Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Traitor Week #2: Judas Iscariot—"Do quickly what you're going to do"
I could have started Traitor Week with Judas, the ur-traitor in Western culture.
But everybody knows Judas, or thinks they do, so I decided to go chronologically and begin with Catiline, nearly a century earlier.
Plus Catiline has the benefit of being undeniably real, while Judas is obscured in the mist of the Biblical—while few suspect Jesus was spun from whole cloth, after that the factual nature of the disciples is hazy at best. But Judas was no doubt an important literary figure, whose famed treachery, whether it occurred or not, echoes to this day.
In the 34th and final canto of "The Inferno," after a gut-turning, heart-rending trip through all nine circles of Hell, replete with sorrow and torture, Dante gets to the very bottom, the sump of the pit, and his guide Virgil turns to him and says, in essence "Okay, now here you have to brace yourself." ("Ecco il loco ove convien che di fortezza t'armi" literally, "Here is the place where you need to be a fortress.")
Which of course makes Dante go cold and feel faint, though that isn't anything new for him. The duo turn the corner and see Satan, a giant, buried to his chest in ice. Three faces on one head, a toothy mouth in each face, and in each mouth a sinner in agony, being chewed to bits.
"That guy," Virgil says to Dante, "Who suffers the most is Judas Iscariot."
Of course it is. Sins like greed and fornication are minor misdemeanors compared to betrayal, and Judas is the very definition. To be a Judas means betrayal. What's interesting to me is though almost every soul they meet in Hell is closely quizzed by Dante, allowing the damned to recount the crimes that earned them eternal damnation.
There is no such questioning of Judas. He never speaks. The reader knows. Judas betrayed Jesus Christ to the Romans, he led them to the Garden of Gesthemone. That's pretty much his entire role in the Bible. He does little else.
The tougher question is why, and here even the Gospels disagree. Greed—those 30 pieces of silver. The aforementioned Satan injecting himself into his heart. That's the reading of John—Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him; the Gang of 12 immediately demand to know who, Jesus says, the person he is going to hand this bread to will betray him, gives it to Judas, saying "Do quickly what you're going to do."
Which sort of undercuts the obloquy that Judas has been held in for 2,000 years or, as Joan Acocella put it in the New Yorker: "If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act?"
Apparently yes. Remember that "Judas" is just the Greek rendering of "Judah," which is "Joe" for Jewish people. Judas has to betray Jesus to justify his co-religionists' persecution, though I don't see why the Pharasees aren't enough.
Once the Bible finishes with Judas, however, popular culture gets in its licks, although its interpretation of Judas cuts across the spectrum.
At one end, in Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita," Pilate is treated so sympathetically, he becomes the good guy—the most richly-drawn character in the book, certainly more appealing than Jesus. Yet Bulgakov doesn't even allow Judas to kill himself; Pilate orders him assassinated, a grab at redemption.
At the other extreme is the hit musical "Jesus Christ Superstar," which could have more accurately been called "Judas Iscariot Superstar," since it's really the story of his disillusionment with Jesus, his temptation, betrayal and remorse.
The remorse, I would suggest, is the essential part of the story. Remember, the Bible was crafted, in essence, as a guide to behavior, and Judas is the model for all who sin, who betray not Jesus, the man, but his teachings. You might get the silver now, but you'll be sorry later. That's the Christian template for sin.
Their policy in the personal realm, that is. In the political realm, when dealing with the sins of the powerful, we see another dynamic altogether. Christians line up to shrug sin off, when convenient, "Sure, Donald Trump sins. So do I. We are all flawed, all in need of grace." They wave away error. When they want to.
When they don't, it's damnation, both now and later.
Judas' motives come into play because motive is always a mitigating factor—are you doing what you think is right, or abandoning your principles for personal gain? The question of whether Trump genuflects before the Russians because he admires strongmen like Putin, because Putin has incriminating evidence against him, because of business interests, is something historians will argue over forever. My guess is that Putin saw something that 40 percent of the country couldn't: that Trump is a dumpster fire who will drive the country to the brink of ruin. So Putin backed Trump, as a way to strike at the country, and Trump fell in love with Putin because he is a broken man who adores anybody who likes him. The welfare of the country never crossed his mind. Which makes Trump worse than Judas. At least Judas thought about Jesus when betraying him. For Trump, the United States of America never crossed his mind, locked in fatal embrace with himself, doting on Trump, Trump, Trump, me, me, me, all the time. Who doubts that it is so?