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The Arch-Heretic Marcion’s Theology

I am discussing the relationship between Jesus and the Law of the Jews, and to get to that question I am dealing with how Christians about a century after Jesus’ life understood this relationship.  I began with Marcion and his followers, who thought that Jesus had nothing to do with the Law, since he represented a different God from the one who gave the Law.  The Law was given by the Creator of this world who called Israel to be his people and then judged them, and all people, harshly, for not obeying his law, leading to universal condemnation.  Jesus came from a different God, a previously unknown God, who was not the God of the Old Testament, but a higher spiritual being who intervened on behalf of people to save them from the wrath of the Creator.

There are many, many things about Marcion’s system of belief that we would love to know that we simply do not.  The main reason is that Marcion’s own writings have not been passed down to us from antiquity.  That should not be a huge surprise.  Other Christians considered Marcion to be an arch-heretic, an evil representative of the Devil come to deceive the faithful.  They censored his writings and simply refused to copy them.  That was the easiest way to destroy books in antiquity.  You didn’t have to have a public book-burning.   If you simply didn’t copy a book, it wouldn’t survive.

We know of two books from Marcion.  The first was his own composition, the Antitheses, which I mentioned in the previous post, a book that appears to have laid out in stark contrast the differences between the God of the Jews who gave the Law and the previously unknown God of Jesus who provided salvation.  Marcion claims he learned of this contrast from the writings of the apostle Paul, his hero, who did indeed differentiate between his “gospel” and the law.

His second book was his canon of Scripture, an edited collection of ten of Paul’s letters and a version of the Gospel of Luke.

Because we don’t have either writing, we have to …

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Marcion as Alive and Well Among Us
The “Arch-Heretic” Marcion, Jesus, and the Jewish Law



  1. Avatar
    James  October 18, 2016

    Are we sure Marcion believed in substitutionary atonement? He did after all use a version of Luke, from which that idea is notably lacking.

    And I’d rather diagram a paragraph of Tertullian than one of a Donald Trump speech any day… 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2016

      My sense is that no one ever noticed that Luke lacks the idea of atonement, until modern times. But in any event, I don’t think he *chose* Luke. I think Luke was the one Gospel available to him in his home church.

  2. Avatar
    Hormiga  October 18, 2016

    > If Jesus’ death was a substitutionary sacrifice that satisfied the demands of the righteous giver of the Law, but Jesus in fact was never sacrificed because he did not actually have blood to shed or a body to die, then how would that satisfy the creator God?

    It would seem that, or something close to it, also should have been a problem for the proto-Orthodox as soon as the Trinitarian synthesis started to gel. If Jesus participates in the godhead in eternity past and future, just what kind of sacrifice is the crucifixion of a fleshly and very transient manifestation? I’m sure this question got treated at length by the proto-Orthodox writers — can you recommend any reading about it?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2016

      You know, I’m sure there are some good books on this — but for the life of me I can’t think of any! (i.e., on early Christian understandings of the atoning significance of Jesus’ death) Does anyone else on the blog know of any??

      • Avatar
        Scott  October 20, 2016

        Having been raised in a casual religious atmosphere I grew up believing that the atonement theory of the loudest group (the evangelicals and their kin) was the only one available. I was shocked to find that substitutionary sacrifice was not the one, true, answer. It has made me curious as to what exactly the earliest followers of Jesus thought about his death and if they even had an atonement theory beyond Jesus being the first fruits of the resurrection.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  October 21, 2016

          I think it is most likely that the majority of followers stopped being his followers when he got crucified and did not witness any risen Christ and did not believe he had risen or that he was the first fruit. A few die-hard believers came up with all that.

  3. Avatar
    Bwana  October 18, 2016

    ” Is it that Jesus “fooled” the Old Testament God, by “seeming” to shed blood and die? ”

    Divine beings fooling each other. It sounds pretty similar to the evangelical storyline: that God “fooled” Satan when the crucifixion turned out to be victory instead of defeat. The pantheon is full of trickster gods …

  4. Avatar
    Jimmy  October 18, 2016

    Hi Bart,
    I watched your debates and also Robert Prices. You both debated many of the same opponents and took the same position on many issues (but not all). On your upcoming debate with Robert Price on Friday, are you preparing for the debate differently than you would with an Christian apologists ?

    I am am really looking forward to this debate and appreciate yours and Dr Prices scholarship.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2016

      Yes, this time I prepared by reviewing and rereading a number of the mythicist books, including those by Bob himself. I’ve never read this kind of material before a debate before!

      • Avatar
        Judith  October 19, 2016

        We’ll be pulling for you! 🙂

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  October 18, 2016

    From the little I have read of Tertullian’s Against Marcion, it seems that Marcion was tackling — and ultimately being swayed by — the age-old Problem of Evil. Namely, Marcion seemed to be trying to solve the problem of why a supposedly benevolent Creator God would willing create evil and allow it to exist. And Tertullian, for his part, dismisses Marcion’s need to reconcile the problem as “morbidly brooding over the question of the origin of evil”, which doesn’t exactly make Tertullian look like the most intellectually honest person. If anything, this appears to be a philosophical argument that has existed for as long as men have worshipped gods, continued to be a contentious issue in Tertullian and Marcion’s day, and remains an enigma even today. Indeed, as you have mentioned on many occasions, Dr. Ehrman, it was this very question that eventually led you to abandon your faith and accept the world for the ostensibly irrational mess that it is.

    (In my research I distinguish these two Weltanschauungen as the Top-down Gestalt Paradigm [TGP] vs the Bottom-up Gestalt Paradigm [BGP]. TGP thinkers essentially see the world in an emanationist perspective, where a singular agency works Top-down from an infinitesimally small point, like a pyramid; we see an example of this way of thinking in Tertullian’s argument that there can only be one supreme being, because, as Tertullian puts it; “the great Supreme must needs be unique. This Unique Being, therefore, will be God–not otherwise God than as the great Supreme; and not otherwise the great Supreme than as having no equal; and not otherwise having no equal than as being Unique.” BGP thinkers, however, see the world in an epiphenomenal perspective, where countless, if not infinite numbers of individual agents work from the Bottom-up to create something more akin to a box with a seemingly infinite foundational surface area and a certainly infinite height, with walls that never, ever meet at a point on top [unlike a pyramid]; in this latter case, some String Theorists might equate these individual agencies with quantum level Strings, but that’s not necessary in order to have this worldview.)

    Anyway, it seems to me that if Tertullian and Marcion simply had the Bottom-up worldview common amongst Atomists at that time, such as, for example, Lucretius, instead of the Top-down worldview then I can’t imagine there would have been such a contentious issue. Alas, if everyone today were to have a 180 degree shift in paradigm TGP to BGP, we wouldn’t be having to deal with much of the nonsense we are dealing with now!

  6. TWood
    TWood  October 18, 2016

    Is it possible Marcion thought something like Basilides did? Maybe the spiritual Jesus possessed somebody who was actually crucified… which would mean he died in a body while not actually having one himself… I know that’s crazy, but Basilides’ idea is at least as crazy. IDK. Just a thought.

    Also, it just dawned on me that fundies who believe in “Christophanies” in the O.T. are teaching some kind of Docetism before Jesus was born. Isn’t that true?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2016

      There were some key differences. Marcion was not a Gnostic or a proto-Gnostic. The similarity for the two, though, is that they both try to explain the crucifixion if Christ is somehow divine. Docetism itself usually is applied to views of Jesus during his lifetime.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 18, 2016

    I think the intent *could* be that Jesus *voluntarily endured all the agony associated with a death by crucifixion*, when he could just as easily have felt nothing at all. Given that concept, either Jesus himself or the God he represented made it appear to onlookers as if the blood, etc., they were seeing was real…and Jesus, by choice, *felt* as if it was real.

  8. Avatar
    unique  October 18, 2016

    i don:t agree with marcion it don:t make scene for jesus to just appeared from above and be about thirty year old
    that don:t scene and to fool God how do that sound from what i have read about Jesus he is a copy of the
    egypt horus a made up person from what i found out there is know proof that Jesus was never on earth

  9. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  October 18, 2016

    I wonder if Marcion read Paul’s letters to an illiterate audience? If the letters were altered, then the popularity of his doctrine would have been under false pretenses which led to its ultimate failure.

    But where or how would he have come up with such a theology? I suppose we don’t know his previous beliefs and influences before becoming a Christian. It seems like he applied several ideas to Jesus–docetism + philosophy of his day + Judaism/Apostle Paul = a jumbled up Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2016

      It’s usually thought that he was raised Christian, and that his views came from having read carefully Paul’s letters.

  10. Avatar
    Ibn.Fawda  October 19, 2016

    Doesn’t the Gospel of John have the same problem? If Jesus was always a divine entity in existence (Logos, etc…), then there was not any suffering and no substitution. Is the point that the death and resurrection was just another Sign so others would believe? Is that why proto-Orthodox leaders insisted (oddly) that Jesus was 100% human and 100% divinity?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2016

      My sense is that the author of John does think that Jesus literally suffered death; but you’re right, the suffering part seems minimized there.

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 19, 2016

    Hmm… Well if Marcion thought Jesus didn’t have a material body, I can only think of two reasons he came to earth. 1. To fool the old God like you say, or 2. To impart secret knowledge to the people so they could know how to free themselves from the old God (this would make Marcion a gnostic). I doubt number 2. Is there any other reason Jesus would have been sent here?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2016

      He came not to reveal secret knowledge (Marcion, you’re right, was not a Gnostic), but to teach openly the truth about God and to bring salvation.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 19, 2016

    This discussion of the two Gods of Marcion makes me think of some Christians who contend that the Old Testament, vengeful God is an inaccurate description made in error by an ancient people and this description no longer applies because this description has been revised and replaced by the life of Jesus illustrating a more loving God. Can Jesus, since he often referred to the Old Testament, really be separated from the Old Testament God?

  13. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  October 19, 2016

    Bart, an author’s opponents could make a book disappear by ceasing to copy it but were there no copyists among the Marcionites themselves? I thought there was a good number of them.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      But if no one in the next generation copied their copies, they would disappear within a hundred years or two.

  14. Avatar
    balivi  October 20, 2016

    Dear Bart! Based In Romans 8: 3 (…God, sending his Son in the image (similarity of hungary) of the evil flesh…) Paul was a docetist? Its maybe. In Romans 8: Based on the possible. What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2016

      I don’t think Paul was a docetist, but I do think docetists could appeal to this verse in support of their view!

      • Avatar
        balivi  October 21, 2016

        I’m not docetist:-) But I do not understand, however, when Paul makes a docetist statement, then why not docetist?
        But of course I accept the answer, you’re the expert, but I do not understand.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 23, 2016

          Sorry — I should have explained. It’s because the verse does not say that Jesus only seemed to be human. It says that he came in the “likeness of sinful flesh.” The point is that Jesus was not sinful, so he only seemed like he had “sinful” flesh. But that doesn’t mean he was not a human being, only that he was not a sinner.

          • Avatar
            balivi  October 24, 2016

            Thanks! The docetism determining included in Jesus that no human being. Ok, I did not know exactly. But if the human being that can be known that his body is sinful, then Jesus was not a human being, because he was likeness of Sinful Flesh. I think. So was Paul docetist, because he this said.
            John said, Jesus was real flesh, and he was a human being. And with other Christians such as the Gospels. Judas did not think it 🙂

  15. Spencer Black
    Spencer Black  February 16, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, is there anything in the quotations of Marcion that indicate he knew the names of the gospels as we know them today?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2020

      Tertullian wrote a five-volume discussion of Marcion in which (book 4) he detailed the specifics of what was in Marcion’s gospel. It appears to have been a form of what we now call Luke (he doesn’t call it that, just “the gospel”)

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