Questioning the “Gospel of Marcion”—Pt. 5

The prior posts in this series have alerted us to the dual meanings of “gospel” in antiquity, and also to the argument—apparently broached here for the first time—that Tertullian (the primary ancient witness to Marcion’s “gospel”) never had a text of the arch-heretic in mind at all.

51titA3VLvL._SY344_BO1204203200_In support of this view one can point to the astonishing fact that in all of Tertullian’s five books Against Marcion (AM), one nowhere encounters a clear citation from a text that we could call the “Gospel of Marcion” (see below). This is damning, for it is impossible that the Church Father would critique a text while never offering a quotation from that text! Who critiques a text without repeatedly citing it? After all, such a citation would be very easy to pen: “Marcion writes [such-and-such]…” With the arguable exception of the Antitheses, however (see AM IV.1), Tertullian never communicates that Marcion has written anything. We do not encounter the locution “According to what Marcion writes…” or equivalent language. Instead (over and over!) we encounter statements such as: “The heretic of Pontus introduces two Gods…” (I.2), “how arrogantly do the Marcionites build up their stupid system” (I.8), and so on. Now, “introducing” and “building up” are Tertullian’s opinion. They do not allow us to conclude that Marcion wrote anything. Even less do they allow us to speculate on the wording of such alleged writing by the arch-heretic.

We see from myriad such citations in his Against Marcion that Tertullian is critiquing something far more fundamental and dangerous than a single text. He is in a death combat against nothing less than a subtle and profound “system.” The Church Father is fighting against an entire theology! This helps explain his five massive volumes. It is wrong to suppose (as does modern scholarship) that the Church Father expends so much ink parsing and correcting a single text that he never even quotes.

The high ground of priority

Furthermore—and this must have been particularly galling to the Roman Church—Marcion’s system was first. It predated orthodoxy. We know this from the three stages of christology set out in another post:

               Stage 1: Jesus is the purely abstract gnosis [GThomas]
               Stage 2: the Jesus spirit indwells a saint, producing a spirit imbued prophet [GHeb, GBar, early Pauline epistles]
               Stage 3: Jesus, and he alone, is at once man and God [Canonical gospels]

From reading the several Church Fathers’ attacks on Marcion’s theology (particularly those of Tertullian) it is clear that the arch-heretic’s christology belonged to Stage 2 above. For Marcion, “Jesus” was a spirit that indwells the saint. Like Paul, then, Marcion was a docetist: the saving aspect of the Godhead is not fleshly, but spiritual. Marcion, however, seems to have gone one step further than Paul—he proposed two Gods: one (superior) of the spirit, the other (inferior) of the material creation.

41R8RVy7rBL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_The figure ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ as we have seen, belongs to Stage 3. That figure is late—clearly a second century development. Thus, we see that Marcion’s incisive theology predated that of the Great Church. In this sense, Marcion’s “gospel” indeed predated the canonical gospels (as Vinzent and Klinghardt maintain). The problem, however, is that Marcion’s “gospel” was never the text that modern scholarship has, for over a hundred years, attempted to reconstruct word-for-word and verse-by-verse.

We can now appreciate the massive challenge facing Tertullian. The incipient Roman Church—with its new figure Jesus of Nazareth—had to combat a deep theology that was already on the ground in many places and was well developed. So it is that Tertullian uses the most potent weapons at his disposal: the recently written canonical Gospels with their fabulous new hero and savior, Jesus of Nazareth. Tertullian uses those texts (not only the Gospel of Luke) against Marcion’s whole theology.

In order to combat the priority of Marcion, Tertullian attempts to reverse the order of history. He accuses Marcion of having theologically (not textually!) “mutilated” the Gospel of Luke—thus making Marcion second. At the same time, the Church Father claims that all four canonical gospels came down from the twelve apostles themselves (AM IV.5)—thus, attempting to establish an unbroken chain of authority back to “Jesus of Nazareth” himself. Of course, we know that those apostles were themselves creations of the canonical gospels (as also was Jesus of Nazareth). This is just another circular argument—so typical of Tertullian.

However, knowing that Marcion’s theology was in fact first, we can use Tertullian’s own words against himself: “… a late date is the mark of forgers, and that authority of churches which lends support to the tradition of the apostles; because truth must needs precede the forgery, and proceed straight from those by whom it has been handed on” (AM IV.5). This is correct, but according to Tertullian’s logic it is Marcion’s theology that receives the palm of “truth,” while Tertullian’s theology must be branded “forgery.”

For his rebuttal against Marcion’s theology, Tertullian may have arbitrarily selected the Gospel of Luke because the third gospel was the latest of the synoptics (see AM IV.2). Thus, if the Church Father could convince his readers that Marcion’s theology postdated Luke, then he would also have convinced them that Marcion’s theology postdated the entire synoptic tradition. One of Tertullian’s main goals was to convince readers that ‘Marcion is late. Jesus of Nazareth (as known from the canonical gospels) is early.’

The Antitheses

Tertullian was familiar with the doctrine (he calls it “gospel”) of Marcion principally through the Antitheses, a fairly short “dower” (the word used in the Roberts-Donaldson translation) of Marcion’s theology. The Church Father writes:

Every opinion and the whole scheme the impious and sacrilegious Marcion we now bring to the test of that very gospel [read: doctrine] which, by his process of interpolation [read: mutilation], he has made his own. To encourage a belief of this gospel he has actually devised for it a sort of dower, in a work composed of contrary statements, and compiled with a view to such a severance of the law from the gospel as should divide the deity into two, nay, diverse, gods—one for each instrument, or testament as it is more usual to call it; that by such means he might also patronize belief in “the gospel according to the Antitheses.” (AM IV.1)

marcion-enns1Tertullian here explicitly states that Marcion’s “gospel” is encompassed in the work called Antitheses. By “dower,” then, we should understand a summary of the heretic’s theology/gospel in the form of “contrary statements.” It is probable that Marcion himself communicated his theology in the form of effective, pithy antitheses. Whether he wrote them down, however, is not certain. This task may even have been accomplished by Tertullian himself, who may have penned a list of the heretic’s antitheses as a ready reference for rebuttal. So, we can infer that the Antitheses were definitely a theology and probably also (at some point in time) a written text. They encompassed the “gospel” of Marcion. It becomes clear that the five books Against Marcion penned by Tertullian are essentially against the Antitheses. In this light, the following passage is revealing:

What, if [the Marcionites] have denied that [Marcion] held the primitive faith among ourselves, in the face even of his own letter? What, if they do not acknowledge the letter? They, at any rate, receive his Antitheses; and more than that, they make ostentatious use of them. Proof out of these is enough for me. For if the gospel [read: “doctrine”], said to be Luke’s which is current among us (we shall see whether it be also current with Marcion), is the very one which, as Marcion argues in his Antitheses… (AM IV.4, emphases added.)

Here Tertullian is explicit: the “gospel” that he refutes is “the very one” that Marcion “argues in his Antitheses.” Nothing could be clearer. The Church Father combats the theology found there, particularly the theology of two gods and the theology of the docetic Jesus. He writes: “The principal, and indeed the whole, contention [of Marcion] lies in the point of number: whether two Gods may be admitted…” (AM I.3); “In the first place, how arrogantly do the Marcionites build up their stupid system, bringing forward a new god…” (AM I.8); etc. Many additional citations could be mustered to show that Tertullian is combating a theology, one summarized in the Antitheses (whether written or not) of Marcion.

Docetism               [For more detailed discussion, see NazarethGate 417–18.]

To understand the concept of docetism it is first necessary to understand what was meant by “Jesus.” In the first christological stage noted above, “Jesus” was not identified with materiality, nor with the flesh, nor with any person—“Jesus” was the saving gnosis.

In Stage 2 the saving gnosis indwelled one or more human beings. In this stage, however, “Jesus” was emphatically not the same as the fleshly human vessel(s). “Jesus” was, rather, the saving spiritual entity. According to this christology, flesh/materiality was of no account. When we understand this concept, we can see how pointing at a person and saying “There is [the] Jesus” is not directing the attention to a human being at all, but to the divine element inside that person.

DocetismThere exists a misconception today, one fostered by the malicious Church Fathers of ancient times. It lies at the very root of the word “docetism” (from Gk. dokein, “to seem”). The docetists never thought that Jesus “seemed” to have a body. For the believers in the christological Stage 2, the divine spiritual Jesus was entirely separate from the flesh which, as we have noted, was of no account. Jesus was not a phantom. He was not a spirit walking about without a body. “It” was a spirit using a body to walk about, but separate from that body. We today might call this ‘spirit possession’—but with divine, rather than demonic overtones. This was Marcion’s christology, Paul’s christology and, it would appear, the christology that dominated in the first century CE.

With the foregoing in mind we can understand some of Tertullian’s accusations against Marcion. The Church Father writes that “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius (for such is Marcion’s proposition) [Jesus] ‘came down to the Galilean city of Capernaum'” (AM IV.7). If Tertullian was accurate here regarding Marcion’s views, this means that the heretic held that the divine spirit ( = Jesus) came down from heaven and indwelled a human being, one who lived during the reign of Tiberius and in the town of Capernaum (the hometown of Jesus according to the Gospel of Mark). I have some doubt that the reference to Capernaum and the “reign of Tiberius” actually go back to Marcion—I suspect that Tertullian is imputing elements of the orthodox Jesus story to the heretic. Be that as it may—and putting aside all notions from the later canonical gospels (admittedly difficult for most of us to do)—there is nothing in Marcion’s belief here that limits Jesus to one person, or that identifies “Jesus” with the flesh of any man.

Tertullian is elsewhere more explicit on Marcion’s christology: “Marcion has laid down the position that Christ—who in the days of Tiberius was by a previously unknown god revealed for the salvation of all nations—is a different being from him who was ordained by God the creator…” (AM IV.6). Here Tertullian is simply explaining the Stage 2 christology in Marcionite terms: the “Christ” Jesus was the spiritual entity (come from the unknown god) which indwelled a human being (fashioned by the creator god) “for the salvation of all nations.”

We will see in the next and final post in this series on the “Gospel of Marcion” that Tertullian was engaged not in combating a text, but in a major struggle between christologies: the figure “Jesus of Nazareth” (Stage 3) against the docetic conception of Jesus as a divine spirit indwelling multiple hostile bodies of flesh (Stage 2).

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About René Salm

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


Questioning the “Gospel of Marcion”—Pt. 5 — 5 Comments

  1. You say T never communicates that Marcion wrote anything with “arguable exception of the Antitheses”.

    I think it is more than merely “arguable” that T says M wrote something. In I.19, T seems very clearly to say Marcionites had a document known as the “Anti-theses” or possibly known as “Marcion’s Gospel” (I suppose, though, who wrote it is another matter). Thus:

    “The separation of Law and Gospel is the primary and principal exploit of Marcion. His disciples cannot deny this, which stands at the head of their document, that document by which they are inducted, into and confirmed in this heresy. For such are Marcion’s Anti-theses, or Contrary Oppositions, which are designed to show the conflict and disagreement of the Gospel and the Law, so that from the diversity of principles between those two documents [Gospel/Anti-theses and Law?] they may argue further for a diversity of gods.” Adv Mar I.19

  2. Thanks. I’ve tried to leave open the question of whether the Antitheses was written, and who wrote it. If the citation you furnish (AM I.19) is an accurate translation, it indeed describes a written document—furthermore, one “by which [Marcionites] are inducted” (baptismal?). I find it a bit maddening trying to extract solid evidence from what T writes, given his wide latitude for dissembling and his extreme partisanship. IMO, everything he writes must be treated with caution.

    • Agree, and further, his 5 volume treatise was apparently completed in 207CE, by which date he had already joined with the Montanists–so what benefit would Tertullian have derived, by arguing against Marcion? Why would he publish such a text? Was Tertullian really a believer in Trinitarianism, and also a believer in the superiority of the Paraclete, who Montanus claimed, spoke directly to adherents? Seems to me, that Tertullian must have rejected Trinitarianism, in favor of the ecstasy of Montanus.

      I am puzzled why Hippolytus of Rome, who wrote, in Greek, against both Marcion and Montanism, seems to have not mentioned Tertullian’s compositions on these same two subjects, though Hippolytus (Philosophumena) had written just a decade or two after Tertullian’s death. Did any author cite Tertullian, before Eusebius and his son, Jerome? How do we know, with any conviction, that the entire corpus of Tertullian is not fabricated, whole cloth, decades after his death?

      • According to Stuart Waugh, almost all patristic writings have been manipulated or fabricated after the time of the Decian proscription in the middle of the third century.

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