Part 3—A revolution in the Synoptic Problem

Note: Six years after writing this post, I concluded that the arch-heretic Marcion did not exist as a historical figure. He was invented by the fledgling Church and used as a proxy for all the pre-Catholic Jesus followers who clung to the ‘Jesus as spirit’ theology (Stage II). See here. This post still contains valuable information and has been amended to conform to my later views.—R.S.

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 untenable.
The culprit is the alleged 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 it’s 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, apparently following the work of Marcion and in reaction to him.

RothIn a separate series of posts (beginning here) I argue that all modern reconstructions of a “gospel” of Marcion as text are flawed—there was no textual “Gospel of Marcion” at all. When applied to Marcion, the word euaggelion/evangelium in the ecclesiastical writings refers broadly to the heretic’s doctrine and tenets (consistent with the most prevalent use of the word in the second century). Thus, modern scholarly methodology has been in error and involves a fundamental misreading of the hostile writings of the Church Fathers. Furthermore, those modern reconstructions yield a frank impossibility: a text that does not reflect Marcion’s own (and known) theology of two gods and of a docetic (spritual) Jesus! Clearly, something very wrong has transpired and endured in Marcionite scholarship.

It may be that, at certain points, the ancient churchmen engaged in some dissembling in order to make it appear that a mere text was being critiqued—however I have found no evidence anywhere that a text by Marcion was ever under scrutiny—not even the so-called Antitheses, which has the most going for it as a written work of Marcion.

In any case, it should be noted that no “gospel” is mentioned (much less attested) before the time of Marcion. For the tradition, this has disturbing 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 (Marcion) preceded orthodoxy. Or, shall we say: orthodoxy is the latecomer and it appears to be the ‘heresy.’

Placing Marcion’s doctrine (“gospel”) before the canonical ones, of course, also has astounding chronological implications: the New Testament gospels (including Mark) must be redated no earlier than the middle decades of the second century CE! It is also not possible that Marcion’s “gospel” (whether text or not) was a textual abridgment of Luke’s gospel, as is commonly held. That sequence cannot obtain if Marcion’s gospel (“doctrine”) came first.

Marcionite priority is actually not a new thesis. But it has been successfully marginalized in scholarship 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.

The 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. [The foregoing doctrines cohere with what I have called ‘Stage II.’—R.S.]

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 theology was the object of astonishing borrowing (as we are learning) yet rabid hatred, of expropriation yet mutilation, of clandestine use yet overt disavowel, of selective co-opting yet complete suppression.

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—in clumsy English translation—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 to me that Harnack was wrong on two counts: Marcion’s “gospel” not only preceded Luke, but it never even existed as a text at all. How things can change!

Marcionite theology and the Gospels

Moll‘Marcion’ believed that Jesus was a divine, entirely spiritual entity separate from a certain fleshly human being in history who had become “possessed,” as it were, by the Jesus (= saving gnosis = “the Savior/Yeshua”)—’Stage II.’

The hero of the Gospel of Mark was born as an ordinary human being. The gospel lacks a birth story and “the spirit” of God comes down into the protagonist at the baptism (Mk 1:10). This view is sometimes termed adoptionism. It is the indwelling spirit (termed the spiritual “twin” [= Thomas] in the Gospel of Thomas, Manichaeism, etc.) that enables the human hero to carry out his subsequent astounding series of miracles. The spirit also graces him with incomparable wisdom (read: secret gnosis). However, it later abandons the protagonist in the Garden of Gethsemane. (I suggest that the enigmatic fleeing young man of Mk 14:52 is symbolic of the fleeing spirit.) Thus it is that Mark’s crucified savior cries out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” All this dovetails perfectly with what we know of the Marcionite outlook and with early Christianity before about mid II CE—that is, before the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John were written, and before the perfected gnostic—the Nazarene—was transformed by the Roman Church into the invented figure, Jesus “of Nazareth.”

What’s in a name?

Majority scholarly opinion has consistently maintained that Mark was the first gospel. When we realize that the Gospel of Mark was written in reaction to the theology of Marcion, then the similarity in names becomes of interest. 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 (read: “theology”) truly did come first, then the tradition would have had no compunction denying this, saying it was a forgery/abridgment, and belittling it: Marcion was a Little (i.e. “inferior”) Mark.

There is also a certain ecclesiastic Mark/Markion who (allegedly) 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). In any case, it seems that all references to the heretic “Marcion” are from hostile Catholic literature. They are, therefore, by definition unreliable.

What I’m getting at in all this is the 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, means “small” or “humble” in Latin—originally perhaps a term of disparagement. 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?

But if an equivalence is drawn between ‘Marcion’ and Paul, and the former did not exist as a historical figure—then perhaps neither did ‘Paul’ (see here).

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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

    • I find Huller’s comments well taken, that Markion could be a genitive plural referring to the collection of ‘Pauline’ epistles. Huller writes: “So too with the understanding that Μαρκίων was a man who appeared under Antoninus. Isn’t more likely that he/it was a collection of writings which came to light under Antoninus Pius[?]” But if Markion was a ‘collection of writings,’ what are we to make of the biographical details handed down by the tradition, that he was a wealthy ship builder, went to Rome, gave money (that was returned), etc? Is all this invented? (Very possible, I suppose.)
           I have proposed (here) that there was no written ‘Gospel of Marcion’ and that ‘euaggelion’ of Marcion referred to a theology (the way “gospel” is sometimes used today as a general reference, e.g., “The conservative gospel is limited government”). My view fits in with Huller’s suspicion in the same post regarding “the so-called ‘antitheses’ as a document written by a man named Marcion in addition to the gospel. Couldn’t the Marcionite gospel have been the antitheses which in turn is Marcion[?]” I have never doubted the existence of the Antitheses as written text. They have been cited by many Church Fathers. To my knowledge, however, there are no actual surviving citations from a ‘gospel’ of Marcion.
           Huller continues: “Justin is the first to make reference to ‘Marcion’ and Justin also happens to deny (or does not make reference to) the Pauline writings.” Hmm…

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