Did the arch-heretic Marcion author the first gospel?

marcionIn the last post we began looking at the increasing evidence that the New Testament is a product of the second century, rather than the first. We continue now by examining the role that the arch-heretic Marcion of Pontus played in gospel formation, a role that is becoming ever more astonishing as scholars finally realize that Marcion is certainly implicated in the earliest stratum of canonical gospel formation. That stratum is normally associated with the Gospel of Mark. Can there be any historical connection here between the names “Mark” and “Marcion”? If so, how ironic that would be, since one is a Christian hero and the other an arch-villain!

No gospel is mentioned by the Church Fathers before the appearance of Marcion’s gospel in the first half of the second century. Marcion evidently brought his gospel with him to Rome in the early 140s CE, along with a great sum of money that he gifted the Church. The money was accepted, and presumably the gospel was examined. However, we know that the money was returned to Marcion, which signals an irreconcilable breach in relations. Marcion was eventually excommunicated, and so we know that the breach must have been on theological grounds. Indeed, from the Catholic perspective something was very wrong with Marcion’s gospel (Mcn). Nevertheless, it appears that the Church ‘adapted’ it (below). In rather quick succession, the Gospels known to us as Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John appeared. These were ‘sanitized’ versions of Mcn—gospels more in accord with Catholic doctrine.

What was it about Marcion’s theology that so upset the Church? In the previous post we signaled the major problems: (a) Marcion believed in two gods, an inferior creator god, and a superior “foreign” or “stranger” god who has nothing in common with our debased materiality. (b) As a result, Marcion rejected the Jewish law as being in service to the inferior creator god. Indeed, for Marcion, the entire creation is evil and a prison of the divine soul.

Marcion’s theology leads inevitably to a severe, ascetic and world-denying outlook. It was quickly deemed unacceptable to the Catholic Church which opted for a much more pleasing theology: the creation is good and (borrowing from Judaism) our bodies are “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26).

However, Marcion’s gospel also contained some winning elements that were irresistible to the Church, and this is why his gospel was ‘co-opted.’ One element was the concept that God redeemed mankind through the sacrificial death of his spiritual son. Thus, the focal point of redemption moved from the baptism (which had been into gnosis, symbolized by water) to the death of Jesus. In fact, Marcion did not invent this concept of the redeeming death of the savior (which is actually very ancient). It is also strongly present in the Pauline epistles, writings that predated Marcion (J. Clabeaux, A Lost Edition of The Letters of Paul, 1989:148).

A statue from Crete supposed to be that of Apollonius of Tyana. (Wikimedia commons.)

A statue from Crete supposed to be that of Apollonius of Tyana. (Wikimedia commons.)

The aspect that turned everyone’s head was surely the astonishing ‘adventures’ of Jesus the Nazarene that Marcion presented to civilization via his gospel. Marcion may not have himself invented this Jesus—elements of the passion appear in two early works that we will look at separately (the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Nicodemus). But Marcion may have been the first to give the world a unified biography of Jesus the Nazarene—what we call a “gospel”—one probably influenced by the recent adventures of the peregrinating prophet Apollonius of Tyana (d. ca. 100 CE). In any case, the Roman Church must have been greatly shaken by Marcion’s astounding gospel of the god-man-redeemer-savior Jesus the Nazarene, strutting around the Galilee and Judea healing, raising people from the dead, driving out demons with a word, and walking on water. The world had no knowledge of the Nazarene before Marcion appeared with his all-conquering Jesus and his astounding gospel. We know this because preceding texts (like the Pauline epistles) know only a spiritual Jesus (to be discussed separately).

Despite the theological problems associated with it, Marcion’s gospel was a potent text that the Church needed to deal with. It did so by sanitizing Mcn—by removing the “two-god” theology, rehabilitating the creation, and by including the Jews in God’s plan. As mentioned above, Mcn was adapted/co-opted and became the principal source of the canonical gospels.

Of course, Christianity as we know it is inconceivable without its central figure, Jesus the Nazarene/of Nazareth. Thus, it is very likely that Marcion, the arch-heretic, is most responsible for having created Christianity.

Virtually all of Marcion’s gospel (also known as the Evangelion) is found in Luke’s much longer gospel. The Church Fathers aggressively repudiated any claim Marcion might have to originality by asserting that the Evangelion was a subsequent ‘abridgment’ (and hence a mutilation) of their own amazingly similar gospel, the Gospel of Luke. This is a natural ploy that the thief uses in the face of his victim and in the court: I had it first. Henceforth, Mcn/the Evangelion was completely unworthy of attention by the faithful. This orthodox view of disparagement has endured into modern scholarship (e.g. Harnack), despite the scholarly recognition that Marcionite readings are often more primitive than the parallels found in the various synoptic gospels.

The fact that no “gospel” is mentioned (much less attested) before the time of Marcion is also damning. It is only when we come to Irenaeus of Lyon and his Against Heresies (c. 180 CE) that the Gospel of Mark is mentioned for the first time (H. Raschke, Die Werkstatt des Markusevangelisten, Jena: Diederichs, 1924:33-34). Chronologically, then, Marcion’s gospel may well have been the first of the new genre.

The new recognition of Marcion’s role at the ground level of the synoptic gospels (seriously explored by M. Klinghardt and M. Vinzent only in the last ten years) will require, of course, a complete reformulation of the traditional relationship among the canonical gospels. If Marcion had anything to do with producing the text that eventually gave rise to our gospels, then the New Testament not only dates at least a half century later than is conventionally thought, but it also stems from a gnostic, ascetic (encratite), and world-denying arch-heretic!

In the next post we will consider more closely the new ‘synoptic tree’—with the Gospel of Marcion as the first version.—R.S.

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