The Marcion Problem: Canon Refinement (Part III)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Marcion of Sinope and his influence of the formation of the New Testament canon.
Lee M. McDonald

Lee M. McDonald

We now turn to two of the most prominent modern perspectives for the Canon Refinement School, those of Lee Martin McDonald and John Barton. In The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, McDonald writes that during the second century prior to Marcion, “the words gospel-apostle (sometimes Lord-apostle), representing the words of Jesus and letters of the apostles, began to be placed alongside the Prophets as authorities in the early church.”[119] McDonald argues that from the wider selection of Christian writings available to him, Marcion chose portions of both Gospel (Luke) and Apostle (some letters of Paul) that reflected his understanding of the distinctiveness between Christianity and Judaism.[120] For McDonald, Marcion believed that the love of the Christian gospel was incompatible with the legalistic and oppressive legal codes found in Jewish scripture, this being the type of teaching handed down by Peter and James.[121] Marcion rejected such perspectives, as well as those early Christians who interpreted the Jewish scriptures allegorically, instead emphasizing a simple and literal reading of the text, thereby stripping the church of her first scriptures and connections to antiquity.[122] McDonald concludes that while Marcion set forth a Christian canon, it remains too much to say that he created the idea of Christian scripture.[123] However, while Marcion did not delineate the need for a Christian canon, he did cause the church to consider carefully the scope of its authoritative literature.[124]

Turning from McDonald to Barton, one notes a rather similar perspective. For Barton, most of the present Christian New Testament was already considered scriptural by the early second century.[125] While much of the church already possessed collections of scripture, Marcion forced the overt consideration of the collection process and level of authority ascribed to new Christian writings.[126] In Barton’s view, Marcion’s primary aim was to exclude books with a Jewish bias, not collect them into a fixed tradition. He writes that “Marcion was not responsible for the Christians adopting a New Testament; he was responsible ‘for their retaining the Old Testament.'”[127] Against what he understands to have been something of an exaggeration by Harnack and Von Campenhausen concerning Marcion’s importance, Barton argues that Marcion was essentially an early Christian traditionalist in that he emphasized the person and work of Christ and sought to exclude scriptures that failed to demonstrate his unique place in salvation-history.[128] Barton concludes that Marcion was ultimately important for two reasons: his rejection of the Jewish scriptures, viewing them as documents of an alien deity, and his view of Jesus as the deliverer of those in bondage to the evil creator-god.[129]

Prof. John Barton

Prof. John Barton

For McDonald and Barton, Marcion cannot be understood as the originator of the ideas of Christian scripture or canon, as he was following the general second-century practice of collecting Christian scriptures. Rejecting the Jewish scriptures and teachings of Jewish apostles, Marcion set forth the first specifically Christian canon, causing the Great Church to respond with their own considerations of scripture and authority. Though he was not the creator of the Christian idea of scripture or canon, Marcion’s influence nonetheless remains important for his impact on the continued acceptance of the Jewish scriptures and for causing the Great Church to examine more carefully concepts of scripture and authority.



[119] Lee Martin McDonald. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA. 2007. 324. [120] Ibid., 325. [121] Ibid., 326. [122] Ibid., 326-8. [123] Ibid., 332. [124] Ibid., 333. [125] Barton, 35. [126] Ibid., 36. [127] McDonald, 329; Citing Barton “Marcion Revisited,” 354. [128] Barton, 37, 42-5. [129] McDonald, 328-9; Citing Barton “Marcion Revisited,” 350.


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