Marcion and the Idea of Heresy

Is not the task of the historian to judge whether certain views were or were not ‘heretical’; instead the ‘heretic’ has been defined as such by the styles of argument and ways of structuring truth adopted by those whose position ultimately came to dominate.

See Also: Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

By Judith Lieu
Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity
Faculty of Divinity
October 2015

The name ‘Marcion’ probably evokes two responses from many, at least within Christian circles. One will be ‘heresy’, assumed to be in principle a bad thing but by definition something that is rarely explained. The other will be ‘the rejection of the Old Testament’; indeed, charges of ‘Marcionism’ are regularly laid when the Old Testament is ignored, whether deliberately or simply in practice (such as the omission of the Old Testament reading in favour of those from the Gospel and Epistles, or the failure to preach on it), or when it is down-graded and ascribed less authority or even held to proclaim an inferior understanding of God. In the latter case many may have a sneaking sympathy but perhaps feel deterred from expressing it.

Among students of the New Testament Marcion occupies two further roles. One is as the interpreter of Paul who took the opposition between ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’ and pushed it to its most antithetical conclusion, thereby reaching that ‘rejection of the Old Testament’, whether or not this is felt to be a viable reading of Paul. The other, which has been championed particularly enthusiastically in recent times, is as the witness to, or even the author of, an early form of the Gospel predating the New Testament Gospel of Luke or even all four Gospels.

All these pictures of Marcion ultimately go back to the vigorous polemics against him by early church writers beginning in the second century and continuing, albeit often in a highly stereotyped form, to the end of the first millenium. Writings by Marcion himself do not survive, neither have we yet discovered works by his followers (unlike the so-called ‘Gnostic’ writings discovered at Nag Hammadi). Although those polemical accounts often vary in emphasis and in detail, they do agree in stating that Marcion identified the Creator God described in what Christians later called the ‘Old Testament’ as inferior to the supreme God responsible for the sending of Jesus, and many affirm that Marcion’s primary texts were an edited or abbreviated form the Gospel of Luke and of the Pauline letters (the ‘Apostolikon’), with anything contradicting his views revised or omitted. However, the popular images of Marcion also owe much to the substantial, and to some degree sympathetic, study of him by Adolf von Harnack (1924; 1990), which many subsequent accounts take as a starting point even if they differ at some points (e.g. Blackman 1948).

More recent study of early Christian origins has moved away from the classic picture dominated by a struggle between ‘orthodoxy’, assumed to be original and continuous, and ‘heresy’, a distortion of the truth emerging after ‘orthodoxy’ and for ever adopting new forms. Instead it is recognised that early Christianity was characterized from the start by diversity of belief and practice, not least because there were no rules or mechanisms to impose uniformity, or any expectation of such. In these terms there never was a monolithic ‘orthodoxy’ that predated deviation or ‘heresy’. The fact of diversity need not entail the acceptance of diversity, and vigorous polemic against those ‘who think or behave otherwise’ is also a characteristic from the start. However, towards the end of the second century such polemics begin to crystallise around a set of concepts that had originally being used to describe the various forms of Greek philosophy, namely the language of ‘school of opinion’ or, in Greek, ‘hairesis’. Adopted by some Christian writers, and notably by Irenaeus of` Lyons at the end of the second century, ‘hairesis’ came to denote the unacceptable positions adopted by others; in a model now popular, it became a means of ‘othering’ in order to help define and secure ‘the self’. This was not a single process; rather by studying the polemics of those who identified ‘others’ whose views were to be rejected it is possible to identify a range of rhetorical techniques, some of which were already familiar in other polemical writings in Greek; these include name-calling, stereotyping, the use of formulaic expressions, associating one set of people with others who had already been rejected, etc. Such tactics may be familiar in new contexts in the contemporary world, and perhaps one of the insights gained by the study of how the idea of heresy was constructed in the past is that it may provoke more sensitivity to similar processes in the present.

In this context it is not the task of the historian to judge whether certain views were or were not ‘heretical’; instead the ‘heretic’ has been defined as such by the styles of argument and ways of structuring truth adopted by those whose position ultimately came to dominate. Yet while some may argue that they came to dominate because they had a more secure grasp of the implications of ‘the Gospel’, it is important to recognise that that would be to ignore the fact that there was never any simple unchanging faith: everyone was adapting and rethinking in new intellectual contexts.

In my own recent study I have argued that understanding ‘heresy’ in this way means that rather than trying to present someone like Marcion in terms of what he rejected, the task is to interpret what he did teach both in terms of its relationship to such Christian teaching as he may have received and in terms of the contexts that he was addressing (Lieu 2015). It is with the polemical sources that we have to work and that we have to read with great care and ‘suspicion’, but it can be assumed that Marcion will ‘make sense’ within his context and thus can be set alongside other writers of his time who addressed similar topics. The list of polemical sources includes writers in Greek (Irenaeus, ‘Hippolytus’, Origen, Epiphanius and others), in Latin (Tertullian), in Syriac (Ephraem), and later in other languages. Each must be studied on their own terms, in the light of their context and concerns, and of their argumentative habits, even though many copied from their predecessors (without acknowledgement).

The context that Marcion was addressing may be more easily understood. Christians of the second century in the Roman Empire lived within an intellectual world largely shaped by the assumptions of the philosophical perspectives associated with Plato, which to some extent even permeated through popular culture. This was characterized by a tension between changeless ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ which inevitably involves change and decay; just as the latter is irretrievably linked to the created order, so is the former the sphere of the transcendent and of the divine. In turn this provoked intense debates as to what, if any, sort of contacts or relationship between the two were possible, including whether the transcendent could be directly responsible for a world characterized by change and decay. Inasmuch as the polemical sources consistently describe Marcion’s two Gods as ‘good’ and ‘Creator’, it seems that this was the framework within which he worked. A number of contemporary Christian writers also struggled to explain how not only the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God, but also the stories, especially in the Jewish Scriptures which at that time were their primary authoritative writings, could be reconciled with such principles. For example, Justin Martyr, a contemporary of Marcion in the middle of the second century, took it as self-evident that the supreme God could not be restricted to one place on earth and concluded that the one who appeared to Abraham at Mamre (Gen. 18) or to Moses in the Burning Bush (Exod. 3) was the pre-existent Christ. Marcion seems to have chosen a different solution: the God spoken of in these Scriptures is not the supreme deity. However, he also came to this conclusion as a result of his reading of those Scriptures; he seems to have drawn attention to those passages where the God spoken of appears to act inconsistently (Gen. 6.6), to display ignorance (Gen. 3.9; 4.9), or to be responsible for actions that few would condone (2 Kings 2.23-4); he also alighted upon an abiding problem, namely how a good God could be responsible for an evidently flawed creation and for the human propensity for evil, which he (sic) then punished. Later writers would claim that Marcion described the Creator God as evil, but it is more likely in this case that he held him responsible for ‘evils’.

Marcion was not the first to have found such passages problematic, nor would he be the last, but others, including modern scholars, found other explanations than the one he adopted. No doubt his solution was also inseparable from his aversion to ‘begetting’, which was also expressed in requiring his follows to abstain from sexual intercourse, as well as in a view of Jesus which ascribed to him a form of fleshly humanity different from that belonging to other human beings.

Scholars have long debated whether Marcion was primarily a philosophical thinker or primarily a biblical theologian. To some extent the antithesis is a false one, for all readers of the Bible do so in a particular intellectual context whether or not they are aware of it, and the same question can be asked of some of his contemporaries, such as Philo, the Jew, and Justin Martyr. However, as already noted, the authorities to which he explicitly appealed were a form of the Gospel of Luke and of the Pauline Epistles. If, as is conventionally agreed, Marcion became a public figure in the mid-140’s, then he was writing at a time when there was no New Testament; indeed it is not even certain whether a collection of four Gospels was yet widely recognised, and even less a collection of Pauline letters, and there may well have been other forms of the Jesus tradition, oral or written, which were given particular authority in at least some areas. Those who attacked Marcion were doing so from hindsight when the status of the writings that were to form the New Testament was becoming more settled. Hence it has been possible to ask whether in actual fact Marcion was the first to combine Gospel and apostolic witness, and whether he provoked the Church into responding with a more extensive and perhaps balanced collection.

The sources that survive from the second century are probably too incomplete to allow a confident answer to this question, and to give an account of the emergence of a New Testament by consensus. However, an important step in contributing to an answer is to reconstruct the text of Marcion’s Gospel and Pauline ‘Apostolikon’, and then to attempt to make a judgement whether it represents, as his opponents claimed, a revision of something like the text we know, or an independent or more primitive form. In order to do this two of those who wrote against him are particularly important, Tertullian from North Africa at the beginning of the third century writing in Latin, and Epiphanius of Salamis towards the end of the fourth. Both claimed to have studied Marcion’s texts and give a selective account in particular of those passages where they identified supposed changes of, or omissions from, the ‘correct’ text, or where they feel able to undermine his conclusions from the text he retained. Once again, both have to be studied with a view to their context and intentions, as well as to their own attitude to and access to forms of the New Testament text. On occasion they may support each other, or may gain some support from casual references in other writers, but neither claims to be comprehensive.

There has been a long history of attempts to reconstruct Marcion’s Gospel and Apostolikon from these sources (see Roth 2015). However, these were often shaped by two tendencies, first to supplement what the sources do say with inferences about their silences on the basis of ‘what Marcion would have been likely to do’, and, secondly, to relate Marcion’s ‘variants’ with variants known within the history of the text (such as might be found in the textual apparatus of a Greek New Testament). This latter analysis at least recognised that, contrary to what Tertullian or Epiphanius might suggest (although they undoubtedly knew otherwise), the text of the New Testament in the second century was fluid.

More significantly, very early on it was observed that a disproportionate amount of the passages that Marcion was reported to have removed from Luke’s Gospel came from material that Luke does not share with Mark or with Matthew — what some studies of the ‘Synoptic Problem’ would call ‘L’. This led some to posit that perhaps Marcion worked with a form of Luke prior to the redactional layer of additional Lukan material, and even to suggest that that further redaction was intentionally directed against Marcion’s intepretation of the Gospel. For example, Marcion apparently did not include the Lukan birth narratives, Luke 1-2; it is not difficult to read the Gospel without these and it is easy to see why they would act as an effective counterbalance to his supposed denigration of birth and of Jesus’ humanity, just as on the traditional view it is easy to see why he would have omitted them. Evidently this would have significant consequences for the dating of Luke in its current form, and with it the Acts of the Apostles — which, proponents of this view argue, makes a point of ‘putting Paul in his place’ alongside the traditional Apostles (see Tyson 2006).

This provides the context for the recent renewed enthusiasm for recovering Marcion’s Gospel in particular, as a means of breaking out of the impasse some feel that conventional hypotheses about the origins of the Synoptic Gospels has reached, and perhaps also as a means of rethinking the factors involved in the emergence of the Gospels now part of the New Testament (Klinghardt 2015; Vinzent 2014). On the whole these more recent approaches are much more rigorous and explicit in their methodology and principles, among which there has been an avoidance of trying to ‘second-guess’ Marcion from his supposed theological predilections. However, in their enthusiasm to draw radical conclusions about the place of Marcion’s Gospel in the origins of the New Testament, they may still have passed too quickly over some of the painstaking analysis still required before the evidence of Tertullian or Epiphanius can be properly assessed (as undertaken by Roth 2015, following the work on Marcion’s Pauline text by Schmid 1995).

On the whole these recent studies are not overly interested in whether Marcion was a ‘heretic’, or in relating his authoritative texts to his principles. Yet the picture remains incomplete without attempting to do this. It is clear that Marcion’s system could be persuasively communicated through the way he interpreted those texts. A much cited example, not peculiar to him, was his reading of 2 Cor. 4.4, ‘the god of this world’ as a reference to the Creator God and not the God who sent Jesus; modern commentaries will demonstrate that this continues to be a problematic passage. Apparently he also found references to this same Creator God in the Gospel, alongside confirmation that Jesus descended direct ‘from heaven’, from the ‘High God’, through an opening combination of Luke 3.1 with 4.31. It is also clear that he read Gal. 1-2 as a narrative of the attempt by some ‘false apostles’ or ‘false brothers’ to corrupt the truth of the Gospel (Gal. 1.6-9; 2.4-6) and of Paul’s defence of this against almost universal opposition, a narrative he also found reflected elsewhere (2 Cor. 11.12-15), and that then provided a framework for his understanding of the past Christian tradition and of his own role. However, since no Commentaries or other works are ascribed to Marcion, other than Tertullian’s somewhat elusive but repeated references to the importance of a work, ‘the Antitheses’, it is not certain how Marcion’s teaching and interpretation was handed down.

In some ways this is the point at which Marcion appears most innovative, in reading the letters of Paul together as a narrative of salvation and not just as a source of useful sound-bites, and in reading them together with the Gospel. Yet it is also important to remember that the second century was a period when the authoritative texts of the past, including the problematic Homer as well as Plato, were being read and interpreted, and where difficulties were readily explained as due to misinterpretation or to corruption of the text in transmission. Marcion certainly did not have the sophistication of some of the classical textual critics of his age but he reflects the same atmosphere.

In due course Marcion’s followers did form groups shaped by their own practices and ascetic ethics, although whether he himself set up separate ‘churches’ is less certain and probably anachronistic. Even in the sixth century there are reports of Marcionite communities in the Syrian East, while polemics continued long afterwards, whether or not there also continued to be real targets. Evidently he was far more persuasive than the ironical and vituperative polemic of his ecclesiastical opponents would suggest. There is certainly far more to him than distaste for the Old Testament. Rediscovering Marcion is not just an exercise in careful historical method and attention to the sources, although it is that. It offers a way of exploring how Christian thought and loyalty to the Scriptures wrestled with the intellectual certainties of the day, and is a reminder of the seriousness and integrity which that exercise demands.



Blackman, E. C. (1948), Marcion and his Influence, London.

Harnack, Adolf von (1924), Marcion: das Evangelium von Fremden Gott; eine Monographie zur Geschichte der Grundlegung der katholischen Kirche, Leipzig.

Harnack, Adolf von (1990), translated by John E. Steely & Lyle D. Bierma, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, Durham, NC (Unfortunately this only translates part of von Harnack’s study and does not include the essential collection of sources and reconstruction of Marcion’s texts).

Klinghardt, Matthias (2015), Das älteste Evangelium und die Enstehung der kanonischen Evangelien, 2 vols. Tübingen.

Lieu, Judith M. (2015), Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century, Cambridge.

Roth, Dieter (2015), The Text of Marcion’s Gospel, Leiden.

Schmid, Ulrich (1995), Marcion und sein Apostolos, Berlin.

Tyson, Joseph B. (2006), Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle, Columbia, SC.

Vinzent, Markus (2014), Marcion and the Dating of the Synoptic Gospels, Leuven.

Comments (1)

Was it possible in the second century to discuss the question of the relationship between God beyond the stars and God active in this world, which are neither naturally congruent nor naturally divergent ideas, without at least some mental reference to Plato, esp. Timaeus? Everyone would have known a little about this text.
The Old Trstament has several figures who raise, by the imagery that surrounds them, the question of God Beyond vs. God Here, notably the Ancient of Days and the apparent Son of Man, even El and Yahweh. The problem of biblical hermeneutics and the problem of Platonist philosophy would - in a sense still do - lead each to each.
Marcion obviously rose quite high in Christian circles and it is unlikely that he would have done this had he not been a normal member of the Christian intellectual world of his time, rather than a monster, a victim of personality disorder, a carnifex veritatis or an anti-Semite - though there's little reason to think that he was especially nice or that abstained from the kind of wild rhetoric that was used against him.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 10/10/2015 - 08:37

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