Marcion, Marcion, Marcion
Those who are old enough might get the Brady Bunch reference in the title of this post. If not, well, you’re on the Internet already–use a search engine and figure it out.
I’ve been talking about the Bible of late: how I came to read it all the way through, not once but twice (third time in progress), what some of the intrinsic limitations in understanding it are, and some of my reactions as I re-read it for the first time in thirty-odd years. In last of these posts, I left off noting how appalling the violence in the Old Testament is. That’s where I want to pick up here.
I’ve already noted that the sheer quantities of sex and violence in the Bible truly amazed me the first times I read it as a teenager and an early twentysomething. Amazed me, but didn’t make too deep an impression. Youth is like that, I guess. I never really thought of it as an issue of theology–or theodicy. I guess I just stashed that away in the heap of contradictions that most people hold in their mind regarding religion. God is a God of Love, and all that Old Testament stuff where He kills people or orders them killed, by the droves–well, that was way back then, wasn’t it, and–hey, what’s for lunch?
Reading all this at the age of forty-eight is very much a different experience. Things such as the plauges and destruction God sent against His own people (Numbers 11:33, Numbers 16:1-35, and Numbers 25:1-4), the (lauded) behavior of Phineas (Numbers 25:5-9) which causes God to stop the last-mentioned plague, the mandates to kill all the men, women, and children in various cities in Canaan when the Jews return from Egypt (Joshua 6:20-27, 8:24-26, and 11:10-15, among others)–and that’s just in the parts I’ve re-read so far. There’s plenty more nastiness to come, too–just for a couple of examples, check out 2 Samuel 24 and 2 Kings 2:23-25. Examples could be multiplied quite a bit.
The point is that I’ve decided that I do not like the Old Testament as a whole very much at all. Now before you burn me as a heretic, let me note a few things. First, “don’t like” is not the same as “doesn’t believe” or “doesn’t accept”–at least in the sense that I accept that OT as the Word of God, or to put it another way, as revealed Scripture. Please note that “accept” is not synonymous with “accept literally” or “accept without reservations” or “accept uncritically” or “accept without careful interpretation”. Please note also that “doesn’t like” is not synonymous with “disrespects” or “disobeys”. If a thoughtful person read the Bible (or in fact any other Scripture) without at least some points of disagreement or difficulty, I’d have grave suspicions about said person. Of course, “disagreement” does not necessarily imply “rejection” or “disobedience”, either. These are important points to note, in my view, since they are all too often conflated.
In short, I do not agree with Marcion of Sinope, though I find I have become much more sympathetic to him. Marcion was a bishop in the 1st and 2nd Centuries–thus within the second or at most third generation of the Church. He also was–or became–a heretic. Marcion, as with the case with many others (including myself, as described above), noticed the sheer frequency and intensity of unpleasantness in the OT, and also observed that on the face of it, at least, the God of love, mercy, and compassion preached by Jesus seems somewhat different from the jealous, vengeful, smiting God of the OT. Theologians have attempted to resolve that seeming paradox in various ways over the centuries. Marcion took the simplest tack–the God of the OT and the God of the NT seemed so different because they were different.
In short, Marcion taught that there were two gods–the violent, vengeful, wrathful god of the OT, who created the material world and who duped mankind into thinking he was the real God; and the True God, the God of love, who is also the Alien God, since He has nothing whatsoever to do with the material cosmos or with evil. This God sends Christ into the world to undo the deceptions of the OT god and to save mankind from him and from the material world.
It’s important to note that while this is obviously similar in many respects to the Gnostic worldview, Marcion’s teaching differed from Gnosticism on some points, and on others it’s impossible to tell either way. Thus, scholars still debate whether he should be classed as an early Gnostic. Whichever way one may go on that question, it is not germane to the point at hand here.
Given Marcion’s beliefs, he (logically) rejected the entire Old Testament, all of the Gospels but an expurgated version of Luke (he left out the Infancy narrative), and all of the rest of the New Testament except for some of Paul’s letters. In fact, Marcion’s was the first Christian canon. The compiling of lists of canonical scriptures by the orthodox began as a response to Marcion, and continued until the canon we now have was finalized.
As I said, I am not a Marcionite. I do, however, find his view more viscerally and emotionally appealing as I read the Bible again after all these years. I’m not quite sure why–perhaps I’ve grown more cynical. Maybe suffering and the general messiness of life have become more real to me and I have thus become less able to blithely tolerate a supposedly loving God who seems not only to be OK with this but who seems actively to perpetrate it with distressing frequency. In many ways it would be very easy for me to just jettison the Old Testament altogether (whether that would entail leaving the Church would be another and even more complex matter) and cast my lot with that of Marcion and the other teachers (mostly, but not exclusively Gnostic) who held similar ideas.
I cannot do that, though. That would be the easy solution. Easy solutions are nice as well as–well, easy–but if the easy course of action were usually the right one, we’d live in a Utopia now. The more complex path is to integrate the OT somehow with all its messiness and ugliness, while cleaving to the NT vision. How–or even why? That’s what I’ll be talking about in the near future.