Man vs Church
Marcion of Pontus was regarded an arch-heretic and threat to the early Christian church, though he had faith in salvation through Jesus Christ. He was the impetus to the forming of the holy canon as it exists today. The church leader Tertullian had this glowing description to give him: “Nothing, however, in Pontus is so barbarous and sad as the fact that Marcion was born there, fouler than any Scythian, more roving than the Sarmatian, more inhuman than the Massagete, more audacious than an Amazon, darker than the cloud, colder than its winter, more brittle than its ice, more deceitful than the Ister, more craggy than Caucasus.” Marcion entered the Church in good repute, but he soon would be excommunicated for the beliefs he held. However, Marcion was no self-styled enemy of the Church, but rather gained his beliefs by trying to answer some discrepancies in Christian theology. “Among the questions involved were: 1) the origin and nature of evil 2) the peculiar ethical standards of the Old Testament 3) the sufferings and death of Christ, and 4) the method of redemption.” His answer to these questions would earn him the enmity of many Christian leaders of the early movement.
The Voice of his Enemies
Surviving sources about Marcion’s life are few, and what we do have comes mainly from his detractors, so they have to be studied through a filter that takes into account their motives. As previously mentioned, Tertullian spoke out against him, but also did Iranaeus and Epiphaneus. Marcion came to Rome from Pontus shortly after 140 AD, and gained favor in the church there by donating all of his money. Falling under the influence of Cerdo the Gnostic, Marcion was harrowed from Rome in 144, but continued to hold to his beliefs. This was at least in part to the fact that there was no established dogma for him to violate. Though the church leaders regarded him as a heretic, Marcion must not have thought his views dissenting, for the Church offered no official stance to answer his question. When he first entered the scene in Rome, the question as to who and who was not a heretic was not grounded in any certainty. It would take the establishment of heresies to further the official establishment of the church.
Gnostic dualism offered an easy answer to Marcion’s question as to the origin and nature of evil. He believed that in two coexisting gods. Jesus was the “good” alien god that tries to redeem mankind from the dominion of the God of the Old Testament. By dying on the cross, Jesus had ransomed every person’s soul to be saved from the world of matter, and it was only through faith in his resurrection that a person was saved. Yahweh in the Old Testament represented the God of justice and jealousy who created the world in order to dominate and rule it. As Marcion was not a Jew, he had no problem cutting out the Old Testament completely and replacing it with his own scripture. “He was a practical man above everything else and his chief interest in Gnosticism arose from the fact that it enabled him to get rid of the moral difficulties involved in an acceptance of the current Old Testament traditions. As Marcion saw all too clearly, no human being will ever rise to a higher moral level then the ethical plane of the Deity he worships. ” This is largely where Marcion differs from Gnosticism as it is presented in the texts of the Nag Hammadi library. Marcion’s teaching is free of the mythological fantasy and complexity that characterizes Coptic Gnostic thought.
The Christology of Marcion was principally dependent on his Gnostic tendencies. For a Gnostic who believed that all matter was an impure creation of the creator god, Jesus as a human represented a theological challenge. Marcion was of the view that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body, but was in reality pure spirit. This docetism
ran into criticism when the suffering of Christ on the cross was considered. It was hard to reconcile a belief in the suffering of Christ on the cross with the belief that he had no body. One of Marcion’s followers, Apelles
reconciled the two by saying that Christ had a physical body, but that it was composed of ethereal
materials. For Marcion, Jesus’ death was a salvation for mankind not so much for the forgiveness of sin, but rather as a purchase. As the good god is not of this world, and the creator god still has dominion, Jesus’ blood was the payment for a transaction that incurred all of mankind’s souls. Though Jesus’ physical blood represents the ‘good’ God’s payment, Marcion did not try to alter his belief in a Jesus of pure spirit.
The Marcion Bible
Marcion is perhaps best known for his dealings with scripture. Though he rejected the Old Testament as the work of the creator God, he did not deny its value for those who weren’t Christian. He saw it as a precise history but rejected it as a divine revelation from God. He did not believe that Jewish biblical tradition could be harmonized with Christianity. He accepted as authentic all of the Pauline Letters and the Gospel according to Luke (after he had censored them of Judaizing elements). Mark and Matthew were considered to have too much of a Jewish motive behind them to include. He favored the ‘good news’ as it was delivered to the Gentiles. His assembly of Christian scripture was significant, for it forced the early church to fix an approved canon of theologically acceptable texts out of the mass of available but unorganized material.
Marcion did not view the scripture of his time as completely authentic. Even Luke he viewed as a gospel that had already been altered by Judaizers. It was his belief that the ‘Judaizers’ represented a conspiracy that began soon after the ascension of Jesus. It became enough so that Christ had to appoint another apostle, Paul, to carry on the true gospel. After Paul’s death, Marcion believed the Judaizers to have altered Paul’s letters. The Gospel and the Pauline letters that Marcion included in his new testament have been censored of all of what he believed were erroneous Judaizing elements. Marcion wholly believed that the new Christian fellowship was open to all people and completely discounted its Jewish heritage. Though he did believe in the validity of the Old Testament’s revelation, it was a history of the creator god, or demiurge.
The Pauline Tradition
Marcion generally used and admired the entire Corpus of Paul. From the writings of Tertullian and Epiphaneus, we can deduce that Marcion had all ten of the letters of Paul in his gospel. “Not only did Marcion take up Paul’s struggle and work, but he did so with the Apostle’s religious motive; for only Christ crucified did he wish to know; in him alone did he behold the face of the Gracious God.” Paul would approve of some of Marcion’s intents, but his docetism, dualism, and rejection of the Old Testament would surely not have been acceptable. It is strange that Marcion claims Paul as the inspiration for all of it, and his letters make up nearly all of the Marcionite New Testament. Coincidentally or not, the Catholic Church’s canon would include the same letters.
The Church Reacts
John Knox writes that the church adopted much of the heretical collection in order to take the wind out of their sails. “The early churches adopted the policy – adopted it no less surely because unconsciously – which enabled them to say to the heretics: ‘We have all you have and more. We have the Old Testament and the New.” E.C. Blackman proposes that the church had a slightly different motivation, although no less tied to Marcion. In a response to the Marcion scholar Harnack, Blackman says that, “The Catholic New Testament was to be the foundation document of Christianity, in the sense that it contained only ‘apostolic’ writings.” Mark and Luke were not apostolic, but they already had a place in the early church and while Acts was also not from an apostolic author, it is not hard to understand why the early church would include a record of the apostle’s deeds. Though Marcion was not the sole influence for the creation of the Catholic canon, the Marcionite gospel’s impact on the organized church is hard to overestimate.
Though excommunicated, Marcion still gained followers with his ideas. It was largely because of this that the church regarded him as a threat. There is a tradition that Marcion repented all of his ‘heresies’ to be let back into the church, but he was told that in order to be accepted again, he would have to save all of those that he had led astray. Supposedly there was some glee among the early Christians when he died before he could do so. In response to his expounding, the Church established the first of many Creeds detailing what they believed and what one should believe in order to be a good Christian. The line, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” sharply contrasts with Marcion’s vision of the unrighteous creator god. Yet, even the Nicene Creed still did not answer all of Marcion’s questions, such as the origin of evil. “Everybody who attempted to explain the dogma so that it would make sense was a heretic, the true orthodoxy consisting in avoiding all such explanation.”
Marcion must have been an intelligent, if simple man. His message of love and the goodness of God found easy resonance in the hearts of many listeners. His lack of theological study and sophistication made him an easy target for the more experienced church leaders of his day. His message was simple, and he seemed unwilling or unable to explain contradictions therein. The spirit and simplicity of his Christianity should be remembered as a message of pervading love, acceptance and redemption. “He wanted to establish the goodness of God, no matter at what cost, and his ethical instincts at this point were sound. If his teaching had prevailed there would have been no autos da fe’, no Inquisition, and no burning of heretics by either Catholics or Protestants."
Blackman, Edwin Cyril
Marcion and his Influence 1978 AMS Press, Inc. New York, NY
Hoffman, Joseph R.M
Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century 1984 American Academy of Religion Chico, California
Kershner, Frederick D.
Pioneers of Christian Thought 1930 The Bobbs-Merril Company Brooklyn, NY
Marcion and the New Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon 1980 AMS Press, Inc. New York, NY
Marcionite Encyclopædia Britannica
Accessed August 15, 2003.