Jesus Christ Superstar and the Gospels
Most of my generation would know the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Its most famous number, of course, is the title named after the musical but there are two other well-known tracks, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s All Right” as well. In its time it caused some raucous because of its portrayal of the gospel stories and the movie certainly caused some stir - not just for the way the story is told but also some of the sets - since when did they have machine guns in the 1st century? They didn’t.
The musical tells the gospel story from Judas Iscariot’s perspective. Judas betrayed Jesus so that Jesus could provide the ultimate sacrifice. Although the gospels talk a lot about the disciples they really don’t say too much about them apart from the fact that even though they were Jesus’ chosen ones, they too had a lot of difficulty and even hardness of heart understanding his message.
Although Jesus stated He, and therefore His Father, would raise them to be the leaders of Israel in His next coming, more often than not we see them not understanding Jesus, disbelieving Him or failing to find enough faith to even acknowledge they knew Him. They are almost like Israel itself though - prone to lose faith, prone not to believe, prone to test God.
Yet if there is one disciple that the gospels are a little too silent about, it is Judas Iscariot. We know a little of his history, we know that for 30 silver pieces - enough for the Priests to buy a field to bury the poor (although I suspect the Priests could get ‘discount pricing’) - he betrayed Jesus’ location. We know he becomes guilty because of his betrayal.
But do we really get an insight into what he thinks? Not really.
So, after a success with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Coat, another story based on the Bible, this time from the Old Testament, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber were casting around for ideas for the next masterpiece. Bearing in mind that the world they were in then was much more ‘religious’ than today and that many people had learned (or been forced to learn) about the gospels in Sunday school and the like, their next choice of subject - the gospel from Judas’ perspective was quite profound and unsettling.
I am not going to comment on whether they should or should not have done this. It is done now. It has been and still is a best-selling musical. The actors playing Jesus for the most part are humble about the role and see themselves as actors playing the role or helping others learn something about the musical’s protagonist, Jesus Christ.
But the question I want to ask is, is the musical coherent with the gospels? Does it contradict the gospels? Does it give a perverted view of the gospels? If one only knew Jesus from this musical would it be the Jesus we know from the gospels or some other “Franken-Jesus”?
Before I do, though, I want you to think a little on this. Listen at least to the show’s beginning number “Heaven on Their Mind” and its third to last number “Jesus Christ Superstar” - its final number is John 19:41 a very beautiful, beautiful music only rendition of Gethsemane.
It would, of course, help if you read at least one of the Gospels; I would suggest maybe Matthew or Mark. The synoptics are going to be the most helpful here although by all means don’t let this advice stop you from reading John or even all four of them.