Marcion and Luke-Acts: the Lukan Achievement

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is moving beyond my original interest in posting notes from Tyson’s hypothesis about the influence of Marcionism on the composition of Luke-Acts, but it completes his final chapter, and so also completes this series of posts. Looking here at:

  1. Literary achievement
  2. Theological achievement
  3. Historical achievement
  4. Christian-Jewish relations

The Literary Achievement

“Luke” has written Acts and unified this with a gospel by heavily reworking and adding to an earlier gospel so that the two-part whole bears a consistent literary style (Tannehill, Cadbury). He has also added new material to the gospel and used this (especially the last chapter) to lead into the story in Acts about the role of the apostles. His gospel preface also best refers to Acts as well as the gospel, and the parallelism of his narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus in his newly added Infancy Narratives is repeated in his later comparisons of Peter and Paul.

The literary unity of the whole does not deny the critical studies that also show that the author has combined (and re-worked) materials from a number of sources for both his gospel and Acts. There are various strands used for Acts, and a number used for the gospel, including Mark, Q? and “Sundergut” material.

Add my own thoughts about Matthew dialogue and John epitome

The Theological Achievement

Luke-Acts was composed in the midst of a theological controversy between “proto-orthodox” and Marcionite Christians.

Countering Marcionism meant asserting (in my own words, not Tyson’s):

  • the sole preeminence of the Creator god of the Jewish Scriptures, since Marcionism taught that this god was a lesser being compared with the higher hitherto unknown Alien god who sent Jesus;
  • respect for the physical creation, since Marcionism taught that the world of created matter was the product of the (lesser) god of this world — this also had implications for the nature and provenance of Jesus;
  • the central and foundational role of this Creator god working through history, especially through the history of Israel, since Marcionism taught that the Alien god sent Jesus as a completely new and unprepared for beginning for humanity;
  • the judging as well as the saving role of Jesus and his god, since Marcionism taught that only the inferior god of the Jews was a judging god;
  • the central place of the Jewish scriptures, both as a guide to Christian living and as a prophecy of Jesus Christ, since Marcionism rejected the relevance of these for Christians and for Jesus;
  • the central role of the apostolic tradition, since Marcionism denied the reliability of this and claimed that the true gospel was only understood by Paul;
  • Paul was himself a supporter of the Jewish scriptures and the law.

The Historical Achievement

Although Tyson thinks that Luke-Acts was composed in the early second century and during the life-time of Marcion himself, he acknowledges that it was in the late second century that this double-book had a major role in theological controversies, and quotes Christopher Mount (p.123):

[Irenaeus was the first to make explicit use of the text of Acts and] “what is particularly remarkable, indeed unprecedented, in Irenaeus’s intellectual defense of his construction of a fourfold gospel canon and a normative ecclesiastical tradition as a weapon against heretics is the importance of Acts of the Apostles takes as a part of scripture.” (p.15)

[The text of Luke-Acts] “became the focal point in intellectually defining Christian scripture and tradition in the dispute between Marcion and Irenaeus.” (p.16)

“Apparently, Irenaeus has pulled Acts off the shelf (so to speak), dusted it off, and put it to use to establish his construction of the standard for the Gospel — a unified constellation of apostolic witnesses in scripture and tradition.” (p.23)

Tyson by no means suggests it, but I think it is relevant that Irenaeus is also the first to construct twin genealogies of “heresy” and “orthodoxy”. (Justin had begun the process with a genealogy of heresy that does not sit with what we know of Acts, nor does his concept of early church history cohere with the narrative of Acts.)

The development of the New Testament canon

Again to step outside Tyson’s conversation, it is also worth considering that although Marcion’s collation of gospel and Pauline letters is often said to have been the catalyst for “orthodoxy” beginning to establish what became our New Testament canon, there is no hint of any such moves to this canon in the apparently mid-second century works of Justin. Irenaeus is, again, the first evidence of this development. This does raise a question in relation to the question of the date for Marcion’s activity.

Back to Tyson, who brings in Knox again at this point:

Christian churches from their beginnings mostly accepted only the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, as their Scriptures. The sayings of Jesus, or “the words of the Lord”, had authority, but not as part of a sacred written document.

Marcion compiled the first body of Christian writings as an authoritative guide.

But after the middle of the second century there suddenly appears a “New Testament” that is regarded as having the same authority and status as Scripture. Presumably this was in response to Marcion’s “canon”, so as to avoid allowing him the claim of being the only one to hold a set of Christian writings with special reverence.

This hypothesis is not unique to Knox. But Knox adds that both Marcion’s canon and Luke-Acts served as models for the development of the New Testament canon. . . .

Marcion’s canon was two-fold: Gospel – Apostle (Paul’s 10 letters)

The orthodox church took this same division and expanded on it:

  • they replaced Marcion’s “Luke” with an enlarged Luke
  • added three other gospels
  • added the Pastorals (ostensibly by Paul but with an orthodox twist)
  • added letters by other apostles, James, John, Peter and Jude
  • added Acts of the Apostles as an introduction to the Apostle section of the canon

Luke-Acts has the same form: Gospel-Apostle

“Now it is a strange fact that when our New Testament took form as “Gospel and Apostle,” there should lie at hand for use in it another two-part work and that this other two-part work should also have been in the form, “Gospel and Apostle.”

The Gospel in Luke-Acts is an enlarged form of Marcion’s Gospel

The Apostle in Luke-Acts is Paul, the same as Marcion’s Apostle, except the former is catholicized

Hence: Luke-Acts, a Gospel-Apostle two part work, appears around the same time as Marcion’s canon of Gospel-Apostle. The Gospel in Luke-Acts is an enlarged form of the Gospel in Marcion’s canon, and the Apostle in Luke-Acts is a catholicized version of the same Apostle in Marcion’s canon.

“That there is no connection between the two . . . seems to me highly improbable.”

Again to intrude with a question of my own (not in Tyson). Was Acts originally hoped to be read as an alternative to Paul’s letters, which were the preserve of the Marcionites? Tertullian leaves us with the understanding that Paul’s letters were being doctored, possibly by both sides, and it was only after Luke-Acts that this ‘redactional’ process had settled sufficiently to add catholic editions of the letters to the Luke-Acts canon-core?

Christian-Jewish Relations

Tyson’s longest discussion is devoted to this topic, but to summarize what for me are the main points:

The first scriptures of the Christians appears to have been the LXX. “If so Marcion was, as far as we know, the first Christian to issue an explicit challenge to the authority of these documents, and in our judgment it was Luke who prepared a formidable defense against their being jettisoned.” (p.125)

It was the influence of Luke-Acts that enabled “proto-orthodox” Christians to argue for the inclusion of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Christian canon. And when they were included they were given the prominence of being placed first in order.

Luke-Acts showed that these scriptures pointed to Jesus allegorically, and to the God of the Jews being the god who sent Jesus.

The author of Luke-Acts did not, however, treat Jews in the most kindly way. Jews are generally portrayed as the opponents of Jesus, Peter and Paul. Although many Jews were converted at the beginning of Acts, by the end they had been condemned as failing to understand their own Scriptures.

The Luke-Acts’ dependence on the Jewish Scriptures was contingent upon two things: those same scriptures were to be used to demonstrate that the gospel and life of Jesus were their fulfilment, and that the Jews themselves were the enemy of that gospel and the fulfilment of their own texts.

Marcion appears to have embraced a non-allegorical reading of the Jewish scriptures, and applied their ongoing relevance to the Jews. Their prophecies were of another Messiah, not the Jesus who had come from the highest god. Their laws were for the Jews, not for Christians.

But the orthodox view came to regard a literal reading of these scriptures, at least in relation to the Prophetic sections, as a “Judaizing” reading and a failure to spiritually discern the gospel message and true intent and meaning of the Jewish scriptures. In other words, orthodoxy can be said to have hijacked the Jewish Scriptures and to have denied them to their originators. This position was sustained by an ongoing view of the blindness of the Jews — their spiritual obstinacy — to the “true” (that is, allegorical!) interpretation that gave orthodoxy what it believed were its ancient roots and divine destiny.

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Neil Godfrey

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One thought on “Marcion and Luke-Acts: the Lukan Achievement”

  1. I just noticed something. In Ephrem’s commentary Marcion argues that Jesus began teaching in the synagogue not outside it. In Luke 4:31 this is not clearly the case, but in Mark 1:21 it is. Clearly another case where Marcion follows Mark rather than Luke in wording. But in noticing that I found somethin even more interesting. In Mark’s account the man in the synagogue is possesed by “an unclean spirit” but in Luke “the spirit of an unclean demon.” Colnsidering that demon was used in this time to refer to lower gods could this be a leftover in canonical Luke from Marcion’s gospel? “The spirit of an unclean god”? Was this originally a Marcionite phrase directed at the Creator? Was Jesus supposed to be casting the Creator out of this man or one of the Creator’s ministering spirits?

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