Thu 24 Jan 2008
For students who are familiar with Christianity in some way (and most are regardless of what their religious backgrounds may be), it is hard to get their minds around a variety of people that called themselves “Christians” or followers of Jesus back in the first couple of centuries. These other Christians sometimes had quite different worldviews and practices than the ones we associate with Christianity today, and they can come across as “strange”.
One reason these other followers of Jesus come across as “strange” is because the varieties of Christianity we are familiar with today (despite the diversity there too) all stem, in some way, from the winners who established their positions as “orthodox” (true-belief) in antiquity. The result was that, in the long run, many others who felt they followed Jesus got left out the picture, with the exception of other Jesus-followers speaking negatively about them as “heretics”.
Once in a while, we are lucky to actually find writings from the perspectives of the ones who lost out (the “heretics”) as history moved forward, as when a group of writings like the Nag Hammadi documents are found. However, with most others it is only indirectly that we can get a sense of the diversity of groups that followed Jesus.
One such form of Christianity that comes across as “strange” at first is Marcion’s style of following Jesus (he was especially active in the 130s and 140s CE). We only know about Marcion’s views from those who disliked him, from certain patristic writers like Tertullian, who wrote a five-volume work condemning Marcion’s views (Against Marcion online here). I have already discussed the sort of name-calling you might expect from the likes of Tertullian in a previous post on the “savage” Marcion here. We have to carefully reconstruct the views of Marcion from writers of the late-second and third centuries like Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Hippolytus (see some of the passages quoted here).
In the 150s CE, for instance, Justin writes:
one Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even now alive, teaching those who believe him to pay honour to a different god, greater than the Creator: and this man has by the assistance of those demons caused many of every nation to utter blasphemies, denying the God who made this universe, and professing that another, a greater than he, has done greater things (Apology 1.26 as cited in Evans).
From such sources, it seems that Marcion believed that the God who sent Jesus was not the same god familiar from the stories of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). Reading these stories quite literally, Marcion saw the creator god in the Hebrew Bible as rather impulsive, unpredictable, warlike, and primarily interested in having humans follow his rules or in judging those who did not. Marcion felt that Jesus’ message and behaviour was not compatible with the sort of behaviour Marcion found in the creator god.
This is where the stranger God comes into the picture, and I mean strange in the sense of previously unknown. Marcion proposed that Jesus had no direct relation to the Judean (Jewish or Israelite) creator god of the Hebrew Bible and that he was not that god’s messiah. Rather, Jesus was sent from a previously unknown, stranger God whose character was centred not on war and justice but on love. There is a sense in which the creator god of the Bible was the antithesis of the God who sent Jesus, in Marcion’s view.
Marcion wrote a whole book, which is now lost, on the Antitheses or “Oppositions” between the two. Marcion also expressed this opposition in terms of the opposition between Law (enforced by the creator god) and Gospel (brought by Jesus from the loving Father). He drew this contrast between gospel and law from his own interpretation of Paul’s letters, which he edited to remove connections with the Judean god. Marcion thought that Paul got things right and that the other apostles mis-interpreted Jesus. The loving Father sent Jesus to free us from the legalistic enforcement of the Judean god, Marcion believed. Although the Judean creator god was just in a legalistic sense (he punished humans based on the law he established), the Father God who sent Jesus was far superior and loving.
In order to further bolster this interpretation, Marcion also was among the first to gather together a collection of authoritative writings. The Hebrew Bible was quite clearly excluded from scripture in Marcion’s mind, since it had nothing to do with either Jesus or the previously unknown, loving God. Rather, Marcion proposed as authoritative ten of Paul’s letters together with a version of the gospel of Luke with parts removed that implied a connection between Jesus and the Judean god. Marcion, it seems was among the first to propose a canon of scripture of sorts. On that, see my post: Breaking news: Early Christians had no New Testament.
That, in brief, is some of the limited amount we know about Marcion, whose brand of Christianity was considerably successful in various parts of the Roman empire from North Africa and Rome to Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, at least into the fourth and fifth centuries.
UPDATE (moments later):
As if the result of some alignment of the planets, Stephen Carlson has just posted on an interesting (though certainly questionable) theory regarding the synoptic problem that involves a Marcionite gospel: Klinghardt’s New Solution for the Synoptic Problem.