One way to look at what was going on during the period of antiquity is to say that civilization was going through a major paradigm shift. But this is the way we, with the benefit of terminology like “paradigm shift” at our disposal, are able to understand what was happening at the time, looking back at the historical and archaeological record in retrospect. Those living through it and expressing it in their writings struggled to put into words the changes they were witnessing.
One obvious change is that notions of justice had changed over the centuries. Much of the Law and the Prophets (what Christians call the Old Testament) conceptualize justice as a collective national concern. When the prophets complained that the nation was failing to do “what is right in the eyes of the Lord,” they were concerned less with the conduct of individuals and more with the collective actions of the nation as a whole — but with perhaps some direct scrutiny directed at members of the ruling class. With the identity of the nation tied in with that of the king, it was presented as just that the Lord should punish the entire nation for the misdeeds of the king or the upper class.
For example, one of the more puzzling passages (to modern readers) concerns the census ordered by King David. The purpose of the census was likely to know how large of an army he could raise. The passage begins with this: “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah'” (1 Samuel 24:1). Even over the objections of his military commander, David ordered the army to conduct a census of his kingdom. In response, the Lord gives David a choice of three punishments:
[T]he word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, “Go and say to David: Thus says the Lord: Three things I offer you; choose one of them, and I will do it to you.” So Gad came to David and told him; he asked him, “Shall three years of famine come to you on your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? (2 Samuel 24:11-13)
David chose the pestilence, and 70,000 people died in a plague. The sin is pretty clearly attributed to David, but it is the nation who bore the retribution, and, if we are to believe this version of events, the whole thing was a set-up by the Lord. (The version of this story in 1 Chronicles 21 attributes the original inspiration to Satan, not the Lord, but that doesn’t blunt much the criticism we might level at the unfairness of punishing thousands of innocent people for the sin of another.)
If this sounds overly harsh and unfair to modern readers, it must be said that it sounded that way to most of the readers of antiquity as well. They dedicated a lot of energy struggling to find a way to reconcile their own ideas of fairness, and their vision of God as a just and fair Lord, with the desire to maintain fidelity with their scripture as it had been written.
By the period we call antiquity, Jewish doctrine did not much resemble the ancient set of views which had produced the older scripture. A lot had happened over the centuries. Conquering empires had swept over the area, from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and finally Thrace and then Rome, and each had left their cultural mark on the region. The influence of Hellenistic and Roman culture was particularly profound, at least in the time of antiquity, because it was the most recent. Views had changed so much that it was a struggle at that point to maintain the principle that ancient scripture was their primary source document. For example, most Jews of the time lived outside of Judaea and did not even speak or read Hebrew. Just living in the Diaspora, away from the Temple, forced a lot of concessions. A lot of legends had been adopted as beliefs which had not been recorded in ancient scripture — how were those to be treated?
The most obvious way to bridge this gap was to write commentary about scripture. This commentary was generally welcome, and came to have almost the same level of authority as scripture itself. But it also produced new forms of tension because not everyone accepted the newer writings as authoritative — and also, as time passed, these newer writings became just as out of touch with the times as original scripture itself, forcing even more commentary to be written.
Some of the commentary explored a new approach to interpreting scripture in a less literal way, arguing that where a literal interpretation comes up short, a metaphorical one may do. One notable innovator in this regard was Philo of Alexandria, who offered an attempt at drawing together Jewish doctrine with Hellenistic philosophy and Egyptian mysticism. Another innovator was Hillel.
Others held views that had shifted so much they could no longer work with even these forms of reconciliation. They objected to the parties in power, both in the temple and in the palace. They objected to what they had been taught about right and wrong. They objected to the social obligations placed on them by family and employers. And when these objections became widely-held enough to reach a critical mass, they birthed new social movements.
Apocalypticism is a form of radical theology that expresses a powerful yearning for a new social order. It is tempting to argue that it is more political than religious, but this would neither be fair nor accurate. The problem is that when apocalyptic scripture is read by people of later generations, we too have shifted in our thinking and would (probably) not express political ideas in the same way, so it is all too easy for the political dimension to be overlooked or glossed over.
Christianity and Gnosticism were apocalyptic movements, and it is not possible to fully make sense of their teachings without considering their political underpinnings. To go even further, I would argue that these doctrines do not even make much sense taken in the absence of their political underpinnings.
So to say, as many do, that Gnostics equated “the Jewish God” with the chief archon is an oversimplification that misses the goal. Gnostic doctrine was an expression of a paradigm shift that occurred within the milieu of Hellenistic Judaism. And the idea, basically, was this: that the God we worship is not the Lord described by the Law and the Prophets. They expressed their objections within the cultural milieu that was their heritage. Many of them combined this with the doctrine of antinomianism, the rejection of the Law as divine.
The Christians, for their part, developed a theory of “supersessionism” which taught that Jesus ushered in a new, superior covenant that replaced the old one. The idea is an attempt to have it both ways — they wanted to maintain the authority of the Law and the Prophets while at the same time claiming that they no longer held. So, they claimed that the requirements of the Law had all been “fulfilled,” thus making way for a new covenant.
What makes this a difficult topic is that later generations of Gnostics and Christians came to faith within a Christian cultural milieu instead of a Jewish one. They were no longer dissenters within their own faith tradition, they were critics of a different tradition. Because of this and the long history of anti-Semitic oppression and violence which followed, it is impossible now to discuss Christian or Gnostic theology without acknowledging that these doctrines have long outlived their usefulness. And today, they are symptoms of the very problem that the Christians and Gnostics were seeking to solve: they reflect an outdated way of thinking, but we are stuck with them because of the level of authority with which we embue doctrine and scripture.
In a way, doctrine and scripture themselves are our demiurge. They provide for us a simulacrum of an ideal for which we can strive, one just correct enough for us to start to understand what the ideal would look like, but which is itself merely a worldly artifact, brought into being by human hands and based on a reflection of spirit of which we have seen fleeting glances.