Dating Marcion early (2)

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by Neil Godfrey

Following from previous post re Hoffmann’s arguments for an early date for Marcion:

Marcion is generally said to have launched his heresy from the mid-second century — that is, long after the completion of our New Testament writings. Some of the Pastoral epistles are said to have been completed as late as the early second century. Some arguments exist that Acts itself, and even possibly some of the gospels, were also completed after the first century.

Hoffmann challenges this late date, and Tyson picks up Hoffmann’s arguments. Tyson in fact argues that Marcion was influential, if not always directly, in the shaping of what became our canonical Gospel of Luke as well as the book of The Acts of the Apostles.

It is not difficult to challenge the generally assumed (late) dates for Marcion. They are based on a face-value reading of Irenaeus (ca 180 c.e.) in particular. Yet the earlier author, Justin Martyr (ca. 150 c.e.) gives a very different account of the time of Marcion’s activity. Justin even claims to be a contemporary of Marcion, and expresses surprise that Marcion is “still” alive and kicking at the time he wrote — around 150 c.e. If we only had Justin’s words, we would inevitably conclude that Marcion was active in the earlier decades of the second century. But Irenaeus cites a genealogy of false teachers, unknown to Justin, and places Marcion as beginning his career around 150 c.e. Hoffmann shows that Irenaeus, like other later Fathers, was in fact fabricating a genealogy and chronological system that forced “heretics” into a time frame that came well after an earlier period of the consolidation of the teaching of Truth. Heresy by its definition had to begin late. And the different teachers all had to be part of the same “false” system, owing a debt to each other in some sort of genealogical chain.

There is also the scene Irenaeus depicts of Marcion being in Rome at the time of Polycarp and Anicetus but Hoffmann points to the dramatic, ideological and anachronistic literary source factors that have been pulled to together to create this episode, giving reason for treating it as a fabrication.

So if we accept that Irenaeus dated Marcion late for ideological reasons, and Justin was a contemporary of Marcion and implies that Marcion was active much earlier than Irenaeus indicates, then we are on firmer ground if we go with the evidence of Justin when we set a date for Marcion’s time.

By starting with Justin’s implication that Marcion preached during the earlier decades of the second century, we find that various passages in Polycarp, Ignatius, and even the canonical 2 Timothy and other pastoral epistles, take on fresh significance as attempts to counter Marcion’s influence.

Tyson argues that Marcion had a major influence on the way the final authors of Luke and Acts wrote those books.

My previous post outlined Hoffmann’s presentation of his arguments for dating Marcion to the earlier rather than the middle decades of the second century. Here I will summarize Tyson’s reasons, even though he relies heavily on Hoffmann himself.

“Genealogy of Error”

Tyson draws on Hoffmann who had drawn on Bauer who expressed this orthodox concept thus: “where there is heresy, orthodoxy must have preceded “.

Clement of Alexandria presents us with a classic illustration of the belief that there was a set sequence, chain or genealogy of persons that clearly pointed to the time when heresy entered and corrupted an originally pure beginning of the Church. For Clement, there were three periods:

  1. The time and teaching of Jesus from emperors Augustus to Tiberius (ca 30 c.e.)
  2. The time of the apostles, which included the time of Paul, and that ended with Nero (ca 60 c.e.)
  3. The time of heresy, from Hadrian to Antoninus Pius (117-161 c.e.)

Compare Irenaeus, writing earlier:

  • Heresy begins with Simon Magus, the father of all heresies, and proceeds through Menander, Cerdo and Marcion. Cerdo came to Rome (according to Irenaeus) at the time of the ninth bishop, Hyginus (137-140 c.e.) and Marcion succeeded him at the time of the next bishop, Anicetus (154-166 c.e.)
  • But prior to all of these were the apostles who passed on the original teachings of Jesus.

Tyson’s comment:

Since these writers approach the times of Marcion with a “genealogy of error” theory in mind, they are compelled to discount any information that would suggest an early date for him and to locate his times as late as possible.

The Traditional Date (144 c.e.) for Marcion

Tertullian’s argument:

Tertullian says that Marcion’s followers claimed 115 years and 6 months from the time of Jesus to that of Marcion. If, as Marcion apparently believed also, the time of Jesus began in the 15th year of Tiberius, 29 c.e., then Marcion’s emergence would be 144 c.e.

Tertullian also insisted that Marcion’s heresy first came to light (in Rome) during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161 c.e.)

Harnack’s conclusion:

Harnack, who published a major and influential work on Marcion in 1921, on the basis of Tertullian’s evidence concluded that 144 c.e. was the date that Marcion was expelled from the Church during his visit to Rome, from which time he began his own church.

Tyson’s / Hoffmann’s response:

Tyson acknowledges Hoffmann’s argument that Harnack erred in treating Tertullian’s claims as genuine biographical information. Tertullian was rather attempting to prove that Marcion’s heresy did not appear until the middle of the second century, that it was very much a latecomer and hence without credit. Tertullian loved his little pun that said Marcion was “impious” under emperor “Pius” (A.M. 1, 19:2).

Hoffmann observed the logical flaw in the way Tertullian presented his argument. He insisted that his figures (115 and a half years) were taken from the claims of the Marcionites themselves. Yet he is attempting to prove from their figures that Marcion’s teachings were born only as late as the time of Antoninus Pius. But if the Marcionites themselves really did admit to this, then there would be no need for Tertullian to labour as he does to prove this point.

The only possible conclusion is that the Marcionites themselves posited a much earlier date for the founding of their church and, accordingly, for the teaching of Marcion. (Hoffmann cited in Tyson)

However, there is no documentation that directly spells out that the followers of Marcion did believe that Marcion founded their church much earlier than the time of Antoninus Pius.

Support for an earlier date for Marcion?

Clement of Alexandria informs his readers of a claim made by the “heretics” that he himself did not believe:

Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas. And he was the pupil of Paul. For Marcion, who arose in the same age with them, lived as an old man with the younger [heretics]. (Stromateis, 7, 17)

The best we can garner from this statement is that in the second century Marcionites apparently were responding to charges that their faith was a latecomer by counter-claiming it went back much earlier. The reported assertions of Marcionites are as insubstantial as the claims of the Fathers promoting their “genealogy of error”.

Nevertheless, Tyson finds it worth pointing out that Clement’s only response to these Marcionites is to “prove” their history started late by reference to the “genealogy of error” — they were heretics so that “proved” they had a late start.

But their testimonies did not agree

But even if the claims of the Marcionites as evidenced in the Fathers cannot be substantiated, there are still good grounds for believing that the religion of Marcion did appear earlier than the times promoted by Irenaeus and Tertullian.

Tyson: “References from the early Christian writers are inconsistent, confused, and biased.”

What do the following have in common?

  • Tertullian’s elaborate calculation of Marcion’s dates
  • Irenaeus’s fabricated genealogy
  • Clement’s ambiguous chronology

Hoffmann’s answer: They are all attempts to counter a surviving tradition that Marcionism began much earlier than the time of emperor Antoninus Pius.

But Hoffmann also notes the contradictions and inconsistencies that arise in their uncoordinated thrashings:

  • Did Marcionism begin under Hadrian according to Clement?
  • Or under Antoninus according to Tertullian?
  • Was Marcion in the church at Rome under Telesforus and a heretic under Hyginus (Tertullian)?
  • Or was he a follower of Cerdo under the reign of Anicetus (Irenaeus)?

Harnack – Knox – Hoffmann on Marcion’s dates

A synopsis of modern major works regarding dates for Marcion:

Harnack (1921) on Marcion:

  • born ca. 85 c.e.
  • assumed he had an extensive ministry in the East prior to 138 c.e.
  • arrived in Rome ca. 138 c.e.
  • excommunicated from there 144 c.e.

Knox (1942) on Marcion:

  • accepts Harnack’s dates
  • but suggests M’s ministry began in 120 c.e. or even 110 c.e.

Hoffmann (1984) on Marcion:

  • born ca. 70 c.e.
  • preached in Asia Minor from 110 to 150 c.e.
  • doubts M ever visited Rome

The earliest reference to Marcion by name

Justin Martyr (ca. 150 c.e.) is the first to discuss Marcion by name in his First Apology 26 and 58:

  • Justin says M taught about two gods, with the creator god being the lesser one
  • Justin is silent about any visit of M to Rome and about his supposed excommunication
  • Justin expresses surprise Marcion is still teaching
  • Justin discusses Simon Magus, generally regarded as first of the heretics
  • Justin tells us Simon visited Rome during the reign of Claudius (41-54 c.e.)
  • Justin then speaks of Simon’s disciple Menander
  • Then returns to discussing Marcion, saying that Marcion is still teaching and has influenced many throughout the world

Hoffmann’s conclusions from Justin’s evidence:

  1. Marcion had been successful in his preaching
  2. Marcion presented his views to a diverse audience
  3. Marcion is still active around 150 c.e. — kai nun eti [‘even until now’] — which strongly suggests that Marcion had a much longer period of evangelization than would be possible if he only became an influential teacher after his supposed excommunication in Rome around 144 c.e.

Hoffmann also directs our attention to the following:

  • Justin’s authority is strengthened by his having come from Samaria and having spent time in Ephesus before arriving in Rome where he wrote. He was obviously in a position to know the extent of Marcionite influence in the East.
  • Compare Justin’s claim that heresy began as early as the reign of Claudius with the known tendency to try to mark the advent of heresy much later.
  • Justin does not specifically connect Menander (the disciple of Simon Magus) with Marcion, but nor does he suggest any long time between them.
  • Before the middle of the second century Marcion already had many converts from many nations and diverse cultures. Marcion was well-known outside Rome.
  • Justin expressed surprise that Marcion was still preaching around 150 c.e.

Justin’s comments would not be inconsistent with the view that Marcion began his work in the East in 120 or even as early as 110 c.e.

1 Timothy, 1 Clement, Ignatius

1 Timothy, composed late first or early second century, warns against “Antitheses of falsely called Gnosis” (1 Timothy 6:20). Antitheses was also the name of Marcion’s composition arguing the differences between the True God and the Creator God, and comparing the differences between the Law and the Gospel.

Hoffmann sees some hints in 1 Clement of a knowledge of Marcionism but they are not enough, he says, to firmly place a Marcionite “error” as early as 98 c.e.

Hoffmann notes Ignatius’s arguments (117 c.e.) against a literal interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures and his strong defence of Monotheism. Both of these could have been reactions against Marcionite teaching.

Polycarp and the Firstborn of Satan

The key passage in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians is 7:1

For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an anti-Christ; and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the Cross is of the devil: and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord for his own lusts, and says that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, — this man is the first-born of Satan.

Harnack, 1921, doubted the genuineness of this verse. He thought Polycarp wrote ca. 117 c.e. and Marcion could not have been so early.

P. N. Harrison, 1936, demonstrated that this letter was a conflation of 2 letters and that the first 12 chapters dated from 132-133 c.e. Only chapters 13-14 were from 117 c.e. So the statement above from 7:1 may indeed refer to Marcion.

Harnack also noted that 7:1 attacks Docetism, and there were many Docetic groups, not just Marcion’s.

But the significant passage in evaluating a possibility of a Marcionite reference is the phrase, “firstborn of Satan”.

Irenaeus (Heresies 3, 3.4) knew this phrase of Polycarp’s and used it in a scene he described where Polycarp rebuked Marcion. Irenaeus narrated a visit to Rome by both Polycarp and Marcion, and set this at the time Polycarp was known to have visited Anicetus ca. 155 c.e.

Implausibilities in Irenaeus’s narrative:

  • that Polycarp would use the same words in rebuking at Rome a generation after they were used in his letter
  • the setting of Rome for the encounter between the 2 rivals: Rome represented the locus of true tradition, the heritage of Peter and Paul, and as such it was probably for theological reasons that the story of Marcion’s excommunication was set there.


Justin informs us that Marcion had extensive accomplishments from preaching prior to 150 c.e.

Polycarp’s letter indicates Marcion’s teachings were well known by 130 c.e.

Ignatius and the Pastorals hint at even earlier dates.

Marcion’s views were probably known in some quarters as early as 115-120 c.e.

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Neil Godfrey

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