Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Man Who Should Never Have Been Born

Judas Iscariot, subject of a spate of recent books offering would-be gospels and spurious scholarship, would hardly seem hard up for attention. A recent offering, "Judas: A Biography" by Susan Gubar, synthesizes the 12th apostle's life as it exists in the four Gospels and as it endures in art, film and literature. Like many books of its kind, it treats the Gospel stories as just another set of texts, subjecting them to rough critical treatment, finding contradictions where none exist, picturing Judas as a stand-in for the West's tradition of anti-Semitism and the personification for the Jews' rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

The book also offers a chance to examine one of my favorite short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, "Three Versions of Judas." Published in Borges's "Collected Fictions," this odd little story is written as an academic essay. The style is so seamless that one might read the story and easily think its lists of publications, commentators and theologians actually existed.

Borges follows the career of Nils Runeberg, a Biblical scholar who revises his theory of who Judas was over his lifetime, inheriting the rising scorn of the theological world all the while. Runeberg starts out with the theory that Judas was a negative image of Christ - that as Christ came from heaven as the personification of God, Judas was the personification of man to lead him on the path to salvation. After earning the wrath of the critical public, Runeberg adjusts his theory in another book to say that Judas was instead sacrificing himself. As Christ gave up his divine omnipresence to endure the sins of the world, Judas renounced God in order to become evil that redemption might happen. His final theory, the most controversial, is that Judas was in fact, the incarnate God, "man to the point of inquity." Borges goes on to tell us that Runeberg later went through a kind of madness and died after extreme stress. "The writers on heresy, the heresiologists, will no doubt remember him; he added to the concept of the Son, which seemed exhausted, the complexities of calamity and evil."

All Biblical scholarship, of one stripe or another, bears the mark of the person doing it. Albert Schweitzer, who wrote his own book on the historical person of Jesus, later said that books about Jesus tell us more about the author than about Him. (For my money, the best one volume book of Gospel scholarship is "Jesus and the Gospels" by Craig Blomberg.) It's interesting that, in Borges' story, we have only the basic outline of Runeberg's life (Nils, meaning nothing) with little to tell us why he hit on these theories nor how he dealt with the rising stress in reaction to them.

It is commonplace in modern, popular books on the Bible to denegrate the Gospels' storytelling style, or to point out that they were never written as biographies in the modern sense. The first criticism ignores the undeniable fact that the Gospels are collectively the most successful persuasive texts ever written. The second allows the author to superimpose his own interpretations over the facts of the Christ story, or ignore the parts that are embarrassing or do not fit in.

But Judas presents an interesting problem. He was apparently chosen by Jesus to be a disciple, and with the knowledge that he would be the betrayer. Very little is recorded about him except that he betrayed Jesus, that he apparently stole from the collective purse, and that he killed himself in a fit of remorse. The idea that he is a stand-in for the Jews ignores the fact that the Gospels themselves attribute his betrayal to the work of Satan.

But the question of why continues to hang over Judas. The Gospels silence on this probably means that even the writers had a hard time understanding why one of Jesus' own handed Him over, and with a kiss. It is a familiar problem to anyone who studies crime, in life or in history. Ron Rosenbaum, in his "Explaining Hitler," asks similar questions about Hitler by examining those who spend their lives studying the life of the Fuhrer. What is the nature of evil? Was Hitler evil? Was he consciously evil, or was he convinced of his own rectitude? The same can be asked of Judas.

Perhaps Runeberg's first hypothesis was correct - Judas, if he represents anyone, stands in for the human race. Given free will, man can accept or reject Jesus as savior. As Judas demonstrated, a man can walk and talk and live with Jesus and in the end reject him with a kiss. It's not that there's necessarily any opposition to anything Jesus says or does - as the song goes, "Jesus Is Just Alright With Me." It may be advantageous to agree with Jesus from time to time. But on one crucial point - which may not seem crucial at all - a break seems the right thing to do. It doesn't even seem like a break. There's no note of finality, or maybe there is. But like everything else, you can probably fix it later. Remorse may come, all too late, with not even a satisfactory explanation for why the break came in the first place. But suddenly, there is no chance to right the situation.

If all mankind is sinful, yet convinced of the goodness of its actions, then it isn't inconceivable that a man can perfectly recognize and still reject ultimate good. Borges' story, and Judas', reminds us that our own interpretations of good and evil may constantly change, but an answer must ultimately come.

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