In the early second century, a shipowner from Sinope by the name of Marcion (85-160CE) became the author of one of the most powerful heresies in the history of the church. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “During the second half of the second century, the Marcionite church was a noteworthy rival to orthodox Christianity.” Tertullian himself, born the year of Marcion’s estimated death, even scoffed, “Marcion’s heretical tradition has filled the whole world.” Standing in stark contrast to Tatian’s Diatessaron, Marcion’s Gospel canon was limited to the Gospel of Luke. His selection of the third Gospel as exclusively authoritative is especially telling both of Marcion’s hermeneutic as well as his unique theology. While upholding the historicity of the Old Testament (unlike his successor Apelles), Marcion did not uphold its authority. After all, he believed that those who believed in the creator of the world (the god of the Old Testament) were those responsible for nailing Jesus to the cross, the God of the New Testament.
The driving impetus for Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament was indeed his doctrine of creation. In Marcionite theology, no continuity existed between creation and recreation, Old Testament and New. The God of the Jews, like his material universe, was evil. Unlike Jesus Christ, this God was cruel and warlike. Tertullian explains Marcion’s exegetical justification for such a dualistic theology:
“When [Marcion] found the Creator declaring, “I am He that creates evil,” (Isa. 45:7) inasmuch as he had already concluded from other arguments, which are satisfactory to every perverted mind, that God is the author of evil, so he now applied to the Creator the figure of the corrupt tree bringing forth evil fruit (Luke 6:44), that is, moral evil, and then presumed that there ought to be another god, after the analogy of the good tree producing its good fruit.”
The Marcionite “canon” was thus the story of two gods. According to Marcion, the Christian God was placid, merciful, and good. Hence the heresiarch maintained that the good God of the New Testament is not to be feared. To the question of why Christians did not sin if they did not fear their God, the Marcionites answered in the words of Romans 6:1 and 2: Those who have received grace simply cannot live in sin. Marcion’s allegiance to the Apostle Paul explained his commitment to the Gospel of Luke, Paul’s traveling companion and friend. Matthew and Mark, on the other hand, inherited too many Jewish undertones in their presentations of the Gospel. Marcion’s Pauline bent also deeply influenced his separation of Law and Gospel. In fact, this theological motif is what Tertullian called “Marcion’s special and principal work.” The heretic believed that the Old Testament had become completely obsolete and devoid of authority with the coming of Christ. Consequently, his interpretation of Old Testament fulfillment in the New Testament was deeply altered, to the point of complete denial. In Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, the heresiologist takes aim at Marcion’s Pauline hermeneutic, specifically regarding Old Testament passages:
“He (Marcion) dismembered the Epistles of Paul, removing all that is said by the apostle respecting that God who made the world, to the effect that He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and also those passages from the prophetic writings which the apostle quotes, in order to teach us that they announced beforehand the coming of the Lord…”
This refusal to acknowledge Old Testament authority was of course accompanied by the belief that Christ’s coming was sudden, immediate, and unannounced. Jesus was wholly and altogether new in the plan of salvation. Still, despite this “dismemberment,” Marcion was very much the student of Paul. According to Irenaeus, Marcion’s belief was that “Paul alone knew the truth, and to him the mystery was manifested by revelation.” As a result, Marcion’s “canon” included the Gospel of Luke and 10 “dismembered” Pauline epistles. The heretic’s proclivity for Pauline theology was so infamous that Origen records there were some who taught that Paul was seated at the right hand of Christ in heaven and Marcion at his left! This strong sense of exclusivity and authority, endemic to the Marcionite system, is identified by many scholars as the first authentic attempt to canonize Scripture strictly and concretely. According to Harnack, “Marcion had founded his conception of Christianity on a new canon of Scripture, which seems to have enjoyed the same authority among his followers as was ascribed to the Old Testament in orthodox Christendom.”
Due to Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament and its Creator God, its contents found no place in the Christian life nor in Christian exegesis. For example, just as the evil world was foreign to Christ, so was the Law of Moses, a vestige of the reign of the mighty, tyrannical Old Testament God. Both the ceremonial law and the moral law were unworthy of the true God. Therefore, since the Old Testament was not Christological in focus, Marcion completely rejected all allegorical interpretation, insisting instead upon a strictly literal reading of the Old Testament. This is a part of Marcion’s hermeneutic that Harnack calls a “despiritualizing” process over the text. His extremely literal exegesis did not include an overtly spiritual interpretation. Furthermore, from our accounts of his teaching, Marcion did not call upon the Holy Spirit for aiding in the interpretation of the Scriptures. And without a defined doctrine of the Spirit, Marcion was unable and unwilling to believe in a renewed material creation.
In severing the spheres of creation, Marcion severed the Testaments and impugned Christ’s claim as the Messianic hope of the Jewish nation. While Marcion did recognize that the Creator God had promised a Christ of His own, that particular figure had not yet come and was not Jesus Christ of Nazareth. According to Tertullian, there was a “great and absolute difference” between Marcion’s Jesus and the political Messiah promised to the Jews. The Roman heretic was then forced to hermeneutically navigate his dualistic theology around both Old Testament prophecy and orthodox Trinitarianism. According to Irenaeus, Christ came not fulfilling but
“abolishing the prophets and the law, and all the words of that God who made the world, whom also he calls Cosmocrator. Besides this, he mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is writing respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as most clearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is His Father.”
While such passages indicate clear theological presuppositions behind Marcion’s hermeneutics, both Harnack and Pelikan concur that the heresiarch did not possess a finished interpretive system in a modern systematic sense. Still, an implicit Anti-Semitic pathos is ostensible in Marcion’s framework. For example, the heretic emended the latter part of Romans 1:16 (“to the Jew first and also to the Greek”), deleting the word “first” because it ascribed priority to Judaism. Wherever the New Testament referred to the Old as “Scripture” or employed the formula “it is written,” Marcion deleted the passage, accusing the Old Testament of “foolishness, weakness, dishonor, meanness, and contempt.”
Without a Jesus to provide continuity between the doctrine of creation and recreation, Marcion’s Christology proved as unique as his severed canon. His version of Jesus was sufficiently distanced from the material world of the evil Creator God. Therefore, according to Marcion, Jesus Christ was not true man. The heretic was repulsed by the notion of Christ participating in evil by assuming a material body “stuffed with excrement.” This Docetic Christ engineered by Marcion proved incompatible with the Chalcedonian notion of an incarnate God. Therefore the heresiarch rejected the birth narratives of Jesus as expounded in Matthew 1 and Luke 2. According to Marcion, Jesus was revealed full-grown at once. Pelikan insists, “A material body and a physical birth belonged to the Creator and were unworthy of the true Christ. If he had become a man with a material body, this would have meant the end of divinity.” Marcion’s foundational doctrine of creation also greatly influenced his view of the resurrection. The heretic rejected any notion of fleshly resurrection bodies. Instead, his exegesis of Luke 20:36 (“They shall be like the angels”) amounted to the belief that humans assumed angelic bodies in heaven.
Evidenced by his commitment to the Apostle Paul and Luke, Marcion’s hermeneutical style was an eclectic framework that valued the New Testament at the total expense of the Old. He completely denied the use of allegory, but more importantly is the question of why: Marcion’s doctrine of creation was foundational to the way he chose to interpret Scripture. It deeply impacted his Christology, soteriology, and eschatology. As a result, the soil of his heresy was most fertile in the “dismembered” Pauline corpus. His rigid view of the canon galvanized the church into solidifying its own. According to Adolf von Harnack, “The compilation and formation of a canon of Christian writings by a process of selection was, so to speak, a kind of involuntary undertaking of the Church in her conflict with Marcion and the Gnostics, as is most plainly proved by the warnings of the Fathers not to dispute with the heretics about the Holy Scriptures…That conflict necessitated the formation of a new Bible.” In the strange working of God’s providence, Marcion provided the church with the opportunity to properly define its canon. Moreover, Marcion continues to speak to the modern church today as a warning of the danger in splitting the two Testaments of God’s Word. From his hermeneutic we learn a valuable lesson of the Bible’s continuity and the centrality of Christ in divine revelation.