. Cornell is never negative about Basil, though, she calls him handsome, then excellent, mentions his dog Moritz, the fact that he wore Barrett’s original ring from a museum in one of their performances, mentions how they rehearsed for the tour in Bavaria, how Basil told a colleague complaining about the cold water: “Don’t be effeminate, Charlie!”, minor things like that. At the back, the book carries reviews of their productions and these tend to criticise Basil’s Romeo for being cold. This proved so hard for my fangirl heart that I had to buy Blanche Yurka’s autobiography (she was in R&J and knitting in The Tale of Two Cities), she defends Basil’s interpretation in her book.
        Interestingly, Maurice Evans (who was absolutely admired in his role as Romeo by all the critics, he may have surpassed even Katharine Cornell’s sweet Juliet when he came in) played the same role Basil had in the 1951 version of Kind Lady.

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        • Thats ok.Butt in anytime.I partly agree.The critic from New York Post was a little unkind towards Basil,s Romeo.He said Basil “was handsome”,etc.but,”colder than one wished”.I think being from NY he was definately biased towards Kit.He heaped alot of praise on her.I can not say about how well she did or not.I unfortunately did not see it,but,i know this was her first Shake-Speare role.I think she must have not been all that and a bag of chips the first time around.The critics in chicago were also not to kind about the play.Everyone did seem to think highly of Barrets and Candida.I kept in mind Basil was also sick on this tour.perhaps this affected him.Also,he was41 yrs.old more in control than a younger Romeo.Maybe this was misinterpreted as cold.
          Miss cornell was very nice about Basil.She did say that the play was slow to catch on but,did not place any blame on any of the cast.Shake-Speare in the midwest at that time would i think be a very hard sell.

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  21. Stunning photo. And how courageous of these two men to try such a venture at that time. Speaking of modern times, I wish this chap was a regular at my pub. I think he would have appreciated the ale too.

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    • Ken I think this is one of the most totally charming things that has ever been said about him! And so English and lovely, I just want to hug you.

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    • As a amateur historian and history “geek” (19th century), I really enjoyed reading your perspective. And I agree…if Judas had “simply” been evil, he would have taken the silver and walked away without a second glance. His suicide says that he realized the enormity of what he’d done, and could not live with it. I can’t help wondering how a revival of the play would be viewed; though I would rather have seen the original…for obvious reasons.

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      • rosebette says

        Thanks for your comment. Over the summer, I’ve been to the Boston University Archive, and done some more work on “Judas,” reading the entire play and researching some of the sources Basil used. It is a beautiful and compassionate play that depicts Judas as a tormented and misguided political zealot and also gives one of the most poetic and human perceptions of Jesus, a character that never appears on-stage, but seems very real. In the scene in which Judas betrays Jesus, the stage directions state that he looks at the money with abhorrence. In the play, it was not Judas’ intention that Jesus die; his hope was that Jesus’ arrest would inspire Jesus’ followers to rise up in revolution to support him, but that, of course, is not what happened.

        I also read many of the personal letters to Basil from people who saw the play. These people were very moved by it and supportive.

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  22. Katoodle Lolly says

    The baz is very good looking in this picture and, I wish I could have seen BelovedBaz in Romeo and Juliet on the stage, but I would never want to see him portray in a favourable light in any way shape or form, one of the worst men in history, Judas Iscariot. It would be like someone portraying Hitler in a play in a favorable light! One thing surprising in society that I don’t like is when someone does something wrong, the wrongdoer starts getting pity, or we try to look at “his side of the story” kind of stuff. What about the person who was wronged? Why do we always give the wrongdoer more attention? I could be wrong for some cases, but that is the way it seems to me, generally speaking. I know some may say that it is just a play, but in matters such as these, I don’t think it acceptable to trifle with matters of such importance. Judas was a good man to begin with, and a good apostle to begin with, but then grew to be a trouble maker, and so fond of money, that when he was bearer of the purse for Christ and his apostles, he began to steal from his own, by taking money out of the purse he was charged to see too. He sold Christ for the amount of money a slave went for, 30 pieces of silver. Christ was God and man, and this thing, this human being, Judas Iscariot, betrayed his at one time Friend and Master and Leader, for a little bit of money, and then hanged himself in despair. These are the facts in the Bible, and the other facts relating to them have been proven in recent years with other recent discoveries, too. So, if I had seen the baz, in this play, at this time, portraying Judas as some kind of noble character,(which he wasn’t, plain and simple) it would have been very saddening to see his talent, his sheer awesomeness, his excellent capabilities,! wasted on scum of the earth, “Judas”. Thank you for reading.
    P.S. Sorry Baz, just being truthful. Thanks for reading.

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    • rosebette says

      As a believer, someone who has studied theology, and someone who also studies literature, no text, including the Bible, can be accepted completely devoid of historical and political context. Current scholars like Crossan, Borg, Karen King, and Elaine Pagels paint a complex picture of the Roman Empire and the multiple sects and components of the Jewish community. Judas as depicted in this play, as well as examined in the light of some of the radical sects of Judaism, such as the Essenes, who were probably more in line with the teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus, which preached a communal life, personal transformation, and care for one’s neighbor, and the Zealots, who would believe in a radical and political transformation of Judaism and an overthrow of the Roman Empire. Also, there were several radical uprisings against the Empire both immediately before and after the death of Christ.

      The Gospels were written by human beings, although many believers would also acknowledge they were inspired by these writers’ encounters with Jesus and his followers, but they are written from their point of view. The only internal motivations described in these writings are those of Jesus, and occasionally of more devoted followers, like Peter, and naturally, the followers would see his betrayer as totally evil. But we know that human acts, even evil ones, have complex motivations. And remember, Jesus himself accepted and knew of his fate, and said “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps for Jesus, Judas’ greatest “sin” would be not the betrayal, but the suicide because that demonstrates that Judas had despaired of ever being forgiven. Remember, Peter also betrayed Christ in his own way. I don’t think Judas was worse than Hitler or worse than the Roman Empire or the Herodian collaborators that executed many dissenters at that time.

      As someone who has past the half-century mark, my faith is not challenged by watching something that asks me to look at familiar scriptural stories in a different light. In fact, the Jewish tradition does this all the time with “midrash”, where the story is retold or examined from different perspectives of the original to bring out new reflections. In fact, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which is a musical that many faithful people I know of appreciate, similarly portrays Judas as a multidimensional character. At least one film adaptation also treats Judas as a disappointed follower with radical political ideals.

      Sorry for this long blog….That’s what happens when you get an over-the-hill academic on this site.

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      • Katoodle Lolly says

        I know that the Gospels were written by people, but they were inspired to write what they did. They didn’t just sit down and say, “I think I will write whatever I want to write”, they wrote what God told them to, in their own style. Judas was evil, and he hurt Christ deeply and was never sorry for it.That is the difference between him and St. Peter. Thanks for reading.

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        • rosebette says

          I believe Judas was sorry for his action, so sorry that he didn’t keep the money and he threw the money away and committed suicide. People who don’t feel remorse don’t commit suicide because they have caused someone else harm. If Judas was completely evil, he would have taken the cash to the nearest brothel and had a good time. I don’t believe that Judas is the “moral equal” of Peter, but that he was a complex person with complex motives that we don’t fully understand. Peter was able to feel sorry for his betrayal, be reconciled with Jesus and assume a position of leadership; Judas wasn’t able to recover from his betrayal, but of course, the consequences of the betrayal were so much higher — the death of a friend.

          I don’t think the writers of the Gospel wrote whatever they felt like, but if you read each Gospel, they each tell a different version of the same story (sometimes with differences in details and timeline), and the purpose of the story is to tell something about the different dimensions of the character of Christ, not the motivations of all the other characters.

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  23. Baz Babe says

    The Baz was standing by his belief, you have to respect that even if you don’t personally agree. You can’t condem people for believing different things from the things you believe.That’s what causes all the harm in the world IMO.

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  24. Jonathan says

    What a stunning photograph. And how extraordinary to keep getting all this new perspective. I assumed Judas to have been some predictable re-telling that justifiably sank without a trace. How wrong one can be. it’s yet more evidence that Rathbone has been terribly misunderstood and hard done by through the lack of a proper biography. I hope the project i you are backing is going to bring about a revival of appreciation.

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  25. rosebette says

    I’ve just contacted my daughter who has a degree in theater and is an aspiring actress. She is always sourcing and ordering copies of plays, so I will see if there is a copy of this play available somewhere. I hope I’m successful because as a radical Episcopalian, this is one of the most exciting discoveries for me about Rathbone.

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  26. rosebette says

    OK, I have to put in my 2 cents. I have 2 degrees, one in English and one in Theology. The play’s interpretation of the story would be accepted today as a valid one in light of many scholars of the Jesus seminar, such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. Rathbone and his colleague were way ahead of their time.

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