Three Versions of Judas: Jorge Luis Borges

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith (when Basilides was announcing that the cosmos was a rash and malevolent improvisation engineered by defective angels), Nils Runeberg might have directed, with a singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic monasteries. Dante would have destined him, perhaps, for a fiery sepulcher; his name might have augmented the catalogues of heresiarchs, between Satornibus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preaching, embellished with invective, might have been preserved in the apocryphalLiber adversus omnes haereses or might have perished when the firing of a monastic library consumed the last example of the Syntagma. Instead, God assigned him to the twentieth century, and to the university city of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas; there, in 1909, his masterpiece Dem hemlige Frälsaren appeared. (Of this last mentioned work there exists a German version, Der heimliche Heiland, published in 1912 by Emil Schering.)
Before undertaking an examination of the foregoing works, it is necessary to repeat that Nils Runeberg, a member of the National Evangelical Union, was deeply religious. In some salon in Paris, or even in Buenos Aires, a literary person might well rediscover Runeberg's theses; but these arguments, presented in such a setting, would seem like frivolous and idle exercises in irrelevance or blasphemy. To Runeberg they were the key with which to decipher a central mystery of theology; they were a matter of meditation and analysis, of historic and philologic controversy, of loftiness, of jubilation, and of terror. They justified, and destroyed, his life. Whoever peruses this essay should know that it states only Runeberg's conclusions, not his dialectic or his proof. Someone may observe that no doubt the conclusion preceded the "proofs". For who gives himself up to looking for proofs of something he does not believe in or the predication of which he does not care about?

The first edition of Kristus och Judas bears the following categorical epigraph, whose meaning, some years later, Nils Runeberg himself would monstrously dilate:

Not one thing, but everything tradition attributes to Judas Iscariot is false.
(De Quincey, 1857.)

Preceded in his speculation by some German thinker, De Quincey opined that Judas had betrayed Jesus Christ in order to force him to declare his divinity and thus set off a vast rebellion against the yoke of Rome; Runeberg offers a metaphysical vindication. Skillfully, he begins by pointing out how superfluous was the act of Judas. He observes (as did Robertson) that in order to identify a master who daily preached in the synagogue and who performed miracles before gatherings of thousands, the treachery of an apostle is not necessary. This, nevertheless, occurred. To suppose an error in Scripture is intolerable; no less intolerable is it to admit that there was a single haphazard act in the most precious drama in the history of the world. Ergo, the treachery of Judas was not accidental; it was a predestined deed which has its mysterious place in the economy of the Redemption. Runeberg continues: The Word, when It was made flesh, passed from ubiquity into space, from eternity into history, from blessedness without limit to mutation and death; in order to correspond to such a sacrifice it was necessary that a man, as representative of all men, make a suitable sacrifice. Judas Iscariot was that man. Judas, alone among the apostles, intuited the secret divinity and the terrible purpose of Jesus. The Word had lowered Himself to be mortal; Judas, the disciple of the Word, could lower himself to the role of informer (the worst transgression dishonor abides), and welcome the fire which can not be extinguished. The lower order is a mirror of the superior order, the forms of the earth correspond to the forms of the heavens; the stains on the skin are a map of the incorruptible constellations; Judas in some way reflects Jesus. Thus the thirty pieces of silver and the kiss; thus deliberate self-destruction, in order to deserve damnation all the more. In this manner did Nils Runeberg elucidate the enigma of Judas.

The theologians of all the confessions refuted him. Lars Peter Engström accused him of ignoring, or of confining to the past, the hypostatic union of the Divine Trinity; Axel Borelius charged him with renewing the heresy of the Docetists, who denied the humanity of Jesus; the sharp tongued bishop of Lund denounced him for contradicting the third verse of chapter twenty-two of the Gospel of St. Luke.

These various anathemas influenced Runeberg, who partially rewrote the disapproved book and modified his doctrine. He abandoned the terrain of theology to his adversaries and postulated oblique arguments of a moral order. He admitted that Jesus, "who could count on the considerable resources which Omnipotence offers," did not need to make use of a man to redeem all men. Later, he refuted those who affirm that we know nothing of the inexplicable traitor; we know, he said, that he was one of the apostles, one of those chosen to announce the Kingdom of Heaven, to cure the sick, to cleanse the leprous, to resurrect the dead, and to cast out demons (Matthew 10:7-8; Luke 9:1). A man whom the Redeemer has thus distinguished deserves from us the best interpretations of his deeds. To impute his crime to cupidity (as some have done, citing John 12:6) is to resign oneself to the most torpid motive force. Nils Runeberg proposes an opposite moving force: an extravagant and even limitless asceticism. The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, degrades and mortifies the flesh; Judas did the same with the spirit...  

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