Marcion's Place in Early Christianity:
A Political Power Play
By Dr. Michael Conley
The conventions of Christian orthodoxy have it that the letters of St. Paul constitute the earliest documents arising in the course of the Christian movement and date back approximately to the 50s of the first century while the Acts of the Apostles were written by a surgeon by the name of Luke who accompanied Paul on his trips in the eastern Mediterranean and wrote down an account of Paul's experiences as a kind of codicil to the latter's own pronouncements.
The extremely thorough-going research of the last decades, by contrast, suggests a very different, and much later date for both the letters and the Acts of the Apostles, reassigning the lot of them to the second century and stressing the clearly apparent conflict that obtains between the two sets of documents, inhibiting any attempt to understand the one as an elaboration of the other .1 Rather, as now becomes apparent, the documents in question are the product of a conflict between two belligerent camps contending with one another for control of the Christian movement in its formative stage.
The names, Paul, Luke, become, in the light of recent research, meaningless. Paul, the latin `paulus' means the `little,' applied to a person, it becomes, more forcefully: `the runt.' It's a nickname for one of diminutive stature. And Luke? No one has the slightest idea where he came from - Syria? Palestine? Alexandria? Rome? - or whether he ever actually met `the runt.' Conceivably, he was simply engaged in writing a fictitious biography for ulterior purposes.
Let us be quite clear on this point: our would-be Luke knew nothing about the letters presumably written by `Paul.' The author of Acts systematically suppressed any mention of any of them or the phrases occurring in them. More specifically, the author was quite unacquainted with the dogma, `sola fide'(!), a matter of central importance in the Reformation of Martin Luther 2 which finally split the Christian movement asunder! Why this silence? Was it because `Luke' knew that the letters and the doctrine of `by faith alone' were products of a hostile, competing group or was it that the letters did not yet bear the name of Paul and were thought to be non-authentic?
But behind this quandry of identification, stood forces much more easily identified with clearly delineated, vested interests in the success of the one or the other of the opposing lines of argument contained in the respective documents.
Paulus became the engine of the episcopacy of Marcion, a well-to-do ship owner from Sinope on the southern coast of the Pontos Euxeino, born conceiveably in 85 C.E., one who set about building an international, `Christian' church with its center to the east of Ephesos, up the Maiandros river to Laodikeia or perhaps further north and east, beyond Magnesia, at Colossa and/or Thyatira where the book of Revelations placed the "synagogues of Satan." Justin Martyr, one within the elite of the Roman church and definitely no friend of Marcion, writing circa 150 CE (= Common Era), remarks (I Apol. 26) that Marcion's teaching had spread "to every nation," and that the famous heretic - viewed, that is to say, from Rome's perspective! - is "even until now alive (`kai nun eti') and teaching his disciples.
For Marcion, marriage was `porneia' and begot `phthora' (= death and perdition). Marriage, indeed, was `phthora kai porneia.' [`Phthoros': a common form of cursing; addressed to a person, it meant the same as the word, `olethros,' namely a pestilent fellow.] This attitude caused him to strictly forbid marriage or sexual intercourse in any form within his congregation. He baptisted only such Katechumenen and allowed them to participate in communion who vowed celebacy or, should they already be married, who renounced carnal relations and lived sexually fully separated from one another. The growth of his congregations, consequently, depended exclusively upon enrolling ever new members from the greater community in which they existed . 3
Marcion's church possessed a rotating hierarchical structure composed of an orderly succession of bishops from Marcion onwards (Markion episkopos), presbyters, deacons/deaconesses - other as at Rome, women assumed a prominent role - and a catechumenate for beginners in the faith. (Always, of course, adults; never their recently born children.) Cyrill of Jerusalem felt it necessary to warn his own catechumens against wandering into a marcionite place of worship by mistake (Cat., 18.26); upon arriving in a new city, he advised, "inquire after the `catholic' church'."
In many small towns, there may have been ONLY a marcionite building. 4 Despite the impositions placed upon them, the number of Christians espousing the doctrines of the Marcionite church may have reached fifty percent of all the Christians in the eastern Mediterranean. He who spurns this possibility, stressing the dearth of sources to substantiate it, is doing little more than commending the early Roman church fathers for the thoroughness with which they - once the battle was over - set about willfully destroying their opponents architectual and written labors.
Marcion was firmly commited to a `good' god, totally distinct from and inmeasurably superior to the vindictive Jewish creator god, Jahwah, who'd nothing to his credit but a slip-shod firmament, populated with defective creatures, reaching from the swamp fly to the two-legged humans who hustled about over the crust of the firmament. And, accordingly, Marcion rejected the Jewish Old Testament lock, stock and barrel in which the distasteful accomplishment of their vindictive god were recounted.
Jahweh, Marcion argued, was a merciless stickler for `righteousness,' applied with unrelenting earnestness and ferocity. He was a head-strong zealot, filled with wrath. On every page of the Jew's book, his partiality, pettiness and narrow-mindedness lay open to the discriminating reader to reaffirm. And the exhortions and judgements, commandments and directives he uttered over those who wallowed prostrate before him were filled of contradictions, vaciliations and displays of his own tempormental inadequacies in matters of morality. Aye, in Marcion's eyes, Yahweh was, critically considered, the `conditor malorum,' the primeval source of wickedness, the instigator of war, a habitual liar when he made promises and, indeed, pernicious by nature in his undertakings.
In such a conceptual world, there could be NO ORIGINAL SIN by virtue of one's descendant from Adam, but only in the sense that human beings are "children of the lesser God whose very essence (`substantia') is capable of sin." 5 Again, in this sense, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as well, is meaningless. Christianity could have nothing to do with this `demiourgos,' Marcion asserted, nor could Jesus Christ have been his son! The view that the Law (`thesis') and the Evangelium (`Antithesis') constituted a unity was a central, decisive error of the Roman `kleroi.'
The logic of Marcion's stand retains a certain strength up to the very present day. Let us consider the letters of "Saint Paul" as known to us in their approved Roman Catholic versions. What does one learn here about the person of Jesus?
1) That he was born of a woman,
2) of the lineage of David, that he
3) consumed a supper on the night of his arrest and
4) that he was crucified.
And that's it! (Check it out yourself.) Why is this so?
Because we are dealing with crude - utterly alien! - insertions into a Marcionite literature in which Christ was not born, but rather appeared as an incorporal, i.e. `docetic' emanation from a greater god-head. The Roman Catholics failed to appreciate the full ramificatins that would necessarily follow from their attempt to `sanitize' the literature of their opponent to the end of drawing his following up into their own movement.
It was in this context that Marcion penned his own commentary for use in the church that came to bear his name. He entitled it his `Antitheseis.' It began with the words:
`Oh wonder over wonder, at once rapture, potency and astonishment,
good news that leaves one speechless, not rightly able to fully comprehend,
nor capable of drawing comparisons with anything known.'
(The designation, `Gnostic' is occasionally employed in conjunction with the person of Marcion. Still, there are substantial differences. Marcion's teaching is free of the mythological fantasy and complexity that characterizes the gnostic thought of his contemporaries. Further, unlike them, he does not speculate about first principles, nor develop a theory of the divine being. He is uninterested in a causal link between Yahweh and the supreme God or between the supreme God and human beings. Again, other as in the case of the Gnostics, Marcion does not understand the human soul as a `spark' (= `spintharis'), initially generated in heaven, that had been incarcerated within human clay at birth. Rather, all of man is of earthly origin for Marcion and, without the totally altruistic assistance of the ultimate god-head, incapable of obtaining its own salvation. And the latter, i.e. `salvation,' is understood as a matter of bartering between Christ and the creator demiourgos as if on the market place. Christ's task is to `EXTRACT' the soul of he or she in whom the ultimate god has found pleasure - and extended `GRACE' - from the mundane cosmos, sending it off to the `pleroma' which exists well outside the visible night sky.)
By contrast Luke becomes a proxy for the Roman `episkopos,' the bishop of Rome and his advisers, with their incredible goal: to throw off - right from the beginning! - the role of being simply one of the contending, completing sects on the market place, to close down the public forum of bickering priests and create a new monopoly on faith, not as it had once existed in the ancient Greek polis, but this time from the side of the authoritarian, monarchic line of succession). 6 That is to say, the Roman church was busily erecting the administrative machinery for a government that should embrace the entire Mediterranean basin and this as early as the period 81-115 C.E. (= Common Era), during the reigns of Domitian, Nerva, Trajan .
Intent, strategically, upon drawing Marcion's followers up into its own fold in the course of time, the Roman church, while contending with the Marcionite church wherever possible, could not afford to openly repudiate the latter's Trademark: Paul. Marcion had successfully turned someone he'd designated as Paul, in the eyes of his own faithful, into his alter ego and to reject him would consequently have meant, simultaneously, estranging Marcion's followers. Thus Rome's tactic had to be: retain the image, but change its meaning in the observers eyes and minds.
On top of that, Marcion's runt had a historically verifiable stand-in. A referent for the person of Luke is nonexistent, but in the case of `the runt,' a prototype is to be found in the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles in the person of Simon Magus, Simon the magician. Here we have the proper moniker for Marcion's Paul. His contemporaries named him "Simon, the runt"! At one and the same time, Acts would celebrate it own, cosmetically adjusted `Paul' as a central figure in the rise of Christianity while rejecting him under his real name, Simon, calling him `Magus.' In all likelihood, Simon did produce letters - how extensive his labors were can only be surmised - which Marcion accumulated and elaborated. But one way or the other, Simon - when he was identified using this, his real name - got a very bad press in Acts.
It's even worsened in other parallel, anti-Marcion literature, e.g. in the Jewish-Christian Pseudo-Clementine literature, dating in all probability from the early third century. There, the disparaging, abusive epithets for Paul included - to mention several of the designations employed - `o echthros,' (= the hated one), `echthros anthropos,'(= hateful man), `antikeimenos,'(= antipode, antagonist, adversary), `planos tis,'(= deceptive fellow). The list can be expanded.
Between the two sides - Marcion versus the episkopoi of Rome (= Clemens, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus etc.) - a propaganda war waged with ever greater bitterness, reaching well into the fifth century, aye locally into the sixth century. Each side rewrote the verbiage of its opponent, inserting (e.g. quotations from the Old Testament to vitiate Marcion's rejection of it, kit and caboodle) and striking (e.g. disparaging references to Cephas, Jacob etc.) as the tactically situation suggested. If Markion could not prevent Rome from monopolizing the twelve apostles, then he could create an alternative authority and declare that a direct mandate from heaven was more important than just having lived with and seen Jeshua. Against the Roman church's assertion that only he who knew Yeshua may be designated an apostle, II Cor 5:16 asserts: "Worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of anyone; even if once they counted in our understanding of Christ, they do so now no longer." 7
But Luke will have nothing to do with propositions which estranged the Christian congregations from its Jewish roots. Sin arises through indifference to commandments and Jesus becomes a very worldly preacher of repentance who will plead for his followers at the Last Judgement. Through the incorporation of Luke-Acts into the New Testament, a corrective, as Rome saw it, was provided to the stance of Paul's letters. 8 If Marcion has Paul declare in Galatians 5:2-6 that "if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you." etc. then Acts (16:3) tells the tale of Paul having Timothy circumcised to the end of vitiating the politics of Galatians. 9 On top of this comes the matter of Arabia and Damascus. Acts does not mention anything about an intervening trip or flight to `Arabia' as Paul states in Galatians 1:17. For Acts, there is no flight to Arabia at all. But, according to Galatians, when Paul gets his revelation about the `son in him' and the Gospel of Jesus Christ he was to teach to the Gentiles, he did not go to Damascus, but directly `into Arabia.'
Finding pleasure in his own inventions, Luke goes on to the tale in which Roman soldiers were at the point up severely beating Paul. The latter, so we are informed, asserted that he was a Roman citizen and that the centurio in charge immediately accepted his claim without further todo. THIS IS TOTALLY UNBELIEVEABLE AS IT STANDS! This won't be the first instant in imperial history when a non-descripte native attempted to avoid punishment by making such a claim. The centurio would have wanted some kind of proof that Shaul's claim was genuine. No one carried an ID card, but the centurio could have tested Shaul's reliability by taking him along to an ediface, managed by the collegium of the `seviri Augustalis' or by a `flamen Romae et Augusti' (priest) of the public and official Roman cult in Jerusalem (or better in the harbor area of Caesarea), and demanding that he participate -along with the centurio himself.- in the relevant religious ceremonies (which would necessarily have been known to him as a Roman citizen).
Much more striking yet is the treatment to which the church's all-important communion is subjected in the New Testament. 10 I cite - this time, not from Acts, but from the gospel assigned to Luke himself - 22:14-20: "When the hour came he took his place at table and the apostles with him and he said to them, `How I have longed to eat this Passover with you before my death! For I tell you, never again shall I eat it until the time when it finds its fulfilment in the kingdom of God.' Then he took a CUP [Please note the sequence of events!] and after giving thanks he said, `Take this and share it among yourselves, for I tell you, from this moment I shall not drink the fruit of the vine until the time when the kingdom of God comes.' Then he took BREAD [!] and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them with the words, `This is my body.'"
Let us now turn to 1 Corinthians 11:23-25: "For the tradition which I handed on to you CAME TO ME FROM THE LORD HIMSELF [i.e. straight from the horse's mouth!]: that on the night of his arrest the Lord Jesus took BREAD and after giving thanks to God broke it and said: `This is my body which is for you; do this in memory of me.' In the same way, he took the CUP [Do note!] AFTER SUPPER and said: `This CUP is the new covenant sealed by my blood. When you drink it, do this in memory of me.'
The total contradiction in a matter of decisive importance to the Roman church could hardly be more complete. Why did the `sanitizers' of Marcion's handywook permit these two, opposing statements to stand? I would suggest we understand this as an indication of the lengths to which Rome was prepared to go to conciliate Marcion's followers if only they would abandon their past master and submit to Rome. The trick, after all, was to turn an arithmetic increase in recruitment into a geometric progression! And once the die was cast - that is to say, once multiple copies of the New Testament had been distributed in the course of the fourth and fifth centuries - there was no ease retreat open to Rome.
As the struggle approached its climax, the Galatian letter - in its ultimate version! -appeared, presenting a Marcionite portrait of an apostle - the designation, Paul, retained - which sought to refute, step by step, 11 the picture propagated in the Acts of the Apostles. It was accompanied by I Thess 2:14-16 the most uncontrolled attack on the Jews in the whole New Testament:
"You, my friends, have followed the example of the Christians in the Church of God in Judaea: you have been treated by your own countrymen as they were treated by Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, and are so heedless of God's will land such enemies of their fellow-men that they hinder us from telling the Gentiles how they may be saved. All this time they have been making up the full measure of their guilt. But now retribution has overtaken them for good and all!"
Rome's response - one must keep the substantial number of Christians of Jewish origin at Rome in mind - came with The Epistula Apostolorum, not included in the New Testament - where it most assuredly belongs! - and generally unknown among the church-going public. It is a pronouncement, in all likelihood of the late second century, drafted possibly in Alexandria or Syria where the struggle with Marcion was particularly intense. 12 There, the victors in the political power play, beating upon their chests, impish, tongue-in-cheek, turn their opponent's alter ego into their puppet as they draw Christus himself as in a view into their show of strength.
"Behold," Christ asserts (º 31), "you shall meet a man who's name is Saul, which means in translation, Paulus (Acts 13:9). He is a Jew, circumcised according to the determinations of the law and he will hear my voice from heaven with shock and fear and trembling and his eyesight shall become dim and he will receive the sign of the cross with saliva in your hand (singular). Treat him as I have treated you. Send him on to others (i.e. road to Damascus). And this man - his eyes will alight once again and he will praise God, my heavenly father. And he will grow in influence among the peoples and preach and teach and many will be edified when they hear his words and will be saved."
"But many will hate him as in the past and give him into the hands of his enemies. [The enemy is, of course, Markion. Those who hate him are Roman Jewish catholics - such as wrote the Pseudo-Clementine literature - who want nothing to do with him.]
"And he will confess in the presence of mortal, temporal kings and the perfection of faith in me shall fill him; though he pursecuted and hated me, he will be converted and preach and teach and he will reside among my chosen lot, a select armor of mail and a wall that shall never collapse (Acts 9: 15). The very last of the last will become a preacher for the heathens (Gal 1:16; 2:8f; Acts 26:27), perfect in the will of my father... And every word which I have spoken to you und which you have written about me, to the effect that I am the word of my father and that the father is within me, so it will be entirely in order that you respond to this man. Teach and remind him what has been said and accomplished by me in the scriptures and then he will become a source of salvation among the heathens" (Acts 13:47; 26:18; 28:28)."
The elite in Rome surely chuckled behind their hands. The Marcion alternative became a dead letter, if not the revised epistle of his alter ego.
For comments or further information on the author and his extensive writings (i.e., The Last Gospel: An Annotated Dramatization of Socio-religious Life in Late Antiquity ), Dr. Conley may be reached at Mike.Conley@t-online.de
My deepest gratitude to Dr.Conley for contributing his fine article to the library. -D. Mahar
1 The Gospel of Matthew, existent approximately by the year 100 C.E. (= Commen Era) in its present form becomes the most ancient of Christianity's documents.
2 Sola fide teaches that no human can `earn' salvation in god's eyes, but was, rather, obliged to humbly rejoice in being granted it by the Allmighty. Much more in keeping with the Roman epsikopos' stand was the letter attributed to James - anathema in Luther's mind! - which emphasized charity in the community as the pathway to salvation.
3 A.von Harnack, Marcion: Das Evangelium von Fremden Gott, Leipzig: J.C.Hinrichs/Darmstadt, 1921/1996, p. 146-48.
4 R.J.Hoffmann, "Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity," Chico,California: Scholars Press (AAR,No.46),1984. p.19.
5 Tertullian, `Adversus Marcionem,' 1.17.1;2.9.1
6 Let the reader's attention be called to the fact that Greek was, comprehensibly, the language of Christianity up until circa 200 C.E. not only in the eastern Mediterranean, but everywhere.
7 Hermann Detering, äDer Gefalschte Paulus; Das Urchristentum im Zwielicht" [= The falsified Paul; the Dubiousness of Primeval Christianity], Dsseldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1995, p. 63 citing Bruno Bauer, äChristus and the Caesaren." This volume exists in English translation, but remains unavailable due to a lack of a publisher!
8 , W.Schmithals, Theologiegeschichte des Urchristentums, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1994, p. 237-38.
9 cf. Morton Smith's treatment of Acts 8:4ff in `Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, II (Ed. S.J.D. Cohen), Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1996, p. 140-151.
10 Let me that this occasion to cite at some length Hyam Maccoby, `Paul and Hellenism,' London: SCM Press, 1991,p. 123-26: "The whole notion of `eating the god' is familiar in a Hellenistic setting, but bizare in a Jewish one. The prohibition of eating blood arose precisely to prevent imbibing `mama,' i.e. divine `life' (cf. Gen. 9.4;Lev. 17.14). Attempts to escape from humanity by achieving godhead are illegitimate. By contrast, the initiated became deified (`entheoi'), in the Eleusinian mysteries, by partaking in a meal which represented the body of Dionysus (ceremony of `omophagia'). In the mysteries of Attis, a meal of bread and liquid, representing the body of the god, enabled the initiate to participate in his passion and resurrection. In Latin poetry, it is a commonplace to speak of eating Ceres (= bread) or drinking Bacchus. On a sublimated level, foodstuffs were symbolic or, magically, became transubstantiative. Such ideas were pervasive in the pagan world."
11 Hermann Detering, "Der Gefalschte Paulus," p.136.
12 The text is to be found in Wilmeln Schneemelcher, Neutestamentliche Apokryphon, Tbingen: J.C.B.Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Vol. I, 1987, p. 205-233. The entire volume has now in the meantime been translated into English.