"Three Versions of Judas"

by Jorge Luis Borges
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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1343

First published: “Tres versiones de Judas,” 1944 (English translation, 1962)

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Edition(s) used: “Three Versions of Judas,” in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, edited James E. Irby and Donald A. Yates. New York: New Directions, 1962

Genre(s): Short fiction

Subgenre(s): Literary fiction

Core issue(s): The Deity; Gnosticism; Jesus Christ; Latin Americans; martyrdom; sacrifice

Principal characters

The narrator, an unnamed speaker who recounts the story of Runeberg

Nils Runeberg, a Swedish theologian

Overview

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 brief. The perfect sacrifice would be an eternal sacrifice, an eternity spend in hellfire. Thus, the perfect sacrifice would require God to become the vilest man he could be: Judas.

According to the narrator, when Runeberg’s book was published, his work was dismissed by theologians and the public. For Runeberg, this was simply evidence that he had uncovered the truth about God, Christ, and Judas. God, he reasoned, did not want the secret to be known. Consequently, Runeberg realized that he had committed a sin even greater than that of Judas; he had revealed the secret name of God.

The story concludes with the description of Runeberg screaming his wish to go to hell, and with the report of his death from an aneurism in 1912. The implication is that Runeberg’s knowledge drove him insane before killing him. The narrator suggests that few, other than some scholars of heresies, would remember him. He also suggests, however, that Runeberg has significantly complicated the concept of the Son.

Christian Themes

In “Three Versions of Judas,” Borges, an Argentine of Jewish descent and Christian upbringing but not a religious man himself, brilliantly parodies the overwrought reasoning of theological debate. In particular, he uses one of the oldest heresies, the Gnostic doctrines, to create an argument that elevates Judas to the role of God. While this story can be read as a humorous, tongue-in-cheek send-up of an academic battle having no connection to reality, it also can be read as a serious discussion of the nature of Christ, a theological debate that has raged for more than two thousand years.

These debates tore the early church apart, leading to schisms and the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy. Christology, the study of the nature of Christ, was born in these debates. The essential question is this: Was Christ completely divine, was he completely human, or was he some combination, and in what proportions? The answer to this question is essential for people of faith; if Christ’s sacrifice is necessary to redeem all humankind, then it must truly be a sacrifice. If Christ is wholly divine, then is there a sacrifice at all? If Christ is wholly human, then does he have the power to redeem all humankind?

Borges pushes the debate away from Christ in this story, however, and has his protagonist focus on the nature of Judas. The three versions of Judas that Runeberg offers are these: Judas as betrayer for the glory of God, Judas as betrayer for his own extreme abnegation, and Judas as the secret incarnation of God. Because, according to Jewish mystical thought, even uttering the name of God is a sin, Runeberg, by naming Judas as God, commits one of the most serious of all sins himself.

Borges, the master manipulator, stands just outside the story, demonstrating the relative nature of all judgments. For Borges, orthodoxy and heresy alike are created by language rather than by ultimate reality; through language, Borges offers a mirror of reality in which all values are reversed.

Sources for Further Study

  • Bell-Villada, Gene H. Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art. Rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. An updated and expanded edition of Bell-Villada’s 1981 study. Excellent chronology, bibliography, literary analysis, and biographical detail.
  • Bossart, W. H. Borges and Philsophy: Self, Time, and Metaphysics. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. A thorough discussion of the philosophical constructs that inform Borges’s work, including Gnosticism, heresy, nominalism, and relativism.
  • Lindstrom, Naomi. Jorge Luis Borges: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. An accessible introduction to Borges, with a chronology and bibliography.
  • Williamson, Edwin. Borges: A Life. New York: Viking, 2004. A readable and compelling biography; Williamson chooses a psychoanalytical approach to reading Borges’s life. Less about the works and more about the man, the book offers historical context for Borges’s prose and poetry.

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