I don’t know much about gnosticism, but it’s interesting to compare the newly translated gnostic “Gospel of Judas” with the four canonical gospels as works of literature. The contrast that jumps out at everyone concerns plot and characterization: Judas is the hero, rather than the villain, in the document named after him. But I was interested that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have literary merits far in excess of “Judas.” Perhaps this was one reason they prevailed in the early centuries of Christianity.
1. Point of view
In the canonical gospels, it’s easy to identify with the apostles. Jesus is a partially mysterious figure, but his followers are very recognizable human beings. For example, Peter’s denial of Jesus (Matthew 26:74-75) is one of the most vivid descriptions of the internal state of a flawed person ever written in antiquity, as Erich Auerbach argued in his book Mimesis.
In parts of the canonical Gospels, the apostles are distinguished from everyone else because Jesus shares secrets with them alone: “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them” (Mark 4:11-12). It appears that the purpose of Jesus’ secrecy is to deny the multitude knowledge that would save them.* However, we readers have full access to what the twelve apostles learn in private, so we can fully understand the parable. We naturally identify with the disciples and not with the multitude. John ends his Gospel: “these are written, that ye might believe … and that believing ye might have life.”
In contrast, it’s impossible to identify with Judas in his eponymous gnostic gospel. Jesus asks whether anyone has the strength to bring the “perfect human” out from within him, and apparently Judas does. He and the other apostles also receive remarkable visions–among others, a vision of themselves as temple-priests who commit various sins. They know things about “Barbelo” and other exotic realms. In all these respects, they are unlike us. It is very difficult to identify with them as they receive Jesus’ gnostic message–which (in any case) remains cryptic even after he explains it to them.
2. the dramatis personae
In the canonical gospels, virtually every character is a realistically depicted human being. God is abstract and universal, but God does not speak or appear in the gospels themselves. There are some angels, but they act roughly like human beings and understand the emotions of their human interlocutors. (Said the angel, “Fear not, Zacharias …”) When Jesus appears transfigured in a shining raiment, it is a powerful image because we have come to know him as a regular human being, starting as a baby.
In contrast, there are multitudes of non-human characters in the Gospel of Judas: for instance, the seventy-two luminaries, who themselves make another 360 “luminaries appear in the incorruptible generation.” There are also various supernatural beings with names like Yaldaboath and Saklas. It is impossible to visualize these figures in any concrete form. Even Jesus is introduced with a phrase that suggests he didn’t appear or behave like a regular mortal: “Often he did not appear to his disciples as humself, but was found among them as a child.”
Famously, Jesus does not laugh in the canonical Bible, although he is laughed at to scorn. In the short text of “Judas,” he laughs three times–in fact, it is his characteristic way of opening a dialogue with the apostles. His laugh is mirthless, a scornful dismissal of sinners.
*This is the passage (the Parable of the Sower) in which Jesus describes some seed that falls on a rock where it cannot put down roots. Likewise, in “Judas,” Jesus explains: “It is impossible to sow seed on [rock] and harvest its fruit.” The Parable of the Sower must have had special interest for the Gnostics, because it explains why a few are chosen and the rest are ignorant. Note that while Mark says, “these things are done in parables … that [hina] they may … not perceive,” Matthew softens it to: “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because [hoti] they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand” (Matt 13:13). In Matthew, the Parable is a technique for enlightening the ignorant; in Mark, it is a way of keeping them so.