Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and scripture in the second century
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CHURCH historians have attributed great significance to the second-century Christian writer Marcion.
Conventionally associated with a rejection of the Old Testament God and the claim that Jesus proclaimed a new, unknown ultimate deity — positions supported by thorough reading of the Old Testament, as well as a distinctive reading and even editing of St Paul’s epistles and a version of St Luke’s Gospel — Marcion, the arch-heretic, has been thought to have forced the Church into creating a New Testament canon and into buttressing its own theological positions.
Professor Judith Lieu’s book is an attempt to modify aspects of this image of Marcion. First, she argues that our knowledge of Marcion is at best precarious, as it comes exclusively from the pens of those who opposed him, and who used him to project their own theological concerns and anxieties. Hence, the usual means of creating our picture of Marcion, that is, by synthesising the extant accounts (which begin with Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century and end with Theodoret of Cyrrhus in the middle of the fifth), is flawed.
A mild hermeneutics of suspicion comes into play (and, in the process, Lieu questions some assumptions about Marcion arrived at from this common synthesis, such as the view that he engaged in extensive editing of Luke’s Gospel — his Gospel may have been different from Luke’s; that his major work was the Antitheses; that he was primarily an exegete, or indeed harshly opposed to Judaism, etc.).
Second, Marcion should be understood in his own context, his concerns seen as broadly reflecting the concerns of other second-century Christians, particularly those who operated within philosophical schools, seeking, often through an analysis of scripture influenced by philosophical assumptions, to create a coherent and intellectually satisfying account of what Christianity was.
In this reading, where Marcion is brought alongside the likes of Justin (rather than seen in opposition to them), he is not understood as a heretic — that is, someone who deviated from an already agreed credo of ideas, for there was not such a thing by this stage in Christian history — but a participant in a debate about the contents of Christian thought, which were in the process of evolving. Marcion’s heresy is something that comes to be attributed to him, his status as a heretic something that was created and not essentially a part of him.
But Lieu does not see Marcion as simply a product of his age and its preoccupations, a kind of cipher of early Christian theological concerns. There is much that is distinctive about him, and she is keen to make this clear. So, for instance, the separation that Marcion posits between the supreme and creator deities goes much further than any of his contemporaries would have envisaged, as does his negative portrayal of the God of the Old Testament. But in this Marcion is simply a distinctive participant in a set of established debates about the nature of God, the created order, the part played by human beings, and “the nature of authority by which answers to these questions could be given”.
Marcion emerges from Lieu’s book a paler figure than some might want. But such an objection is a matter of taste, not of substance. Lieu’s attempt to situate Marcion in his context, and to see him as a thoroughly Christian thinker reflecting contemporary concerns, albeit distinctively, presents us with a challenging and provocative way of reading him. Some will, no doubt, question her sceptical approach to the relevant extant sources and some of the specific conclusions that she comes to (Marcion studies remain at many points a technical area); and some will think that her reading of Marcion alongside rather than against other Christian authors of the second century makes Marcion a cuddly Christian experimenter rather than the dangerous outsider he was.
Some, too, may wonder what criteria Lieu has employed in the creation of her own Marcion (these are never explicitly stated, though contextual plausibility might sum them up). But few will question the fact that, in its distinctive reading of Marcion, Lieu’s work will continue to challenge and stimulate not only those interested in him but those interested in early Christianity more generally.
Dr James Carleton Paget is Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies in the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow and Tutor of Peterhouse.