There seemed a certainty in degradation.
-T. E. Lawrence: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, CIII
In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides wrote that the cosmos was a reckless or evil improvisation of less-than-capable angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with a singular intellectual passion, one of the gnostic conventicles. Dante would have relegated to him, perhaps, a sepulchre of fire; his name would have bolstered the catalogues of minor heresiarchs, between Satornilo and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preaching, exonerated from injury, would have survived in the apocryphal Liber Adversus omnes haereses, or would have perished when the fire of a monastic library consumed the ultimate example of the Syntagma. Instead, God gave to him the twentieth century and the college town of Lund. Here, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas; here, in 1909, his most important book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter, there exists a German version, translated in 1912 by Emili Schering; it is titled Der heimliche Heiland.)
Before attempting an examination of the aforementioned works, it is paramount to restate that Nils Runeberg, member of the National Evangelical Union, was deeply religious. In a cenacle of Paris, or even Buenos Aires, an intellectual might very well have rediscovered Runeberg’s theses; these theses, proposed in a cenacle, would have been flimsy, useless exercises in negligence or blasphemy. For Runeberg, they were the key which deciphered a mystery central to theology; they were the subject of meditation and analysis, of historical and philological controversy, of pride, of joy, and of terror. They justified and upheaved his life. The reader should consider that this article only records Runeberg’s conclusions, and not his dialectic methods and proofs. The reader may also observe that the conclusion precedes the “proofs”. Who would resign oneself to searching for evidence in favour of something that one does not believe in, or to whom the preaching does not matter?
The first edition of Kristus och Judas bears this categorial epigraph, whose meaning, years later, would be monstrously expanded by Nils Runeberg himself: Not one thing– all things that tradition attributes to Judas are false (De Quincey, 1857). Preceded by some German, De Quincey speculated that Judas handed over Jesus in order to force him into declaring his divinity, and to incite a vast revolution against the yoke of Rome; Runeberg suggests a vindication of metaphysical nature. Cleverly, he begins by highlighting the superfluidity of the act of Judas. Runeberg observed (as Robertson did) that to spotlight a prophet who regularly preached in synagogues and performed miracles before scores upon scores of men, the betrayal of an apostle is not necessary. This, however, happened. To suppose that there was an error in the Scriptures is unacceptable; no less acceptable is admitting a chance occurrence in the most precious event of the history of the world. Ergo, Judas’ betrayal was not incidental; it was a predetermined act that 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 bliss to mutation and flesh; to correspond with such a sacrifice, it was necessary that a man, in representation of all men, would make a like sacrifice. Judas Iscariot was that man. Judas, unique amongst the apostles, intuited the secret divinity and terrible purpose of Jesus. The Word had lowered itself to the status of mortality. Judas, disciple of the Word, could lower himself to the status of informer (the worst crime this infamy bears) and become the chalice of a fire that cannot be extinguished. This inferior order is a mirror of the superior order; the forms of the earth correspond to the forms of the sky; birthmarks are a map of the incorruptible constellations; Judas reflects, in some manner, Jesus. Hence the thirty pieces of silver and the kiss; hence the voluntary death, hence the deserved Damnation. This is how Nils Runeberg has solved the enigma of Judas.
Theologians of all denominations refuted him. Lars Peter Engström accused him of ignoring, or neglecting, the hypostatic union; Axel Borelius charged him with renewing the heresy of the Docetists, who negated the humanity of Jesus; the steely bishop of Lund denounced him for contradicting the third verse of chapter twenty-two of the Gospel of St. Luke.
These varied anathemas had an influence on Runeberg, who partially rewrote the scorned book and modified his doctrines. He abandoned his adversaries in the theological arena and proposed oblique reasons of the moral order. He admitted that Jesus, “who had the considerable resources that Omnipotence offered”, did not need a man to redeem all men. He refuted, later, those who affirmed that we know nothing of the inexplicable traitor; we know, he said, that he was one of the apostles, elected to herald the kingdom of heaven, to heal the sick, to cleanse lepers, to resurrect the dead, and to cast out demons (Matthew 10:7-8; Luke 9:1). A man whom the Redeemer has thus distinguished deserves from us the best interpretations of his deeds. Attributing his crime to greed (as some have done, citing John 12:6) is resigning oneself to the dullest of motives. Nils Runeberg proposes an opposing motive: a hyperbolic and nearly unlimited asceticism. The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, debases and mortifies the flesh; Judas did the same with the spirit. He renounced honour, goodness, peace, the kingdom of heaven, like others, less heroically, to pleasure.1 He premeditated with terrible lucidity his guilt. In adultery, tenderness and self-sacrifice are usually twins; in murder, courage; in desecration and blasphemy, a certain satanic glow. Judas chose those faults not visited by any virtue: breach of trust (John 12: 6) and betrayal. He acted with great humility, and believed himself unworthy of being good. Paul has written: Let the one who boasts, boast only of the Lord. (I Corinthians 1:31); Judas sought Hell, because the happiness of the Lord was enough for him. He thought that happiness, like good, is a divine attribute and that men should not usurp it.2
Many have discovered, post factum, that in the justifiable beginning of Runeberg is his extravagant end, and that Den hemlige Frälsaren is a mere perversion or extension of exacerbation of Kristus och Judas. At the end of 1907, Runeberg finished and revised the manuscript’s text; almost two years elapsed without delivery to the printer. In October of 1909, the book appeared with a prologue (tepid to the point of enigmaticity) by the Danish Hebraist Erik Erfjord, bearing this perfidious epigraph: In the world he was, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not (John 1:10). This general argument is not complex, even if the conclusion is treacherous. God, argues Nils Runeberg, lowered himself to be a man for the redemption of all men; it can be conjectured that it was the perfect sacrifice on his part, not invalidated or diminished by omissions. Limiting what he suffered to the agony of an afternoon on the cross is blasphemous.3 To affirm that he was a man and that he was incapable of sin contains a contradiction; the attributes of impeccabilitas and of humanitas are not compatible. Kemnitz admits that the Redeemer could feel hunger, thirst, exhaustion, cold, and confusion; it’s reasonable to admit that he could also sin and be damned. The famous text "He will sprout like a root in a dry soil; there is not good mien to him, nor beauty; despised of men and the least of them; a man of sorrow, and experienced in heartbreaks" (Isaiah 53:2-3) is for many a forecast of the Crucified in the hour of his death; to others (for instance, Hans Lassen Martensen), a refutation of the beauty that wretched masses attribute to Christ; for Runeberg, it is the punctual prophecy not of a moment but rather of all of the atrocities that are to come, in the moment and for all of eternity, of the Word made flesh. God subsumed himself totally to the status of mere man, even to the point of infamy, God became man to the point of damnation and abyss. To save us, he could have chosen any of the destinies that weave the tangled web of history; he could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; in the end, he chose the lowest destiny: he was Judas.
The libraries of Stockholm and of Lund proposed this revelation in vain. The unbelievers considered it, a priori, an insipid and laborious theological game; the theologians met it with much disdain. Runeberg intuited from that ecumenical indifference an almost miraculous conformation. God ordered that indifference; God did not want His terrible secret to propagate on earth. Runeberg understood that the time had not come: he sense that ancient, divine curses were converging on him; he remembered Elijah and Moses, who on the mountain covered their faces in order not to see God; he remembered Isaiah, who was terrified when his eyes beheld Him whose glory fills the earth; he remembers Saul, whose was blinded on the road to Damascus; he remembered the Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai, who saw Paradise and died; he remembered the famous soothsayer Annius of Viterbo, who went mad when he finally saw the Trinity; he remembered the Midrashim, who abhor the impious that pronounce Shem ha-Mephorash, the Secret Name of God. Was he not, by chance, to blame for those dark crimes? Would that not be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that which would not be pardoned (Matthew 12:31)? Valerio Sorano lost his life for having divulged the hidden name of Rome; what infinite punishment would be his for having discovered and divulged the terrible name of God?
Drunk with insomnia and dizzying dialectic, Nils Runeberg wandered through the streets of Malmö, begging loudly that he would be given the grace to share Hell with the Redeemer.
He died of a ruptured aneurysm on the first of March, 1912. Perhaps the writers on heresies will remember him; he added to the concept of the Son, which seemed exhausted, the complexities of evil and misfortune.
1. Borelius mockingly asks: “Why did he not renounce to renounce? Why not renounce renouncing?”
2. Euclydes da Cunha, in a book ignored by Runeberg, noted that for the heresiarch of Canudos, Antonio Conselheiro, virtue “was almost a lack of piety.” An Argentine reader may recall an analogous passage in the work of Almafuerte. Runeberg published, in the symbolist magazine Sju insegel, an assiduously descriptive poem called The Secret Water; the first stanzas narrate the events of a tumultuous day; the last, the finding of a glacial pool; the poet suggests that the eternalness of that silent water makes up for our useless violence, and that in some way, permits and absolves it. The poem concludes like this: The water of the jungle is happy; we can be wicked and painful.
3. Maurice Abramowicz observes: “Jésus, d’aprés ce scandinave, a toujours le beau rôle; ses déboires, grâce à la science des typographes, jouissent d’une réputabon polyglotte; sa résidence de trente-trois ans parmi les humains ne fut en somme, qu’une villégiature”. Erfjord, in the third appendix of the Christelige Dogmatik refutes this passage. He notes that the crucifixion of God has not ceased, because what happened once in time is repeated ceaselessly throughout eternity. Judas, now, continues to collect his pieces of silver; he continues to kiss Jesus Christ; he continues to hurl his pieces of silver at the temple; he continues to knot the hangman’s noose in a field of blood. (Erlord, to justify this statement, invokes the last chapter of the first volume of A Vindication of Eternity, by Jaromir Hladík).
Additional note: In the introduction of the section Artificios, from the larger collection known as Ficciones (1944), Borges writes: "Schopenhauer, De Quincey, Mauthner, Shaw, Chesterton, and Léon Bloy form the heterogenic census of the authors I continually re-read. In the Christological fantasy titled 'Three Versions of Judas' I think I perceive the remote influence of the last figure in that list."