Original version: 3 November 1997, Auburn, AL
Current version: 10 December 1997, Auburn, AL

I wrote this for Max Jones' eleventh grade English class. We were doing our section on Latin American literature and had just finished Ficciones by Jorge Luís Borges. I had three options for the end-of-book project: (i) do an artistic rendering of one or more of the important concepts in the book, (ii) do an analytical paper on the stories, or (iii) write a "Borgesian" short story which would fit in well with the rest of anthology. Well, I can't draw worth jack and I wasn't in the mood for literary criticism, so I opted for the short story. Normally I can't stand doing creative writing as a response to literature, but in this case our teacher had the good sense to actually give us creative freedom about the subject of the work as long as it fit within certain stylistic boundaries.

I sat around for a long time and didn't do anything with it. Then, sometime around the weekend before it was due, I was inspired by a post to alt.atheism which mentioned how the moral code presented in the books of the Bible, and later the moral code that those books were interpreted as advocating, shifted over time to correspond with the ethics of society. From there I came to the idea of mankind acting as a mirror for God's behavior, and the rest is history. After a few false starts I finally completed the first draft, revised it once before presenting it to the class, and then turned it in. Max, a hardcore Borges nut, loved it. I've mostly moved away from fantastic concept pieces and moved on to more psychological, realistic stories, but I still don't think that this is half bad, and if nothing else I had a ball writing it.

- CWJ, 6 December 1998

The Mirror of the Sanhedrin

I owe the discovery of Emmanuel Goldberg's 1534 The Mirror of the Sanhedrin to the search for a heresiarch and a binding error. When I borrowed the book from the Library of Theology in Brussels, it was incorrectly labelled Kristus och Judas, and I happened to be searching for that same tome. When I returned to my hotel--I had no time to examine the book while at the library--I found not Runeberg's thesis on the critical role of Judas, but Jan Eck's 1910 English translation of an obscure Jewish-Christian heresiarch. The edition--which I have before me--can be traced back to Oberdahl's 1873 Latin translation, which was published shortly after the translator accidentally discovered Goldberg's unpublished manuscript along with his journal, kept in a small shop of antique books under the title Text of Unknown Contents, Discovered 1534. The original manuscript was composed in Aramaic and written backwards--in order, I presume, to protect its heresy from discovery until the author was safely dead and beyond the reach of Inquisitors.

Goldberg seeks to answer, by way of a stunning heresy--to many, even a blasphemy--the manifold contradictions of Judaeo-Christian theology, which to Goldberg, a first generation Jewish convert to Christianity, were all too obvious. He begins by admitting two premises which his argument presupposes: (1) the revelation of Holy Scripture in the Bible, and (2) the primacy of human reason over any proposed doctrine.

His primary topic is the lack of continuity in God's interaction with mankind. He points to a series of different modes of interaction, from the original covenant with Adam in the Garden, through the Flood, Abraham, the Law, the Prophets, Jesus on Earth, and Jesus resurrected. Such fundamental changes, Goldberg declares, totally negate the orthodox doctrine of an eternal, ineffable God. Similarly, he refuses to accept the mystic's explicitly contradictory and unknowable God. Instead, he seeks "to find and illustrate the One God, revealed in Scripture, without extrabiblical interpolation, without contradiction, and in so doing demonstrate the Truth in those Scriptures using only their divine Revelation, and the rational Intellect which God Himself breathed into Adam at the birth of time."

Goldberg begins by blasphemously declaring such acts as the Flood and the bloody military campaigns conducted for Yahveh of the Hosts as "immoral, immature, ignorant; the acts of a simple-minded and bloodstained tyrant rather than a benevolent God." He refuses to accept that the sacrifice of so many for the sins of their forbearers and compatriots could ever be moral. His position is safe from the criticism that man is unfit to judge God's morality: he began by affirming the primacy of human reason. He does not concede the Gnostic heresy of Satanizing the God of the Hebrews, arguing that any perfect Absolute would never cause such a demiurge to be. Nor does he allow the dualistic God of the Kabbalists, arguing that such a notion--a God both perfectly Good and perfectly Evil--violates every law and instinct of human Intellect.

Left with no God of both Good and Evil, and denying the premise of a demiurge, Goldberg is left with a few truths: the God of the Scriptures changes its laws and covenants with man. It commits immoral acts, but the further into the Bible one goes, the more God becomes "less the Tyrant and more the Father." Here Goldberg points to two parallel events, which he considers consummate moments in Biblical history: the aborted sacrifice of Isaac and the completed sacrifice of Christ.

God's demand that Abraham sacrifice his firstborn is summed up by Goldberg as "a perversion of every moral we have, a needless test of blind devotion by way of child sacrifice, to be expected only of a Devil, of Molech, or of an insane tyrant." However, God Himself becomes at the last moment aware of His error, and replaces the child with a ram that Abraham can, in good conscience, sacrifice. God seems to sense that if His expectations can bring a man to kill his own son, then His law must be changed. Similarly, when God reveals Himself as Yahveh of the Hosts, fierce and defensive of His sons (the Israelites) in order to atone for so disregarding Abraham's progeny before, those sons willingly execute the barbarous "cleansing" of pagan tribes from Canaan. When He withdraws to rule only through His Law, the people drift toward pagan idols that seem more attentive to their needs.

The Prophets, to Goldberg, mark God's return to active interaction with the Earth. He sees them as precursors to God's final exertion of God's total power upon the Earth: Jesus Christ. But just as flaunting power was immoral with Abraham and with the Canaanites, so too was bringing to Earth a power so intense that it could destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. When He asserts His wisdom through Christ, but refuses to accept the wisdom of others or to make sacrifices when he expects other to sacrifice, God's hypocrisy naturally engenders hypocrisy and petty assertion of power in people. "After all," argues Oberdahl in his introduction, "should it not be that the tribe that God Himself has proclaimed His should emulate His behavior? And does not Jesus say, 'do to others what you would have them do to you?' (Matthew 7:12) Is his counsel not wise? Will not one's behavior toward others engender the same behavior in others toward him?"

Thus we come to what Goldberg considers the critical point of God's moral history: the Council of the Sanhedrin exerts the same petty power over the body of Christ that God has exerted over man, and reflects the same self-righteous indignation and hypocrisy that God has shown since Genesis. Realizing His error again, for the first time in history God has the humility and justice to allow man to judge God, and to allow the Sanhedrin to condemn His Son to death. He reverses the ancient crime against Abraham by sacrificing His own Son for the moral betterment of man.

Goldberg argues that God is imperfect, but that history can be seen as a great dialectic, as God betters Himself morally by observing man's reactions to His actions. At certain critical points in history, and to a lesser extent constantly, God realizes His moral errors, and adjusts His behavior, as a man adjusts his appearance in a mirror. Goldberg's argument would, of course, be incomplete if he simply assumed that God's moral journey ended at Golgotha. Instead, he argues that since every moral failing of man reflects one of god, God's failings will continue until man is perfect and the Kingdom of God that Christ fortold reigns on Earth.

After the main body of The Mirror of the Sanhedrin is an addendum which Goldberg titles "Corollaries." He introduces the second part by saying that he has reserved all extrabiblical interpolations for this addendum, so that they would not pollute (his own word) the primary thesis.

His first conjecture turns covenant theory on its head: he asserts that the many "covenants" that God has formed with man (the primary ones being the Old Covenant with Abraham, formalized with Moses on Sinai; and the New Covenant, embodied in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ) are not manifestations of an eternal God in the temporal sphere, but the provisional laws of an ever-changing God. There is no contradiction when Jesus replaces the six hundred and more mitzvot with only two laws (Matthew 22:36-40), nor when the mitzvot supplanted the Great Covenant with Abraham. As steps in the great dialectic of God's morality, any given Commandment can only be considered temporary.

His second concerns the Kingdom of God, which he denies can ever truely be. He states that the Kingdom can only be viewed as a state of moral perfection in both Heaven and Earth, and Goldberg denies God this final victory: "As moral perfection must be--by its very concept--infinite in goodness, and God is now finite in goodness, there is no increase that could ever make that finity infinite. This Kingdom, then, which Jesus Christ and John of Patmos fortold, is the limit which God's goodness approaches into eternity, but never reaches in actuality."

His final and most intriguing conjecture speculates on the causality and purpose of God. It would leave any conception of God "emasculated and incomplete, totally unworthy of rational Intellect," he argues, to attribute eternity and inscrutability to the existence of God, while leaving the mortal world and its moral dialectic contingent and dependent on His mere whim. He also proposes and then rejects the principle of an infinite series of Gods, each creating a God below Himself to improve morally, with the God of the Scripture creating humans. Goldberg argues that the Earth would be a great incongruity in this infinite chain of Gods; if any given God was created with the intent of creating another God to better Himself morally, then there should be no reason for the God of Scripture to create Adam instead of yet another God. To restore congruity, he postulates that the causality of God and man is wholly circular: God passes divine life into man, in order to better Himself morally, but at the same time, for the same reason, man's rational intellect brings the concept of God into actuality. As Goldberg says, "The single instant of Creation: God creates Adam, while Adam creates God."

The day he completed "Corollaries," Goldberg recorded in his journal that he feared for his very life, having revealed the true nature of God. Fearing that he had committed a blasphemy like those that spoke the ineffable Name of God, he was seen in the streets, trembling and loudly begging God for forgiveness. It seems, however, that a freak accident saved him from divine wrath: he was struck down by a thunderbolt at four o' clock in a sudden and unexpected storm.


The central idea of my story is laid out directly, because it details a book which argues the same idea. God is a reflection of his followers, and vice verse. I chose the approach of detailing an invented book for more than one reason: firstly, it is typically Borgesian (eg, "Tlön," "Al-Mutasim.") It is also the most direct way of presenting a thesis--to simply state it. Finally, the store is based especially on "Three Versions of Judas," so its apprach--the description of the invented arguments of a fictional heresiarch--is naturally similar.

As I mentioned, the archetype for this story is "Three Versions of Judas." Emmanuel Goldberg is based on Nils Runeberg, including his fear and death. However, the argument is inverted: Runeberg argues from God's perfection to deny Scripture; Goldberg argues for God's imperfection from the veracity of Scripture.

I believe I succeeded in attempting to imitate Borges. The story includes several Borgesian elements: mirrors (that much is even in the title), duplication, circles (see the creation instant), infinite vs. finite, incorporating elements from other stories (eg, Runeberg), etc. I did not overly imitate Borges' writing (although it probably resembles it in places). After all, I would like some part of this to be mine.

Written and maintained by Charles W. Johnson (cwj2@eskimo.com).
This page copyright 1997 by Charles W. Johnson.
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