Marcion and the Stranger God

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 9

Adolf von Harnack, the German theologian and historian best known for his monumental history of Christian dogma, was the first modern scholar to explore the Marcion material thoroughly. He published his study of Marcion in 1920. In many respects agreeing with the controversial second-century church leader, Harnack says that "no other religious personality in antiquity after Paul and before Augustine can rival him in significance."

Marcion was a prosperous ship owner (or, according to another more doubtful account, the son of a bishop) from a town in Pontus on the Black Sea. He made it his mission in life to rescue Christianity from lapsing, as he saw it, into a modified form of Judaism. The Jewish element, always strong in Christianity, was especially pervasive in the early decades. After all, Jesus, his disciples, and the people he preached to, were Jews. The holy book of early Christians consisted of the Jewish Law and Prophets, which Christians later interpreted as their Old Testament.

Early Jewish converts relied on that collection for "proof texts," for evidence that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Moreover, the Jewish scriptures were evidence to Christians of the Almighty's earlier and continuing concern for humankind and provided a set of moral laws -- from which they could separate the distinctively ritual elements -- that were left incomplete in the teachings of Jesus. The Jewish bible was the only fully-approved Christian scripture until Marcion appeared on the scene.

In his evangelizing travels, Paul naturally headed for synagogues in the places he visited, where Jews and gentiles who had converted to Judaism (itself a proselytizing faith at that time) were his principal audiences. In his frustrating mission, Paul was hounded from town to town by Jews who resisted and scorned his message. He was stoned, beaten, harassed, reviled. And in his letters to congregations that had at least nominally accepted his teaching, Paul was constantly concerned with their possible backsliding into Judaism, on the one hand, or their acceptance of a Gnostic release from the law on the other.

Marcion wished to purge Christianity of its pervasive Jewish influence and took Paul's somewhat ambivalent rejection of "the law" to a logical conclusion. The Jews' sacred books, he taught, were of no concern to Christians. If the Jews wished to worship their ancient tribal god, that was their affair. But the God who smote and slaughtered Israel's enemies, threatened his own worshipers with dire punishment if they were disobedient, prescribed circumcision for males and odd laws for the governance of daily life, and described himself as jealous, could not be the God of Christians. (Harnack himself came to the view that, whatever practical reasons Christians might have had for retaining the Old Testament in the second century, and again at the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth, by the nineteenth century they ought not to regard it as part of their own holy writ: its continuance in the Christian bible could lead to an emphasis on "righteousness" and rigorous legalism instead of mercy and love.)

According to Irenaeus, Marcion called the Old Testament God "the creator of evils, lustful for war, inconstant in his attitude, and self-contradictory." Irenaeus exaggerated; Marcion apparently accepted that Jews had spiritually benefited as dutiful children of the lesser God, but reproved them for being deaf to the new Christian dispensation.

Marcion taught that the creator-lawgiver archon or demiurge who had created this world was a far lesser power than the true God, the Father of Truth, the ineffable, unknowable Stranger God who had sent Christ as a spiritual messenger to show humankind the path back to its true spiritual home through love. Jesus was a man like any other, who was endowed with the Spirit by the true Father when John baptized him in the River Jordan. Tertullian, the second-century Roman lawyer-theologian from Carthage, wrote that in Marcion's view the real Christ could not have taken on a material body and become a human being in the created world, for such a body would have been "stuffed with excrement."

Christians, said Marcion, must be rescued from the this-worldliness of Judaism and thralldom to the creator-god and his Law. They must become aware of the love freely given by the Stranger God and learn that they could escape from their imprisonment in this world. Marcion based himself on texts from Luke: "No one pours fresh wine into old wineskins" and "No sound tree bears rotten fruit, nor again does a rotten tree bear sound fruit." Christ, descending from the true God, was bringing a fresh and radically new message, in no way dependent on Jewish holy writ. As Jaroslav Pelikan, historian of Christian tradition, describes Marcion's view, "The ineffable newness of the gospel would be fundamentally compromised if it were represented as having already been present in the Jewish Scriptures."

Abandoning those scriptures, Marcion developed his own collection of sacred writings. He recognized only one gospel, that of Luke, from which he stripped those sentences and passages that refer to the Jewish scriptures as foretelling the Savior's mission. And he excluded from Luke passages that indicated Christ was a human being -- the nativity story, the genealogy tracing his blood lines back to David, and references to Jesus's family.

In thus editing religious writings (or "restoring" them) to suit his own purposes, Marcion was following a well-established practice. Interestingly, he apparently did not add much new material that would support his point of view -- as Matthew, for example, did in relation to Mark, or as writers later than Paul did in letters falsely attributed to that apostle. Rather, he pruned the text or oral tradition then current. Harnack points out that the changes Marcion made in Luke were not nearly so sweeping or novel as those the writer of the gospel attributed to John had made in earlier gospels (Mark, Matthew , and Luke ).

In addition to a heavily edited Luke, Marcion relied on the epistles of Paul, who had preached to gentiles -- the apostle who most insisted on the universality of the Christian faith. In Marcion's view, the original followers of Jesus had begun tampering with the gospels as soon as the Savior had ascended into heaven. The first apostles had too readily succumbed to the pressures of fellow Jews to retain the old Law. The true God had to inspirit another apostle, Paul, to rescue the new message. Again, Marcion did some pruning -- omitting, for example, the Pastoral letters (I and II Timothy and Titus) which he (as have most modern scholars) regarded as coming from hands later than Paul's.

Paul was the favorite apostle of most Gnostic sects, to whom he seemed one of their own. Some Valentinians even regarded him as an initiate into the inner secrets of their Elect. Did he not always carefully distinguish pneumatics ("knowing" gentile Christians) from psychics (Jews and ordinary Christians) and sarkics (pagans)? Did he not repeatedly declare himself free of the creator-god's law which limits the Jews to mere psychic status? Did he not make it clear that he preached at two levels, giving psychic Jews and Christian converts only what they could understand within the terms of their Law "I have fed you with milk"), reserving for a pneumatic Elect the inner secrets of gnosis ("with meat")?

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, for example, he said :

We do discuss "wisdom" with those who are mature; only it is not the wisdom of this world or of the dethroned Powers who rule this world, it is the Mysterious Wisdom of God that we discuss, that hidden wisdom which God decreed from all eternity for our glory.

And again:

We interpret what is spiritual in spiritual language. The unspiritual man rejects these truths of the Spirit of God; to him they are "sheer folly," he cannot understand them. And the reason is, that they must be read with the spiritual eye. The spiritual man, again, can read the meaning of everything; and yet no one can read what he is.

At times Paul (or followers writing in his name) seemed to accept the Gnostic view of a hierarchy of Powers ruling the cosmos. The writer of the epistle to the Ephesians says "we have to struggle not with blood and flesh but with the angelic Rulers, the angelic Authorities, the potentates of the dark present, the spirit-forces of evil in the heavenly sphere."

"Monstrous Revolution"

In any event, it is now clear that Valentinian theology as well as that of Marcion relied heavily on Paul, a reliance that made some early church fathers hesitant to include the apostle in their canon. For Marcion, in Harnack's words, the contrast described by Paul was clear. On one side was the Law, with its "malicious, petty, and cruel punitive correctness, and on the other side merciful love."

Being concerned with the return of spirit in humankind to its home in the true godhead, Marcion was hostile to the natural world -- made up, according to Tertullian's account of his views, of "beggarly elements," such as reptiles and insects; God's delivery of man from such a world was far more important than "the creation of locusts." Marcion rejected any idea of bodily resurrection. Furthermore, he preached against procreation, against the production of more bodies in which spirit would continue to be entrapped. Christians, even married ones, must forego sexual relations. Tertullian said that Marcionites forbade baptism to anyone who was not virgin, unmarried, widowed, or divorced.

In most respects, then, Marcion was a Gnostic. In at least one respect he differed substantially from the usual pattern; he did not invoke the Gnostics' elaborate cosmogonic myths. Harnack, while recognizing points of resemblance, insisted that Marcion was not a Gnostic: not only did he avoid Gnostic creation myths, he did not use Gnostic notions of descent and ascent of souls, did not rely on secret meanings of scripture available only to initiates, and regarded faith rather than gnosis as being at the heart of his religion.

Marcion organized his own churches, with priests, rituals, sacraments, and a psalter. Women were full participants and could administer the sacraments. And Marcion, as we have noted, had his own canon in Luke and the Pauline epistles, the first collection of Christian writings to be regarded as holy writ apart from the Old Testament.

In establishing his own churches, Marcion departed from the practice of most Gnostic Christians. By and large, it seems, Gnostics went to the same services, in homes or other meeting places, as their fellow Christians, and read (in addition to some distinctive ones of their own) the same texts. But they gave the sacred writings, including those that came to form the New Testament, a different import -- to their minds, a much deeper one -- than a literal reading might give. Valentinians especially favored not only the letters of Paul but also the gospel attributed to John, into which they could readily read a statement of their own beliefs in a supreme Father of Truth who sent a spiritual messenger (the Logos, the Word) to earth to show spiritual people the way to their true home.

Until the New Testament canon crystallized and many other writings were condemned by an emerging orthodoxy, all Christians had a large literature to draw upon. While there were some apparent charlatans, we can suppose that most speakers, writers, editors, or compilers of this literature, including Gnostic and apocryphal works, were expressing, with an earnestness appropriate to the subject matter, ideas that appealed strongly to many seekers after enlightenment and salvation. Some Gnostics considered themselves more truly Christian than the patriarch of Antioch or the bishop of Rome, some simply engrafted selected Christian ideas or terminology onto different stock, and some were clearly not Christian in any sense.

As late as the fourth-century Gnostics mixed with mainstream Christians. Epiphanius, a gossipy and less reliable reporter of Gnostic practices than some of the earlier church fathers, reported in the fourth century that he had had a personal brush with a libertine sect of Gnostics in Alexandria. Gnostic women, he said, had tried to proselytize him in his youth with "impudent boldness." Fortunately, a "merciful god rescued me from their wickedness." Having been alerted by this experience, Epiphanius ferreted out some eighty Christians of dubious orthodoxy and had them expelled from the city. Marcion's followers, on the other hand, openly declared themselves and were easily identified by membership in his separate church.

Reaction by leaders of an emerging orthodoxy to Marcion's collection of writings was a powerful impetus toward the compilation of its own canon, which we now know as the New Testament. Agreement on a canon was also speeded by the need to curb a flood of writings from the Montanists, enthusiastic and voluble members of an influential movement (soon to be declared heretical) that claimed direct inspiration by the Holy Spirit.

A need to counter a tendency to blend the four gospels into one was also operating. Tatian, a Syrian Christian living in Rome, composed such a Gospel Harmony about the middle of the second century. It is a matter of scholarly dispute whether his Diatessaron ("From Four") was written in Greek or Syriac.

Certainly it was in the Syriac culture that Tatian's Harmony longest survived. When mainstream Christians took over in Edessa in the fifth century, they suppressed its use and it is now known only from scattered fragments that appear in the writings of others. Similar gospel harmonies, however, eventually appeared in various languages in medieval Europe. To an unknown degree they probably incorporate parts of Tatian's original.

Toward the end of the second century Irenaeus and other leading clerics had more or less settled on a list of writings to be regarded by Christians as scriptural, eventually called the New Testament. The idea that the selected texts, and only those selected, were divinely inspired would soon follow. Thus the mainstream churches closed the books, as it were. Some writings of dubious origin were included. The discarded "heretical" books included a great deal of Gnostic writing that would be no great loss to sacred literature but also some works of considerable power and of serious spiritual questing.

Marcion's elevation of Paul into prominence strongly influenced others to concede the apostle an authority he likely would not otherwise have had. Earlier in the second century, the churches around the Mediterranean had tended to push Paul into the background (partly because he was a favorite of the Gnostics) and to exalt Peter. Marcion came to Rome and, it is said, aspired to become bishop there. His radically novel preaching, however, led to his excommunication in the year 144. He returned to the eastern Mediterranean, where his version of Christianity had a considerable following for several centuries. Mesopotamia-East Syria, the same region in which the Thomas traditions started, was one area where Marcionism took hold.

Marcion's major writing, the Antitheses , is long lost and known only through references to it by others. It has been suggested that the title reflects a way of thinking not found among Greek philosophers or Christians under Greek influence who saw the cosmos as good and harmonious.

For several centuries, teachers in the Christian mainstream felt obliged to inveigh against Marcion. In the fourth century Epiphanius reported that Marcionites were still to be found in Rome, Italy, Egypt, Arabia, Syria, Persia, and other places. As late as the sixth century, Christians called "Marcionites" could still be found in lower Mesopotamia. Despite what might seem, especially in its attitude toward marriage, a forbiddingly austere message, Marcion made many converts into a well-organized church. Accordingly, he seemed especially dangerous. Eventually, what one explorer of the New Testament's origins has called Marcion's "monstrous revolution" was quelled.

At the end of the second century, Tertullian, one of the most eloquent of Christian polemicists, wrote that the heretic's homeland, Pontus, was a barbarous land where people shamelessly copulated in the open and men ate their fathers' corpses, but "the most barbarous and melancholy thing about Pontus is that Marcion was born there."

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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.