Dum Pendebat Filius

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The Secret Redeemer

Jedmunds at Pandagon linked to a Times (UK) article which reports that “Judas Iscariot… is to be given a makeover by Vatican scholars.” Is Judas a misunderstood character? Did he actually fulfill a crucial role in Christ’s passion?

The proposed “rehabilitation” of the man who was paid 30 pieces of silver to identify Jesus to Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane, comes on the ground that he was not deliberately evil, but was just “fulfilling his part in God’s plan”.

Christians have traditionally blamed Judas for aiding and abetting the Crucifixion, and his name is synonymous with treachery. According to St Luke, Judas was “possessed by Satan”.

Now, a campaign led by Monsignor Walter Brandmuller, head of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Science, is aimed at persuading believers to look kindly at a man reviled for 2,000 years.

Mgr Brandmuller told fellow scholars it was time for a “re-reading” of the Judas story. He is supported by Vittorio Messori, a prominent Catholic writer close to both Pope Benedict XVI and the late John Paul II.

This, of course, immediately reminded me that a re-reading of Judas was an idea that intrigued Borges, who wrote a short story called “Three Versions of Judas” (1944). In that story, Borges uses this idea to subvert the ideas of heresy and treason. He writes about a fictitious Swedish theologian, Nils Runeberg, author of Christus och Judas and Den hemlige Frälsaren, and comments on the imaginary Runeberg’s imaginary books. First comes the controversial Christus och Judas (1904):

Like a certain German before him, de Quincey speculated that Judas had delivered up Christ in order to force Him to declare His divinity and set in motion a vast uprising against Rome’s yoke; Runeberg suggests a vindication of a metaphysical nature. Cleverly, he begins by emphasizing how superfluous Judas’ action was. He observes (as Robertson had) that in order to identify a teacher who preached every day in the synagogue and worked miracles in the plain sight of thousands of people, there was no need of betrayal by one of the teacher’s own apostles. That is precisely, however, what occurred. To assume an error in the Scriptures is intolerable, but it is no less intolerable to assume that a random act intruded into the most precious event in the history of the world. Ergo, Judas’ betrayal was not a random act, but predetermined, with its own mysterious place in the economy of redemption. Runeberg continues: The Word, when it was made Flesh, passed from omnipresence into space, from eternity into history, from unlimited joy and happiness into mutability and death; to repay that sacrifice, it was needful that a man (in representation of all mankind) make a sacrifice of equal worth. Judas Iscariot was that man. Alone among the disciples, Judas sensed Jesus’ secret divinity and His terrible purpose. The Word had stooped to become mortal; Judas, a disciple of the Word, would stoop to become an informer (the most heinous crime that infamy will bear) and to dwell among inextinguishable flames. As below, so above; the forms of earth correspond to the forms of heaven; the blotches of the skin are a map of the incorruptible constellations; Judas is somehow a reflection of Jesus. From that conclusion derive the thirty pieces of silver and the kiss; from that conclusion derives the voluntary death, so as even more emphatically to merit reprobation. Thus did Nils Runeberg explain the enigma that is Judas.

And Runeberg’s “magnum opus,” Den hemlige Frälsaren (”The Secret Redeemer”) (1909):

The book’s general argument is not complex, although its conclusion is monstrous. God, argues Nils Runeberg, stooped to become man for the redemption of the human race; we might well then presume that the sacrifice effected by Him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions. To limit His suffering to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is blasphemous. To claim that He was man, and yet was incapable of sin, is to fall into contradiction; the attributes impeccabilitas and humanitas are incompatible. [...] [F]or Runeberg, [Isaiah 53.2-3 is] the detailed prophecy not of a moment but of the entire horrendous future, in Time and in Eternity, of the Word made Flesh. God was made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity, man to the point of reprobation and the Abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the lives that weave the confused web of history: He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; he chose an abject existence: He was Judas.

… Drunk with sleeplessness and his dizzying dialectic, Nils Runeberg wandered the streets of Malmö, crying out for a blessing–that he be allowed to share the Inferno with the Redeemer.

“Three Versions of Judas” is classic Borges: straight-faced erudite commentary on fictitious books written by fictitious characters. His stories seem reasonably straightfoward while you’re reading them, and then you realize your notions have been subtly manipulated and subverted. Once Borges has become part of your mental furniture, so to speak, you’re done for. (I have quoted Andrew Hurley’s English translation, by the way. My Spanish is nowhere near good enough to attempt Spanish literature in the original.)

What do you, readers, think of Monsignor Brandmuller’s and Borges’ re-readings of Judas?

Filed under: Literature by dumpendebat at 2006/01/14 - 12:30

8 Comments »

  1. RP:

    Judas Iscariot seems to me to be a revision of a revision of a revision anyhow. It is very conventional to “re-read” Judas. Before “Judas” became the messiah’s betrayer, he was an ancestral god of the nation of Judah and of Jews (Judaei). Frazier in his study THE GOLDEN BOUGH shows that as “Jude,” or “Jeud” he was the “only-begotten son” of the Divine Father Isra-El. Judas was a dynastic name for pries-kings of Judea for a hundred years after Judas Maccabeus restored ancient sacrificial customs to the temple where the kingly name of Judas was commonly given victims sacrificed as surrogates for the reigning monarch.

    The traditional legend for Judas is an interesting parallel to other ancient priest-kings. He was born to a holy woman, was sent out to sea in a chest and washed up on the island of Scariot. The queen of the island raised him until he returned home to take service at Pilate’s court where he killed his father and married his mother. An early Christian tradition according to Otto Rank in his study of the hero myths, Judas joined the disciples to be cleansed of this sin.

    You know the Koran insists that Judas had the same face as Jesus (a twin?) and was crucified in his place. The Gospels are vague and contradictory about Judas as pointed out in your post from Runeberg. Why not something new!?

    Personally, I like best the connection between the betrayer in the eleventh hour to ancient Semitic astrology. The evening star–Shalem or Shalom–betrays the solar diety with a kiss and promise of Peace in the eleventh hour(the evening star and morning star–Venus–are the same by the way). The betrayer is also the one that loves the diety most and that is why he waits all night long until sun rise. Check out John 11:9.

    How any of this informs the literature of Borges I don’t know but it is interesting no?

  2. dumpendebat:

    Otto Rank was one of Freud’s disciples, right? If I’m not mistaken, Freud himself felt betrayed by members of his original “inner circle.” They were, under Freud’s influence, all very predisposed to see Oedipal parallels everywhere. What’s the title of Rank’s study of hero myths? Is it in print?

    I never heard any of those traditional myths, nor did I know Judas was mentioned in the Koran.

    This is fascinating stuff.

  3. RP:

    In Quest of the Hero by Otto Rank, Fitzroy Richard Somerset Raglan, Alan Dundes
    contains Rank’s Myth of the Birth of the Hero originally published in 1959.

    If you have your translation of the Koran handy, you can look up Muhammed’s argument against Jesus’ crucifixion:

    “And for their unbelief, and their uttering against Mary a mighty calumny, and for their saying
    ‘We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God’… yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them. Those who are at variance concerning him surely are in doubt regarding him, they have no knowledge of him, except the following of surmise; and they did not slay him of certainty… no indeed; God raised him up to Him; God is Almighty, All-Wise. There is not one of the people of the Book but will assuredly believe in him before his death, and on the Resurrection Day he will be a witness against them.” (Koran 4:156-159)

    Christians argue that this idea comes from the GOSPEL OF BARNABAS but who is to say?

    I wrote a research paper on this a few years back. I only touched on Judas…my research question was “Is the historicity of Jesus more important theologically and culturally than his historio-mythical antecedents?” Something like that. One of my conclusions was that there is almost no actually historical evidence for a Jesus of Nazareth. There wasn’t even a Nazareth! Anyone who honestly and thoroughly looks at the historical record will come to the same conclusion: Not only are the miracles and parentage a matter of faith–so is His very existence. Dominic Crossan’s THE HISTORICAL JESUS will blow your mind. As a person who actually existed in history, Jesus is irrelevant; as a conflation of Jewish and Pagan myth, Jesus is obviously an extremely powerful character of shared history though not actually historical.

    If you do the research all sorts of interesting tidbits present themselves. Here’s one: Barabbas, the convict released in exchange for Jesus, has a name that means in Aramaic “Son of the Father” a title of a sacred king.

    Read Freud’s essay “Moses and Monotheism” for some really interesting analysis. Academics have “discredited” Freud’s findings in that last of his intellectual pursuits although I’ve never been able to find out exactly why.

    Your range of intellectual curiosity never ceases to amaze shipmate!

  4. Hanque:

    RP, I’m not sure where you’re getting the “twin face” aspect of Judas and Jesus. As you point out, the Qur’an certainly addresses the personality of Jesus, but to my knowledge there is no reference to Judas in it. The status of Jesus and the crucifixion is debated by some in the Islamic theology community. Check out this URL for some further information about the debate:

    http://www.muslim.org/islam/deathj-denffer.htm

    While the above URL is polemical, it has merit where language and translation are concerened.

    There is likely some Islamic exegetical scholarship devoted to Judas, but I haven’t heard of him being described as the one that was crucified in Jesus’ place. Who’s the exegete you’re relying upon for this one?

    As far as the translation referenced here, one must be cautious in the wholesale acceptance of translated works. As the above URL notes, there is some room for debate about the word used in the Qur’an to describe the status of Jesus.

    Good history of the personality of Jesus, RP.

    Excellent posting, shipmates. Same sentiments here that RP expressed.

  5. Dr Miguel-Angel Meizoso:

    I congratulate you for this blog and especially for your interest in Borges, the greatest intellectual poet since Shakespeare and Cervantes.

    Regarding the “Three versions of Judas”, by Sir Jorge Luis Borges, is Logic at its very best and thus challenges the central belief of Christian theology while revealing its incongruities. This work shows Borges as a finest theologian, that is, the creator “given reason of his faith” in the divinity of the Word. As a great immortal poet of all times, Borges was agnostic because he was sceptic, a very attentive reader. A Poet, basing his faith in the Word, cannot possible be an atheist as poor readers of Borges believe because themselves pretend to be so, for example the adolescent Spanish PM. Borges affirmed over and over again, as Bernard Shaw did before him, that every book worth reading was the work of the Holy Spirit, or the Muse, or Freud’s Unconscious (for him a modern version of the Jew and Greek previous mythologies) … to learn more, please visit our website at http://FriendsofBorges.net
    Thank you.

  6. Maggie:

    Muslims almost UNIVERSALLY accept the ’substitution’ story which looks like it is supported by the comments leaked regarding the ‘newly’ (haha) discovered apocrypha of Judas.

    Personally, I can’t wait to see the Nat’l Geo special on tomorrow night here in Beirut. As is always the case however, I doubt they’ll deal with our Islamic perspectives.

  7. Balls and Walnuts - dig the frog » Life immitates art: Borges on Judas:

    [...] By the way: don’t make the assumption that Runeberg is merely Borges’s altar ego, and that Borges is putting forward his own theories in “Three Versions of Judas.” The reader is referred to an interesting discussion on this blog post, and this essay on the short story (warning: pdf file). You’ll find a wide variety of views represented. [...]

  8. Blane Steben:

    It is not an optical illusion, it just looks like one.

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