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The “Arch-Heretic” Marcion, Jesus, and the Jewish Law

In this thread I’ve started to talk about the relationship of Jesus to the Law of Moses.  I’m going to get to the issue by means of a circuitous route, by talking about how that relationship was understood by followers of Jesus living a hundred years after his day.  The reason for starting there is that we have a clearer idea what these followers thought than we do, say, of Jesus’ followers a decade after his death.  Those earlier followers left us no writings and they are not directly discussed (in terms of their theological views) by extensive other sources (except the book of Acts).  We do know about later Christians and their views, however, even if our sources of information for these are also partial and imperfect.

There were strikingly distinct positions taken by Christians in the middle of the second century with respect to Jesus and the law.  One extreme position was taken by the teacher-philosopher Marcion, who was eventually declared the arch-heretic of the church but who in his day pronounced a view that was highly attractive to a large number of Christians.  It was a view, in fact, that remained popular in wide swathes of the church, for some centuries afterward.

Marcion was active around 140-150 CE.  He was, above all else, a devotee of the apostle Paul, who, for him, was the only apostle who really and truly understood the full meaning of the gospel of Christ.   Paul, as you know, differentiated between the “law” and the “gospel.”  Paul insisted that a person was made right with God not by following the Jewish law but by believing in his gospel message about Christ.   Marcion pressed this differentiation to what he saw to be a logical extreme.  The law of the Jews and the gospel of Christ were fundamentally at odds with one another.

And that, for Marcion, was because the God who gave the law in the Old Testament was not the same god who provided the gospel of salvation through Jesus.  There were, in fact, two different gods.  Literally.   The God of the Old Testament…

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The Arch-Heretic Marcion’s Theology
Why Don’t People See Discrepancies in the Bible? Readers’ Mailbag October 15, 2016

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    davitako  October 16, 2016

    Bart,

    I read it in one of your books, you mentioned it here too, that this view promoted Marcion might have been even more popular than proto-orthodox one in the second century. What do you think early Christians found so attractive about this view? Is it because it so sharply contrasts Christianity with Judaism and its very strict laws?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      It was more popular in *some* places, but not most. And yes, I think that is one of the reasons people found it so attractive.

  2. Avatar
    Hume  October 16, 2016

    The nephilim seem like a strange addition to me. What is the genesis of the idea of the nephilim?

    * I think you may say the ancient Jews were henotheistic. If so, why keep the nephilim in Genesis when they became more monotheistic?
    * Also, the gods coming down and taking human women seems very Greek and Roman. Was it borrowed from them?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      These other gods were lower than the true God, and so they existed but were not worshiped. That would be how henotheism works. The legend of the Nephilim has deep roots, going back probably to the idea that in antiquity there were super-humans on the earth.

      • Avatar
        Hume  October 18, 2016

        Interesting! But what is the origin of the super-humans on earth idea? Where does that come from? Another tradition? Or an ancient Jew just made it up?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 19, 2016

          It’s all rooted in the idea of ancient “Golden Days” when everything was better and everyone was superior.

  3. Avatar
    Todd  October 16, 2016

    This post reminds me of a chapter in Marcus Borg’s book, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” chapter 3, “Jesus, Compassion and Politics,” in which Borg makes the distinction between the 1st century obsession of “purity” by the Jewish establishment, and Jesus’ teachings on compassion.

    Borg says that the Jews of Jesus day emphasized, “Be holy (pure) as God is holy (pure),” whereas Jesus taught, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” The Jews taught a life of purity; Jesus taught a life of compassion.

    I don’t think I can go so far as to say that there are two Gods, as did Marcion: one that is harsh (holy) and another God that is loving and forgiving, but I can accept Jesus as the embodiment of a God of compassion. I can follow the teachings of a compassionate God.

    Thank you for posting this article. Good statement regarding Marcionism.

  4. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  October 16, 2016

    “We no longer have the book.” What do you think happened to the book of Marcion? Didn’t it had copies like many other books?

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 16, 2016

    Is it known what God Marcion thought of as being the *Creator*? Can’t imagine he would have thought it was his “Old Testament God”! But did he think of it as the God he believed Jesus represented, or an unknown deity over both of them?

  6. Avatar
    Jrgebert  October 16, 2016

    How did Tertullian justify that it was the same God in both your examples?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      Same way people today do! He was the God both of justice and of mercy.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 16, 2016

    I can certainly see why Marcion would not want to connect Jesus with the God of the Old Testament since this God did so much divine killing and ordered so much killing by humans, even genocide. I guess one could edit out all the references that Jesus allegedly made to this Old Testament God, but that is a lot of editing.

  8. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  October 16, 2016

    From what we indirectly know of Marcion, did he ever indicate that the God of the Hebrew Bible (or Septuagint) thought that the Israelites would be able to follow the Law and that he was wrong? This is, after all, what Deuteronomy 30:8-11 says. It shows that there were not only the commandments and statutes to follow but the commandment to follow them. And about that commandment, God says to Israel, “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (11-14).

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      My sense is that like a lot of Christians he thought the law could not be followed in all its details.

  9. Avatar
    cjeanne  October 16, 2016

    Why in the world didn’t Marcion’s God be the one who had won out. Why given that lovely God would the early church founders have chosen the system we have today? No power involved with Marcion’s god?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      Marcion’s opponents were dead set against denying the God who Created the world, which, for them, was created good and only later came to be corrupted because of the appearance of sin with the transgression of Adam.

  10. talmoore
    talmoore  October 16, 2016

    Did Marcion think of the higher God as more like the God of the Greek philosophers? Did he make a connection between, say, the “God” of Jesus and the “God” of Plato and Aristotle? And did he consider Jesus as a “savior” in the same sense that the Greeks saw their gods, heroes and kings as “saviors” e.g. Zeus Soteros?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      I’m afraid we don’t know how much he was influenced, if at all, by Greek philosophy. My guess would be “not much.” He was a shipping merchant, not a professional scholar.

  11. Avatar
    Jason  October 16, 2016

    Does Tertulian (or any other source) Mention how this brand of heresy addressed aspects of the new covenant like Luke 19:27 or Ananias and Sapphira in the light of the good-cop/bad-cop Gods it indicates?

  12. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 17, 2016

    Previously you mention that The story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery was not in the original But later inserted in the book of John.

    It’s a great story showing the compassion , loving spirit of a super smart man being able to outsmart everyone else.

    We know The stories of Jesus were orally pass down for many years and then later written down .

    If Someone believed this story was true and Passed down orally , it is just as legitimate as any of the other stories about Jesus regardless when it was written or that was inserted at a later date.

  13. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 17, 2016

    Marcion was the first of an eventually growing line of Protestants. … Followed by Arius, Wycliffe, Huss, Tyndale, Servetus, Cranmer, Socinus, and Thomas Jefferson.

  14. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 17, 2016

    So if Marcion can pick and choose which scriptures fit his view, why is it not also acceptable for others to put together selected stories and scriptures that tell That Jesus was the Messiah , the son of God and even God.
    It’s when pastors Say only their interpretation is the truth that bothers me.

    The old and New Testament stories are in many ways uplifting and positive but at the end of the day they are only stories much like the movies we watch today.

  15. Avatar
    toejam  October 18, 2016

    I recently listened to a lecture by Judith Lieu on Marcion and one of the most surprising points of detail I was previously unaware of was that there are several times in the Church Father quotations of Marcion where they try to show how he’s altered the text, yet the variation they’re talking about is also found in other orthodox manuscripts that the Church Fathers seemingly weren’t aware of. In other words the Church Fathers think it’s a Marcionite variant, yet it’s probably not. What are your thoughts on this? Are there any examples where you think the Marcionite text as quoted by the Church Fathers likely preserves an earlier reading?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      I’ll deal with that in a post — maybe tomorrow! But yes, I do think that’s possible (it’s been pretty well shown, I think)

  16. Avatar
    moose  October 18, 2016

    Mr. Ehrman. Reading about Marcion and his “Antithesis” in Tertullian’s “Against Marcion”, there’s something that catches my eye. First of all; Book III makes it certainly clear that Marcion believed Solomon to be Christ.
    Against Marcion, Book III Chapter 20:
    “Accordingly the prophet Nathan, in the first of Kings, makes a promise to David for his seed, which shall proceed, says he, out of your bowels. Now, if you explain this simply of Solomon, you will send me into a fit of laughter. For David will evidently have brought forth Solomon! But is not Christ here designated the seed of David, as of that womb which was derived from David, that is, Mary’s? Now, because Christ rather than any otherwas to build the temple of God, that is to say, a holy manhood, wherein God’s Spirit might dwell as in a better temple, Christ rather than David’s son Solomon was to be looked for as the Son of God. Then, again, the throne for ever with the kingdom for ever is more suited to Christ than to Solomon, a mere temporal king. From Christ, too, God’s mercy did not depart, whereas on Solomon even God’s anger alighted, after his luxury and idolatry. For Satan stirred up an Edomite as an enemy against him. Since, therefore, nothing of these things is compatible with Solomon, but only with Christ, the method of our interpretations will certainly be true; and the very issue of the facts shows that they were clearly predicted of Christ. And so in Him we shall have the sure mercies of David.

    Then in Chapter 18, he describes the “Horns”!? on Jesus cross!
    “Christ was indicated in him(Joseph the son of Jacob)— a bullock in respect of both His characteristics: to some as severe as a Judge, to others gentle as a Saviour, whose horns were the extremities of His cross. For of the antenna, which is a part of a cross, the ends are called horns; while the midway stake of the whole frame is the unicorn. By this virtue, then, of His cross, and in this manner horned, He is both now pushing all nations through faith, bearing them away from earth toheaven; and will then push them through judgment, casting them down from heaven to earth”.

    Now, this is interesting. Tertullian makes it clear that Marcion supports a false christ – in fact Salomon. And Tertullian describes the Horns of the cross of the real Christ. This reminds us of the controversy between Adonijah and Solomon.
    1 Kings 1:50 “But Adonijah, in fear of Solomon, went and took hold of the horns of the altar. 51 Then Solomon was told, “Adonijah is afraid of King Solomon and is clinging to the horns of the altar”.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      I read Tertullian’s argument very differently. He’s not arguing that Solomon was not the Christ because Marcion says he was. Marcion definitely did not think that. Solomon was an Old Testament figure, and Marcion had no time for him. Tertullian is simply justifying his own view that a prophecy to David about his “son” was not actually about his real son but about the messiah Jesus. To prove that point he has to show that the prophecy was not fulfilled by Solomon.

      • Avatar
        moose  October 18, 2016

        Yes, I see what you mean. But (and I hope I’m not annoying), let’s take a closer look.

        Book III ch. 20: “But is not Christ here designated the seed of David, as of that womb which was derived from David, that is, Mary’s”.

        But look what Terullian have to say about Mary in Book II:

        Book II ch. 4: “Goodness spoke the word; Goodness formed man of the dust of the ground into so great a substance of the flesh, built up out of one material with so many qualities; Goodness breathed into him a soul(..)The self-same Goodness provided also a help meet for him, that there might be nothing in his lot that was not good. For, said He, that the man be alone is not good. He knew full well what a blessing to him would be the sex of Mary”.

        What? God gave Mary to Adam!? This would mean that Mary is another name for Eve. This is actually not so strange, because this refers to another Messiah prophecy – “The seed of the woman”, drawn from Genesis 3:15. Catholics often understand the woman of Genesis 3:15 to refer primarily to Mary, the mother of Jesus(according to Wikipedia).

        And so Christ appeared also to Abraham – in the flesh – according to Tertullian.

        Book III ch. 9: “Therefore on that occasion He did Himself appear with the angels to Abraham in the verity of the flesh, which had not as yet undergone birth, because it was not yet going to die, although it was even now learning to hold intercourse among men”.

        Thus according to Tertullian, Christ was both of the seed of David, and of the seed of the woman(Eve). Indeed a strange combination.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 18, 2016

    Good luck with Friday’s “mythicism” debate with Dr. Robert Price. His website is a good website and he seems to be a reasonable person with some scholarly credentials. I still don’t see how the question of whether Jesus was all legendary or mostly legendary makes a whole lot of difference just as it doesn’t make much difference with regard to Confucius and Buddha. I have, however, had some recent discussions with 5 atheists which made me realize that they can be just as dogmatic and rigid as Fundamentalist Christians.

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  October 18, 2016

      > I have, however, had some recent discussions with 5 atheists which made me realize that they can be just as dogmatic and rigid as Fundamentalist Christians.

      Which is why I prefer to self-identify as “not religious.”

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 19, 2016

        I’ve been anti-fundamentalist for a long time–mostly for political reasons and because of the arrogance in claiming to be the one and only way. Once, my young adult children said to me, “Dad, you’re just as fundamentalist [by which they meant ‘dogmatic’] an anti-fundamentalist as the fundamentalists you criticize!” Had to think about that one. It changed me.

    • Avatar
      JakSiemasz  October 19, 2016

      Listen to the Dogma Debate podcast #252….you might change your mind about Dr. Price!

  18. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 18, 2016

    I can’t help but like Marcion.
    Slightly off topic, 1 Corinthians 6:12 “all things are lawful for me” is rendered in quotes in most translations. Is Paul quoting the Corinthians? Was this kind of like their motto, because they thought since they are saved by faith in Jesus they are free to do whatever they like? Or is this something Paul had said to them?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      Yes, it is widely thought that Paul in 1 Corinthians sometimes quotes a Corinthian slogan (possibly from the letter they sent him) in order to provide either a correction or nuance. This would be one of those places. Some Corinthians (the “strong” party) are saying this, and Paul wants to explain his better understanding of it.

  19. Avatar
    Eric  October 19, 2016

    I understand we do not have the Antitheses but only commentary about it. Do we have any copies (fragments) of his edited versions of the 11 books, or is our knowledge of that also solely drawn from Tertullian?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      No, we know about his versions only from quotations of Tertullian and a couple of other writers.

  20. Avatar
    HawksJ  October 19, 2016

    Long before I had ever heard of Marcion, and even before I became an agnostic, his basic premise had occurred to me as well. I remember thinking that one of the best arguments against Christianity was the OT itself and how it simply doesn’t square with Christianity. One reason was, as M noted, the god of the OT bears little to no resemblance to the god of Jesus. The second, and even bigger problem (one I’ve never heard explained away to any satisfaction), is why an omniscient god got it wrong the first time, not to mention why he waited 40 generations to fix it. ‘Progressive revelation’ only makes sense as a retrospective attempt to reconcile the idea.

    Christianity would make far more sense if they had adopted M’s view.

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