The Hebrew Gospel—Pt. 3

[NOTE: This post (and many others on this website) treats Marcion conventionally as an arch-heretic of the second century.
However, in 2022 I concluded that ‘Marcion’ was a convenient invention of the early Church.—R.S.]

A second pre-synoptic gospel layer

We must now add another source—and another layer—to the ongoing synoptic schema recently investigated on this blog. We recall that Matthias Klinghardt has elaborated a revolutionary schema of synoptic gospel development in his exhaustive 2015 volumes. His conclusions are summarized in graphic form below (left). Klinghardt proposes that the Gospel of Marcion (Mcn) preceded all the synoptic gospels, including that of Mark. For him, then, Mcn is the first pre-synoptic gospel layer (below).

Klinghardt allows a rather generous chronological window to Mcn (90–150 CE). He also leaves the door open to the possibility of one or more gospels having preceded Mcn. Now, in the previous post I observed that a textual Gospel of Marcion probably never existed—we are speaking of a theology attributable to the arch-heretic. (For details, see the series on the Gospel of Marcion on this website, beginning here.) Per the work of J. Edwards, at least one gospel preceded Marcion’s time, namely, the “Hebrew Gospel.” Edwards shows that GHeb was indeed in Hebrew (not Aramaic) and also that it had nothing to do with the Gospel of Matthew. On the other hand, it had definite links with the “special Luke” material.

To the left is M. Klinghardt's schema of synoptic development.Per the work of J. Edwards and others, we can now add the Hebrew Gospel as a precursor to the Gospel of Marcion and also the Gospel of Luke.

LEFT: M. Klinghardt’s schema of synoptic development.
RIGHT: Per the work of J. Edwards and others, we can now add the Hebrew Gospel as a precursor
to both the theology of Marcion and the Gospel of Luke.

The results of these researches are reflected at right in the chart above, where the work of Klinghardt has been combined with the work of Edwards. Note the links between the Hebrew Gospel and Mcn as well as Lk, but no direct links between GHeb and either Mk or Mt. This suggests that Luke had access to material not available to the earlier evangelists Mark and Matthew. It also gives new meaning to the word “many” at the opening of the Gospel of Luke:

     Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…

Jesus: from spirit to flesh

Edwards has demonstrated that the Hebrew Gospel was “Jewish Christian” in character and that it was in some way heretical (at least in the subsequent eyes of the Church). Now, Marcion was not at all partial to things Jewish—neither in theology, scripture, nor praxis. We can surmise, then—based on numerous and scattered statements of the Church Fathers regarding both GHeb and Mcn—that Marcion’s theology was both a development of the Hebrew Gospel and also a reaction against the older Jewish Christian text.

Robert M. Price's groundbreaking 2006 compilation includes Marcion's Apostolikon (Gospel of Marcion, epistles of Paul) in their earliest reconstructed form.

Robert Price’s 2006 compilation includes Marcion’s Apostolikon (Gospel of Marcion, epistles of Paul) with notes.

We have noted on this blog that the christology of Jesus developed from a cosmic spiritual entity (first century CE) to the god-man-savior with which we are familiar: Jesus the Nazarene (second century). From citations in the Church Fathers, we know that Marcion’s Jesus is no longer the cosmic spiritual Christ. The heretic seems to have known the figure, Jesus the Nazarene (not “of Nazareth” yet, however). The possibility starkly emerges that Marcion (or his gospel) may be the single, originating source for the awe-inspiring, colossal, god-man-savior: Jesus the Nazarene.

We can now see, from the work of Edwards, that Marcion used an even older gospel. This was already suspected by some scholars. Robert M. Price has pointed out (The Pre-Nicene New Testament, p. 266) John Knox’s 1942 argument that Marcion used an earlier and shorter version of Luke. The question thus arises: Is Knox’s “Ur-Luke” equivalent to the Hebrew Gospel? We are also, naturally, interested in a second question: Who (or: What text) first brought the figure of Jesus the Nazarene to the world? And thirdly: Did Jesus the Nazarene predate Marcion’ thought?

Until the above questions are answered in some other way, the door is open to the possibility that Marcion himself invented the figure ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’ If this was the case, then the appearance of Marcion in the 140s CE was an earthquake of unparalleled magnitude for the emerging Church, because the heretic may well have brought with him a stunning new conception: a savior-divinity with both Hellenistic and Jewish traits. Now, it is indeed most probable that he also had a written text. What is uncertain, however, is that Marcion’s text (“Gospel”) was written by him. He may merely have brought it to Rome—that is, the first textual account of Jesus the Nazarene was brought by Marcion but may well have predated the heretic. It went by another name: not the “Gospel of Marcion.”

In any case, the astonishment Marcion caused in Rome and elsewhere cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, Marcion also had a great deal of money. The Catholic Church, perhaps in a state of shock, for a time accepted his silver. But after a few years they returned his gift—and they excommunicated Marcion!

Sanitizing the record

Marcion’s (mythical) figure Jesus the Nazarene—and that figure’s absolutely captivating biography—were ‘stolen’ by the Great Church, which quickly elaborated its own series of gospels, sanitizing the story. We can surmise that the Catholics removed many anti-Jewish elements. We need not suspect that they did this out of pure love for the Jews. A self-serving sub-text explains this embrace of the Jewish heritage: the entire creation was at stake! Judaism celebrates the creation. Marcion did not. To side with Marcion and to repudiate the creation as the flawed product of an inferior god would have been to condemn Christianity to a bleak asceticism poorly suited to the masses—that is, to a slow death. Pleasure (and that word’s vast implications) was also at stake, for with the celebration of creation comes the celebration of indulgence in it. Thus, we see that John the Baptist was an ascetic, but Jesus came “eating and drinking.”

The Church not only ‘sanitized’ the story that Marcion brought—it did the same to every text that came into its hands. This would have included the Hebrew Gospel, a text that Edwards shows was known to the evangelist Luke. We can set forth some parameters of ‘sanitizing’ activity carried out by the Church in the second century:

(1) removal of Marcion’s theology of a “foreign” God who is not the creator;
(2) removal of uncompromising asceticism (though “dualist” elements condemning the creation, the body, and the pursuit of pleasure still survive in canonical texts);
(3) transformation of the savior “Jesus” from a cosmic spiritual entity into a unique physical manifestation of God at a precise time in history (the spiritual Jesus –> Jesus of Nazareth);
(4) salvation through attainment of gnosis, becomes salvation through faith in Jesus.

The above are a few general transformations that probably took place. The list is certainly subject to refinement and elaboration, and we will revisit it in future posts, for it has interesting chronological implications. As an example, “faith” in Jesus (number 4) may itself be an indicator of post-100 CE developments. Given our foregoing discussion as well as previous pages on this website, anything pertaining to “Jesus of Nazareth” (or even “Jesus the Nazarene”) would similarly suggest a post-100 CE date. The Pauline epistles, on the other hand, betray the earlier Christology of the cosmic, spiritual Christ.

One inescapable result of these considerations is the realization that Marcion did not bring a uniform corpus with him to Rome in the 140s CE. His thought reflected post-100 CE christology, but the (“Pauline”) epistles reflected an earlier stratum. So, it is probable that Marcion was a ‘collector.’ The earliest material with which he was acquainted (the epistles) may belong to the same stage that we have posited above for the Hebrew Gospel.

Something about that Hebrew Gospel mightily exercised the Church, for not only have no manuscripts survived, but we have seen that considerable effort was made (through renaming) to erase it from history. In the next post we will look (as much as the scanty remains permit) at the content and nature of the Hebrew Gospel.

 Previous          Next 

About René Salm

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


The Hebrew Gospel—Pt. 3 — 2 Comments

  1. That’s less controversial than it looks like. Polycarp et alii claim that Marcion used a truncated Luke. Probably Polycarp created his own “Luke” with his birth narrative added, based on what he believed was the original “Luke”. The “?” in the figure then is an “ur-Luke”. Perhaps then that “ur-Luke” can be reconstructed by removing all “double tradition material” according to Dr. Sloan at his Reconstructing Q site ( section “Coherence of Q”, first paragraph), and then removing material that looks like Acts, probably written by Polycarp.

    • Thanks. I wonder if Mark Goodacre has reacted to Dr. Sloan’s work? Also, we now have Dennis MacDonald’s provocative thesis of Q + Papias, which even Kloppenborg finds worthy of serious consideration. Important as is the question ‘who borrowed from whom?’, my interest is in finally establishing some reliable benchmark datings for these texts. The vast majority of scholars who still hold to I CE datings should apply for jobs pumping gas… 😉 I’m no Synoptic specialist, but the data suggest to me that the 4G were produced rather rapidly in the decade 140–50 CE. This would be compatible with Polycarp’s activities as you suggest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *