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Marcion as Alive and Well Among Us

As I’ve been thinking about Marcion over the past couple of days, it has occurred to me that in some ways he is still alive and well among us.  I have known Christians over the years who in fact have views in many ways close to what Marcion taught.  These people would, of course, deny they have anything like the touch of the heretic about them.  But at the end of the day, their views are not so different.  Maybe they are not as extreme as him, but they do seem to be dwelling on the fringes of his camp.

First, I have known a lot of Christians who think that the Old Testament has a God of wrath and condemnation and the New Testament has a God of love and mercy.  Students say this to me with some regularity.  The God of the Old Testament gives difficult laws that no one can possibly follow (how, exactly, are you supposed to keep from “coveting” anything??).  And then he condemns people for not keeping them.  But no one *can* keep them.  So that doesn’t seem fair.  The Old Testament God is a God of wrath.

Jesus, on the other hand, proclaims a message of forgiveness, not condemnation.  The God of Jesus is the God of love.  He loves the world, he loves everyone in it, he loves the sinner.  He has mercy on the sinner.  He forgives the sinner.  He welcomes the sinner.   This is a different portrayal of God.  The New Testament God is a God of love.

If pressed, of course, these people would say that, literally speaking …

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Did Jesus Exist? My Debate with Robert Price
The Arch-Heretic Marcion’s Theology

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    grmann  October 19, 2016

    The word “fulfill” has many connotations in English. What does that word mean in Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      Kind of like English: to fill something full (for example to complete it; or to fill it out with meaning)

  2. Avatar
    godspell  October 19, 2016

    Heresies have a tendency to live on under other names. You can’t kill an idea. Pelagianism lives on as well, and regularly comes out of the mouths of people who never even heard of Pelagius (and how many people who believe in predestination have ever read Calvin?). A religion is just a group of people pretending to believe the same things in the same way. In reality, this never happens. We all have our own interpretations, and a heresy is just an interpretation formally condemned for being a bit too far out of line–for threatening the illusion of unanimity. Otherwise, you have endless schisms. But under a big tent, there can be a whole lot of different ideas. It’s a fine balance.

  3. Avatar
    Hildore  October 19, 2016

    Many Christians do look askance at the OT and think the laws there are not for them, but have you considered how many have held on for dear life to the Tithing concept and would not let it go? The seventh-day Sabbath was inscribed in the tables of stone from Sinai, but they have thrown that away. But the tithe given for the Levites who had no inheritance they will not give up. Many have gotten rich holding on to that idea.

  4. Avatar
    smackemyackem  October 19, 2016

    I would say some Christians use dispensationalism to explain the difference between God in the Old Testament and God in the New Testament. He just doesn’t act that way anymore because we are in the dispensation of Grace. It’s a way of avoiding saying God has changed.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  October 19, 2016

    It’s almost as if the Bible has no clear through line, as if it were merely cobbled together over several hundred years by various men from disparate times, disparate cultures and disparate beliefs. Strange, huh?

    I notice that Tertullian mocks the Bithynian Marcion for coming from the “barbarous” Black Sea culture — an area that the Greeks traditionally associated with “savages” such the Scythians and Sarmatians. How much of Marcion’s views can be attributed to his culture?

    Also, do you think clergy are responsible for their parishioners being so confused on christological matters, or is it simply the fact that the Trinity is itself such an inscrutable mess that one would expect the average Christian to be ignorant of such esoteric christological conundrums?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      1. TErtullian is just slandering him of course. On the other hand, all his views were developed within a particular socio-historical context….
      2. Yes, clergy do not as a rule do a good job educating their parishioners.

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  October 19, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    I’ve been reading a book about minority religions in the Middle East and reference was made to a 10th century work by an Arab scholar named Ibn al-Nadim in which he describes groups in his day who were considered so-called “people of the book”, i.e., non-pagans and non-Muslims who were granted a measure of tolerance and protection under Islamic law.

    Ibn al-Nadim apparently lists the Marcionites as such a group. This would mean that a group that can be identified as Marcionite existed as late as the 10th century. Does that sound right? Also al-Nadim seems not to consider them Christians since he makes a clear distinction between the groups in his writings. I’m not a specialist but al-Nadim seems well regarded by scholars and historians of Islam.

    John the Baptist and the last Gnostics: The history of the Mandaeans (2016) by Andrew Phillip Smith
    The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: A Tenth-Century Survey of Islamic Culture (1970) translated into English by Bayard Dodge

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      I don’t know. Marcionites, of course, considered themselves (the true) Christians.

  7. Avatar
    mwbaugh  October 19, 2016

    I agree, he’s one of the most popular heretics ever. His ideas make me wonder if he was influenced by some form of Gnosticism.

    Is the God of the Hebrew scriptures the same as the God of New Testament? I’ve known a lot of Christians who want to reject the first in favor of the second, but here’s another problem. Your insight in pointing out that God is very complex and difficult to resolve in either testament is very good.

    Is Jesus human or divine? I grew up in a progressive church (UCC). The focus on preaching I remember was on Jesus’ ethical character. The sermons I hear didn’t try to debunk healing and miracle stories but didn’t dwell on the miraculous either. The point, I was told, is what is being taught by the miracle rather than the miracle itself. It really threw me when I got older and had schoolmates who told me that their church taught that the importance of those stories was the supernatural power of the miracle that “proved” Jesus’ divinity.

    It seems to me that those who insisted on this understanding Jesus as God with infinite powers went hand in hand with something else. These Christians often told me that following Jesus as a moral exemplar was useless and even immoral. Believing in Jesus as the divine savior was the only important thing. The quote I heard from several that sticks in my mind was, “there is no greater sin than claiming Jesus was just a great moral teacher.” I even remember raising Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness, care for the poor, etc. and having those dismissed as “works righteousness.” It seemed very strange to me.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      He is usually thought to have had views quite different from those of the various Gnostics.

  8. Avatar
    Hormiga  October 19, 2016

    > Possibly they think God changed?

    It’s been a decade since I read it, but IIRC Jack Miles argues just that in his “God: A Biogaphy.” Pivoting on the Book of Job, Yahweh realizes that he’s been acting very badly and subsequently mellows out.

    • Avatar
      Nomad  December 13, 2016

      If we track with the idea that the bible is a book written by humans, then perhaps it might make more sense to say that the biblical writers varying perspectives on God changed over time, which could explain why we see large differences in emphases on many points between the OT and NT.

  9. Avatar
    Epaminondas  October 19, 2016

    Your sense that many Christians hold views not so different from those of Marcion is an interesting insight. It resonates with my own observations. At one point you say:

    “It’s never been clear to me how they reconcile these two claims, that it’s the same God but it’s a different God.”

    I suggest that most Christians are not deep thinkers, but are rationalizers (which most people are most of the time).Their reasoning is not clear to you because it’s not clear to them. It’s an easy way, encouraged by preachers and culture, for Christians to be comfortable with their allegiance to the Bible. They simply do not see the Bible’s conflictions as conflictions, much less realize that they are rationalizing, not analyzing.

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 19, 2016

    “If pressed, of course, these people would say that, literally speaking, it is the same God. Unlike Marcion they tend not to think there are actually two different gods. Still, they absolutely think that God is different in the Old Testament than in the New Testament. It’s never been clear to me how they reconcile these two claims, that it’s the same God but it’s a different God.”

    I haven’t read the rest of the post yet. But I’ve never seen a problem with this. I’ve always thought it meant that God was portrayed differently in the Old Testament because the ancient Jews completely misunderstood who He was. And the type of worship they gave Him was what they mistakenly thought He wanted. So in effect, it was as if they were worshipping a different God from the one later worshipped (and written about) by Christians.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 20, 2016

      For religious and other Jews, of course, that’s an expression of the religious ego of supersessionist Christians. They feel it is offensive to tell the people whose ancestors wrote the Tanakh that they didn’t really understand what they were writing or the God they worshiped. Like telling Jews (and the world) that what Genesis 2-3 really tells is the story of man’s Fall from Grace which explains why we need salvation. In fact, that’s neither what it says nor what its authors meant (since we can only tell what they meant by what they wrote).

  11. Avatar
    mwbaugh  October 19, 2016

    The personal view I’ve taken is that the wide ranging character of God has to do with the many different authors of scripture. The writers of scripture came to the task with their own perspectives, their own preconceptions, and their own personalities. My assumption is that they were all writing about the same reality (God) but couldn’t help filtering that through their own perspectives. As a result, different accounts are very different and even contradictory.

    Trying to understand God seems to me a little like trying to understand some historical phenomenon that different writers have dealt with differently. For example, we know about the New England puritans/separatists but who were they. I’ve seen books that describe them as an early democracy, high minded and virtuous. Others claim they were intolerant religious fanatics who hated anything different or anything pleasurable. More recent works suggest that they were very religious, but more like ordinary English people than they were different.

    We know that the puritans/separatists really existed, but to try to understand who they were, we have to be disciplined and try to get behind the different accounts. IMO the problem with God is similar.

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 19, 2016

    Having read a little further, your pointing out that God is sometimes portrayed as benign in the Old Testament and wrathful in the New: I suspect most people aren’t familiar enough with the Bible to understand that. I wasn’t!

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 20, 2016

      Maybe most people. But often, when I’ve made the following points to people who know the Christian Bible, they get it. In addition to portrayals of a jealous and wrathful God in the Old Testament, there are teachings about justice, love of neighbor, taking in the stranger as “we” were once strangers in a strange land, forgiveness, and justice–sheltering the homeless, caring for the widow, and feeding the poor. In the New Testament, in addition to the teaching of love and forgiveness, it teaches that, at the end of days, everyone who does not believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior will be judged by God (& sent to Hell?). Oops, what happened to all that love and forgiveness? Worse yet, they’ll be judged not necessarily for being a bad person but for not believing something. And it’ll come down on most people since most aren’t Christian. I don’t find the God of the NT any more acceptable than the God of the OT.

  13. Avatar
    JakSiemasz  October 19, 2016

    Excuse my ignorance, Bart, but what does it mean when Christians say that “Jesus fulfilled the law”? Is this statement actually in the NT? How do Xtians reason that the OT laws no longer apply because “Jesus fulfilled the law”.
    Thanks and great blog!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      Yes, see, for example, Matthew 5:17-20. It means two things for Matthew in particular 1. Jesus accomplished what the prophets said he would and 2. Jesus provided a fuller meaning to events foreshadowed in the Old Testament

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 20, 2016

      To piggyback on what Dr. Ehrman said, yeah, by saying Jesus “fulfilled the Law” they seem to be saying, ironically, that Jesus fulfilled the Prophets. As we can see from the Talmud, the Jews at that time were still debating as to whether the Torah speaks about the Resurrection of the Dead and the World-to-come (which is how the Jews referred to the Eschaton), but that shows that there were Jews who believed that it isn’t just the Prophets who predicted the Eschaton, but the Torah does as well. Jesus and his ilk may have been some of those Jews who did believe the Torah also predicted the Eschaton.

  14. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 19, 2016

    Think how much simpler Bible study would be today if Marcion had won out with Luke and some of Paul’s letters, with the Old Testament jettisoned completely. Picture a modern Christian asking another “have you read the Bible?” The replies would much more likely be “Yes, cover to cover.” … Which Pope excommunicated Marcion, anyway?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      I know. But I probably wouldn’t have a full time teaching job then!

  15. Avatar
    Scott  October 19, 2016

    From my studies of heresy through out the middle ages, it seems that Marcion’s views, along with heavy doses of dualism, were a common thread whenever Christians wandered outside of orthodoxy like the Cathars and Bogomils. It is fascinating how durable these ideas are: they are so “logical” that different people living in different eras and cultures spontaneously adopt them for their own without apparent knowledge of their Marcionite predecessors.

  16. Avatar
    James Chalmers  October 19, 2016

    Wringer

  17. tompicard
    tompicard  October 19, 2016

    How to reconcile the God described in the Old Testament and the God described by Jesus?

    Marion’s idea is that they are 2 different Gods; that solves the problem, but seems to me it opens up even larger contradictions.

    The atheist says a God accurately described by both Old Testemant and Jesus cant possibly be reconciled; and so they claim they have proved neither God exists.
    The agnostic says it is close to impossible to reconcile these descriptions of God so neither one likely exists.
    Both agnostic and atheist argument (at least argument above) rests the premise that both descriptions are true descriptions of same God.

    All atheist/agnostic believe the Bible is full of contradictions/inconstancies/etc cause it was written and edited and re-editted by biased and fallible humans, so why do they base their arguments (or the arguments above) on a premise that the Bible is an accurate description of God?

    Prof. Ehrman
    Another reconciliation is mentioned in blog above is that ‘God changed’. But that idea is not developed.
    Do you have any comments/thoughts on Process Theology?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      I”ve never found the process view very compelling. I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s a matter of personal predilection….

      • Avatar
        Erekcat  October 20, 2016

        Could you briefly explain why this view is compelling to u?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 21, 2016

          It has always seemed to be to be, at heart, an attempt to salvage the idea that there could be a god despite the fact that so much evidence to speak against it, a theological way of having your cake and eating it too.

    • Avatar
      yes_hua  November 6, 2016

      Sorry but if there’s no consistent description of a god in a holy book, then we’re left with simultaneous personal revelation. And that we know hasn’t happened. If we can’t get it from the book, are we getting anything at all?

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  November 7, 2016

        Many have proposed that what we have are many different perspectives of a very complex entity that defies human ability to capsulize or simplify it.

  18. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 19, 2016

    Some Christians believe God’s OT wrath was necessary to protect the royal line and bring forth Jesus. Jesus is the new covenant which replaces the old covenant,
    It’s the greatest story ever told.

    • Avatar
      Tempo1936  October 19, 2016

      So Christian’s believe God had to wipe out thousands innocent women and children to bring us Jesus who will teach the world about love and peace. How can people believe that Almighty God has to kill to bring love and peace?

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 20, 2016

      Except that it didn’t replace the Old Covenant. Judaism went right on living and arguably is doing very well, thank you. The New Covenant works for people who believe humankind is fallen and in need of salvation. Jews don’t believe humans are fallen or that Genesis 2-3 says that.

  19. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  October 19, 2016

    Another consideration is that not only was the Torah for the Jews but Jews did not believe anyone had to be Jewish to be reconciled to God. I like that aspect of both the Torah and Judaism. On the other side, although there is much teaching in the New Testament about love and forgiveness, one DOES need to be a Christian (according to maybe 15-20 NT verses and in the conservative view)–more precisely, one needs to believe in J.C. as Lord and Savior in order to be saved. And, at the judgment, not just bad people will be judged harshly by God but even good people who have allegedly sinned by not believing in Christ as Savior. To me, that’s utterly lacking in love and compassion.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  October 22, 2016

      SBrundy
      Thanks for reiterating and reminding us that Torah/Tanakh include much about God’s love and mercy.
      I think Marcion was wrong to think the two testaments are about two different gods.

      Christians talk a lot about salvation (and explicitly or implicitly the alternative of damnation), and you say that is not necessary in Judaism. Dr Ehrman has done great service in explaining Jesus ministry is more about the coming of God’s Kingdom, a concept from the Old Testament, than about an individual’s personal salvation.

      I would like to see what Christians commonly think of ‘salvation’ be changed to what Jesus taught of the coming of God’s Kingdom. What I mean is salvation is identically equal to the coming of God’s Kingdom.

      So what does Gen 22:18 mean, all nations will be blessed through Abraham’s lineage ?
      that you or I, personally, will avoid eternal damnation through one of Abraham’s descendants?
      I think not (though many Christians thinks so) , or
      that that the Kingdom of God will make it’s appearance through one of Abraham’s descendants?
      I think so, but what that means I am sure at all . .
      or something else?

  20. Avatar
    puzzles  October 19, 2016

    If Marcion believed that Jesus had come to Earth like an angel with only the appearance of an adult human body, how did he explain the tradition of James the brother of Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, etc.? Wouldn’t somebody stand up and say “my great, great grandfather was the cousin of Jesus, and they used to play together as children…”?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      They existed, but only seemed to be blood relatives (I would assume)

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  October 21, 2016

        Maybe marcion’s bible didn’t have references to his mother or brother etc? If he only had Luke without the birth part, and some of Paul, and he edited it anyway, that might not be an issue?

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