Who was Marcion? What was Marcionism? Why was he so important in the development of the church in the Second Century?
Marcion of Sinope was born around 85-100 CE, in the region of Pontus on the Black Sea.1 According to Hippolytus, Marcion’s father was a bishop in Sinope; the young Marcion likely attended his church and became familiar with the Christian scriptures.2 As time progressed Marcion became an educated man, who prospered as a ship-master/shipowner.3 His familial relationships did not share the same prosperous fate as his career; tradition has it that Marcion’s father excommunicated him in Sinope for seducing a young virgin, what is more likely, is that he was excommunicated for his false teachings in relation to his father’s Christianity.4 Marcion had embraced a radical Paulinist theology (see ‘What was Marcionism?’ below), we don’t know how far developed this theology was at the time of his excommunication, but we do know that it was fully developed by 144 CE.5
Undeterred by his excommunication, Marcion travelled throughout Asia Minor seeking recognition for his theology; he was rebuffed by the church leaders of Ephesus, Smyrna and Hierapolis.6 It was probably around this time that Marcion infamously encountered Polycarp and his barbed retort, “I recognize you as the first born of Satan.”7
Undeterred by his rejection in Asia Minor, Marcion travelled to Rome on his own ship with grand plans in mind, upon arrival around 137-139 CE, he donated 200,000 sesterces to the proto-orthodox church.8 It appears that Marcion learnt from his experiences in Asia Minor, rather than submitting his theology to the church in Rome straight away, he probably sequestered himself to five years of private study, from around 139-144 CE.9 At the end of this period, Marcion emerged with Marcionism’s foundational documents; the Marcionite Bible and its commentary the Antitheses.10 He gathered the Roman community, submitted his theology and demanded a verdict from the presbyters in 144 CE.11 There can be no doubt that this action unearths Marcion’s mindset; he saw himself as the literary saviour of the proto-orthodox church, he would have expected the community to read his writings and see the error of their ways. For the third notable time, Marcion and his theology were rejected, he was expelled from the community, branded as a heretic and had his 200,000 sesterces refunded.12
Undeterred by his rejection in Rome, Marcion started his own church; if the proto-orthodox would not propagate his theology, then he would do it himself. The ensuing results were spectacular, by the year 150 CE Justin Martyr wrote: “And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive … And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies…”13 Tertullian echoed these sentiments: “… [Marcionism] has filled the whole world…”14 as did Epiphanius, “The sect is still to be found even now in Rome and Italy, Egypt and Palestine, Arabia and Syria, Cyprus and the Thebaid – in Persia too, moreover and other places.”15 Marcion’s church was a formidable rival to the proto-orthodox; Marcion lived no more than 15 years after his Roman expulsion, but his efforts influenced Christendom for centuries.16 According to Harnack, “No other religious personality in antiquity after Paul and before Augustine can rival him in significance.”17
What else do we know about Marcion the man? It is clear that Marcion was a great organizer that he was: energetic, intelligent, stubborn, an idealistic reformer, naive, self assured, single-minded, forcible, and resilient, a visionary, sincere, pragmatic, serious-minded and possessed strong convictions.18 He had an aversion to philosophy but was potentially influenced by the ‘problem of evil’ in his younger days, he rejected allegorical interpretation and was not significantly influenced by the Gnostic Cerdo; if he was influenced at all.19 He was an ascetic, a modalist, a dualist, a docetist, a biblical theologian, a biblical literalist, a textual critic/restorer, as well as a man that loved his enemies and embraced the Beatitudes.20 It is highly unlikely that Marcion was a charlatan; he never claimed a religious revelation, he never claimed to have received his scriptures supernaturally and he never claimed authority for himself.21 He could easily have claimed these things; charlatans have done so both before and after him with lasting effects.22 No, Marcion was a genuine believer, he saw himself as a student of Paul, simply following in the apostle’s footsteps.23
Marcionism rested upon two foundational assumptions.24 The first assumption was based upon Paul’s writings in Galatians:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! … For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.25
Marcion interpreted Paul‘s words literally, there was only one gospel not four (or more) and it was the gospel that Paul had received personally from Jesus Christ. The second assumption arose from Marcion’s observation that the Old Testament God was starkly different from Jesus. According to Tertullian, Marcion compared Old Testament verses like:26
He [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.27
With Jesus‘ loving words toward children:
People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs”.28
From such verses Marcion made the relatively logical conclusion, that the God of the Old Testament; the creator-God, was different to the good-God who was the father of Jesus Christ. The creator-God was: inferior and previously ignorant of the good-God, the creator of the physical world, the God of the Jews, in opposition to the good-God, the law-giver, a judge, just, petty, cruel, finite, warlike, jealous, blood-thirsty, severe, fierce, hostile to Christ, responsible for procreation and all other evils of the flesh.29 In stark contrast, the good God was: the God of Marcionism, superior to the creator-God, in opposition to the creator-God, separate from the universe, loving, good, righteous, giving, kind and previously unknown; a stranger/alien from the third heaven.30 The good-God had never produced any flesh, and he was seeking to purchase/steal people from the creator-God to his own heaven through Christ the redeemer.31 Marcion rejected the creator-God, the Old Testament and its prophets; the law and its creator-God were viewed in opposition to the gospel and the good-God.32
In summary, Marcionism was foundationally based upon Paul‘s one gospel and the rejection of the Old Testament, its law and creator-God, in favour of the new good-God.
From this foundation, the Marcionite conspiracy theory was born; Judaism had corrupted the true gospel/epistles throughout the entire apostolic age.33 Marcion therefore would allow no connection between the gospel/epistles; “…anything that purports to be Christian and yet exhibits a connection with the Old Testament is false and forged.34 To rectify this alleged travesty, Marcion set about ‘restoring’ the Pauline texts, excising them to form the first closed canon; the Marcionite Bible which accompanied the Antitheses.35 The excised Bible contained one unnamed ‘authentic’ gospel (Luke), and the epistles: Galatians, Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Philippians and parts of the Epistle to the Laodiceans.36 The proto-orthodox destroyed this Bible along with the Antitheses but we can deduce Marcionite teachings from the anti-heretical works that the texts spawned.
On Christ, Marcion denied the virgin birth, instead proposing that Christ had emerged from heaven in 29 CE as the son of the good-God; a stranger to the creator-God.37 Christ didn‘t have a normal physical body but he was not a phantom, he still suffered.38 The purpose of Christ‘s visit was to purchase mankind from the creator-God for the good-God, with Christ‘s blood.39 This act displayed the innate goodness of the good-God, the new reality was love.40 Marcionites were ‘saved’ by faith in Christ, not by observing the creator-God‘s law which Christ abolished.
On Judaism, Marcion saw the Old Testament as a book of literal history; he rejected it but did not see it as a book of lies.41 He believed that the Jewish Messiah was yet to arrive.42
Much emphasis was placed on newness within Marcionism. Marcionites constantly referred to Jesus’ saying:43
And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.44
Contrary to the proto-orthodox, Marcionites held that there was no physical resurrection of the dead. They believed that the soul would be saved but that the body, the creation of the creator-God, would be destroyed.45
Marcionites held to the Pauline teaching that, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”46 As such, people that rejected Christ were to be punished on judgment day. Since the good-God couldn‘t possibly have his own hell, non-believers would simply be cast away to the creator-God, who does have his own hell and will burn them with fire.47
Marriage was not allowed by Marcion, it was viewed as a corruption. Since the creator-God ordained marriage, the Marcionites believed that they were distressing him by avoiding it; this was a positive thing for they viewed themselves in opposition to the creator-God.48 Sex was prohibited for it engaged the sinful flesh, an additional bonus was that this too supposedly bothered the creator-God.49 This teaching had an enormously negative effect upon the movement‘s demographics; besides the ascetic deterrent, they couldn‘t expand the religious base by indoctrinating children, they had to continually recruit new members.50
Marcionites had special dietary restrictions, they were not allowed to eat meat with the exception of fish and they were not permitted to drink wine.51 Food intake was to be minimized alongside fasting, which was also conducted to spite the creator-God.52 Marcionites also practiced the Eucharist.53
Baptism was practiced, it is possible that women were allowed to conduct the ritual and that it was allowed more than once.54
Whilst Marcion rejected the Old Testament prophets, it is possible that he did not reject the concept of prophecy itself.55
It also appears that Marcionites died for their beliefs in significant numbers; being prepared for martyrdom was encouraged.56
Whilst many of Marcion‘s teachings were irrational by modern standards, there was one teaching that was clearly unethical; it involved the damnation of Abel and Enoch amongst others. It was commonly held in Marcion‘s time that Jesus had descended to Hades, to redeem prior generations.57 Judaism ‘back-sliders’/non-adherents were saved including Cain, Esau, Abiram, Korah and Dathan.58 But, ‘ethical’ people like Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Moses and David were not, for they had followed the creator-God.59 This teaching was clearly immoral; to reward a murderer such as Cain, yet condemn Abel to an eternity of fire was an ethical affront to justice.
Marcionite teachings were propagated within Marcionite churches.60 Their church structure paralleled that of the proto-orthodox involving bishops, elders and catechumens and they observed similar religious events.61 Their services were open to the public; pagans included.62 They had no clear cut doctrinal system which allowed diversity from the beginning, Marcionism would evolve with time; most notably with Apelles.63
The success of Marcion and his Marcionite church threatened the proto-orthodox: “Already in the year A.D. 150 Justin could say that his influence extended all over the Empire. A real rival to the growing Catholic Church had sprung into being, and for a few years it must actually have seemed possible that the Marcionite church would become the dominant church.”64 This spurred the proto-orthodox into action, three major developments took place: (1) The proto-orthodox were motivated to clarify their ecclesiastical doctrines; (2) They were forced to create their own Biblical canon, and; (3) They were motivated to include Paul in the newly formed canon. These developments will be analysed in turn.
Prior to Marcion’s emergence, the proto-orthodox lacked conclusive ecclesiastical doctrines; there was no canon besides the Old Testament, there was a lack of meaningful creeds, there were competing interpretations of tradition, there was a reliance on “apostolic men” like Polycarp, and the episcopate was still developing its authority.65 Marcion‘s theological assault spurred them into action; anti-heretical counter literature was profusely written by the likes of Irenaeus and Tertullian forging ecclesiastical doctrines.66 The Old Roman Creed was reiterated to specify the belief, that the creator-God was the Father of Jesus Christ, and the need for their own canon was identified.67
Marcion‘s greatest contribution to the development of the second century church was the Marcionite canon; it was the catalyst and prototype for the proto-orthodox‘s canon.68 Prior to Marcion‘s emergence, Christendom had employed a vast array of literature ranging from the accepted Old Testament, to various gospels, apocalyptic works, epistles and letters.69 There was no consensus on which texts where authoritative, it depended on which church you visited.70 Marcion led the way on enforcing consensus and the proto-orthodox followed suit: It cannot have been twenty years later when authoritative bishops in Asia Minor and Rome proceeded to set in opposition to Marcion‘s Bible a collection that was also in two parts and to designate it as the apostolic catholic New Testament. This work, created in imitation and under the impact of Marcion‘s creation, was hardly felt to be an odd innovation, because the four Gospels had already been in use in those churches for more than a generation.71 Whilst the proto-orthodox would have inevitably developed their own canon, Marcion accelerated the process.72
Finally, the contents of the proto-orthodox canon were influenced by Marcion; specifically the inclusion of Paul‘s writings. Prior to Marcion, Paul had progressively been on the outer of proto-orthodox Christianity; appreciation for his “gospel” had been waning.73 In the words of E.C. Blackman, “It may be that but for Marcion the Catholic Church might have left Paul‘s writings out of its canon, and have left the Apostle with no greater authority than the Apostolic Fathers.”74 Ironically, it seems like Paul‘s real saviour was Marcion.