As always I appreciate your careful consideration of my questions. I really cannot express how excited I am to have you engage me on these topics rather than brush me off (this has happened so many times in the past). Your input always helps me very much!
The time periods you mentioned seem to be accurate. (I got my hands on a course dealing with the history of Gnosticism, given by David Brakke of Yale University, and the dates seem to coincide.) I think you are right to suggest that Paul was probably responding to either an earlier strand of Gnosticism or something similar. That whole early period of Christianity seems to be incredibly diverse as far as interpretations of what Jesus and his teachings actually meant. I know that there were many “mystery” cults of the time…most stemming from Greek pagan cults who began to incorporate Jewish and Christian ideas. Gnosticism probably emerged from one or more of these. I know they lean much more heavily on Plato than does what came to be Orthodox Christianity.
It seems that their three main divergences from proto-orthodox Christianity are their take on the OT, the way in which one is saved through Jesus, and their willingness to alter spiritual texts of the time in a way which, they felt, made more sense of this world. ( From a purely spiritual perspective, I am interested in the first two divergences. Of course, from a literary perspective I am very much fascinated by this third divergence as well.) Though Paul would not have agreed with what came to be known as the Gnostic POV, he did contrast the Jewish law of the OT with the teachings of Jesus enough that the Gnostics could run with the contrast and build up a systematic alternative to the proto-orthodox POV while still considering themselves Paulists in many cases.
As I work through my course, I will let you know if any other notable aspects of the movement come to light…
P.S. Throughout all this my respect for Paul steadily grows.