The question of whether gnosticism as a branch of early Christianity had a pre-Christian antecedent, especially and specifically in some sects of Judaism, has recently come into the limelight. The question has become more important than ever in light of the recent resurgence of Gnostic Christianity in the western world.
There is fairly strong debate on the issue, epitomized in Rudolf Bultmann's analysis of Nag Hammadi texts as supporting the existence of a pre-Christian and often specifically Jewish gnosticism and Edwin Yamauchi's rebuttal to Bultmann's conclusions. It is important to recognize from the outset that there were many flavors of early Christianity, not only generally, but among the various gnostic sects themselves. Yamauchi's objections can be summarized simply. He concludes that whatever writings are clearly gnostic do not predate Christianity and those that do are not clearly gnostic.
The flaw I see in this is the failure to understand that what seems to me to be the most fundamentally important feature of gnosticism is gnosis, from which the first term derives. The meaning of this term is more akin to Eric Fromm's concept of a "perennial philosophy" that is found somewhere in just about any spiritual tradition of any culture or time. However, what those who have a deeper insight into the term understand as gnosis has nothing to do with philosophy, but rather with direct, personal experience.
Gnosis, put simply, is not accessible in terms of belief systems. The inability to appreciate that gnosis per se has nothing to do with any particular culture's belief system seems to be clearly responsible for a logical corollary, Yamauchi's consequently and necessarily narrow definition of gnosticism via a superficial analysis of specific elements of whatever belief systems he associates with it. In most if not all of the world's major spiritual traditions throughout the ages, there has existed at least some component that recognized that consciousness is a fundamental ingredient of reality and not simply some mysteriously emergent property of complex organic systems as some scientists ardently propose.
These scientists propose that consciousness is therefore somehow not quite real in any fundamental sense, even if these same arbitrary and meta-scientific assumptions deny the existence of anything not physical. Instead, they have irrationally and tacitly substituted for what they consider an untenable physical/spiritual dualism a subjective/objective dualism that is now supposedly alright simply because it is now presumed to be somehow secular.
The problem remains that this is absolutely equivalent logically and does absolutely nothing to resolve the issue. The only alternative to such a specious and supposedly secular substitution is to deny their own experience of consciousness as a subjective illusion. Some behaviorist psychologists actually went so far as to do so, never mind who or what could possibly be the victims of this illusion.
However, it should be clear to us by now, and above all to those who are bold to call themselves scientists, that as our theoretical models in physics have evolved, they have been approaching in the limit as time goes on a point at which the distinction between the abstract laws that apparently govern natural structure and the natural structure itself disappear. Indeed, this distinction has already virtually disappeared. Further, there is no rational distinction between lawfulness and intelligence, and information theory rightly makes no such artificial distinction.
We know that any rational system, to be practical, must derive from axioms or fundamental assumptions supported by direct experience, and then find its validation in experience with the successful implementation of its conclusions. Reason is a tool evolved to allow us to interact more successfully with natural structure. Reason itself evolved empirically on the basis of experience. So experience is clearly primary while reason is derivative. Reason, as essential a tool as it is, therefore has no ultimate authority, but must be constantly confirmed with experience.
We also know, since any rational system must derive from the fundamental assumptions we call axioms, that any theoretical model of reality must reflect the fundamental nature of that reality in axiomatic properties that are in principle beyond proof. This does not mean that they are beyond experience,, but simply that they are axiomatic and therefore unprovable by definition. They transcend intellection. This understanding is fundamental both in the fields of logic and mathematics. No theorem or premise can both serve as an axiom and a provable implication of other axioms.
It is beyond doubt that our cosmos is both lawful and operates recursively. Recursion simply means that at a fully comprehensive level, the cosmos modifies itself via the energy flowing through its structure and that structure in turn determines how energy flows within it to modify it. It is axiomatic that the universe changes in lawful and exclusively self-interactive, that is, recursive ways. Therefore lawfulness and cosmically comprehensive recursion are axiomatic properties of existence.
As stated earlier, lawfulness and intelligence have no rationally defensible distinction. That some manifestations of intelligence are more obvious to local assessment than others does nothing to alter this, and certainly fails to imply that the local manifestations have no antecedents that are more global. Together with our understanding of natural structure evolving toward models in which there is no distinction between natural law and what it governs, this directly implies that the fundamental property underlying all existence is abstract, self-interacting intelligence...recursively operating, exclusively self-referent intelligence.
Gnosis, therefore, as it is understood in the highest expressions of most of the world's great spiritual traditions, is the simple recognition of our own consciousness as a local reflection of this fundamental underlying reality. We live in a holographic universe that is so structured that it evolves everywhere locally organisms that increasingly reflect the nature of the whole. Sages have declared this in less scientific terms throughout the ages in multiple cultures and spiritual traditions.
The Torah states that we are created in the image of God. Zen Buddhist sages have called this recognition "knowledge by Being", a beautiful definition of gnosis. These same Asian sages independently stated that to seek this outside our own awareness is like a fish looking for water. Scripture attributed to King David in the Torah admonishes us to "be still and know that I am God". How close is that to the eastern notion of silence in meditation as conducive to recognizing our own consciousness to be a local reflection of the most fundamental nature of the cosmos? Japanese and Chinese Buddhists speak of the reflected light of our awareness in the expression "many ponds, one moon". Jesus is quoted in Christian scripture as saying that the kingdom of heaven is within us.
So apparently there is a range of cognitive function in humankind that comprehends a spectrum from insanity and criminality to the highest manifestations of wisdom and that has no significant correlation with conventional measures of academic intelligence or knowledge. It should also be apparent that there have been rare statistical outliers on the positive side of this range of cognitive function who have existed in virtually every historically significant culture in every age.
So gnosis, then, becomes defined in terms of an awareness that has evolved to a point at which it spontaneously recognizes as an incontrovertible, direct, and personal experience its own consciousness as a local reflection of a cosmically comprehensive correspondent. If we accept this as true gnosis and as the defining characteristic of gnosticism, then we find gnostics in the Torah antedating Christianity by many centuries. We also find something that has nothing to do with particular cultures or belief systems.
I therefore find it difficult to believe that the legalism of the Pharisees uniquely defined Judaism at the time of Jesus. In a Roman occupied territory that was one of the worst thorns in the side of the Roman Empire, there had to be plenty of guerrilla activity. Without even resorting to the historical evidence, it becomes obvious that in Jewish culture this automatically implied the existence of Messianic militants. There were also those Jews who practiced Jewish law, not necessarily to the extremes characteristic of the Pharisees, but who were highly evolved in terms of consciousness and who did not necessarily tow the party line of official Judaism represented in the Sanhedrin. We must also remember that the members of Jewish officialdom were necessarily Roman collaborators to a significant extent and that this was not the greatest place to be in terms of maintaining a charismatic relationship to the general Jewish population.
It is also important, I think, to note an example of Pharisaic extremism. Mosaic law simply prohibits boiling a kid or calf in its mother's milk. The Pharisees took that to the extreme of never mixing the meat of any mammal with milk products of any kind or even using vessels for either that have had contact with the other. The initiation of this kind of extreme display in religious observances would not go down well in the absence of true humility before God and a genuine, heartfelt love for others. It points strongly to the possibility that true spirituality was conspicuously absent in many practicing Jews and would account for the charisma and popularity of such Jewish figures as John the Baptist who disdained such spiritual pride and hypocrisy and dared say so in no uncertain terms.
I therefore personally feel that people like John the Baptist and Jesus were not only pre-Christian Jews, but also gnostic Jews who wished to reform what they saw as a corruption of true Judaism. Since both were pre-Christian and are quoted even in the canonical scriptures as the authors of sayings that look gnostic to anyone who understands what gnosis really means, it seems to me very difficult to deny the existence of pre-Christian gnosticism, not to mention that the Jewish Encyclopedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?arti...) states categorically under the heading of Jewish Gnosticism that it did exist.
Footnote: Some Christians are so ignorant of early Christian history that they are unaware that Christianity started as a few observant Jews WITHIN Judaism who believed Jesus was the Messiah and that he was going to literally and physically come back VERY soon to earth to create the Kingdom of God and that the Roman Empire would then be toast. John the Baptist and Jesus were quite absolutely and literally PRE-CHRISTIAN JEWS who wished to reform Judaism itself. Once it got around among their survivors that Jesus had been seen again after the crucifixion, they were sure Jesus would be back again and SOON to deliver them from the Romans. We must always be mindful that orthodox Judaism today still expects a Messiah who will reign physically here on earth and unite the world in peace.
When Paul experienced year after year that Jesus was not yet returning, he concluded this meant God was waiting for more believers in Jesus as the RETURNING Messiah. Since this was not happening within Judaism and Paul had been winning gentile converts to this version of Judaism that was being preached in SYNAGOGUES around Greece, Macedonia, etc., he felt that meant he needed to convert large numbers of people regardless of their ethnicity before God would send Jesus back into the world.