The “heretic” Marcion is a significant figure in the history of early Christianity but the sources for our dates for his activity are contradictory. It is quite possible that if we attempt to understand the reasons for these contradictions in the sources we will see that Marcion’s influence on our canonical New Testament texts as far more influential than it is generally portrayed today in histories of early Christianity. (For more background on Marcion see the Center for Marcionite Research and at Early Christian Writings.)
One recent fresh look at the date — and influence on the New Testament writings — of Marcion is found in Tyson‘s Marcion and Luke-Acts. (See the tag tyson-marcion-luke-acts/). Tyson argues that Acts was composed in the second century as a response to Marcionite Christianity, which was possibly the largest brand of Christianity at the time and which claimed Paul as its sole apostle.
The ideological bias for dating Marcion late
Part of Tyson’s argument is the possibility that Marcion himself began his work considerably earlier than is often assumed. The generally accepted dates for Marcion are based on a face-value reading of Church Fathers’ polemics against his doctrines. Tyson and others remind us that these authors had an ideological reason for placing Marcion as late as possible: their theological constructs dictated that Christianity heresy infected Christianity late, sometimes as late as 117 c.e. (the accession of emperor Hadrian). The idea was to keep false teaching far removed from what they believed was the “original purity” of the Church and the time of the twelve apostles.
Hoffman’s reasons for dating Marcion earlier
Tyson draws in part on R. Joseph Hoffmann’s argument in his discussion of the possibility of a much earlier date for Marcion.
Following is a dot-point outline from R. Joseph Hoffman’s Marcion, on the restitution of Christianity. It’s all from Hoffmann’s second chapter and my numbering matches the original chapter sections.
2.1 Marcionites and ‘Christians’
The evidence of Justin Martyr (thought to be writing about 150 c.e.)
Justin says that in addition to his own form of Christianity there are others also laying claim to being called “Christian” but with different teachings from his own. He compares this situation to the world of philosophy: just as there are many philosophical schools all claiming to represent “philosophy”, so there are rivals to the claim of Christianity. In addition to his own “school” are other Christians associated with the names of:
- Simon Magus
He calls all three “Christians”, but does not indicate any links or influences among them.
Justin attacks the Marcionites saying they are not worthy of the name “Christian” because of their differences in practices and doctrines. He does not call them “heretics” but paints a picture of two different groups in competition for the right to be truly called “Christian”. His opposition to the Marcionites is entirely on the basis of their teachings.
He knows of no past Marcionite link or association with his own school of Christianity. There is no suggestion of a “breakaway” history or past “falling out” with representatives of his own beliefs.
(Hoffmann does not discuss it in this section but Justin also traced his own “school of Christianity” back to twelve apostles, of whom he names Peter, James and John, and who he says went out from Jerusalem teaching to the world immediately after Christ’s resurrection. (He appears to have never heard of Judas.) But his historical knowledge is somewhat confused since he also says at the same time, that straight after the death and resurrection of Jesus, that God punished the Jews for their crime by sending in the Roman armies to conquer Judea and overthrow their (last) king, Herod, so that from that time on Jerusalem has been ruled by gentiles. Jewish independence came to an end with their crime against Christ. So in his mind, the time of the resurrection and beginning of the Christian evangelization was from the time of events that we know happened towards the last quarter of the first century.)
2.2 Irenaeus on the Morphology of Heresy
The evidence of Irenaeus (Haer.3.4.3)
Irenaeus is the first to say that there were links between the heretics. He was also the first to provide a chronological sequence for them.
He writes that Marcion was a follower of Cerdo at Rome during the reign of Anicetus (154-166).
Note: There are problems with this claim by Irenaeus. It would mean that Marcion really began his unorthodox teachings around or soon after the time of Justin Martyr. Yet Justin expresses surprise in his “First Apology” (generally dated around 151-155) that Marcion is still alive and teaching at that time. So the date given by Irenaeus for Marcion contradicts what we read earlier by Justin Martyr.
Would Irenaeus have any reason to place Marcion much later than Justin does?
Hoffmann gives us a plausible reason Irenaeus would place Marcion in the time of (“pope”) Anicetus, so much later than Justinian’s observations:
Irenaeus knew of Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians in which he describes his own personal encounter with Marcion. Polycarp had called him to his face “the firstborn of Satan”.
Irenaeus also knew that Polycarp had a meeting with Anicetus in Rome around 155 c.e.
Irenaeus viewed Rome as the leading bastion of “orthodox” Christianity and Polycarp as Rome’s representative in the East (Asia Minor) where “heresy” (Marcionism) was rife.
It served a nice dramatic touch for him to place Anicetus, Polycarp and Marcion all in the same city together and to make Rome the scene of Polycarp’s declaration to Marcion’s face that he was the “firsborn of Satan”. (Euseb. HE 4.14.7f; Haer.3.3.4)
Irenaeus also discussed another letter said to be by Clement, the third bishop of Rome after the deaths of Peter and Paul. There is much debate about when to date this letter, but many scholars treat it as later first century/early second century.
Irenaeus could not deny that this letter looks as if it is attacking some of the “errors” of Marcion, but he also dated it very early, too early if he was to place the beginning of Marcion’s “heretical” career to the 150’s c.e.
How then did Irenaeus handle this bit of evidence apparently suggesting an earlier date for Marcion?
Answer: Irenaeus wrote that this letter “foresaw” the errors of Marcionism and demolished them for the faithful “in advance”.
2.3 Polycarp Contra Marcion
Irenaeus said that Polycarp first refutes Marcion face to face. – Haer. 3.3.4.
To Irenaeus, Polycarp represents one who heard directly from the original apostles and symbolized unity between east and west. – H.3.3.2.
Irenaeus also uses the terminology of the Pastoral Epistles to frame his symbolic encounter between truth and error.
Rome represents the locus of the true tradition. Polycarp represents an Eastern custodian of Truth in an area under the sway of Marcionism.
Irenaeus was quoting Polycarp’s letter (Polycarp calling Marcion “the firstborn of Satan”). yet it is hardly likely that Polycarp would have used the same words as in his 20 year old epistle. One smells narrative creativity at work.
Irenaeus stresses the historical Distance between Church with Truth and subsequent Heretical Inventions.
To demonstrate this he constructed his genealogy of the heretics. These he places as starting later but alongside the genealogy of true church:
Irenaeus uses Cerdo who came to Rome in time of Hyginus (i.e. ca. 136-140) as his starting point for dating the rest of his names. –Haer.3.4.1f, 5.20.1.
It is important to note that although Irenaeus presupposes these names were all connected to one another, there is no proof for this assertion. The real proof for Irenaeus that they were all “heretics” or of an “anti-catholic” nature is their multiplicity of teachings.
Irenaeus reports that Marcion came to Rome during the time of Anicetus, i.e. no earlier than 150. He informs readers that it was here he developed the ideas of Cerdo, and uses the well-attested Polycarp-Anicetus meeting over the Quartodeciman controversy to create a dramatic setting that included dialogue from some of Polycarp’s older epistle. It is significant that Irenaeus understood Polycarp’s epistle to be anti-Marcionite.
Justin, however, says Marcion’s teaching had spread to every nation by 150 and expresses surprise that Marcion was still alive around that time – 150 c.e. Justin had sojourned in Samaria and Ephesus before Rome so he was definitely in a position to know the extent of Marcion’s influence.
All this would suggest that Marcion had been an influential teacher (non-orthodox) well before 150. Irenaeus’s narrative that Marcion had been learning his doctrine from Cerdo in Rome from/after 150 is thus legendary.
What is the evidence for Marcion ever visiting Rome?
- Ephraem Syrus said Marcion was “wandering like Cain”
- Rhodo in a pun described Marcion as “a sailor”
- Philastrius said Marcion was driven out of Ephesus by John (the apostle) and the presbyters and then spread his heresy in Rome.
- The Anti-Marcionite prologue to the canonical gospel of John claims Marcion went to Rome to vindicate his teachings after his rejection at Ephesus by John.
Note here: Both Philastrius and the anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of John claim it was the apostle John who encountered Marcion at the bath-house in Ephesus, not Cerinthus (whose doctrines are similar to Marcion’s and Cerdo’s).
But Irenaeus has:
- First John encountering Cerinthus in Ephesus,
- then the story of Polycarp encountering and rejecting Marcion,
- then the warning of Paul to Titus on how to handle heretics.
Irenaeus logic in the passage is:
- Polycarp derives his authority from the apostle John in Ephesus, and in Smyrna from apostles;
- Polycarp follows John’s precedent regarding Cerinthus in his treatment of Marcion
- John acts according to rule of Paul, founder of Church at Ephesus.
Nothing is known of Cerinthus apart from the words of Irenaeus (like Cerdo). It is entirely possible that Irenaeus changed the Marcion-John encounter to a Cerinthus-John story.
The Marcion-John story was probably the earlier one. It testified to Marcionism as an aberration of Ephesian orthodoxy. Compare the Pastoral epistles, and the Marcionite prologue informing us that only Philippi, Laodicea and Thessalonica remained true to Marcionism.
Polycarp’s opponent in his Philippian letter is clearly Marcion. (Reasons listed below)
So what is the date of Polycarp’s letter?
Harrison: Polycarp’s chapters 1 to 12 were written around 130 c.e. ; chapter 13 (and 14?) around 117 c.e.
This would mean the possibility that Marcion was a mature and influential teacher by 130 c.e.
But according to the Marcionite prologist, Polycarp was writing to a church that stands almost alone, beside Laodicea and Thessalonica, as truly Marcionite!
The case for Polycarp’s Philippian letter being directed against Marcion:
- The heretic Polycarp opposes preaches in Paul’s name, and . . .
- He has persuaded some that marriage is evil
- He teaches that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is not judge of world
- He denies OT prophecies foretold coming of Jesus Christ
- He says Jesus came only in likeness of the flesh
- He teaches there is neither resurrection nor judgment
- He has mutilated the words of the Lord on pretext of following Paul
- His followers are called Christians
Polycarp counters these errors by hammering 3 points:
- The reality of both resurrection and judgment
- That all creation is subject to power and authority of God
- The importance of the law
And also by invoking name of Paul against those who use Paul to plead these errors.
Polycarp thus does not specifically mention Marcion’s doctrine of two gods (ditheism) or that Marcion denies that the highest god is a judge. Polycarp rather consider his scriptural refutation (3 points above) as sufficient rebuttal of Marcionism.
[I would add that in Polycarp’s time a certain “polytheism” would have been taken as normative. The question was more one of the identity of which angel or god was which.]
What evidence is there for Marcionism before Polycarp?
1 Clement to Corinthians (ca 100) discusses:
- Disputed questions
- Unholy sedition
- Abominable jealousy
- Dissolution of marriages
- Doubts about judgment of God
2 Clement’s Homily (ca 150):
Admonishes readers to leave off saying that flesh is not judged and does not rise again.
2 Peter (ca 130) discusses false teachers who:
- deny Lord Christ,
- lead dissolute lives,
- despise angelic powers,
- speak in high-handed fashion
But none of the above is specific enough to pinpoint Marcionism.
Docetism was objectionable only in its most radical forms at this time, and Marcionites appeared to reject these as much as the orthodox. If docetism was Marcionite too, it was not the distinguishing feature of it. We must look for something more structured as definitively Marcionite if we are detect other evidence of his earlier time-slot. . . .
Ignatius writing from Smyrna and Troas (before 115?):
Ignatius speaks of heretics in denial of the humanity of Jesus, the reality of crucifixion, and the resurrection of the dead — that is, docetism. But he also writes of those who are not persuaded by the Old Testament (OT) — of those who have a non-spiritual interpretation of “Judaism”. That is, an interpretation with no link with the gospel. Ignatius speaks of a right understanding of a spiritual link between the OT and the gospel. Marcion opposed this. Marcion insisted on a literal, not allegorical, reading of the OT scriptures.
Ignatius also attacks the “corrupters of families” who preach continence, deride good works, and call themselves Christians.
Ignatius upholds the unity of God as the model for unity of Church and doctrine. (Contrast Marcion’s belief in 2 gods.)
Like Polycarp, Ignatius writes as a pastor, however mystical, and his expository method is to dwell on the right doctrine rather than refute what is false. Ignatius even deliberately refuses to name the heretics. (I would add here that this adds plausiblity to the notion that he would also refuse to expound their doctrines, relying totally on his exposition of “right teaching” in answer to those doctrines.)
So it is possible that Marcionism is among his heresies. He is also possibly countering a form of “gnosticism” (though not a highly speculative one, and one born from Jewish-Christian circles) as well. All such call themselves Christians, though they interpreted Judaism differently from the way a large segment of Syrian churches did.
The only definite date we have for Marcion is Justin
Justin wrote either 150/3 c.e. or 138/9 for his First Apology.
If according to Irenaeus Marcion was a contemporary of Polycarp, we have good reason to think of him as an old teacher by the time of 150 c.e., and that his teaching career began before 115 c.e., by which time Ignatius would have completed his letters.
Thus Marcion possibly born about the same year as Polycarp – around 70 c.e.
Evidence of Clement of Alexandria (7th book of Stromateis):
This work mocks the heretics’ claims that, among others, Marcion preceded Simon Magus.
There was a Time of Truth that was marked by:
- the time of Lord’s teaching, ending in CE 30
- the time of the Apostles, ending in CE 68
Then there was a Time of Heresies:
- begining with the reign of Hadrian, i.e. not until 117 c.e.
Clement of A, and apparently Marcionites themselves (as we learn from Tertullian), viewed Marcion as one of the older heretics, as among those who arose in Emperor Hadrian’s time.
Although Irenaeus and Tertullian assumed Marcion’s heresy began in Rome, Clement gives no information to substantiate this.
Tertullian, Epiphanius and the Chronicler of Edessa all know of dates earlier than that given us by Irenaeus for the starting point of Marcion’s career.
Tertullian, 5th book of AM:
Marcion began his error in days of Antoninus; and in “Praes”, he says Marcion and Valentinus were contemporary believers in Rome under bishop Telesforus (c.125-36)
Irenaeus places Marcion in Rome in the time of Hyginus, and Marcion in the later time of Anicetus.
Tertullian accords with Clement in saying Marcion arose at the same time as Valentinus, but was the elder statesman of the heretics.
Tertullian’s aim is to suggest Marcion joined the church of Rome between 125-36 when Valentinus was there, and that he was later, during the reign of Hyginus (136-40), excommunicated. According to this then, Marcion’s heresy emerged during time of Antoninus Pius (138-161) — AM 1.19.3; 4.4.5; 5.19.2.
Tertullian writes that Marcionites say:
there were 115 ½ yrs and ½ month from Tiberius to Antoninus, between Christ and Marcion.
Tertullian is attempting to stress that the Marcionite error did not appear until the reigns of the Antonines.
Tertullian is like Clement, attempting to prove that the heretical age came late. Clement presents his chronology as a false one dreamt up by the heretics themselves. But note the elusive tradition underlying Philastrius and the author of the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of John that insists Marcion and the apostle John had been contemporaries, and that John had rejected Marcion at Ephesus, and that he was then rejected at Rome too.
Clement, Irenaeus and Tertullian all reject a tradition that places Marcion in the Apostolic age. Hence the fabricated genealogies of Irenaeus and Clement that were designed to get Marcion on stage only from time of Antoninus. But their attempts lead to no consensus – except to say that Marcion did not converse with apostles.
The confusion resulting from the attempts of the Fathers to re-write tradition
- Marcion’s heresy began either under Hadrian (Clement) or under Antoninus (Tertullian)
- Marcion was a mmber of the Church at Rome under Telesforus and a heretic under Hyginus (Tertullian), or a follower of Cerdo under Anicetus (Irenaeus)
Note that Tertullian says his purpose is to smash the tradition that we see in Philastrius and the anti-marcionite prologue to John’s gospel, and the allegations recorded by Clement of Alexandria.
Tertullian said the Marcionites claimed 115 years from Tiberius (Christ’s time) to Antoninus (Marcion’s). Is this 115 year date a true one really claimed by Marcionites? Note that Tertullian says he does not wish to enquire about details of the date, but only to offer it as proof of the lateness of Marcionism. But if Marcionites themselves accepted this date, there would be no need for such proof from Tertullian!
The facts of Marcion’s life as noted by the Church Fathers are determined by dogmatic and apologetic concerns which evolved out of their struggle against Marcionism:
- I Clement: invokes the venerable rule of “our Tradition” as a cure for sedition.
- Ignatius finds true Christians of Ephesus of one mind with the apostles and Paul, but heretics there are the subsequent wicked offshoots.
- Irenaeus: it is self-evident that heresy arose much later
- Clement of Alexandria: heretical assemblies came much later
- Tertullian: the later is heretical by definition
- 1, 2 Timothy and Titus affirm that sound teaching was committed to Paul, and warn of later heretics.
The earliest datable reference to Marcion is Justin’s 1 Apol.26; 58 where he says that by 150 c.e. many have been influenced by him. And recall Justin was a contemporary; he had first-hand knowledge of Marcion’s work in Asia Minor. He did not construct a systematic genealogical scheme to refute Marcionism as we see in Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement. And heresy is not the main focus of his Apology, but martyrdom is. The heresy is only given to give a point of reference to the true Christians who are worthy of martyrdom.
Polycarp’s letter to Philippians points to a similarity between Marcionism and the opponents addressed in the letter (ca 130 c.e.). And Irenaeus’s Haer.3.3.4 shows he knew that Marcion and Polycarp were contemporaries and also that he (Irenaeus) associated the heresy in Polycarp’s letter with Marcionism. (Note Irenaeus taking the verse from it to apply to Marcion in his mise en scene — “firstborn of Satan”.)
- The Martyrium Polycarpi makes Polycarp 86 at his martyrdom at Smyrna.
- Irenaeus says Polycarp came to Rome in the time of Anicetus and had been instructed by the apostles in Asia.
- Eusebius says Polycarp was in Asia during Trajan’s reign (98-117).
Marcion’s career may parallel all of this.
Also the anti-marcionite Prologue to John and the Liber de Haeresibus of Philastrius points to a tradition that made Marcion, like Polycarp, a companion of John at Ephesus.
The Ignatian correspondence indicates a substantial correspondence between his polemic and Marcionism, and by his own intent he won’t name his opponents. Eusebius says Polycarp was active 98-117 c.e. If so, then Marcion will have begun in Asia Minor around then, too – before 117 as the time of Ignatius’ death.
Pastoral epistles (c120?) – I Tim. 6.20? — will save details of their awareness of Marcionism for later post.
There is no literary evidence for Marcionism till the Ignatian writings and epistles to Timothy & Titus.
There is much confusion about Marcion’s trip to Rome.
- If Tertullian is right, then his time there spanned 35 yrs.
- Some say he went there 138 c.e.
- Irenaeus 154 c.e.
- Epiphanius in between.
Such confusion makes it doubtful he went there at all and certainly not to get his doctrine approved.
Compare the debates about over the claim that Paul went to Jerusalem to get his doctrine approved.
The tradition about Marcion’s discipleship of Cerdo is even less plausible.
Justin is the most secure for dating Marcion, and when read in conjunction with the others he may indicate Marcion’s death around 154.
Thus Marcion’s bio would appear to be:
- Born at Sinope c CE 70
- Active in Asia Minor c 110-150
- Died c 154
And for reference, Irenaeus Bk.3 ch.3 constructed the first genealogy of good teachers thus:
- Peter and Paul founded and build Church
- Eleutherius (contemporary of Irenaeus)
(All of this would have been news to Justin. Even the role of Peter and Paul. Justin only knew that the twelve apostles went out from Jerusalem preaching to the whole world from the time of Christ’s resurrection and Roman conquest.)
Continued in next post, Dating Marcion early (2)
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