2016-07-23

What was Marcion’s gospel all about?

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by Neil Godfrey

Rene Salm is currently doing a series of exploratory posts on that early “heretic” Marcion and asking what was the nature of his gospel. We tend to think of a gospel as a written story of Jesus, as in our four New Testament gospels, but the word has often been used in its other sense in the earliest Christian literature — that is, to refer to the message of good news that the earliest Christians (or whatever they called themselves then) preached.

Marcion, you will recall, was that early second century religious leader from Asia Minor (Turkey) who gained a following across much of the Mediterranean world and who taught that Jesus was not sent by the Creator God of the Bible but by a higher God, a hitherto unknown God of love unlike the Jew’s God of law and punishment. He also claimed Paul was the only true Apostle, that Jesus’ original followers failed to understand their Master, and that Paul’s letters had been corrupted, that is interpolated, by the “proto-orthodox” church led by Roman bishops. He also is thought to have had a written gospel that was an early form of our Gospel of Luke.

Rene Salm is not satisfied with scholarly attempts to reconstruct what they believe Marcion’s “pre-Lukan” gospel looked like. He argues that Marcion’s gospel was entirely and only the message of grace and love, and was never a written narrative about a life of Jesus at all.

One of the several strands of argument he follows is that since Marcion’s Jesus was never truly a flesh and blood human, it follows that he could have no earthly life or career for anyone to write about. I am not so sure. We do have stories, but Jewish and “pagan”, of non-human deities or spirit beings appearing on earth as if they are human, with those they encounter believing them to be human, and who do have narratives written about them.

One example is Dionysus, the god of wine and frenzy. A very famous play was written about him by Euripides. In that play Dionysus was mistaken by his opponents and the uninitiated as just another person. They even took hold of him and tied him up. Or at least Dionysus allowed them to do so, knowing that he could escape at any time he chose.

In the Gospel of Luke there is a story of Jesus being taken from a synagogue by a mob wanting to kill him. They take him to the edge of a cliff and are about to throw him off when it is said that he simply turned around and walked away from them. Strange scene. I don’t think such an episode requires a real flesh and blood Jesus to work.

Jewish angels can also enter this world and be subject to narrative adventures. Recall the angels who came to rescue Lot and who faced an menacing mob. Recall the acts and travels of Raphael in the Book of Tobit. And of course the Book of Acts and Letter to the Hebrews remind us of gods and spirits who were entertained by humans believing them to be human creatures just like themselves.

But that is only one detail of Rene Salm’s argument. For those interested in the Marcionite question and related quests for gospel origins, his posts begin at: Questioning the Gospel of Marcion.

 

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Neil Godfrey

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2 Comments

  • Bob Moore
    2016-08-02 14:52:35 GMT+0000 - 14:52 | Permalink

    Are you saying it’s likely that Marcion wrote narrative conforming to Salm’s “stage 2 Christology”? What of Tertullian’s lack of citations of Marcion?

    Three christological stages

    Stage 1: Jesus is the purely abstract gnosis [GThomas]
    Stage 2: the Jesus spirit indwells a saint, producing a spirit imbued prophet [GHeb, GBar, early Pauline epistles]
    Stage 3: Jesus, and he alone, is at once man and God [Canonical gospels]

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-08-02 20:19:08 GMT+0000 - 20:19 | Permalink

      I have not given the time to catching up with Marcionite studies to express a particular view right now. So much has been published since I once thought I was reasonably on top of the subject. I have too much to catch up on before resuming discussions on this one, sorry.

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