Marcion and the Marcionites

A movement sometimes classified, probably mistakenly, with Gnosticism, and even in starker contrast than the latter with Judaism, was that begun by Marcion. Marcion is said to have been a native of Sinope, a seaport in Pontus, on the south coast of the Black Sea, the country of the famous Cynic, Diogenes. He is reported to have been the son of a bishop and thus to have been reared a Christian. He came to Rome, a man of considerable wealth, about the year 138 or 139. He joined himself to the church in that city and made it a generous gift. He began teaching the distinctive views which brought him fame and attracted a large following in the church. However, he failed to win the majority and after a few years, probably about 144, he was cut off from the church's communion. Yet he carried with him a number of members and formed them into a separate church.

Marcion is reported to have been influenced by one of the Gnostics and Gnostic conceptions can be found in him, bur much in his teachings was quite distinct from Gnosticism. To be sure, with the Gnostics he was a sharp dualist, but he drew the dualistic line in somewhat different fashion from them and his explanation of dualism was quite at variance from theirs. Unlike them he did not profess to possess a secret body of knowledge. Like them, and, indeed, like the Christian churches as a whole, he was deeply concerned with the salvation of men. This, however, he conceived to be not, as did the Gnostics, through initiation into a mystery, but by simple faith in what he believed to be the Gospel. He held that the Gospel had been lamentably distorted by the Church as he knew it, and he sought to recall the latter to what he was profoundly convinced was the simplicity and truth of the Good News.

Marcion insisted that the Church had obscured the Gospel by seeking to combine it with Judaism. He maintained that the God of the Old Testament and of the Jews is an evil God. Recalling the words of Jesus that a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, he argued that a world which contains the suffering and cruelty which we see all about us must be the work of some evil being and not of a good God. This God, whom he called by the Platonic term Demiurgos, a word also employed by the Gnostics, had created the world, with its revolting evils. This Demiurge, Marcion held, also created men, both their souls and their bodies. Marcion thus differed from the Gnostics in putting man's spirit as well as his body in the realm of evil. Yet, in a self-contradiction, perhaps as a result of his contacts with the Gnostics, he saw an antithesis between spirit and flesh. He also noted that the God of the Old Testament commanded bloody sacrifices to him, and, a God of battles, rejoiced in bloodshed and was vindictive. He taught that this God had given a stern and inflexible law for the governance of men, demanded obedience to it, was rigorous in his enforcement of it, and was arbitrary in his choice of favourites. "Good men," he held, were those who yielded obedience to the law of the Demiurge, but they, too, were the creation of that evil God. Marcion refused to evade the difficulties presented in the Jewish scriptures by the easy and popular device of regarding their text as allegory; he took them at their face value.

Marcion held that in contrast with the God of the Jews there is a second God, hidden until he revealed himself in Christ. This God is a God of love. Out of the pure mercy which is an essential part of his love, seeing the sad plight of men, he undertook to rescue them, beings for whom he had no responsibility, since they were not his, but were creatures of that other God, the Demiurge. This God of love, hitherto unknown to men, and perhaps even to the Demiurge, disclosed himself in Christ. Christ, so he taught, owed nothing to the Demiurge, and therefore was not born as men, the creatures of the Demiurge, are born, and only seemed to have a body. This view, technically dubbed docetism, from a Greek word meaning "to appear," that Christ was only a phantom who seemed to be a man, was, as we have noted, also found among the Gnostics. Nor was it limited to Marcion and the Gnostics, for it was a belief which was congenial to those who regarded flesh as evil and spirit as good and believed that the Redeemer, to be effective, must have nothing of the taint of the flesh about him.

Christ, so Marcion contended, came down from heaven and began teaching, proclaiming a new kingdom and deliverance from the rule of the malevolent Demiurge. However, those who were loyal to the Demiurge crucified Christ, thus unwittingly contributing to the defeat of the former, since the death of Christ was the price by which the God of love purchased men from the Demiurge and enabled them to escape from the lat-ter's kingdom into his own. Christ also rescued from the under-world those who bad previously died and who in their life-time had not been obedient to the Demiurge and thus from the standpoint of his law were wicked. All that the good God asks of men if they are to escape from the rule of the Demiurge is faith in response to his love. Men have been emancipated from the legalistic requirements of the Demiurge and of his creature, Judaism.

Marcion believed that Paul had understood this Gospel. In Paul he saw the sharp disjunction between law and grace, the grace which is the unmerited favour of God, which Marcion was passionately convinced was of the essence of the Gospel. He declared that the church of his day had obscured the Good News and he regarded himself as commissioned to proclaim the truth in its uncontaminated purity. To this end he made a collection of the letters of Paul, expurgating from them what he held to be the corrupting additions of later hands. He added, to these The Gospel according to Luke, editing it in such fashion as to free it from what he viewed as accretions inconsistent with the Gospel. Here was an attempt to recall the Church to the primitive Gospel by summoning it to a restudy of the original sources. Marcion seems to have been the first to bring together an authoritative collection of the earliest documents of Christianity.

Marcion was also an organizer. He gathered his followers into churches. To the members of these churches all sexual union was forbidden. Husbands and wives were required to separate and chastity and celibacy were enjoined. Martyrdom was prized. Eloquent witness is borne to the compelling appeal of Marcion and his teachings by the fact that the latter enjoyed a wide spread and persisted for centuries. Marcionite churches were especially numerous in the eastern part of the Empire. Although, because of the requirements of celibacy, they could be continued only by fresh conversions and not by heredity, they were to be found at least as late as the fifth century. Some of the Marcionites may have been absorbed into Manich^ism and have contributed to the emphasis which in the West that religion gave to Christ.

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