At Thoughts on Antiquity, Ben C. Smith is just starting a series that promises to be very interesting. He’s covering the formation of the New Testament canon — that is, the official list of books accepted as Sacred Scripture, the books that could be read in the liturgy and cited as authorities. His first posting is up, and it covers the Marcionite canon. You might want a little background first…
Marcion was one of the most notorious — and devastatingly successful — heretics of the early Church. He believed that the creator of the Old Testament was not the same deity as the New Testament’s good God, the Father of Jesus Christ. In fact, Marcion set the two “gods” in opposition to one another: There was the evil creator who trapped and tormented humans in this vale of tears, and there was the good God who wanted to rescue his faithful from the clutches of the creator.
Marcion was fabulously wealthy, a shipbuilder. Think of George Steinbrenner, if he wanted to go one better than buying the Yankees, and start a church instead. Marcion was the son of the Bishop of Sinope (in modern Turkey), born around 110 A.D. As a young man, he led a devout life, but managed to get himself into trouble with a young woman who was consecrated to virginity. This infuriated his bishop-father, who excommunicated him. Marcion begged to be taken back, but his father feared the gravity of the scandal. So Marcion packed his moneybags and left for Rome.
To his credit, he seems to have sincerely repented of his sin and led a chaste life afterward. But there are worse sins, and Marcion soon fell to one in particular: the pride that makes a brilliant theologian want to reinvent Christianity or edit out the difficult parts. In Rome, Marcion attracted disciples by preaching against the Old Testament and its “god,” by impugning the Jews and their law, and by railing against marriage and childbearing, which only trapped more souls in this material world. His Bible, which was quite small, consisted of parts of Luke and the Pauline letters, with most of the Old Testament references clipped out.
Marcion’s money enabled him to get the word out, borne no doubt by his own ships to lands far away. Around 150, St. Justin Martyr wrote that Marcion’s heresy had already spread everywhere. A church so far-flung needed a structure, so the son-of-a-bishop set up his own clergy and hierarchy. Only the unmarried were allowed to be baptized.
Irenaeus reports that his own master, St. Polycarp (who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John), once met Marcion during a trip to Rome. Marcion asked the old man: “Don’t you recognize me?” Polycarp answered: “Of course I recognize you. You’re the firstborn of Satan.”
Tertullian tells us that Marcion eventually went penitent, and the Church accepted him back, but only on the condition that he should lead his wayward flock back with him. Death, however, prevented him from completing his penance. We don’t know when he died.
Marcion’s heresy continued to spread after his death, until Constantine made it illegal in the fourth century. Yet pockets of Marcionites remained in the hinterlands as late as the ninth century.
Even today, we find hints of Marcionism in otherwise devout Christians. They say, “I’m a New Testament Christian,” and they dismiss the teachings of the Old Testament. Or they speak of the law of Moses as if it’s the very antithesis of the Gospel — something Jesus never did. They act as if they have nothing to learn from the prophets or from Abraham and Isaac, Moses and David. Their religion is “me and Jesus,” but — like Marcion — they’re missing the religion of Jesus.