Category Archives: Marcion

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

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: read more »

Another explanation of Gospel origins from a Christ Myth perspective

Marcion Displaying His Canon
Image via Wikipedia
Edited last paragraph re Mark and Basilides ca 6 hours after original.

As to why a gospel was written about a “mythical” Jesus, here is a take by Paul Louis Couchoud from the 1920’s and published in English in 1939 as The Creation of Christ. (For other thoughts on this theme see discussion comments here.)

Couchoud attributes the first gospel to Marcion.

To make sense of this one must understand that Couchoud dates the letters of Clement of Rome and Ignatius to around 150 c.e. One recalls here the more recent ideas about the Ignatian letters by Roger Parvus. This leaves us with the common observation that “the half century from 70 to 120 is the most obscure period in the history of Christianity” (p. 110).

Couchoud argues that before that gap there was Paul, Jerusalem apostles and prophets. They all lay claim to visions of Christ. The Book of Revelation (dated prior to 70 and the fall of Jerusalem) is the outcome of a prophetic vision of one who is starkly opposed to Paul’s theology and visions. “Paul alone understood that the Son thus revealed was a crucified God.” (p. 132)

Couchoud relies heavily on Harnack’s interpretation of Marcion, an interpretation that has more recently met a trenchant challenge with Sebastian Moll’s The Arch-Heretic Marcion (2010). Moll says Harnack was anachronistically trying to make Marcion too much like an ideal Protestant reformer. But in this post I will let Couchoud have his say from his perspective in the early twentieth century.

Whereas many (including myself) have attempted to argue that the gospel narrative was an indirect response to the crisis of the first Jewish war that witnessed the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce, Couchoud places more emphasis on the events of the second Jewish war — the Bar Kochba rebellion (Bar Kochba being hailed as a Jewish Christ and being responsible for persecutions of Christians) and its suppression by Hadrian who erected a pagan temple on the site of the old in the early and mid 130s.

So of what had Christianity consisted up to this time? Couchoud considers how the Christian scene looked to Marcion: read more »

Marcion’s date

For all the shortcomings of R. Joseph Hoffmann’s work on Marcion, Marcion, On the Restitution of Christianity, the one point he stressed and that was central to persuading me of the strong possibility that Marcion should be dated much earlier than is traditionally done, even as early as the opening decades of the second century, was a comment in the writings of Justin Martyr. Justin, writing in the middle of the second century, expressed some dismay that Marcion was “even now still” active and influential in the world. The clear implication is that it was surprising to see Marcion still preaching even at that late date.

Sebastion Moll in his 2010 book The Arch-Heretic Marcion knocks out that argument for an early date.

Finally, there is one passage in the work of Justin which has made some scholars believe that Marcion must already have been active before 144/145. In his Apology (ca. 153 – 154), Justin states that Marcion “has made many people in the whole world speak blasphemies” [Adv. haer. I.13,3] and that he is “even now still teaching”. . . .

Justin’s statement that Marcion is “even now still” teaching becomes understandable if we take a look at the preceding sections of the Apology. According to Justin, all heretics were put forward by the demons after Christ’s ascension to heaven. He then mentions Simon, Menander and Marcion, of whom the first two are of course long dead already. The reason for Justins’ surprise that Marcion is still teaching  is not his impressively long heretical career, but the fact that he is still active so long after the demons had put forward the other heretics. (p. 39)

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The anti-Marcionite character of the Pastoral epistles?

Since Marcion is assumed to be “anti-Jewish” it seems nonsense at first blush to associate his “heresy” with the “Jewish error” in the Pastorals. But in fact what Marcion rejected was the typographical or allegorical reading of the Jewish scriptures. He read them literally and was accused of believing a form of Jewish error. See my previous post on Literal and allegorical scriptures in orthodoxy and heresy. But to start from the beginning . . . .

read more »

Literal and allegorical Scriptures in Orthodoxy and Heresy

Marcion’s “heresy” was justifiably seen as the main threat to Christian “proto-orthodoxy” in the second century, but I suspect the reason had less to do with his doctrine of two gods and some form of docetism and more to do with what might have been branded his “Jewish error”.

That will sound like nonsense to many who think of Marcion as being opposed to the Jewish scriptures and the god of creation. (Marcion claimed that there was a higher god than the god revealed in the Pentateuch, an Unknown or Alien God, a god of love who sent Jesus to reveal his existence and offer of forgiveness and salvation for Jews and all humanity.)

Marcion certainly was known for his rejection of the Jewish scriptures as a guide to salvation. Irenaeus and Tertullian were among the first to attack him for rejecting the idea that our Old Testament contained any sort of salvific value or prophecies of the Saviour Jesus. Marcion was definitely not one of those who expected Christians to follow Jewish customs. But his “Jewish error” was nonetheless “real” and probably far more threatening to the foundation of “orthodox” Christian beliefs.

Marcion read the Jewish scriptures the way many orthodox Jews did — literally. In modern parlance some might say he took them “seriously”.

According to Tertullian, Marcion accepted that the Christ of the Jews would:

  1. be known as Emmanuel (AM 3.12.1; Isa. 7:14)
  2. take up the strength of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria against the king of Assyria (AM 3.13.1)
  3. be by nature the son and spirit of the Creator (AM 3.6.8)

Jewish scriptures could be read to hold out a hope for a conquering and liberating Messiah for the Jews. Marcion accepted this reading as the literal and truly intended meaning. Marcion taught that the Creator god (a subordinate god to the higher god of love, the ‘unknown’ and ‘alien’ god who sent Jesus) in a moment of compassion for the Jews promised them a future all-conquering redeemer king and saviour. He did not deny this prophecy found in the Jewish scriptures. But he had no choice but to concede that its fulfilment was still in the unknown future. In other words, Marcion did not deny the Jewish scriptures and their prophecies. He upheld them but did not apply them to Christians.

Marcion read the Jewish scriptures as literally as any “Judaizing-Christian” who insisted on circumcision as much as baptism for new believers. The only difference was that Marcion did not believe the injunctions of the Jewish scriptures should be applied to Christians. Christians should believe the Jewish scriptures were the product of the Creator God and accept them at face value for what they said. But salvation was the gift of the hitherto unknown God who sent his son Jesus to reveal his existence and die for the salvation of all humanity.

According to Marcion and his followers, the original disciples of Jesus failed to grasp Jesus’ revelatory message of the higher god and of his (Jesus’) true provenance, and continued to hope for a “second coming” of their Savior to judge and destroy the evil powers oppressing the Jews.

According to Marcion, there was no Jewish prophecy that the Messiah would suffer and die on the cross. (Tertullian’s AM 3.18.1f; cf. ad Nat. 1.12; Justin’s Trypho 91, 94, 112)

According to Marcion the Jews had every right to expect a future Messiah who would be sent by the Creator God to restore and save the Jewish nation. That was what their Creator God promised them. Marcion had no dispute with that belief and or its teaching as found within the Jewish scriptures. Marcion’s “problem” was that the Jews failed to recognize the Messiah sent from a god higher than the creator god, that is the Messiah he believed was preached by the apostle Paul.

But in fact the failure of the Jews to recognize their saviour was truly far less of a problem for Marcion than for the likes of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian or any other “proto-orthodox” teachers. For Marcion, the Jews who crucified Jesus truly were ignorant of his provenance and identity. They had no knowledge at all of any god higher than their Creator God. According to Marcion’s belief system, the Jews could by no means be held accountable for “despising the Word of God” or “rejecting his Spirit”. They were truly ignorant and thus not accountable of anything so condign. It was “proto-orthodox” belief, as represented by the likes of Irenaeus and Tertullian, who held the Jews reprehensibly and culpably responsible for knowingly rejecting their Saviour. Marcion, backed by his god of love, was much more merciful.

If anyone was to blame it was the god of the Jews, the Creator God, who kept them blinded from, in ignorance of, the higher god. (AM 3.6.8, 9; cf. 1 Cor. 2:8) The Jews were, Marcion conceded, only trying to obey their god according to his and their lights. (AM 3.6.8; 2.28.3; Haer. 4.29.1)

According to the merciful doctrine of Marcion, “Christ comes not to his own, but for the sake of all nations (AM 4.6.3); he comes to the Jews as a stranger (AM 3.6.2) because they have suffered the most under the ‘Creator’s terrible threatenings’ (AM 2.13.3). Had they known that he came from a God of mercy and in order to free them from the law, they would have spared him (1 Cor 2:8).” — Hoffmann, pp.228-229.

Marcion’s threat to orthodoxy:

Marcion’s brand of Christianity was certainly dominant throughout Asia Minor in the early and mid second century, and possibly beyond that area. His threat to what was to become “orthodoxy” was couched in his literal (serious?) reading of the Jewish Scriptures. He read them literally, not allegorically.

As early as the Gospel of Matthew Christian readers of the Bible learn that the Christian dispensation is meant to read the “Old Testament” allegorically.

Justin Martyr, ‘Barnabas’ and the author(s) of Luke-Acts and the Pastoral epistles clearly all agree that the Jewish scriptures must be interpreted “allegorically” or typologically to divine the Truth. Any other (literal) reading is blindness. (Barnabas 1:7; 4:7; 7:1; Justin, Trypho, 7, 11, 12, 44, etc.; 1 Tim 1:7; 3:8a, 16 a; Titus 1:10b, 14, 3.9b)

“Proto-orthodoxy” needed roots. Antiquity was vital for respectability. By embracing the very ancient Jewish scriptures, and then further adopting Philo’s and other allegorical methods of interpreting them — so that a literal Israel could be turned in to an allegorized and “prophesied” Christ — those Christians on the side of Irenaeus and Tertullian had grounds for promoting the “depth” and “truth” of their faith.

What Marcion threatened was to position Jewish scriptures back where they originated — with Jewish literalism. This was far more dangerous than any effort in the past to have male Christians circumcised. Marcion challenged the very foundation of “orthodoxy” — that is, an allegorical reading of Jewish scriptures. (See Siker.)

Ironically(?) even today fundamentalists insist on a literal interpretation of their New Testament and cherry-picked parts of the Old (e.g. Genesis 1) but will settle for nothing less than an allegorical treatment of prophecies that they believe verify the Messiah identity of the Jesus sent by the “Creator” deity.