Life imitates art: Borges on Judas
(To my regular readers: and now for something completely different. Isn’t it amazing what I’ll do to generate hits?)
Hang around here long enough, and I’ll bring up fantasist and poet Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite short story authors. Recent discussions on the Gnostic apocryphal Gospel of Judas reminded me of a story Borges published in 1944: “Three Versions of Judas.”
In “Three Versions of Judas,” Borges pulls out what is, for him, an oft-used trick: invent a scholar, invent that scholar’s corpus of work, then launch into a discussion which would past muster in any peer-reviewed journal. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” comes to mind. Nils Runeberg is the fictional academician of “Three Versions of Judas,” and it is the Runeberg heresies which are so relevant to the real life Gospel of Judas.
Runeberg sees Judas not as villain, but as a hero tantamount to Jesus:
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 apostles, 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 amid inextinguishable flames.
In response to criticism, Runeberg refines his thesis, and subsequently posits that Judas practiced “a hyperbolic, even limitless asceticism. The ascetic . . . debases and mortifies the flesh; Judas debased and mortified the spirit. . . . Judas sought hell because joy in the Lord was enough for him.”
But in the following years, Runeberg’s theories evolve further.
God, argues Nils Runeberg, stooped to become man for the redemption of the human race; we might well then presume that the sacrifice effecteed 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.
This leads Runeberg to the conclusion,
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.
So: those of you who are still trying to get your head around the idea of Judas as, not betrayer, but dutiful disciple following Jesus’ bidding, take heart. Borges went much further.
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.
My opinion? First and foremost, we writers write to entertain ourselves. Borges, author of such intricate gems as “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “The Immortal,” must have had a mind as complex as any Far Eastern tapestry. His entertainments needs must have been labyrinthine indeed. It would have taken one hell of a riddle to titillate Borges, and that’s all “Three Versions of Judas” is: a fine puzzle, mind candy for the erudite. One shouldn’t mistake it for serious theology.
We will now return to our regular schedule programming.