If you were to ever read and study the early history of Christianity, you would find a faith that had several competing factions, several competing sects each claiming to be Christian, but with vastly different theologies (belief systems).
One such group were the Marcionites, most Christians and non-Christians have probably never heard or knew about this group, but indeed, I personally find this sect to be one of the most interesting ones in early Christianity.
The belief of Marcionism originated from the teachings of a man named Marcion, a Christian theologian, and son of a Christian Bishop. Marcion began to formulate his theology around the year 144, one must note that during this time there was no official Bible cannon as we have today, and this even predated the Nicaea creed when Christians finally decided to formalize an official Church and orthodox doctrine!
So with all of that said, what was Marcion’s theology, what made it so interesting, and what made it such a major heresy to the ?orthodox’ Christians. Well, believe it or not, Marcion separated the Jewish Bible from the New Testament; Marcion rejected the Jewish Bible, as well as the Jewish God. For Marcion, the God of the Jewish Bible was vastly different to the God of the New Testament. For instance in the Jewish Bible, God was always commanding genocide, murder, mass slaughtering, and Marcion could not reconcile such things.
He viewed the God of the Old Testament as being EVIL! He regarded the God of the Old Testament as some lesser god, and the root of all evil! Now indeed, one cannot blame Marcion for such beliefs, in fact we can say that he was consistent at least! If one were to read the Old Testament one would be shocked and stunned at the level of sickening violence, for instance here are a few verses for you to take in:
“You Ethiopians will also be slaughtered by my sword,” says the LORD. And the LORD will strike the lands of the north with his fist. He will destroy Assyria and make its great capital, Nineveh, a desolate wasteland, parched like a desert. The city that once was so proud will become a pasture for sheep and cattle. All sorts of wild animals will settle there. Owls of many kinds will live among the ruins of its palaces, hooting from the gaping windows. Rubble will block all the doorways, and the cedar paneling will lie open to the wind and weather. This is the fate of that boisterous city, once so secure. “In all the world there is no city as great as I,” it boasted. But now, look how it has become an utter ruin, a place where animals live! Everyone passing that way will laugh in derision or shake a defiant fist
“Then I heard the LORD say to the other men, “Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children. But do not touch anyone with the mark. Begin your task right here at the Temple.” So they began by killing the seventy leaders. “Defile the Temple!” the LORD commanded. “Fill its courtyards with the bodies of those you kill! Go!” So they went throughout the city and did as they were told.”
1 Then we turned, and went up the way to Bashan: and Og the king of Bashan came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. 2 And the LORD said unto me, Fear him not: for I will deliver him, and all his people, and his land, into thy hand; and thou shalt do unto him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, which dwelt at Heshbon. 3 So the LORD our God delivered into our hands Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people: and we smote him until none was left to him remaining. 4 And we took all his cities at that time, there was not a city which we took not from them, threescore cities, all the region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. 5 All these cities were fenced with high walls, gates, and bars; beside unwalled towns a great many. 6 And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city. 7 But all the cattle, and the spoil of the cities, we took for a prey to ourselves
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations?the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you- and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
So Marcion read passages like the above, which are filled throughout the Old Testament, and concluded that this God was pure evil, and could not be followed, hence Marcion rejected this God and claimed that he was not the true God but a lesser god.
Marcion based his theology on the Bible as well! He would use scripture to argue for his beliefs, for instance he would use the writings of Paul, as well as a version of the Gospel of Luke to argue his case. He would contrast these New Testament writings with the Old Testament, and he would see a completely different God, in the New Testament there was talk of love, grace, and all of these nice things, and for Marcion this could not be reconciled with the angry god of the Old Testament, who was out there making harsh rules, getting jealous, and committing mass slaughter of people.
Marcion was consistent, he had the decency to admit that the god of the Old Testament was a vicious God, and I and most Muslims would agree with him, in fact just like Marcion, we Muslims also reject such dreadful passages from the Old Testament, but unlike Marcion, we do not conclude that these texts were referring to some different lesser god, rather we say that these are corrupted texts within the Old Testament, which paint a distorted picture of the true Abrahamic God.
In fact one can call modern day Christians as being semi-Marcionites! Most modern day Christians want nothing to do with the Old Testament, whenever you bring it up, they immediately start saying the OT has nothing to do with them, and that they now follow the New Testament! Hence you can see that modern day Christians are not willing to discuss the OT at all, they completely put it behind them, and want to move on. So just like Marcion, modern day Christians also reject the OT! Yet they don’t say it as clear as Marcion, while Marcion outright denied and rejected the Old Testament, modern day Christians will say it in a nicer way of simply saying oh the Old Testament is not for me, but for the Jews, I have a NT!
This is very similar to what Marcion said, which is why I call these Christians semi-Marcionites. Marcion rejected the Old Testament and viewed it as a Jewish text separated from Christianity and the Christian text, now doesn’t that similar to modern day Christians who say oh yes the Old Testament is for the Jews, not for us Christians, we have a new Covenant! You see the similar wording?
Furthermore, most modern Christians deep down reject the cruelty and viciousness of the Old Testament, yet they cannot openly admit it, but inside they reject it, which is why they never bother to defend it, and which is why they say the OT is not for them, but for the Jew! They absolutely want nothing to do with the Old Testament.
Ironically though, there are some modern day Christian Marcionites, yet they don’t call themselves Marcionites because they don’t even know about it. I have personally talked with Christians who have OPENLY ADMITED that the God of the Old Testament is evil and scary, yes they called him scary!!! Yet they don’t reject the New Testament, or the God of the New Testament, they say he is nice, caring, and loving! So even today you can find a modern day version of a Marcionite who will use the very plain and bold language Marcion did when describing the Old Testament and the God of the Old Testament, all you have to do is look around and you will easily find them.
With all of that said I would like to quote the writings of Barth Erhman, a major New Testament scholar, and what he has to say concerning the Marcionites, he writes about them in Lost Christianities:
Living at the same time and also enjoying the unwanted attention of the proto-orthodox opponents, though standing at just the opposite end of the theological spectrum, were the a group of Christians known as the Marcionites. In this instance, there is no question concerning the origin of the name. These were followers of the second century evangelist/theologian Marcian, known to later Christianity as one of the arch heretics of his day, but by all accounts one of the most significant Christian thinkers and writers of the early centuries…The Marcionites on the other hand, had a highly attractive religion to many pagan converts, as it was avowedly Christian with nothing Jewish about it. In fact, everything Jewish was taken out of it. Jews, recognized around the world for customs that struck many pagans as bizarre at best, would have difficulty recognizing in the Marcionite religion as an offshoot of their own. Not only were Jewish customs rejected, so, too, were the Jewish scriptures and the Jewish God. From a historical perspective, it is intriguing that any such religion could claim direct historical continuity with Jesus.
I should say a word about the about the theology Marcion developed, which was seen as distinctive, revolutionary, compelling, and therefore dangerous. Among all Christian texts and authors at his disposal, Marcion was especially struck by the writings of the apostle Paul, and in particular the distinction Paul drew in Galatians and elsewhere between the Law of the Jews and the gospel of Christ. As we have seen, Paul claimed that a person is made right with God by faith in Christ, not by doing the works of the Law. This distinction became fundamental to Marcion, and he made it absolute. The Gospel is good news of deliverance; it involves love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, and life. The Law, however, is the bad news that makes the gospel necessary in the first place; it involves harsh commandments, guilt, judgment, enmity, punishment, and death. The Law is given to the Jews. The gospel is given by Christ.
How could the same God be responsible for both? Or put in other terms: How could the wrathful, vengeful God of the Jews be the loving, merciful God of Jesus? Marcion maintained that these attributes could not belong to one God, as they stand at odds with one another: hatred and love, vengeance and mercy, judgment and grace. He concluded that there must in fact be two Gods; the God of the Jews, as found in the Old Testament, and the God of Jesus, as found in the writings of Paul.
Once Marcion arrived at this understanding, everything else naturally fell into place. The God of the Old Testament was the God who created this world and everything in it, as described in Genesis. The God of Jesus, therefore, had never been involved with this world but came into it only when Jesus appeared from heaven. The God of the Old Testament was the God who called the Jews to be his people and have them his law. The God of Jesus did not consider the Jews to be his people (for him; they were the chosen of the other God), and he was not a God who gave laws.
The God of Jesus came into this world in order to save people from the vengeful God of the Jews. He was previously unknown to this world and had never had any previous dealings with it. Hence Marcion sometimes referred to him as God the stranger. Not even the prophecies of the future Messiah come from this God, for these refer not to Jesus but to a coming Messiah of Israel, to be sent by the God of the Jews, the creator of this world and the God of the Old Testament. Jesus came completely unexpectedly and did what no one could possibly have hoped for: He paid the penalty for other people’s sins, to save them from the just wrath of the Old Testament God.
What we do know is that he based this entire system on sacred texts that he had in his church. These included, but were not limited to, the writings of Paul. Tertullian indicates, for example, that Marcion was particularly attracted to the saying of Jesus that a tree is known by its fruit (see Luke 6:43-44): Good trees do not produce rotten fruit, and rotten trees do not produce good fruit. What happens when the principle is applied to the divine realm? What kind of God creates a world wracked with pain, misery, disaster, diseases, sin, and death? What kind of God says that he is the one who ?creates evil’ (Amos 3:6)? Surely a God who is himself evil. But what Kind of God brings love, mercy, grace, salvation, and life? A God who does what is kind and generous and good? A God who is good.
There are two Gods, then, and according to Marcion, Jesus himself says so. Moreover, Jesus explains that no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the old wineskins burst and both they and the wine are destroyed (Mark 2:22). The Gospel is a new thing that has come into the world. It cannot be put into the old wineskins of the Jewish religion.
One Marcion had worked out his theological system, he incorporated it into his two literary works. The first was his own composition, a book that no longer survives, except in the quotations of his opponents. Marcion called the book the Antitheses (Contrary statements). It was evidently a kind of commentary on the Bible, in which Marcion demonstrated his doctrinal views that the God of the Old Testament could not be the God of Jesus.
Many Christians today might be sympathetic with Marcion’s view, as one often hears even still about the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New. Marcion, however, drove the idea to its limit, in a way many moderns could not accept. For him, there really were two Gods, and he set out to demonstrate it by appealing to the Old Testament. In this book of Antithesis, Marcion showed that he was not willing to explain away these passages by providing them with a figurative or symbolic interpretation: for him, they were to be taken literally. And when so read, they stood in the stark contrast with the clear teachings of Jesus and his gospel of love and mercy.
Marcion’s New Testament consisted of eleven books. Most of these were the letters of his beloved Paul, the one predecessor whom Marcion could trust to understand the radical claims of the gospel. Why, Marcion asked, did Jesus return to earth to convert Paul by means of a vision? Why did he not simply allow his own disciples to proclaim his message faithfully throughout the world. According to Marcion, it was because Jesus’ disciples-themselves Jesus, followers of the Jewish God, readers of the Jewish Scriptures-never did correctly understand their master. Confused by what Jesus taught them, wrongly thinking he was the Jewish Messiah, even after his death and resurrection they continued not to understand, interpreting Jesus’ words, deeds, and death in light of their understanding of Judaism. Jesus then had to start afresh, and he called Paul to reveal to him ‘the truth of the gospel.’ That is why Paul had to confront Jesus’ disciple Peter and his earthly brother James, as seen in the letter to the Galatians. Jesus had revealed the truth to Paul, and these others simply never understood.
Paul understood, however, and he alone. Marcion therefore included ten of his letters in his canon of Scripture, all, in fact, of those that eventually came to be found in the New Testament with the exception of the Pastoral epistles; 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. We may never know why these three were not include as well. It may be that they were not as widely circulated by Marcion’s time and that he himself did not know of them.
Marcion included a Gospel in his canon, a form of the Gospel of Luke. It is not clear why Marcion chose Luke as his Gospel, whether it was because its author was allegedly a companion of the apostle Paul, or because it showed the greatest concern for Gentiles in the ministry of Jesus, or, perhaps more plausibility, because it was the Gospel he was raised on in his home church of Sinope.
Marcion returned to Asia Minor to propagate his version of faith, and he was fantastically successful in doing so. We cannot be sure exactly why, but Marcion experienced an almost unparalleled success on the mission field, establishing churches wherever he went, so that within a few years, one of his proto-orthodox opponents, the apologist and theologian in Rome, Justin, could say that he was teaching his heretical views to ?many people of every nation’(Apology 1.26). (Bart, Ehrman. Lost Christianities. Oxford University press, 2003. PP. 103-109)
So as you can see, Marcion based his theology on the writings of Paul, and the Gospel of Luke!
In conclusion the Marcionites provide us with a very interesting glimpse of early Christianity, and how there were some very different and contrasting Christian theologies that to the ones we have come to know. Marcionism was a major Christian theology in his day, and lasted for about 3 centuries until it was drowned out by the supposedly ‘orthodox’ Christians.