2008-06-20

Marcion and Luke-Acts: Conclusions

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by Neil Godfrey

In a series of posts (archived here) I have outlined Tyson’s argument (Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle) that both our canonical Luke and Marcion’s gospel were based on a common “original Luke”. The argument does, I think, offer a plausible explanation of the evidence, and Tyson’s discussion of Luke and Acts certainly gives grounds for thinking that those works as we know them happened to contain much in the way of the most useful tools for a debate with Marcionite doctrines. Tyson places them in the early second century, and appeals to Hoffman’s work to make what I think is a strong claim that Marcion himself should be dated to that earlier period.

(While the commonly assigned date for Marcion’s activity – post 144 c.e. – rests largely on a problematic reading of Tertullian, much of the strength of the early date proposed by Hoffmann depends on the self-attestation of the works bearing Justin’s name for their true provenance. External controls that would help us establish more objectively the author and date of those works simply don’t exist. Where there are external controls, self-attestation is often found to be a notoriously unreliable guide for many reasons, both benign and otherwise. Those who would consider this approach to be over sceptical are simply overlooking, or are ignorant of, the facts of any source texts and basic historical methods; and those who would insist on applying a “hermeneutic of charity” are mistakenly and naively attempting to apply an ethic designed for personal relations to inanimate documents that really require the tools of investigative enquiry. It is quite possible that further information could still restore the later date for Marcion — indeed, even establish a later date than the early first century for Luke-Acts.)

The gospel trajectory proposed by Tyson is:

First stage, probably ca. 70-90 c.e.

  • A pre-Marcionite gospel
    • this gospel knew Mark and Q (assuming the 2-source hypothesis);
    • and probably began at Luke 3:1;
    • contained a brief resurrection narrative similar to Mark 16:1-8;
    • and was similar to Luke 3-23 (with some of the Luke Sundergut material within those chapters)

Second stage, probably ca. 115-120 c.e.

  • The gospel of Marcion:
    • this gospel was probably based on the pre-Marcionite gospel:
    • but with significant omissions:
    • thus enabling opponents to claim he “mutilated” the Gospel of Luke

Third stage, probably ca. 120-125 c.e.

  • Canonical Luke
    • this gospel was almost certainly based on the pre-Marcionite gospel
    • with the additions of
      • some new pericopes,
      • preface,
      • infancy narratives,
      • a re-rewritten Markan story of the empty tomb,
      • and added postresurrection narratives
    • the author worked through the source giving it his own stamp and sense of literary unity
    • with the aim of forcefully responding to the claims of Marcionites
    • and the same author wrote the . . . .
  • Book of Acts
    • and the complete work (Luke-Acts) was produced when Marcion’s views were becoming well known
    • as a weapon in the battle against Marcionism

To me, this is by and large a satisfactory hypothesis that answers more questions than it raises. It makes good sense, I think, of many of the features of Luke-Acts especially when compared with comparable material in other gospels and early church writings. My main reservations come from my doubts that Justin knew the book of Acts. He knew some of the material we find in other gospels, including noncanonical ones. It does not necessarily follow, however, that he knew the same gospels that we know that also included some of the same material. I can think of no reason against the possibility that the author of canonical Luke-Acts was busy composing around about the same time Justin was writing. There are many overlaps of issues, themes, narrative bytes, not to mention innumerable ambiguities within Justin’s works over whether he knew the canonical gospels or not, and/or which of the noncanonical ones he knew. Perhaps it was the work of Luke-Acts, first clearly attested by Irenaeus about a generation after Justin, that came to be recognized as providing the singular paradigm through which all previous works were to be judged (and maybe even redacted). But all this requires unpacking and exploration in a host of other posts.

Next, to complete this series with a summary of Tyson’s views of the early historical impact of Luke-Acts.

3 Comments

  • Scott
    2014-03-25 05:55:45 UTC - 05:55 | Permalink

    I have always thought that the church fathers had their chronology confused.
    Either that or they were purposefully trying to deny that heretics had any association with the past.
    I personally don’t think that you need 5-20 years to write a gospel + epilogue though

  • Neil Godfrey
    2014-03-25 07:41:59 UTC - 07:41 | Permalink

    I understand that the main reason heretics had to be assigned late dates was to conform with the doctrine that the church began pure and the rot only took over in a significant way after the apostles or towards the end of their lives.

    If we interpret the gospels as apocalyptic literature then, according to the nature of that genre, the gospels would be written soonish after the fall of Jerusalem.

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