“Discovering” an original gospel behind canonical Luke and the gospel of Marcion

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by Neil Godfrey

The early church fathers accused Marcion of mutilating the canonical gospel of Luke. But there are problems with accepting this charge, as discussed in a previous post. Tyson in Marcion and Luke-Acts resurrects the hypothesis that both Marcion and the author of canonical Luke used another text no longer surviving and which he calls, after Baur, “original Luke”.

Tyson traces the historical pedigree of this hypothesis of “original Luke” through Ritschl, Baur, Hilgenfeld, Volckmar and Knox.

Albert Ritschl, in 1846, argued that the author of our canonical Luke used Marcion’s Luke as his source:

  • he showed that inconsistencies in canonical Luke disappeared in the reconstructed gospel of Marcion
  • Ritschl later came to reject his view that the canonical author used Marcion’s gospel. It requires one to imagine a proto-orthodox author would base his work on a text he believed to be heretical

Ferdinand Christian Baur, in 1847, disagreed with Ritschl’s 1846 argument. Baur’s argument was that the author of canonical Luke wrote it as an anti-Marcionite gospel by using material from:

  • an “original Luke” (apparently also known to Marcion),
  • from Matthew
  • and from other material unique to him (Sondergut)

Baur dismissed the claims of the church fathers that Marcion had “mutilated” canonical Luke. Such a charge, he said, carried as little weight as any other evil charge the fathers delivered against those they deemed heretics, such as their propensity to seduce virgins. “A heretic may be presumed to have done both.”

Baur’s most convincing evidence that canonical Luke was a mishmash of other sources was the number of inconsistencies throughout it. He drew on Ritschl for most of these inconsistencies in canonical Luke:

  • The pericope of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth (4:16-30) refers to a scene in Capernaum that has not happened, but that is narrated as happening later (4:31-37)
    • Baur saw this as evidence that the author of canonical Luke rearranged his source
      • so that Jesus’ ministry began at his hometown (more natural in view of the canonical author),
      • so that it began as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy as per 4:21 (thus anti-Marcionite)
      • so that it began with a link to Elijah and Elisha who preached to both Israel and the gentiles
  • Luke 4:24 (“no prophet is accepted in his own country”) makes better sense if the reader has already seen a contrast between how Jesus is accepted in other places and in his own town
  • Luke 11:29-32 allegedly contains two interpretations of the sign of Jonah and a seemingly irrelevant note about Solomon and the Queens of the South
    • Old Testament signs and relevance is anti-Marcionite
  • Luke 16:16-17 says both that the law has come to an end and that it can never come to an end
    • Baur believed that in the second verse the “original Luke” spoke of Jesus’ “words” never failing, and the author of canonical Luke changed this to the law never failing, thus creating a contradiction

Baur’s hypothesized “original Luke”, however, was very similar to Marcion’s gospel.

Gustav Volckmar, 1850, maintained that both Marcion and Ritschl had oversimplified the question. Simply reversing the order of events in Luke 4 (so that the Capernaum pericope preceded the Nazareth one) in Marcion’s gospel did not work either, for the following reasons:

  1. the Capernaum-Nazareth order provided no motivation for the Nazareth residents to turn against Jesus, since the verse immediately preceding the rejection (4:22) says they all highly approved of him
  2. 4:23 has the Nazareth people speaking of the things, plural, that Jesus had done in Capernaum so the one Capernaum incident preceding it is not enough. 4:22 assumes a long history of deeds in Capernaum has preceded this scene.
  3. 4:24 (“no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown”) only makes sense in the context it is used in Mark 6:4 and Matthew 13:57 — after Jesus has first been shown to be a great prophet

Volckmar’s conclusion: both the Marcionite and canonical authors took the two pericopes (Nazareth and Capernaum) from a common original.

John Knox, 1942, summarized the nineteenth century German debate as ending “in the establishment of a new view which denied both that Luke was derived from Marcion and that Marcion was derived from canonical Luke.”

Knox also argued that a gospel preceding both Marcion’s and the canonical one would have contained:

  1. roughly the same Markan and Matthean units that our canonical Luke contains
  2. and some of Luke’s Sondergut

and that this primitive gospel was:

  1. shortened by Marcion
  2. and enlarged by the canonical author of Luke-Acts

Tyson writes, p. 85:

This formidable scholarly tradition, which includes Baur, Ritschl, and Knox, has established grounds for serious doubts about the claims of the church fathers and has encouraged an alternative theory, namely that canonical Luke, although not based directly on Marcion’s gospel, was composed, among other factors, in reaction to the preaching of Marcion.

Tyson then goes on to show how this argument is strengthened by observing some of the differences between Marcion’s gospel and canonical Luke.

. . . . will continue as time and other interests and commitments permit . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on ““Discovering” an original gospel behind canonical Luke and the gospel of Marcion”

  1. Different views may be held with regard to priority/posteriority issues of the Marcionite Gospel. There should be little debate, however, about the fact that John Knox gave a highly truncated account of the 19th century German controversy on that issue.

    For unknown reasons Knox treated Volkmar’s publication from 1850 as the final word that led to “the establishment of a new view which denied both that Luke was derived from Marcion and that Marcion was derived from canonical Luke” (Knox, Marcion and the New Testament, 81).

    However, in his “Das Evangelium Marcions : Text und Kritik mit Rücksicht auf die Evangelien des Märtyrers Justin, der Clementinen und der apostolischen Väter ; eine Revision der neuern Untersuchungen nach den Quellen selbst zur Textesbestimmung und Erklärung des Lucas-Evangeliums” from 1852 Volkmar explicitely retracted from his 1850 position now siding with those who maintain that Marcion’s Gospel was a reworked version of Luke’s.

    Both, Theodor Zahn (1889) and Adolf von Harnack (1919, 1924) acknowledge that Volkmar’s 1852 work led to the vindication of the traditional position (Marcion reworked canonical Luke) in German scholarship.

    Knox’ selective rehearsing of the 19th century German debate from 1942 is not vindicated by subsequent repetition in other publications.

  2. I’ve long thought that placing the Luke-Acts author in this anti-marcionite tradition would lend itself quite nicely to the view that the Theophilus referenced in the dedication is Theophilus of Antioch – himself a anti-marcionite polemicist.

    1. Thanks for bringing that out. I had not realized Theophilus was an anti-Marcionite polemicist and that does make for an interesting possibility.

      But oh dear, if so, that would mean the gospels being composed as late as the days of Justin, Tatian and Irenaeus! And increases the odds in favour of the argument that Mark was written post the 135 ce war. Horrors — over the gospel dating I mean, not the war.

      I suspect many would prefer a fictional Theophilus to be addressed in the prologue.

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