Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 2 Three Versions Of Judas Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 2, Three Versions of Judas : Artifices | Summary



The story starts with an epigraph about "degradation" by T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. The narrator comments on a fictional 20th-century Swedish theologian, Nils Runeberg, who would have been at home with ancient Gnostic heretics. In 1904 he published the book Kristus och Judas (Christ or Judas). Then in 1909 he published his greatest work, Den hemlige Fralsaren (The Secret Savior). Runeberg was deeply religious, his theological ideas neither amusements nor deliberate outrages but "the key with which to decipher a central mystery of theology."

Kristus och Judas is a defense of Judas, modeled on ideas of the 19th-century English writer Thomas De Quincey. Runeberg notes the Romans did not need Judas to help them locate Jesus. Jesus was famous enough for the Romans to have known where to find him. Since "to suppose an error in Scripture is intolerable," Judas's act of betrayal must have another cause.

Runeberg proposes Judas as a kind of double or reflection of Jesus on a lower human level. In Jesus God became human and was sacrificed on the cross. Judas, too, made a sacrifice by falling into the evil of becoming an informer and sacrificing his immortal soul to damnation—"the fire which can not be extinguished." Judas took the money and kissed Jesus "to deserve damnation all the more." The implication is Judas was predestined to betray Jesus and thus was merely playing his God-ordered part.

The book is a scandal, and various theologians denounce Runeberg, who revises the work. This time Judas is no longer a pawn of Heaven. He is a self-aware, willing self-sacrificer. Runeberg starts by pointing out Judas was an apostle, after all, a man of high moral standing. Therefore, Runeberg thinks greed was not Judas's motive. Instead Judas was an extreme ascetic. Asceticism is the practice of denying oneself pleasures, the better to become more spiritual. Runeberg says Judas's asceticism was superior to most worshipers'. A typical ascetic "degrades and mortifies the flesh; Judas did the same with spirit."

Runeberg makes a point about vice and virtue. Most vices, Runeberg claims, have a trace of virtue in them. Adultery contains some "tenderness and self-sacrifice." Murder contains a trace of courage. But Judas "elected those offenses unvisited by any virtue: abuse of confidence ... and informing." Judas thereby sacrificed his eternal soul. It was enough for Judas to know Jesus ascended to Heaven. In footnotes the narrator comments on Runeberg's commentators.

The narrator comments on Runeberg's third version of Judas. In this one Judas is greater than Jesus because he is more sinful. "God ... lowered himself to be a man for the redemption of the human race." God would have gone all out, reasons Runeberg, and become the truly sinful and damned man, Judas. Jesus, without sin and destined to Heaven, would have been something of a half measure. "God became a man completely, 'a man to the point of infamy,'" the narrator quotes Runeberg as writing. God "was Judas."

This time instead of scandal the reaction is indifference. The book has no audience among general readers, and theologians ignore it. Runeberg thinks the indifference means he's right. "God had commanded this indifference; God did not wish His terrible secret propagated in the world." Runeberg falls into a kind of religious mania. He fears he has committed blasphemy by "discover[ing] and divulg[ing] the terrible name of God." In 1912 he dies of a brain aneurysm.


The "Three Versions of Judas" shows three stages in the Borgesian evolution of the copy. First Judas is a double or reflection of Jesus. Like a copy of Jesus, he, too, has a predestined, God-ordained part to play in God's becoming human for a time. The next version of Judas is perhaps closer to Jesus. Now Judas is like Jesus: an ascetic, a spiritually clarified man who has left earthly temptations behind. In the final version Judas is superior to Jesus. Jesus was only a sort of godly, Heaven-bound emanation. He barely sullied himself by becoming a man, for he did not sin. Judas, however, sinned in the worst, most unredeemable ways. Therefore, Judas was the real Jesus in the sense God became a man, "a man to the point of infamy" by becoming Judas. Now it is Jesus who is the pale copy of Judas.

The story is full of scholarly references, some fictional. Borges attributes a comment to Maurice Abramowicz, who supposedly said of Jesus, "Sa résidence de trente-trois ans parmi les hommes ne fut, en somme, qu'une villégiature" or Jesus's 33 years among men were, in the last analysis, nothing but a holiday. Maurice Abramowicz was not a scholar but a lawyer and lifelong friend of Borges, whom Borges first met at college in Geneva. The same footnote also cites Vindication of Eternity by Jaromir Hladík, the fictional book and author from "The Secret Miracle." These fictional scholarly references add to the metafictional aspects of the story, another Borgesian commentary on an imaginary book.

However, many of Borges's references are real. The narrator proposes Runeberg could have led "one of the Gnostic conventicles" if he had been alive in the second century. (A conventicle is a clandestine religious meeting. Since many Gnostic ideas were heretical, some Gnostic meetings would have been secret.) Runeberg's ideas do resemble Gnostic doctrines, and the story mentions the Gnostic Basilides at the outset. Basilides did not believe in the resurrection but instead held the body was evil matter. Therefore, some followers of Basilides believed Jesus was never crucified and someone else crucified in his place. When the theologians criticize Runeberg's first book, one critic accuses Runeberg of "the heresy of the Docetists, who denied the humanity of Jesus." Many Gnostics also embraced the Docetist heresy, believing Jesus's body was not real, or that he was a spiritual being, called an Aeon, and not a man.

The story is not only about these complex theological tangles. The questions about the nature of Jesus and Judas are also questions about fate, free will, and destiny. Judas's reputation is infamous because of the gravity of his sin: he betrayed Jesus for "thirty pieces of silver." But if Judas were destined by God to do these things (as Runeberg's first version of Judas has it), then he was not free to do otherwise. In that case his guilt seems less, and his blackguard reputation undeserved. If Judas were not destined by God to betray Jesus, if he acted freely, did he surprise God and/or Jesus? In that case the power of an omniscient God seems diminished.

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