Marcion, the Canon, the Law, and the Historical Jesus
A survey of Marcion's life and legacy.
by Chris Price (October 14, 2002)

It is ironic that perhaps one of the most influential of figures in Church History is also one of the most reviled heretics: Marcion. Although his ideas were completely rejected by the Apostolic Fathers of the second-century church, the very need to reject them forced the second-century church to consider, clarify, and consolidate its beliefs about important issues: the contents of the Christian Bible (the Canon), the relationship between Christianity and Judaism (or between Law and Grace), and finally, the source of the church's knowledge of Jesus.

OUR SOURCES OF INFORMATION

The main sources for Marcion's life are Iranaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. But the Jewish writer Celsus also knew of Marcion and used his writings to argue against Christianity. Robin L. Fox, Pagans and Christians, at 516. Additional information about Marcion and his followers can be gleaned from other Christian writers who continued to engage Marcionites centuries after his death.

Marcion's major work was entitled Antithesis and has not survived. This is not due to an intentional cleansing or burning by Orthodox Christians. It is simply the result of the passage of time. The writings of religious groups that became extinct were largely doomed to extinction themselves because writing materials of that time simply did not last very long. Without eager new generations of scribes willing to recopy aging texts, it is very unlikely that any manuscripts would survive.

MARCION GOES TO ROME

Marcion was actually born into a Christian family. His father was a Christian bishop. He was born in Sinope, Asia Minor in about 85 CE. Marcion was a wealthy merchant and shipowner. After being accused of "defiling a virgin" and reportedly excommunicated by the church in Sinope, Marcion left Asia Minor and moved to Rome in about 135 CE. Perhaps to ensure his acceptance in the Roman Church after his misdeeds in Asia Minor, Marcion gave the Roman Church 200,000 sesterces (a very sizable gift) upon his arrival. At first, Marcion was accepted by the Roman Church.

However, it soon became obvious that his teachings were a radical departure from traditional Christianity. Marcion came under the influence of the gnostic teacher Cedro "who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The God of the Old Testament was unknowable; the latter had been revealed." Marcion, by Dermot McDonald, in The History of Christianity, at 104-105. Cedro also stressed the existence of "secret knowledge" from Jesus that had not been previously made public (a common claim among gnostics). Marcion adopted these ideas into his "heretical" brand of Christianity.

MARCION'S TEACHINGS

Marcion's teachings departed from traditional Christianity in a number of ways. Most dramatically, perhaps, Marcion rejected the idea that the Old Testament God and the New Testament God were the same being. Up until then, the traditional Church had considered the Old Testament to be sacred and assumed that Christianity was a fulfillment or continuation of Judaism. Marcion's rejection of that idea affected many different doctrines and beliefs.

Marcion's Own Canon of Scripture

Marcion faced an uphill battle with his revolutionary ideas. He faced a pretty obvious problem. For more than 100 years, Christians had been using the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, and even the most sacred documents of Christians referred to and relied heavily on, the Old Testament. The solution for Marcion was to completely reject the Old Testament and establish a canon that de-emphasized Christianity's Old Testament and Jewish roots as much as possible.

Paul, with his focus on free grace, was by far Marcion's favorite Apostle. As a result, he rejected the writings attributed to all the other Apostles and relied on forms of Luke's Gospel and ten Pauline epistles that he redacted. Although a small number of scholars have, from time to time, argued that Marcion may have had access to earlier forms of the gospels (especially Luke), even John Knox, the most prominent promoter of this theory, admits that Marcion intentionally and knowingly excised as much Old Testament and Jewish influence as he could find in the Paulines and Gospel of Luke. "That Marcion, for example, did not have the account of John the Baptist's announcement of Jesus as Messiah or the story of Jesus' temptation is almost certainly to be accounted for by Marcion's omission of these passages. Not only are they inconsistent with Marcion's theological position but (more important) they are also deeply imbedded in the Synotpic tradition, and to explain them as late additions to a Gospel which was already dependent (as Marcion's was) upon that tradition is next to impossible." John Knox, Marcion and the New Testament, at 95.

The scope of Marcion's redactions is large. As Dr. Fisher explained, Marcion rejected "the entire Old Testament, [and] settled for Luke's Gospel (eliminating chapters 1 & 2 as too Jewish) and Paul's letters (except for the pastoral ones)." "The Canon of the New Testament," by Milton Fisher, in The Origin of the Bible, ed. Philip Comfort, at 71. Beyond chapters 1 and 2 of Luke, Marcion also removed Luke 4:1-3 (temptation narrative that refers to Dueteronomy 3 times), Luke 4:16-30 (Jesus claiming—while teaching in a synagogue—that his ministry was a fulfillment of the Old Testament), Luke 5:39 ("The old is good"), and Luke 8:19 (reference to Jesus' family). All of these verses were just too Jewish and conflicted too much with Marcion's heresies.

Significantly, Marcion also took a scalpel to Paul's letters, eliminating as many positive references to Judaism or the Old Testament as possible. "Marcion dealt with the text of Paul's letters in the same way as with the text of Luke's gospel: anything which appeared inconsistent with what he believed to be authentic Pauline teaching was regarded as a corruption proceeding from an alien hand." F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, at 140. The mention of Abraham as an example of faith was eliminated from Galatians (3:6-9), as well as the connection between the law and the gospels (3:15-25). He removed Romans 1:19-21:1, 3:21-4:25, and most of Romans 9-11, and everything after Romans 14:23.

Additionally, Marcion simply altered the content of many verses in Luke and Paul's letters to soften the connection with Judaism. For example, in place of "Thy Kingdom Come" in the Lord's Prayer (Luke 11:2), Marcion's gospel stated, "Let they Holy Spirit come on us and cleanse us." Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, at 138. In Ephesians, he changed, "the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things" (3:9) to "the mystery hidden for ages from the God who created all things." Id. at 139. This simple little change has the creating God being duped by the God of the New Testament.

Two Different Gods

Once Marcion had rewritten the Christian scriptures, he could make his case. Or, as Robin Lane Fox writes, "[b]y rewriting scripture, he presented a powerful case." Fox, Pagans and Christians, at 332. His theology was a tremendous departure from that of the Christian churches in which he had grown up. Key to his theology was the notion that there were actually two "Gods." One of these "Gods" was the God of the Old Testament. He was a completely different—and indeed a lesser—entity than the God of the New Testament. Jesus was the product of the New God. This God was not Jehovah, but the "unknown God" referred to by Paul in Acts in his speech in Athens.

"Marcion shocked the Church by denying any connection between the Gods of the Old and New Testament. . . . The creator, he argued, was an incompetent being: why else had he afflicted women with the agonies of childbirth? 'God' in the Old Testament was a 'committed barbarian' who favored bandits and such terrorists as Israel's King David. Christ, by contrast, was the new and separate revelation of an altogether higher God. Marcion's teaching was the most extreme statement of the newness of the Christian faith. Combined with virginity and a rejection of marriage, it became 'Marcionism' and continued to attract followers especially in the Syriac-speaking East, far into the Fourth Century." Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, at 332.

So Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was not the God of the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament was the "creating God," but he was harsh, cruel, and incompetent. Marcion contrasted this creating God with the God of Jesus, who was nothing less than love and grace.

Jesus Not the Expected Messiah and Not Human

Marcion's revolutionary thoughts on the identity of God were accompanied by a just as revolutionary idea about the identity of Jesus and his relationship to God. Marcion "adopted the Gnostic idea of Demiurge and thought Christ only 'appeared' to be human. . . ." Although Jesus "revealed the God of love and forgiveness [t]here will be no resurrection of the flesh, second coming, or judgment by Christ. Marcion vehemently repudiated the idea of a Judgment. According to him, the God of the Old Testament was to have sent a messiah to collect the chosen people into the Kingdom to rule over the whole earth and to exercise judgment over sinners. But at this point God appeared, showing mercy on sinners and freeing all from the bonds of the God of the Jews." Hinson, The Early Church, at 92.

In other words, while the creating God of the Old Testament was preparing to send a messiah that would establish an earthly Kingdom, the new God acted more quickly by sending Jesus to teach love and mercy for all. There would be no judgment, no bodily resurrection, and no second coming of Jesus. The purpose of Jesus was to free people from the bondage of the Jewish God, not from the bonds of sinful nature.

Tertullian described Marcion's beliefs as the following:

"Marcion 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 God, the Creator for the restoration of a Jewish state, and who is yet to come. Between these, he interposes a separation of a great and absolute difference as great as lies between what is just and what is good, as great as lies between the law and the gospel, as great as is the difference between Christianity and Judaism." Against Marcion, IV.6.

Marriage and Sex

Despite sounding almost antinomian, Marcion and his followers were actually very strict. "Curiously, Marcion also preached strict ascetism, denied the right of marriage, and formulated stern regulations concerning fasting." Hinson, The Early Church, at 92. This was not unusual in an of itself. "During the second and third centuries, many heretical groups taught that marriage was Satanic and akin to fornication; some connected it with the work of an inferior creator. Followers of Marcion spoke of the body as a 'nest of guilt'. Several sayings were ascribed to Jesus in which he reviled and praised the androgynous state of man at creation." Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, at 358. Needless to say, Marcionite commitment to complete celibacy was to have a big impact on the Marcionite sect's ability to sustain itself.

CHRISTIAN REACTION

Marcion's teachings were rejected by his church and the Apostolic Fathers who were leading the other Apostolic Churches. "To any church leader, Marcion's heresy was the most shocking deviation from Apostolic truth. He had denied the Old Testament's inspiration and the continuity of the God and Creator with Christ. Bishop Polycarp had known how to deal with him. When Polycarp met Marcion, said Polycarp's pupil Iraneaus, he had greeted him as 'the first born child of satan.'" Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, at 492.

Marcion was expelled from the Roman Church in 144 CE. They were so adamant about rejecting his teachings that they even returned the generous donation he had given them. "Marcion's departure was a heavy financial blow to the Rome Church and his money enabled him to attract a huge following in the East." Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, at 47. Thereafter, Marcion used those funds and attempted to emulate Paul by engaging in missionary activities to spread his new version of Christianity. Marcion met with some success. As Tertullian put it, he planted churches "as wasps make nests." He left churches in Rome, Carthage, Nicomedia, Smyrna, Phyrygia, Gartyna, Antioch, and in Syria.

Apparently, Marcion's churches—despite being built on a complete rejection of legalism or the law—were very rigorous about membership. Only a few were ultimately deemed worthy to receive baptism and become members of his churches. It eventually only established a lasting presence in Syria, but it died out completely by the mid-to-late 300s. As Professor Johnson stated, "belief in celibacy necessarily proves fatal to a heretical movement." Id. at 47. Still, the fact that the movement lasted more than 150 years based on conversions alone shows that Marcion's ideas had a strong appeal.

THE IMPACT OF MARCION

The impact of the Marcionite controversy on Church History on three issues was tremendous. First, the establishment of an Orthodox Christian Canon of Scripture (the New Testament). Second, Christianity's embracing its Jewish heritage. Third, the Church's reliance on the "Apostolic Tradition."

The Christian Canon

Marcion's choice of a highly selective canon and his mutilation of Christian scriptures forced the Church to specifically identify its own writings. In some ways, Marcion is the first person we know of to establish a "canon"—that is, to specify exactly which writings were "in" and which were "out." In so doing, he spurred the traditional Church to specify what is considered to be the canon. "The heretic Marcion, by defending a limited canon of his own (c. 140) in effect hastened the day when the Orthodox believers needed to declare themselves on this issue." Fisher, "The Canon of the New Testament," in The Origin of the Bible, ed. Philip Comfort. The Church eventually responded by embracing the Four Gospels: Mark, Luke (fully restored), Matthew, and John. The Church also embraced all of the Apostles, not just Paul. This lead to acceptance of the Johaninne Epistles, the Epistle of James, and the Epistles of Peter. As a result, the Church embraced a much broader theology and perspective than that envisioned by Marcion.

Christianity's Relationship with Judaism

Marcion's complete rejection of any link between Judaism and Christianity, the Law and the Gospel, forced the church to conclusively link Christianity to its Jewish predecessor, and the Gospel to the Law. As Prof. Hinson states, "No early Christian thinker, heterodox or orthodox, did more than Marcion to bring to a head the question of Christianity's relation to Judaism." The Early Church, at 9.

These early Christians realized that Christianity was not a separate revelation from Judaism, but the fulfillment of Judaism's promise. N.T. Wright explains that even Marcion's focus on Paul and his focus on grace and freedom as representing a complete departure was fundamentally flawed:

"Some readers, starting at least with Marcion in the second century, have seen this as evidence that [Paul] abandoned the Jewish Story altogether, embracing a quite different symbolic universe. . . . But Paul's fundamental narrative would give no deep echo to that of paganism in any of its first-century or other forms. It continues to resonate with the Story of Israel. Because Israel's story speaks of a creator god who claims all people, all lands, as his own, Paul is able to reach out from within that story and address Jews and Gentiles. He thus claims that the story of Jesus fulfills the purpose for which the creator God called Abraham in the first place." N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, at 407.

As a result, the Christian Canon includes the Old and New Testaments, and Christianity respects the Law while recognizing the powerful work of Grace Jesus accomplished on the Cross. Indeed, it is probable that the only way to fully appreciate Jesus' accomplishment on the cross is to recognize the validity of the law.

The Apostolic Tradition

Marcion's reliance (and that of other gnostics) on "secret knowledge" was met with a forceful commitment to the "Apostolic Tradition." Marcion was not the only such figure arguing for "secret knowledge." Others such as Valentenius also stressed that they possessed knowledge that had secretly been passed down to them from the Apostles or Jesus. The Church reacted by rejecting this idea of a "secret knowledge" that was really just manufactured by gnostic leaders. Instead, the Church committed itself to the "Apostolic Tradition." The Apostolic Tradition was considered to be the publically proclaimed message of the Church since its existence. It could also be called a rudimentary commitment to the "historical Jesus." This commitment was to give the Church a standard to which it was subordinate: the New Canon contained the public professions of the Apostles. Church teaching must be based on that standard, rather than on newly discovered or revealed teachings that no one had heard before.

Conclusion

In many ways, Marcion caused the Orthodox Church to be more moderate. The Church had to acknowledge its Jewish roots and embrace Jewish literature, without forfeiting its Christian revelation. The Church acknowledged that Jesus brought grace and freedom, but refused to descend into antinomianism or reject the idea that the law had any moral instruction to offer. The Church was staunchly opposed to fornication and adultery, but accepted that sex within marriage and procreation were moral and necessary. All in all, despite his obvious heresy, Marcion's impact on Church History actually was largely positive.