MARCION (d. 160?), founder of an independent Christian church in the second century and influential exponent of the idea that God's sole attribute is goodness. Marcion was born toward the end of the first century in Sinope, a city in Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea. A shipowner by profession and a man of wealth, he was a member of the Christian church in his home city (where, according to some sources, his father was bishop), but he left there after being ejected by the church. He lived for a time in western Asia Minor but again left because his ideas found little acceptance. In Rome he became a member of that city's more cosmopolitan congregation, presenting it with the large gift of 200,000 sesterces, and came under the influence of Cerdo, a Christian teacher from Asia. As his ideas became more clearly defined, he ran into conflict with the leaders of the church in Rome, and in 144 he founded his own church (his money was returned), which spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire and came to rival the Catholic Church. By the end of the century, there were Marcionite congregations in cities throughout the Roman world, and writers in Greek (Justin Martyr), Latin (Tertullian), and Syriac (Bardesanes, or Bardaisan) were refuting his views.
Both because of his success in establishing an organization parallel to the "great" church, with its own bishops, elders, catechumens, liturgy, and canon of holy scripture, and his radical conception of God as love, Marcion is a significant figure in early Christian history. He taught that Christianity has no relation to the Judaism from which it sprang, he rejected the Hebrew scriptures in their entirety, and he abbreviated the New Testament to conform to his teaching. He believed that the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with, and is superior to, the God of the Hebrew scriptures who created the world, and he believed that Jesus came to reveal an utterly new and strange God, who is of pure goodness and mercy and without wrath or judgment. Marcion claimed to have learned this message from the apostle Paul, who, he believed, was alone among the early Christian leaders in understanding the revelation in Christ. While most Christians saw continuity between the covenant with Israel and the new covenant initiated under Jesus, Marcion saw only contradiction and opposition, and by a selective reading of the scriptures he sought to restore and repristinate the original and authentic faith that had been obscured by Christian teachers. He did not, however, make any claims for himself, either as a prophet or as a holy man. He saw himself as a teacher and a man of learning who pointed beyond himself to the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
Like other Christian thinkers from this period whose views were not accepted by the growing consensus, Marcion has gone down in history as a "heretic," but this epithet should not obscure his importance. At a time when questions such as the relation of Christianity to Judaism, the place of the Hebrew scriptures (Christian Old Testament) in Christian life and thinking, the proper method for interpreting scripture (especially passages that describe God as capricious, despotic, or vindictive), and indeed the very terms in which the Christian faith would be expressed, were matters of intense dispute, Marcion provided clear and unequivocal answers. He also emphasized a central element in Christianity, the boundless grace of God, a point that was lost on his critics. Marcion repudiated all attempts to see Christ as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. Christ is wholly unique and must be set apart from everything, that is, from Judaism, the created world, and the God who made the world.
His critics classified him among the Gnostics, but he does not fit easily into this classification. On certain points—his contrast between the creator God and the high God who is the father of Jesus, his depreciation of the world, his dualism, his docetic Christology (his view that Christ did not have a real human body), and his rejection of the Old Testament—there were affinities with Gnosticism, perhaps through the influence of Cerdo and others he met at Rome. But Marcion had little sympathy for the speculative systems of the Gnostic teachers: he did not think that salvation comes through gnōsis ("knowledge"), and he had a different anthropology (there is no "spark of light" in human beings; they are wholly the work of the creator God) and a different view of redemption.
Marcion was the first Christian to put together a collection of books (a canon) as a standard for Christian life and teaching. His canon of the New Testament, in contrast to the generally accepted Christian collection of twenty-seven books, comprised an edited version of the gospel of Luke (omitting such parts as the infancy narratives, genealogy, baptism, and temptation) and ten epistles of Paul (not including 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus ) with the references to God as judge and passages dealing with punishment or the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy edited out. His effort to provide an original and authentic witness to the gospel was a powerful impetus toward the adoption of an approved list of books by the Catholic Church. Marcion also figures in the history of textual criticism of the New Testament, although recent scholarship has tended to see his work less as that of an independent witness and more as a testimony to one branch of the textual tradition.
Marcion wrote one book, Antitheses, which is known only through fragments and allusions in the writings of his critics. It consisted of a series of contradictory statements setting forth opposition between the creator God of the Old Testament and the good and benevolent God of Jesus, between the Jewish law and the Christian gospel. Though designed as a polemical and theological work, it assumed a creedlike status as a confession of faith within the Marcionite congregations and served as a key for interpreting the scriptures.
Besides taking an active part in the formation of the biblical canon, Marcion indirectly forced Christian thinkers of the second and third centuries to clarify their ideas on the relation between the Old Testament and the New Testament and led them to affirm that the Hebrew scriptures were not to be discarded by the church. In modern times, largely through the historical and theological interpretation of the nineteenth-century German church historian Adolf von Harnack, there has been renewed interest in Marcion as an original Christian thinker with an alternative vision of the Christian faith; his admirers have included figures as diverse as the Marxist Ernst Bloch and the historian Arnold Toynbee.
Aland, Barbara. "Marcion: Versuch einer neuen Interpretation," Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 70 (1973): 420–447.
Blackman, Edwin C. Marcion and His Influence. London, 1948.
Harnack, Adolf von. Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott; Eine Monographie zur Geschichte der Grundlegung der katholischen Kirche. Leipzig, 1921. A fundamental study, with a collection of the most important texts.
Hoffman, R. Joseph. Marcion and the Restitution of Christianity. Chico, Calif., 1984.
Robert L. Wilken (1987)
Christian Gnostic of the 2d century, founder of heretical Marcionite sect; d. c. 160. Marcion was probably the son of the bishop of Sinope, and c. 130, as a prosperous shipowner, left Pontus to spend some years in Asia Minor and Syria. It was there apparently that he encountered polycarp, and on asking "Do you recognize me?" was told "I recognize you for the firstborn of Satan" (Irenaeus, Adv. haer. 3.3.4); but this exchange may have taken place in 154 or 155 after Marcion's excommunication at Rome, where he certainly arrived in 139 or 140. At Rome Marcion was at first the disciple of the heretic Cerdo, but soon developed his own system and outshone his master. Summoned before the Roman presbyterium in July 144, Marcion steadfastly maintained that the Church had been mistaken in retaining the OT and in regarding Jesus as the Messiah foretold by the Prophets. He cited Luke (5.36–38 and 6.43) to show that Jesus's message was entirely new. Marcion was promptly excommunicated; he then gained many disciples among those who found the OT unconvincing or unattractive. He required baptism, celibacy, and a rigorous asceticism as the condition of salvation. From Rome the heresy spread rapidly throughout the empire. The dates and geographical locations of its orthodox opponents attest the extent and duration of its success. When Marcion died, his movement was powerful in Rome: "invaluit sub [Pope] Aniceto" (c. 154–166) says Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 3.4.3); and although c. 200 it was gradually checked, it still flourished in the East in the 5th century, especially in Syria, and groups of adherents survived down to the Middle Ages. Its influence (c. 200) among Latin-speaking Christians appears from the facts that it is still uncertain whether the first Latin translation of the NT was Marcionite or orthodox and that the genuineness of the "Marcionite Prologues" to ten of St. Paul's epistles found in the Codex Fuldensis and some 13 other ancient MSS of the Vulgate is increasingly accepted by scholars.
System. In his moral earnestness and special concern with the problem of evil, Marcion was impressed by Paul's denunciations of the Mosaic Law as the cause of sin and the principle of injustice. Concluding that the Law could not be the work of the Christian God, Marcion in his Antitheses (lost) repudiated the Demiurge or Creator God of the OT, who was not wicked, but who was the cause of the world and of evil. He considered this god as legal-minded, offering material rewards, capricious, violent, vindictive, a tyrant, and a petty-minded bungler, while the absolutely perfect God, the God of pure love and mercy, was visibly embodied in Jesus. Marcion characterized the former as "just," "the ruler of this aeon," "predicable," and "known" through the creation and the OT. The latter he confessed to be the forgiving and saving God, as "the Father of Jesus," "good" and "unknown," "the hidden or Stranger God," "other," "different," and "new." He was unknown and new, because He was revealed only in Jesus; stranger and good because, despite John the Evangelist, He came not unto His own but, out of disinterested love, to save those who were strangers and for whom He had no reason to be concerned. Marcion's further description of Him as "unperceivable" and "unpredictable" supports H. A. Wolfson's suggestion based on Origen (Cont. Celsum 6.19) of a debt to such passages in Plato as Phaedrus 247C, with its contrast between Zeus's Olympus and "that super-celestial place" where dwells "true Being, colourless, formless, impalpable, visible only to the intelligence, the soul's master, and the object of true knowledge."
Able to see nothing in common between the God of the OT and the God of the NT, Marcion concluded that the Gospel must be dissociated from Judaism and Jewish apocalyptic eschatology. He repudiated the OT as devoid of any revelation of the Christian God. Yet the NT manifestly claims a certain continuity with the OT. Marcion found the answer in Paul's claim (Gal 1.1, 11–12; one Cor 11.23) to have received revelation not from man, but directly from the Lord. Paul alone, then, had correctly understood Jesus, though even his epistles had been interpolated. The earlier disciples had misunderstood Him, and their Gospels showed how their Jewish preconceptions had contaminated Jesus's message. However, the Gospel of Luke, who was the friend and companion of Paul, proved an exception. Moreover, his account of the Last Supper clearly derived from Paul's.
Since Marcion believed himself to be recovering authentic Christianity, he needed an organon. He framed a canon of Scripture that contained for its gospel an expurgated Luke and for its Apostolikon 10 Epistles of St. Paul. Hebrews and the Pastorals were excluded as manifestly non-Pauline. Luke's Infancy Narrative was among the discarded passages, for Marcion's soteriology was Docetic insofar as he thought that Christ had appeared suddenly, unannounced, and full-grown in the 15th year of Tiberius. Yet according to Tertullian (Cont. Marcionem 1.14), Marcion could say that "the better God chose to love, and for man's sake he laboured to descend…."Moreover, quoting Galatians (3.13), Marcion interpreted the Redemption as a "buying free" in which the purchase price was Christ's blood, given not as an atonement, but for the cancellation of the Creator's legal claim to his property. It was thus that he interpreted Paul.
Reaction. The orthodox Christians, in reaction, established the true canon, and their apologists were not slow to appeal to tradition and to point to the arbitrary and implausible character of Marcion's procedure. The Alexandrine school developed the allegorical interpretation of the OT, and distinguished between the literal and the spiritual sense. The great body of Christians declared themselves in favor of life, for the goodness of the world, and the unity of the God of the creation and the redemption. irenaeus of Lyons developed his theory of a gradual revelation whereby God treated men as servants before He made them sons, and they first learned the duty of obedience before they could respond to love.
Bibliography: a. von harnack, Marcion (2d ed. TU 45;1924). g. bardy, Dictionnaire de la Bible Suppl 5:862–877. f. l. cross, The Early Christian Fathers (London 1960) 64–65. h. jonas, The Gnostic Religion (2d ed. Boston 1963) 137–146. h. a. wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, v.1 (2d ed. Cambridge, Mass. 1956–) 571–573. j. h. carpenter, "The Bible in the Early Church," in The Interpretation of the Bible, ed. c. w. dugmore (London 1944). j. quasten Patrology, v.1–3, passim.
[a. a. stephenson]
The Christian theologian and leader Marcion (active mid-2nd century) promulgated views that were condemned as heterodoxy.
Marcion came from the Black Sea seaport town of Sinope on what is now the northern shore of Turkey. According to the writer Hippolytus, his father was the bishop of Sinope, so Marcion may well have been raised as a Christian. Once grown, Marcion entered the ministry and, toward the middle of the 2nd century, moved to Rome. There he gathered followers and in time began publically promulgating his theological views to the Roman Church at large. To his surprise, these views were not received sympathetically, and at the first known Roman synod, Marcion was excommunicated (144). Subsequently he became the founder of the rival Marcionite Church, which, in its ecclesiastical life, liturgy, and sacraments, paralleled the Christian Church. Marcion's rival church grew with considerable success, and Marcionite communities were found throughout the Mediterranean area well into the 4th century.
That the Marcionite Church, and more particularly, its heterodox doctrines, posed a threat to the early Christian Church is well attested to by the number of, as well as the vehemence of, treatises written against it in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The longest and most important of these is by Tertullian. In spite of his severe opposition to Marcion's doctrinal views, that Tertullian could at the same time commend Marcion and his numerous followers for the purity and austerity of their moral life probably gives lie to the story, circulated later (4th century) by Epiphanius, that Marcion was forced to leave Sinope for Rome because he had been caught in an act of gross sexual immorality and excommunicated by his father.
The view for which Marcion was most soundly criticized was not only that he denied any connection between the Old and New Testaments but that he also rejected the Old Testament in its entirety. The God of the Old Testament, his studies led him to assert, was a God of Law and Judgment, completely different from the God of Love and Mercy, the Father of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the New Testament. The former, "Creator God," held mankind in a deceitful grasp from which the "Redeemer God" sought, through the mission of Jesus, to save him.
These views, expounded in Marcion's "Antitheses," led the Marcionite Church to develop its own canon of Scripture, a fact that played no small part in forcing the Christian Church to regularize its own canon. The Marcionite "Bible" consisted of major portions of the Pauline Epistles (especially where law and spirit were opposed) and an expurgated version of the Gospel of Luke in which the passion and death of Jesus appear as the vengeful work of the Old Testament God.
The best study of Marcion is in German. Of great value in English is Edwin Cyril Blackman, Marcion and His Influence (1948). □
Marcion (mär´shən, mär´sēən), c.85–c.160, early Christian bishop, founder of the Marcionites, one of the first great Christian heresies to rival Catholic Christianity. He was born in Sinope. He taught in Asia Minor, then went (c.135) to Rome, where he perfected his theory. In 144 he was excommunicated from the church. He then formed a church of his own, which became widespread and powerful. Marcion taught that there were two gods, proclaiming that the stern, lawgiving, creator God of the Old Testament, and the good, merciful God of the New Testament were different. He considered the creator god the inferior of the two. Marcion also rejected the real incarnation of Christ, claiming that he was a manifestation of the Father. Though generally seen as one of the most important leaders of the somewhat loosely defined movement known as Gnosticism, he did not share some of the main premises of other Gnostic sects. He believed in salvation by faith rather than by gnosis; he rejected the Gnostic emanation theory; and he sought truth in his own truncated version of the New Testament, which included only 10 of the so-called Pauline Epistles and an edited version of St. Luke. He completely rejected the Old Testament. He explained in his Antitheses that since Jewish law was often opposed to St. Paul, all passages in the Bible that suggested the Jewish foundation of Christianity should be suppressed, even including such statements by St. Paul (see antinomianism). Marcionism emphasized asceticism and influenced the developments of Manichaeism, by which it was later absorbed. Its effect on orthodox Christianity was to cause a canonical New Testament to be assembled and promulgated and the fulfillment of the Old Law in the New Law to be clearly enounced.
Notable in his teaching (e.g. in his (lost) Antitheses) was the absolute opposition between the Old Testament with its wicked God and the God of Love revealed by Jesus. He therefore rejected the Old Testament, and from the New Testament admitted to his canon only the letters of Paul and an edited version of the gospel of Luke.