Where did our Bible Come from? Part 7: Marcion

This is part of a series. You can go back and read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 if you feel like you’ve missed something.

Emerging from Conflict

Last time I established the window during which the New Testament went from non-existence to formal acknowledgement of the 27 books we know as the canon. There I framed this process largely in terms of a response to Gnosticism (I’ll have to do a posts on the Gnostics at some point). In the comments a former classmate of mine noted that this category of Gnosticism might not be very helpful. While I agree that we should avoid viewing it as a monolithic group, and we should avoid too much of a dualistic distinction between them and Christianity, at least historically, I nevertheless still feel it is a valid and useful category. However, what this revealed was a presupposition that I had neglected to state from the beginning of my dialogue on the New Testament.

While I believe that the canon was formed and began to function as authoritative for one set of reasons, I believe that the formal recognition of this canon by the Church was due to an entirely different set of reasons. Essentially, it is my contention that the Church developed a formal recognition of the biblical canon in response to conflict.

To a certain extent, this makes sense. Think of morality. There are certain things we just instinctually know are wrong, things that make the blood boil: like murder. However, there are other things that are only wrong insofar as they lead to other wrongs. For instance, there is nothing in traffic regulations that makes obeying them inherently good or disobeying them inherently bad. However, their function in keeping other individuals safe is what makes them appropriate rules. In the same way, the gospel is Christ Jesus. That is he is inherently the person (and God) whom you put your trust in, follow, rely upon for salvation, and look to as a source of authority. There is nothing in particular words on a page that make them in favor of that or against that. However, in distinction from traffic laws, what we consider Scripture is not arbitrary. There is this thing, we call it inspiration, that Scripture has and non-scripture doesn’t (and so maybe there is something to these words on a page). So we don’t create the Scripture (as with traffic laws), but we identify what is Scripture. However, there is no need to distinguish between the two on a day to day basis if there is nothing else pretending to hold the same claim as Scripture: namely that it points to Christ Jesus. Therefore, it is only in the presence of conflict, when other people suggested limiting, adding to, or changing the Scriptures in such a way that they no longer pointed to Christ, that it becomes necessary to come up with a rule (greek: kanon, it’s the same word that we use for canon of Scripture) for determining what will count as Scripture.

So, while Scripture itself, being inspired, is distinct from other claims to authority, it is only in the face of conflict that there is a need to distinguish between what is actually Scripture and everything else. In the last post, I mentioned the conflict between what I consider the orthodox church and the Gnostic pseudo-church. However, it is likely that a large chunk of the New Testament began to be recognized as canonical in large part due to a very early controversy. Specifically, I’m talking about Marcionism.

The Marcion Controversy

While Eusebius claims that Marcion was a Gnostic (I should really do that post), this seems incredibly unlikely because, given what we can reconstruct from his critics, he would have had little tolerance for many of their myths. Still, given some other aspects of Marcion it is possibly an understandable mistake.

Marcion started out as a Bishop in the early church. However, he began to teach, and advocate, a very specific limitation of the biblical canon. Marcion seemed to believe that the God of the Old Testament (YHWH) was not the same as the Father of Jesus. Instead, he argued that the Old Testament God was a wicked God, who was vengeful, demanded bloody sacrifice, created the material world (which he believed was evil), and generally angry. He believed that the true God was the “unknown” or “alien” God who was different from the Old Testament God. Jesus’ resurrection, according to Marcion, proved that the God of Jesus was superior to the Old Testament God and that is whom we follow.

While most of this comes from his critics, most notably Tertullian, my homeboy (not really), we nevertheless have good reason to believe it is accurate. This is, in part, because the dualistic understanding of the world, like the Gnostics after him, is rooted in religious Platonism that was common during this time. And the exact same controversy that happened with Marcion occurred again in the tenth and thirteenth century.

In order to make the evidence better fit his vision, Marcion compiled the first canon of what he considered Christian Scripture. In it he included a single Gospel, most likely Luke’s Gospel, heavily edited to remove Old Testament references and (it seems) any of the birth narratives. Then he included ten of Paul’s letters (not the pastorals), also heavily edited. The Old Testament was completely removed. As a result of his teaching and his decision to limit the canon to these books, Marcion was told to stop teaching these doctrines and stop promoting this far too limited canon. He refused and became one of the earliest heretics, subsequently pushed out of the mainline church (often called the “proto-orthodox” church because Orthodoxy came to be associated with adherence to the Nicene Creed which had yet to be written). Rather than keep quiet, though, Marcion instead established his own church against the Christian church, though it eventually dwindled and disappeared, with almost all evidence of its existence being removed.

Oh, and all of this happened before 160 (around the time Marcion died)! That’s incredibly early. Marcion was likely born around 85, during which time the New Testament had either just been written (by the most conservative accounts) or was still being written down. I say this now so you don’t get the idea that the Christian church was going around for centuries without any clear decisions on canon, some of the earliest decisions had be made almost immediately after the writing of the New Testament.

The Reaction

In what is an incredibly rare occurrence, I find myself in (qualified) agreement with Bart Ehrman, along with other scholars. The majority of scholarship argues (rightly I think) that the Marcionite Controversy was probably one the most, if not the most, significant moment for identifying the New Testament canon. Ehrman is again likely correct when he identifies the story, circulated by Epiphanius, of Marcion attempting to “seduce a virgin bride” prior to his excommunication not as Christian slander (as other scholars had argued), but as a metaphor for Marcion trying to seduce the church (the virgin Bride of Christ) (don’t get used to my agreeing with Ehrman, it’s not likely to happen again). What this reveals is that the majority of the church, and not just bishops but congregants too, recognized that there was something wrong not only with Marcion’s theology, but with his canon.

The church decided a few things as a result of this. First, the Old Testament could not be dispensed with. It was, instead, integral and foundational to the understanding of God. Jesus was not preaching about a different God than the one in the Old Testament, Jesus was the God of the Old Testament and in relation with that same God as Son to Father. Jesus, and Paul, quoted the Old Testament at length, not to dispute it, but to affirm it and use it authoritatively, the Old Testament could not be expunged.

Second, the Church decided that they need all four gospels, as they were written. No harmony of the gospels that unified them into a single document would be appropriate. Keep this in mind, incidentally, when people point out any supposed “discrepancies” between the four gospels. The early church was not ignorant of these, but they neither considered them genuine contradictions, nor particularly troubling. What was important, it seems, was that all four voices (Gospels) were permitted to speak.

Third, the Church felt the early canon beyond the Old Testament and the Gospels should include more than just the ten letters of Paul that Marcion noted (and, if it is correct he included things like the letter to the Laodecians, we might be able to surmise that some of the letters where either considered inauthentic or inappropriate for the New Testament canon). Thus, while the four Gospels and the Old Testament were accepted, the Church was still trying to identify what else could validly be considered Scripture. This process we’ll keep talking about in the next post(s).

Sidenote: I’m going to skip talking in depth about the Ebionites, who would be the polar opposite of Marcion. In short, the Ebionites believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and that all of Judaic law still remained. Thus they were essentially Jewish with a few Christian elements. As such they accepted the Old Testament, an edited version of Matthew’s Gospel, parts of James and (possibly) Hebrews in an edited form. I am not going to talk about them in depth because 1) very little beyond that is actually known about them (this may be due to the fact that they were even earlier than Marcion), 2) they were never really Christian, and were more likely Jews who were pushed to Jewish fringe (yet failed to accept the full gospel, and 3) they were never large enough to create the same level of conflict that Marcion did. Finally, they were rejected for essentially the same reasons that Paul gives for rejecting the Judaizers (see the Galatians series on this blog for more on that).

Things to Keep in Mind Today

Today, although most Christians outright reject Marcionism in name, they nevertheless function as followers of Marcion. Two-thirds of the bible is Old Testament, and, within the New Testament, slightly less than a third was written by Paul. Why, then, does the preaching in most churches limit itself largely to Paul, and when it does deviate from that it remains mostly in the New Testament. If we accept the full canon of Scripture we should preach all of it (pastors), and read all of it (everyone).

Second, theologically we need to avoid Marcion thinking as well. The Old Testament God and covenant is not in conflict with the New Testament. It is the same God, and he covenants with his people in much the same way (though obviously the incarnation changes that in a radical manner). If we ever find ourselves setting up a dichotomy between a God of grace and a God of works, we have failed to read the bible properly. Let me be very clear: God has always been a God primarily of grace. This grace has never negated the requirement for good works. Instead, the grace of God should always be understood as the foundation for all good works. Good works are neither superfluous, nor the way we receive grace. Instead we receive grace and that has the result in us of good works and seeking to maintain continued relationship with God.

What do you think: Do you sometimes find yourself slipping into the line of thinking of Marcion? What can be done to avoid this?


7 thoughts on “Where did our Bible Come from? Part 7: Marcion”

  1. Is Marcionite thinking not, at least partly, eradicated by advocating Jesus as the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies (this is something I have heard in many sermons)? (The one that immediately springs to mind is Deutero(?) Isaiah’s suffering servant.)

    Also, does John’s Gospel in particular (though it is, to my mind much underused in churches!) not inextricably tie us to the Old Testament, and to the Old Testament YHWH? I am thinking here particularly of Genesis 1, where YHWH speaks, and so things are, and of the striking parallel to this evoked by John’s Prologue, where Jesus is the divine Logos, or Word, through which ‘all things were made’. God’s creative Word in Genesis becomes the Word which gives us salvation, through Jesus.

    Finally, if Jesus is God’s ‘covenant’ with us, then surely Jesus is the fulfillment / pinnacle of all that goes on in the Old Testament, and of the previous covenants which YHWH made with His people?

    Oh, and please be ‘gentle’ in any responses to this… I claim no theological credentials whatsoever – I have half a Bachelor’s degree in Theology, but graduated in 2005, which seems a long time ago! Above are just my thoughts, I do not claim any authority, or that I have the right answers!

    1. Marcion thinking should be eradicated in this way, provided we keep in mind Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament and not the replacement of it. Marcion actually changed the Scriptures though so he wouldn’t have to deal with those passages (he saw Jesus as the replacement) and we identify the bible, in part at least, as a response to his way of thinking. So the thing we have to keep in mind is that since Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law, we still need to go back from time to time and read what it is he fulfilled. We have a loving relationship with God, but it changed with Jesus. It’s like we moved from dating to being engaged (and one day we will be married when he comes back). The relationship is the same, but different, and the Law, the Prophets, and all the rest are like love letters that go back to and reread in his physical absence.

      1. Wow. That is a beautiful reply.
        In all this logic is love, and we find that they are the same.
        Looking forward to the conclusion and other subject matter here.

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