From G.R.S. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten
The following introduction to the life and work of Marcion is taken from G.R.S. Mead,Fragments of a Faith Forgotten ( London and Benares, 1900; 3rd Edition 1931), pp.241-249.
MARCION was a rich shipowner of Sinope, the chief port of Pontus, on the southern shore of the Black Sea; he was also a bishop and the son of a bishop. His chief activity at Rome may be placed somewhere between the years 150 and 160. At first he was in communion with the church at Rome, and contributed handsomely to its funds; as, however, the presbyters could not explain his difficulties and refused to face the important questions he set before them, he is said to have threatened to make a schism in the church; and apparently was finally excommunicated.
But as a matter of fact the origin of Marcionism is entirely wrapped in obscurity, and we know nothing of a reliable nature of the lives of either Cerdo or Marcion. The Church writers at the end of the second century, who are our best authorities, cannot tell the story of the beginning of the movement with any certainty. For all we know, Marcion may have developed his theories long before he came to Rome, and may have based them on information he gleaned and opinions he heard on his long voyages.
This much we know, that the views of Marcion spread rapidly over the "whole world," to use the usual Patristic phrase for the Graeco- Roman dominions; and as late as the fifth century we hear of Theodoret converting more than a thousand Marcionites. In Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Syria, Asia Minor and Persia, Marcionite churches sprang up, splendidly organized, with their own bishops and the rest of the ecclesiastical discipline, with a cult and service of the same nature as those of what subsequently became the Catholic Church. Orthodoxy had not declared for any party as yet, and the Marcionite view had then as good a chance as any other of becoming the universal one. What then was the secret of Marcion's success? As already pointed out, it was the same as that of the success of modern criticism as applied to the problem of the Old Testament.
Marcion's view was in some respects even more moderate than the judgment of some of our modern thinkers; he was willing to admit that the Yahweh of the Old Testament was just. With great acumen he arranged the sayings and doings ascribed to Yahweh by the writers, and compilers, and editors of the heterogeneous books of the Old Testament collection, in parallel columns, so to say, with the sayings and teachings of the Christ-in a series of antitheses which brought out in startling fashion the fact, that though the best of the former might be ascribed to the idea of a Just God, they were foreign to the ideal of the Good God preached by the Christ. We know how in these latter days the best minds in the Church have rejected the horrible sayings and doings ascribed to God in some of the Old Testament documents, and we thus see how Marcion formulated a protest which must have already declared itself in the hearts of thousands of the more enlightened of the Christian name.
As for the New Testament, in Marcion's time, the idea of a canon was not yet or was only just being thought of. Marcion, too, had an idea of a canon, but it was the antipodes of the views which afterwards became the basis of the orthodox canon.
The Christ had preached a universal doctrine, a new revelation of the Good God, the Father over all. They who tried to graft this on to Judaism, the imperfect creed of one small nation, were in grievous error, and had totally misunderstood the teaching of the Christ. The Christ was not the Messiah promised to the Jews. That Messiah was to be an earthly king, was intended for the Jews alone, and had not yet come. Therefore the pseudo-historical "in order that it might be fulfilled " school had adulterated and garbled the original Sayings of the Lord, the universal glad tidings, by the unintelligent and erroneous glosses they had woven into their collections of the teachings. It was the most terrific indictment of the cycle of New Testament "history" that has ever been formulated. Men were tired of all the contradictions and obscurities of the innumerable and mutually destructive variants of the traditions concerning the person of Jesus. No man could say what was the truth, now that "history" had been so altered to suit the new Messiah-theory of the Jewish converts.
As to actual history, then, Marcion started with Paul; he was the first who had really understood the mission of the Christ, and had rescued the teaching from the obscurantism of Jewish sectarianism. Of the manifold versions of the Gospel, he would have the Pauline alone. He rejected every other recension, including those now ascribed to Matthew, Mark, and John. The Gospel according to Luke, the "follower of Paul," he also rejected, regarding it as a recension to suit the views of the Judaising party. His Gospel was presumably the collection of Sayings in use among the Pauline churches of his day. Of course the Patristic writers say that Marcion mutilated Luke's version; but it is almost impossible to believe that, if he did this, so keen a critic as Marcion should have retained certain verses which made against his strong anti-Judaistic views. The Marcionites, on the contrary, contended that their Gospel was written by Paul from the direct tradition, and that Luke had nothing to do with it. But this is also a difficulty, for it is highly improbable that Paul wrote any Gospel.
So many orthodox apologists wrote against Marcion after his death, that it is possible to reconstruct almost the whole of his Gospel. It begins with the public preaching of the Christ at Capernaum; it is shorter than the present Luke document, and some writers of great ability have held that it was the original of Luke's version, but this is not very credible. As for the rest of the documents included in the present collection of the New Testament, Marcion would have nothing to do with any of them, except ten of the Letters of Paul, parts of which he also rejected as interpolations by the reconciliators of the Petro-Pauline controversy. These ten letters were called The Apostle ["Apostolikon"].
The longest criticism of Marcion's views is to be found in Tertullian's invective Against Marcion, written in 207 and the following years. This has always been regarded by the orthodox as a most brilliant piece of work; but by the light of the conclusions arrived at by the industry of modern criticism, and also to ordinary common sense, it appears but a sorry piece of angry rhetoric. Tertullian tries to show that Marcion taught two Gods, the Just and the Good. Marcion, however, taught that the idea of the Jews about God, as set forth in the Old Testament, was inferior and antagonistic to the ideal of the Good God revealed by the Christ. This he set forth in the usual Gnostic fashion. But we can hardly expect a dispassionate treatment of a grave problem, which has only in the last few years reached a satisfactory solution in Christendom, from the violent Tertullian, whose temper may be gleaned from his angry address to the Marcionites: "Now then, ye dogs, whom the apostle puts outside, and who yelp at the God of truth, let us come to your various questions! These are the bones of contention, which ye are perpetually gnawing !"
Enough has now been said to give the reader a general idea of the Marcionite position- a very strong one it must be admitted, both because of its simplicity and also because it formulated the protest of long slumbering discontent among the outer communities. It is, however, difficult to deduce anything like a clear system of cosmogony or christology from the onslaughts of the best known haeresiologists on Marcionite doctrines. It has even been doubted whether Marcion should be classed as a Gnostic, but this point is set at rest by the work of Eznik (Eznig or Esnig), an Armenian bishop, who flourished about 450 A.D. In his treatise "The Destruction of False Doctrines", he devotes the fourth and last book to the Marcionites, who seem to have been even at that late date a most flourishing body. Although it is doubted whether the ideas there described are precisely the same as the original system of Marcion, it is evident that the Marcionite tradition was of a distinctly Gnostic tendency, and that Marcion owed more to his predecessors in Gnosticism than was usually supposed prior to the first translation of Eznik's treatise (into French) in 1833.
It will be sufficient here to shorten Salmon's summary of this curious Marcionite myth, calling the reader's attention to the similarity of parts of its structure to the system of Justinus. There were three Heavens; in the highest was the Good God; in the intermediate the God of the Law; in the lowest, his Angels. Beneath lay Hyle or root-matter. The world was the joint product of the God of the Law and Hyle. The Creative Power perceiving that the world was very good, desired to make man to inhabit it. So Hyle gave him his body and the Creative Power the breath of life, his spirit. And Adam and Eve lived in innocence in Paradise, and did not beget children. And the' God of the Law desired to take Adam from Hyle and make him serve him alone. So taking him aside, he said: "Adam, I am God and beside me there is no other; if thou worshippest any other God thou shalt die the death." And Adam on hearing of death was afraid, and withdrew himself from Hyle. Now Hyle had been wont to serve Adam; but when she found that he withdrew from her, in revenge she filled the world with idolatry, so that men ceased to adore the Lord of Creation. Then was the Creator wrath, and as men died he cast them into Hell (Hades-the Unseen World), from Adam onwards.
But at length the Good God looked down from Heaven, and saw the miseries which man suffered through Hyle and the Creator. And He took corn-passion on them, and sent them down His Son to deliver them, saying: "Go down, take on Thee the form of a servant [? a body], and make Thyself like the sons of the Law. Heal their wounds, give sight to their blind, bring their dead to life, perform without reward the greatest miracles of healing; then will the God of the Law be jealous and instigate his servants to crucify thee. Then go down to Hell, which will open her mouth to receive Thee, supposing Thee to be one of the dead. Then liberate the captives Thou shalt find there, and bring them up to Me."
And thus the souls were freed from Hell and carried up to the Father. Whereupon the God of the Law was enraged, and rent his clothes and tore the curtain of his palace, and darkened the sun and veiled the world in darkness. Then the Christ descended a second time, but now in the glory of His divinity, to plead with the God of the Law. And the God of the Law was compelled to acknowledge that he had done wrong in thinking that there was no higher power than himself. And the Christ said unto him: "I have a controversy with thee, but I will take no other judge between us but thy own law. Is it not written in thy law that whoso killeth another shall himself be killed; that whoso sheddeth innocent blood shall have his own blood shed? Let me, then, kill thee and shed thy blood, for I am innocent and thou hast shed My blood."
And then He went on to recount the benefits He had bestowed on the children of the Creator, and how He had in return been crucified; and the God of the Law could find no defense, and confessed and said: "I was ignorant; I thought Thee but a man, and did not know Thee to be a god; take the revenge that is Thy due." And the Christ thereupon left him, and betook himself to Paul, and revealed the path of truth.
The Marcionites were the most rigid of ascetics, abstaining from marriage, flesh and wine, the latter being excluded from their Eucharist. They also rejoiced beyond all other sects in the number of their martyrs. The Marcionites have also given us the most ancient dated Christian inscription. It was discovered over the doorway of a house in a Syrian village, and formerly marked the site of a Marcionite meeting-house or church, which curiously enough was called a synagogue. The date is October 1, A.D. 318 and the most remarkable point about it is that the church was dedicated to "The Lord and Saviour Jesus, the Good - "Chrestos", not Christos. In early times there seems to have been much confusion between the two titles. Christos is the Greek for the Hebrew Messiah, Anointed, and was the title used by those who believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. This was denied, not only by the Marcionites, but also by many of their Gnostic predecessors and successors. The title Chrestos was used of one perfected, the holy one, the saint; no doubt in later days the orthodox, who subsequently had the sole editing of the texts, in pure ignorance changed Chrestos into Christos wherever it occurred; so that instead of finding the promise of perfection in the religious history of all the nations, they limited it to the Jewish tradition alone, and struck a fatal blow at the universality of history and doctrine. There was naturally a number of sub-schools of the Marcion school, and in its ranks were a number of distinguished teachers ...
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