(originally published in Compendium 2018 as “The Heretic That Changed Christianity Forever”)
BY DANIEL T. GOMES
In the early beginnings of the Church there was no Bible – at least, not in the sense that Christians understand it to be today. The Gospel propagated mainly through word of mouth. Letters alone were the primary written records of Christian teaching, shared among fellow believers and congregations according to their availability. These congregations faithfully preserved words of encouragement and admonition alike, yet these epistles were examined thoroughly in order to learn whether their content was truly the product of divine inspiration, a process that often led to rather unpleasant disputes. Many were the heresies that plagued the first few centuries of the church and, for the most part, they became little more than a footnote in the history of Christianity, their impact eventually curbed by some of the greatest apologists of that time.
Marcion, however, has had a much more lasting and subtle legacy. A wealthy bishop from Turkey, Marcion of Sinope was at one point involved with the congregation of Rome in the second century AD. This involvement was short-lived, as Marcion’s ideas soon put him at odds with the Church, not only in Rome but a bit all over the Roman Empire as well; he was eventually excommunicated, and his ideas were heavily condemned before and after his death. Nevertheless, Marcion left on Christianity an indelible mark, which for better or worse has lasted to this very day – the compilation of a canonical book. Yes, it may sound crazy and outright blasphemous, but it is true: the Christian Bible has its roots on the work of a reviled heretic.
Now, before you get all worked up, it is obvious that the New Testament flows from the Old, and that the Tanakh, as a canonical body of scripture, is the foremost origin of the Christian Bible; however, as previously explained, the early Church had not agreed on a canon of its own. Each congregation relied on the writings they had for their own edification, and for the most part they saw no need of emulating their Jewish counterparts in the formation of an official New Testament. It was not until Marcion’s heresy that the Fathers began to see the demand of establishing a recognized canon for Christian scripture.
“The Devil Is in the Details”
In order to understand Marcion’s necessity of a “bible,” one must first attempt to understand his views. Like many people today – Christians and non-Christians alike – Marcion struggled to reconcile the God of the Old Testament, an inflexible God of justice, with the God of the New Testament, a redeeming and merciful Messiah. He also criticized the Jewish influence in the Christian outlook of Jesus, though according to historian Adolf Harnack, he acknowledged the importance of the Old Testament as “a book worthy of belief.”
Nevertheless, the bishop’s solution was one that shocked the whole proto-orthodox Church to the core: he disassociated God the Father from God the Son almost completely. Marcion acknowledged that they were both “God” in their nature and power, yet separate (and at times opposite) entities in nearly every other aspect of their being. Moreover, he placed Jesus above Yahweh, representing the Maker as subordinate to the Messiah. This seemingly paradoxical response seemed to stem from both Paul’s writings and Marcion’s own antinomian feelings, although its major influence may come from Cerdo, a Syrian gnostic who posited a similar concept in Marcion’s time. Marcion ended up eclipsing Cerdo, taking the gnostic notions of the Syrian even further by attempting to achieve something utterly radical: the “purification” of Scripture.
Marcion collected many of the epistles historically attributed to Paul and grouped them together in what was called the Apostolikon. He then added his own book, the Gospel of Marcion – often called a “mutilation” of the Gospel of Luke – to his collection of Pauline epistles, thus forming the first body of New Testament scripture in Early Christianity – the Marcionite canon. The bishop rejected any other works held by the Church at large as Christian, including several books present in most canon versions of our day, and his subsequent teaching derived only from the books he had deemed faithful in their portrayal of the Christ. The creation of an official body of scripture strengthened Marcionism’s position in the early Church, its schismatic ideas flourishing to such an extent that it took centuries of unrelenting rebuttal and condemnation to root out the bishop’s ideology.
Burned in Effigy
While garnering a significant number of adherents, Marcion’s ditheistic concept also became anathema to most of the ecclesiastical writers. A number of them wrote openly against him and his teachings, with Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Ephrem the Syrian among these. Tertullian dedicated five whole books in response to Marcion, and one could argue that the Carthaginian’s refutations were superseded only by his hostility. It is even rumored that the Apostle’s Creed was spurred by Marcion’s denial of the Apostles (with the exception of Paul). Feedback to Marcionism also came in the form of canon propositions: not long after the Marcionite canon was formed, Irenaeus identified the Gospels as being four, and by the fourth century, most books present in today’s New Testament were part of the canons proposed, as proven by the Muratorian Fragment and the Codex Vaticanus.
Slowly but surely, Marcion’s teachings faded into obscurity, though not without great effort from the Church Fathers. While marred by his defiant principles, Marcion’s course of action forced the early Church to respond in an equally zealous manner. His tragic heritage lives on ignored by most, but it lives on nonetheless, more often in the writings and productions of his opponents than those of his own. Out of all these, the Christian Bible stands out as the ultimate example of Marcion’s downfall – a downfall that, in a way, was of his own making too.
About the Author:
Daniel T. Gomes is a graphic designer and content writer from Lisbon, Portugal. He currently serves as Biblion’s Assistant Editor, having played a crucial role in the magazine since its inception. He is also a self-published author and one of the hosts of the biweekly Broklahomies Podcast.