In “Three Versions of Judas,” Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges presents a very short story that does not seem much like a story at all. Borges’s stories are often criticized for being overly philosophical and devoid of character, plot, and setting. Those who offer such critiques, however, often miss the parodic and playful nature of Borges’s writing.
Certainly, “Three Versions of Judas,” complete with lengthy footnotes and filled with the language of theological debate, seems more an academic article than fictional short story. It is in his creation of a fully fictional article, however, that Borges calls attention to the power of language to create alternate realities that exist nowhere but within language. Borges seems to suggest that readers need to take care in what they believe or disbelieve; if he is able to create an academic article peppered with quotations of both those who exist and those who do not, if he is able to patch together biblical text to make it say something very different from standard interpretation, what else is possible in the labyrinth of language? Are all belief systems nothing more than arguments built on faulty initial assumptions? Is there any ultimate reality behind the language that describes it—or is language all that there is?
The story opens with an unnamed narrator connecting an early twentieth century Swedish theologian, Nils Runeberg, to the Gnostic heresies of the second century, suggesting that Runeberg lived too late. Had he lived earlier, he would have been known as one of the great heretics of his day. Nevertheless, the narrator contends that Runeberg was a man of deep religious faith whose writing ultimately ruined his life.
“Three Versions of Judas” purports to be the summary of Runeberg’s reasoning concerning the natures of Jesus and Judas. Runeberg begins with an epigraph from Thomas De Quincey (a real nineteenth century English writer) that says that everything written about Judas previously was false. Runeberg picks up this theme; whereas De Quincey argues that Judas’s role in the betrayal of Christ was necessary in order for Christ to reveal his divinity and that Judas should therefore be celebrated, Runeberg argues that Judas’s role was completely unnecessary logically, since any Roman guard would have had no trouble identifying Jesus, with or without Judas’s intervention. Consequently, Runeberg reasons, since Judas did betray Christ, it could not be an error or an accident. Thus, it must have been a preordained act. Just as the Word lowered itself to human condition, Judas lowered himself to become a criminal worthy of the deepest pit of hell.
The narrator further reports that Runeberg’s book Kristus och Judas (Christ and Judas) met with refutations from theologians all over the world. (As Borges often does, he mixes the names of fictional theologians and works with the real, making it difficult for readers to distinguish between the two.) As a result, Runeberg revised his doctrine, expanding his notion of the nature of Judas. Runeberg argues here that because Judas was chosen by Christ to be one of his disciples, his actions must be viewed as having the best motives possible. Consequently, Judas chose the worst possible crime out of deep humility. He willingly chose hell, just as Christ willingly chose his role in the redemption of humanity.
Runeberg, however, pushes his reasoning one step further. Because God’s sacrifice must have been perfect in order to redeem humankind and because God himself is perfect, God must have become fully a man, capable of pain, suffering, sin, and deceit. God’s choice of the man he would become, therefore, is inextricably bound up in the nature of the sacrifice. Christ’s sacrifice, Runeberg reasoned, was not perfect, because it was too...
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