Those who have read my recent posts, Questioning the “Gospel of Marcion,” are now aware of my considered view that Marcion never actually had a textual “gospel.” As I have freely admitted, this view is “contra the totality of scholarship in the field”—today and for the last hundred years. If true, however, this breathtaking assessment must give us pause. After all, what does it say about modern theological research? How can ostensibly serious professors, highly educated, paid by prestigious institutions of higher learning, authoring scores (actually: hundreds) of books—how can all these ‘scholars’ get their specialty so wrong as to reconstruct, critique, and argue ad infinitum about a “Gospel of Marcion” that never even existed?
In fact, the boondoggle cannot be laid entirely at the feet of modern scholarship. The error goes back to the Church Fathers themselves. When we look at the words of Irenaeus (c. 180 CE), we see that he clearly implies that Marcion wrote a gospel. But, as R. Joseph Hoffman has noted (below), Irenaeus has not seen any such work of Marcion—he does not even know its name!
Following Irenaeus, Tertullian in his five books against Marcion (207–08 CE) continues (and expands) the very erroneous implication that he is refuting a written gospel of Marcion. Yet, Tertullian uniformly cites the familiar gospel of Luke, and he does so as witness against Marcion’s theology (“gospel,” evangelium)—not against any cited heretical text.
The strategem of refuting a strawman “Gospel of Marcion” is greatly expanded by Epiphanius who, in section 42 of his Panarion (374–77 CE), itemizes 78 verbal ideosyncrasies of Marcion’s alleged text (42.11.1 f). Yet Epiphanius is actually adding nothing new to the fund of textual sources—he is merely refining the extensive analysis of his predecessor Tertullian, now sharpening Tertullian’s vague prose and actually extrapolating verbal differences between the putative GMarcion and GLuke. This is also clear from Ephiphanius’ own explanation:
From the very canon that [Marcion] retains, of the Gospel and the Pauline Epistles, I can show with God’s help that Marcion is a fraud and in error, and can refute him very effectively. For he will be refuted from the very works which he acknowledges without dispute.
Now, those “works which he acknowledges without dispute” are none other than the canonical texts—which Marcion allegedly “mutilated.” In what became habitual, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Epiphanius did not refute Marcion from the heretic’s text at all. They used the canonical texts (Irenaeus, Tertullian) to refute the strawman Marcion, and Epiphanius subsequently used what Tertullian wrote to refute Marcion.
It is as if Irenaeus and Tertullian said to Marcion: “You are wrong simply because the Gospel of Luke rebukes you.” Then Epiphanius comes along and says to Marcion: “You are wrong because what Tertullian writes about you rebukes you.”
Unfortunately, modern scholarship has gladly fallen into the elaborate trap laid by the Church Fathers. There never was a textual gospel of Marcion. There was merely a lot of self-justifying words written by a chain of Church Fathers against Marcion.
We may wonder why the Catholic ancients claimed, with such vehemence, that Marcion (“Little Mark”) wrote anything at all? This is a critical question. The only possible explanation for this astonishing state of affairs—one where a strawman heretical gospel is forcefully combated—is that the original pre-Markan gospel was indeed Marcionite! And that fact had to be forcefully hidden—even at risk of extreme measures.
We can infer that an original pre-Markan gospel was “Marcionite” and anti-Catholic. It embraced heterodox elements stemming from Enochian Judaism (cf. the DSS), including a quasi-gnosticism that devalued the flesh, the creation, sexuality, and pleasure. The proto-gospel preached a higher god and ‘liberation’ from the world. It was much earlier than the 140s CE, but was placed in that decade by the Church and attached to the nebulous figure “Marcion.” Furthermore, the arch-heretic’s “Gospel” was accused of being a “mutilation” of the Gospel of Luke—whereas the suspected text (which I consider the proto-Mark “Hebrew” Gospel) must in fact have been the ancestor of GLuke. It may be that Marcion was one of the first notable “Christians” to rebuke the early Jewish Christian community. As he has been depicted, the heretic seems to have repudiated Jewish praxis and the various OT covenants defining the Jews as God’s chosen people. Marcion, then, functioned as an intermediary between the earlier Jewish Christianity and the later Catholic Christianity.
Though Marcion (as depicted by the Church) was not Jewish Christian, his Christology shared with Jewish Christianity the views that “Christ” was strictly spiritual and that God never became flesh (what I have termed “Stage 2” Christology).
We must speak of Marcion with caution, however, because all that we know of the figure has been gleaned from the hostile pens of the Church. In the next post I will even call the existence of the arch-heretic into question. In any case, the Church got a lot of mileage out of Marcion and may have imputed to him (for convenience) whatever doctrines it most wished to destroy. By refuting the heretic’s (now clearly) mythical works the Church was repeatedly able to underline elements of the true faith. “Marcion” was a very useful tool. Perhaps that was the whole point—one first cogitated, it would seem, by Irenaeus.
R. Joseph Hoffmann’s 1984 book on Marcion confirms, if nothing else, how very little we know of the heretic. Below, I furnish an extended citation from Hoffmann’s book—minus the many Latin quotes. Hoffmann reviews the astonishing lack of primary source material on Marcion—ironically while himself contributing yet another 300+ page book to the heretic about whom we know so little.
After Hoffmann’s extensive citation, at the bottom of this post I offer some final comments.
6.2 Access to Marcion’s Theology
[From R. Hoffmann, Marcion, On the Restitution of Christianity: An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century
Chico: Scholar’s Press, 1984, pp. 190–93. Bold type has been added.]
What Marcion thought of the Creator has been the subject of considerable controversy. The confusion arises over apparently contradictory reports in the writings of the fathers, and even within the works of individual fathers.
This inconsistency, in turn, raises as many question about the extent of the patristic knowledge of Marcion’s teaching as about the teaching itself. Irenaeus, the first to offer extensive information about Marcion’s doctrine, does not claim to base his description on the texts considered sacred by the Marcionites, themselves. Indeed, Irenaeus shows no sign of knowing the name of Marcion’s theological treatise, and though he purposes “specially to refute him… out of his own writings… [and] the discourses of the Lord and Apostles which are of authority with him,” he does not claim to have had access to these writings while composing his general work against the heretics. [Tertullian also did not have access to any of Marcion’s writings (see bold type below).—R.S.]
Similarly, it cannot be assumed that Tertullian, for all his extravagance in refuting Marcion’s errors, possessed more than second-hand knowledge of his doctrines. His ‘statements’ are frequently suppositional… or inferential… conditional… or merely interrogative… Only at peril does one transform Tertullian’s interlocution into a marcionite ‘system’: and the number of antitheses and editorial emendations to the gospel that can be assigned with any confidence to Marcion is much smaller than Harnack imagined. Nor is Tertullian especially secretive about his method. In the midst of the crucial discussion of Marcion’s ditheism in relation to 2 Cor 1–4, he cuts short his explanation of Paul’s use of the phrase Ho Theos tous aiónos “in order to prevent it from being of advantage to my opponent—satisfied to have won my case: I am even in a position entirely to bypass this argument.”
But the extent of Tertullian’s direct knowledge of Marcion’s writings is not only called into question by rhetorical evidence—the discursive, inquisitorial, and often conjectural nature of the polemic; the tendency to sidestep questions, and to reduce the opponent’s argument to rubble on spurious textual grounds. It is also doubtful on the basis of Tertullian’s own comment at the beginning of Book I. There, he claims to have produced a “first edition” of the text too hurriedly, and that a revised edition was “stolen” from him by an apostate (AM 1.1.1). The literary sources for the third edition, therefore, are the first and second. Tertullian does not mention having had access to Marcion’s writings at any stage in the revision, and the quantity of authentically marcionite doctrine that can be distilled from his books is not significantly greater than that contained in Irenaeus’ scattered references. In most respects, [Tertullian’s] adversus Marcionem suggest an enlargement and elaboration of Irenaeus’ material. Tertullian derives from Irenaeus, for example, the idea that the goodness of the alien God is defective if it is neither revealed in judgement nor effective in saving all… This literary dependence on Irenaeus extends to other matters of substance as well…
Tertullian, however, made more extensive use of a second source, now lost to us, which reproduced in some detail the substance of Marcion’s evangelion and apostolikon. As he uses Justin’s Dialogue in Book III, here is reason to suppose that Justin’s longer work on Marcion was one of his sources in Books I and II. That Tertullian had access to the Antitheses, or to any other of the ‘writings’ mentioned by Irenaeus, is only a dim possibility.
In approaching Marcion’s theology, therefore, one must acknowledge (a) that the most detailed sources available for reconstructing his thought are based not on a first-hand knowledge of his writings, but on a variety of reports, all of them polemical and all, including the earliest [i.e., by Justin—R.S.], retrospective; (b) that the sources do not supply the wherewithal for retrieving the entirety of Marcion’s theology, but rather supply hints as to its general structure and the themes that inform it; (c) that the later polemic against Marcion deserves little of the historical credit that has commonly been given it, reflecting in the main a later stratum of marcionite belief or an elaboration of earlier anti-marcionite polemic.
Comment. From the above, we learn that both Irenaeus nor Tertullian—the two most ‘informative’ Church Fathers regarding Marcion—did not know any of the heretic’s writings first hand. Indeed, it is now clear to me that no textual gospel of Marcion ever existed (see my recent series on Marcion). It is also most probable that no other writings of the heretic existed. After all, Hoffmann writes above: “That Tertullian had access to the Antitheses, or to any other of the ‘writings’ mentioned by Irenaeus, is only a dim possibility.” Now, Tertullian penned no less than five books Against Marcion. An incredible fact thus emerges: the Church Fathers wrote countless pages against a heretic whose writings were actually unknown to them! This reveals the mind games being played by the “Fathers of the Church” in their efforts to consolidate and extend the Christian religion. In Marcion’s case, the churchmen were rebutting a strawman. They created an easy target for rebuttal, one whose demolition underscored the veracity of the canonical gospels (particularly that of Luke).
A reading of Tertullian’s prolix diatribe Against Marcion bears this out. Over and over, he critiques Marcion—but Tertullian never actually points to a text of Marcion. On the other hand, he cites the Gospel of Luke ad nauseam and uses it to disprove Marcion—while also claiming that Luke was first!
But by the time Irenaeus and Tertullian were writing (late second century) Marcion had died. These Church Fathers apparently felt free to impute to him whatever evils and lapses of logic they desired. Epiphanius is perhaps even more deceitful: he affirms explicitly that his “collection of brief memoranda on my subject [are] taken from authentic copies of Marcion in the form of notes” (Panarion 42.11.15). The evidence, however, doesn’t indicate that Epiphanius was using Marcion. It indicates that he was using Tertullian!
It appears that Marcion served as a catalyst to further the faith. He indeed existed, and his theology (as depicted) was most dangerous. We can infer that Marcion essentially represented what I have termed “Stage 2 christology”: belief in the spiritual Jesus and—the corollary—belief that the material creation is essentially evil and, hence, that God is foreign, transcendent, and “other.” However, Irenaeus and Tertullian were not merely interesting in combating this heresy. They argued in extenso against it in order to demonstrate two other and very pressing goals: that the canonical gospels were early (in this case, earlier than Marcion), and that the twelve apostles were the repository of the truth handed down in unbroken lineage from Jesus of Nazareth, as depicted in those same canonical gospels. These were the goals that Irenaeus and Tertullian wished to accomplish. They simply used Marcion for convenience—and the heretic was indeed extremely useful to them.
As noted in another post, the defining religious combat of the second century was the combat of christologies: the Church’s Stage 3 (“Jesus of Nazareth”) against the older Stage 2 (Jesus as spirit). Marcion may have been the quintessential representative of that older—and more authentic—christology. Marcion also has always been linked with Paul—the heretic’s hero. For Paul, too, Jesus was spiritual and accessible through revelation (cf. Gal 1:11–12; discussion at NazarethGate pp. 408–11).
In closing, I find it curious that both Marcion and Paul bear names that are diminutives. “Marcion” means Little Mark. “Paul” means little. Is this purely a coincidence?—R.S.