Marcion and the Invention of the New Testament
Marcion joins the ranks of the so-called Apostolic Fathers as a witness to the very earliest recoverable forms of New Testament texts. Yet, because he did not merely make occasional quotations from or allusions to their content as other Apostolic Fathers did, but compiled and disseminated complete editions of them, Marcion far exceeds such other early witnesses in the extent of evidence he provides for the state of New Testament texts in that time.
See Also: The First New Testament (Salem: Polebridge 2013)
By Jason BeDuhn
Professor, Comparative Study of Religions
Department of Comparative Cultural Studies
Northern Arizona University
Many modern Christians think of the New Testament as a book outside of history, something that was just suddenly there. Historians of Christianity, able to trace its gradual authorship and formation, nonetheless typically find themselves describing this development as an anonymous process, a spontaneous evolution accomplished by the nameless and faceless members of ancient communities of faith. But when it comes to the origin of the New Testament, we know the name of the individual responsible, the circumstances of his work in compiling it, and even a date that bears some relation to his momentous decision to establish a textual foundation for the fledgling Christian communities of his time: Marcion, 144 C.E.
Before Marcion there were Christian writings that were read and treated as in some sense authoritative; but they had limited, local circulation and were not incorporated into a larger Bible. Traditions about Jesus were known, recounted, and recorded. The readers of these records regarded them as accurate, informed, perhaps even inspired. But the impetus to collect them into either a distinct scripture or a supplement to the Jewish one simply had not arisen. In quite a few places, the majority of texts that would ultimately be included in the New Testament were completely unknown. For those who considered the Jewish scriptures as authoritative as ever, the growing set of new writings may have been seen as a secondary, subordinate body of literature.
This was a time when, in the words of B. H. Streeter, “there was no unifying authority, no world-wide organisation, however informal, to check the independent development of the various local churches each on its own lines.”1 These local Christian communities had a complex relationship to the broader Jewish community – itself diverse – within which they first developed, and which passed through a series of violent uprisings against the Roman order in the crucial period of the emergence of Christianity. With each successive wave of Jewish restiveness and anti-Jewish repression, local Christian communities would have been faced with fundamental questions of identity and association with respect to the Jewish roots of their faith. They fell under social and cultural pressure: from without, for their links to Jewish identity; from within, for their non-conformity to newly emerging Jewish orthodoxies.
Onto this scene stepped Marcion. Following what he believed to be the views of Paul, he pushed for a clean break with the Jewish religious tradition. Marcion applied his intellectual and organizational gifts to working out a resolution of the troubled relationship between the parent religious culture and its prodigal offspring. If Paul was correct that the message of Christ ultimately transcended the boundaries of the Mosaic covenant, what role remained for the Jewish scriptures that enjoined, celebrated, and promoted that covenant? And if those scriptures were obsolete, as this line of understanding might be taken to imply, where was one to turn for authoritative guidance? What were to be the distinctly Christian scriptures?
The first Christians were Jews, and the first non-Jewish Christians almost certainly came from the so-called “God-fearers” -- Gentiles who attended Jewish synagogues as a kind of affiliated community as “fans,” so to speak, of Jewish religious traditions -- and the Christian movement crossed into Gentile awareness from its Jewish roots through this medium, as we can see in some of the letters of Paul and the Book of Acts. What then happened when, through a series of socio-political crises, the dependence of these Gentile Christian groups on a Jewish Christian core became untenable, and Gentile Christians either willingly or unwillingly went their own way? First the Jewish War of 66-70 CE, then the Jewish urban insurgencies and anti-Jewish riots of 116-117 CE, then the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-134 CE, repeatedly made association with Jews very problematic. Each of these wars was followed by decades of anti-Jewish laws and social prejudice. Jewish religion itself went through traumatic adjustments that made it less tolerant of dissident groups like the Christians. As the Gentile Christian groups detached from the synagogue, they took different forms. Some lead toward Marcion, in which the Jewish background of Christian thought and practice was minimized. Others lead toward what Marcion found in place in Rome, in which Gentile Christians felt entitled to appropriate the Jewish tradition as a whole, and claim to be “Verus Israel,” the True Israel.
Marcion came from the Roman province of Pontus, on what is today the north coast of Turkey. He had his profession in the sea-trade, being a shipmaster or ship-owner (nauclerus).2 Through the organization of his business, Marcion would have had agents or contacts in many major ports throughout the empire, and would have visited these far-flung places for business reasons. This would have given him a tremendous advantage in spreading his message rapidly and organizing communities on an empire-wide scale. Precisely at the time when Marcion was active, the Roman government found it necessary to issue laws against people not actually involved in the sea trade being admitted to membership in its professional associations,3 suggesting that the latter were being employed for some sort of networking beyond their original purpose. It is also interesting to note that, before Christians adopted the codex instead of the scroll as the format for their books, its previous primary use was as a shipmaster’s almanac and businessman’s account ledger.
Marcion made his way to Rome, probably early in the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE),4 at which time he sought communion with the established Christian communities there. Yet his understanding of Christianity differed enough from that of leaders within the Roman Christian community that they could not tolerate each other. Our sources report arguments over the significance of such things as Jesus’ analogy of the old and new wineskins (Luke 5.36-37), reflecting questions of how the new Christian movement should relate to the older Jewish tradition. Following the split, Marcion became the organizer and leader of a separate Christian community that rapidly drew in adherents from across the Roman Empire. These “Marcionite” Christian churches were unique in having something no other Christian community had in the mid-second century: a canon of Christian scriptures.
Marcion defined for the first time a biblical canon – that is, in the useful distinction made by Bruce Metzger, not just a “collection of authoritative books,” such as a circulating set of Pauline letters, but an “authoritative collection of books,”5 with set limits that clearly signaled a unique status for the texts included. Marcion clearly intended his First New Testament to serve as the touchstone of Christian belief and practice at a time when these were still quite fluid and conveyed in a primarily oral environment.
It was for someone with Marcion’s perspective, for whom the Jewish scriptures were ideologically problematic, that the stakes were raised on this body of early Christian literature to the point of elevating it to a unique status of authority. So it was that Marcion collected, for the first time in history, an authoritative set of Christian writings intended to be afforded a status above that of other Christian literature. We need to deal up front with the discomfort that many have with Marcion’s role in this decisive event of Christian history. By later standards of orthodoxy, Marcion’s interpretation of the New Testament writings was “heretical.” But that is a completely separate matter from the value of the New Testament text he used, and its importance for the later Christian tradition. This distinction often has not been appreciated, and it is one of the principal tasks of my book, The First New Testament (Salem: Polebridge 2013), to demonstrate why it should be made, and how much more significant the Marcionite New Testament becomes as a consequence.
Marcion’s New Testament consisted of two parts: the Evangelion, a narrative account of the teachings and deeds of Jesus related literarily to the gospel we now know as Luke, and the Apostolikon, a collection of ten letters of Paul – those very ten, incidentally, that modern critical scholarship has concluded have the greatest likelihood of being authentic. Marcion is in fact our earliest witness to the existence of six of those ten letters: 2 Corinthians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. Marcion put his distinctive stamp on all subsequent attempts to formalize a New Testament for the very reason that his particular ideology led him to elevate such a set of the letters of Paul to parity with an account of the life and teachings of Jesus himself. That decision puts Marcion’s work in a direct line of continuity with later Christian New Testaments, however delayed or otherwise influenced the formation of the latter might have been.
Thus, it is not only the idea of a New Testament that can be credited first to Marcion, but also the distinctive structure of that New Testament, combining a “gospel” narrative of the life of Jesus with apostolic letters, specifically, the letters of Paul. There is little to be said in favor of the claim that the formation of the New Testament followed an inevitable trajectory, and that the Christian Bible would have turned out exactly as it did even if Marcion had never lived. On the contrary, the correspondence between what Marcion did and what the New Testament ultimately became in the hands of his triumphant competitors suggests his lasting impact on the Christian Bible, and so on Christianity itself.
In the time before Marcion we find few quotations from the books that were to be included in the New Testament. “In the first one and a half centuries of the Church’s history there is no single Gospel writing which is directly made known, named, or in any way given prominence by quotation. Written and oral traditions run side by side or cross, enrich or distort one another, without distinction or even the possibility of distinction between them.”6 We can see a clear difference in how early Christian writers informally handled material later included in the New Testament, compared to their more formal, precise citation of Jewish scriptures; the two sources of instruction simply did not share the same level of sacredness and authority for these authors. Marcion’s contemporary Justin Martyr, for instance, made use of a collection of stories and sayings of Jesus culled from various gospels both known and unknown to us today, with little indication that he considered it important to preserve the exact wording of anything other than Jesus’ own statements.7
We can affirm, therefore, four points Adolf von Harnack made 90 years ago about Marcion’s contribution to the formation of the Christian Bible:8
(1) Christians owe to Marcion the idea of a New Testament. It had occurred to no one before and can best be understood as originating in the context of Marcion’s rejection of an Old Testament base for Christianity.
(2) Christians owe to Marcion the particular form of the New Testament. The equal standing of the letters of Paul with the memoirs of Christ’s life is something that would not be expected in a sacred literature from any precedent up to that time.
(3) Christians owe to Marcion the prominence of the voice of Paul in the New Testament, and consequently in the subsequent Christian tradition generally. Many of Marcion’s contemporaries had all but forgotten Paul, or subsumed him within the broader apostolic mass.
(4) Christians owe to Marcion the push towards a Christianity rooted in its own distinctive scripture, rather than in an oral tradition of interpreting Jewish scripture, or in a scriptureless system of authority and practice like most Greco-Roman religions of the time.
Yet Harnack went on to accept the accusation of Marcion’s enemies that he had edited his biblical texts to make them conform to his views, basing himself on anti-Marcionite writers such as Tertullian and Epiphanius. In doing so, Harnack made a fundamental error of historical judgment. First, Tertullian and his associates in this charge against Marcion are working from an anti-Marcionite bias that shapes their assumptions. Second, they are writing from a position in time that makes it impossible for them to have any sure knowledge of the state of either anything like a New Testament canon or its constituent books at the time of Marcion. Third, we know for a fact that several of their assumptions are incorrect: there was no New Testament canon before Marcion, from which the latter rejected parts unsuited to him; there was no larger Pauline corpus from which Marcion excised the Pastorals; there was no universal, undisputed orthodoxy from which Marcion diverged. All of these are anachronisms that Marcion’s later critics project back into the circumstances of his activity. Fourth, the content of the Evangelion and Apostolikon does not provide evidence of texts consistently edited to conform to Marcion’s ideology; these texts contain plenty that is obviously and directly contrary to the positions attributed to Marcion.
Once we recognize the baseless character of the suspicions about Marcion as a collector of Christian texts, we can restore him to his proper place as a very early witness to those texts. The oldest relatively complete New Testament manuscripts date to the first half of the fourth century C.E. Incomplete portions of earlier New Testament collections survive in fragmentary papyri from about a century earlier, the early third century. Reconstructions culled from the quotations of early Christian writers can be pushed back about as far. It is largely on the basis of these sources that the modern New Testament is edited and translated. But Marcion’s New Testament, reconstructible to the same degree as those early third century manuscripts and sources, dates back another century earlier to the mid-second century, and so to within a generation or two of the original composition of the texts themselves. In fact, given his dates, Marcion joins the ranks of the so-called Apostolic Fathers as a witness to the very earliest recoverable forms of New Testament texts. Yet, because he did not merely make occasional quotations from or allusions to their content as other Apostolic Fathers did, but compiled and disseminated complete editions of them, Marcion far exceeds such other early witnesses in the extent of evidence he provides for the state of New Testament texts in that time.
Marcion’s act of canonization appears to have served as a catalyst for discussions and debates about which Christian writings should be accorded this status. Arguments were made, new sources were sought out, and lists were drawn up. This process went on for another two hundred years before any of the proposed canons matched what modern Christians consider to be the New Testament. Any talk of a “New Testament” apart from Marcion’s in the 2nd and 3rd centuries is anachronistic, and must be treated as a shorthand way to refer to individual books or sub-sets of texts recognized as authoritative amid an indeterminate larger set of Christian literature. Marcion, by issuing a delimited set of Christian texts considered exclusively authoritative as early as the mid-2nd century was far ahead of his time.
1 The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (5th ed.). London: Macmillan, 1956, 14-15.
2 Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 1.18.4; 3.6.3; 4.9.2; 5.1.2; De praescr. haer. 30.1; Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 5.13.3.
3 Digest 184.108.40.206; 220.127.116.11.
4 Clement, Strom. 7.17.106f.; Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 1.19; 5.19; De praescr. haer. 30; Epiphanius, Panarion 42.1.7.
5 Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 282.
6 Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1972), 121.
7 William Petersen, “Textual Evidence of Tatian’s Dependence upon Justin’s ‘ΑΠΟΜΝΗΜΟΝΕΥΜΑΤΑ’,” NTS 36 (1990) 512-534.
8 Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: Das Evangelium vom Fremden Gott, 2d ed. (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1924), 206-215.