Marcion and the canon

harry y. gamble

Marcion is one of the most intriguing yet elusive figures in early Christian history. It is proof of his prominence that, among the diverse forms of Christianity that flourished in the second century, his was the most frequently and forcefully attacked by anti-heretical writers, and was apparently perceived as the most dangerous/ Marcion has likewise interested modern scholars, not only because of the peculiarities of his teachings but also because of his possible influence on one of the most important developments in the early church, the formation of the Christian Bible.2 In that connection, Marcion has commanded attention on two major topics: the church's appropriation of the scriptures of Judaism (which it came to call the 'Old Testament'), and the emergence of a canon of specifically Christian scriptures (a 'New Testament').

It is impossible in short space to do justice to the many difficulties that beset the study of Marcion and his influence. It has not yet become entirely clear either what Marcion taught or why he taught it. Some of his salient convictions are well known, but it remains uncertain how they arose, cohered or intersected the convictions of others. The old question whether Marcion should be regarded as a biblical theologian or as a Gnostic (or philosophical) teacher has not been answered, and cannot be answered in those terms. But, by situating Marcion within second-century Christianity and the issues that

1 The sources for Marcion's biography and still more for his teaching are Tert. Marc. and Praescr. (30); Iren. Haer. (i-3); Epiph. Pan. (42); Epiphanius, along with Pseudo-Tertullian, Adversus omnes haereses, and Filastrius, Diversarum haereseon liber, may preserve parts of Hip-polytus' lost Syntagma. Justin Martyr and Theophilus of Antioch wrote treatises against Marcion, both lost, and Irenaeus states his intention to do so (Haer. i.27.4). According to Eusebius, others who wrote against Marcion included Hegesippus (Euseb. HE 4.22), Philip ofGortyna and a certain Modestus (Euseb. HE 4.25). Celsus, the late second-century critic of Christianity, seems to have known only two forms of Christianity, one of which was Marcion's (Or. C. Cels. 2.6; 5.54; 6.57; 7.25-6).

2 The principal scholarly monographs are those of Harnack, Wilson, Knox, Blackman and Hoffmann.

preoccupied it, we can go far towards making his activity intelligible and evaluating his role.

Born in the late first or early second century, Marcion was a native of Sinope, a prosperous seaport on the Black (Euxine) Sea in the Roman province of Pontus in northern Asia Minor. Nothing certain is known of his early life. He was, by most accounts, a naukleros, a shipmaster or one engaged in maritime shipping, and a well-to-do man. It is highly probable that Marcion was a Christian already in Pontus, and indeed Epiphanius (Pan. 42.1) represents him as the son of a Christian bishop there, but nothing certain is known of his early activity.3 He may have been active for a time in western Asia Minor (Iren. Haer. 3.3.4), but he gained notoriety only when he came to Rome, sometime between 135 and 140, and became associated with the Christian community there, to which he made a munificent donation of 200,000 sesterces. Although he was initially welcomed on the presumption of his orthodoxy (Tert. Marc. 1.1.1), a series of disputes led to a falling out over his teaching, and in 144 he was expelled from the Roman church and his gift returned. Subsequently, Marcion proceeded with remarkable success to organise and propagate his own independent Christian community. Marcionite congregations quickly sprang up over a wide area, and, in the latter half of the second century, the Marcionite church was a formidable rival to the catholic church. Though many of its congregations were eventually absorbed into Manichaeism, it persisted with considerable strength, especially in the east, into the fifth century.4

Christianity according to Marcion

We are acquainted with Marcion only through the writings of his detractors, and it is uncertain how fully or accurately they have portrayed him and his teachings. There are, however, points upon which his ancient critics were widely agreed. Fundamentally, he claimed that Christianity represented a radical novum - a fresh and unprecedented revelation of a previously unknown God of pure goodness and perfect love. This revelation, he insisted, was discontinuous with anything that came before, and so could not have been anticipated or predicted. The emissary of this alien God was God's son, Jesus of Nazareth, who appeared suddenly in human likeness in the fifteenth year of Tiberius and proclaimed a new gospel of divine goodness to be received by faith and

3 On the pre-Roman activity: Regul, Prologe, 177-97.

4 Epiphanius, Adamantius, Ephraem the Syrian, Theodoret of Cyrus and Eznik of Kolb all represent Marcionism as a danger in the east in the fourth and fifth centuries.

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  • Nebay
    Why the marcion cannon is dangerous?
    10 months ago

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