by Ian N. Mills
In 1973, my grandfather organized churches across the Midwest to protest the arrival of Jesus Christ Superstar in local movie theaters. He urged his city council to ban the film. Fifty-years later, I assign the musical in New Testament courses.
Norman Jewison’s movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera is not only an entertaining point of entry for the study of the gospels, but itself a provocative and thematically rich text. Superstar does not present another first century Jesus, now caught on camera, or a strict adaptation of one or more gospels. Rather, the film is a self-consciously anachronistic and often-critical commentary on the relationship between the Jesus of history and the Christ of the gospels.
John and the Synoptic Gospels
Every cinematic Jesus combines and conflates the gospels into a single, streamlined story; Superstar is no exception. Tim Rice, Superstar’s lyricist, chose to highlight (rather than conceal) a key tension between different portrayals of Jesus. In the musical’s opening number, “Heaven on their Minds,” a brooding Judas sings of Jesus,
“You’ve started to believe
The things they say of you
You really do believe
This talk of God is true
And all the good you’ve done
Will soon get swept away
You’ve begun to matter more
Than the things you say”
The tension, here, is between the portrayal of Jesus in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and that of the fourth gospel, John. The three earlier gospels portray Jesus as an
apocalyptic teacher, preaching about the coming kingdom and arguing with his co-religionists over matters of Torah observance. The latter depicts Jesus single-mindedly proclaiming his own importance, even equating himself with God.
Thus, in Superstar’s opening number, Judas reports what Rudolf Bultmann observed long ago, that as the story was retold the “proclaimer became the proclaimed.” The musical opens with Judas lamenting that, as in the gospel of John, the figure of Jesus has become more important than the teachings found in the synoptic gospels.
Since Superstar is set in the final week of Jesus’ life, we never witness Jesus’ teaching ministry ourselves. We have only Judas’ report from a later verse in the same song.
“No talk of God
then, we called you a man
But every word you say today
Gets twisted ’round some other way
And they’ll hurt you if they think you’ve lied”
Judas once followed the synoptic Jesus but now fears that “all the good [he’s] done” will be “swept away” by the Johannine Jesus and the creedal Christ.
What makes Superstar pedagogically useful is not Rice’s preference for one portrayal of Jesus over another. It is, rather, the way that Superstar raises questions about Jesus, the gospels, and the history of Christianity without giving an answer in the film. We cannot rewind before this opening number to learn what Jesus really said during his ministry. The questions raised by Judas, instead, drive students back to the gospels. Is Judas a reliable narrator? To what extent does Judas’ paraphrase of Bultmann accurately describe the development of Christian theology? What explains these different portrayals of Jesus? The film is a launching pad for conversations that necessarily reach beyond the film to the gospels and the history of their interpretation.
Rome and Judea
Students are often struck by the attention given to Roman imperial power in Jesus Christ Superstar. Probably this is, in part, due to the the film’s use of assault rifles, tanks, and fighter jets to represent the asymmetrical power of an occupying force. Indeed, the first sight of a Roman soldier wielding an Uzi submachine gun invariably elicits class-wide chuckles. But the use of anachronistic military hardware isn’t just a gimmick. And Superstar’s emphasis on the threat of an occupying army isn’t limited to costuming and props. Rather, this retelling of the gospel story is largely driven by the threat of imperial violence.
This theme too is introduced by Judas in the musical’s opening number.
Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race?
Don’t you see we must keep in our place?
We are occupied!
Have you forgotten how put down we are?
I am frightened by the crowd
For we are getting much too loud
And they’ll crush us if we go too far
If they go too far
Thus Judas reminds Jesus that the occupying Roman army is liable to respond with violence to a Jewish crowd. The fate of their very race, says Judas, is at stake.
In “So We Have Decided,” a song composed especially for the adaptation to film, the chief priests explicitly connect Jewish antagonism toward Jesus with the threat of imperial Rome.
What about the Romans?
When they see King Jesus crowned
Do you think they’ll stand around
Cheering, and applauding?
Like Judas, then, the actions of Jewish leaders in Superstar are motivated by fear of the Roman response to Jesus and his followers. And, according to Superstar, this fear is not entirely misplaced.
“When do we ride into Jerusalem?” sing Jesus disciples, over and over again. In another song, Simon the Zealot encourages Jesus to “Keep them yelling their devotion // But add a touch of hate at Rome” with the result that “We will win ourselves a home!” Of course, Jesus in the film largely evades questions on the subject, leaving the viewer free to wonder how every other party in the story developed the same impression of Jesus’ political ambitions.
Here too, Superstar is pushing back against a trajectory in the evolution of stories about Jesus. Perhaps the best-known fact about the historical Jesus is his execution on a Roman cross, but each successive gospel takes steps to exonerate Rome and shift blame onto Jesus’ Jewish opponents. The Gospel of Matthew, for instance, adds to Mark the so-called “blood curse,” where the Roman governor disclaims guilt while “the whole people” invite responsibility for Jesus’ death.
As a result, the occupation of Judea plays little role in popular imagination of Jesus’ life. For example, Godspell, another musical adaptation of the gospels that first appeared on film the same year as Superstar, never mentions Rome. Jesus’ only opposition is a gigantic robotic caricature of Jewish leaders, and Jesus is “crucified” by Judas while quoting controversies with those leaders.
Thus, Superstar highlights another tension within and between the gospels. My students find Superstar useful for connecting assigned readings on the political situation in Roman Judea with the somewhat anodyne representation of Roman power in the gospels. The image of Israeli tanks bearing down on Judas provides a memorable point-of-reference for class discussions on the apologetic agenda of these ancient authors.
There is plenty to criticize in Jesus Christ Superstar, in terns of lyrics and images, in both staged and filmed versions. Early reviews objected that the representation of Jewish leaders as complicit in the execution of Jesus risked perpetuating antisemitism. What’s more, the Jewish leaders in Superstar are an amorphous amalgam of different parties (i.e. priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees) set apart from every other Jewish character by their uniform, black robes and ostentatious hats. These villains are marked out by their dress and the content of their lyrics as distinctively Jewish, while every other Jewish character wears 70s fashion and expresses no interest in particularly Jewish religious practices, institutions, or beliefs. The reviewers were right to be concerned.
In this case, Superstar has not resisted a trajectory in the history of Christian thought, but followed it. The Synoptic gospels make fine distinctions between different Jewish parties, portray Jesus engaged in intra-Jewish debates over Torah observance, and reflect the multifaceted relationship between the early Jesus movement and the Pharisees in particular. But in the fourth gospel, John anticipates the tragic history of anti-Jewish polemic by homogenizing first century Judaism and repeatedly juxtaposing Jesus with “the Jews” as an apparent monolith.
But even this most troubling feature of Superstar provides a pedagogical opportunity. Like the images of modern military hardware representing Roman power, Superstar’s caricature of Jewish leaders is so overt that it provides a reference point for class discussions about problematic representations of Judaism. Criticizing Superstar helps students build a vocabulary for identifying related tropes and rhetoric in early Christian literature. Students are quicker to recognize these troubling motifs, having first encountered them in media outside the sometimes-sensitive domain of scripture.
The gospels presuppose a degree of familiarity with the story of Jesus (not to mention first century Palestine) that many of my students lack. This presents an initial barrier to the academic study of the New Testament. Jewison’s Superstar helps students enter the narrative world of gospel literature. It provides a memorable introduction to a cast of characters —including Herod, Pontius Pilate, and the high priests— whom the gospels almost take for granted.
Beyond this initiatory use, however, I argue that Superstar rewards closer study for its complex, often critical and sometimes problematic engagement with important trends and themes in the evolving story of Jesus. Fifty years ago, it drew the ire of my pious grandfather and still today, though for different reasons, it deserves criticism. Nevertheless, Superstar remains a provocative, productive, and pedagogically useful text in my classroom.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Ian N. Mills, Ph.D., studies early Christianity and the religions of Late Antiquity with a special emphasis on history’s “losers.” As such, marginalized groups stand at the center of his pedagogy and research. Professor Mills delights in introducing students to the unfamiliar as well as making the already-familiar strange again. His classes explore themes of authority, interpretation/adaptation, identity formation, and approaches to diversity within religious traditions. His current research focuses on the composition, transmission, and reception of pluriform narratives (i.e. stories existing in more than one version), including a forthcoming monograph titled, Rewriting the Gospel. Professor Mills also co-hosts the New Testament Review podcast.