Origen does paint a very sympathetic picture of Judas in his writings – and is always at pains to emphasise that Judas never completely lost his humanity except for the time when he was taken over by Satan – between when he was offered the bread at the Last Supper and when he Jesus was in the hands of the authorities at which point Satan left him although Satan in the end persuaded him to kill himself – and Judas gave in to this temptation. When he decided to kill himself this was because he hoped to beg forgiveness of Jesus in the world to come – but this was at Satan’s instigation; Judas did not need to kill himself. This is Samuel Laechuli’s synopsis of the relevant writings by Origen – all done with scholarly apparatus citing the sources. So it seems that the tradition that Judas planned to beg forgiveness in the world to come does come from Origen. But the idea that the implication here is Universalist seems to be wide of the mark.
I have a few observations to make here. Laechuli was writing in the late 1950’s and he appears to doubt that Origen was actually a Universalist . He talks about how it is a mistake to judge ‘Origen only from Peri Archon (that is ‘De Principiis’ in Latin) and its dubious fragments from the time of Justinian’. Obviously since the time when Laechuli was writing Scholarship in the field of Origen has made great strides and, as many of us know, the research of Illaria Ramelli has demonstrated that Origen most certainly was not only a universalist but the first to give a systematic exposition of Christian universalism. But why is there no apparent hint of Judas’ salvation in the commentaries. I can only hazard a few guesses and an expert would be needed to confirm or deny any of these.
First we know that Origen does not always affirm universal salvation in his writings and that he considered this a doctrine for the ears of spiritually mature Christians. So it makes perfect sense that Origen would not trumpet this doctrine to the pagan Celsus. Regarding the relevant surviving commentaries, chiefly the early one on John and the late work on Matthew, I wonder what the intended audience for these was. Were they for mature Christians or were they intended as a preaching resource for al Christians at all stages of maturity. If the latter is the case then an affirmation of Judas’ salvation would not be appropriate to express openly in these. Laecheli remarks that in the Commentary on John Origen does not even hint at Jesus’ reconciliation with Judas (which one would expect from the author of De Principiis’): ‘To be sure, he does not claim damnation or future penalty. All he says is: Judas , having had, after the worst act, a chance at repentance, did not take advantage of it but became his won judge. Beyond this Origen does not dare to make any statement’. And of course this means that Origen does not state that Judas is damned.
Second, in the Commentaries Origen also shows himself as an astute textual scholar – I’ve gathered this much without being an Origen scholar. He does not simply harmonise the Gospels but also comments on their individual character. For example he notes how different John is from the Synoptics and calls it the ‘Spiritual Gospel’ as opposed to the literal one (John’s purpose was to begin out the spiritual meaning of the story told by the Synoptic). And he famously discusses the placing of the cleansing of the Temple at the start of Jesus ministry in John as not to be taken as literal truth –it is so obviously at variance with the literal/historical truth of Synoptics. He obviously also seems to understand that Matthew gives the most sympathetic portrayal of Judas. I say this because Leacheli includes a long footnote – number 60 – about Origen’s connection that Judas’s repentance was inspired by him thinking on the Resurrection. Apparently at this point the Latin text becomes confused – maybe because a universalist heretical passage has been covered over, Perhaps Origen did suggest that Judas despite committing suicide through the promptings of Satan, did meet the resurrected Christ who forgave him. Leachelli makes this hypothesis and then discounts it because the Commentary on John that we have in the full Greek original text makes no suggestion of Judas’s reconciliation. But it might be that in the Commentary on John Origen is doing an exegesis of John’s portrayal of Judas – that is not at all sympathies – whereas in his Commentary on Matthew he’s drawing other conclusions from Matthews’ largely sympathetic narrative and did express universalist thoughts that were edited out. It’s a long shot but it would be good to know what a contemporary Origen scholar thinks of this.
Third I really wish that I could see a translation of Sermon 117 from Origen’s Commentary on Matthew. I’ve read an article – which was not reliable because no quotations were given – that in this Origen cites a tradition that in fact all of the disciples betrayed Jesus and not Judas alone; and this is a point made by many contemporary exegetes on several grounds(including Barth apparently)– and it would be good to know for certain if Origen got there first ( intriguing if true).
Fourth, by the time that Origen was writing popular literature demonising Judas was readily available – the writings of Papias of Herapolis (ca 100AD) with their horrible account of Judas’s survival of hsi attempted suicide only to become so swollen with enormous genitals that he split open – were doing the rounds and this literature started to associate the demonic figure of Judas with the Jewish race and develop into grotesque persecution texts soon after Origen’s time To this great credit Origen will have none of this and doesn’t even bother to consider Papias’s account (at least not in his Commentaries that have survived – his Commentary on Luke/ Acts is only extant in small fragments; but I do note in this connection that Eusebius who praised Origen in his History of the Early Church discounted Papias as a credulous and ignorant man . A possible reason for Origen’s ‘enlightened’ attitude that occurs to me is that Origen by his own admissions - confirmed by the Eusebius - had studied with Jews and been friends with them in the course of compiling an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew scriptures for the Church and his close contact made him questions the stereotyping of Jews that was already in ascendancy in the Church of his day.
Fifth obviously Origen’s emphasis that Judas was not completely depraved is important for the idea of freewill that is central to his theology. However, the sympathy with which Origen proceeds in his portrayal of Judas also seems to suggest his universalism. In this connection I have one disagreement with Leucheli who gives the impression that Origen’s clear view always is that when Satan possessed Judas his humanity was left behind – I corrected this in my summary because I know that Origen in ‘Contra Celsus’ sees his humanity reasserting itself in the kiss in Gethsemane thus –
Origen, ‘Against Celsus’, from Chapter XI
‘…For be that betrayed Him gave to the multitude that came to apprehend Jesus, a sign, saying, “Whomsoever I shall kiss, it is he; seize ye him,”–retaining still some element of respect for his Master: for unless he had done so, he would have betrayed Him, even publicly, without any pretence of affection. This circumstance, therefore, will satisfy all with regard to the purpose of Judas, that along with his covetous disposition, and his wicked design to betray his Master, he had still a feeling of a mixed character in his mind, produced in him by the words of Jesus, which had the appearance (so to speak) of some remnant of good. For it is related that, “when Judas, who betrayed Him, knew that He was condemned, he repented, and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the high priest and elders, saying, I have sinned, in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. But they said, What is that to us? see thou to that;”–and that, having thrown the money down in the temple, he departed, and went and hanged himself. But if this covetous Judas, who also stole the money placed in the bag for the relief of the poor, repented, and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, it is clear that the instructions of Jesus had been able to produce some feeling of repentance in his mind, and were not altogether despised and loathed by this traitor. Nay, the declaration, “I have sinned, in that I have betrayed the innocent blood,” was a public acknowledgment of his crime. Observe, also, how exceedingly passionate was the sorrow for his sins that proceeded from that repentance, and which would not suffer him any longer to live; and how, after he had cast the money down in the temple, he withdrew, and went away and hanged himself: for he passed sentence upon himself, showing what a power the teaching of Jesus had over this sinner Judas, this thief and traitor, who could not always treat with contempt what he had learned from Jesus.’
Sixth the tradition that Judas hanged himself in order to beg forgiveness of Jesus has a history after Origen. In the Coptic late apocryphal text – the Acts of Paul and Andrew – which dates from the eight century Judas is forgiven for his treachery and given a second chance. He is taken to the desert to combat Satan but succumbs again; and when Jesus empties Hades in his Descent, Judas is the one soul that has to remain there. However, in the fourteenth century the Dominican preacher Vincent Ferrar – not to my knowledge a universalist in any other sense – takes that tradition and turns into a narrative of Judas’s salvation –
‘He said in his heart, ‘’since I cannot get near Christ with my corporeal feet, at least I shall meet him on Calvary by journeying in my mind, and once there I shall humbly beg pardon of him’’; and that he did this by hanging himself with a noose, and his soul flew thence to Christ on Calvary aforesaid, and therefore he begged for pardon, which Christ granted at once; and that from thence Judas rose with Christ into heaven where his soul is blessed with those of the other elect’.
Seventh and final - regarding the attitude to suicide in the Early Church, I don’t have expert knowledge but note the following from the little I have found out:
‘’Although none of the Jewish-Christian Apostles left teachings relating to suicide it is apparent that the early church took over Jewish traditions in its contrary attitude towards the sacredness of life and the excusability of suicide for religious.
However, martyrdom was highly regarded by the early church and the boundary between it and suicide proved to be a narrow one. A similar attitude seems to have been the case amongst Jews – suicide was condemned however in cases of extremis could be seen as a form of martyrdom following the example of Samson)
Tertullian addressing Christians in prison who were awaiting martyrdom, encouraged and strengthened them by citing the example of famous suicides including Lucretia, Dido and Cleopatra. Chrysostom and Ambrose both applauded Palagia, a girl of 15 who threw herself off the roof of a house rather than be captured by Roman soldiers. In Antioch, a woman called Domnina and her two daughters drowned themselves to avoid rape, an act which, as in the case of the Jews, was venerated.
Jerome also approved of suicide for religious reasons and did not condemn austerities which undermine the constitution and which might be regarded as slow suicide. He recounts, with the greatest admiration, the life and death of a young nun named Belsilla who imposed such penalties on herself that she died. Martyrdom eventually became so popular amongst the more fervent believers such as the Donatists that it threatened the credibility and, in places, the very existence of the church. How to respond to this fervour was a difficult task for leaders of a religion founded on Jesus’s voluntary submission to death and whose early leaders had all been slain in the course of duty.
It was Augustine who finally rose to the challenge and who is credited with clarifying Christian thinking on this subject… In `The City of God’ he carefully weighed up the various arguments for and against suicide, concluding that suicide was always wrong, that it was a violation of the sixth commandment and never justified even in religious extremis. By the 5th century suicide was regarded by the church as sinful in all circumstances.’’
Augustine’s total condemnation of suicide seems to be part of his opposition to the fanatical anti-Imperial Donatist sect who courted martyrdom and self starvation, refused to forgive those HCirstinas who recanted under the final Imperial persecution, and employed fanatical suicide troops in their wars against Imperial Catholic Christianity. The Church historian Frederick van der Meer gives the following, and uncharacteristically funny description of an incident related by Augustine in one of his letters -
‘He tells of a Catholic man who was accosted by a group of zealous Donatists. They threatened to kill him if he refused to “martyr” them. Thinking quickly, he agreed to kill them, but only if they first allowed him to bind them with rope to make his work easier. They consented, and when he had them secured he took a large stick, beat them soundly, and walked away.’’
Suffice to say that since Augustine’s time Judas’ suicide has been seen as evidence that his repentance was false and a sign only of damnable despair. Here is the key passage from ‘City of God’ –
Chapter 17.-Of Suicide Committed Through Fear of Punishment or Dishonor.
… Do we justly execrate the deed of Judas, and does truth itself pronounce that by hanging himself he rather aggravated than expiated the guilt of that most iniquitous betrayal, since, by despairing of God’s mercy in his sorrow that wrought death, he left to himself no place for a healing penitence? How much more ought he to abstain from laying violent hands on himself who has done nothing worthy of such a punishment! For Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man; but he passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime.
It seems to me that we shouldn’t read Augustine’s attitude towards Judas’ suicide back into Matthew’s narrative because attitudes towards suicide were more nuanced before Augustine. Yes it was nearly always seen as a bad thing – but not as such a sign of damnation in itself (I’m not suggesting that Judas could ever be seen as a martyr – just that it was not completely condemned and therefore even bad instances of it would not be seen as evidence of damnation before Augustine)