The previous post was Couchoud’s discussion of view of Christ as a mystical and heavenly being according to early Christian literature, and how in the Epistle of the Hebrews we encounter the first sign of a belief that Jesus took on a flesh and blood body while still operating entirely in the heavens, offering himself as a heavenly sacrifice, and in acting as our celestial high priest. From here it was but a small step to imagining Jesus visiting humankind on earth. In Couchoud’s view it was Marcion who took this critical step with his composition of the earliest form of the Gospel of Luke.
Much has been written about Marcion since Couchoud wrote. Here, however, I will present Couchoud’s argument with very little reference to more recent works on Marcion and Marcionism. The sharing of ideas is not for the sake of others embracing them whole, but in order to stimulate new thoughts by mixing what we know today with what others have thought before us.
Marcion the person and his contribution to Christianity
Couchoud introduces the person of Marcion in much the same colours as another scholar of his day, von Harnack, had done: as a revolutionary or reforming and noble spiritual figure who takes his place among other greats in the history of Christianity.
Marcion was one of the world’s great religious geniuses, and takes his place between St. Paul and St. Francis of Assisi. (p. 124)
It was Marcion who introduced the term “Christianity” to describe the new religion. Orthodox Christianity embraced some of the most sublime of his ideas while simultaneously rejecting much and tossing his memory into the waste-bin of largely forgotten heretics.
He was a Greek of Paphlagonia and born, as was also the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes, at Sinope. Marcion’s enemies likewise called him a Cynic. He was also the one who gave the church its organization through monarchical bishops.
He might have been called the Christian Cynic, ascetic, irrespectful of accepted values, friend of the wretched, in revolt against the established order. His honest and strict mind went to the heart of things. Candid, pure, austere, and sublime, he was quick with pity and with love. Imbued with a strong feeling of religious union, he was the first organizer, the essential founder of the monarchical bishopric, and hence of the papacy. (p. 124)
Marcion was born into a Christian family. His father was a bishop in the Sinope church. He “must have been an old man” when he visited Rome in 139, and young when governor Pliny offered Christians of Pontus the choice between apostasy and death.
From this experience he learned to scorn the mighty and to long for martyrdom.
He earned his living as a ship’s captain (not as a ship-owner as many say). He sailed to Rome on his own ship, and was able to visit the areas where Paul had preached: Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth.
He made Paul’s crucified Christ (“the heroic form of Christianity”) the centre of his faith and resolved to restore this same faith to all the churches, even by opposing other teachings such as those of the other apostles (e.g. see The Christ of John — Nemesis of Paul’s Crucified Christ).
Marcion therefore sought out all he could find of the surviving epistles of Paul. Couchoud also speaks of the preservation of relics from Paul, suggesting that Acts 19:12 was “a story apparently invented to authenticate the relic still existent at the time of the author.” (Couchoud describes these as healing cloths as “clouts” worn against the skin when in sore pain at Ephesus. A more recent publication by Rick Strelan suggests they were part of an orator’s clothing, the sudarium being a hand-held cloth — or a cloth worn around the neck — to wipe away sweat from one’s brow and neck; the semicinctium (Latin equivalent of the word often translated as ‘apron’) was a girdle worn by both men and women around the stomach and genitals. Together they were in intimate items that had been in touch with the voice and life-giving functions of the man who had been carried to the third heaven.)
Among these relics Marcion found letters from which he collected ten, the Apostolikon, addressed to all the churches.
Marcion’s collection of Paul’s letters
Marcion was not content with the state of the letters as he found them. He felt obliged to add “precision and completion” where these were needed.
- the letter to the Thessalonians was explained by a second letter pointing out that the coming of the Lord was to be delayed till the coming of the Antichrist. (Others have used this theme in 2 Thess to date that epistle to the time of the Bar Kochba revolt.)
- to the epistle of Colossians was added a commentary as an epistle to the Laodiceans (our letter to the Ephesians) “in which the mystery of the institution and re-establishment of the world by Jesus is interpreted in mystery as the foundation of the Church.”
- six letters to the Corinthians were combined into two so they could be more easily read in church; they were also interpolated with new instructions on
- the silence of women in church (1 Cor. 14:33-35 — contradicting 1 Cor. 11:5)
- prohibition of meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 10:16-22 — contradicting 1 Cor. 10:25-30)
- the eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23-32 — adding to a passage on common meals)
- the famous love poem (1 Cor. 13 — interrupting Paul’s passage comparing prophecy with tongues-speaking)
(I’m not sure I know how to reconcile the thought of one devoted to Paul himself adding contradictions to what he found in Paul’s letters. Wasn’t Marcion accused of deleting from Paul’s letters rather than adding to them?)
The first edition of St. Paul was a notable event in the history of Christianity. Letters which had been sent by the Apostle to a single church for reading on a single occasion became a treasure common to all the churches whence jewels of doctrine could be drawn for the common profit. This soon had its effect. (p. 126)
Reactions to the first corpus of Paul’s letters
- The Epistle of James was published in Syria to counter the teaching of Paul in his letter to the Romans. James 2:4 opposed Romans 3:28, and James 2:21 opposed Romans 4:2, over the role of faith in salvation;
- In Egypt another wrote under the name of Barnabas wrote (Barnabas 13:3) in response to the spiritual interpretation of Rebecca’s twins in Romans (9:6-13)
- In Rome Hermas, the visionary, had no time for the theology of Paul but he did find some of his turns of phrase appealing enough to recycle (e.g. 1 Thess. 5:13’s “be at peace among yourselves” he liked enough to repeat in Vis. 3:6, 9, 12 and Sim. 8:7.)
- The author of Hebrews contemplated on the idea of the crucified God and equated this with the Slain Lamb. (For more on Couchoud’s view of Hebrews being, in part, a response to Paul’s concepts, see How Christ Jesus became flesh — the role of the celestial high priest.)
A life of Paul?
Marcion is probably the author of a life of St. Paul which was used to form the framework of the Acts of the Apostles. In it were to be found both the fervent disciple and the sea-captain who knew which port of Crete was open to what wind and described skilfully the operations of the crew in a storm or when running ashore (Acts. 27). (p. 126)
Marcion understood Christianity as a completely new religion that had been revealed to Paul. The Epistle to the Galatians and considerations of the differences between the Gospel and the Law persuaded him Christianity was a complete break from Judaism.
Just as the Crucified Christ had nothing in common with the Jewish Messiah, so the Father of Christ had nothing in common with Yahweh. Since there could be only one god, then, the Jewish god was necessarily a demiurge, creator of the corrupt and cruel material world and lower than the true God. (Compare Plato’s role of the demiurge in Timaeus.)
Marcion rejected allegory. (He was partly influenced here by the literal translation — around 100 to 120 c.e. — of the Jewish Bible by Aquila of Sinope. This Hebrew Bible contrasted in many places with the traditionally used Greek Septuagint version and “lent itself to fantastic interpretations.”) The Bible was to read literally. Its god was a god of vengeance, cruelty, jealousy, ignorance. His concept of justice was a pretence. The Law was a trap for humans and an excuse for god to inflict punishment. The Messiah promised by this god was to be in his father’s image: boastful, violent, merciless.
By contrast the higher God was a true god of divine love.
The Creator god of this world had created a place violent by nature, filled with war and injustice. There is no knowledge of the True God in the world.
Yet this God of Love, totally Good, “in a spasm of pity and of love. His Son Jesus resolved to abase himself to allow the Creator God to vent all his wrath upon him instead. Those who believed would be saved, while those who did not would be left to cruel whim of their Creator and Judge.
Marcion’s Good God does not punish. He forgives freely. His followers are to be like him, resisting violence with love, giving to the poor, to crucify themselves. The Gospel of Marcion, as reconstructed by Harnack, taught his followers the maxim of “Be piteous even as God pities you.”
In Marcion’s view, being filled with love makes one superior to the inspired prophets of old. The famous love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 was added to the original letter to epitomize the “crowning glory of Paul’s teaching.” Christ crucified symbolized both the ultimate in self-sacrificing love in victorious confrontation with a world of violence.
For Paul, too, but in less degree, the divine sacrifice was one of infinite love. This idea Marcion enlarged. The logical consequences of Paul’s doctrine included the renunciation of the biblical god, the creator deity, for on the cross of Jesus both the law and the world were done away. But Paul had not gone as far as this; he had not broken away from Judaism to that degree. Historically there was something equivocal in Marcion’s doctrine, for he was compelled to employ the terms Christ, Son of Man, Jesus, Jesus Crucified, which came from the Bible; yet he would not accept from the Jewish scripture any attributes. Nevertheless he had received his Jesus as it had been slowly forged in Holy Writ from Daniel to Paul. (pp. 129-130)
Couchoud follows contemporary scholar von Harnack’s interpretation of Marcion as an enlightened religious reformer and even suggests his ideals have been emulated in the likes of Ghandi and modern atheistic philanthropists.
In order to remove oneself from the pulls of the world and its Creator god, Marcion enjoined asceticism and rejection of the works of the flesh. His churches were more monastic-like than others; entrance could only be gained by renouncing marriage, and only the unmarried, the widowed, the divorced and those who swore themselves to continence were baptized and allowed to share the eucharist.
Meat was forbidden. Fasting on the sabbath was avoided since this was a Jewish custom.
Those who were still being taught the basics of the faith, the catechumens, who had not yet been baptized, and who were still pagans, were freely admitted to the assemblies where they prayed and listened and greeted one another with a holy kiss on the lips.
Elders were not chosen for life (unlike in other churches) but could be dismissed and return to lay status.
Women did not preach but “holy women” had other roles and could even baptize, teach those seeking to become initiates, exorcise demons and cure the sick. Spiritual gifts, on the other hand, were not encouraged in them.
There were few prophets and accounts of visions and ecstatic prayers.
Marcion put an end to the period of the prophets which Paul had begun. The religious democracy which Paul had founded on the community of prophetic gifts was now based on the community of love. (p. 131)
And what was put in its place?
Martyrdom was the sole ambitioned privilege; the Marcionite churches were therefore at the very front of the strife with the Roman Empire, and won more martyrs’ crowns than any other church.
(Von Harnack and Henri Delafosse are cited in connection with the claim that “the first author of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, in which the unbounded desire for martyrdom is displayed, was the Marcionite Bishop of Smyrna.” And this returns us to the series of posts by Roger Parvus on the letters supposedly written by Ignatius, and a reminder of an Appellean breakaway sect from Marcionism.)
It was only when these faithful Marcionites confronted their human judges that they were encouraged to allow the Holy Spirit to utter prophecies.
Marcion’s contributions to other churches
The later Roman Christian institution of the Easter festival’s date (so it did not coincide with the Jewish Passover) was adopted from Marcion’s churches.
Marcion was also the one responsible for turning the eucharist from a communal meal into an ascetic sacrament symbolic of consuming the flesh and blood of Christ, although Marcion used water instead of wine. (I find this difficult to understand if Marcion was a docetist.)
The Asian churches, however, continued to observe Easter on the day of the Jewish Passover and the Syrian churches steadfastly continued to observe this as a communal meal without any symbolic associations with the flesh and blood body of Christ.
But something was missing
What the Marcionites did lack, however, was a reading of the Bible in their church meetings. The epistles of Paul hardly served as an adequate replacement for the Law and Books of Moses.
The true God, remote from this world, remained unknown to men and to their creator. To Paul, at last, he revealed his son Jesus. True that Peter, James, John, and the Twelve had also received this revelation, but they had been unable to understand it, so blinded were they by Judaism.
Paul alone understood and realized that the Son thus revealed was a crucified God.
Since that day, for more than a century, Jesus had been manifest to the world, thanks to God and to his wisdom. Thousands of sinners had been drawn to him, and their sins, by his grace, had been remitted. His prophets had been granted many a vision, many a precept, and many a parable. By the hands of his exorcists he had wrought many a cure, and the hour was at hand when, after the Antichrist, the Jewish Messiah, should come once again, in his glory this time, to assemble his faithful and to save the elect
How might the good news be told? (pp. 132-133, my formatting)
Bringing Christ down to earth
Couchoud explains what he believes was the most significant innovation of Marcion, one which was to have the most profound and far-reaching consequences:
Marcion therefore needed to show that the apparition of Jesus was recent, and had nothing to do with what had been revealed in the old scriptures of the Jews, but was a new thing. The manifestation of Jesus was a terrestrial fact; therefore the crucifixion must also be a terrestrial event. (p. 133)
Note Couchoud’s choice of words. He at no time suggests Jesus came to earth in the same flesh as humankind. Always Jesus appears in the appearance or resemblance of flesh.
The teacher who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews would surely have disdained this notion. But the idea was immediately popular. Novices still learning the faith must have heard of it; those with artistic leanings would readily turn the idea into a dramatized story; and one can even imagine a Roman magistrate coming to hear “obscure whisperings as to the mystery of Christ Crucified.”
In 111 c.e. the governor Pliny wrote a letter to his emperor Trajan in which he summed up what he could learn about the Christians. In that letter there is no hint of awareness that the Christ who was worshiped had been a historical figure.
Here it is a question of Christ, a heavenly being, awaited as the dawn on the first day of the week. (p. 133)
A few years later, in 117 c.e., we read in the works of another consul and friend of Pliny, Tacitus, that Christians were so-called after a Chrestus who had been crucified by the proconsul Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.
It is not likely that Tacitus obtained such information at Rome, for the Roman Christians, if they can be judged by Hermas, were far from thinking of Jesus as a historical person. The comment was derived from the interrogation of Asiatic Christians, followers of Paul, if not Marcionites, for the latter joined the words Christos and chrestos (good). The idea Tacitus had of Chrestus from what he knew of Christians is analogous to that he had of Moses from what he knew of Jews: “Moses instituted new rites, different from those of other men, in order to form for himself a new people in the future.” Josephus’s silence in respect to Jesus is enough to prove that Tacitus here wrote as a polemic and not as a historian. (p. 134)
(I find this raises problems and wonder once again if much of The Creation of Christ is actually a summary of longer discussions made earlier by Couchoud. Couchoud will say Marcion began to compose his life of Jesus on earth in the late 120s. If the Tacitus reference is authentic — I doubt it, actually — then it points to Marcion inheriting the idea of an earthly Christ rather than originating the concept.)
Why in the time of Pontius Pilate? In Josephus one reads that he governed Judea in the time of John the Baptist. Josephus portrays him as a particularly cruel and brutal ruler in the way he suppressed revolts and massacred Samaritans. He was an easy choice for being the one to put to death the Son of God.
Marcion accepted enthusiastically this popular, pagan idea of Christ’s death; its simplicity appealed to him. It was looked upon as an accomplished event, and was not hampered with a baggage of visions, interpretations, gnoses, and what not. It was eminently readable and, read aloud in the churches, would arouse more fervid faith than the most ebullient prophecy.
The manifestation of God, extraneous to the world, could be told in the form of a brief tale of Jesus on earth, concluding with the death on the cross, the sacrifice for salvation of mankind, which St. Paul considered the essential and lasting act of Christ. (pp. 134-135, my formatting)
Fleshing out Christ
Once Jesus was brought down to earth, once the name of Pontius Pilate was discovered, the details quickly followed. Each church had someone with a prophecy to recall, a parable to repeat, each one of which had once been attributed to the Spirit of Jesus. Now they were put in the mouth of the earthly Jesus himself.
Jesus was the same, however. His work continued to mean the calling of sinners, restoring people to be spiritually whole, preaching the way of the cross and of love.
But how to meet the challenge of those who had long taught and understood something quite different?
To clear the way for this new step it was necessary to show that the earlier apostles had ill understood their revelation, that they had been unintelligent, carnal, and cowardly, that Jesus had reprimanded them and had given them his approval of Paul’s teaching. (p. 135)
(I think that another necessary tack was explaining why the story was not known before-hand. That would appear to be taken care of by Mark’s ending when the witnesses to the empty tomb are said to have told no-one. The earliest narrative probably stressed the failure of Jesus’ contemporaries to recognize who he was. This anonymity is certainly stressed by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho 13, 14, 32, 85, 100. But I don’t think this first gospel idea originated with Marcion as Couchoud argues.)
The details of a life of Jesus were not hard to find. He came to bring light to the peoples and comfort to the brokenhearted.
(There is a general sense in which Couchoud’s explanation reads plausibly, but my problem is that the details of Christ’s life are clearly derived from the Scriptures themselves. This does not sit well with Couchoud’s argument that it was Marcion who was responsible for promoting such an earthly biography of Jesus.)
A Mandaean witness to a link with John’s disciples?
In all the clutter of the Mandean books there is preserved a curious passage which seems to be an echo of John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Man from Heaven in John’s time, the time of Pontius Pilate. This heavenly person is called Enosh-Uthra, the angel of Enoch, for in one of Enoch’s visions, Enoch himself, carried up to heaven, becomes the Son of Man enthroned at God’s side. (Enoch lxxi; a last vision which seems added to the book of the Parables of Enoch.)
Enosh-Uthra comes and makes his way to Jerusalem
Garbed in a cloak of cloud.
He walks clad seemingly in a body,
But he has no raiment of flesh.
Wrath and vengeance are not in him.
He comes in the years of Pilatus, king of the world.
Enosh-Uthra comes down to the earth
With the power of the King of Light.
He heals the sick, causes the blind to see,
Cleanses the leprous, makes the lame to walk,
And those who drag themselves along the ground to arise,
Gives hearing to the deaf, and life to the dead.
He finds his faithful from among the Jews.
He shews them this:
There is Death and there is Life;
There is Error and there is Truth.
He converted the Jews in the name of the High God of Light.
Three hundred and sixty prophets went up out of Jerusalem.
They bear witness to the Name of the Lord of Greatness.
Enosh-Uthra rises into the heights
And takes his place at the side of Mshunné-Kushat. (From Lidzbarski’s translation, 1925, pp. 29-30)
Note here that the healing of the lepers and raising of the dead are details added to the source of the saying, Isaiah 35:5-6.
Here is a prophecy of a divine man appearing on earth to do good works and miracles before taking his place at God’s side and from where he will later carry out judgement upon that world. In the Book of Daniel such a figure (one like the Son of Man) appeared in the clouds. Not so this one. There is a slight twist. Here the divine man appears in a cloak of cloud, seemingly in a body.
Couchoud’s choice of words should be noted. I say this because Dr McGrath in the past has unfailingly criticized any reference to Mandeans in this blog. More recently, however, he has indicated he has no way of knowing what appears on this blog (unless someone shares it with him in a post) so presumably he is not reading this post now and we will be spared the sight of another wayward attack. But just in case, let’s make it clear now: no, I am not inconsistently trusting late Mandean sources in preference to earlier ones, nor is Couchoud. I trust that what is actually said can be read carefully and without presumptions.
The disciples of the Baptist, who were numerous at Ephesus, evidently believed, on the authority of a pronouncement such as the above, that the divine man, the Angel Enoch, the guardian angel and consoler of mankind, had made a visit in the body to earth in the years of Pontius Pilate, which were also the years of the Baptist.
The Marcionites replied that this visit was that of Jesus. (p. 136, my formatting)
Compare the Gospel of Marcion (Luke 7:21-22):
At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind.
So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard:
The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
The list of works here is similar to what appears in the Mandean text, including the addition of the lepers and the dead.
Who borrowed from whom?
It is not likely that the Mandean text should be derived from the Marcionites, since it is in more ancient line of ideas which goes back directly to the Book of Enoch.
Jesus is therefore substituted for the Divine Consoler of the followers of John. (p. 137, my formatting)
Marcion prepares to write a tale of Jesus
Marcion remained true to Paul by leaving Jesus with the cloak of cloud and a seeming body. See, for example, Paul’s belief in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 and Philippians 2:7. As Earl Doherty has also pointed out, the former passage that argues for a contrast between the earthly body of Adam and the heavenly body of the Second Adam breaks down completely if the author really understood Jesus as having appeared in the same body as the first Adam.
Couchoud thinks it must have been around 128-129 that Marcion acquired the idea that Jesus had led an earthly life.
Marcion set the time of Jesus on earth a century earlier. That coincided with the time of Pontius Pilate.
He began his tale thus:
Now, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, Jesus, the Son of God, came down from heaven . . .
(I find it more likely that Marcion used an existing Gospel. Couchoud’s explanation raises questions for me that lead me to think Marcion inherited more than he created. But I am sharing here Couchoud’s thoughts as they appeared in his own day, and it must be noted that in the next chapter Couchoud does reference other studies of his that he believes argue strongly for the canonical Luke being an attempted correction of an earlier Gospel most likely composed by Marcion. But there’s more. What would happen to Couchoud’s account if John the Baptist’s historicity were found to be an open question?
But during the posting of this series I was alerted to a contemporary scholar who is re-opening the question of Marcionite authorship of the earliest gospel: /2012/02/04/marcions-authorship-of-his-gospel-an-overlooked-question/ )
Back to the start of this series
This brings us full circle to where I began this series of posts. Couchoud’s next chapter is the one I used as my opening: The Earliest Gospels 1 — Marcion’s Gospel (according ot P. L. Couchoud. From here Couchoud begins his reconstruction of how all our Gospels and the remainder of our New Testament canon came to be written and put together.
Perhaps I should re-order all of these posts but that would be too messy a job for this blog. Maybe I could complete such an exercise on my vridar.info webpage one day.
There remains just one more post to share in order to complete this series of posts on the main body of Couchoud’s two volumed work. That will be titled “Christ Formed” or something similar and will epitomize Couchoud’s view of the whole process of how Christianity — and its Christ figure — were born.
Following that final chapter Couchoud adds two appendices, one on the Gospel of Marcion and the second on the question of the historicity of Jesus. This is a copy of a Couchoud response, published in the Hibbert Journal (January 1939), to M. Loisy’s critique of Couchoud’s original publication of this work in French.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Jesus the Logos in Roman Stoic Philosophers’ Eyes - 2020-08-04 11:15:00 GMT+0000
- Argument for God — part 3, final (arguments against atheism) - 2020-08-02 03:29:38 GMT+0000
- Argument for God — part 2 - 2020-08-01 02:23:13 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!