We ought to know less about Gnosticism than any other religion. In fact there was not religion as such as each person was free to come to different conclusions.
Essentially it picked up the Zorastran philosopy that the battle between good and evil lies within each member of the human race and it is up to each one of us to learn as much as we can about good and evil and live our lives accordingly. as this was essentially a private activity we ought to know little about it. However Gnostics had extensive libraries to help them gain the necessary knowledge and apparently once they had discovered their own version of the truth they sought out other Gnostics with whom to discuss their findings.
Thanks to the discovery at Nag Hammadi there is knowledge of what they read and that many of them wrote about their beliefs.
We know from this library that Gnostics were interested in Jesus but did not limit themselves to his teachings alone.
Gnostics combined elements taken from Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Syrian pagan religions, from astrology, and from Judaism and Christianity. They claimed to have secret knowledge about God, humanity, and the rest of the universe of which the general population was unaware. They believed that the Jehovah of the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) was the god of evil.
They were notable for their tolerance of different beliefs within and outside of Gnosticism. and their respect for the equality of women. It follows that some prominent thinkers must have been women.
Valentinus was still a young man, studying in the city of Alexandria, when an insurrection by Egyptian Jewry had been answered by savage Roman reprisals. With their urban and religious organisation shattered, remnants of Egyptian Jewry sought religious salvation anew. Within three years Valentinus was able to present them with his “Christianity.” Following his supposed ‘vision’, Valentinus began a career as teacher/shaman – first at Alexandria, around 120, and later in Rome.
Yet there is little of the familiar Christ myth in the Valentinus system – indeed, we might even suspect a Buddhist influence. No nativity, no virgin birth, no Calvary, no inescapable original sin. Jesus is the human son of Mary, enlightened by the Spirit at baptism which is a precursor to Manichaecist beliefs.
The role of a human Jesus was to reveal to man an awareness of his own divinity. There was no kneed for divine intervention, all the good gods were indeed one god.
For all his esoterics, Valentinus struck a chord with displaced Jews and pagans searching for the ‘truth.’ During a 15 year career in the east he attracted a large following in Egypt, Cyprus and Syria.
Soon after the ruin of the Bar Kochba war, in 136, Valentinus sought his fortune in Rome. He almost became its bishop, losing out to Hyginus (138-142). He continued to teach in Rome for at least ten more years. He probably died there around 155. The Valentinian ‘school’, however, continued and elaborated still further its theology.
God itself was said to be androgynous (with the feminine aspects of the deity identified as ‘Silence’, ‘Grace’ and ‘Thought’). Reflecting this gender-parity women held positions of authority within the Valentinian church. Unlike the master/slave relationship of later Christianity, for the Valentinians, Christ was like a brother, and the Holy Spirit like a consort. There was no need for the Church to acquire earthly riches and temporal power.
All of which, of course, was most alarming for the State/Church hierarchs of Catholicism. Branded ‘heretics’ the Valentinians were expelled from the Church and hunted down. By 350 AD, the Valentinian ‘intellectuals’ were dead and monks in Egypt were hiding the ‘heretical’ writings. Valentinus’s major work The Gospel of Truth provoked its own response from the ecclesiasta: the Gospel of St John.
Basilidians postulated that Jesus had not been crucified, but had swapped places with “Simon of Cyrene”! Simon had been put on the cross instead – a notion which re-surfaced centuries later in the Koran.
Basilides, like many later Gnostics, had difficulty accepting the pernicious Jewish tribal god Yahweh as the supreme deity. Instead he introduced a higher god with the magical name “Abraxas” derived from Pythagorean mathematics. Christ was the latest of a whole series of spiritual agents from this higher god, whilst Yahweh, something of a fallen angel, remained none the less creator of the baser, material world.
Bodily resurrection was not part of Basilides’ system. Christ’s purpose was not to “die for our sins” (a revamped Jewish scapegoat notion) but, by suffering as we ourselves suffer, to remind us that we have forgotten “we are also from God and are also divine.”
In the 2nd century Bishop Marcion was a wealthy ship owner from Sinope (modern Sinop, on the Turkish Black Sea coast) who for a time funded the Church in Rome. The loser in a power struggle Marcion withdrew to Asia Minor to establish his own church hierarchy. Marcionites were soon to be found throughout the Roman Empire, particularly in Italy, Egypt, Arabia, and Armenia. The sect maintained an existence until the 4th century crackdown. Some recalcitrants joined the Manichaeans.
In Marcionite theology there was no holy family, no nativity, no baptism for Jesus. Marcion threw out Jewish old testament scripture completely.
Marcion has his Christ descend fully grown from heaven, just like a Greek god. He simply ‘appeared’ in a synagogue in Capernaum with a mission is to bring the ‘Grace’ of a loving god to replace “The Law ” of the harsh Jewish god Yahweh. The God of salvation has nothing to do with the old God of righteousness and revenge. As a divine Jesus only appeared to suffer on the cross, again precursor of Manichaeist teaching.
Marcion’s gospel, the ‘Evangelicon’ (or ‘Gospel of the Lord’ ), a slim, single volume, compelled the Catholic hierarchy to respond in kind by publishing their own gospels, an onerous task which involved the destrucion of every text which did not support their dogma
In the east, Marcionite Christianity thrived for centuries. It influenced Manichaeism in the 3rd century and survived into the early Middle Ages.
The world of freethinking gnosticism came increasingly into conflict within a Roman Church which demanded and implemented dogma. The result was that until very recently Gnostics stopped publishing their thoughts but they Gnostics still exist working to their own salvation. They can be distinguished by their sympathy and tolerance for every shade of belief.