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 Gesthemane. 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 entered into it. Which makes Trump worse than Judas. At least Judas thought about Jesus when betraying him. For Trump, the United States of America, its needs and interests, never crossed his mind, the mind of a man locked in fatal embrace with himself, doting on Trump, Trump, Trump, me, me, me, all the time. Who doubts that it is so? 


  1. "Trump fell in love with Putin because he adores anybody who likes him. The welfare of the country never crossed his mind."

    That's it in a nutshell.

    The pathology is the script. He is incapable of doing anything but following the script of the pathology.

  2. I think the spoiled child-president is capable of veering off-script, but only if the GOP controlled Congress slaps his fat face. Trump is guilty of treasonous acts and a compliant Congress is guilty of complicity.

  3. "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?"

    This gets into the whole interesting (or tiresome, YMMV) question of God's knowledge vs. man's will. As the omniscient son of God, Jesus knew what would be done to him, and by whom. But Judas' act was nonetheless the result of his free will, even though the act and its consequences were foreseen.

    There's no denying that Judas plays a central role in the Christian mythos. In "The Deputy," a Vatican priest, in mortified frustration at Pius XII's refusal to explicitly denounce the Holocaust, considers assassinating him and blaming the Nazis. He compares his role to that of Judas: "He knew he would be damned for all eternity. His sacrifice was greater than the Lord's."

  4. Judas's name is synonymous with traitor; to be a Judas is understood, even in modern times. I'll bet no one you've ever met is named Judas. (There are quite a few Damiens, pop culture notwithstanding). Judas, as one of the Disciples, goes mostly unmentioned in the Bible until his betrayal of Jesus. It was the role he was destined to play. But, yes, he acted of his own free will.

  5. Unfortunately Trump's failings are, as you say, excused by his followers because of supposed "Christian" compassion for the sinner. Funny how that compassion isn't for the poor. The very poor that their "savior" commanded them to take care of.
    When confronted with a wealthy man who wanted to follow him, Christ commanded that he give his all of his wealth and possessions to the poor. When told it was an impossibility, Christ said "and that is why you cannot follow me". Such it is with the "eye of a needle" parable.
    "It is easier for a Camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy man to enter the kingdom of Heaven." Not to mention "How you treat the least among you is also how you treat me."
    This is clearly a command to take care of the least fortunate.
    Like Bill Maher, Religion is so full of hypocrisy as to make me shudder in revulsion. However, I do understand its place in society and its importance in shaping civilization so I don't demean it among its followers or their practice in private - but abhor it as a basis of any one law or system of beliefs where government is concerned.
    Boy, did i get off track.
    Um, ya Fuck Trump and his psychological need for being liked by the already powerful

  6. I wake up each day and wonder what creepy ol' Donald Trump has done while I was sleeping. I just get a little angry about all of it.

    You, my friend, so eloquently analyze his actions. You skewer him so accurately. You are probably angry, too. But it doesn't really taint your words like my anger colors mine.

    I can't wait to see what you will publish tomorrow.

  7. Jesus knows the future, so is Judas at fault? In Superstar, Jesus tells Pilate, who tells him he holds his life in his hands: "You have nothing in your hands. Any power you have comes to you from far beyond. Everything is fixed, and you can't change it." In the gospels, his predictions concerning Judas, Peter, and others suggest this inevitable process, not an ongoing chain of events.

    Is it free will when God has placed the participants where they'll perform the needed tasks?

  8. I don't know who's worse: Trump or the Repulican slugs in congresss who will huff and puff and show sufficient outrage for 20 minutes and then go back to licking Trump's whatever. If they don't, the Trump base will vote them out of their cushy jobs doing absolutely nothing, and heaven forbid, they may have to find actual jobs. I'm sick of the fucking lot of them.

  9. Bulgatov is not the only author to render a sympathetic portrait of Pontius Pilate. In a short story titled "the Procurator of Judea," he has Pilate Pilate, now retired to his estates in Sicily, recounting to an old friend, the difficulties he encountered trying to rule Palestine. He had tried to rule "mildly," but the Jewish priests were always after him to put someone to death for religious apostasies he didn't really understand. There were so many, he didn't really recall the trial and execution of one called Jesus.


    1. Sorry, I neglected to identify the author: Anatole France.


    2. Tom, I'm sure you know that Anatole France during a tour of Lourdes with all the crutches, walkers, wheelchairs and other implements abandoned by erstwhile cripples hanging from the walls, queried, "What no wooden legs?"

  10. Do not try to make sense out of the bible. By chapter two of Genesis we learn that Woman was an after thought in the creation story. If Adam had been happy living with the animals he named in the garden, Eve wouldn't have entered the stage. How could any woman believe this story unless she assumed it was just the imaginings of a bronze age man ignorant of science? Neil, your dumpster fire theory survives Occam's razor but I think there is something about Atlantic City and the failed casinos, unpaid contractors and Russian oligarchs overpaying for Trump properties that will be his downfall. Perhaps it will entail state charges that cannot be pardoned by his successor. We can only hope.


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