In solidarity with our brave brothers and sisters fighting for freedom in Ukraine.
A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 15
On this website six years ago I wrote a series of posts “Questioning the gospel of Marcion.” The thrust of those posts was my novel thesis (not taken up anywhere else, to my knowledge) that there was no “gospel of Marcion”—not as a text, at any rate. My argument still stands, but here I expand it and reject the existence of Marcion himself. “Marcion” was, as I shall describe below, a convenient tool of the Catholics, an invented figure used to establish the (false) priority of their new gospels and epistles and to anathematize all those who believed in the spirit Jesus—which, as we have seen elsewhere, was the dominant paradigm among Jesus followers before the advent of the Catholic Church. Now denominated “Marcionites,” those pre-Catholics were suddenly “heretics” and were (of course) “everywhere.”
On the eve of the Catholic revolution
Around the year 140 CE Jesus fellowships existed throughout the Mediterranean world. A full two centuries had passed since the death of Yeshu ha-Notsri (c. 65 BCE) and, while numerous divisions now existed within the far-flung movement (Hebrews vs. Gentiles, localized baptist sects, gnostic solitaries, communistic congregations such as the Therapeutae, etc), the common denominator was veneration of the “Jesus,” the spirit of God that comes into the worthy human being and effects salvation through union with the Divine. Among the first century texts witnessing to this deep theology are the Odes of Solomon, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Gospel of Thomas. None of those early texts know Jesus of Nazareth, the “Christ.”
Yet, by 140 CE tensions that had been brewing for generations (cf. the post here) were approaching a breaking point. The severe gnostic and world-denying theology of Yeshu was simply not adaptable to the majority of Jesus followers. Increasingly, the fellowships were split between (a) an ascetic elite that demanded total sacrifice (and subservience to them), and (b) an increasing plurality of members that longed for an easier path to salvation and, essentially, for more freedom.
It is the latter group—now the majority—that gave birth to the Catholic Church. After all, the Jesus movement had long before moved out of the Palestinian orbit and attempted to accommodate to gentile ways, ways that were unsympathetic to strict Jewish Law and ritual. The elites in the movement were still largely Jewish in custom and tradition, and in Acts 6:1 ff we see the tensions between an elite cadre of ‘Hebrews’ and a significant group of ‘Hellenists’ (cf. Gal 5:11 ff).
“The situation of the Church in the middle of the second century,” one scholar writes, “is characterized by uncertainty and confusion.” Power struggles were underway at all levels of the fellowship and the future (and nature) of the entire Jesus movement was at stake. It was clear to a few that drastic changes were needed if the religion was to survive. A more catholic (“universal”) approach was imperative, one catering to ordinary folk and endorsing life in society, while also accommodating the more stringent path of the ‘saint.’ Both paths were to be valued, and hence a dominant strain after the coming Catholic revolution is the exhortation to peace, unity, and mutual toleration (cf. Eph 5, 6).
The Pauline epistles
The general scholarly consensus today is that the Pauline epistles are an uneven corpus. Several letters, including the Pastorals, are universally deemed later forgeries. The majority position holds that seven epistles are ‘authentic.’ Other scholars say ‘four epistles.’ A few (including the Dutch Radical School, H. Detering, R. Price, and myself) say ‘no epistles at all.’
It is also generally accepted that several Pauline epistles are themselves collections of shorter letters. To complicate matters further, the Pauline epistles represent literary strata. Short letters (segments of the present epistles) apparently were written already in the first century CE (base stratum)—thus, Harnack and Schmithals. Since readers of this blog know that, at that time, there was as yet no Catholic faith, then these letters were all gnostic—that is, they reflect the Stage II theology where “Jesus” is a divine spiritual entity. Price (following MacDonald) describes the communities of this base literary stratum as “a motley collection of Encratite Christian radicals” (2012:77). We can slightly modify this assessment: the word “Christian” was not yet applicable (the “Christ” as universal redeemer would be introduced in mid-II CE); and the word “radicals” reflects hindsight from Catholic times, for in the first century all Jesus followers were to a greater or lesser degree gnostic, ascetic, and encratite.
Subsequent to the base literary stratum, scholars have proposed at least one revisionary stratum. W. Schmithals detects “anti-Gnostic polemic… in every letter” (Price 2012:75). This anti-gnostic stratum reflects the beginning of the Catholic era—that is, after the middle of the second century.
Finally, W. Munro identifies a late, “Pastoral” stratum:
Munro draws all these suggestions together, isolates criteria for identifying what she calls a “Pastoral stratum,” and uncovers several more passages of the same type. This stratum “does not come from the original collector and redactor of a Pauline letter corpus, but from different circles at a more advanced stage of Christian history.” (R. M. Price, The Amazing Colossal Apostle, 2012:76)
Irenaeus cites the Pastoral epistles c. 180 CE, which shows that they were already extant at that time. In fact, I suspect that Irenaeus may himself have been the author of the Pastorals as well as of the Johannine epistles, and possibly also the producer of the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (certainly forged) and of the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (also forged).
Putting it all together, we have:
(1) short, gnostic-encratite letters addressed to various Jesus fellowships dating to I CE (stratum 1)
(2) a (probably very selective) collection of the foregoing letters made by Catholics in mid-II CE, together with thoroughgoing anti-gnostic revisions (stratum 2)
(3) a “Pastoral stratum” dating before c. 180 CE (stratum 3)
The third stratum came quickly on the heels of the second and shows that the middle decades of II CE were a period of frenetic literary production on the part of the incipient Church. According to Winsome Munro, the third stratum was characterized by “textual interpolations across the whole Pauline corpus” and was marked by “pious quietism.” At the same time, the Pastoralist opposed “sectarian radicalism” (Price 2012:76). As mentioned above, these characteristics reflect the need of the new Church for peace, unity, and mutual toleration after the sudden—and no doubt extraordinarily devisive—introduction of the figure Jesus of Nazareth into ‘spiritual Jesus’ communities around the Mediterranean.
The genesis of the Pauline epistles, as outlined above, proposes: the writing of gnostic-leaning letters in I CE, their collection by the Catholics in mid-II CE, and their subsequent ‘de-gnosticizing’ and ‘Catholicizing’ by Irenaeus and/or others of his generation. It will be noted that these steps have no need at all for the figure of Marcion.
Marcion is one of the most elusive figures in early Christian history—and that may be because the man never existed. Various Church Fathers claim that he wrote a variety of texts: a gospel, epistles, a tractate called “Antitheses,” and so on. Yet not a single shred of his voluminous writings has survived—not even a verse. Some scholars seize upon a statement by Tertullian as proof of Marcion’s gospel: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius (for such is Marcion’s proposition) he [Jesus] ‘came down to the Galilean city of Capernaum’…” (Against Marcion IV.7.) However, this is no proof that Marcion wrote anything. It is proof only that Tertullian made such a claim. It suggests, too, that Tertullian, writing about 200 CE, had the gospel of Mark in front of him, for only in that gospel is Jesus’ home Capernaum.
Tertullian agonized over his five volumes Against Marcion—he wrote it three times. But if the arch-heretic never existed, why then so much effort? The answer is that the invented figure of Marcion was very useful to the emerging church.
Justin Martyr is the first to mention the arch-heretic, about 155 CE. Marcion is then mentioned by just about everyone: Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ephraim Syrus, Eusebius, Augustine, and so on. The principal thrust of the heresiologists is the accusation that Marcion “mutilated the Gospel of Luke”—this, in one blow, locates Marcion and his theology after the Catholic writings. Without clear evidence for the existence of Marcion, I find that Catholic accusation suspicious. In addition, the Church Fathers do not agree in what they have to say about Marcion—neither regarding the history of the heretic nor regarding what he taught.
As I wrote elsewhere, we learn that Marcion was either a nauclerus (Lat. “ship-owner” or “ship-builder”) or the excommunicated son of a bishop (there are two traditions), that he tried to buy his way into the Church, that he was a disciple of a certain Cerdo, that he had a distinguished disciple named Apelles, and that he came to Rome in 144 CE and/or 155 CE (again, there are two traditions). The ‘associated characters’ Cerdo and Apelles are themselves not attested, except in a very few (suspicious) passages by the Church Fathers —and this also does not increase our confidence in Marcion’s historicity.
It is not possible that Marcion was already excommunicated before he met with the bishop of Rome (in 155 CE). This, to me, casts doubt on the entire visit to Rome. Then too: could Marcion have been already excommunicated by his father before he went to Rome in 144 CE? That also seems questionable.
Several Church Fathers write that already in his lifetime Marcion had phenomenal success in proselytizing ‘throughout the world.’ And yet, no texts by this widely venerated figure survive? Compare this with Mani who, a couple of generations later, also had phenomenal success “throughout the world.” But Mani is well attested—both his person and his writings. For Marcion, however, there is nothing.
Furthermore, the Church Fathers claim that Marcion’s success was enduring. Epiphanius (late IV CE) writes:
The sect [of Marcionites] 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. (Panarion 42.1.1)
Epiphanius is describing a phenomenally successful figure who left absolutely no clues. It doesn’t add up.
“Marcion” appears to be a larger-than-life figure. When we look at the doctrines ascribed to him, we come up with the following:
– he was a gnostic
– he was an encratite
– he disparaged the flesh/the creation
– he taught two gods (an inferior god of the creation, and a superior, distant, loving, and entirely spiritual God)
– he considered Jesus to be from the loving God
– he rejected the Jewish creator god and also Jewish scripture
The above list quite adequately describes the predominant religion among Jesus followers (Stage II) preceding the advent of the Catholic Church. Gnosticism, encratism, and belief in the spirit ‘Jesus’ (from the loving God) were the predominant tenets of those pre-Catholic Jesus-followers. And so was anti-Jewishness (among the disaffected gentile Jesus followers, at least). “Marcionite” seems to denote a number of tenets that were fatal to Catholic theology yet that were current before that new theology took hold. In other words, “Marcionite” may be a catch-all basket of heresies that denominates the many pre-Catholic Jesus followers who refused to convert to Catholicism. It seems to me that in one stroke the Church anathematized all the laggards and die-hard gnostics who refused to come on board. The Church conveniently (and vaguely) denominated them “Marcionites” and their leader, “Marcion.”
The invented figure “Marcion” would also have proved useful in establishing a number of false textual traditions. By accusing “Marcion” of “mutilating the Gospel of Luke” (Tertullian, etc.) the Church could explain away all the competing gospels that not only were extant but that also had bona fide claims to being older (and thus more authentic) than the canonical gospels.
Similarly for the Pauline epistles. The Church Fathers claimed that Marcion “found” the Epistle to the Galatians. That accusation not only establishes that the catholicized version (see above) was first, but also that any other version that differs from the catholicized version (“Marcionite”) is a bastardization of the Catholic text. All these things are readily effected by manipulating the invented figure “Marcion.”
Following is a passage from a sixth century Catholic:
The Gospel of John was revealed and given to the Churches by John whilst he was still in the body, as Papias, called the Hierapolitan, the beloved disciple of John, has reported in his five books of Exegetics [lost]. But he who wrote down the Gospel, John dictating correctly the true evangel, was Marcion the heretic. Having been disapproved by him for holding contrary views, he was expelled by John.
(Bishop Fortunatus’ preface to the Gospel of John, cited in R. Price, The Amazing Colossal Apostle 2012:227)
To me, the above is further proof that Marcion was an invented figure. Here Bishop Fortunatus claims that Papias (another invented figure!) asserted that Marcion “wrote down the Gospel of John” (which gospel, incidentally, has significant “Marcionite” [read: pre-Catholic] features—Price, ibid p. 227). But the historical context is impossible, and for several reasons:
(a) The evangelist John’s timeline would have him “dictating” his gospel to the adult Marcion no later than the 90s CE—but this is too early for the future heretic, who was active in Rome (per the Church Fathers) in 144 CE and/or 155 CE.
(b) Readers of this blog know that John the Evangelist did not exist—the cast of characters associated with Jesus of Nazareth are inventions. Hence, Marcion in the above account is also fictive.
(c) Readers of this blog also know that the Gospel of John was written not before the 140s CE, with the invention of Jesus of Nazareth, the “Christ.” Thus, the involvement of “Marcion” in the above episode is clearly bogus.
Similarly Tertullian places Marcion in the apostolic age when he writes of “the Marcionites, whom the Apostle John designated as antichrists, when they denied that Christ was come in the flesh…” (AM 3.8). Chronologically this is an impossibility.
Folks, Marcion did not exist.