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 plagues 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.

Posted on 13/11/2011, in Bible, Christianity, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. The reality is that Marcion’s sin was not in tossing aside the Old Testament but in inventing Paul. Justin Martyr a contemporary of Marcion had never heard of Paul, never quotes him, and never mentions his name–because Marcion invented Paul. Later when the Catholic church added a bunch of material to Marcion’s fictional Pauline epistles, the ‘orthodox’ also had to forge letters in the names of supposedly past ‘orthodox’ theologians who supposedly quoted Paul prior to Marcion–to prove that Marcion didn’t invent him and hat Justin just ‘forgot’ to ever mention or quote Paul. So then invented the frauds known as the epistles of Ignatius, of Polycarp, and 1st Clement, which exist for no other purpose than to make it seem like people were quoting Paul prior to Marcion. Yet even though these forged works are supposed to be believed to have been written before Marcion, the forgers could not resist attacking Marcionism in their forged epistles!

    In any case, the Old Testament for all its faults at least puts forth the concept that God require morality (ok, not in certain parts of the older material, but see Micah 6). Paul, via Marcion, however attacks everything having to do with morality in order to replace it with faith alone — or is that the Catholic interpolation that does this? For Marcion supposedly forbade marriage and all sex both in and outside of marriage and taught a very rigorous morality. How much of our Pauline epistles is from Marcion and how much from the Catholic forgers? Romans 9 is obviously from neither Marcion nor the Catholics but from Valentinus or some other Valentinian, for it is well known that both Marcion and the Catholics of the 2nd and 3rd centuries rejected the idea of Predestination–yet Valentinus and his ilk believed in it. Why did the Catholics leave it in Romans when they took it over from the Gnostics? Sorry, but just following Micah 6’s lead in removing the ceremonies from the Law and Amos 5’s revisionist lead in blasting the tabernacle in the 40-year wandering as a tabernacle of Moloch (thus insinuating all the genocides were not from God but from idolatrous practice) seems the better way to go than any form of Paulinism, Marcionite or otherwise.

  2. I’m too old to get the Brady Bunch reference. How does that grab ya? :o)

  3. Hi Turmarion. I caught a glimpse of your post at Aleksandreia, but as I was banished from the site for lese majeste before you arrived, I found my way here to comment. If as I believe you are Roman Catholic, you might search on the site for “It Is The Meaning of Life.” Marcion… I heard the name from a Talmudic scholar, one so Orthodox that he truly believes the destruction of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis was God’s punishment for the sins of secularism and Reform Judaism. He admitted to a sneaking admiration of Marcion for admitting that Christianity was NOT an extension of Judaism, but an entirely new faith, alien to the Tanach and what was just beginning to be formulated as the Talmud.

    I can’t embrace that kind of dualism. Neither do I feel called to obedience to any doctrinal teaching. I’m a quietly militant adherent of John Wycliffe. Anything not directly from God or Jesus is fallible human expounding. It might be true… or it might not. So, the Old Testament. There is only one God. Therefore, if the God revealed in the Old Testament is God at all, it is the same God worshipped by Christians. I have reconciled myself to this with the thought that while God is the same, from everlasting to everlasting, we, the human race, have advanced. At the time written of, the only way to make an impression on brutal tribesmen was to be brutally destructive. Yes, Jesus did represent a fundamental break with the past, and Judaism was notably transformed at about that period, from a hierarchical Temple rite to the scattered rabbinical schools which have given humanity so much more. Of all the points in space-time that God could have inserted The Word Made Flesh, that point was chosen because we were ready, barely ready, to receive it.

    The Tamudic scholar I mentioned offers another useful perspective. The Canaanites, and the Amalekites, were no mere political or military rival. Their culture was peculiarly and deeply evil, in a manner we can scarcely visualize in our relatively enlightened age. I find that at least plausible and credible. I can even consider it in light of Keith Otterbein’s work on How War Began, which poses that “states make war, wars do not make states,” and that states arose when some clique within a settled community asserted domination, with the most gruesome torture and intimidation of anyone who opposed them. The Amalekites, whose memory was still reviled by Arabic writers after the Muslim conquest, were this tendency, collectivized and writ large.

    The Canaanites, of course, literally did sacrifice their children to the fires of Moloch, but that was apparently the tip of the iceberg.

    So, perhaps these peoples had to be exterminated — not deserved to be, necessarily, but had to be. Those particular judgements were made directly by the Almighty. There is no license for us to gratuitously apply such a judgement to our fellow humans.

    Given that there is only one God, it is also foolish to talk about the Jewish God, the Christian God, the Muslim God… there is only one God. (al-Lah is Arabic for God, as a look in any Arabic-language Bible will reveal). Judaism, Christianity, Islam, may be closer or further from a accurate understanding of what God calls us to, but there is only one God. Pagan idols are another question: the work of men’s hands, or the notion that anthropomorphic godlings with all too human jealousies are the real power of the universe is a totally different vision. But even the Hebrew understanding, early on, was that Our God is real, Your God is not.

    • Hi, Siarlys–welcome to the Chequerboard!

      I’ve actually been putting most of my blogging energy in here–I’ve got one more post I’m going to put up at Alexandria in awhile, and then I think I’ll call it quits over there. Not enough time, and some factors that rub me the wrong way.

      Anyway, while I’m not a Marcionite, I have come to think that Christianity is really much more dualistic than Judaism, and more dualistic than many Christian apologists like to admit. That’s obviously not everyone’s cup of tea; but there it is. Broadly, as I discussed in my post “Athens or Jerusalem?“, I think Christianity was intended by God to be a syncretism of Semitic and Hellenic worldviews, in order to emphasize the strengths and counteract the weaknesses of each.

      As to the Canaanites and Amalekites, I’ve read that reasoning regarding them before, and I just don’t buy it. I don’t know that there’s any historical data to indicate them as having been “uniquely evil”; and even if one assumes that, it is insufficient reason, IMO, to order the slaying even of innocent women and children. If God makes the judgement call but implements it via humans, the door is open for justification for all kinds of atrocities. Moreover, some fanatic groups in Israel have labelled the Palestinians as “Amalekites”, which is very creepy.

      I believe the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New, and of Islam; but I don’t think all the scriptures in all places report accurately about him. Simply put, I don’t think God commanded genocide in the OT. An upcoming post in my series on the Bible will discuss my views of this in more detail.

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