Names that Remain: Marcion
by Travis Bookout
Marcion’s Life Story:
Marcion was born in the first century, around AD 85. He was born in Sinope, Pontus (modern day Sinop, Turkey). This city is on an isthmus in the Black Sea. With this location and his organizational prowess, Marcion was able to become a wealthy ship owner. He was intelligent, successful, wealthy, and very benevolent. He also was reared in the church. His father was an elder of the church of Pontus, referred to by Hippolytus as the Bishop of Sinope.
In about AD 138 he moved to Rome and was instantly influential. He contributed a large sum of money to the church in Rome. His wealth, generosity, and prominence in the church gave him a platform among Christians. However, his warm reception did not last long. His teaching angered the leaders of the church in Rome resulting in his excommunication in AD 144. His money was returned to him and he traveled back to Asia Minor. He started his own religious movement and his followers were called Marcionites. They were viewed by orthodox Christianity as heretics. Marcion is remembered today as one of the most influential heretics in the early church.
Marcion’s Heretical Teaching:
The reason that Marcion fell out of favor with the Roman church was because of his teaching. He grew despondent with what he perceived to be a cold, law-focused gospel. In his efforts to revitalize and restore a proper understanding to the church, he fought against “Law” in favor of “gospel” and “spirit.” He also developed a strong anti-Semitic disposition. He became so extreme in his separation of “Law” from “Gospel” that he rejected the entire Hebrew Scriptures, eventually claiming that the “God” of the Hebrew Bible was completely separate from the Father of Jesus.
He saw the Jews and Christians to be serving two separate gods. There was the jealous, petty, violent, tribal, creator, war-God of the Hebrews (the Demiurge), and the loving, compassionate, forgiving God; the universal Heavenly Father of Jesus. He understood Jesus to be the appearance (not the incarnation) of this Heavenly Father, a belief known as docetism. Basically, he believed that it only “seemed” like Jesus was in the flesh, but was not actually flesh.
He also advocated a strong asceticism. He rejected earthly pleasures and comforts. He replaced the wine of the Lord’s Supper with water. He refused baptism for the married (sexually active), except for when they were very advanced in years. This created two classes of his followers: the perfect (celibate and baptized) and the imperfect.
To support his teachings, Marcion needed Scriptural support. In his day the set 27 book New Testament had not been collected yet. Marcion, in fact, provides the earliest list of New Testament books ever discovered: the first “Christian canon.” He believed that all of the 12 apostles had been influenced by false Jewish teaching. Only Paul truly understood the gospel. So in his canon he accepted only the books written by Paul. He included 10 of Paul’s letters (not 1 or 2 Timothy, Titus). He also included the Gospel of Luke (the only book of the Bible probably not written by a Jew).
Marcion obviously rejected the entire Hebrew Scriptures. He believed instead of the 66 books that we have in our Protestant Bibles, Christians should only have 11 books. The Gospel of Luke, and ten letters of Paul. He also perpetuated the idea that these books had been tainted, so he sought to “restore” them to their original condition. He removed portions that interfered with his teachings. For example, he was a Docetic. He did not believe that Jesus had a fleshly body. Therefore, the virgin birth is a difficult doctrine. So Marcion rejected the virgin birth, and his Gospel of Luke started in chapter 3.
Result of Marcion’s Work:
There were several long lasting results of what Marcion did and taught. One of those results was a new schism in Christianity. The Marcionite church was zealous, evangelistic, and growing. It drew away many believers, and remained active for hundreds of years (until the 5th century).
Marcion’s teaching also resulted in many writings against him and his followers. Tertullian wrote five books entitled Against Marcion. Irenaeus addressed Marcion in his Against Heresies. Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, and others condemned the teachings and followers of Marcion. It is mostly through these writings that we can reconstruct what Marcion taught.
Marcion’s separation of the Creator God from Jesus no doubt played a role in the church seeking to nail down a more precise definition of a Triune God. He drove the church to attempt a better understanding of the continuity between the revelation of God in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.
Perhaps what Marcion is most recognized for is his canon. The church relied heavily on oral teaching, and where apostolic Scripture was available it was used. However, Marcion brought about a great need for the church to collect and define its Scripture. Marcion rejected many of the books that Christians were using. In response the church was forced to begin listing what books were to be used in worship and the formulation of Christian doctrine. Marcion was a catalyst for the church to more precisely define its canon; books that were inspired by God and appropriate as Christian authority.