Marcion: Forgotten “Father” and Inventor of the New Testament

Christianity owes a major debt to a man with no direct connection to Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus – a man labeled a heretic by the forerunners of orthodox Christianity. Marcion (c. 95-165 CE) was a shipbuilder, possibly ship owner, from Pontus, a small region in what is now northern Turkey. We know little else about him, except that at some point in his career he joined the Christian community in Rome only to find himself embroiled in debate with the leadership there. Ultimately they were unable to resolve their differences, and the Marcionite community broke from other Jesus followers of that era. It is unknown how separate the communities were in practice, but in some parts of the ancient world Marcionites were called “Christians” while groups with closer ties to Judaism were called “Nazoreans.”

Jason BeDuhn gives a lecture on Marcion

Jason BeDuhn

Marcion holds a lasting legacy for Christians as the inventor of the New Testament. Jason BeDuhn, author of The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, argues that Marcion not only put together the very first Christian canon of scriptures, he gave Christianity very idea of doing so. At the Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? Conference in Santa Rosa, California, BeDuhn spoke about the important role Marcion played in shaping Christian identity. This begins with the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in the Roman Empire. “A good contemporary analogy is the interest some modern White Americans have in Native American religion and culture,” he said, “A similar thing was going on with Gentile fans of Judaism in the ancient world. They wanted to take on foreign spirituality and practices.” However, Jews rebelled multiple times against the Roman Empire in the second century, and Gentile Christian groups fled association with them, taking on new forms in the process.

Marcionites were pesco-vegetarians who embraced pacifism. Women held high leadership roles, at least prominently enough that critics of Marcionites complained about the role women were playing in the movement. They did not believe the god of Jesus was the god of the Jews. They believed the god of the Jews was a creator god that ruled based on judgment and violence, which Marcion argued by appealing to violent texts in the Hebrew scriptures. Marcion saw the god of Jesus as an entirely new being, a higher god who provided escape from the judgment of this world. Most importantly, Marcionites had something no other Christians had: a canon of their own scriptures.

Challenging Traditional Views of Marcion

Critics of Marcion like Tertullian and Epiphanius complained that Marcion cut and edited scripture to fit his beliefs. Biblical scholar Adolf von Harnack accepted this claim in his definitive text on Marcion, Marcion: The Gospel of an Alien God (1920). However, Tertullian and Epiphanius lived several generations after Marcion, and they assumed the New Testament they read already existed in Marcion’s era. It didn’t. Marcion’s critics were reading history backward instead of forward: there was no New Testament yet.

We tend to assume the version of Christianity we see today as inevitable, but actually there were many possible ways for Christianity to develop. Christianity may never have become a religion with a set of scriptures at all. Christians may have continued to interpret and reinterpret Hebrew scriptures, rely on oral storytelling, consider themselves Jewish, and so on. The very attitude of Marcionites setting themselves apart from Jews led them to declare a “new” testament, and that has made all the difference.

Marcion’s New Testament

What did Marcion’s version of the New Testament look like? It had two parts: the Evangelion, which was a gospel related to the Gospel of Luke, and the Apostolikon, a collection of Paul’s letters. Marcion is our first witness to six of the ten letters now considered to be authentic by modern biblical scholars. Biblical scholars came to the conclusion that only some letters attributed to Paul are authentic (most exclude 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, for example). The evidence from Marcion supports this finding. The inclusion of Paul’s letters in the New Testament was by no means certain. Rather, Marcion’s choice to include the letters succeeded in pushing other communities to do the same thing when they came up with competing canons of scripture, although it took his competitors two hundred years to establish the canon now found in Bibles today.

This is a very different way of looking at the Marcionite New Testament, and scholars will need to compare the edition reconstructed by Jason BeDuhn to determine how this changes our view of how early Christianity developed. For example, the Evangelion is much shorter than the Gospel of Luke, and it is not clear whether they were both written by the same person for different communities, or if a later editor added new material to the Gospel of Luke. Also, BeDuhn found that the Marcionite version of Romans 9-11 is completely different, yet this text has been used by some scholars as a key to Pauline theology. Regardless of how these findings eventually play out in scholarly discussion and debates, BeDuhn identifies four significant contributions of Marcion to Christian history:

The First New Testament: Marcion's Scriptural Canon

Available from Polebridge Press

  1. Christians owe the idea of a “new” testament to Marcion.
  2. Christians owe to Marcion the particular form of the New Testament.
  3. Christians owe to Marcion the prominence of the voice of Paul in the New Testament.
  4. Finally, Christians owe to Marcion a Christian identity built on a special scripture all their own.

Taming Tongues of Fire in the Book of Acts

When we read the book of Acts, we encounter a distinct movement away from the egalitarian vision of Jesus and even Paul, down the path toward Constantine and the religion of an empire. This shift comes into focus when we compare Acts to the pagan Felix Minutious, who criticized Christianity in the third century on a number of counts. In a presentation today at the Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? conference by the Westar Institute, Shelly Matthews, author of Acts of the Apostles: Taming Tongues of Fire (Sheffield, forthcoming), used Felix as a key to explore the social criticisms to which the author of Acts responded.

Pagan Criticism of Christians

Felix, though writing around a century later than Acts, captures well the sentiments of Greco-Roman civil society toward Christians. Among other things, Felix describes Christians as the “dregs of society,” made up of gullible women and riff-raff whispering in corners. He found it shocking that they worshiped a criminal, which was what crucifixion represented. He described them as worse even than the Jews – who were themselves viewed as rebellious rabble rousers – because at least the Jews worshiped in public places and respectable temples.

Luke is often portrayed as friendly to women, but Luke’s treatment of women is a good test case in demonstrating how he responds to criticism like that of Felix. Luke generally places intelligent women in his narrative, and even quotes Hebrew scriptures that suggest women are important to the Jesus-following movement. However, they rarely speak and are often relegated off stage. Luke does just enough to show that the women in the Jesus movement are not “gullible” but are in fact respectable women. He stops short of showing them in positions of actual power in the movement.

Shelly Matthews

Shelly Matthews

What about the claim that Christians comes from the “dregs” of society? Luke answers this critique by highlighting how many “friends in high places” Christians possess, especially key Christian leaders like Peter and Paul. In Acts 13 he even goes so far as to say the proconsul, a man who occupied an incredibly high position in Roman civil society, was a friend of Christians! This would have been difficult, if not impossible.

Then there’s the claim of secretiveness. This theme emerges repeatedly in pagan discourse about Christians. Worship in Roman society, properly carried out, was public and took place in temples. Outsiders wondered what Christians were up to, and heard rumors that whatever it was, was improper. By way of response, Luke places Peter and Paul in public spaces (mostly synagogues) where in fact they attempt to speak and are often silenced by people who are concerned for their safety. This portrayal of Paul in particular is contradictory to Paul’s own voice in his letters, where he admits to being a poor orator who struggled to debate with competing missionaries. In Acts, Paul demonstrates great prowess in oration. He is articulate and convincing. Where Paul privileges foolishness as the power of God, Acts is suspiciously drawn to portray Christians as powerful and impressive – ideal Roman citizens who could handle debate in the public square.

Ironically, Paul and Felix Minucious are two sides of the same coin. Their descriptions of Christians are virtually the same, but from positive and negative perspectives respectively. Acts is the departure from these complementary views.

“Christians Aren’t Like Jews”
Luke’s Attempt at Christian Public Relations

Another important task faced by Luke was to distance Jesus followers from Jews, who in the second century were embroiled in rebellion against the Roman Empire. It was neither safe nor prudent to be identified with Jews, yet Jesus followers could not deny a connection with Judaism. Luke solves this problem by distinguishing Jesus followers from “non-believing” Jews, that is, Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. However, this was a complicated matter because Greco-Roman culture did not simply dismiss Jews or Judaism outright. On the one hand, the Jews were rebels, but on the other, the antiquity of their religion was a source of great cultural capital. Luke seizes on both aspects in an ingenious way, a way that would have long-term consequences for Jewish-Christian relations.

Luke describes non-believing Jews as essentially functioning by mob rule, prone to violence, and rebellious. By contrast, Jesus followers embody the fulfillment of Jewish scriptures. They are the hope and wish of the scriptures. Non-believing Jews bear the weight of negative stereotypes, while Jesus followers appropriate positive stereotypes. In ancient rhetoric, repetition indicated the importance of a point; Luke provides ample repetition of these themes throughout the book of Acts.

Was there any truth to Luke’s claims that Jews acted violently toward Jesus-followers? Perhaps there was violence, and Shelly does not deny that possibility. The troubling point in Luke’s narrative is not so much that the claims of violence are inaccurate; rather, this is the only violence that appears in the book. We know Jesus was killed as a criminal by the ruling Roman government. We know the empire engaged in terribly violent action against Jews and Christians alike. Roman violence is virtually non-existent in the book of Acts, however, leaving the Jews as the primary violent force, surely not an accurate picture of the realities of the times. For Luke, the concept of divine provenance was no longer in play; God would not redeem the Jews unless they repented. Repentance in Judaism meant a return to the Law, but to Luke, it meant conversion.

The Revealing Story of Pentecost

One of the greatest challenges faced by Luke is the claim that Christians possessed the divine spirit. Spirit churches are not orderly. Think of the modern Pentecostal church – one is “slain by the spirit.” This threatens the orderly account Luke sought to provide his patron. Yet Luke did not seem to be able to just ignore this teaching, so what he does instead is try to contain it.

When we look at the Pentecost story, we see that the speech of the Spirit is not gibberish, not glossolalia in the modern sense of a unique language. Rather, when people possessed of the Spirit speak, they can be understood widely. This is the language of reason and debate, and thus respectable in the public sphere – something good Roman citizens would do. Luke also “genders the space” by privileging male voices: Peter and 11 apostles stand together and interpret the event for passersby, after having been forewarned by the risen Christ to expect the coming of the Spirit.

It is interesting that Luke claims everyone receives the Spirit, yet we don’t ever hear them speak. Luke promises an egalitarian vision in Acts 2:17b-18, where he quotes Joel saying the spirit will be poured out on everyone, but he does not fulfill it. For that, we must turn instead to Paul, Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The Once and Future God

What is the future of God? How can we talk about God, and what do we mean by that word in a postmodern, perhaps even post-atheist world? With these questions Westar Fellows Joseph Bessler, author of A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better, and David Galston, author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, kicked off the first day of Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? with “The Once and Future God” at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California. As Joseph Bessler said, “We are living without an end to the story” of what life means, individually and communally. Bessler and Galston, with insights from conference participants and presiders Jarmo Tarkki and John Kelly, tackled this very modern problem by exploring how earlier generations have confronted and explained God conceptually.

Christian Theology’s Debt to Plato

Early Christians recognized that the significance of Jesus required a wider context than a simple narrative of his life and teachings. They cast the life of Jesus through the lens of the life of Socrates, which we can see in texts such as 1 Corinthians 1-3, in which Paul is confronted with the problem that the cross is a “scandal” – humiliation in the extreme – in Roman culture. He needed to give the cross a new meaning. To kill Christ was to kill a wise one, and this was something Hellenistic culture had done 500 years earlier, with Socrates. Even the condemnation of the State could not undo Socrates; so, too, the Christ.

Joseph Bessler

Joseph Bessler

It is important to understand that Plato, the student of Socrates, created a foundation for Christianity that lasted over a thousand years, so much so that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) would later describe Christianity as “Platonism for the masses.” Plato’s theory of the Forms enabled Christians to articulate that appearances are different from reality. What seems like a scandal is in fact, the power of God. There’s a sort of longing in Platonism that translates into Christianity, too – a longing, perhaps, for stability. While we can participate in ultimate reality from a Platonic perspective, it’s “shadows all the way down.” Without guidance, we cannot fully grasp reality. According to Plato, we can reach ultimate reality through reason, which is reliable with proper training. The Christian theologian Augustine would later argue differently, that we cannot reach ultimate reality (God) because of moral fault brought about through moral freedom. This necessitated a savior, the Christ.

God: The Modern Problem

The Platonic view of reality dominated until the 13th or 14th century, when the West shifted toward nominalism, a focus on words and the relationships among words. We have a concept of something not because we know the Form but because we experienced it: a horse is a horse because I saw one, experienced it, and named it. In a world like this, God is free of nature … and nature is free of God. This shift in thinking about reality simultaneously opened up theology for Protestant revolutionaries and nature for scientists.

David Galston

David Galston

This transition didn’t come without losses, however. We can no longer have a transcendental relationship with the universe anymore; we now experience the universe as all there is. What happens to the idea of Jesus if he does not participate in the eternal substance of God? We woke up to the notion that the historical Jesus is really very, very different from the Christ of theology. We are struggling in the wake of this transformation, brought about by modernity, to find the rhetoric for modern religious language.

Modern theologians have attempted to save God: they have explored God as the Word beyond word, God as a mystery in which we participate, God as pluralistic (liberation theology, feminist theology, queer theology), and God as the energy of becoming. All these models struggle with modern language about God. Buddhism offers some help in this situation, inasmuch as it expresses how the world arises all together in relation with everything else. All is defined by relationship, and this fact is experienced as liberating. But we have by no means resolved the issue.

God and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

As modern society gained historical consciousness, theologians like Martin Kahler set aside the historical Jesus as less important, less historic, than the Christ of faith. Theologians didn’t do this arbitrarily; the various quests for the historical Jesus are marked by the sociocultural context in which each quest arose. While Kahler found the Christ of faith a better route, theologians like Reimarus and Strauss responded to the hostile environments of their times by appealing to the historical Jesus. The Christ of faith might be associated with princes, but the historical Jesus related with peasants and told parables that upended normal social expectations. The Christ of faith, which society embraced, stood for an important end; the historical Jesus spoke parables without aim, playful in Nietzsche’s sense. This opened up the possibilities of Christian language.

Neitzche, too, found a role for the historical Jesus where he rejected the Christ of faith. Neitzche prioritized vitality, forging one’s own path, as a direct response to the dominant Christian framework of his era. Neitzche’s child, inspired by the historical Jesus, is the one who is open to experience and embodies the “eternal return.” Jesus’ parables break down the habits of everyday life in a similar way; the stories can be humorous, but they have an edge to them. They are critical. The child, too, is about creativity, critical imagination, seeing things differently. That is the challenge of theology today. Perhaps God as a metaphor has run its course. We need to reawaken our language. The historical Jesus succeeded at that.

A Way Forward

Conference participants asked a variety of questions about the way forward. What role can mystical and ecstatic religious experiences play in our language of God? How do individuals like David Galston and Joseph Bessler, who are both affiliated with particular religious communities, make new language “work” within those communities? What questions will be addressed by the emerging God Seminar?

Want to know more? You can see a video clip and Twitter timeline of live updates from The Once and Future God Q&A Session. Follow @WestarInstitute on Twitter to get updates about future Westar events and projects.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly responded to conference attendees' questions in the final session of the day.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly respond to conference attendees’ questions in the final session of the day.