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A New Portrait of Marcion1

Marcion was convinced that Christ’s original Gospel had been falsified by the Church, a theory which, as he believed, found confirmation in the writings of the Apostle Paul, who spoke of false brothers who “have infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” In accordance with this conspiracy theory, Marcion radically altered the New Testament, not only by limiting it to a small number of texts (the Gospel of Luke and ten Letters of Paul), but above all by cutting out all passages from the remaining texts which show any positive reference to the Old Testament.

See Sebastian Moll, The Arch-Heretic Marcion, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.

By Sebastian Moll
Theological Faculty of the University of Mainz
August 2011

Marcion was born ca. 100-110 AD in the region of Pontus (northern part of today’s Turkey), perhaps in the city of Sinope.2 He was born into the Christian community3 at a time when the young movement was still in a process of finding itself. While there was already a certain organisational structure within the single communities, there was no such thing as the Church in the sense of an authoritative institution, nor was there an authoritative canon of Christian texts. However, both the Old Testament4 as well as many texts which were to be included in the New Testament are used by Christians, and the time of Marcion’s youth was marked by a feeling of complete harmony and unity between the Old and the New Testament. This idea of harmony is found in many second-century sources before Marcion, such as the letters of Ignatius of Antioch or the letter of Barnabas. Of course, “Barnabas” is far more explicit in this matter than Ignatius. Perhaps he marks the climax of a tendency increasingly common in his time, the tendency of trying to “Christianize” the Old Testament at all costs. Marcion is undoubtedly familiar with this often questionable process, and it is quite possible that this experience motivated him to offer his own approach to the problem.

As far as his personal development was concerned, Marcion’s soul appeared to be infested by a fanatical hatred of the world. We do not know what caused this immense feeling of hatred, but we do know that he was so tormented by it that he needed an explanation for all the evil in the world, or, more precisely, he needed someone to blame for it. Again, we do not know at which point of his life this search ended for him, but we do know the result of this search: Marcion found someone responsible in the form of the Creator. While blaming the (negative) status of the creation on the Creator is not actually an original idea, Marcion did not simply have an anonymous Creator in mind; he specifically blamed the God of the Old Testament. That the God described within these texts was the Creator of the world was (or is) a common belief among Jews and Christians alike; however, within these circles he is usually praised for his creation rather than criticized. But Marcion concentrated on those passages within the Old Testament which “exposed” him as an evil Creator. The key passage for him was Isa. 45:7, in which the Old Testament God himself “admitted”: “It is I who create evil.”5 Apart from this general reproach, Marcion particularly blamed the Creator for the imperfect creation of man. Thus, rather than being concerned with theodicy, Marcion was the champion of anthropodicy. The fact that man is a notorious transgressor of the Law is not his fault, but the Creator’s, who simply could have created him stronger and more resistant. This concept brings us to two other features of the Old Testament God: he is Lawgiver and Judge. Obviously, Marcion had no respect for these offices, either. For this God judges people for transgressing his Law, although it is his own fault that they are too feeble to obey it. Seen in this light, he is indeed playing a very cruel game with his subjects.

In this context, we are beginning to understand how biblicistic6 Marcion’s theology actually is. He based his view of this evil Creator completely on Old Testament testimony. Therefore, in a manner of speaking, the evil God in Marcion’ system is the God of the Old Testament. Hence, he has all the features the Old Testament ascribes to him, such as Creator, but also Lawgiver and Judge. Finally, and again in complete accordance with the Old Testament testimony, Marcion also saw this God as the God of the Jews. This feature has often led to the assumption of anti-Jewish feelings within Marcion’s doctrine, given that he attributed such a negative deity to the Jewish people. However, a closer look reveals that it is exactly the other way around. Just as Marcion was generally concerned with anthropodicy, so he was concerned with a defense of the Jews. After all, it was not the Jews who chose this evil deity as their God, it was he who chose them as his people, and their relation to their God is, according to Marcion, above all marked by a feeling of fear and mistrust, rather than of love and reverence.

While his negative view of the world and, accordingly, his hatred for the God of the Old Testament form the center of Marcion’s theology, he would probably not feature so prominently in a history of Christianity if he had stopped at this point. The testimony of the Gospel and of Paul is most important to the heresiarch, too, probably even just as important as the testimony of the Old Testament; however, in the genesis of Marcion’s system of thought it remains the secondary part, a fact which can best be seen by the way he treats these two groups of texts. As far as the Old Testament is concerned, Marcion completely adopts the collection of texts which is in use in the orthodox church, that is, the collection he grew up with himself, without changing anything within it. As for the New Testament, however, Marcion was convinced that Christ’s original Gospel had been falsified by the Church, a theory which, as he believed, found confirmation in the writings of the Apostle Paul, who spoke of false brothers who “have infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.”7 In accordance with this conspiracy theory, Marcion radically altered the New Testament, not only by limiting it to a small number of texts (the Gospel of Luke and ten Letters of Paul), but above all by cutting out all passages from the remaining texts which show any positive reference to the Old Testament. Thus, the New Testament has to be adapted to the Old, not the other way around, which means that Marcion does not understand the Old Testament in the light of the New; he interprets the New Testament in the light of the Old.

In the “original” Gospel (that is, the Gospel of Luke changed according to Marcion’s doctrine), the heresiarch found the counterpart to the evil Creator, the perfectly good God, the Father of Jesus Christ, who was completely unrelated to the world and its people, but who still sent his Son to save mankind from the reign of the evil God. This salvation, however, remained limited to the afterlife. In this world, Marcion and his followers are still “companions in misery,” as they designate themselves.

In 144, Marcion settled in Rome. He joined the local church and donated 200,000 sesterces, part of his respectable fortune, which he had gained as ship-owner. By this time, Marcion had already fully developed his doctrine, and he now began to proclaim it in Rome. Accordingly, it did not take long until he and the Roman ecclesia went their separate ways. While the Church Fathers naturally portrayed this separation as the Church “kicking” Marcion out, it is rather hard to say who actually broke with whom here. In the end, it seems quite possible that the break happened in mutual consent. Still, as the first man to ever be outside the Church (for doctrinal reasons), Marcion marks the beginning of the epochal fight between orthodoxy and heresy. But not only that, his biography of a man who is familiar with orthodox doctrine and then deliberately chooses to deviate from it would become a stereotype for future heresiologists.

Marcion now decided to found his own church. He adopted most of the liturgy and offices as he found them in the orthodox counterpart, probably because he simply saw no need to change them.8 The heresiarch ruled his community with absolute authority, a fact which, together with his organisational talent and his financial means, accounted for the enormous success of his movement throughout the Empire within only a few years. Put simply: he knew what to do, he could finance it, and nobody objected – a truly powerful combination! A particular danger to the orthodox church was the fact that Marcion’s movement recruited its members almost exclusively from former orthodox Christians; for the complete ban on procreation among the Marcionites ruled out any chance of natural progeny, and the explicit biblical approach of Marcionite doctrine (combined with an extremely negative view of the Jewish texts) made the movement unattractive to Jews and pagans alike. Marcion prohibited all sexual intercourse within his community as part of his radical ethical demands. These demands were above all motivated by a feeling of Trotz9 against the Creator: a Marcionite was supposed to deliberately disobey his commands, such as the command to “increase and multiply.” Features like these demonstrate that Marcion’s hatred for the Creator, the world, and even life itself definitely show certain pathological traits; the ultimate consequence of this lifestyle would be the extinction of the human race.

In the years after the foundation of his church, Marcion produced the first Christian canon, in the sense of the first authoritative collection of Christian books.10 He was surely not the first Christian to consider certain texts as authoritative, but he was the first to limit the number of these texts. As stated above, he accepted the same collection of Old Testament texts as the Church did, but as far as the New Testament was concerned he limited his edition to the Gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul, all texts being completely freed from any positive reference to the Old Testament. While the establishment of this canon may be considered a pioneering act, it must be doubted whether Marcion himself attached as much importance to it as modern scholars do. The Marcionite church was not necessarily founded on the basis of this canon. A mere collection of writings could not win Marcion many followers. The center of his doctrine is the idea of the evil and the good God, and he had to promote this idea first; in other words, he had to promote his Antitheses first, in which he opposed passages from the two Testaments, thereby demonstrating their discrepancy. After people became aware of his concept, the problem occurred that some passages within the Gospel and the Letters of Paul seemed to contradict Marcion’s claim. It was perhaps only then that Marcion saw himself necessitated to perform the above-mentioned changes. The really crucial contribution to the canon development on Marcion’s part, however, was that by opposing the Old and the New Testament he laid the foundation for a bi-partite canon as we still use it today.

Marcion’s ideas have an enormous influence on the development of the Church, especially as far as the Old Testament is concerned. With the contrast between the Old and the New Testament having been pointed out so radically, there is no going back to the feeling of perfect unity between them that was common among Marcion’s predecessors (see above). Accordingly, within only a few years after the start of Marcion’s movement, several prominent Christian thinkers, both within the orthodox and the heretical camp, dedicated their writings to this question. There was first of all the Gnostic Ptolemy, a contemporary of Marcion in Rome.11 Naturally, by attributing the Law to a God other than the Father of Christ, Ptolemy remains fairly close to Marcion, and it was in fact the Gnostic’s polytheistic approach which made his solution unacceptable to orthodox Christians such as Justin Martyr.12 The Apologist, on his part, another contemporary of Marcion and fellow inhabitant of the Capital, was above all concerned with preserving (against the heretics of his time) the idea of one God being responsible for both the Old Testament and the Gospel. He introduces his own concept of a temporal development within the divine revelation, thereby fully establishing the idea of an Old and a New Testament in the first place.

Marcion died about 165 AD, probably in Rome.


1 This article is intended to provide a complete portrait of Marcion on a rather small scale. For the sake of this purpose, I concentrated more on presenting my results than on providing a thorough analysis of the sources.

2 This information is not as certain as is generally assumed, cf. Sebastian Moll, “Three against Tertullian: The Second Tradition about Marcion's Life”, JTS 59 (2008), p. 169-181 at 177-178.

3 However, the information provided by some sources that his father was a bishop is in all probability fallacious, see ibid., p. 179.

4 Although the terms “Old” and “New Testament” are anachronistic when used in the era of Marcion, I shall still continue to use them in this article for the sake of simplicity. There are just no other suitable terms which would properly describe these groups of texts. As a matter of fact, we shall see below that it was Marcion who indirectly promoted the establishment of the two terms.

5 Ego sum qui condo mala, this is the way Tertullian quotes the verse in context with Marcion (Adversus Marcionem I.2,2). The complete verse reads (NIV): “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.”

6 That the arch-heretic misunderstood the biblical message goes without saying, but this is no argument against his Biblicism. There is no reading without interpretation, and thus the term “biblicism” does not say anything about the content of a theologian’s doctrine, it merely describes a theological method.

7 Gal. 2:4 (Adv. Marc. V.3,2-3).

8 This situation shows how deeply Marcion was rooted in the ecclesial system of his time, for some of the rites he adopted were in clear opposition to his own theology, such as the giving of milk and honey during baptism for instance, which forms a clear reference to the Old Testament (!) promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.

9 The German term Trotz provides a perfect description of Marcion’s mentality. Unfortunately, there is no real English equivalent. The usual dictionary translation would be “defiance,” but defiance can be reflected and deliberate. Trotz, on the other hand, usually signifies defiance out of spite, very often in an almost childish way.

10 Bruce Metzger’s distinction between a “collection of authoritative books” and an “authoritative collection of books” is most helpful in this regard, cf. Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987, p. 282.

11 Based on the assumption that he is identical to the martyr Ptolemy mentioned in Justin’s Apology, cf. Moll, Marcion, p. 14-16.

12 To say nothing about the fact that Ptolemy’s system is far too intricate to ever have prevailed in the Church.

Comments (1)

Is Saint Augustine's exegesis of the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Genesis correct? Do a search: First Scandal.
#1 - Robert Hagedorn - 09/07/2011 - 18:15

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