Why was the early Christian Church so in love with the Old Testament as to adopt it as sacred scripture? There was one man who warned them against it...
By Richard Edmondson
He was a native of Sinope, a predominantly Greek city and important commercial center on the south shore of the Black Sea. He lived roughly 85-160 AD, and during his lifetime he founded a church that grew astronomically in prominence, that had a powerful influence on the development of early Christianity, and which for several centuries would end up rivaling the Catholic Church. His name was Marcion. And it is worthwhile to ponder just how the world would be different today had the Marcionite Church, rather than the Catholic Church, prevailed and become the dominant strain of Christianity. For one thing, we can conjecture almost assuredly the state of Israel would never have been founded in 1948.
Marcion, you see, was deeply opposed to what he referred to as the “Judaizers” in the early Christian Church, and he advocated a Christian Bible wholly devoid of any part of the Old Testament, consisting solely of the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul. With amazing prescience, he seems to have instinctively realized the pitfalls that awaited the new faith should it try to reconcile and balance the vengeful God of the Old Testament with the God of love and compassion taught by Christ—pitfalls which indeed managed to trip the church at various times through the centuries, but which became so manifestly egregious in the latter half of the twentieth century that today we find Christianity swamped in a sea of irrelevance, unsure of what it even stands for, with people leaving the faith in droves.
And when you really, truly stop to think about it, the contradictions are so obvious they would seem all but insurmountable: the Christian God versus the Jewish God; a God of love versus one of wrath and vengeance; a God whose embrace of humanity is universal versus a partial and highly selective God who favors one people above all others. These are aberrations we hardly question today, but we have to remember that back in the second century things were very different. There was no such thing as an established “orthodox” wing of Christianity. What was “orthodox” and what was “heterodox” were still very much up in the air. Many people could not, and would not, adopt such incongruities in their views of God, and these were the people who flocked to Marcion’s churches—by the thousands, possibly even the millions.
Modern scholarship of the early Christian era is tainted to a certain extent by what has been referred to as “post holocaust biblical scholarship.” This is reflected in the fact that scholars today have a tendency to view Marcion as an “anti-Semite.” However, the prevailing view of him by scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was quite different. In this essay I will rely in the main on two sources: Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, by Adolf Harnack, and Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, by Bart D. Ehrman.
Born in 1851, Harnack was a German scholar, who taught at several universities, including the University of Berlin. His book on Marcion, published in 1920, remains a classic today, and is even cited by Ehrman (who does not quote from it directly, but who does reference it in a footnote). The latter is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina who himself has authored a number of books on Christianity and is considered one of the leading New Testament scholars today. Ehrman does not specifically use the word “anti-Semite”, but he does describe the Marcionite Church as “anti-Jewish,” and he asserts that Marcion himself “seems to have hated Jews and everything Jewish.” Harnack, for his own part, indeed acknowledges that Marcion waged a lifelong struggle against “pseudoapostoli et Judaici evangelizatores” [“false apostles and Jewish evangelists”], but this was because the doctrine they propounded, in Marcion’s view, “considered (Jewish) law and gospel as a unity and thus denied the essence of the gospel. Where separation was essential it had bound things together!”
Moreover, says Harnack, Marcion took up “the work and the struggle of Paul,” who had “abolished the validity of the Old Testament law”—Marcion, as a result, saw in Christ alone “the face of the gracious God,” knowing himself “inseparably bound to this God of goodness and mercy in faith and love.” But this God of goodness, it needs to be repeatedly emphasized, assuredly was not the Old Testament God; that God Marcion rejected outright.
In this essay, I will focus not only on Marcion, his beliefs, and the church he founded, but will also try and provide a comparative study of Marcion’s treatment by the two scholars in question, the one of the past, the other of the present.
Marcion’s Basic Beliefs: Two Gods
To the modern Western mind, the idea that there might be two Gods, as opposed to just one, and that large numbers of people could actually entertain and embrace such a view, probably sounds a bit bizarre. But again, this was the second century—a time when Greeks and Romans were worshipping multiple Gods, and the notion of two Gods was no more difficult to accept then than the idea of no God at all would be today. At any rate, this is the most fundamental aspect of Marcion’s belief system you have to understand: that there were two Gods moving and shaping events to one degree or another. One was a punitive, petty, and cruel God, who presided over a corrupt world. This was the God of the Old Testament, referred to by Marcionites as the “Creator God” (but his “creation” was a world far from perfect in their view). The other God Marcion saw as a redeemer, a God of love, mercy, truth, and compassion. This was the God of Christ. Marcion referred to him as the “Alien God”—“alien” in the sense that prior to Christ’s appearance on earth he had been unknown to humanity.
One of Jesus’ sayings Marcion seems especially to have zeroed in on was his teaching about the two trees and their respective fruits. Harnack puts it this way:
When he (Jesus) spoke of the two trees, the corrupt and the good, which are able to produce only such fruits as are given by their very nature, he can mean thereby only the two great divine authors, the Old Testament God, who creates nothing but bad and worthless things, and the Father of Jesus Christ, who produces exclusively what is good. When he forbids the placing of a new patch on an old garment and the pouring of new wine into old wineskins, he thereby strictly forbids his people in any way to connect his preaching with that of the Old Testament. (1)
Marcion viewed the Old Testament God not only as cruel, petty, and unmerciful, but also as the ‘conditor malorum,’ the author of evil, the one who incites wars, is deceitful in his promises, and is wicked in his deeds.” (2) Something about this obviously—given the Marcionite Church’s phenomenal success—resonated with large numbers of people at the time. You have to wonder why.
At any rate, the Old Testament, while parts of it may be worth reading, had to be wholly abandoned as sacred scripture. But since most of what was then “Christendom” equated the God of the Old Testament with the God of Jesus, the Christian faith suffered from a rather serious problem: it had become “Judaistic” almost to its core in the years since Christ. Marcion set about to change things. He founded a church—and he produced two great literary works. One of these was called Antitheses. No copy of it still exists today. But it was quoted by a number of early writers, such as Tertullian, whose works we do still have today. Here is how Antitheses is viewed by Ehrman:
Some of the book may well have consisted of direct and pointed antithetical statements contrasting the two Gods. For example, the God of the Old Testament tells the people of Israel to enter into the city of Jericho and murder every man, woman, child, and animal in the city (Joshua 6); but the God of Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, to pray for those who persecute them, to turn the other cheek (Luke 6:27-29). Is this the same God? When Elisha, the prophet of the Old Testament God, was being mocked by a group of young boys, God allowed him to call out two she-bears to attack and maul them (2 Kings 2:23-24). The God of Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me” (Luke 18:15-17). Is this the same God? (3)
In other words, the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus were not merely separate deities, they were deities who were, at least to a substantial degree, antithetical to one another.
Marcion’s other great literary endeavor was not a work of his own composition, but rather a canon of other works—those he regarded as sacred and divinely inspired. And here it needs to be mentioned that Marcion is given credit for being the first Christian to put forth a New Testament canon. To be sure, it was not the same canon that would later be officially adopted by the Catholic Church; it consisted solely of the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul. But it is testimony to his influence upon early Christianity that his enemies took his ideas and built upon them—and yes, Marcion did have enemies. He was branded very much a “heretic” by those who made up what later came to be the “orthodox” wing of the church.
Another thing about the Marcion canon that very much needs to be kept in mind: Marcion totally rejected the assertion that Christ had in any way come to fulfill the law and the prophets. These and other similar claims found in the gospels were corruptions, he believed, added later by the Judaizers within the church. Likewise, he felt that certain passages within the letters of Paul had probably undergone similar treatment. Thus, he not only viewed himself as a critic, but also as a “restorer,” as Harnack describes it. In other words, his canon became what could almost be thought of as a whole new Bible, consisting of Pauline letters and a Gospel of Luke which had undergone revisions, emendations in which Marcion rendered them into what he believed were, or must have been, their original states—something seized upon by his critics, who denounced his refinements as nothing more than “adulterations.” For the church-going public it didn’t seem to matter. They flocked to Marcion’s banner by multitudes, which drove the critics into further fits of apoplexy. Early Christian apologist Justin Martyr, a contemporary of Marcion’s, complained that the heretic’s teachings were spreading to “many people of every nation.” (First Apology 26)
A couple of other things need to be said about Marcion’s basic beliefs: first that he was a Docetist, which has led some scholars to lump him in with the Gnostics, some of whom did indeed subscribe to Docetism. So what is Docetism? It is the view that Christ did not have a real, material body, and that he only appeared to be human. Human flesh, created as it was by the Creator God, was inherently unclean, something even the Creator God himself had come to recognize, or as Harnack puts it, “Even in the mind of his originator man is a spoiled creation, a monster.” For Marcion, this could not, in any way, describe Jesus.
The other thing that needs to be understood is Marcion’s devotion to the Apostle Paul. While Christ did indeed pick the original twelve disciples, they had failed to understand his true message. Why? In large part because they were followers of the Jewish God—a factor which hampered their ability to grasp Jesus’s true teachings. With the resurrection they finally seemed to have “gotten it,” and for a while indeed appeared set upon a trustworthy path, but in time their “Jewish identity” (as we might refer to it today) reasserted itself and they began to compromise on questions such as adherence to Jewish law. Thus, lest they botch things completely, Paul had to be specially called. His mission? To refute Jewish law and the Judaizers within the church.
Marcion’s Life and Times
Marcion’s hometown, Sinope, was on the shore of the Black Sea in what was then the province of Pontus. We know for a fact there were Jewish communities there at the time. Aquila, the protégé of Paul mentioned in Acts 18:2, was born in Pontus, while another Jew, coincidentally of the same name and known to have translated the Old Testament into Greek, was not only a native of Sinope but was in fact Marcion’s contemporary. This is mentioned by Harnack, who comments, “It is remarkable that from this city there emerged simultaneously the sharpest adversary of Judaism and the most scrupulous translator of the Jewish sacred scriptures.” (4)
In Pontus also was a strong Christian community, and apparently Marcion’s own father was a bishop in the early church. This would certainly explain Marcion’s extensive knowledge of the Old Testament. But Marcion and his father seem to have had a falling out, presumably over Marcion’s views of the Old Testament, and after leaving his father’s home, Marcion journeyed to Asia Minor, where he managed to acquire considerable wealth—apparently as a ship owner.
To understand anyone’s life, of course, requires an historical knowledge of the time in which they lived. The three major Jewish revolts against Rome probably had a great deal to do with shaping Marcion’s view of the world. The second and third revolts took place during his lifetime, while the first transpired to completion in the decade before he was born. Most likely even as a child, and certainly later as a young adult, he would have heard talk of these revolts. He would have listened as people expressed the opinion, for instance, that Jews are violent, that they hate non-Jews, and that they seem to feel entitled to disregard all laws other than their own. These are views that would most especially have been in vogue after the second revolt, which broke out when Marcion was approximately 30 years old.
The second Jewish revolt against Rome, also known as the Kitos War, took place in the years 115-117, and it seems to have been especially bloody. The revolt started in Cyrenaica, particularly its capital Cyrene, and from there spread to Alexandria, then to the island of Cyprus, and finally, in its latter stages, to Palestine. Accounts of it are available at Wikipedia and also at Historum. Both articles are sympathetic to the Jews (the Wikipedia account perhaps more so), but both make clear that Jews committed widespread atrocities, and both reference the writing of the Roman historian Dio Cassius (150-235 AD), who penned the following grisly and graphic (and perhaps somewhat sensational) account:
Meanwhile the Jews in the region of Cyrene had put one Andreas at their head and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would cook their flesh, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood, and wear their skins for clothing. Many they sawed in two, from the head downwards. Others they would give to wild beasts and force still others to fight as gladiators. In all, consequently, two hundred and twenty thousand perished. In Egypt, also, they performed many similar deeds, and in Cyprus under the leadership of Artemio. There, likewise, two hundred and forty thousand perished. For this reason no Jew may set foot in that land, but even if one of them is driven upon the island by force of the wind, he is put to death. Various persons took part in subduing these Jews, one being Lusius, who was sent by Trajan. (5)
The Andreas mentioned by Dio Cassius was known also as “Lukuas,” and during the war he seems to have anointed himself with the title “King of the Jews,” probably in a bid to pass himself off as the Jewish Messiah (a tactic later used by bar Kokhba, the leader of the third revolt). “Lukuas definitely appears to have been grinding an axe of a religious nature—he is credited with destroying the temples and cult buildings of every Graeco-Roman god worshipped in Cyrene,” says the Historum article. “For good measure, Lukuas’ followers also destroyed Roman government buildings and burnt down the Roman bath houses of the city, apparently viewing these as symbols of government oppression and gentile influence, respectively.” We are also told that from Cyrene, Lukuas and his followers pressed on to Alexandria where the result was “an orgy of bloodshed and arson similar to that which had taken place in Cyrene.”
Given that the revolt transpired in multiple locations (in addition to Cyrene, Alexandria, and Cyprus, violent rebellions also broke out in the Jewish population of Mesopotamia), this bloody uprising launched by Jews would have been widely talked about almost literally in every province of the empire, virtually everywhere, and most likely it had a profound impact on Marcion’s thinking. Perhaps now we may better understand how he came to view the Creator God as “the ‘conditor malorum,’ the author of evil, the one who incites wars, is deceitful in his promises, and is wicked in his deeds.” But more was to come.
The third Jewish revolt against Rome took place in Palestine in the years 132-136, led by Simeon bar Kokhba (also spelled Koseba, Kosiba, or Kochba), who also claimed to be the messiah. History buffs will of course remember that Jerusalem had been razed and the Jewish temple destroyed back in 70 AD, during the first Jewish revolt. In the intervening years, the city had remained pretty much in ruins, a status quo which continued through the Kitos War and even beyond. However after visiting Judea in 130, the Emperor Hadrian undertook to rebuild Jerusalem. He seems initially to have promised, or at least hinted, that Jews might be given permission to reconstruct their temple, but apparently decided on second thought that it might not be such a wise idea after all. A temple to Jupiter was built instead. Also large numbers of non-Jews began settling in the newly rebuilt city, and it seems a law against circumcision, or at any rate against circumcising babies, may have been passed as well.
Bar Kokhba and his followers launched their revolt in 132, establishing hideouts around the country, including a fortress at Betar (a village in the Judean highlands whose name would later be adopted by Zionists of the Jabotinsky movement in the twentieth century). Dio Cassius’ account of the war can be found here and includes the following:
At first, the Romans took no account of them. Soon, however, all Judaea had been stirred up, and the Jews everywhere were showing signs of disturbance, were gathering together, and giving evidence of great hostility to the Romans, partly by secret and partly by overt acts. Many outside nations, too, were joining them through eagerness for gain, and the whole earth, one might almost say, was being stirred up over the matter.
One group of people who did not join Bar Kokhba were the Christians. This was addressed by a number of early writers, including Justin Martyr, who, though no fan of Marcion, offers an especially interesting comment about the war in his First Apology: “For in the Jewish war which lately raged, Barchochebas, the leader of the revolt of the Jews, gave orders that Christians alone should be led to cruel punishments, unless they would deny Jesus Christ and utter blasphemy.”
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “The war became so serious that in the summer of 134 Hadrian himself came from Rome to visit the battlefield and summoned the governor of Britain, Gaius Julius Severus, to his aid with 35,000 men of the Xth Legion.” The revolt was finally crushed in 136. According to Dio Cassius, 580,000 Jews were killed, as were many Romans. Fifty towns and 985 villages were destroyed. The Bar Kokhba revolt, keep in mind, was the third Jewish rebellion in 70 years, and by this time the Romans had apparently had enough: Judea was renamed Syria Palaestina, while Jewish law and the Hebrew calendar were annulled. Jews themselves were banned from entering Jerusalem (now renamed Aelia Capitolina) other than one day of the year.
For Christians who still, in spite of all this, clung to the Old Testament, contradictions quite naturally abounded. Marcion “saw the main body of Christendom around him in an internal struggle in which all seemed to be lost,” and initially he set out to change the church from within. That is to say, he went to Rome, where he met with church leaders and expressed his view that Christ had abolished the Old Testament and its God (6).
Because of historical records we know exactly what years Marcion was in Rome. He arrived in 139—three years after the Bar Kokhba revolt. Joining the Christian community there, he made a substantial donation of 200,000 sesterces, and remained in the city until the year 144. It was a five-year period in which he most likely produced his great work, the Antitheses.
Toward the end of his sojourn in Rome, Marcion requested a hearing before the church presbyters. It took place in July 144 and became the first Roman church council on record. But the church elders appear to have been totally unreceptive to his views. The council “ended with a sharp rejection of the unprecedented teaching,” the return of the 200,000 sesterces, and Marcion’s expulsion from the church. Harnack mentions that even though he departed Rome with what almost certainly was “a heavy heart,” nothing like rancor can be found in Marcion’s writings. “Even for the period after his break with the great church it is characteristic that not a single abusive or angry word about the church and its members is handed down to us.” (7) Needless to say, this charitable act of diplomacy was not returned in kind.
Leaving Rome in the year 144, Marcion returned to Asia Minor where he founded his new church. This seems to have occurred in a remarkably brief amount of time. In fact, later Marcionites would put the founding of their church as occurring exactly 115 years and six months after the death of Christ. In any event, Marcionism and the Marcionite Church became phenomenally successful, a fact which can be gauged by the number of early writers who wrote polemical treatises opposing the movement. Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Hyppolytus, Origen, and others all denounced Marcion in writing. In fact, there was, as Harnack puts it, “an abundance of counterliterature composed everywhere.” Particularly was this true between the years 150 and 200, yet in this same period the church “spread throughout all the provinces of the empire,” Harnack reports.
Harnack’s Study on Marcion
Harnack’s study on Marcion is not without criticisms of its subject, though it is far more sympathetic than Ehrman’s. So let us take a look now at Marcion through the prism of Harnack’s monumental work. Perhaps the most obvious place to start would be the early Christian leader’s view of the two Gods as expressed through his book, Antitheses, a work which Harnack feels was intended to be a bedrock for the Marcionite community, and indeed its “creedal book.”
A reconstruction of Antitheses is not possible, the author informs us, in part because “not even the arrangement of the work is clear,” but a number of things can nonetheless be determined or gleaned based upon quotes from it found in the works of other early writers. For instance, we can safely deduce Marcion’s purpose in writing it was to “demonstrate the irreconcilability of the Old Testament with the gospel,” along with the latter’s origin from a different God. (8). We also know its opening lines: “O wonder beyond wonders, rapture, power, and amazement is it, that one can say nothing at all about the gospel, nor even conceive of it, nor compare it with anything.” Moreover there seems to have been a special emphasis on one word in particular—“new.” We can find references to “new God,” “new deity,” “the new kingdom,” “new and unheard of kingdom,” “new master and proprietor of the elements,” “novel doctrines of the new Christ,” “new works of Christ,” “new miracle,” and so on.
Harnack also proposes a series of sample antithetical statements that possibly or most likely were included in the work. Here are a few:
* Joshua conquered the land with violence and cruelty, but Christ forbade all violence and preached mercy and peace.
* Upon the exodus from Egypt the Creator-God gave Moses the charge, “Be ready, girded, shod, staff in hand, sacks on shoulders, and carry away with you gold and silver and all that belongs to the Egyptians.” But our Lord, the Good One, upon sending the disciples out into the world, said to them, “Have no shoes on your feet, no sack, no change of garments, no money in your purses!”
* The prophet of the Creator-God, when the people were locked in battle, climbed to the top of the mountain and stretched forth his hands to God, that he might kill as many as possible in the battle; our Lord, the Good, stretched forth his hands (to wit, on the cross) not to kill men but to save them.
* In the law it is said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” but the Lord, the Good, says in the gospel, “If anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.”
* Maledictio characterizes the law, and benedictio characterizes faith (the gospel)
* The creator of the world commands us to give to our brothers, but Christ simply says to give to all who ask. (9)
Marcion saw the Creator God as vengeful, wrathful and unmerciful, but perhaps most significantly of all he viewed him as ignorant. For instance, he had not known where to find Adam in the Garden of Eden, and had found it necessary to ask Adam whether he had eaten from the forbidden fruit. But even worse was his ignorance of the Alien God.
The utter ignorance of the World-Creator about the other God is the worst aspect of all his ignorance; it shows him to be inferior in the most extreme degree. But since, because he does not know the other God even the sphere and the nature of that God are incomprehensible to him, true goodness is also completely closed to him. It is true that he too has “goodness”, indeed is himself “good” [Marcion thought Jewish law had some just aspects to it, and gave the Creator God credit for that—ed.]; but this is a kind of goodness that, when measured by genuine goodness, actually does not even deserve this name. (10)
And be assured, this ignorance has its dark implications.
Marcion had darkened the picture of the World-Creator afforded by the Old Testament by defining, according to his own whim, in various passages the character of the creator of the world in terms of the character of the world. The wisdom of the creator of the world coincides with the wisdom of the world! Thus how contemptible is the wisdom of the creator of the world! God is the world, and the world is God—not in the pantheistic sense but in the ethical; each is the mirror of the other. (11)
Marcion saw the Creator God as possessed of a number of other qualities as well. These included his “evil partialities, pettinesses, and limitations; and finally his weakness and self-contradictions, his unprincipled whims, and his precepts and commandments which were so often ethically doubtful.”
By contrast, the Alien God is sublime, above every principality and power, a God of true goodness, who favors no one people over another.
By virtue of this goodness, this God is “blessedness and incorruptibility” which “brings no trouble upon itself or upon anything else” (Tertullian I 25); he is merciful love. But this God is so utterly and completely goodness alone, that is, love…that no other qualities are to be expressed concerning him, or that his other qualities form a unity with love. He is spirit, but “beneficient Spirit” (Tertulian I 19); he is “tranquil,” “mild,” “placid”; he simply does not become angry, does not judge, does not condemn. He is also “just,” but the justice in him is the justice of love. He is “wise,” and so on, but he is all of this because he is love, which as such incorporates all these qualities. For just this reason, however, there can be no work for this God other than self-revelation, and this in turn can be nothing other than redemption…
But because the good God intended to redeem sinners, he brought his redemption to the whole of humanity; for they are all sinners. He knows no partiality for one people but brings a universal redemption. However, he also recognized that along with the world and its creator it is the law from which mankind must be redeemed; but because it is the law, it is also the lawgiver, for the two belong together. The law is the power of sin. The law has intensified the comfortless state of mankind. The law is a fearful burden. The law has made the “righteous” slavish, fearful, and incapable of the truly good. Thus it must be taken away, along with the entire book in which it is contained. The good God came in order to dissolve the law and the prophets, not to fulfill them. He does this by means of the gospel, in order to redeem souls. (12)
So there are two Gods, then, who in many respects are the “antithesis” of each other. But an important distinction to make is that Marcion did not regard the Old Testament God as the devil, or as pure evil. Rather he is simply the God of the law, and Marcion viewed the law, keep in mind, as not without some positive aspects, including a limited measure of justice. To be sure, the God who gave this law is petty, fickle, impatient, jealous, and warlike. However, Harnack also points out that “iustitia, in the sense of formal justice (‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’) and in judicial practice, and miserable pettiness are the basic characteristics of the Creator-God, but wickedness is not.” (13)
But even if not wicked or wholly evil, this God does show malice in the following ways (emphases added):
1) In the creation of men, in that he formed man weak, helpless, and mortal and allowed him to be tempted; and it is also show in the fact that he even tolerates sin, death, and the devil (who indeed is his creature) as well as every kind of evil:
2) In the numerous punitive ills that he inflicts, in the disproportion of punishment to guilt, and in the sending of ills in general;
3) In the numerous examples of harshness, cruelty, warlike rage, bloodthirstiness, and so on;
4) In his practice of punishing the children for the sins of the fathers and allowing the innocent to suffer for the guilty;
5) In the hardening of the heart that he inflicts upon the obstinate;
6) In the jealousy with which he kept the first men from the tree of life;
7) In the partiality with which he favors those who worship him, even if they are wicked, allowing or even encouraging them in injustice, deception, plunder, and acts of violence of all kinds against his adversaries. (14)
Marcion died about 160, and despite all the official orthodox opposition—first against him, then against his church—it seems he did have a lasting impact upon the faith insofar as he managed to push Christianity in a certain direction:
Previously there had been a burning danger that the Old Testament would be explained, in part literally, in part allegorically, as the Christians’ basic document and that it would be recognized and the church would be satisfied with it. Now, to be sure, this danger still was not entirely eliminated and a satisfactory clarity had not yet been achieved, but the conviction that in the Old Testament “the ore still lies in the ground” and that it is the submission to servitude over against the New Testament’s submission to freedom gained a place and recognition for itself…
Marcion wanted to free Christianity from the Old Testament, but the church preserved it. He did not forbid his followers to pick up the book but even recognized that it contained material that was useful for reading. But he saw in it a spirit different from that of the gospel, and he wanted nothing to do with two different spirits in religion. Was he right or was the church, which did not detach itself from the book, right? The question must be posed, for we are confronted not by some theologian without following or influence but by the man who established the New Testament and created a great church that flourished for centuries. He may rightly lay claim to the honor of deserving to be taken seriously even today. There is not yet universal recognition of that philosophy of history that does justice in all circumstances to what has happened. (15)
Finally, Harnack goes on to conclude:
The Old Testament brought Christianity into tragic conflict; it was not to be resolved, in the second century and beyond that time, as Marcion would resolve it but rather as the church resolved it. From the close of the second century onward the church managed to cope with this problem and eliminated at least some of the oppressive difficulties and the sophisms with which people had been blinding themselves. Now it was permissible to distinguish levels and to place the Old Testament on the lower level; of course, this distinction continued to be threatened for—this seemed self-evident—there can be only one inspiration and only one law of truth that is established by that inspiration. (16)
Ehrman’s Presentation of Marcion
As previously stated, Ehrman, the contemporary scholar, sees Marcion as a Jew hater. Moreover, the view of the Old Testament God as a God of wrath Ehrman seems to regard as mere “notion,” rather than actual fact. He writes:
On the other hand, orthodox Christianity shared with (or borrowed from) the Marcionites the sense of the newness of God’s revelation in Christ; they accepted the idea of a closed canon of Scripture, the primacy of the literal interpretation of the text, and an emphasis on Jesus’ divinity. At the same time, they shared with (or inherited from) the Marcionites a disdain for and distrust of all things Jewish, along with the notion, still found among Christians today, that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath, whereas the New Testament God is a God of love and mercy. (17)
Ehrman’s views, then, seem to have been shaped, at least to some degree, by the post-holocaust biblical-scholarly perspective. That being said, however, his depiction of Marcion’s core beliefs, including his view of the two Gods, does not differ greatly from Harnack’s.
There are two Gods, then, and according to Marcion, Jesus himself says so. Moreover, Jesus explains that no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the old wineskins burst and both they and the wine are destroyed (Mark 2:22). The gospel is a new thing that has come into the world. It cannot be put into the old wineskins of the Jewish religion. (18)
And as to the precise nature of the two Gods, here again, we do not find striking differences:
The God of the Old Testament insisted that people keep his Law and penalized them when they failed. He was not evil, but he was rigorously just. He had laws and inflicted penalties on those who did not keep them. But this necessarily made him a wrathful God, since no one kept all of his laws perfectly. Everyone had to pay the price for their transgressions, and the penalty for transgression was death. The God of the Old Testament was therefore completely justified in exacting his punishments and sentencing all people to death.
The God of Jesus came into this world in order to save people from the vengeful God of the Jews. He was previously unknown to this world and had never had any previous dealings with it. Hence Marcion sometimes referred to him as God the Stranger. (19)
Ehrman also deals with Marcion’s esteem for the Apostle Paul in a manner worth noting:
As we have seen, Paul claimed that a person is made right with God by faith in Christ, not by doing the works of the Law. This distinction became fundamental to Marcion, and he made it absolute. The gospel is the good news of deliverance; it involves love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, and life. The Law, however, is the bad news that makes the gospel necessary in the first place; it involves harsh commandments, guilt, judgment, enmity, punishment, and death. The Law is given to the Jews. The gospel is given by Christ.
How could the same God be responsible for both? Or put in other terms: How could the wrathful, vengeful God of the Jews be the loving, merciful God of Jesus? Marcion maintained that these attributes could not belong to one God, as they stand at odds with one another: hatred and love, vengeance and mercy, judgment and grace. He concluded that there must in fact be two Gods: the God of the Jews, as found in the Old Testament, and the God of Jesus, as found in the writings of Paul. (20)
In Ehrman’s work, we also find the author venturing into areas Harnack does not go. For instance, he offers the view, perhaps correct, that the Marcionite Church probably never would have been accepted, because of its complete “novelty” and “newness,” as the official religion of the Roman Empire, this due to the fact that in ancient Roman culture, high value was placed upon ideas that were old and established. (21) It is worth mentioning here that many Romans were not terribly fond of Jews, and that Jewish expulsions from Rome took place in 19 AD and again in 49 AD, yet Ehrman tells us that credit was nonetheless given to the fact that Jewish scriptures were some number of centuries old. By adopting these scriptures as their own, the orthodox/catholic church “overcame the single biggest objection that pagans had with regard to the appearance of this ‘new’ religion.” Thus in laying claim upon the Old Testament, the Catholic Church had the advantage when Constantine came to power in the fourth century and designated them the favored religion of the empire, says Ehrman.
But what if the Marcionite Church had prevailed? What if it, rather than the Catholic Church, had emerged out of early Christianity as the dominant player? How would the world be different today? Ehrman calls it “rank speculation,” but does nonetheless offer some thoughts on this as well:
Had Marcionite Christianity succeeded, the Old Testament would be seen by Christians today not as the Old Testament but as the Jewish Scriptures, a set of writings for the Jews and of no real relevance to Christianity. So, too, Christians would not see themselves as having Jewish roots. This may well have opened the doors to heightened hostilities, since Marcion seems to have hated Jews and everything Jewish; or possibly even more likely, it may have led simply to benign neglect as Jews and their religion would have been considered to be of no relevance and certainly no competition for Christians. The entire history of anti-Semitism might have been avoided, ironically, by an anti-Jewish religion. (22)
Did Christians who expressed “anti-Semitic” views in the first through fifth centuries do so because they viewed Jews as “competition”?
Ehrman continues, over several passages, to speculate on what might have been, offering at one point the somewhat peculiar thought that Christians might perhaps have been more likely to adopt the practice of usury had there not been the constraints against it in the Old Testament:
Economic and political history might have turned out to be quite different, since there would have been nothing in the sacred Scriptures, for example, to oppose lending money at interest or to promote the system of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Who knows what would have happened to the environment, given the circumstance that so much of modern environmental concerns stem ultimately from a conviction, filtered through many layers, but with Judeo-Christian roots, that God is the creator of this world and that we are its caretakers. Different, too, would have been so much of modern socialism, even (odd as it may seem) so much of Marxist theory, as it is ultimately rooted in notions of economic justice, fairness, and opposition to oppression that trace their lineage back to the Hebrew prophets. (23)
The author also ruminates on the history of anti-Semitism, and here, perhaps especially, the “post-holocaust” perspective seems to appear:
If the Marcionite Christians had gained ascendancy, would people still ask, “Do you believe in God?” Or would they ask, “Do you believe in the two Gods?” Would anyone except scholars of antiquity have heard of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John? Would we have an “Old” Testament? How would the social and political relations of Jews and Christians over the centuries have been affected? Would Christians who rejected the Jewish God and all things Jewish feel a need to polemicize against and attack Jews? Or would they simply ignore Jews as not presenting any real competition to their own claims of the knowledge of the other God, who saved them from the creator? Would anti-Semitism be worse, or would it be nonexistent? (24)
Note also, again, the use of the word “competition,” as if the problems between Jews and Christians have sprung mostly from competing with each other in the marketplace of ideas, causing Christians to “polemicize” and to “attack” Jews.
Of course, what would seem to be the most glaringly obvious historical outcome—the history of Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel—is the one Ehrman doesn’t get into. (Perhaps for American university professors it’s too hot to handle.) But without an Old Testament, there would never have been a view of Jews as “God’s chosen people,” and without this, there would have been no significant Christian support for a state of Israel. Early Christian Zionists such as Cyrus Scofield and John Nelson Darby would not have had a leg to stand on; and John Hagee would perhaps be a used car salesman today; Theodor Herzl probably would never have gained much of a following other than among Jews, and the Balfour Declaration well may never have been issued by the British government. In short, it’s possible to conjecture that had the Marcionite Church prevailed, there would be no state of Israel today.
The Marcionite Church and Marcion’s Legacy
That Marcion’s church became as popular as it did, spreading “throughout all the provinces of the empire,” is all the more astounding when you consider that the master’s teachings included renunciation of material comforts and an overall ascetic lifestyle, including sexual abstinence. Here is how Harnack puts it:
Maracion absolutely forbade marriage and all sexual intercourse among his believers, and therefore he baptized only such catechumens and admitted to the Supper only such as took the vow of remaining unmarried or such married people as pledged a complete separation from that time onward. Thus he staked the life and growth of his communities exclusively on the winning of new members, for the believers were not permitted to reproduce. (25)
One reason for this was the usual motivation—liberation from sinful flesh—embraced by Buddhism and other religions. But Marcion had a second purpose in mind as well: that “one should not help to enlarge the realm of the World-Creator but one should rather restrict it, insofar as it lies within human capacity to do so.” Thus Marcion and his followers were in protest against the God of this world, and their renunciations were a “sign of deliberate abandonment of that God and withdrawal from his company.” This abstinence extended also to certain types of food and drink, and Harnack tells us that the Marcionites most likely were vegetarians as well (though he believes they did allow the consumption of fish).
But there was more. It appears Marcion taught his followers—in this era of on-again/off-again persecution of Christianity under various Roman emperors—a willingness to undergo martyrdom for the faith. And many in fact did. But none of this seems to have hampered the momentum. People flocked to Marcion’s churches:
Justin’s statement that Marcion himself had already disseminated his teaching “throughout the whole human race” is confirmed by the testimonies that we possess with reference to the second half of the second century for Asia, Lydia, Bithynia, Corinth, Crete, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, Lyons, and Carthage…Everywhere people were writing against the dreadful devilish sect which already in the second century was proclaiming its teaching even in the Latin language and by the beginning of the third century at the latest in the Syriac language as well. (26)
The community’s worship services were open to anyone and everyone, and reportedly one could see Marcionite churches in cities as well as the countryside. All of these churches, so far as is known, remained united in their rejection of the Old Testament God as well as their affirmation of the Alien God.
The danger that this church presented to Christianity was greatest in the generation between 150 and 190. In this period it and it alone was actually a counterchurch: this observation is evident from the abundance of opposing writings, and it can be read from the nature of the opposition offered by Justin and from the work of Celsus as well. Justin counted Marcion among the demonic new founders of religions with a Christian adornment. Celsus often spoke as though there were only the two churches, the “great church” and the Marcionite, and alongside them only the Gnostic underbrush. (27)
In the latter half of the third century the movement began to recede in the west, but still held on strong in Cyprus, Palestine, and in Syriac-speaking areas, including parts of Syria, all the way to Persia and Armenia. Harnack tells us it was particularly popular in Cyprus, which had undergone such ravages in the Kitos War, and that the city of Salamis “was simply besieged by Marcionites.” Laodicea in Syria, near the present day city of Latakia, seems to have been a large center as well, and there even were such things as “Marcionite villages” scattered here and there. By the fourth century orthodox Christians were still writing polemical tirades against Marcion, though by the middle of the fifth century the faith had receded in the east as well. Why? Certainly the fourth century designation of Christianity (i.e. the Catholic version) as the official religion of the empire had much to do with it—Harnack speaks of certain church bishops who began persecuting, or in some cases converting, Marcionites in the years after this. Changing perceptions of Jews may have been a factor as well. The revolts of the late first/early second centuries had receded into dim historical memory, and doubtless Jews were no longer regarded as the threat they once had been. We also can’t ignore divisions within the church itself. Marcion died about 160 AD, and while the church continued to revere his name and memory, there arose different “schools” within the faith which put forth variations on his principle beliefs. This became especially true from the third century onward. Yet Harnack tells us that even outside the church, the Antitheses continued to be read “by those who had freed themselves from the Old Testament.”
So what can we say about Marcion’s legacy and his contributions to the development of Christianity? Certainly one of his most lasting contributions is the high value he placed upon the letters of Paul, which resulted in an elevating of Paul’s status in the early church and probably also was a decisive factor, maybe the decisive factor, in the inclusion of the Pauline letters in the New Testament canon. The following quote from Harnack’s book states the case very well:
For decades, copies of Paul’s epistles were lacking in catholic churches…But furthermore, it is both obvious and highly important that Irenaeus, the founder of the church’s soteriological doctrine, as well as Tertullian and Origen, developed their biblical teachings about goodness and righteousness, about the creator God and the redeemer God, and so on, in the struggle against Marcion and in that process learned from him. Finally, it was through Marcion also that Paul was recovered for the great church, Paul who, for example, had been altogether pushed aside by such a teacher as Justin and whom the Roman Christian Hermas had utterly ignored. (28)
Moreover, it was only after Marcion that those in the “great church” began adopting the idea of the church itself as the “bride of Christ,” and only post-Marcion did they begin the practice of combining congregations into an actual community, a community united on the basis of a fixed doctrine rooted in the New Testament—just as Marcion had done. And herein lies what probably is Marcion’s single greatest, most lasting contribution of all—the concept of a fixed New Testament canon.
Marcion’s Relevancy Today
Marcion saw himself called to liberate Christianity from a crisis of identity. It is a crisis which has continued to plague the church over the years and is today more serious than ever. We find ourselves caught up in the “contradictory drama” of worshipping a dual purpose God, a God of discrimination, whose partisanship and favoritism are reserved either exclusively, or mainly, for one people, but who somehow also poses himself as a God of universal love and a God of all. The thermodynamics of this have led the Christian faith into a state of entropy—a problem compounded by the fact that when we look around today we see Jews in the state of Israel committing horrendous crimes against humanity.
To help clarify some of this, I will use a metaphor which Harnack uses—that of the “halfway house.” Think of someone who has been confined for a great long time in a prison or a mental institution. Upon release, he/she might reside for a while in a “halfway house” prior to making the full leap back into society and a life of freedom. In terms of liberating Christianity from its slavery to the Old Testament, Paul in essence represented the halfway house. It is true he invalidated Jewish law, but at the same time he was “grounded in the soil” of the Old Testament, as Harnack puts it. As a result he could not break from it entirely. Marcion, on the other hand, though fully admiring of Paul, wanted to take things further—out of the halfway house and into complete freedom and independence from the yoke of Judaism and its angry God. (29) In the interest of Christianity’s newness, “it’s unambiguous nature,” and its power, Marcion desired to take the “decisive step” of separating the gospel from the Old Testament. But the church, then as now, was beset with “Judaistic pseudoapostles” who were determined to keep it and retain it as part of their “holy scripture.”
“If one carefully thinks through with Paul and Marcion the contrast between ‘the righteousness that is by faith’ and ‘the righteousness that is by works’ and is persuaded also of the inadequacy of the means by which Paul thought that he could maintain the canonical recognition of the Old Testament, consistent thinking will not be able to tolerate the validity of the Old Testament as canonical documents in the Christian church.” (30) So says Harnack in the final chapter of his book, and he is right. “Consistent thinking” can only reach the conclusion that Marcion did—that the gospel, with its message of love and mercy taught by Christ, is and must be regarded as a thing separate entirely from the Old Testament. Harnack adds: “If Marcion had reappeared in the time of the Huguenots and Cromwell, he would once again have encountered the warlike God of Israel whom he abhorred, right in the very middle of Christendom.”
And so it is today, with Christian Zionists applauding every Israeli aggression in the Middle East, only with one very major difference: with a Nile-to-Euphrates agenda spelled out in the book of Genesis, and in a world with a nuclear-armed Jewish state, and with AIPAC-like lobbies reaching into virtually every Western country, the problem has truly reached crisis proportions—not only for Christians, but for all peoples on the planet.
Earlier I offered a critique of Ehrman’s analysis of “what might have been” had the Marcionite church prevailed, coming to the conclusion that in all likelihood the modern-day state of Israel would never have been born. One can of course carry the conjecture further: without the establishment of the state of Israel, there would have been no Nakba, no Deir Yassin massacre, no 1967 war, no 1973 war, and no pro-Israel lobby in America today. Without the pro-Israel lobby, the wars in Iraq would possibly have been averted. The half a million Iraqi children, whose deaths the Jewish Madelaine Albright felt were “worth it,” could well still be alive. The Palestinians would have a state of their own, would therefore not be subject to having their homes bulldozed or destroyed by bombs, conceivably there would be no blockade of Gaza, no checkpoints in the West Bank or mothers giving birth at them, and no apartheid wall. The Palestinians who were killed in the first Intifada, the second Intifada, those who perished in various Israeli missile attacks on Gaza, including Operation Cast Lead, would either still be alive today or else possibly have died of natural causes.
Who else would have been spared besides Palestinians and Iraqis? Without a state of Israel, would there ever have been a 9/11 attack? And without 9/11 would thousands of Americans, Afghans, British, Pakistanis, Libyans, and people of other nationalities have died in the ongoing wars that have been fought since then? Moreover, without Israel, and without, by extension, a pro-Israel lobby, would we have leaders pushing even now to take us into new wars? These are questions which legitimately should be asked. Also—was Jesus correct in saying that it’s possible to judge a tree by the fruit it produces, and if so, was Marcion right in zeroing in on this statement and making of it what he did? This, too, is a legitimate question.
“Marcion’s heretical tradition is flooding the entire world”—so lamented the ancient writer Tertullian in approximately the early third century. But maybe at last it is time for Christianity to give Marcion his due, to finally come to recognize that Jesus was indeed something “new” entirely, that his teachings were an “antithesis” if you will, a complete, total, outright departure from the Old Testament, and that in separating the two Marcion may well have had the right idea.
When published in the original German, Harnack’s work, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, included appendices that apparently covered multiple pages. The modern American edition excludes these appendices and offers the following editor’s note by way of explanation: “Because of the length and complexity of the appendices to Harnack’s Marcion and because scholars will need to consult those appendices in the original form in which Harnack presents them, the editor and translators have decided not to include the appendices in the present edition. References to them, however, have been retained as an aid to further study.” An English edition of the book with the appendices included would obviously be helpful for further understanding of Marcion’s theology. Hopefully the current publisher, or some other, will undertake to publish one.
1. Harnack, Adolf, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, translated by John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma, Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 1990, p. 22.
2. Ibid, p. 58.
3. Ehrman, Bart D., Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford University Press, New York, 2003, p. 106.
4. Harnack, p. 15.
5. The Jewish Encyclopedia acknowledges Dio Cassius as “the most important source” on the Kitos War, though expresses the view that the ancient Roman’s account is “exaggerated,” according to Wikipedia.
6. “Abolishing” the Old Testament outright probably was not Christ’s intention. However, his conflicts with the Jewish establishment are well known. Also it should be kept in mind that the leaders of the Jewish revolts were for the most part of the Zealot sect of Judaism, which was closely aligned with the Pharisees. As I discussed in a previous article, the Zealots took their name from the Old Testament character Phinehas, who in Numbers 25 bursts into a tent and drives a spear through an Israelite man and Moabite woman, ending up being described as “zealous” for his God for so doing. The Zealots of Jesus’ day were known to have preached that Jews should obey no laws other than those given them by God.
7. Harnack, p. 17.
9. Ibid, p. 60-62.
10. Ibid, p. 71.
11. Ibid, p. 71-72.
12. Ibid, 81-82.
13. Ibid, p. 69.
15. Ibid, p. 131, 133-134.
16. Ibid, p. 134.
17. Ehrman, p. 252.
18. Ibid, p. 106.
19. Ibid, p. 105.
20. Ibid, p. 104-105.
21. Ibid, p. 111-112
22. Ibid, p. 111.
24. Ibid, p. 247.
25. Harnack, p. 96.
26. Ibid, p. 99.
27. Ibid, p. 100.
28. Ibid, p. 131.
29. Harnack believes Paul would have looked upon Marcion and seen him as “his own authentic pupil” in many respects, but absolutely would have “turned away in horror” at his concept of the two Gods and his complete rejection of the Old Testament.
30. Ibid, p. 133.