the Canon, the Law, and the Historical Jesus
A survey of Marcion's life and legacy.
is ironic that perhaps one of the most influential of
figures in Church History is also one of the most reviled
heretics: Marcion. Although his ideas were completely
rejected by the Apostolic Fathers of the second-century
church, the very need to reject them forced the second-century
church to consider, clarify, and consolidate its beliefs
about important issues: the contents of the Christian
Bible (the Canon), the relationship between Christianity
and Judaism (or between Law and Grace), and finally,
the source of the church's knowledge of Jesus.
sources of information
The main sources for Marcion's life are Iranaeus, Tertullian,
and Hippolytus. But the Jewish writer Celsus also knew
of Marcion and used his writings to argue against Christianity.
Robin L. Fox, Pagans and Christians, at 516. Additional
information about Marcion and his followers can be gleaned
from other Christian writers who continued to engage
Marcionites centuries after his death.
Marcion's major work was entitled Antithesis and has
not survived. This is not due to an intentional cleansing
or burning by Orthodox Christians. It is simply the
result of the passage of time. The writings of religious
groups that became extinct were largely doomed to extinction
themselves because writing materials of that time simply
did not last very long. Without eager new generations
of scribes willing to recopy aging texts, it is very
unlikely that any manuscripts would survive.
goes to Rome
Marcion was actually born into a Christian family. His
father was a Christian bishop. He was born in Sinope,
Asia Minor in about 85 CE. Marcion was a wealthy merchant
and shipowner. After being accused of "defiling
a virgin" and reportedly excommunicated by the
church in Sinope, Marcion left Asia Minor and moved
to Rome in about 135 CE. Perhaps to ensure his acceptance
in the Roman Church after his misdeeds in Asia Minor,
Marcion gave the Roman Church 200,000 sesterces (a very
sizable gift) upon his arrival. At first, Marcion was
accepted by the Roman Church.
However, it soon became obvious that his teachings were
a radical departure from traditional Christianity. Marcion
came under the influence of the gnostic teacher Cedro
"who believed that the God of the Old Testament
was different from the God and Father of the Lord Jesus
Christ. The God of the Old Testament was unknowable;
the latter had been revealed." Marcion, by Dermot
McDonald, in The History of Christianity, at 104-105.
Cedro also stressed the existence of "secret knowledge"
from Jesus that had not been previously made public
(a common claim among gnostics). Marcion adopted these
ideas into his "heretical" brand of Christianity.
Marcion's teachings departed from traditional Christianity
in a number of ways. Most dramatically, perhaps, Marcion
rejected the idea that the Old Testament God and the
New Testament God were the same being. Up until then,
the traditional Church had considered the Old Testament
to be sacred and assumed that Christianity was a fulfillment
or continuation of Judaism. Marcion's rejection of that
idea affected many different doctrines and beliefs.
Own Canon of Scripture
Marcion faced an uphill battle with his revolutionary
ideas. He faced a pretty obvious problem. For more than
100 years, Christians had been using the Old Testament
as Christian Scripture, and even the most sacred documents
of Christians referred to and relied heavily on, the
Old Testament. The solution for Marcion was to completely
reject the Old Testament and establish a canon that
de-emphasized Christianity's Old Testament and Jewish
roots as much as possible.
Paul, with his focus on free grace, was by far Marcion's
favorite Apostle. As a result, he rejected the writings
attributed to all the other Apostles and relied on forms
of Luke's Gospel and ten Pauline epistles that he redacted.
Although a small number of scholars have, from time
to time, argued that Marcion may have had access to
earlier forms of the gospels (especially Luke), even
John Knox, the most prominent promoter of this theory,
admits that Marcion intentionally and knowingly excised
as much Old Testament and Jewish influence as he could
find in the Paulines and Gospel of Luke. "That
Marcion, for example, did not have the account of John
the Baptist's announcement of Jesus as Messiah or the
story of Jesus' temptation is almost certainly to be
accounted for by Marcion's omission of these passages.
Not only are they inconsistent with Marcion's theological
position but (more important) they are also deeply imbedded
in the Synotpic tradition, and to explain them as late
additions to a Gospel which was already dependent (as
Marcion's was) upon that tradition is next to impossible."
John Knox, Marcion and the New Testament, at 95.
The scope of Marcion's redactions is large. As Dr. Fisher
explained, Marcion rejected "the entire Old Testament,
[and] settled for Luke's Gospel (eliminating chapters
1 & 2 as too Jewish) and Paul's letters (except
for the pastoral ones)." "The Canon of the
New Testament," by Milton Fisher, in The Origin
of the Bible, ed. Philip Comfort, at 71. Beyond chapters
1 and 2 of Luke, Marcion also removed Luke 4:1-3 (temptation
narrative that refers to Dueteronomy 3 times), Luke
4:16-30 (Jesus claiming—while teaching in a synagogue—that
his ministry was a fulfillment of the Old Testament),
Luke 5:39 ("The old is good"), and Luke 8:19
(reference to Jesus' family). All of these verses were
just too Jewish and conflicted too much with Marcion's
Significantly, Marcion also took a scalpel to Paul's
letters, eliminating as many positive references to
Judaism or the Old Testament as possible. "Marcion
dealt with the text of Paul's letters in the same way
as with the text of Luke's gospel: anything which appeared
inconsistent with what he believed to be authentic Pauline
teaching was regarded as a corruption proceeding from
an alien hand." F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture,
at 140. The mention of Abraham as an example of faith
was eliminated from Galatians (3:6-9), as well as the
connection between the law and the gospels (3:15-25).
He removed Romans 1:19-21:1, 3:21-4:25, and most of
Romans 9-11, and everything after Romans 14:23.
Additionally, Marcion simply altered the content of
many verses in Luke and Paul's letters to soften the
connection with Judaism. For example, in place of "Thy
Kingdom Come" in the Lord's Prayer (Luke 11:2),
Marcion's gospel stated, "Let they Holy Spirit
come on us and cleanse us." Bruce, The Canon of
Scripture, at 138. In Ephesians, he changed, "the
mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things"
(3:9) to "the mystery hidden for ages from the
God who created all things." Id. at 139. This simple
little change has the creating God being duped by the
God of the New Testament.
Once Marcion had rewritten the Christian scriptures,
he could make his case. Or, as Robin Lane Fox writes,
"[b]y rewriting scripture, he presented a powerful
case." Fox, Pagans and Christians, at 332. His
theology was a tremendous departure from that of the
Christian churches in which he had grown up. Key to
his theology was the notion that there were actually
two "Gods." One of these "Gods"
was the God of the Old Testament. He was a completely
different—and indeed a lesser—entity than the God of
the New Testament. Jesus was the product of the New
God. This God was not Jehovah, but the "unknown
God" referred to by Paul in Acts in his speech
"Marcion shocked the Church by denying any connection
between the Gods of the Old and New Testament. . . .
The creator, he argued, was an incompetent being: why
else had he afflicted women with the agonies of childbirth?
'God' in the Old Testament was a 'committed barbarian'
who favored bandits and such terrorists as Israel's
King David. Christ, by contrast, was the new and separate
revelation of an altogether higher God. Marcion's teaching
was the most extreme statement of the newness of the
Christian faith. Combined with virginity and a rejection
of marriage, it became 'Marcionism' and continued to
attract followers especially in the Syriac-speaking
East, far into the Fourth Century." Robin Lane
Fox, Pagans and Christians, at 332.
So Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament
was not the God of the New Testament. The God of the
Old Testament was the "creating God," but
he was harsh, cruel, and incompetent. Marcion contrasted
this creating God with the God of Jesus, who was nothing
less than love and grace.
Jesus Not the Expected Messiah and Not Human
Marcion's revolutionary thoughts on the identity of
God were accompanied by a just as revolutionary idea
about the identity of Jesus and his relationship to
God. Marcion "adopted the Gnostic idea of Demiurge
and thought Christ only 'appeared' to be human. . .
." Although Jesus "revealed the God of love
and forgiveness [t]here will be no resurrection of the
flesh, second coming, or judgment by Christ. Marcion
vehemently repudiated the idea of a Judgment. According
to him, the God of the Old Testament was to have sent
a messiah to collect the chosen people into the Kingdom
to rule over the whole earth and to exercise judgment
over sinners. But at this point God appeared, showing
mercy on sinners and freeing all from the bonds of the
God of the Jews." Hinson, The Early Church, at
In other words, while the creating God of the Old Testament
was preparing to send a messiah that would establish
an earthly Kingdom, the new God acted more quickly by
sending Jesus to teach love and mercy for all. There
would be no judgment, no bodily resurrection, and no
second coming of Jesus. The purpose of Jesus was to
free people from the bondage of the Jewish God, not
from the bonds of sinful nature.
Tertullian described Marcion's beliefs as the following:
"Marcion laid down the position that Christ, who
in the days of Tiberius was, by a previously unknown
god, revealed for the salvation of all nations, is a
different being from him who was ordained God, the Creator
for the restoration of a Jewish state, and who is yet
to come. Between these, he interposes a separation of
a great and absolute difference as great as lies between
what is just and what is good, as great as lies between
the law and the gospel, as great as is the difference
between Christianity and Judaism." Against Marcion,
Despite sounding almost antinomian, Marcion and his
followers were actually very strict. "Curiously,
Marcion also preached strict ascetism, denied the right
of marriage, and formulated stern regulations concerning
fasting." Hinson, The Early Church, at 92. This
was not unusual in an of itself. "During the second
and third centuries, many heretical groups taught that
marriage was Satanic and akin to fornication; some connected
it with the work of an inferior creator. Followers of
Marcion spoke of the body as a 'nest of guilt'. Several
sayings were ascribed to Jesus in which he reviled and
praised the androgynous state of man at creation."
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, at 358. Needless
to say, Marcionite commitment to complete celibacy was
to have a big impact on the Marcionite sect's ability
to sustain itself.
Marcion's teachings were rejected by his church and
the Apostolic Fathers who were leading the other Apostolic
Churches. "To any church leader, Marcion's heresy
was the most shocking deviation from Apostolic truth.
He had denied the Old Testament's inspiration and the
continuity of the God and Creator with Christ. Bishop
Polycarp had known how to deal with him. When Polycarp
met Marcion, said Polycarp's pupil Iraneaus, he had
greeted him as 'the first born child of satan.'"
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, at 492.
Marcion was expelled from the Roman Church in 144 CE.
They were so adamant about rejecting his teachings that
they even returned the generous donation he had given
them. "Marcion's departure was a heavy financial
blow to the Rome Church and his money enabled him to
attract a huge following in the East." Paul Johnson,
A History of Christianity, at 47. Thereafter, Marcion
used those funds and attempted to emulate Paul by engaging
in missionary activities to spread his new version of
Christianity. Marcion met with some success. As Tertullian
put it, he planted churches "as wasps make nests."
He left churches in Rome, Carthage, Nicomedia, Smyrna,
Phyrygia, Gartyna, Antioch, and in Syria.
Apparently, Marcion's churches—despite being built on
a complete rejection of legalism or the law—were very
rigorous about membership. Only a few were ultimately
deemed worthy to receive baptism and become members
of his churches. It eventually only established a lasting
presence in Syria, but it died out completely by the
mid-to-late 300s. As Professor Johnson stated, "belief
in celibacy necessarily proves fatal to a heretical
movement." Id. at 47. Still, the fact that the
movement lasted more than 150 years based on conversions
alone shows that Marcion's ideas had a strong appeal.
IMPACT OF MARCION
The impact of the Marcionite controversy on Church History
on three issues was tremendous. First, the establishment
of an Orthodox Christian Canon of Scripture (the New
Testament). Second, Christianity's embracing its Jewish
heritage. Third, the Church's reliance on the "Apostolic
Marcion's choice of a highly selective canon and his
mutilation of Christian scriptures forced the Church
to specifically identify its own writings. In some ways,
Marcion is the first person we know of to establish
a "canon"—that is, to specify exactly which
writings were "in" and which were "out."
In so doing, he spurred the traditional Church to specify
what is considered to be the canon. "The heretic
Marcion, by defending a limited canon of his own (c.
140) in effect hastened the day when the Orthodox believers
needed to declare themselves on this issue." Fisher,
"The Canon of the New Testament," in The Origin
of the Bible, ed. Philip Comfort. The Church eventually
responded by embracing the Four Gospels: Mark, Luke
(fully restored), Matthew, and John. The Church also
embraced all of the Apostles, not just Paul. This lead
to acceptance of the Johaninne Epistles, the Epistle
of James, and the Epistles of Peter. As a result, the
Church embraced a much broader theology and perspective
than that envisioned by Marcion.
Relationship with Judaism
Marcion's complete rejection of any link between Judaism
and Christianity, the Law and the Gospel, forced the
church to conclusively link Christianity to its Jewish
predecessor, and the Gospel to the Law. As Prof. Hinson
states, "No early Christian thinker, heterodox
or orthodox, did more than Marcion to bring to a head
the question of Christianity's relation to Judaism."
The Early Church, at 9.
These early Christians realized that Christianity was
not a separate revelation from Judaism, but the fulfillment
of Judaism's promise. N.T. Wright explains that even
Marcion's focus on Paul and his focus on grace and freedom
as representing a complete departure was fundamentally
"Some readers, starting at least with Marcion
in the second century, have seen this as evidence that
[Paul] abandoned the Jewish Story altogether, embracing
a quite different symbolic universe. . . . But Paul's
fundamental narrative would give no deep echo to that
of paganism in any of its first-century or other forms.
It continues to resonate with the Story of Israel. Because
Israel's story speaks of a creator god who claims all
people, all lands, as his own, Paul is able to reach
out from within that story and address Jews and Gentiles.
He thus claims that the story of Jesus fulfills the
purpose for which the creator God called Abraham in
the first place." N.T. Wright, The New Testament
and the People of God, at 407.
As a result, the Christian Canon includes the Old and
New Testaments, and Christianity respects the Law while
recognizing the powerful work of Grace Jesus accomplished
on the Cross. Indeed, it is probable that the only way
to fully appreciate Jesus' accomplishment on the cross
is to recognize the validity of the law.
Marcion's reliance (and that of other gnostics) on "secret
knowledge" was met with a forceful commitment to
the "Apostolic Tradition." Marcion was not
the only such figure arguing for "secret knowledge."
Others such as Valentenius also stressed that they possessed
knowledge that had secretly been passed down to them
from the Apostles or Jesus. The Church reacted by rejecting
this idea of a "secret knowledge" that was
really just manufactured by gnostic leaders. Instead,
the Church committed itself to the "Apostolic Tradition."
The Apostolic Tradition was considered to be the publically
proclaimed message of the Church since its existence.
It could also be called a rudimentary commitment to
the "historical Jesus." This commitment was
to give the Church a standard to which it was subordinate:
the New Canon contained the public professions of the
Apostles. Church teaching must be based on that standard,
rather than on newly discovered or revealed teachings
that no one had heard before.
In many ways, Marcion caused the Orthodox Church to
be more moderate. The Church had to acknowledge its
Jewish roots and embrace Jewish literature, without
forfeiting its Christian revelation. The Church acknowledged
that Jesus brought grace and freedom, but refused to
descend into antinomianism or reject the idea that the
law had any moral instruction to offer. The Church was
staunchly opposed to fornication and adultery, but accepted
that sex within marriage and procreation were moral
and necessary. All in all, despite his obvious heresy,
Marcion's impact on Church History actually was largely
© 2003 Peter Kirby