Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.