The earliest gospels 1 — Marcion’s gospel (according to P.L. Couchoud)

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by Neil Godfrey

This post follows on from the previous one outlining Couchoud’s thoughts on Gospel origins. It starts with highlights from what he believes (generally following Harnack) Marcion‘s Gospel contained; looks at the next Gospel written apparently by Basilides; then at the way our canonical Gospel of Mark took shape and why, followed by the Gospels of Matthew, John and Luke.

The Gospel of Marcion

The authorship was anonymous. (p. 138)

It was placed with the letters of Paul and a commentary, the Antithesis, as a replacement for the Jewish scriptures.

There is nothing of a connected narrative in it. (p. 139)

It was composed of some sixty anecdotes, or pericopes, detached fragments without any connection between them. (p. 139)

Jesus was not born but descended from heaven and the gospel begins:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
In the time of the governor Pontius Pilate,
Jesus Christ, Son of God, came down from Heaven
And appeared at Capernaum, a town in Galilee.

He taught in the synagogue,
Do you believe I have come
To fulfil the Law and the Prophets?
I have come to do away with them, and not to fulfil them.

All were astonished at his teaching,
For his word had authority.

Galilee is the setting since this was said by Isaiah 8:22-9:1 to be where the Christ would appear, and for this reason his own disciples thought he was the Hebrew Christ. In reality, though, he was a new deity and a stranger to the Jews.

The Jews were offended by his preaching and took him to a cliff top to cast him down, but Jesus, being spirit and not really flesh, was able to pass through them and escape.

He is called to preach in other cities — that is the whole world — and not only to Jews.

He calls Peter, James and John to become fishers of men with him, and eventually chose twelve, but they proved failures.

He touches the leper and this is not in violation of the law since his hand is really spirit and not flesh. (I find it difficult to follow Couchoud’s comments along this vein — on the one hand Jesus is said to be and teach obedience but on the other he is opposed to the Law.)

He taught that the new religion can have nothing in common with the old.

John the Baptist was said to be the greatest of all born of women because he was the forerunner of the Hebrew Christ. Jesus was not born of woman, and said the least of the Christians is greater than the entire universe of the Creator god. He has no human mother, but his family are those who keep is words.

By stilling the storm he shows his powers are greater than those of the Creator Jewish God.

The Hebrew God had told his people to take gold with them from the Egyptians and to leave with staves and bread and more. Jesus tells his disciples to take no money, no staff, nothing, with them on their journeys.

Jesus taught the superiority of the “least” of the disciples to those who sought honour and glory, a reference to Paul (meaning “small”) having the true understanding compared with the twelve. Jesus finally chose 70 to replace the 12 and to preach to all nations.

When a follower calls Jesus “Good Master” Jesus points out that only the true God, his own father, is Good — implying that the god of this world, the god of the Jews, is not good.

Jesus warned of false messiahs and persecutions accompanied by wars and a besieging of Jerusalem. These events coincided with the Bar-Kochba rebellion and Emperor Hadrian’s siege 132-134 ce. The later episode of Barabbas, the insurrectionist, “seems to have been made up in allusion to Bar-cocheba [Bar Kochba], the Jewish Christ who raised a rebellion against the Romans . . .” (p. 163)

The last supper does not coincide with the Jewish Passover, and a new rite is introduced.

Pilate assembles the chief priests and rulers. “The rulers (archontes) are brought in because Paul said that the Princes (archontes) of this world crucified the Lord of Glory. The invisible Archontes are replaced by visible Jewish Archontes, tools of Jahweh.” (p. 163)

Jesus is crucified between two criminals at the place of the Skull — “which is no other spot than the tomb of Adam, so that it illustrates Paul’s words: ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

I have attempted to highlight some of the things about this gospel that might have been distinctively “Marcionite” and quite at odds with the understanding found in subsequent canonical Gospels. There is much more to Couchoud’s summary, including notices where certain scenes of Christ involved with eating are used as rationales for Marcionite vegetarianism and use of water instead of wine. I have not taken the time to include the detailed references Couchoud supplies to justify those particular renditions of Marcion’s gospel he supplies. Perhaps I can find the time for that in a future post. (The general gist of the same gospel is found at http://www.gnosis.org/library/marcion.htm

But one set of details I generally omitted above although they really are significant for Couchoud’s analysis are the symbolic meanings given to many of the episodes. Thus, for example, a demon-possessed man in a synagogue is representative of the demon-ruled Jewish race whom Jesus wants to liberate.

But what of Couchoud’s final remarks? I could say almost the same of the Gospel of Mark. Couchoud comments of Marcion’s gospel:

It is clear that [Marcion’s gospel] has no historical element. This astounding story of the Son of God who came down to earth in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar is not based on documentary nor on traditional evidence. It is more like a liturgical hymn with a narrative theme, still more of the nature of a parable. It was produced among people accustomed to perceive and understand parables, habituated to the expression of ideas in the guise of a concrete story. No matter what page of this gospel is examined, the idea will be found to be the end [crucifixion], which has given form to the whole. There is no essential difference between definite parables — anecdotes incorporating a maxim, miracles full of meaning, stories laden with spiritual significance — and the tableau of the Passion which redeems mankind. All through we note, i the words of Goethe, “the greatest among of verity without a shadow of reality.” (p. 166)

As I have often observed in the Gospel of Mark — following not a few mainstream scholars, Couchoud sees in Marcion’s gospel:

Beyond the concrete details of the story unfolded to us there develops another reality — that of Christian experience. All this similitude of historical fact is nothing but a long parable, a vivid and sustained allegory. (p. 166)

And what is this spiritual reality represented by the symbolic story?

It is the Kingdom of Jesus such as it had been for a century on earth, developing to its accomplishment, which should be soon and sudden. It is the entity which Marcion would have men love, the mysterious Being which makes itself known to men by saving them. It is also the religious conflict between two sorts of Christians — those who remain half Jew at heart and those who abjure Jewry utterly, those who expect fiercely an avenging god, and those who crucify themselves in the image of a crucified Christ. The long and agitated story of the Jesus cult is metamorphosed into the story of Jesus. . . . What the author of the Homeric Hymn did for Demeter, what the Nonnos of the Dionysiacs did for Dionysus, Marcion in his more sober manner did for Jesus. The true subject of the Gospel is not Jesus, but the Christian cult. (pp. 166-167, my emphasis)

The gospel is also, of course, didactic, with its Jesus serving as a mouthpiece for condemnation of the old Jerusalem apostles and in favour of the teachings found in Paul. In Couchoud’s view,

This book determines the fate of Christianity.

Other gospels followed, but this gospel served as their model, and each of the new gospels emanated from an opponent of Marcionism.

Next, the Gospel of Basilides, then the Gospel of Mark.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “The earliest gospels 1 — Marcion’s gospel (according to P.L. Couchoud)”

  1. The above post follows directly from http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/another-explanation-of-gospel-origins-from-a-christ-myth-perspective/

    No, no oral traditions. Marcion is said not to have invented much of a story. The details were a hodge-podge of sayings and parables that were inspired among the churches. He cites Irenaeus observing that teachings of prophets etc were imputed to the mouth of Jesus.

    The story flow, the gospel as drama, comes only with the Gospel of Mark. Till then it is argued that Marcion has only a string of about 60 disconnected sayings or didactic episodes.

    It was certainly a reaction against the tradition attributed to the twelve apostles. The transfiguration scene, for example, is an attack on the claims that the authority of the pillar apostles was bestowed by their visionary experiences. The gospel account shows them confused and misunderstanding the message that was meant to be conveyed.

  2. The gospel of Mark and Marcion are obviously related — Jesus is born in neither, and the ending is uncertain in both. And what better explanation for why Mark has a missing ending. It is fairly well known today that many of the supposed ‘changes’ Marcion made to Luke are actually Markan readings….so, who’s to say our gospel of Mark isn’t just Marcion’s gospel made longer? It even still bears his name Mark-ion = little Mark.

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