Did Marcion mutilate the Gospel of Luke?

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by Neil Godfrey

This was the claim of Irenaeus, Tertullian and Epiphanaeus.

Besides this, he mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as most dearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is His Father. Irenaeus AH 1:27.2

Now, of the authors whom we possess, Marcion seems to have singled out Luke for his mutilating process. Tetullian, AM 4:2

But these claims are questionable when we think about the times in which they were recorded. Irenaeus was writing in the late second century, Tertullian in the early third, and Epiphanaeus much later still. “The ecclesiastical situation for all these writers was very different from that in Marcion’s time.” (Tyson, p.39 — This blog post is mostly derived from Tyson’s book)

Contrast the date of Marcion, especially as revised by Hoffmann to the early part of the second century: — See previous posts beginning with Dating Marcion Early (2). (This revised earlier date for Marcion is based primarily on a rejection of the the ideologically tendentious date assigned by Irenaeus and an assigning greater weight to the contrasting contemporaneous observations of Justin Martyr.)

Irenaeus saw the need for authority to redress the “riotous diversity” that characterized Christianity till his time. That meant an authoritative canon and a clear genealogy of bishops from the apostles to his own day. And that canon of four gospels had to be four because the world — throughout which the church was scattered — had four corners and four winds. (Irenaeus AH 3:11.8)

Tyson refers to Bauer’s conclusion:

Walter Bauer has convincingly shown that the early part of the second century was a time of great diversity in terms of Christian thought and practice. He observed that heterodoxy probably preceded orthodoxy in many locations and that, particularly in the East, Marcionism, or something closely resembling it, was the original form of Christianity. (Tyson, p.39)

Bauer’s work is online. Tyson refers particularly to his discussion from p.194, his chapter 8. To cite one section from Bauer’s chapter 8:

One final point. The reckless speed with which, from the very beginning, the doctrine and ideology of Marcion spread can only be explained if it had found the ground already prepared. Apparently a great number of the baptized, especially in the East, inclined toward this view of Christianity and joined Marcion without hesitation as soon as he appeared, finding in him the classic embodiment of their own belief. What had dwelt in their inner consciousness in a more or less undefined form until then, acquired through Marcion the definite form that satisfied head and heart. No one can call that a falling away from orthodoxy to heresy.

Tyson discusses the implausibility of Marcion, living at a time when there was no gospel canon as called for by Irenaeus, being faced with an authoritative list of 4 gospels, selecting one of those four, excising large chunks from it, and then elevating it to a level above the others, “in full consciousness of having chosen a practice opposed to the worldwide church”. Such a notion is what Irenaeus suggests, but it is anachronistic.

If the scenario of Marcion knowingly mutilating one of the gospels upheld by his peers to be of the sacred four is implausible, what did Marcion do?

If he did select a gospel from among many known to him, then we must think of unstable texts with various editions, certainly not formal or even quasi-canonical collections.

It may be objected that Marcion would naturally select the text written by the companion of Paul, Luke. However, there is no evidence that the gospels were assigned author names until the time of Irenaeus. The first evidence we have that a gospel was authored by Luke, a companion of Paul, is from Irenaeus. (In a future post I hope to discuss Hoffmann’s suggestion for how Luke came to be assigned the authorship of the gospel and Acts.)

Tyson asserts the most likely scenario is that Marcion worked with a gospel that was originally a text known to his locality (the Pontus).

The evidence for local texts at this time is strong, and the use of one gospel in a specific church is manifest. (Tyson, p.40)

Tyson’s footnoted support for this assertion:

B. H. Streeter, “The Four Gospel: A Study of Origins” (1924), 27-50.

Harnack, “Marcion: The Gospel” (1921), 29. Harnack accepted the idea that Marcion did use the Gospel of Luke, but believed that this gospel may have been the only one known in the Pontus region.

Yet clearly there was significant overlap between Marcion’s gospel and the canonical Luke. For this reason the opponents of Marcion, writing from a very different time and context, accused him of mutilating the canonical gospel.

A follow-up post will outline what Marcion’s gospel must have looked like, with an evaluation of Harnack’s reconstruction of Marcion’s text.

  • 2008-01-13 08:36:03 UTC - 08:36 | Permalink

    The quote I made from Bauer in this post is based on the assumption of the later date (from 144/150 c.e.) for Marcion’s activity/being excommunicated as a heretic. This of course contradcts the later arguments of this and earlier posts that Marcion should be dated much earlier. The implication thus is against Bauer’s claim that the “proto-Marcionite” heresy was original to the Christianity of the East. Though Bauer does in the same chapter present other arguments as well for his case.

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