Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 11: Marcion and the Hellenization of Christianity

Despite the passage of two centuries and the accusations of heresy that separated him from the State religion, Marcion (born in Rome in the Fourth Century) deserved to be considered the true father of the Catholic Church, a father maladroitly abandoned to the world, a runt that only his enemies brought to maturity.

Missionary zeal; the determination to found communities; the hope for supreme authority, the inauguration of which he would receive in Rome; the monarchal organization of the ekklesiai; virulent anti-Semitism; the conception of a Christian philosophy purified of its Judaism; a theology inspired by Greek thought: these [qualities of Marcion] were a great many of the fundamental traits of the future Catholic Church.

With Marcion, Christianity – with contempt for historical truth – arrogated for itself a Hellenic genesis propagated by the myth of Paul, “apostle to the Gentiles.” Even today, many historians shamelessly ratify Christianity’s birth from Greek origins.

Marcion’s talent was that of a businessman. Due to the events of his time, he understood that Christianity renounced any possible future if it didn’t break all ties with Judaism, which was disapproved of all through the Greco-Roman world because of the endemic state of insurrection in Palestine and [the cities of] the Diaspora.

In 115, the Jews destroyed the temple of Zeus in Cyrene. An agitator named Luknas or Andrew (a name annexed by the apostolic legends) took power and was acclaimed king of the Jews. Andrew called for the destruction of all the monuments of idolatry before [the arrival of] the Day of the Lord. The rumor was propagated that the insurgents ate their enemies and anointed themselves with their blood. The massacre of non-Jews struck good Greek and Roman consciences with horror; one possessed a letter – emanating from the mother of a general sent to put down the rioters – in which she prayed that her son would not be “roasted by the Jews.” One knows how collective exactions to violence of this type – made over the course of two thousand years of religious criminality – nourished the grievances of Catholic, Protestant, Byzantine and atheist mobs that unleashed their pogroms against peaceful ghettos.

That same year, the insurrection of the Jews of Alexandria spread to the Delta and the Thebaide, and gained in Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia and Cyprus. In their holy war against the goyim, the Jews destroyed Salamis. Around 117, Trajan moved to end the revolts. Ten thousand Jews were executed.[1]

Nevertheless, Simeon Bar Kokhba took up arms in 132 and fought against Rome. In 135, he was beaten and killed in his fortress at Betar. The Jewish nation was banned by Greco-Roman “civilization,” in which the nobility of thought accommodated itself so easily to the circus games.

Well before the new insurrection, the Judeo-Christians had – unlike the Essenes of the First Century – distanced themselves from the holy war. They had refused to give their support to the Messiah Bar Kokhba: one of their letters had condemned the attitude of the “Galileans.” Thereafter, the Christians accentuated what separated them from the Jews: the profession of pacifist faith; non-violence; the virtues of sacrifice; and the rejection of circumcision and the Jewish ritual observances (all the more so because Hadrian, basing himself on the Roman law that prohibited corporeal mutilations, formally prohibited circumcision).

After 135, the persecution pitilessly struck the Jewish communities. Rabbi [Joshua ben] Hananiah was burned alive; Rabbi Akiba was skinned alive. In his Contra Celsum, Origen recalled the great massacres of the “circumcised.” Even if this Christian refused the worship of idols and abstained from offering sacrifices to the Emperor, he demanded his Greek or Roman citizenship and proclaimed his difference from the Jews in an absolute manner.

Marcion’s anti-Judaic reforms survived in the disorder propagated by the political wildfire at the heart of the Judeo-Christian churches that were prey to struggles for influence. Those reforms advocated an ecclesial politics centered upon Rome and made strong by its rupture with “Jewry.” The few biographical elements [available to us] confirm this.

Marcion would have been born in the last years of the First Century in Sinope, on the Pont (around 95 or 100, according to Harnack[2]).

Marcion soon entered into conflict with the Judeo-Christian communities. His father, the Episcope of an Ekklesia, chased him away for having supported opinions hostile to the faith that were, no doubt, inspired by Saul and his disciples. Marcion went to Asia Minor, where he clashed with the local Christian churches, which appear in all probability to have been Elchasaite.

A rich ship-owner, Marcion had the practical intelligence of a businessman. His rationality, seduced by Greek philosophy, felt repugnance for the analogical spirit of the midrashim and the Hebrew wordplay that the Greek translations reduced to absurdities. The bloody and inhuman character of the biblical texts furnished him an argument that was opportunely confirmed by the violence of the Jewish revolts. In place of the latent dualism of the Esseno-Christians, Marcion substituted the irreconcilable character of YHWH, God-creator of a world of war and misery, and a Good God to whom the schools of James, Simon-Cephas, Thomas, Clement and Saul/Paul implicitly referred.

Marcion bet upon anti-Judaism and hostility for the people of the Temple, Jerusalem, the Pharisees and the murderers of the Master of Justice. He supported his doctrine with the help of peremptory reasons and promises of a beautiful future in the Church, but, at the moment of struggle, he insulted the voluntary poverty of the communities: he offered 200,000 sesterces to the Roman Churches in order to subject them to his authority, with an eye on an international federation.

Marcion was the first to comprehend that Rome, constituting the center of a civilization that was proposed as an example for the whole world, was the axis of gravitation from which Christianity, purified of its barbarity, hoped to radiate a “universal” glory (the word catholicon came into play towards the end of the Second Century and was popularized in the Fifth. Tertullian avowed: “The Hermetic tradition of Marcion has filled the universe.”)

Around 140, in the Roman city in which the churches – still Judeo-Christian – were torn by rivalries for power (according to the contemporary novel by Hermas, The Shepherd), Marcion met Cerdon, disciple of Satornilus of Antioch. He [Marcion] composed two works, which were lost or destroyed by the Church.

The Apostolicon was nothing other than a compilation of letters attributed to Saul, Romanized as Paulus. The Evangelion expounded the Good News, the unique Gospel, the Gospel of Paul, to which both the Marcionites and the anti-Marcionites referred. Basing himself on the letters that he re-copied and rewrote by stripping them of their Semitisms, Marcion thus drafted Paul’s evangelic message.

Resch believed the canonical Gospel attributed to Mark to be the work of Marcion, which was then corrected by the anti-Marcionites.[3] He noted that Jesus’ childhood was not mentioned in it, that the opposition of Jesus to the Torah didn’t possess the least ambiguity, and that the staging of the remarks or logia didn’t break with the conception (common to Judeo-Christianity, Saul/Paul and Marcion) of an angelos-christos incarnated in a being of wisdom, that is, an emanation of the Sophia.

In the reaction against Marcion, anti-Marcionite prologues were added to the Gospels attributed to Mark, Luke and Matthew. Conceived to combat the idea of the Angel-Messiah, they gave the traits of a historical Roman person to the allegorical material. The Montanist propagandistic narratives about Pilate, Paul and Peter (the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Apocalypse of Peter, etc.) contributed to the eventful decor of this drama.

Marcion died around 165, after an adventurous life, in which the journeys of Paul probably marked the backdated milestone. Did he not derive his apostolic legitimacy, everywhere that he presented himself, from the simple assertion that Paul had been present several generations previously?

His disciple Apelles followed his work in Rome and Alexandria. He demonstrated the absurdity of the biblical texts in his Syllogisms (lost). He seemed, however, to have broken with the Marcionite doctrine of the two Gods. He admitted only one, a good one, the creator of the angelic world, from which escaped a perverse angel, the Demiurge who inclined all things towards evil. Apelles approached the Christianity of the New Prophecy: he gave to Jesus not a simple human appearance, but a real body and the mission to correct the unfortunate work of the Demiurge. His Revelations (lost, if it was not in fact the apocalypse of Paul or Peter) re-transcribed the visions of a prophetess called Philomene. A polemic opposed her to Rhodon, disciple of Tatian.

Marcion invented a Western Christianity, one without a Jewish [i.e., Eastern] past. He rejected the midrashim of the Nazarene and Elchasaite Churches, the elements of which later entered into the Greek Gospels attributed to Matthew, Thomas, James, Andrew and Philip. According to Joseph Turmel,[4] Marcion – using the short notes by Saul – gave to his churches, which were “Catholic” before the advent of Catholicism, a Roman master, a citizen of the town of Tarsus, which was Romanized in 140 or 150.

Marcion’s ascetic renunciation did not contravene the morality of Christianity in its entirety (except for the sects in which Naassene or Barbelite syncretism dominated). The New Prophecy, though it was hostile to Marcionism, abounded in the same practices, if not the same meanings. Marcion refused sexuality, pleasure and even marriage, which he judged propitious for the work of the Demiurge. The New Prophecy limited itself to encouraging detachment from the body to the profit of the spirit.

Despite its violent rejection of Judaism, Marcion’s dualism did not yet assume the scandalous character that State Catholic monotheism would imprint upon it. Is an example needed? In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin the Apologist – a determined anti-Marcionite – gave to his interlocutor a remark that evoked the trouble that the belief in a Good God caused:

“We know your opinion on these subjects, but it seems that what you say is a kind of absolutely unprovable paradox; because your assertion that the Christ was God, pre-existing before all the ages, and deigning to become a man and to be born, not as a man from a man, seems to me not only a paradox but an absurdity. Respond to me at first how you could prove that there is another God alongside the one who is the Creator of all things, and then show me how this God also deigned to be born from a virgin.”[5]

Marcion’s missionary activity and his determination to establish non-Jewish and unified Churches everywhere did not, in themselves, offer any reason for disapproval because, under the cover of a special effect proper to the Catholic Church and to all power, the glory taken away from Marcion rained down upon the person of Paul, the sacred “apostle to the Gentiles.”

Marcion’s activity displayed such effectiveness that, in 400, there still existed Marcionite churches in Rome, in all of Italy, in Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Syria, Armenia, Cyprus and even Persia, where Manichaeism developed. He propagated everywhere the unique Gospel inspired by Paul and the appellation adopted by Catholicism: the “Old Testament,” to which he opposed the New Testament, translating in this fashion the expression “New Alliance,” which, according to the manuscripts of Qumran, defined the Church of the Master of Justice.

Leisegang summarizes the conceptions of Marcion as follows:[6]

“The Gospel of the Christ teaches merciful love, while the Old Testament teaches a malevolent punitive justice. The Christ is the Son of a God of love, and the faith in this God is the essence of Christianity. The history of the whole world, described in the Old Testament, from Adam to Christ, forms an immoral and repulsive drama, staged by a God who created this world, which is as bad as possible and who, departing, could not be better than his lamentable creation. Thus it is impossible that the Christ is the Son of the creator revealed in the Old Testament. This creator is just and cruel, whereas Jesus is love and kindness personified. Therefore, Jesus is, by his own words, the Son of God. He thus could only be the Son of a God completely different from that of the Old Testament. He is the Son of a Good God, remaining until now unknown to man and a stranger to this universe, because he had absolutely nothing in common with it. This God is the Unknown God that Saint Paul announced at the agora of Athens. This God is the father of the Christ.

“The Old Testament lost its quality as the Holy Scriptures of Christianity. It did not know the True God and did not know anything about Jesus. The words of the prophets and the psalms, until then considered to be prophecies relative to the Christ, had to be submitted to a literal reinterpretation, after which they no longer apply to Jesus. The Law and the prophets ended with John the Baptist. John was the last Jewish prophet; like his predecessors, he preached a Demiurge of cruel justice, he knew nothing of the Good God, who remained foreign to all the Jews. That this was the case, Jesus himself confirmed it. He [Jesus] did not cease, in his language as well as in his conduct, to violate the Law of the Old Testament, to disobey the God who instituted it. He declared an open war on the doctors of the Law, the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus welcomed the sinners insofar as he turned away from those who passed for just in the sense of the Old Testament. Jesus showed in last prophet of the Old Testament, John the Baptist, an ignoramus and the subject of scandal. He himself had said that the Son was the only one to know the Father and that, thereafter, all of those who had come before him had known nothing of him, but had preached another God [...]

“When Jesus spoke of the bad tree that could only bear bad fruit and the good tree and its good fruit, he understood the bad tree to be the God of the Old Testament, who had only created and could only create what is bad. The good tree, on the other hand, is the Father of the Christ, who can only produce good things. And, by denouncing the stitching of a new piece into an old frock and the putting new wine into old bottles, Jesus expressly prohibited the establishment of any kind of connection between his Gospel and the religion of the Old Testament with its [bad] God.”

And when Marcion wrote, “O marvel of marvels, rapture and subject of amazement, one can absolutely not say nor think what surpasses the Gospel, there is nothing to which one can compare it,” he provided the tone for generations of historians for whom Christianity was the product of Greek civilization and had nothing to do with the Jews.

Nevertheless, Marcion stirred up a lively disapproval in his lifetime. Is it necessary to point out his authoritarianism, his extreme rigor, the envy of the other Church leaders, or the hatred of the Judeo-Christians whose anti-Judaism did not imply a rejection of the Bible?

The response [to this question] resides in the reactions and polemics engendered by his theses. Against them were drafted Gospels and Acts that reported that Jesus was a Jewish agitator, put to death by the Jews, certainly, but nourished by the milk of biblical wisdom. The Gospel placed under the name of Luke detailed the childhood of the Christ, a man born from a woman, even if the sperma was called pneuma, “Spirit.”

Paul, the Marcionite apostle, penetrated into the anti-Marcionite texts that attested to his “veritable existence.” Thus, the Acts of the Apostles, a novel that presented itself as a historical chronicle, reconciled the apostles Simon-Peter and Paul.[7]

Other letters by Paul were written: the so-called “pastorals.” Joseph Turmel has established that the letters of Ignatius of Antioch – the same ones that tradition cites as the [first] appearance of the word “Catholic” – revealed the existence of a Marcionite version (135, at the earliest), which was revised around 190-210 by another bishop of Antioch, Theophilus, who, despite his hostility to Marcion, complacently expounded upon the inspiration of the Novum Testamentum.[8] This Theophilus did not hesitate to speak of the letters of Paul as the “holy and divine Word,” but not without preliminarily ridding them of their Marcionite expressions. He also borrowed from Theodotus the notion of the trinity and undertook the “harmonization of the Gospels, which thus appeared to him nearly deprived of harmony,” as Deschner remarks.[9]

In order to demolish Marcion, Theophilus was joined by Denyse of Corinth, Philippe of Gortyn, Hippolytus of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyon, Justin the Apologist, Bardaisan of Edessa, Tertullian, Rhodon and Modestus. These were mostly men who enjoyed a certain power as leaders of Christian communities.

But the worst enemy of Marcion was Marcion himself. How could a founder of Churches, engaged in politics and temporal and spiritual affairs, hope to build the power of God upon the foundations of a world that he condemned because it was the work of a Demiurge, a bloody and pernicious God? How could he succeed in establishing a Universal Church in an odious society, which simple faith invited one to renounce right away? And to which authority could a bishop go to durably legitimate a Jesus who had not lived the life of the humble people whom he ruled?

By breaking with Jewish mythology, did not Marcion remove his credit from a Christianity that was completely borrowed from biblical exegeses? Justin understood this quite well when he condemned Marcion and explained to Trypho that – the Jews having lost the key to its interpretation – the Bible thenceforth belonged to the Christians, who were the only ones in a position to confer upon it its true meaning.

Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon, had no sympathy for the inventor of Paul; his Epideixis explained Christian doctrine on the basis of biblical prophecies. Neither did Tertullian, though he was close to the one who called marriage trash and an obscenity. Because, if Marcion, despite his dualism, was not a Gnostic – for him, faith (pistsis) took precedence over gnosis, and adhesion to Christ was not founded upon knowledge (gnosis) – he nevertheless stripped the martyrdom of Jesus of its penitential meaning when he separated it from the tradition of Isaiah and the [other] biblical prophets. Therefore, deprived of the sacrificial model of the man dead upon the cross, the Church lost meaning and usefulness.

[1] W. H. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, Oxford, 1965, pp. 222 sq.

[2] E. Harnack, Marcion. Das Evangelium vom fremde Gott, Leipzig, 1921.

[3] H. Resche, Die Werkstatt des Marcusevangelisten, Jena, 1924.

[4] J. Turmel, Histoire des dogmas, Paris, 1931-1933.

[5] Cited by M. de Chambrun-Ruspoli, Le Retour du Phénix, op. cit., p. 69.

[6] Leisegang, La Gnose, op. cit., pp. 187 sq.

[7] A. Huck, Synopsis of the First Three Gospels, 1936.

[8] J. Turmel, op. cit.

[9] K. Deschner, III, p. 75.

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! April 2013. All footnotes by the author.)

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