2008-01-14

Marcion’s Challenge

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by Neil Godfrey

Marcion presented a formidable challenge to those who opposed his theology and practices. Indeed his opponents spent extraordinary energy in combating his influence, attacking his theology, and constructing alternatives to his practices. It was a massive effort, not only because many people found Marcionite Christianity attractive, but also because his was a complex challenge that, if met at all, had to be engaged on several fronts at once. Marcion’s opponents rightly saw that the very definition of the Chris­tian movement was at stake in the outcome. (Tyson, Marcion and Luke-Acts, p.48 )

Challenge one: Marcion’s assertion of the absolute newness of the Christian faith

For anti-Marcionites to deny the complete newness of the Christian faith risked undermining its significance and any rationale for embracing it.

Anti-Marcionites had to somehow highlight the distinct significance of the gospel while at the same time uphold the sacred nature and authority of the Hebrew scriptures.

Marcion interpreted the Hebrew scriptures literally, as of course many Jews and even some Jewish Christians apparently did. Anti-Marcionites would have to stress the allegorical or symbolic interpretation of the scriptures. Allegorical and typological interpretations (already pioneered by Philo, though Tyson does not discuss his influence as I recall) could be deployed to claim the Jewish writings predicted their dying and resurrected Messiah, and the new religion. This way they could hijack these writings from the Jews, and Marcionites, while still promoting their authority.

Maintaining the authority of the Hebrew scriptures was also a handy tool to fight Marcion’s system of two gods. The Creator God, Law-giver and sender of Jesus could be declared the one and same.

Challenge two: Marcion’s reliance on Paul as the sole Apostle, and declaration that Peter and the Twelve were false apostles

Paul’s letters are generally thought to have been collected near the end of the first century but not widely known for some decades after that. Justin writing in the second century makes no reference to Paul or any of his letters.

The letters of Paul point to controversy over Paul’s teaching even in his lifetime. And Marcion proclaimed Paul’s theology, as opposed to that of the Jerusalem apostles, to be the only true one. (Again, not Tyson’s point, but I can’t help but wonder if the simplest explanation is that Paul’s letters, with their addressing of this controversy, are not possibly a product of the second century — addressing the issues we know existed then. But I know that thought is far left field.)

Tyson cites Knox’s summary of the problem facing the non-Marcionites here. Either they must embrace Paul or repudiate (or discredit) him. Knox goes on to say that this was not a real choice. They had to embrace him, without jettisoning Peter and the Twelve.

Challenge three: Marcion’s (Pauline) theology of grace

Marcion stressed the total newness of the gospel. It had nothing in common with Judaism. It owed nothing to the Hebrew Scriptures. The revelation of Jesus was completely new. Even the God he revealed was hitherto unknown. Grace and law could not exist together.

Marcion’s opponents did not deny the role of grace, but they could not accept the total rejection of the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures or Jesus’ Judaism.

The significance for Luke-Acts

Tyson explains that leaders such as Irenaeus and Tertullian combatted the above three main challenges in painstaking detail, at wearying length. Attacking Marcionism was a major undertaking.

The purpose of his book, Marcion and Luke-Acts, is to demonstrate that the author of Acts and the editor of canonical Luke wrote in large part for the purpose of “[providing] ammunition for meeting the Marcionite challenge.” Luke-Acts turned out to be among the earliest weapons prepared for this anti-Marcionite campaign, and came to play “a major role in what turned out to be a defining struggle for second-century Christianity.”

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Neil Godfrey

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