Part 3—A revolution in the Synoptic Problem

[Note: This post has been substantially updated.]

The so-called Synoptic Problem can be defined as the search for the literary and redactional relationship between the three (obviously) extensively related “synoptic” gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Majority opinion has long favored the “two source theory”: Matthew and Luke primarily drew on Mark, and they also drew on a saying source not available to Mark known as “Q” (German abbreviation for Quelle, “source”).

This is majority opinion: the two source theory of synoptic relationships, arguably the backbone of New Testament scholarship for over a century. Recent research, however, is now showing this theory to be stunningly unworkable.The culprit is a little-known second century "heretic": Marcion of Pontus.

This is majority opinion: the two source theory of synoptic relationships, arguably the backbone of New Testament scholarship for over a century. Recent research, however, is now showing this theory to be stunningly untenable.
The culprit is a little-known second century “heretic”: Marcion of Pontus (fl. 130–160 CE).

However, ongoing disagreements among New Testament scholars show that the two source theory is not satisfactory to many. Perhaps the biggest sticking point is that the Q source is entirely hypothetical. Despite a veritable library that has now been written about it (e.g., see John Kloppenborg’s massive works), Q is readily attacked as an ‘imaginary’ source. The closest we have is the Gospel of Thomas—a gnostic text vaguely similar in form (a logia source) to what proponents suggest for Q. Nevertheless, despite its never having been found, Q is particularly favored on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, belief in the existence of the Q source has become almost a confessional necessity for advancement in American New Testament studies…

In the previous post I noted that research reveals the genesis of Christianity to have been more complex and interesting than most of us have probably suspected. Several discrete (and new) stages are now emerging. According to my own personal schema, they are:

(1) A founding gnostic prophet who lived in the early part of first century BCE (first noted by G.R.S. Mead, by Alvar Ellegard, and most recently in my book NazarethGate, Chp. 14).

(2) A successor (‘caliph’ per R. Price) who lived in the mid-first century CE. He may be known variously under the names Simon Magus, James bar Cleophas, and James ‘the Just.’ This gnostic may also have written some short segments of the Pauline epistles.

(3) The ‘gospel’ phase dating to mid-II CE, perhaps following the work of Marcion.

RothIn this post I’d like to begin exploring the third of these points, namely, Marcion’s role. A “Gospel of Marcion” has long been known to scholarship. It has even been tediously reconstructed from citations in the hostile writings of the Church Fathers. Empirically-oriented scholars have long known that, in some way, Marcion’s gospel must be critically implicated in the genesis of the canonical gospels. Essentially, this is for several reasons: (1) no “gospel” is mentioned (much less attested) before the time of Marcion; (2) the prevalent view that Marcion’s gospel was nothing more than an abridgment of Luke’s gospel has now been discredited (see below); and (3) it is becoming increasingly clear that Marcionite readings are more primitive than the parallels found in the various synoptic gospels. In other words: it all goes back to Marcion.

MollThe idea that Marcion had some role in the first stage of gospel formation has been long suspected—but it has also been, all along, extraordinarily frightening to the tradition… After all, Marcion was an arch-heretic. His conception of the divine (a ‘foreign’ god), and his disparagement of the creation (‘evil’) were categorically odious to the Great Church which sought not to escape from this world, but to assure the triumph of this world—and of our own, miserable, existences. Thus, any involvement of Marcion with the genesis of the canonical gospels has been subtly (and also not so subtly) put to one side. In ancient times Marcion’s gospel was the object of astonishing borrowing (as we are learning) yet rabid hatred, of expropriation yet mutilation, of clandestine use yet overt disavowel, of total co-opting yet final destruction. This schizophrenic attitude toward Marcion and his work continues even today. After all, the scholarly community has long known of the existence of a Gospel of Marcion, but even today the standard scholarly reference (Schneemelcher’s The New Testament Apocrypha) does not mention the Gospel of Marcion. No more proof-positive could exist that the Christian tradition continues to do all it can to ignore this information that is fatal to its own claims to authority—that is, to ensure the primacy (and hence authenticity) of the synoptic gospels.

But the true (and revolutionary) role of Marcion’s gospel is now finally coming to light. (We will be looking at the mechanics of the argument in the next post.) The result promises to be a nightmare for the tradition. Markus Vinzent, one of the foremost specialists in this subfield, has now concluded that Marcion’s gospel was in fact the source of all four canonical gospels!

It is astonishing. This, of course, has colossal ramifications—both theological and chronological. Theologically, it means that the traditional view “orthodoxy preceded heresy” (used since the Church Fathers to dismiss heretical writings) is backwards. Heresy preceded orthodoxy. Or, shall we say: orthodoxy is the latecomer and it appears to be the ‘heresy.’

I, however, must now throw a spanner into the works… I argue (see here) that there was, in fact, no written “Gospel of Marcion.” This long-standing fixture in patristic studies is actually a misreading of the primary sources. Tertullian and other ancients nowhere cite passages from a written gospel of Marcion. Rather, they refer to the “Evangelion” of Marcion. When those church fathers were writing, evangelion primarily meant “gospel” in the broad sense, i.e., doctrine. In short, they witnessed to the thought of Marcion, not to a concrete written text. Reading the church fathers closely, it astonishes me that scholars have gotten this so wrong!

Still, placing Marcion’s gospel (read: “doctrine”) before the canonical ones has astounding chronological implications: the New Testament gospels (including Mark) must be redated no earlier than the middle decades of the second century CE—if, that is, the received dating of Marcion’s activities is correct…

This ‘revolutionary’ view is actually not new. It has simply been successfully marginalized for over 150 years. In the first half of the nineteenth century, J. Eichhorn, M. Arneth, F. Schleiermacher, F. C. Baur, and F. Schwegler all proposed that Marcion preceded the canonical gospels (particularly Luke) and not the other way around. (On this, see M. Vinzent, Marcion and the Dating of the Synoptic Gospels, 2014:149 f.)

Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930)

Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930)
is having a headache.

Despite all the above ‘revolutionary’ opinion, mainstream scholarship has persistently fought the ‘Marcion first’ view. Towards the end of his life, Adolf Harnack hammered the decisive nail into the skeptics’ coffin by writing his argument-closing tome, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God (1920). Harnack’s summation (his p. 240) became famous: “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.” Oh well. It appears, contra Harnack, that we are spending more words on this—and that scholars will indeed ‘spend’ many more in future… 😉

Marcionite theology and the Gospels

Marcion believed that “the Jesus” was a divine, entirely spiritual entity separate from any fleshly human being. The Jesus (= saving gnosis = “the Savior/Yeshua”) enters into and indwells the worthy person, the ‘saint.’ This is precisely what I have termed Stage II Christology. The conception may sound odd to us today, but a close reading (independent of preconceptions) shows that this is the view actually conveyed in the Pauline epistles (discussion at NazarethGate pp. 408 f). It also seems to underlie the Gospel of Mark, which presents an ‘adoptionist’ Christology: the spirit allegorically enters the saint (now called ‘Jesus’ by Mark) at his baptism “like a dove” from on high (1:10), and the spirit departs from the saint the day before the crucifixion (the young man in the garden, 14:52). Thus it is that Mark’s crucified savior cries out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Adoptionism is a theological middleground between the purely spiritual Jesus and the emphatically fleshly Jesus known to us today. In adoptionism, the divine spirit ‘visits’ the flesh, as it were. But the Gospel of Mark takes an important step towards future orthodoxy: his name ‘Jesus’ no longer refers to the divine spirit—it is now the name of the recipient, of the person.

It may seem like a mere change in emphasis, but it is in fact a revolutionary ‘crossing of the Rubicon.’ In the Gospel of Mark spiritual power transfers to fleshly, material power. With that transformation, too, is the ‘rehabilitation’ of the world, of materiality, of the God of Jewish scripture, and a repudiation of gnostic dualism with its disparagement of the world and the world’s God. I consider this transformation of ‘Jesus’ from spirit to flesh to be the true birth of orthodox Christianity—the birth of the religion that we all know.

Just as the spiritual Jesus preceded the fleshly Jesus in history, so also the ‘gospel’ [theology] of Marcion must have preceded the canonical gospels. In the pre-canonical, Stage II Christology, it is the indwelling spirit of God (termed the spiritual “twin” [= Thomas] in the Gospel of Thomas, Manichaeism, etc., and sometimes referred to as the ‘image’ in other gnostic texts) that confers divine power, insight (read: secret gnosis), and all things worthy.

Specialists in Patristics (such as Matthias Klinghardt and Markus Vinzent) are now confirming, once again, what skeptics proposed long ago: that Marcion’s gospel was not an “abridgment” of the Gospel of Luke—as the Church Fathers insisted and as Harnack thundered in 1920. Rather, it is all but certain today that the contrary was the case: Luke’s gospel was an expansion of Marcion’s Evangelion. Vinzent sums up this view on the matter:

[I]t will be shown that [Marcion] does not belong ‘alongside other second-century Gospel traditions and traditions about gospels’ but that he marks the transition from an oral memory of Jesus’ oracles and perhaps some ‘retelling of inherited narrative’ of Jesus of Nazareth, to the written combination of oracles and similes of the Lord, and, in this sense, became the author of his Gospel which was the first Gospel of its kind. (Vinzent, Dating p. 158)

Prof. Markus Vinzent (King's College, London)

Prof. Markus Vinzent
(King’s College, London)

By ‘gospel’ is meant a combination of sayings (logia, oracles, similes) with narratives. For Vinzent, Marcion was the first ‘author’ to do this. In other words: Marcion was the first evangelist.

Despite his forward-thinking arguments above, it is clear from the preceding citation that Vinzent is not a Jesus mythicist—he refers to an ‘oral’ tradition, an ‘inherited’ narrative, and writes of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ with apparently no inkling that such a figure never existed. In these posts we mythicists take what Vinzent is able to give, knowing quite well that there was no oral tradition, no Nazareth at the turn of the era, and no Jesus of Nazareth…

It’s only a name: Mark, Marcion, and Paul

On the other hand, majority scholarly opinion has consistently maintained that Mark was the first gospel. The difference between “Mark” and “Marcion” is a mere suffix—“-ion” being a diminutive—i.e., “Little Mark.” With our present argument that Marcion’s gospel came first, speculation on possible links in history between the two names is entirely permissible. Both apparently refer to the first gospel. But if Marcion’s gospel truly did come first, then the tradition would have had no compunction denying this, saying it was a forgery/abridgment, and belittling it: Little (i.e. “inferior”) Mark. We may wonder if “Marcion” was the pejorative name assigned to that heretic by the Roman Church. This is a problem for the specialists to deal with, for there is also a certain ecclesiastic Mark/Markion who served as bishop of Alexandria 142–152 CE. (We recall that the Gospel of Mark was “first proclaimed” in Alexandria—Euseb. Eccl. Hist. II.16). This discussion reveals how little we really know about Marcion—we have no writings of his, and even his name may be no more than put-down concocted by his adversaries.

This all leads to a further possibility: that Marcion of Sinope (or of Pontus) may have borne another name in antiquity. And what would have been that other name? Who knows… Maybe it was Paul! The latter, after all, is related to “Marcion” in meaning, for “Paul” means “small” or “humble” in Latin. We recall our prior post that Paul was an improbable phantom. And wasn’t it Marcion who first “discovered” Paul’s letters? Wasn’t Paul the only true apostle as far as Marcion was concerned? Didn’t Paul come from Asia Minor (as did Marcion)? And, most curious of all, why do we not have any mention of “Paul” before the discovery of his letters by (you guessed it) Marcion in mid-II CE? Hoo boy… (Just remember, you read it here first!)

In the next post we will look more closely at the genesis of Marcion’s remarkable and revolutionary gospel.—R.S.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


Part 3—A revolution in the Synoptic Problem — 2 Comments

  1. Marcion’s father was supposed to have been a bishop. We will never know but perhaps Marcion inherited/collected his father’s correspondence.
    Also from Pontus and roughly around the same era, was Aquila of Pontus a gentile who became a Jewish proselyte (accused of obsessing with calendars and other Jewish ‘suerstitions’ etc). He eventually made his own translation of the Hebrew scriptures (before the Masoretic) to replace the unpopular Septuagint and apparently went to Jerusalem to help Hadrian (his brother-in-law) rebuild the city and it’s environs.
    I wonder if Marcion or his father ever had dealings with this guy. Sounds like the kind of pains in the ass who bugged Paul.

    Remember also the very odd story of Aquila and Priscilla in Acts who took Paul into their household before Paul spoke in the synagogue. After his sermon he had to find alternative accommodation yet Priscilla continued to be a follower. Each time this couple are mentioned her name comes before her husband’s. Did Aquila have a serious disagreement with Paul but Acts kept his name alongside his wife’s to cover up a serious rift in the Pauline/Marcion camp.
    Honestly I don’t do drugs!

    • Thanks for your comment. It’s curious to me that Aquila ‘shadows’ Paul and lives in several places where Paul also lived. He is in Rome (Rom 16:3), he is then in Corinth where he and Priscilla (“Prisca” at Rom 6:3 & 1 Cor 16:19) met and housed Paul (Acts 18:2). But at 1 Cor 16:19 A & P are in Ephesus (1 Cor was allegedly written in Ephesus), where they have a “church in their house”–which scholars have interpreted as meaning A & P were wealthy (wealthy tentmakers?).

      None of this makes much sense. Then, too, historical problems associated with Acts quickly surface, as with a generalized expulsion of Jews by Claudius c. 49 CE from Rome, etc.

      I haven’t studied all this carefully, but ISTM that “Aquila” has some parallels with “Timothy.” That A & P would have ‘converted’ Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) is a red flag, for this is something Paul would have done. Then, too, how could Apollos have known “Jesus” while only knowing the “baptism of John”? Could Apollos, in fact, be a cipher for Marcion? (Knowing only ‘the baptism of John’ = not knowing the physical Jesus, only the spiritual Jesus.)

      Welcome to the study of Acts..!–RS

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