The author makes an interesting point in her opening chapter. Gnosticism is not like "religion" in the way people usually understand the term. Most religions can trace their beliefs back to an individual, a group, or to God himself. She writes, "[u]nlike Christianity–and later Manicheism–gnostic writers do not refer back to the life or revelations of a particular historical individual as the foundation for their faith" (9). It is really difficult to trace the origins of Gnosticism for that very reason. It is a sort of Rubik's cube in philosophical-theological studies. Regions around the known world in the first century had their own manifestations of gnosis. And, as Christianity spread around the world, it was subjected to some of the grossest attacks by this world of secret knowledge.
The very nature of life's most important questions seems to attract what we refer to as "Gnosticism." Every culture and every people attempt to answer life's most important questions (e.g., who we are, how did we get here, what will happen after I die, etc.). Every culture tries to answer them. Whenever that happens, people pop up with answers that no one else has. And those answers often are shrouded in the most serious clouds of obscurity and symbolism that no one could understand them without a Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring or the key for the Supermen of America kids' club. Secret groups with secret knowledge. The goal is to hook people, and then hold them with a monopoly on knowledge. Gerald L. Borchert writes,
"Perhaps one of the greatest problems for the uninitiated readers of Gnosticism is understanding the purpose of the Gnostic myths. The myths often seem so strange that the readers are tempted to scratch their heads and wonder how anyone with any intelligence could believe such wild stories. One must realize, however, that the myth writers were seeking to communicate elements of the unexplained relationships between the human and the divine" (BEB I: 875).I would argue that there is an energized aspect to all things Gnostic. On the one hand, mankind in its fallen nature can come up with all sorts of theo-philosophic concoctions. People are bent or inclined towards disbelief and faulty ways of thinking. Their hearts are hard when it comes to spiritual truth, and they reject what is true, exchanging it for lies and even the worship of lifeless images (Rom. 1:18-23). But there is also an element to all of this that is energized by an evil group of spiritual beings who rebelled against God millennia ago. That's what Paul tells us in Eph. 2:1-3. We are spiritually dead before a relationship with God through Jesus Christ; before that we live according to the way the world lives; and we live according to the way the prince of the power of the air, who is Satan, desires for the world to live. Paul even says that this one has a blinding influence on the minds of the unbelieving world (2 Cor. 4:4).
What's clear is there is no one form of Gnosticism. Gnosticism is not a religion; it is a set of ideas and ways of thinking that have manifested across different cultures and peoples. Their commonality allows us to place these ideas into categories and analyze them from philosophical and theological viewpoints. Different than revelation, Gnosticism is a platform based on a set a principles and ideas about the world. These ideas work themselves into existing belief systems and act as a sort of parasite. They serve as a launching pad for divergent ways of thinking. They are never entirely original. They morph existing ways of thinking as people carry their basic concepts into the way they think and draw them to their ultimate conclusions. Consider the idea that flesh is evil. Once that premise was adopted, the Christian faith had to deal with arguments that Jesus did not take on human flesh. If he did not take on human flesh, he did not actually die for the sins of the world. If he did not shed his blood, there is no forgiveness. And if he did not take on humanity, then the whole portrait we have of him on the cross (e.g., thirsty, crying out, bleeding) is all a big charade. Of course, that is not the case. And the early church responded well to the attacks from this way of thinking, showing the veracity of the incarnation, Jesus' divine-human nature, etc.
What's really amazing is we get to watch Gnosticism show its head in the first centuries after Jesus' death and resurrection. This is quite different, I would say, than what we get in other historical periods. We get to see the proclamation of the gospel, and very quickly Gnostic ideas are offered as alternative ways of thinking. We get to see the responses–biblical and philosophical–to Gnosticism by those of the Christian faith that we don't get to see necessarily with other religions. No one is entirely sure how or at what point in time–or even if there was just one point in time–when Gnosticism engaged the Jewish and Christian world. What's most important to me is understanding the dangers of its different foundational tenets, how the Scriptures speak in response to them, and how Gnostic tendencies are manifest even in our world of the 21st century.