Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Who was this 'Marcion' that Hitch referred to so often?

If you have listened to as much of the oratory skill of Christopher Hitchens as you really ought to have done, you can hardly have failed to notice how often he mentioned a few characters from ancient history and quoted their sayings.  Like me, you might have always intended to find out more about some of them, and like me you might have been out and about, in the car, listening to a podcast or waiting (otherwise bored to death) close to a sports field while one of the children is 'enjoying' herself.

Finally I found a moment to research a little about Marcion.

In this day and age we are quite used to the concept of the 'heretic' in everyday life, even if we do not actually use the word.  Fortunately we do not burn heretics at the stake or stone them to death (at the moment!) in most enlightened countries.  Let us hope that these parts of the world stay like this and that they are not overrun by 'creeping islam' or other religious fundamentalism.  Our present day heretics might include Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett and they have the power of the internet at their disposal to broadcast their message to the world.

It is the freedoms that we enjoy today that allow people like Hitchens to speak openly, and those open words help to open our minds.  No longer are we isolated in communities where the only religious and philosophical wisdom is delivered to us from the pulpit by some well-meaning but bumbling clergyman; a man who knows that he must keep the intellectual level down to the very basics in order to keep the congregation conscious (even if not truly awake and attentive).

Marcion was a man who was trying to do the same thing in the second century CE - to speak out against the accepted, flawed, wisdom of the time.  Fortunately for him he had a good start in life as the son of the bishop of Sinope, and the 'civilised world' (his audience) was small enough that he was able to reach a lot of it with his teachings.  If he was (as recorded by Tertullian) a ship owner, and later consecrated as a bishop himself, then he also had the opportunity to spread his message far and wide.  It seems that he was a man of great wealth, who was able to donate substantial sums of money to the church, and later to have had his donations returned to him.

Gradually he established a string of Marcionite churches, who's teachings were not exactly in line with the rest of the church.  For one reason or another (and scandalous reasons have been proposed by some) he was forced to leave his home town and eventually travelled to Rome.  Conflicts with the bishops of the Catholic Church led to his ex-communication and he returned to Asia Minor to continue his work.

But what were these heretical teachings which made him so unpopular?  When you hear about them you will realise that he was a man of great intelligence - an early free-thinker, and part of the tradition leading to the heretics of today.

First, he noticed that many of the (apparent) teachings of Jesus were wholly incompatible with the books that have now become 'The Old Testament'.  This lead him to a dualist system of belief.  Jesus was not himself god, but was sent, in a sense, to save us from the god of Judaism.  He was the saviour sent by the 'Heavenly Father' and Paul (not Peter) was his chief apostle.  You have to admit that the content of the New Testament (as collected two centuries later than Marcion's lifetime) does tend to lead us to that belief.  Paul has a greater say in the teachings of the church than anyone else and has done ever since the bible was collected.

Marcion also taught that Christianity was separate and distinct from Judaism.  (Here, perhaps, is the beginning of anti-semitism in the form that we still recognise today.)  He taught that the Jewish god YHWH was not the same god that Jesus spoke about.  YHWH had a physical presence on earth and was much less powerful than the divine 'Heavenly Father'.  YHWH was only the jealous tribal god of the Jews and his laws were retributive and unjust.  Jesus had come to bring the new law to the world.

He also had some curious points of view about the physical body of Jesus.  Jesus might not have been a man in the same sense as the rest of us, but instead his body was a representation of a man's.  However, in line with the teachings of the rest of the church he did believe that Jesus had paid for the sins of men by his death on the cross, and that through him we could all inherit eternal life.

This is probably enough of an introduction to the mysterious Marcion who is so often quoted, although it only scratches the surface of an interesting topic.  Now we can see why Hitch was keen to use him as an example of an early free-thinker, albeit a christian free-thinker.  The Marcionite church survived for centuries after he had been declared a heretic in 144 CE and it was a serious rival to the claims of the (surviving) Catholic church at the time.

The greatest point of interest to me is that here was an example of a distinct part of christianity which had radically different views from the rest of the church long before the canon of the bible was established.  It had already split.

Of course, those people who are biblical scholars, and those who have been trained as priests to represent the views of the present church(es), know enough about Marcion.

Marcion's views were overturned centuries ago. But you and I can start to see through that veil now, cant we?  We see that the current church takes a lot of trouble never to mention the alternative views of Jesus which pre-date their own received version.

As with everything, history is written by the victors, and this is certainly true of the way that the bible was collected.


Anonymous said...

Your view of Marcion is overly tainted by 'orthodox' propaganda. First, was Marcion ever excommunicated? There are 3 different stories about his excommunication, none of which has much plausibility. In one he was a bishop who desired to purchase a second bishopric, to become bishop of two realms, so he goes to Rome to buy this second realm, and is excommunicated for it. In another, he has sex with a girl out of wedlock in Pontus, gets excommunicated by his father, travels to Rome to buy back fellowship with the church. In a third, he is a priest who goes to Rome and gives them a large sum of money as a free donation, lives in Rome for several years as a priest until his teachings become heretical and he is thrown out. Why can the 'orthodox' not agree on how he was excommunicated? Because he never was. He was always in a distinct church -- he was never part of the Catholic church. They couldn't admit that another church existed before theirs so they invented stories about how he began as a Catholic and got excommunicated -- 'but neither did their false witnesses agree with one another.' Furthermore, Marcion it seems is the creator of the Pauline epistles. Paul was essentially an non-entity before Marcion. Justin Martyr, a contemporary of Marcion, never mentions Paul or his epistles. No early writer (whose writers aren't mere fabrications of a later age) does. Paul becomes popular among the Catholics post-170. Marcion was using him in the 130s/140s. Marcion's version of Paul's epistles was shorter, not only in having less epistles, but each epistle was shorter. Did Marcion invent Paul and the Catholic church add material to the epistles? or did Marcion really take the epistles and remove material as the Catholics would have it?

Anonymous said...

What makes the third story of excommunication so implausible is that it says they give his money back (yeah right).

Plasma Engineer said...


Not quite sure what point you are making. I deliberately didn't get into the anecdotes about his apparent ex-communication. Anyway, as far as I see it you don't disagree with the point of the post - that there were different versions of Christianity at the time. Certain branches still survive is luck and political favoritism.

Anonymous said...

I was only pointing out my pet peeve which I think makes your point even stronger. Certainly there were all sorts of different versions of Christianity in the second century. Ebionites, Marcionites, Valentinians, Basilidians, Cerinthians. As to what existed in the first century if anything, it is unclear. All our sources start in the 2nd. Yet even those sources admit that Simonians and Cerinthians began at the close of the first century. The Simonians, after all, were supposedly established by Simon Magus, the character who tries to buy the Holy Spirit from Peter in the book of Acts. Furthermore, those who know how to read (even if they assume that the Pauline epistles were written in the 1st century and by someone actually named 'Paul' rather than originally forged by some Gnostic like Marcion) can tell that 1st Corinthians shows that Peter, Paul, and Apollos were heads of rival sects, as Galatians would go to confirm when Paul condemns Peter, James, and John as people who think they are something when they are nothing. Not to mention James' mention of a 'foolish man' who thinks justification is by faith alone: "Do you want me to demonstrate, oh foolish man, that faith without works is dead?" Who is this foolish man, if not Paul? In fact, I can conceive a scenario in which at one point the text had Paul's name there and was later replaced by 'foolish man' to soften the anti-Pauline tone. The idea of some monolithic Christianity, that one interpretation is 'orthodox' and all others 'heresy' is pure foolishness -- they're all heresy -- they're all breakaways from Judaism and consequently Paganizing Jewish heresies.

Anonymous said...

Oh and my point was somewhat that rather than being born a Catholic and being excommunicated, Marcion pre-existed the Catholic church. That the Gnostic movement to which he belonged created Paul who is nothing more than a literary character. And that the Catholic church as we think of it did not come into existence until at least 170 because the proto-orthodox did not accept Paul until that time because he was the property only of 'heretics' before that.

Plasma Engineer said...

Thanks to @beowulff2k8 for the further info. I appreciate the chance to learn a bit more about the early church that I do not believe in.

You might have good things to say about the posts describing how the Jesus story has similarities to those of Mithra, Horus and Krishna (among others).