The Canon of Marcion the heretic
A. Who was Marcion and when did he live?
Marcion was born about 110 AD, being the son of the wealthy Bishop of Sinope in Pontus.
By 144 AD, at age 34, Marcion had caused such a stir, that his teachings were the subject of an investigation and condemnation.
B. What did Marcion believe that made him a dangerous heretic:
Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was an evil creator god that Jesus came to destroy.
Marcion believed that this evil god did in fact reveal his will through the Old Testament. Thus he believed in the "inspiration" of the Old Testament from divine sources, although from an evil source.
Marcion's canon: Luke + Paul's writings. Marcion accepted only the gospel of Luke to the exclusion of the other three gospels. He also accepted all of Paul's writings but he would "cut out" any Old Testament quote or anything else that contradicted his theological views. He rejected all other books of the Bible except Luke + Paul's writings.
"It is usually said that Marcion "rejected" the Old Testament and accepted in its place only his own canon of Luke plus Pauline Epistles, edited to remove all allusions to the Old Testament. This, however, obscures two important points. First, Marcion's rejection of the Old Testament was indeed total, in that he regarded it as completely alien to the revelation of salvation brought by Jesus and recorded in the New Testament documents he accepted. But this was not because he did not believe that the God of the Old Testament actually existed, or thought that the Old Testament itself was a purely human invention, pseudo-oracles of an imaginary god. On the contrary, Marcion firmly believed that the Old Testament God did exist, and that he was the Creator of the world. The problem was that his creation was evil, and he himself therefore a malign being; it was precisely the role of Jesus, and of the Unknown God now revealed in him, to deliver humankind from the malice of the evil Creator. Furthermore, the creator-god really had spoken the words attributed to him in the Old Testament: these were fully true and accurate oracles, not a human invention. They truly expressed the thoughts of the maker of the universe, and there could be no question of suggesting that they had been falsified in any way or contaminated by human intervention. "The Jewish Scriptures represent a true revelation of the Creator, but they do not speak of or for the God whom alone Christians ought to worship."" Marcion's "rejection" of the Old Testament thus needs to be qualified."" (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; John Barton, Marcion Revisited, p 344, 2002)
"Marcion, we may conclude, was important for two reasons. He rejected the Old Testament as the document of an alien religion; and he taught that Jesus had come to save humankind from the control of the evil Creator to whom the Old Testament witnesses. These are precisely the two aspects of his work on which patristic condemnations, from Tertullian onwards, focus. In the process he denied the validity of allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, which he saw as a means of accommodating it to Christian belief; this too is picked up by Tertullian. In short, Marcion was not a major influence on the formation of the New Testament; he was simply a Marcionite." (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; John Barton, Marcion Revisited, p 354, 2002)
C. Others quickly identified Marcion as a dangerous heretic:
At any rate, it is clear that Tertullian was not the first to realize that there was a problem with Marcion's Bible and try to answer his claims. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Everett Ferguson, Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon, p 311, 2002)
Tertullian too contrasted Marcion's reductionism with what he considered Valentinus's expansion of the gospel material: 'Of the scriptures we have our being before there was any other way, before they were interpolated by [heretics]. . . . One man perverts the scriptures with his hand, another their meaning by his exposition. For although Valentinus seems to use the entire volume, he has nonetheless laid violent hands on the truth only with a more cunning mind and skill than Marcion. Marcion expressly and openly used the knife, not the pen, since he made such an excision of the scriptures as suited his own subject-matter. Valentinus, however, abstained from such excision, because he did not invent scriptures to square with his own subject-matter ... and yet he took away more, and added more, by removing the proper meaning of every particular word....' (Praescr. 38) (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Everett Ferguson, Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon, p 312, 2002)
D. Marcion's canon was much less than what was already accepted as scripture by Christians in general.
Marcion's concern was to exclude books that he disapproved of from his "canon." He was not assembling a collection of Christian books, but making a (very restricted) selection from the corpus of texts which already existed and which must already have been recognized as sacred by many in the church-otherwise he would not have needed to insist on abolishing them. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; John Barton, Marcion Revisited, p 342, 2002)
The New Testament books, or at any rate the central "core" of the Gospels and the Pauline and Catholic Epistles, were already used very widely in the time before Marcion, and continued to be so used after him. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; John Barton, Marcion Revisited, p 343, 2002)
In his attitude to the Old Testament Marcion really does look more like an innovator than he was in his "canonization" of the New Testament. Nevertheless it is unlikely that his theology seemed so new to him. Rather, he regarded it as the continuation of a central theme in Paul: the supersession of the law by the gospel. Paul "spoiled" the novelty of this theme by continuing to quote the Old Testament as though it were authoritative for Christians, and Marcion accordingly had to expurgate even the Pauline letters that he retained. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; John Barton, Marcion Revisited, p 351, 2002)
D. Roman Catholic and Orthodox get Marcion wrong:
Father James Bernstein, an Orthodox church leader wrote: "The first person on record who tried to establish a New Testament canon was the second-century heretic, Marcion. ... Many scholars believe that it was partly in reaction to this distorted canon of Marcion that the early Church determined to create a clearly defined canon of its own." (Which Came First: The Church or the New Testament?, Fr. James Bernstein, Orthodox churchman, 1994, p 7)
Refutation of James Bernstein (Orthodox):
- It is clear from our documentation that most scholars today reject the idea that Marcion had any direct influence on the development of the canon. But the Orthodox church wants to desperately to believe that there was no Bible till the 4th century and that church tradition was the rule of the day.
- The consensus of scholars is the Marcion started with a larger list of New Testament books and from this list of universally known inspired books, started removing books from the list.
- Marcion clearly proves that all the writings of Paul were considered inspired and universally distributed. The Orthodox church practices countless things the contradict the writings of Paul.
When we study Marcion, it should be obvious that the vast majority of New Testament books were already recognized as part of the New Testament canon.
Marcion's specific removal and denial of many New Testament books from his own canon, including all of Peter, James and John, proves they were already in use between 125-144 AD and widely accepted as scripture.
by Steve Rudd
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