Following on from the success of 2012's documentary In the Footsteps of St Paul and last year's In the Footsteps of St. Peter (2015) the BBC's main Easter offering this year was In the Footsteps of Judas. This time however, the programme was fronted by Rev. Kate Bottley rather than actor David Suchet who starred in the previous entries in the series.
The change of personnel, if nothing else, is quite significant. Suchet will always be best remembered for playing Agatha Christie's Poirot and his approach to the previous two documentaries carry with them the cerebral, thoughtful air of a literary detective on a case. Bottley is best known as the vicar from Channel 4's Gogglebox which, for those who don't know, is a reality show where we at home are invited to watch others in their homes watching the same telly we've been watching the previous week. It sounds dreadful, but it's actually rather entertaining and has proved very popular and Bottley will have challenged many of the "more tea vicar?" stereotypes that still persist.
It was only a matter of time, then, before Bottley was given the chance to try and breathe fresh life into a BBC religious documentary which, if left to their own devices, do tend to drift towards being overly remote and unengaging (even if some of us kind of like them that way). So it was no surprise to see Revd. Kate's face popping up in the Easter schedules offering a fresh look at Judas.
Looking back through my archives I was surprised to see that there hasn't really been a TV documentary of Judas - at least not in the UK in the ten years I have been running this blog, and (from memory) in the ten or so years before that. It sounds like the kind of subject Robert Beckford would have explored back in the noughties, but the best we got was a segment in Beckford's 2008's Secrets of the 12 Disciples and even then it gave a wide berth to the "Gospel of Judas" (which got it's own National Geographic Documentary back in 2006 which Mark Goodacre reviewed here).
In this film, the "Gospel of Judas" is given fairly short shrift and even then it's primarily a way of introducing one of the five main theories around Judas' betrayal of Jesus. According to the featured consultants, (who for the programme as a whole were Peter Stanford, Prof. Helen Bond, Revd Canon Dr Anthony Cane, Dr. Simon Gathercole, Dr. Janet Robson and Prof. Joan Taylor) the "Gospel of Judas" claims Judas was Jesus' best and most trusted friend and his 'betrayal' was actually part of Jesus' plan. There are flirtations with the thorny issue of Judas being forever berated for a role he had to play in order for God's plans to work, but they hardly go the full Lee and Herring, rather more a kind of uncomfortable "anyway...moving on...".
Each of the five theories are presented in turn in the middle section of the documentary as a way of countering the suggestion that Judas was merely a thief who betrayed Jesus out of greed (It's pointed out that 30 pieces of silver might only have been a months wages so such a horrific betrayal would be unlikely). The other theories put forward are that Judas might have been part of the Sicarii, who ultimately rejected Jesus for being too sympathetic to Rome; that he may have hailed from a village called Scaria somewhere in the south (and so may always been an outsider amongst these other northerners); or that Judas was trying to force Jesus into the action he thought needed to be taken.
The fifth theory here is more around what Judas' role was rather than his motivation. Having visited the Garden of Gethsemane, Bottley then visits a cave called Gethsemani and it's suggested that perhaps Judas wasn't there to identify his now famous master, but more to take the soldiers to this secret location. Of these five theories this last is the only one I hadn't come across before and whilst it wasn't argued particularly compellingly (very much the style of this, and indeed the majority of BBC docs) it was an interesting theory and I'd have liked to hear more. But it makes the middle section fairly fast flowing, even if a little choppy, This strikes a contrast with the first part of the programme which was mainly to establish Judas' importance and his traditional role for those less familiar with the story. It's loaded of Lady Gaga and Bottley stressing her desire for a more redemptive and sympathetic look at Judas.
However, it's the final section that seemed to be causing the most interest on Twitter and contained the part that I found most thought provoking. One of the theories that is put forward in this final section is that Judas became the Church's "poster boy" for avarice just as capitalism was taking root. As capitalism began to become the churches number one enemy so the man who changed to the side of this growing threat had to be put beyond the possibility of mercy and redemption as a way of discouraging others from making similar compromises.
The film essentially switches between four types of material - Rev. Kate talking to camera; experts giving their words of wisdom in the classic "talking heads" style; location shooting, often with Bottley visiting places from her own parish to key sites in Jerusalem; and dramatised footage of actors playing the roles of Judas (Hicham Bahloul), Jesus (Mohamed Quatib) and the other key players - and it's here that they come together to greatest effect as Rev Kate, full of empathy, asks the camera:
Who found him? Who came across this young man? Who cut him down from the tree? Who took his body away? Who buried him? Who mourned him?It's not a question that is often asked and instantly I started thinking about the general absence of answers to these questions in the dramatised films about Jesus. Theories as to why Jesus betrayed his master go back to the silent era and most of those discussed here have been raised in one Jesus film or another. But these questions - what happened to Judas after his death, essentially - never seemed to be asked, let alone answered. Another interesting contrast with the majority of Jesus films that Judas is notably better looking than Jesus, which surely enables the audience to feel far greater sympathy with him than the man he betrayed.
So instead of ending by looking at sympathetic movie portrayal of Judas, the programme turns instead to a piece of art engraved on glass. Bottley heads to St. Nicholas and St. Magnus church in Dorset to view a piece by Laurence Whistler. The depiction of Judas - more details here - has him turning towards the light in his final seconds of death, whilst the silver coins fall into the ground, unexpectedly producing flowers where they land.
All of this suggests the possibility of redemption for him at the last minute, a change of heart after his irreversible act of suicide. And as an image it nicely summarises the documentary as a whole - a compassion for all people, that dares to hope that even those as desperate or far away as Judas, might be drawn to the light. A God of a love so powerful that not even Judas could be beyond the possibility of his redemption.
In the Footsteps of Judas was produced and directed by Sian Salt and is available for those inside the UK on iPlayer.