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The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity
Bart Ehrman cited the subject title ("monograph") as a good place to find up to date (2012) discussion of the scholarship on the question. Let me note as an aside that he also praised this book (Unprotected Texts; which I'm now reading) on how we should not use the Bible as a sex manual.
Doesn't quite provide the comprehensive look at gnosticism I'm looking for (just look at the title) and has aspects better left for students of the genre. But, it has some good aspects, including a decent summary of the basic thought behind gnosticism and how it wasn't so very different from what later became orthodox Christianity. This angle along with early Christian (pagan/Jewish) thought on God overlaps with Ehrman as well.
A rough summary would go something like this, perhaps. There is an "ultimate god," an "invisible spirit," "fullness" and other terms. There is overlap here with New Testament texts, just as reference to evil "powers" (demons and the like) in Pauline epistles overlap with Gnostic teachings (the book underlines there is no "one" teaching here & much debate on even if the use of the term "gnostic" is appropriate ... the path taken by the author is one of those things some readers might find a bit esoteric). This also overlaps with Platonic thought, so the origins of the idea here is not too hard to imagine though the particulars are greatly debated.
Anyway, we cannot directly know this perfection and (insert proper pronoun) does not directly interact with our world. This is done via emanations, forces or whatever -- "aeons." Gnostic thought has a somewhat convoluted cosmology here but again it is somewhat only one of degree. The great 2nd Century "heresy hunter" Irenaeus, e.g., spoke of seven heavens, various powers (with angels and archangels) and so forth. Likewise, God (Brakke notes at one point a Christian theorist once noted "father" is but a role of God, a function -- like one of the names given to Allah) is "uncreated, beyond grasp, invisible" so humans need "the Word" (Jesus -- see Gospel of John) and the Holy Spirit , which are akin to gnostic aeons -- emanations of some sort of God, powers of God. Toss in a shared (when useful) allegorical usage of scripture, perhaps one reason for such ire against gnostics is a certain similarity between the parties.
The idea is that somehow -- there is some dispute on details but generally it is seen as a tragedy and some mistaken confusion on the ideal cosmic order of things. This compares with later orthodox Christian thought that focused on the fall of humanity being based on human free will. So, the material world there isn't the problem, just evil forces that the death and resurrection of Jesus conquered. Nonetheless, there remains a piece of the ultimate divine within us, some "link between humanity and the divine because our intellect is modeled after and provides a means to connect with the intellect of God." Gnosticism (true knowledge) provides a means to discover this, with Christian Gnosticism seeing Jesus as a special guide with rituals available (including baptism) to truly know God. Human passions and our material existence overall inhibits this goal.
Or, something like that. The whole exercise has a certain self-actualization feel to it, perhaps, a means of insight and inner peace and happiness. Something that appeals to some here (such as Elaine Pagels) is some ability for each person to obtain true knowledge, though at times (e.g, Valentinus) even here there was some appeal to authority. Gnostic writings often in a mythical way used past figures such as Adam, Seth or the like to "speak" the message. Still, this is not novel -- "Daniel" isn't really behind the events in that book -- it was written shortly before Jesus' time and used the figure as a stand-in for concerns of that age. And, many writings by "Paul" or "Peter" (one or more written in the second century) aren't really by them -- they are voiced in their name.
The author counsels us "we must not imagine that the Gnostics were just playing mind games" with their "exuberant complexity" though you might get that idea if you read some of the works.* Then, again, what of Revelations in the New Testament? I do think the writings of the gnostics can be pretty esoteric but it isn't surprising given the ultimate intangible things they were concerned about -- again, it is best to use other writings that some find more orthodox. Reading through various prophetic writings is pretty heavy stuff too. There too, we might wish to have a code book. Referenced another book at the start. The author there, e.g., talks about Songs of Solomon, which has various allusions that most would miss.
I was left wanting a bit more, but it is a worthwhile perusal.
* I read, e.g., the Gospel of Truth, which has some gnostic flavoring and might have been written by the 2nd Century great thinker Valentinus. It is part of A New New Testament. Sort of wonder at times what the point is, but when I see reference to "the incomprehensible, inconceivable one" and talk of "emanations" etc., it helps to have some background.
There is also starting to be a trend in my reading of late -- e.g., recently read a book on The Didache and the author at one point referenced the Book of Judith, which he noted was a popular story around that time. Turns out -- like Daniel -- it might have been written a century or so earlier. Thus, to get a sense of the time, references and beliefs, you look behind the texts some. You can in fact honor them the most that way.