Jorge Luis Borges: Three Versions of Judas

Jorge Luis Borges

There seemed a certainty in degradation.

L. E. Lawrence: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, CIII


In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Before essaying an examination of the aforementioned works, it is necessary to repeat that Nils Runeberg, a member of the National Evangelical Union, was deeply religious. In the intellectual circles of Paris or even of Buenos Aires, a man of letters might well rediscover Runeberg’s theses; these theses, set forth in such circles, would be frivolous and useless exercises in negligence or blasphemy. For Runeberg, they were the key to one of the central mysteries of theology; they were the subject of meditation and analysis, of historical and philological controversy, of pride, of jubilation and of terror. They justified and wrecked his life. Those who read this article should also consider that it registers only Runeberg’s conclusions, not his dialectic or his proof. Someone may observe that the conclusion no doubt preceded the “proof.” Who would resign himself to seeking proof of something he did not believe or whose preachment did not matter to him?

The first edition of Kristus och Judas bears the following categorical epigraph, whose meaning, years later, Nils Runeberg himself would monstrously expand: “Not one, but all of the things attributed by tradition to Judas Iscariot are false” (De Quincey, 1857). Preceded by a German, De Quincey speculated that Judas reported Jesus to the authorities in order to force him to reveal his divinity and thus ignite a vast rebellion against the tyranny of Rome; Runeberg suggests a vindication of a metaphysical sort. Skillfully, he begins by stressing the superfluity of Judas’ act. He observes (as does Robertson) that in order to identify a teacher who preached daily in the synagogue and worked miracles before gatherings of thousands of men, betrayal by an apostle is unnecessary. This, nevertheless, occurred. To suppose an error in the Scriptures is intolerable; no less intolerable is to admit an accidental happening in the most precious event in world history. Ergo, Judas’ betrayal was not accidental; it was a preordained fact which has its mysterious place in the economy of redemption. Runeberg continues: The Word, when it was made flesh, passed from ubiquity to space, from eternity to history, from limitless satisfaction to change and death; in order to correspond to such a sacrifice, it was necessary that one man, in representation of all men, make a sacrifice of condign nature. Judas Iscariot was that man. Judas, alone among the apostles, sensed the secret divinity and terrible intent of Jesus. The Word had been lowered to mortal condition; Judas, a disciple of the Word, could lower himself to become an informer (the worst crime in all infamy) and reside amidst the perpetual fires of Hell. The lower order is a mirror of the higher; the forms of earth correspond to the forms of Heaven; the spots on one’s skin are a chart of the incorruptible constellations; Judas in some way reflects Jesus. Hence the thirty pieces of silver and the kiss; hence the suicide, in order to merit Reprobation even more. Thus Nils Runeberg elucidated the enigma of Judas.

Theologians of all confessions refuted him. Lars Peter Engström accused him of being unaware of, or omitting, the hypostatic union; Axel Borelius, of renewing the heresy of the Docetists, who denied that Jesus was human; the rigid Bishop of Lund, of contradicting the third verse of the twenty-second chapter of the gospel of St. Luke.

These varied anathemas had their influence on Runeberg, who partially rewrote the rejected book and modified its doctrine. He left the theological ground to his adversaries and set forth oblique arguments of a moral order. He admitted that Jesus, “who had at his disposal all the considerable resources which Omnipotence may offer,” did not need a man to redeem all men. He then refuted those who maintain 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 clean lepers, to raise the dead and cast out demons (Matthew 10:7-8; Luke 9:1). A man whom the Redeemer has thus distinguished merits the best interpretation we can give of his acts. To attribute his crime to greed (as some have done, citing John 12:6) is to resign oneself to the basest motive. Nils Runeberg proposes the opposite motive: a hyperbolic and even unlimited asceticism. The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, vilifies and mortifies his flesh; Judas did the same with his spirit. He renounced honor, morality, peace and the kingdom of heaven, just as others, less heroically, renounce pleasure.[1] With terrible lucidity he premeditated his sins. In adultery there is usually tenderness and abnegation; in homicide, courage; in profanity and blasphemy, a certain satanic luster. Judas chose those sins untouched by any virtue: violation of trust (John 12:6) and betrayal. He acted with enormous humility, he believed himself unworthy of being good. Paul has written:

“He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (I Corinthians 1:31); Judas sought Hell, because the happiness of the Lord was enough for him. He thought that happiness, like morality, is a divine attribute and should not be usurped by humans.[2]

Many have discovered, post factum, that in Runeberg’s justifiable beginning lies his extravagant end and that Den hemlige Frälsaren is a mere perversion or exasperation of Kristus och Judas. Toward the end of 1907, Runeberg completed and corrected the manuscript text; almost two years went by without his sending it to the printer. In October 1909, the book appeared with a prologue (tepid to the point of being enigmatic) by the Danish Hebraist Erik Erfjord and with this perfidious epigraph: “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (John 1:10). The general argument is not complex, though the conclusion is monstrous. God, argues Nils Runeberg, lowered Himself to become a man for the redemption of mankind; we may conjecture that His sacrifice was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by any omission. To limit what He underwent to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is blasphemous.[3] To maintain he was a man and incapable of sin involves a contradiction; the attributes of impeccabilitas and of humanitas are not compatible. Kemnitz admits that the Redeemer could feel fatigue, cold, embarrassment, hunger and thirst; we may also admit that he could sin and go astray. The famous text “For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:2-3) is, for many, a future vision of the Saviour at the moment of his death; for others (for example, for Hans Lassen Martensen), a refutation of the beauty which vulgar opinion attributes to Christ; for Runeberg, the punctual prophesy not of a moment but of the whole atrocious future, in time and in eternity, of the Word made flesh. God made Himself totally a man but a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of reprobation and the abyss. To save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which make up the complex web of history; He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; He chose the vilest destiny of all: He was Judas.

In vain the bookshops of Stockholm and Lund proposed this revelation to the public. The incredulous considered it, a priori, an insipid and laborious theological game, the theologians scorned it. Runeberg sensed in this ecumenical indifference an almost miraculous confirmation. God had ordained this indifference; God did not want His terrible secret divulged on earth. Runeberg understood that the hour had not yet arrived. He felt that ancient and divine maledictions were converging upon him; he remembered Elijah and Moses, who on the mountain top covered their faces in order not to see God; Isaiah, who was terrified when he saw the One whose glory fills the earth; Saul, whose eyes were struck blind on the road to Damascus; the rabbi Simeon ben Azai, who saw Paradise and died; the famous sorcerer John of Viterbo, who became mad when he saw the Trinity; the Midrashim, who abhor the impious who utter the Shem Hamephorash, the Secret Name of God. Was he not perhaps guilty of that dark crime? Would this not be the blasphemy against the Spirit, the one never to be forgiven (Matthew 12:31)? Valerius Soranus died for having divulged the hidden name of Rome; what infinite punishment would be his for having discovered and divulged the horrible name of God?

Drunk with insomnia and vertiginous dialectic, Nils Runeberg wandered through the streets of Malmo, begging at the top of his voice that he be granted the grace of joining his Redeemer in Hell.

He died of a ruptured aneurysm on the first of March, 1912. The heresiologists will perhaps remember him; to the concept of the Son, which seemed exhausted, he added the complexities of evil and misfortune.

[1] Borelius inquires mockingly: “Why didn’t he renounce his renunciation? Or renounce the idea of renouncing his renunciation?”

[2] Euclides da Cunha, in a book unknown to Runeberg, notes that for the heresiarch of Canudos, Antonio Conselheiro, virtue “was almost an impiety.” The Argentine reader will recall analogous passages in the work of Almafuerte. In the symbolist sheet Sju insegel, Runeberg published an assiduous descriptive poem, The Secret Waters; the first stanzas narrate the events of a tumultuous day; the last, the discovery of a glacial pond; the poet suggests that the permanence of those silent waters corrects our useless violence and in some way allows and absolves it. The poem ends as follows: “The waters of the forest are good; we can be evil and suffer.”

[3] Maurice Abramowicz observes: “Jesus, d’après ce scandinave, a toujours le beau rôle; ses déboires, grâce à la science des typographes, jouissent d’une réputation polyglotte; sa résidence de trente-trois ans parmi les humains ne fut, en somrne, qu’une villégiature” Erfjord, in the third appendix to the Christelige Dogmatik, refutes this passage. He notes that the crucifixion of God has not ceased, for what has happened once in time is repeated ceaselessly in eternity. Judas, now, goes on receiving his pieces of silver, goes on kissing Christ, goes on throwing the coins into the temple, goes on making a noose in the rope on the field of blood. (Erfjord, in order to justify this affirmation, invokes the last chapter of the first volume of Jaromir Hladik’s Vindication of Eternity.)


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