I have copied Roger Parvus's recent comment here as a post in its own right. (Neil)
Couchoud’s books contain many valuable insights. He was rightly dissatisfied with the mainstream scenario of Christian origins, and he rearranged the pieces of the puzzle together in a new way that provides a fresh perspective on them. There is much that he says that I agree with. I would not be surprised, for instance, if he is right about the role played by Clement of Rome. But I am disappointed that Couchoud—like practically everyone else—still does not take seriously Marcion’s claim that the original author of the Gospel and Pauline letter collection was someone who professed allegiance to a God higher than the Creator of this world, to a God higher than the God of the Jews.
The automatic assumption on the part of confessional scholars
The automatic assumption on the part of confessional scholars is that Marcion must have been mistaken in his views regarding the origin of the Gospel and Pauline letters. I cannot recall ever having come across a single mainstream Christian book that even considered for a moment that Marcion may have been right. Their attitude is understandable since, if Marcion was right, it would mean that the original Gospel and the Pauline letters were written by someone who was basically a gnostic, by someone who sounds very much like Simon of Samaria or one of his followers. Perish the heretical thought! But even non-confessional admirers of Marcion like Couchoud seem likewise unable to take seriously Marcion’s claim. Instead they make Marcion himself the creator of the Gospel and say that he either created the Pauline letters or imposed his own religious ideas on letters that did not originally contain them. For some reason this solution is thought to be preferable to taking Marcion at his word. As far as we know Marcion never claimed to be the author of those writings. He claimed that when he came across them they were in a contaminated state. They had been interpolated by people who Judaized them, who turned their original author into someone who believed in a single highest God who was the God of the Old Testament and the Creator of the world. Is Marcion’s claim so unbelievable? Is it really out of the question that the original Gospel and Pauline letters were Simonian and that it was their opponents who Judaized those writings? (I say “Simonian” because the early record does not contain the name of any other first century Christians who held the belief that the creators of this world were inferior to the supreme God, and that those creators tried to hold men in bondage by means of the Law.)
Too much trust in the writings of the heresy hunters?
I am aware that someone could object: “You’re trusting too much in the writings of the proto-orthodox heresy hunters. We should not believe their expositions of what Marcion taught.” But why not? Marcionites were apparently active in many of the same places as the proto-orthodox. And they competed for converts, each side looking to win over converts from the other. In such a situation, in competition with contemporary rivals who are rubbing shoulders with members of your flock, it wouldn’t have made sense to set up straw men. That would have made it too easy for the Marcionites. What sense would it make to set up straw men that the Marcionites could knock down in five seconds by saying: “That’s not what we believe.” Why waste time writing extensive refutations of arguments that your opponent can quickly dismiss with a simple: “They must be arguing against somebody else, because those aren’t our beliefs. Let me explain to you what we believe.” I am as suspicious as the next guy about many things in the proto-orthodox writings. But when it comes to what Marcion taught, I am inclined to trust that they actually engaged with his doctrine.
I am also inclined to believe that Tertullian was telling the truth when he said that Marcion initially held the same faith as the Roman church. He says that Marcion made his substantial monetary donation to that church “primo calore fidei” (“in the first flush of faith”). But if Marcion was a new convert, how on earth could he have ever gotten the idea that the Gospel and Letters had been interpolated? Was a practical-minded shipowner really that sharp-eyed? I doubt it. The extant record says he at some point made the acquaintance of the Simonian Cerdo. If anyone would have recognized what had been done to the Simonian writings it would have been the Simonians themselves. True, being a secretive bunch, their hands were tied to some extent. How do you expose the fraud without at the same time revealing your secret doctrines! But Marcion was not bound in the same way by secrecy. If he learned from Cerdo that the proto-orthodox Gospel and Pauline letters were contaminated, there was nothing to stop him from saying so and from trying to restore them as best he could.
To explain Paul’s zigzagging
To me, accepting at face value Marcion’s assessment of the Pauline letters is the best way to make sense of their contents. To explain Paul’s zigzagging we don’t have to resort to strained psychological or tactical explanations. Anyone who has read mainstream Pauline commentaries knows what I am talking about. They contain seemingly endless psychological reasons why Paul shifts back and forth on the contentious issues that separated the proto-orthodox from the early gnostics. If he speaks dismissively of the Law in one passage but praises it in another, it is because he was impulsive by nature. Or he was not a clear or systematic thinker. Or he was so passionate about his beliefs that he failed to notice the contradictions in what he wrote. He wrote things when he was angry that he surely later regretted. Etc… Etc. Or his reasons were tactical. Yes, it must be admitted that he used gnostic language and spoke like a gnostic. But as Schmithals, for instance, would explain it (away?), he was not really a gnostic. It was only a tactic he used because his opponents were gnostics: “Paul becomes a Gnostic to the Gnostics, in order to win the Gnostics” (Gnosticism in Corinth, p. 273). “… he (Paul) can have acquired the Gnostic elements of his theological set of concepts only during the fifteen-year stay in Arabia, Syria, and Cilicia…” (p. 71) But, Schmithals assures us, Paul’s knowledge of Gnosticism must have been very superficial, for “If Paul had known the actual meaning of his Gnostic terminology, he would not at all have been able to use this to express his own proclamation…” (p. 71.) Hmmm. Unfortunately, Schmithals convinced very few people that Paul’s Corinthian opponents were actually gnostics. So the nagging question remains: why then did Paul speak like a gnostic? My suspicion is because he was one, the first Christian one. And that his given name was Simon.
Instead of submitting the author of the Paulines to psychological or tactical analysis to explain his contradictions, I think consideration should be given first to the earliest explanation, that of Marcion: someone has tampered with the letters; they were originally gnostic but were subsequently Judaized. I know that playing the interpolation card looks like an “easy-out.” But surely it counts for something that from the first moment the Pauline collection of letters turns up in the early record a prominent Christian, Marcion, was already screaming: “Interpolated!”
A Paul by any other name
Now, as far as is known Marcion always used the name ‘Paul” for the original author of the Gospel and Letters, the Apostle who professed allegiance not to the Creator, the God of the Jews, but to a supreme God far above the Creator of this world. There is no clear indication in the extant record that Marcion viewed Paul as a nickname for Simon of Samaria. This is not as surprising as appears at first glance. The early record is clear that Simonians used many names and titles for Simon. And it seems that in time the name Simon became a kind of sacred name to the Simonians. According to Hippolytus, Simonians were okay with calling Simon ‘Zeus’ or “Lord,’ but accused anyone who used the name ‘Simon’ of being ignorant of the mysteries. So it may be that Cerdo did not reveal it to Marcion.
There is also a Nicene summary of Simonianism that seems to connect Simon’s name with the hymn in chapter 2 of Philippians. Simon claimed to be a new manifestation of the Son who suffered in Judaea, and Simonians claimed that Simon was given his name because he “heard/obeyed” the Father when he earlier descended to this world to redeem men. The etymological root of the name Simon means “heard, hearkened, obeyed,” so it actually makes better sense of the hymn in Philippians if the name given was ‘Simon’ and was only subsequently changed to ‘Jesus’ when the letter was Judaized. I think there is also double-meaning Simonian wordplay still present in Mark’s Gospel that involve Simon’s name. For instance, when the Father says at the Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son—Hear Him” the words “Hear Him” are both a command and an identification i.e. This is my beloved Son whose name is “Hear Him” (Simon).
To finish up: Marcion never fully embraced Simonianism, but I think that from his acquaintance with Cerdo he learned that the Gospel and Pauline letters in use in Rome in the 130s had been interpolated. I think Marcion was correct in that basic contention. And I think he was right that the original versions of those writings were authored by someone who believed in a supreme God above the Creator God of the Jews. Those writings viewed this world including the flesh as inferior not because of some sin by man, but intrinsically by reason of its creation by the inferior world-creating angels. And they portrayed the future not as some millennial kingdom of God on this earth, but as escape of the souls of the redeemed from this world, back to the invisible, immaterial world of the highest God.
I part ways with Marcion, however, in his identification of who it was that Judaized the Gospel and Letters. He apparently, according to Tertullian, accused the false brethren mentioned in the letter to the Galatians. I suspect it was done by the proto-orthodox Roman church around 130 CE. And Marcion apparently thought the Gospel was written by Paul. I think the first Gospel that contained a life of Jesus was a Simonian allegory about Simon that may have been written as late as the 120s.
The proto-orthodox Judaization of the Simonian Gospel and Letters was ultimately successful, of course. They succeeded in co-opting Simonian Christianity.