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...

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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.