The earliest gospels 6(a) – on the cusp of Luke (à la Couchoud)

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by Neil Godfrey

Now this time I might add more detail than usual since I find Couchoud’s views on the Gospel according to Saint Luke (at least as covered across several posts here and not necessarily confined to any one in particular) not very distant in many respects from the notions I have been thinking about, though not entirely without the support of a few scholarly publications. I had not realized when I began to share these few chapters of The Creation of Christ that the author continues on to discuss the creation of the Book of Acts and the remainder of the New Testament epistles after Paul’s. It’s an interesting read. I have to share those thoughts in future posts, too. The complete series of these posts is archived here.

Back to Marcion

Couchoud returns at this point of his discussion to Marcion. He imagines a setting where Marcion is seeing the Syrian churches (with their Gospel of Matthew) and the Asian churches (with their theology of John) all opposing him. According to one account when Marcion visited Ephesus the author of the Gospel of John rebuked him as the Deceiver and Antichrist. When he visited Smyrna the bishop Polycarp rebuffed him with the words, “I recognize thee as the first-born of Satan.” Paul, meanwhile, had long since consigned the great apostles themselves to Satan (Irenaeus, Haer. iii. 3-4).

Marcion, with followers as widespread as Africa (Carthage), Gaul (Lyons) and Rome itself, hoped to reverse the mounting conflicts in the East by securing Rome’s approval of his doctrines. Rome’s Christians, like Marcion’s, had no time for Jews and celebrated “Easter”, as did Marcionites but unlike “John’s” churches in Asia, at a time other than the Jewish Passover. Both Rome’s devotees and Marcion’s fasted on the Jewish sabbath (allowing for a typo in the translated work of Couchoud) to spite the Jews. The Roman Gospel of Mark was as neo-Pauline as was Marcion’s and differed from Marcion’s only in respect to the identity of the highest God.

After first sending to Rome one of the holy women of his order (one of history’s first Christian nuns) he himself reached Rome in 138 and from there he sent a letter to Rome’s Elders setting out his beliefs in terms acceptable to them. He added to his faith his obedience to the teaching of Jesus and charity in the form or 200,000 sesterces as a gift to the Roman church, “probably his entire fortune.”

The setting was not long after the crushing of the Jewish rebellion of Bar Kochba. Jews were hated. Roman Christians were at pains as never before to keep themselves distinct from the Jews and customs and festivals that potentially associated them with the Jews.

Marcion also came armed with the witnesses of his many martyrs, his ascetics (as had Rome) and virgins who had turned their backs on the world.

Marcion met Rome’s elders and pressed his argument upon two sayings of Jesus:

Neither do men put new wine into old bottles else the bottles burst and the wine runneth out. But they put new wine into new bottles and both are preserved.

This meant that all that pertained to the Jews and Judaism — that is the Jewish Scriptures — had to be eliminated.

For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit; for every tree is known by its fruit.

This meant the two Gods. The God of the Jews by the pens of Isaiah and Jeremiah said he brings forth evil! The good tree, the true God, is the Father of Jesus who is the entire embodiment of goodness. “Render to the Jews who hate you their Bible and their God.”

But the Roman Christians also saw in those Jewish texts prophecies foretelling the blindness and wickedness of those Jews.

Marcion’s good God, recall, was a God unknown to mankind, an alien God, totally good, while the God of the Jews was an inferior and capricious God who was the mere Creator of the physical world.

No matter how it is looked at, Christianity is a revolution in gods; and the uncompromising Marcion pushed the opposition of the new god to the old to its utmost limit. (p. 265)

Rome’s response

But observe Couchoud’s observation of Rome’s position. I have never thought of it in this context before but it’s worth a moment’s reflection:

The instinct of the Churches was for compromise, and the mystery of the Trinity was its outcome.

Compromise was certainly the lodestone of the catholicizing church.

But there was another point on which this emaciated old man was inflexible. He insisted that Jesus had no true flesh, that he could not grow old, that his being was not corruptible.

That is, just as Paul himself had taught, the resurrection was not a revival of the fleshly body at all.

But Rome could not bypass two core beliefs that stood in opposition: that the body would be resurrected and that Jesus could only have suffered if he really did have a flesh and blood body.

The aged Marcion’s response was, according to Epiphanius (Pan. 42.2), “I divide your Church and place between the parts an abyss for all eternity.”

A few years later, in July 144, Marcion died. For thee more centuries his Church lived on, governing itself, and then passed into Manichaeanism.

This period, in the aftermath of Hadrian’s crushing of the Bar Kochba Jewish revolt and the repudiation of Marcion’s anti-Judaism, was the decisive moment that witnessed in one blow the Church’s hijacking of the Jewish Scriptural heritage and the repudiation of Marcionism:

The moment had evidently come to seek a successor to Judaism. Why should the Roman Church not declare itself the universal legatee of the Jews? Why not firmly annex the whole Bible? It would then be the exclusive property of the Christians, and the Jews would have no further right to it. The Bible (Old Testament) was merely the antechamber of Christianity. Then that annoying question would be settled once and for all as to what and how much of this book was to be taken or left. Matthew wanted to take it all — in a purified sense, of course; Marcion would not take any. All was to be taken, without a cut or a correction, but as ancient history. The Epistle of Hebrews showed the way. The Bible is an old design of God’s, an edifying book, but no longer final. God willed one law, and now he willed another. He made a Covenant with one people, and now he would make a Covenant with another people. That was all; the same God whose change of mind it was better to adore than to accept the new god Marcion had dreamed of. The lasting success of this policy showed its wisdom. (pp. 266-267)

The cynical emperor Hadrian was about to part this life and the church would soon be able to appeal to gentler philosophers like Lucius Verus and the next emperor Marcus Aurelius as responsible beneficiaries of Jewish privileges allowing them to dispense with requirements to sacrifice to the emperor and idols, thus ending state persecution.

Marcion may have attempted to offer his churches a replacement of Jewish Scriptures in the form of a Gospel, letters of Paul and the Antitheses. Rome liked enough of what he had attempted to achieve by constructing something similar, documents expressing two Covenants, or in their Latin equivalent, two Testaments. Keep the Jewish scriptures as the Old Covenant/Testament as a record of history and prophecy of the New. That New was to consist of not one Gospel (as Marcion had) but, as befits a church of compromise, the Gospels of Matthew, of Mark and of John, and perhaps even the prophecy of Hermas and the Epistle of Hebrews and, for a few others even the Revelation of John.

But there was still something missing.

The Church had a pressing need of an historical document which it could place before the world, bring to the notice of the rulers, of the literati, and of sympathizers, as the story of early Christianity; not a special pleading as Justin had just meditated, but an easy, striking, and moving tale. Flavius Josephus had done this work only too well for Jewry, and what was lacking from the Church was a Christian Josephus, whose first volume should be the story of Jesus and the second the tale of the Apostles, the whole making a strong appeal to both believers and pagans. (p. 268)

Jesus’ fall

The Gospel which the Church had wrested from Marcion would serve as the first volume, or at any rate as a basis for it [i.e. the Gospel to be known as the Gospel of Luke]; well-chosen additions would suffice to give it the right note; and it would, of course, be preceded by a circumstantial proof of Jesus’s birth according to the flesh. In fact, the more they thought it over, the clearer they saw that to begin in the historian’s manner with Jesus’s pedigree would be a sufficient refutation of Marcion. Treat him wholly as a historical person, and he ceased to be pure Spirit, having put on flesh. (p. 268)

Who was the scribe to do the deed?

Who and what was the man of genius in the Church who imagined this scheme and carried it into performance? It can be only in the Roman Church that he is to be sought; nor does the search appear likely to be in vain.

Couchoud sees the DNA of this culprit in

  • those parts of the Gospel of Luke designated “special Luke” or those portions of the Gospel of Luke not matched in Matthew or Mark nor in Marcion’s gospel;
  • various layers of the Book of Acts
  • the later layers (or corrections) of the epistles of Paul
  • the Pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus)
  • both epistles of Peter
  • and Jude

In all there is the same modified bastard Paulinism, the same Presbyterian idea of the Church, the same Biblical culture with a tincture of stoicism, the same accusations against the same heretics, the same moral themes (submission, good works, and sanctification), a marked taste for quotations (which are at times curious in origin), for the marvellous, and for prayer as well, the same sort of restrained emotionalism, and a kind of theological ineptitude. It is difficult not to think that, under various disguises and despite a real talent for make-up, it is the same author at work in all cases. Furthermore, the same characteristics are to be found in that letter from the Roman Church to the Corinthians, which is attributed with some reason to Clement of Rome. . . . . (p. 269)

Next, more about this Clement . . . (be patient, we’re coming to Luke . . .  and the discussion of “Luke” is still relevant, I think, quite apart from the possibiity of Couchoud’s particular Marcion & Clement scenario.)

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “The earliest gospels 6(a) – on the cusp of Luke (à la Couchoud)”

  1. To my mind this puts this Clement of Rome (1 Clement) later in the 2nd century than is usually claimed by Xtian scholars. And considering the record of Eusebius’s “historical accuracy” (three more words I find difficult to put in the same sentence), this is easy to reconcile. Clement likely met Marcion after 139 CE, and most likely would not attempt to rewrite his works until long after his death in July 144(?). But this is just me thinking out loud. How about the claim (writing sometime between ~150 and 270 CE) of Marcus Minucius Felix that Christians did not worship a crucified criminal? Even Justin Martyr’s famous line concerning the mystical nature of the Word, the Logos, and comparing the anointed savior with and as “nothing different from what you [of the Greek mystery religions] believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter [Zeus],” again writing around 150 CE, lends support to the idea that Jesus hadn’t been “fleshed out,” that is, humanized or historicized until the later end of the second century.

    Taking the list of works Couchoud sees as related to Clement’s style etc., this is getting ever more interesting. I mean, I am starting to see a Christian camel (a horse built by committee) come into focus through all this compromise(?) as you write. The creation of Christianity through the creation of a Christ.

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