The Marcion Problem: Tertullian (Part II)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Marcion of Sinope and his influence on the development of the New Testament canon.
Tertullian of Carthage

Tertullian of Carthage

From Tertullian’s writings emerge several implications for Marcion’s conceptions of scripture, canon, and authority. First, from his Prescription against Heresies it seems that Marcion in some way undermined the existing authority structures of the Catholic Church by appealing to sources of authority outside those which were typically employed. These sources at least appear to be sources imbued with philosophical thought that moves away from what Tertullian references the teachings of Christ and ‘rule of faith.’ Second and also from Prescriptions, Marcion appears to have used and distorted existing Christian scriptures. This could mean a number of things, but from Tertullian’s claims that Marcion rejected the apostolic and Jewish roots of Christian faith it seems to indicate that Marcion had rejected some writings and manipulated others in an attempt to present a unified authoritative corpus of some sort.

Third, in his Five Books against Marcion Tertullian seems to have located the source of Marcion’s error within his shrunken range of authoritative source material, namely, his rejection of Jewish scriptures and other Christian writings. Tertullian’s references to Marcion’s work and perspective clearly indicate that Marcion possessed texts of some kind that he viewed as authoritative, though not so authoritative that he could not edit their present form in order to find the philosophically consistent material that lay behind the existing works. Fourth, it becomes clear that despite his rough familiarity with such works, Marcion rejected almost any sources of Jewish or pre-Christian origin by locating such perspectives as within the realm of the demiurge. This rejection extended so far as to nullify what were understood to be Christological prophecies from the Jewish prophets. Further, this rejection of the Jewish god led Marcion to do away with any Jewish references within Christian writings. He therefore rejected any other gospel narratives apart from Luke’s that he may have known, censured the writings ascribed to Peter, James, and John, and edited the writings of the true apostle, Paul, to remove any traces of Judaism from them.

Historical Sources: Summary

Church FathersOver the past several weeks I have reviewed the Anti-Marcionite writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius, and Tertullian. These sources argue that Marcion of Sinope clearly rejected the deity of Judaism and the Jewish scriptural writings as being of the same being which had sent Jesus to earth. To back this theology, he drew upon the edited writings of a gospel narrative and the true apostle of Christianity, Paul. In doing so, Marcion combated the proto-orthodox practical canon made up of Jewish scriptures, certain new Christian writings, and the rule of faith by creating his own canon, namely his Antithesis, a version of the Gospel of Luke, and several letters of Paul. This canon of written materials appears to have operated as authoritative scriptures for Marcion and his followers, providing the basis for their critique of other forms of Christianity. As we see below, these basic conclusions concerning Marcion have long been agreed upon by most scholars of the early church. What has not often been considered is the ‘why’ of Marcion’s canon.

Why did Marcion reject the thinking, scriptures, and god of Judaism? We argue that his rejection of these materials stems from his inability to reconcile the Jewish scriptures and god with the God of Jesus Christ. For Marcion, the goodness and uniqueness of the works and words of Jesus Christ precluded the possibility that he could have been aligned with the deity of the Jewish scriptures who commanded the murder of innocent human beings. Since Jesus remained so unlike the deity of the Jewish scriptures, another more powerful God must have sent him to earth. For Marcion, Paul’s gospel of Jesus, that he had come to free humanity from sin and the law, was the good news of the truly good and supremely powerful God of the universe, and to associate such uniquely good news of freedom with the very god of the law failed to accurately understand Jesus. Thus Marcion, in an attempt to maintain the truly good work and words of Jesus as revealing the purposes of the supreme God of the universe, rejected the writings of Judaism and traditions associated with that God.

In the coming weeks, we will examine the perspectives of contemporary scholars concerning Marcion and his influence on the New Testament canon.

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