Who were the Gnostics, where did they come from, and what did they think?
I happened to run across an small book published by the Theosophical press: "Jung and the Lost Gospels: Insights into the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library", by Stephan Hoeller. Unlikely as it sounds, it turned out to be excellent, providing extensive insight into pre-Christian and early Christian times as illuminated by those manuscripts. (See also a series of books by Freke and Gandy.) When first found, much of the Dead sea scroll material was taken under the wing of Catholic clergymen and suppressed for decades before publication. Why? The reasons become quite apparent when the connections between the two corpi, found only a year or two apart circa 1945 and 1946, are illuminated. Both are authentic expressions of heterodoxy, first vis-a-vis the Jewish power structure, then versus the nascent Christian powers, which the early church patriarchy had labored long and hard not only to refute, but to erase.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were written at least in part by Essenes, a Jewish mystic and healing sect of 150 BCE to 70 CE. They were motivated to go into exile (near the Dead Sea) by the usurpation (as they viewed it) of the priesthood by the Hasmonean (Maccabeean) dynasty, whose successful revolt against threatened paganism (of the Seleucids) had brought them to the throne in Jerusalem. The Essenes favored the more traditional priesthood, which fell to the tribe of Zadok and was separated from the throne, and cursed the Hasmonean "wicked priests".
Far from being a minor twig on the tree of Judaism, Essenes were a major dissenting group from the worldly (and religiously literalist/fundamentalist) Pharisees and Saducees. The Essenes were influential around the Eastern Mediterranean as healers and mystics (also called Therapeutae, and regarded as proto-gnostics), somewhat akin in reputation to the Egyptians who also were widely regarded to possess and transmit occult knowledge. It is apparent from this book and other studies of this time that the earliest Christian communities were very likely to have been direct descendents, by teaching if not by membership, of a wide-spread Essene community that had already templated essentially all the teachings either adopted and transmitted by Jesus or put into his mouth later on. Incidentally, the Essenes also prefigured the non-temple and non-sacrificial Judaism that was to become mainstream in the diaspora.
Their doctrines included sacramental meals, baptism, asceticism, pacifism, collectivism, antipathy to slavery, renunciation of animal sacrifice, belief in life after death, conviction of the fallen-ness of the current world, expectation of its immanent demise, and expectation of a savior, a "teacher of righteousness". Though the data is extremely sketchy, the book indicates that a teacher of righteousness was recognized circa 100 BCE, and was killed by the Jewish powers that be, prompting an outpouring of bitterness and apocalypticism, some of which is recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This clarifies substantially the timeline of the period, both in terms of the origins of the teachings involved, and in growth of the early Christian community, whose organized and far-flung nature within years of the presumed mission and death of Jesus is otherwise difficult to understand. It also clarifies some of the so-called heresies of the early Christian period, most of which were continuations and developments of the Essene creeds that were related to or eventually became what we call Gnosticism, and which became, as all mystical creeds will, anathema to an organized, hierarchical, orthodox patriarchy.
Which brings us to the other set of writings, the Nag Hammadi library of books, apparently secreted by a sect of Christian mystics in response to a decree banning non-canonical manuscripts, describing their gnostic beliefs dating back to perhaps 80 CE and thereafter, with the books themselves dating to the 200's and 300's CE. Gnosticism was equally derived from the Essene tradition as was Christianity, and both off-shoots intertwined in their Jesus-based theology, though the Gnostics were not as hung up on the literalism of the Jesus story, focusing on and recasting the mythical aspects of a story that was, in all probability, mythical to start with.
As a classic Gnostic deity, Jesus came into the world (in Plato's terms symbolized by the cave) to give knowledge of humanity's true nature and origin (god within), and hope of a better life after death, as long as one shared in this knowledge (later reduced in orthodoxy to the dictum to believe in Jesus or go to hell). The knowlege of the man being in god and god being in man, in agreement with typical mystical experience, expresses a one-ness with the universe which is both salving for the individual and also benificent in spreading love of all and everything through the community and the world.
The key difference between Gnosticism and orthodoxy lay in the value of personal, interior experiences. The Gnostics didn't concern themselves so much with organization and hierarchy as with continuing revelation by personal experience, led by a succession of visionaries providing "gnosis", or direct spiritual knowledge. For an organized religion, revelation has to stop somewhere, or else nothing that went before (and no one) can be authoritative. (This is a problem that Protestantism has dealt with repeatedly as sect after sect cleaves off and redivides in the absence of final authority). Gnosticism, on the other hand, drew continuously from streams of mystical thought and personal experience, starting with the Essenes (and many prior esoteric traditions), then extensively from Egyptian esoteric traditions, through John the Baptist and the associated messianic movements, continuing right up to the recasting of gnostic ideas in the present day by Mormonism and Scientology.
A key developer of Gnosticism proper was Simon (Magus), who was a Jewish Samaritan whose tradition was closely allied to that of the Essenes, being heterodox with respect to the major Jewish sects. He was a disciple of John the Baptist, and appears in the book of acts. He was apparently the originator of the peculiar brew of mysticism that became what we recognize as classical Gnosticism, which had both an intense concern with interior mystical experience along with a florid mythical vision of what those experiences meant. These visions made humans unfortunate inheritors of a fallen world subject to the whims of evil gods. But also possessors of a spark of divinity unknown to those not initated in the Gnosis, which was carried from the highest godly levels by Sophia, the healing and promethian goddess (and the inspirer of philo-Sophia, or philosophy).
Simon was prone to take spiritual flights, much like Muhammed after him and Ezekiel before him. More importantly, he had a female partner, Helen, much as Jesus had Mary Magdalene, who embodied wisdom granted by the goddess Sophia to seekers who were sufficiently pure and ready to renounce earthy things (equivalent to Chokma, the late Essene goddess). Gnosticism was far more open to feminine spritual powers and participation than was orthodoxy. The Nag Hammadi library contains alternate versions of old testament scriptures, liturgies, Gnostic commentaries and myths, especially concerning the feminine principle, lives and sayings of both Jesus and some apostles, as well as other learned miscellany such as portions of Plato's Republic and Zoroastrian texts.
To summarize, the Jesus story is essentially a variant of pre-existing proto-gnostic myths and motifs shared by esoteric pagans and the Essenes, for which an actual person by the name of Jesus may or may not have given further impetus. Paul may have been a gnostic who had little to say about Jesus as an actual person. The later church, in the hands of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other propagators, writers and forgers, came to insist that their story, unlike all the other stories, was really, really, really true, as a badge of differentiation among the many honestly mythical cults of late Roman times. The story got altered, hardened, and repeated in a quadruplicate set of tales, while scores of competing stories were erased and their adherents hounded out of the church. After which the church contracted an alliance with the Roman empire and commenced to convert the remainder of its inhabitants by force, followed by a long dark age.
Aside from the sad loss of honest spirituality in the wake of Christian literalism, one small irony of this story is that Gnostics have ever been in quest of man's true nature, which, by way of active imagination and spiritual seeking was believed to be partly divine, trapped in a realm of semi-darkness and semi-light, oppressed by an evil set of fallen angels, while receiving occasional messages of hope from the upper realms of total light where reside our ultimate progenitors. But the answer of our true nature has in the fullness of time duly arrived, courtesy of Charles Darwin. It may not be the exhalted answer of the Gnostic imagination, but if one cares about either the word "true" or the word "nature", the answer is in hand, in magnificent scope and detail.
"If the flesh has come to be because of the spirit, it is a wonder, but if the spirit has come to be because of the body, that is a wonder of wonders."
- Jesus, in the Gospel of Thomas