1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Marcion

MARCION and THE MARCIONITE CHURCHES. In the period between 130 and 180 A.D. the varied and complicated Christian fellowships in the Roman Empire crystallized into close and mutually exclusive societies—churches with fixed constitutions and creeds, schools with distinctive esoteric doctrines, associations for worship with peculiar mysteries, and ascetic sects with special rules of conduct. Of ecclesiastical organizations the most important, next to Catholicism, was the Marcionite community. Like the Catholic Church, this body professed to comprehend everything belonging to Christianity. It admitted all believers without distinction of age, sex, rank or culture. It was no mere school for the learned, disclosed no mysteries for the privileged, but sought to lay the foundation of the Christian community on the pure gospel, the authentic institutes of Christ. The pure gospel, however, Marcion found to be everywhere more or less corrupted and mutilated in the Christian circles of his time. His undertaking thus resolved itself into a reformation of Christendom. This reformation was to deliver Christendom from false Jewish doctrines by restoring the Pauline conception of the gospel,—Paul being, according to Marcion, the only apostle who had rightly understood the new message of salvation as delivered by Christ. In Marcion’s own view, therefore, the founding of his church—to which he was first driven by opposition—amounts to a reformation of Christendom through a return to the gospel of Christ and to Paul; nothing was to be accepted beyond that. This of itself shows that it is a mistake to reckon Marcion among the Gnostics. A dualist he certainly was, but he was not a Gnostic. For he ascribed salvation, not to “knowledge” but to “faith”; he appealed openly to the whole Christian world; and he nowhere consciously added foreign elements to the revelation given through Christ. It is true that in many features his Christian system—if we may use the expression—resembles the so-called Gnostic systems; but the first duty of the historian is to point out what Marcion plainly aimed at; only in the second place have we to inquire how far the result corresponded with those purposes.

The doctrines of Marcion and the history of his churches from the 2nd to the 7th century are known to us from the controversial works of the Catholic fathers. From Justin onwards, almost every eminent Church teacher takes some notice of Marcion, while very many write extensive treatises against him. The most important of those which have come down to us are the controversial pieces of Irenaeus (in his great work against heretics), Tertullian (Adv. Marc. i.-v.), Hippolytus, Pseudo-Origen Adamantius, Epiphanius, and the Armenian Esnik.[1] From these works the contents of the Marcionite Gospel, and also the text of Paul’s epistles in Marcion’s recension, can be settled with tolerable accuracy. His opponents, moreover, have preserved some expressions of his, with extracts from his principal work; so that our knowledge of Marcion’s views is in part derived from the best sources.

Marcion was a wealthy shipowner, belonging to Sinope in Pontus. He appears to have been a convert from Paganism to Christianity, although it was asserted in later times that his father had been a bishop. That report is probably as untrustworthy as another, that he was excommunicated from the Church for seducing a virgin. What we know for certain is that after the death of Hyginus, bishop of Rome (or c. 139 A.D.), he arrived, in the course of his travels, at Rome, and made a handsome donation of money to the local church. Even then, however, the leading features of his peculiar system must have been already thought out. At Rome he tried to gain acceptance for them in the college of presbyters and in the church; indeed he had previously made similar attempts in Asia Minor. But he now encountered such determined opposition from the majority of the congregation that he found it necessary to withdraw from the great church and establish in Rome a community of his own. This was about the year 144. The new society increased in the two following decades; and very soon numerous sister-churches were flourishing in the east and west of the empire. Marcion took up his residence permanently in Rome, but still undertook journeys for the propagation of his opinions. In Rome he became acquainted with the Syrian Gnostic Cerdo, whose speculations influenced the development of the Marcionite theology. Still Marcion seems never to have abandoned his design of gaining over the whole Church to his gospel. The proof of this is found, partly in the fact that he tried to establish relations with Polycarp of Smyrna, from whom he got a sharp rebuff, partly in a legend to the effect that towards the end of his life he sought readmission to the Church. Such, presumably, was the construction put in after times on his earnest endeavour to unite Christians on the footing of the “pure gospel.” When he died is not known, but his death can scarcely have been much later than the year 165.

The distinctive teaching of Marcion originated in a comparison of the Old Testament with the gospel of Christ and the theology of the apostle Paul. Its motive was not cosmological or metaphysical, but religious and historical. In the gospel he found a God revealed who is goodness and love, and who desires faith and love from men. This God he could not discover in the Old Testament; on the contrary, he saw there the revelation of a just, stern, jealous, wrathful and variable God, who requires from his servants blind obedience, fear and outward righteousness. Overpowered by the majesty and novelty of the Christian message of salvation, too conscientious to rest satisfied with the ordinary attempts at the solution of difficulties, while prevented by the limitations of his time from reaching an historical insight into the relation of Christianity to the Old Testament and to Judaism, he believed that he expressed Paul’s view by the hypothesis of two Gods: the just God of the law (the God of the Jews, who is also the Creator of the world), and the good God, the Father of Jesus Christ. Paradoxes in the history of religion and revelation which Paul draws out, and which Marcion’s contemporaries passed by as utterly incomprehensible, are here made the foundation of an ethico-dualistic conception of history and of religion. It may be said that in the 2nd century only one Christian—Marcion—took the trouble to understand Paul; but it must be added that he misunderstood him. The profound reflections of the apostle on the radical antithesis of law and gospel, works and faith, were not appreciated in the 2nd century. Marcion alone perceived their decisive religious importance, and with them confronted the legalizing, and in this sense judaizing, tendencies of his Christian contemporaries. But the Pauline ideas lost their truth under his treatment; for, when it is denied that the God of redemption is at the same time the almighty Lord of heaven and earth, the gospel is turned upside down.

The assumption of two Gods necessarily led to cosmological speculations. Under the influence of Cerdo, Marcion carried out his ethical dualism in the sphere of cosmology; but the fact that his system is not free from contradictions is the best proof that all along religious knowledge, and not philosophical, had the chief values in his eyes. The main outlines of his teaching are as follows. Man is, in spirit, soul and body, a creature of the just and wrathful god. This god created man from ὔλη (matter),[2] and imposed on him a strict law. Since no one could keep this law, the whole human race fell under the curse, temporal and eternal, of the Demiurge. Then a higher God, hitherto unknown, and concealed even from the Demiurge, took pity on the wretched, condemned race of men. He sent his Son (whom Marcion probably regarded as a manifestation of the supreme God Himself)[3] down to this earth in order to redeem men. Clothed in a visionary body, in the likeness of a man of thirty years old, the Son made his appearance in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, and preached in the synagogue at Capernaum. But none of the Jewish people understood him. Even the disciples whom he chose did not recognize his true nature, but mistook him for the Messiah promised by the Demiurge through the prophets, who as warrior and king was to come and set up the Jewish empire. The Demiurge himself did not suspect who the stranger was; nevertheless he became angry with him, and, although Jesus had punctually fulfilled his law, caused him to be nailed to the cross. By that act, however, he pronounced his own doom. For the risen Christ appeared before him in his glory, and charged him with having acted contrary to his own law. To make amends for this crime, the Demiurge had now to deliver up to the good God the souls of those who were to be redeemed; they are, as it were, purchased from him by the death of Christ. Christ then proceeded to the underworld to deliver the spirits of the departed. It was not the Old Testament saints, however, but only sinners and malefactors like Cain, Esau and Saul, who obeyed his summons. The prophets and patriarchs, having been often deceived by the Demiurge, suspected a trick and would not avail themselves of the promised salvation, remaining content with the bliss of being in Abraham’s bosom. Then, to gain the living, Christ raised up Paul as his apostle. He alone understood the gospel, and recognized the difference between the just God and the good. Accordingly, he opposed the original apostles with their Judaistic doctrines, and founded small congregations of true Christians. But the preaching of the false Jewish Christians gained the upper hand; nay, they even falsified the evangelical oracles and the letters of Paul. Marcion himself was the next raised up by the good God, to proclaim once more the true gospel. This he did by setting aside the spurious gospels, purging the real gospel (the Gospel of Luke) from supposed judaizing interpolations, and restoring the true text of the Pauline epistles.[4] He likewise composed a book, called the Antitheses,[5] in which he proved the disparity of the two Gods, from a comparison of the Old Testament with the evangelical writings.

On the basis of these writings Marcion proclaimed the true Christianity, and founded churches. He taught that all who put their trust in the good God, and his crucified Son, renounce their allegiance to the Demiurge, and approve themselves by good works of love, shall be saved. But he taught further—and here we trace the influence of the current gnosticism on Marcion—that only the spirit of man is saved by the good God; the body, because material, perishes. Accordingly his ethics also were thoroughly dualistic. By the “works of the Demiurge,” which the Christian is to flee, he meant the whole “service of the perishable.” The Christian must shun everything sensual, and especially marriage, and free himself from the body by strict asceticism. The original ethical contrast of “good” and “just” is thus transformed into the cosmological contrast of “spirit” and “matter.” The good God appears as the god of spirit, the Old Testament God as the god of matter. That is Gnosticism; but it is at the same time illogical. For, since, according to Marcion, the spirit of man is derived, not from the good, but from the just God, it is impossible to see why the spiritual should yet be more closely related to the good God than the material. There is yet another direction in which the system ends with a contradiction. According to Marcion, the good God never judges, but everywhere manifests His goodness—is, therefore, not to be feared, but simply to be loved, as a father. But here the question occurs, What becomes of the men who do not believe the gospel? Marcion answers, The good God does not judge them, but merely removes them from His presence. Then they fall under the power of the Demiurge, who—rewards them for their fidelity? No, says Marcion, but on the contrary—punishes them in his hell! The contradiction here is palpable; and at the same time the antithesis of “just” and “good” ultimately vanishes. For the Demiurge now appears as an inferior being, who in reality executes the purposes of the good God. It is plain that dualism here terminates in the idea of the sole supremacy of the good God.

It is not surprising, therefore, that even in the 2nd century the disciples of Marcion diverged in several directions. Rigorous asceticism, the rejection of the Old Testament, and the recognition of the “new God” remained common to all Marcionites, who, moreover, like the Catholics, lived together in close communities ruled by bishops and presbyters (although their constitution was originally very loose, and sought to avoid every appearance of “legality”). Some, however, accepted three first principles (the evil, the just, the good); others held by two, but regarded the Demiurge as the god of evil, i.e. the devil; while a third party, like Apelles, the most distinguished of Marcion’s pupils, saw in the Demiurge only an apostate angel of the good God—thus returning to monotheism. The golden age of the Marcionite churches falls between the years 150 and 250. During that time they were really dangerous to the great Church; for in fact they maintained certain genuine Christian ideas, which the Catholic Church had forgotten. The earliest inscription (A.D. 318) on a Christian place of worship is Marcionite, and was found on a stone which had stood over the doorway of a house in a Syrian village. From the beginning of the 4th century they began to die out in the West, or rather they fell a prey to Manichaeism. In the East also many Marcionites went over to the Manichaeans; but there they survived much longer. They can be traced down to the 7th century, and then they seem to vanish. But it was unquestionably from Marcionite impulses that the new sects of the Paulicians and Bogomils arose; and in so far as the western Cathari, and the antinomian and anticlerical sects of the 13th century are connected with these, they also may be included in the history of Marcionitism.

See A. Harnack, History of Dogma, i. 266, 286; F. Loofs, Dogmengeschichte pp. 111–114; G. Krüger, Early Christian Literature, and art. in Hauck-Herzog’s Realencyklopädie für prot. Theol. und Kirche, xii.; F. J. Foakes Jackson’s Christian Difficulties of the Second and Twentieth Centuries, is a study of Marcion and his relation to modern thought.  (A. Ha.) 

  1. Esnik’s presentation of the Marcionite system is a late production, and contains many speculations that cannot be charged upon Marcion himself.
  2. On the relation of matter to the Creator, Marcion himself seems not to have speculated, though his followers may have done so.
  3. Marcion’s teaching at this point forestalls the patripassian christology of Noetus and Praxeas (see Neander, Church Hist. ii. 143).—[Ed.]
  4. Marcion was the earliest critical student of the New Testament canon and text. It is noteworthy that he refused to admit the genuineness of the Pastoral Epistles and said that the letter to the Ephesians was really addressed to the Laodiceans (Tertullian, Adv. Marc. v. 11, 21).—(Ed.)
  5. Some have seen a reference to this work in 1 Tim. vi. 20.—(Ed.)