This is one of the longer and more significant posts on this website. Here we will look at the recent work of two German patristics specialists, both of whom propose that Marcion of Pontus (fl. c. 130–c. 160 CE) presented the world with a gospel that predated all four canonical gospels. This in itself is mind-boggling, for it not only dates the canonical gospels much later (well into the second century) than is presently thought, but it also means that the heretic Marcion is critically implicated at an early stage of the canonical gospel tradition. According to this view, all our canonical gospels (written in fairly quick succession towards the middle of the second century) are Catholizing adaptations of Marcion’s thought.
As if the foregoing weren’t enough, one of the two specialists proposes that no significant gospel predated Marcion’s authorship—in other words, Marcion himself wrote the first gospel. Now, we will see elsewhere that Marcion’s “Gospel” was not a written document at all but, rather, a theology (“gospel” in the general sense). In either case, however, it is becoming increasingly apparent that: (a) Marcion may have invented the figure ‘Jesus the Nazarene’; (b) Marcion may have been in a real sense the founder of Christianity; and (c) Christianity as we know it dates no farther back than the first half of the second century CE. Before that time one or more religions existed that we would not recognize today, for they had no knowledge of the savior of the world, Jesus the Nazarene/of Nazareth. (In subsequent posts we will look at evidence that ‘Jesus’ in those proto-Christian religions was not fleshly but was strictly a divine spiritual entity.) Whew!
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In recent posts (here and here) we observed that revolutionary research is now taking place on the synoptic problem, research that identifies Marcion of Pontus as the true impetus (and a hostile one) behind the formation of the synoptic gospels. This view chronologically locates the Gospel of Mark (the earliest synoptic) in the mid-second century CE—that is, after Marcion (fl. c. 130–60). Besides the enormous chronological implications on the traditional dating of the gospels, Marcion’s implication (even as a hostile force) in the earliest stage of synoptic gospel writing also has huge theological consequences, for Marcion was an arch-heretic and theological pariah. His involvement with the genesis of the canonical gospels obviously changes the entire complexion of early Christianity. I suggests that catholicity emerged out of heresy. It also means that Christianity as we know it was a latecomer, a religion essentially invented in the second century of our era. What came before? That becomes the burning question that scholars and researchers will have to take up soon…
Two German scholars are at the forefront of this cutting-edge discussion. In the last decade, Matthias Klinghardt and Markus Vinzent have extensively published on a new relationship between Marcion and the synoptic gospels. Unlike myself, they both view Marcion’s “gospel” as a work written down—one similar in form and nature to the Gospel of Luke—and lost long ago. Indeed, Klinghardt has painstakingly attempted (once again!) to reconstruct that text. Here we will look at their views (which are not identical) and follow that with a limited discussion.
Klinghardt’s massive (over 1200 pages) two-volume exposition/analysis of Marcion’s gospel (Mcn) appeared in 2015 (Das älteste Evangelium und die Entstehung der kanonishen Evangelien, Franke: Tübingen). For those who posit a written Gospel of Marcion, Klinghardt’s work is likely to remain the benchmark study on the reconstructed text for a long time to come. He argues that Mcn predated the Gospel of Luke, and not vice-versa, as has been maintained since ancient times. This critical issue involving Marcion’s work and proper role has been a bone of contention in modern New Testament scholarship for over a century. As noted in a prior post, in 1920 the prominent New Testament scholar Adolf von Harnack slammed the door on ‘wild speculations’ that the arch-heretic Marcion might have anything to do with early gospel formation. Harnack thundered: “That the Gospel of Marcion is nothing else than what the primitive church judged it to be, namely, a falsified Luke, there is no need to spend one word on it.”
Klinghardt and Vinzent argue that Harnack was wrong. The Gospel of Luke dates after Marcion and at least a half century later than previously thought: 144–155 CE (Klinghardt p. 380) vs. the traditional dating of c. 90 CE. In other words, Mcn is not a shortened (“mutilated”) form of Luke, but Luke is an expanded form of the Gospel of Marcion. If they are correct, the theological ramifications of this new synoptic scheme would be damning: the canonical Gospel of Luke stems from the writing of an arch-heretic!
[Aside: According to my view there was no Gospel of Marcion. This would seem to deflate the above views entirely—but such an inference cannot be conclusively made. Even without a textual gospel of Marcion, it appears probable that the canonical gospels were produced in response to Marcion’s views/doctrine (evangelion in the broad sense). Indeed, there are many indications in our New Testament texts that this is the case (as Klinghardt himself has noted). So, chronologically, whether or not Marcion’s “gospel” was in the form of a text, the priority of Marcion’s thought (whether written down or not) to canonical gospel formation is critical.]
Klinghardt argues not only that Mcn preceded Luke, but that the heretic’s text preceded the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John. In other words, Mcn is a common primitive source for all the canonical gospels.
Even if a written gospel attributed to Marcion once existed, this alone does not mean that Marcion necessarily wrote the gospel that bears his name. He may have merely inherited, elaborated, or found a gospel (one that is, however, no older than c. 90 CE—Klinghardt p. 378). In fact, that Marcion wrote the gospel that he presented to the Roman Church in the early 140s is too provocative in Klinghardt’s view, though it is in fact the position of Vinzent (below). Klinghardt favors the more moderate view that Mcn was itself based on an older gospel—perhaps an “UrMark” or “UrLuke.” Klinghardt’s view can be schematized as follows:
According to the above schema, (a) all the canonical gospels (as the tradition knows them) derive from Marcion’s written gospel. Additionally, (b) Klinghardt holds out the possibility that other written gospels predated Mcn. One difficulty, immediately evident, is that (b) is an argument from silence: no such early gospels have survived (unless one is willing to postulate that the Gospel of Peter, of Nicodemus, of the Ebionites, etc. dates to the first century CE and contributed to Marcion’s gospel).
With a specialty in Patristics, Vinzent presently teaches at King’s College, London and has authored a seminal work, Marcion and the Dating of the Synoptic Gospels (Peeters 2014). Vinzent has a more radical thesis than the above. He notes (p. 157) that Marcion nowhere claims to have found a gospel, and proposes that Marcion himself authored the written gospel that bears his name. For Vinzent there were no significant precursors to “the written combination of oracles and similes of the Lord, and, in this sense, [Marcion] became the author of his Gospel, which was the first Gospel of its kind” (p. 158).
The foregoing, if correct, leads inevitably to the conclusion that Marcion may have ‘invented’ the character Jesus the Nazarene, the wonder-working prophet who was raised in Galilee and executed in the time of Pontius Pilate. Vinzent puts it this way:
Marcion created a powerful narrative of a transcendent, pre-existing figure who appeared on this alien earth, in the midst of history, to liberate human beings from these physical chains of ignorance, greed, law, sin, judgement and the need for repentance, to rescue humanity through buying men back by paying the price of death on the cross, through his descent to the utmost depths of hell, in order to save all who wanted to accept this helping hand, and to let them be where and what the Risen is. (Vinzent 2014:135)
The above has elements with which we are unfamiliar: the “alien earth,” “physical chains of ignorance,” descent to “hell” (i.e. this world), and ultimate equality with the redeemer/resurrected one (to be “where and what the Risen is”). These Marcionite (and clearly gnostic) elements, according to Vinzent, were purged from the original gospel in a series of canonical editions.
It is clear from the writings of the Church Fathers that Marcion knew the figure “Jesus the Nazarene.” His role in the invention/development of that figure is still unclear. Marcion may have elaborated this concept/figure of the redeemer in history—that is, he learned about it from somewhere. After all, the (allegedly) wealthy ship-owner regularly traveled the eastern Mediterranean. If a fictive figure like Jesus the Nazarene were concocted somewhere in the Roman world, Marcion would have been among the first to know. In short—whether he conceived the figure Jesus the Nazarene or whether he merely borrowed that figure and popularized it in his thought and teachings—Marcion would, per Vinzent’s scenario, merit the designation “founder” of Christianity: “Before Marcion was made the ‘arch-heretic,’ he seems to have been the arch-theologian, ‘the founder of a religion’ and of a new cult, Christianity” (Vinzent 135). In all, Klinghardt finds Vinzent’s thesis “exciting and truly astounding” (2015.I:384 f).
While Klinghardt locates the composition of Mcn within a broad chronological window, “90–150 CE” (above), Vinzent pinpoints the publication of Marcion’s gospel to the “summer 144 AD” (Vinzent 2014:138). On the same page, Vinzent notes the existence of “an earlier version of [Marcion’s] Gospel… This draft Gospel, therefore, dates from before the year 144 AD and may have evolved in Rome in the years between 138 and 144 (or even before in Pontus).” Unfortunately, this last qualification takes some of the wind out of Vinzent’s thesis, for that draft gospel may be none other than the “UrMark” that Klinghardt postulated… Nevertheless, a statement by Tertullian suggests that the draft gospel did not predate Marcion, and Vinzent seems to accordingly have a terminus post quem of c. 125 CE for that draft, which Marcion “had not published and which he probably had not even conceived for public consumption, but only for his classroom teaching” (Vinzent 2014:138).
Thus, if we combine these views with Klinghardt’s post-Marcion schema (above), we have an approximation of Vinzent’s proposed schema of gospel relationships:
Where we now stand
According to Vinzent, the central figure of Christianity emerged into history sometime in the first half of the second century CE. Accordingly, Marcion’s presentation of the grand figure ‘Jesus the Nazarene’—completely adorned with his own written gospel (a thoroughly new genre)—shook the Roman Church, caused an immediate furore, and precipitated the hasty publication of several competing Catholic gospels, the ones today known under the names Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. While I now do not believe that Marcion brought with him any original gospel as text, his concept of redemption through the cross (inherited apparently from Paul) was the critical element and mark a watershed moment in Christian history. We are now in a position to ask: (1) What religion(s) existed before that? (2) What (in particular) was the prior understanding of ‘Jesus’? (3) Did Marcion’s redeemer figure have antecedents and, if so, what were they?
Evidence shows that the first century knew only a spiritual Jesus (“Savior”). It was the second century that brought the Jesus of flesh—i.e. the doctrine of incarnation. This doctrine is, at its core, anti-Marcionite. The only way to reconcile the competing views (Jesus as spirit sent from a ‘foreign’ God, vs. Jesus of flesh who is also divine) is that Marcion espoused the Stage 2 christology described here. According to that christology, ‘Jesus’ is the divine spirit indwelling a fleshly human being. It was the human who suffered and died—not “Jesus” (a spirit). This is what we call “docetist,” and it was also Marcionite. But it is a composite view: the divine Jesus (of spirit) indwells the prophet (of flesh). This Stage 2 christology lasted through the time of Marcion. But the arch-heretic’s appearance precipitated a reaction and the emergence of the Catholic Stage 3 christology: Jesus of Nazareth. That figure appears in history only towards the middle of the second century—right after the activity of Marcion.
Reflecting this understanding of the difference between first and second century religion, on this website I have placed this series of posts (of which this is “Part 4”) in “The second century” (cf. category list and Site map). Forthcoming posts will consider the purely spiritual Jesus, the ‘shape-shifting’ Jesus, the one that united with a saint and thus could surprisingly appear in the guise of any man or woman. This purely spiritual Jesus is abundantly attested in first century texts (including the epistles of “Paul”). In this proto-Christian theology, anyone could be ‘Jesus.'”—R.S.