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The Canon of the New Testament – Part 13: Marcion and Other Vanished Christians

By Christian

Rome, late July 144 A.D. “The clergy of the Christian community at Rome is holding a hearing. A very distinguished member of the congregation named Marcion stands before the presbyteries to present to them his teaching of the gospel, with the purpose of convincing the elders.

But what he now presented to the presbyters was so outrageous that it left his listeners speechless. The event ended with a strident rejection of Marcion’s views. He was formally excommunicated.” (Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (German), p. 96)

Jehovah’s Witnesses may think of their legal committees, the disfellowshipping, and the shunning and ostracizing of such an apostate. But there are many differences. One in particular: “He had been a member of one of the Roman churches for a number of years and had demonstrated his orthodoxy by substantial financial contributions. No doubt he was a respected church member. … But then he was formally excommunicated and his monetary contributions were returned to him.” (Metzger, p. 96) This has probably never been experienced by any Jehovah’s Witnesses. We would certainly have been happy to have our donations refunded when we officially left the religious community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But that is another topic …

The Doctrine of Marcion

What doctrine then did Marcion present that provoked such a reaction? Marcion wrote only one work, the Antitheses. It has not survived to us, which is only too understandable in the case of a book so dangerous to the Church. We do know, however, that for a long time these thoughts were one of the strongest movements in Christianity and were fiercely opposed. Tertullian wrote “Five Books against Marcion”. And this was already his second, more detailed work! So it seems that there was something to Marcion’s teaching, if such an effort was necessary to prove that it was heretical – or maybe we should better say: not orthodox.

Thus, if the rebuttals are already so extensive, it is not possible to explain the doctrine adequately in a few sentences. Whoever wants to know more is referred to the monumental work (640 pages) of the scholar Adolf von Harnack: Marcion, das Evangelium vom fremden Gott (Marcion, the Gospel of the Strange God).

Nachdruck von Marcion, das Evangelium vom fremden Gott, Adolf von Harnack, 1921

Or from more recent times Barbara Aland Was ist Gnosis? Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2009. However, since we do not primarily want to analyze his teaching itself here, but what impact he had on the canon of the New Testament, we will start with a few statements by Paul.

Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through human agency, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead),

But when He who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace was pleased

For I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel which was preached by me is not of human invention. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

…, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus

But from those who were of considerable repute (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no favoritism)—well, those who were of repute contributed nothing to me. But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who was at work for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised was at work for me also to the Gentiles), and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.

Why the Law then? It was added on account of the violations, having been ordered through angels at the hand of a mediator, until the Seed would come to whom the promise had been made.

You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by the Law; you have fallen from grace.

So then, as through one offense the result was condemnation to all mankind, so also through one act of righteousness the result was justification of life to all mankind.

Galatians 1:1,15,11,12,16,17 NASB; Galatians 2:6-9 NASB; Galatians 2:11; 3:19; 5:4 NASB; Romans 5:18 NASB

What beliefs does Paul convey here about himself and the gospel?

  • Paul became an apostle directly from Jesus Christ Himself and God the Father.
    The other apostles were chosen by Jesus.
  • He was even chosen by God in his mother’s womb.
    None of the other apostles can say that about themselves and never did.
  • He received the gospel by revelation from Jesus Christ.
    He does not mention any gospels or reports of the other apostles as a source.
  • On the contrary, it did not consider it necessary to consult the apostles appointed before it in Jerusalem, as if it were only the advice of men.
  • The respected ones whose reputation he considers unimportant, the apostles and elders, the ‘pillars’ of the church in Jerusalem, had nothing new for him.
  • He was entrusted with the gospel for the Gentiles. They agreed with this.
  • Paul even had to confront Peter publicly.
  • The law is there to make sin and transgression visible. The contrast to this is grace through Christ. At least that is how it can be interpreted.
  • Life comes only through the sacrificial death of Jesus.

Let us compare this with essential elements of Marcion’s thoughts and teachings, as far as they can be reconstructed from the writings of his opponents (I simplify here, but otherwise it will be a very long text or video):

  • Paul is the only true apostle, because only he truly understood the Gospel.
  • The other apostles fell back into the old Jewish thinking or never fully understood the true gospel.
  • The Old Testament with the law and its just, punishing God stands in contrast to the loving God and Jesus Christ and their redemption through grace.
  • Therefore, the Old Testament is no longer important for the believers, but only the Gospel.

The importance of Paul as an apostle and of the gospel as he preached it is not only emphasized but consistently developed – in some cases even radically developed. But it is interesting that many Christians today think pretty much the same way, isn’t it? “You just have to believe in Jesus, and then you’re saved.”, “Jesus loves you.”, “Love is the most important thing.” “The Old Testament is not that important to us today.” Although the church bitterly fought Marcion and his movement, it seems to me that today quite a few are again some kind of Marcionists.

However, I have not yet mentioned a central point in Marcion’s theology. Here he develops the Pauline thoughts to the last consequence. If there is such a difference between the Mosaic law and the love of the Christ, if the God of the Old Testament is just but also cruel, but in the Gospel is described as God of love, who is completely love, then YHWH from the Jewish Bible and the God of the Gospel cannot be the same! It must be a God unknown to us so far! The God of the Old Testament, of the Jewish Bible, the creator God of this sinful, unjust world, he called him the Demiurge, from ancient Greek δημιουργεῖν ‘to create’. He, who in the Jewish Bible calls himself YHWH, is the lower God of the Law, the punishing one. A law that existed only to show the faultiness and sin of man and creation. Therefore, we did not know the highest God at all until now. He is a God full of love and goodness and he sent Jesus as his messenger. He is the Redeemer God who is far above the evil Creator God of the Law. The Creator God condemns us to death, the Redeemer God gives us life!

We may not be comfortable with the separation into two deities. But isn’t this how many people distinguish the God of the OT and the NT? So even today many see a contrast here and solve it in a surprisingly similar way. And in fact many theological concepts of Marcion were later incorporated into the teachings of the Church. Let us not forget that after his excommunication many churches joined his teachings and became one of the most important movements of Christianity.

Considering that the disputes on the subject of LAW were already current at the time of Paul and the relationship of Jesus’ disciples to Judaism was constantly developing, he might have gotten away with it for a while (I am speculating now). But one thing was a logical consequence for him, which was certainly decisive: The messenger of the Redeemer God was good through and through and full of love and therefore could only be divine. He could have nothing human about him, because humans are part of the creation and therefore the imperfect work of the Demiurg. Humans cannot free themselves from evil and the law by themselves. Therefore, it only appeared as if the Son of God had become a man. He was also not the Messiah foretold in the OT. This, of course, was the terrible heresy of Docetism, which was fought just as vehemently by the church. This was already recorded between the first and second century:

I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.

2. John 1:7 NIV

The problem with the nature of Jesus Christ, as we have already seen, has occupied many and only one of several movements has survived. Marcion’s work, however, had another interesting influence.

How did Marcion influence the development of the canon?

Marcion was convinced that only Paul had received the real gospel directly from God and Christ and that the other apostles had not understood it and had even mixed it with thoughts from the Jewish Bible. Hearing Paul say this in Galatians and other letters, it does not sound so different. In fact, however, Paul’s letters and his theology were not at all as determinative in parts of the church as they still were in the middle of the first century. Marcion therefore wanted to restore the true gospel. Even in his time there were already different gospels, with different representations, and different copies and traditions – not to mention the Apocrypha. He therefore chose Luke’s Gospel as the only true one, and purged it of ‘errors’. We had also seen in this series many examples of copyists deliberately changing the text to support or prevent a particular teaching. Marcion felt that even writings of Paul were so ‘corrupted’ and set up a collection of corrected writings. Therefore, important scholars believe that Marcion was thus the first to establish a canon of Christian writings! This heretic, of all people! In fact, his work definitely helped to accelerate the development of the canon of the New Testament as we know it.

In summary, therefore, I would like to quote from Adolf von Harnack’s work (p. 262ff, German from 1921). Note: Soteriology is the doctrine of man’s redemption in the Christian context. I hope, the translation is somewhat ok, because it’s written in complex German of the 19th century!

Not only by the fact that all these pieces appear earlier in Marcion than in the great Church, the causal priority of this single man is proved, but even more surely by the observations (see Supplements III and IV) how strongly the Marcionite Bible as such and also through its text has influenced the Catholic one. Above all, the powerful penetration of the Marcionite prologues to the Pauline Epistles into the Latin Bible of the Church speaks the most eloquent language here. How often must the Marcionite collection of letters have come into the hands of Catholics and remained unrecognized at first! For decades copies of Paul’s letters were missing in the Catholic churches. But also the obvious fact that Irenaeus, the founder of the soteriological church doctrine, as well as Tertullian and Origen developed their biblical doctrines about goodness and justice, about gospel and law, about the Creator God and the Redeemer God etc. in the struggle against Marcion and learned from him in the process, is of highest importance. Finally – through Marcion also for the great church Paul has been reawakened, whom e.g. a teacher like Justin had already completely pushed aside and the Roman Christian Hermas had completely ignored. Above all, however, the position of the great Christianity towards the OT has become a considerably different one than before as a result of the confrontation with Marcion. Before, the danger was burning that one recognized the OT as the Christian document, partly explained literally, partly allegorically, and was content with it; now, although this danger was still not finally eliminated and a satisfactory clarity was not established, the judgment that in the OT “the ore still lies in the pits” and that it is the legisdatio in servitutem as opposed to the New Testament legisdatio in libertatem, nevertheless created room and prestige for itself. Yes, we now hear statements about the OT from outstanding church scholars that go even beyond Paul. The church owes this to Marcion.

If one adds that only after Marcion the purposeful work began in the great Christianity to bring about the holy church, the bride of Christ, the spiritual Eve, the aeon beyond from heaven and to unite the congregations on earth to an actual community and unity on the basis of a firm doctrine rooted in the NT, as he did, then it is proven that Marcion gave the decisive impulse for the creation of the Old Catholic Church by his organizational and theological conceptions and by his work and provided the model. He is also credited with having first conceived and first realized the idea of a canonical collection of Christian writings, the New Testament. Finally, he was also the first in the Church to make Paul’s soteriology the center of doctrine, while the ecclesiastical apologists beside him based Christian doctrine on cosmology.

Adolf von Harnack: Marcion, das Evangelium vom fremden Gott, S. 245ff
Adolf von Harnack: Marcion, das Evangelium vom fremden Gott, S. 245
Adolf von Harnack: Marcion, das Evangelium vom fremden Gott, S. 246
Adolf von Harnack: Marcion, das Evangelium vom fremden Gott, S. 247

What were the movements among Christ’s disciples?

Having recognized that even a Christian movement that did not survive had an influence on the scriptures and the canon, the question arises whether there were others like it.

First of all, Jesus and the disciples lived in Judaism during the Second Temple period. At that time there were the movements of Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and others. The disciples came from or were close to these groups, probably except for the Sadducees, the priestly-aristocratic upper class. Paul had been a Pharisee, and Simon the Zealot may have been a Zealot. But the influence of the Essenes, who were expecting the Messiah, should not be ignored either. It is interesting to note that of these, essentially only the Pharisees survived after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Then the ‘Gentiles’, i.e. people who were not Jews, also came. Some of them were also ‘God-fearers’, i.e. Gentiles who already sympathized with Judaism. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD was of course a drastic event. Essentially, the movements among the Christians can be divided into three directions:

  • Jewish Christians
    • Nazarene (Wikipedia, Nazarene)
      They continued to consider keeping the law important and saw Jesus as a prophet. Unlike the Ebionites, however, they accepted the virgin birth. In the patronistic period and the church fathers they were known and their point of view was discussed
    • Ebioniten (Wikipedia, Ebionites)
      Whether they gave themselves this designation, ‘the poor’, is unknown. But they tried, like Jesus’ first disciples, to give up everything. For them, to be a disciple of Jesus, one had to be a Jew in any case. For them, Christ did not live before he lived on earth. He was only a man whom God adopted and gave a special position because of his righteousness. They also rejected Paul’s theology.
      Therefore, for the pre-orthodox Christians, they were heretics who had to be fought. That is why especially the position that Jesus was only a man was fought. And as we have seen, that is why they sometimes changed the text of the scriptures.
  • Pauline Christians
    Christians whose theolgy was based on the writings and teachings of Paul.
  • Gnostic Christians
    This was not a unified group, but there were many different directions.
    For them, the material world was fundamentally bad and all that mattered was a spiritual world. Well, there seems to be some of this idea left.
    The gnostic groups thought that they possessed ‘gnosis’, ‘knowledge’, this secret knowledge of the spiritual world and that this was the key to salvation.

Between 180 and 313 AD, the ‘great church’ prevailed, which further developed Paul’s theology and contradicted all others in their writings. As a result, their points of view – or arguments to the contrary – entered into the texts and teachings of the church. In a way, a creed was formed which defended itself against all these other ideas.

313 AD is an important date because there, in the Edict of Milan, Christians were granted legal status throughout the Roman Empire. Then in 325 CE, Emperor Constantine converted and the first Council of Nicaea took place. There a uniform confession of faith was to be created, which was then finally the confession of Nicaea (Nicene Creed).

However, the claimed consubstantiality of God the Father and God the Son was rejected by many. Arius and his followers were called Arians (Wikipedia). The dispute with this group shaped not only the creed, but also the selection of writings for the canon and sometimes the text itself: Let us only think back to the Comma Johanneum or the other modified texts. When the leading movement, which stood behind the confession of Nicaea, then became the state religion by Emperor Theodosius in 380 AD, it finally prevailed.

These examples may suffice to show that the selection of the writings, the development of the canon and the writings themselves were not implemented in a straight line according to a plan step by step, but emerged over centuries. And that the influence of the other movements in Christianity, which have disappeared, should not be overlooked.

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