Sunday, April 09, 2006

Dear Judas

The new (and mis-called) "Gospel of Judas" is fascinating less as a bombshell (it's not) and more because it shows how soon after the life of Jesus people of theological sensibility were poking their heads into this intriguing warp in the story.

What does the Gospel of Judas say? The Gospel of Judas which was written on 26 pages with 13 sheets of papyrus with writing on both front and back, says that Jesus requested Judas to act as a traitor. Judas is not portrayed as a bad guy but more of a hero doing as Jesus asked of him. In the other Gospels Judas is viewed as a traitor that betrays Jesus. There is also a strong Gnostic perspective established in this text. Gnostic Christians believe that salvation comes from a secret knowledge that Jesus gave to his disciples.

Probably the best-known modern warp-poker was DeQuincey, who replaced Judas the traitor with Judas the misguided saint. DeQuincey's theory even has gained ground among renegade theologians:

DeQuincey made the famous suggestion that Judas played the traitor in order to force Jesus’ hand. Writhing with impatience as he watched his master apparently squandering one opportunity after another of asserting himself and claiming the throne, Judas at last decided that if Jesus would not take action of his own accord, he would have to be compelled to act. But how? Obviously the way to do it would be to get Jesus into a compromising situation. Then he would be forced to bestir himself and manifest his power. Then the Kingdom would come. [James Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ]

Robinson Jeffers, one of the most overlooked American poets of the 20th century, took his own view of the story in the long poem "Dear Judas" in 1929. The son of a Presbyterian minister and a church organist, raised a strict Calvinist, Jeffers felt his way into the core of the betrayal story armed with the language of Yeats and the stylistic shield of Japanese noh drama. He discovered a Judas who loves Jesus and understands him better than any of the other disciples do. But in Jerusalem Judas finds his master grown too fond of power. Judas betrays Jesus, hoping that the punishment meted to him will be a day or two in prison, in a bid to save Christ from the fate of being seized as a revolutionary and killed.

But my favorite revisionist treatment of the myth comes in "Three Versions of Judas," the 1944 story by Borges, about a fictional pious Swede named Nils Runeberg who, like Jeffers and DeQuincey, plunges into the puzzling story of the betrayal of Christ and comes out in a strange place. Like the best Borges, it is written in the voice of an encyclopedia -- not the bland modern thing that goes by that name, but the vital dance of fact and sure prose of an "Encyclopedia Britannica" from the 1920s or '30s, when articles were ghostwritten by geniuses, not educrats.

To suppose an error in Scripture is intolerable; no less intolerable is 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 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 dishonour abides), and welcome the fire which cannot 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. [Translated by Anthony Kerrigan]

"Runeberg's" version comes closest to that of the freshly translated gnostic story. But that is just the beginning. Borges' Runeberg (names matter: Borges, a student of Anglo-Saxon, would have known that Germanic *run- is a word of magic and power) follows his intuition into a stunning secret history more explosive than "The Da Vinci Code."

The general argument is not complex, even if the conclusion is monstrous. God, argues Nils Runeberg, lowered himself to be a man for the redemption of the human race; it is reasonable to assume that the sacrifice offered by him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions. To limit what he suffered to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is blasphemous.

And if you think I'm going to spoil the ending for you, you've got the wrong guy.