Over at his blog, Larry Hurtado has a great response to a claim made by the Bible Hunters program that the Gnostics were basically Christian “intellectuals.” The money quote has to be:
There are modern equivalents to the ancient “gnostics,” people who go for the esoteric, who imagine themselves “special” in some way, such that, without the sort of academic training most of us think necessary, they can leap into some mystical “truths.” Just go to the average bookshop and scan the “religion & magic” section (yeah, I know, “religion & magic,” says it all). You’ll likely find many (perhaps most on the shelves) catering to such tastes and positing such ideas. (If you’d like a great send-up of all this, I heartily recommend Umberto Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. Apparently, when Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code subsequently appeared, and Eco was asked what he thought of the book, he reportedly replied, “Dan Brown in a character in my novel!”)
Now, I would say that Gnostics were trying, each in their own way, to indigenize Christianity in the Greco-Roman world by marrying it to platonic cosmology and cutting the chord from its Jewish roots. But it does come off as a bit like the “Scientology” of the second century. Christian authors like Irenaeus couldn’t help but poke fun at it, especially with his development of his own idea of divine emanations:
There is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus. For if it is fitting that that language which is used respecting the universe be transformed to the primary Tetrad, and if any one may assign names at his pleasure, who shall prevent us from adopting these names, as being much more credible [than the others], as well as in general use, and understood by all?” (Against Heresies, 1.11.4)
This is Irenaeus’ way of saying that the Valentinians are just making stuff up!