a harem-scarem of heretics and heresies: Marcion
Christianity’s a funny religion, custom-built for ‘heresy’, heresy which will never be resolved because of the massive and, to a non-believer, frankly hilarious conundrum at its inception, the creation of a new supernatural being, who’s the son of another supernatural being, while at the same time being the same supernatural being, and also at the same time, or for a tiny part of the time, being completely human, or natural. Thus we have a monotheism with two heads, and a supernatural and also natural object of worship at the same time, not to mention some abstruse entity called a holy spirit or ‘Paraclete’. This mess will never ever have a chance of being resolved, because of course nobody can ever prove anything where the supernatural is concerned. Precisely for this reason, the only ‘resolution’ to this conundrum, now as throughout Christian history, is one involving power and violence – which isn’t always so hilarious.
Of course, there are many theological bones of contention, and sources of heresy, within Christianity apart from the status of Jesus (an area of dispute called ‘Christology’), such as the status of Mary, the meaning of sainthood, predestination and other eschatological matters.
Theology is, IMHO, the most inane pursuit humans have ever invented for themselves, but of course when it’s the only game in town, its political implications are explosive. It’s entirely about power. It’s the power that’s of interest, historically, and the political machinations. So let’s have a little look at Christianity’s battles and brutality in trying to enforce an orthodoxy amongst all the equally valid, or invalid, interpretations of Jesus’s true identity.
Marcion and Marcionism
Marcion, an apparently wealthy bishop’s son from near the Black Sea in what is now Turkey, who landed up in Rome around 140CE, seems to have been one of the first early Christians smart enough to realize that the new religion needed a thorough rethink, and one of the first Christians prominent enough to make an impact with his thinking.
Marcion clearly had a problem with Christianity’s intimate connection with Judaism, and their sharing of the same god. His solution was a pretty radical one; noting that the essentially absent but much talked-about god of the New Testament writings bore little resemblance to the thundering, partisan dictator-type of the Old Testament, he declared that they were in fact separate beings, with the New Testament one being vastly superior. It was a mad gamble, which was never likely to come off, but it certainly stirred things up, and kept them stirred for a long time after his excommunication in 144. Marcionism as an official heresy lasted into the 5th century, and his ideas still have currency today, and why not? His criticisms of the Old Testament’s brutalities and its nasty god have a distinctly modern feel to them. He also argued, cogently enough, that the description in Genesis of the god walking through the garden and discovering Adam being naughty proved that this god was an embodied, and therefore minor, god, who couldn’t possibly possess universal knowledge.
Marcion’s views on the identity of Jesus were obviously influenced by his conception of the New Testament god. In Judaism, Yahweh or God is often spoken of as ‘the father’, or ‘our heavenly father’, because he is the creator of humans – and everything else, but humans were his ‘special creation’. So we are his ‘children’, made in his likeness. But in the New Testament, and especially in the writings of Paul, God the father is contrasted with Jesus the son, a different tweak on the father idea. Marcion, a great supporter and admirer of Pauline thought, with its more abstract and ahistorical god, took those ideas a step or two further, severing the Pauline god from the Old Testament god as a separate entity. In other words he was a kind of religious dualist. Not content with that dangerous innovation, he considered Jesus’s physical existence to be a kind of mirage, a phantom – no doubting in keeping with his view of the New Testament god as non-embodied. This view of Jesus, as essentially a being too important to have ever had something so lowly as mere physical or natural existence, came to be known as Docetism, and it was roundly rejected as heretical at the first council of Nicaea in 325. Marcion’s excommunication turned him into one of Christianity’s first heresiarchs, or founders of a heretical movement or tradition, but his writing and thinking profoundly influenced the orthodoxy. For example, he proposed the first New Testament canon. Though the canon finally agreed upon centuries later differed greatly from the one proposed by Marcion (his canon was notably short – an edited version of Luke, and the letters of Paul), it was Marcion who first saw the need for regulating on what was ‘in’ and what was ‘out’, among the enormously proliferating gospels.
Marcion considered the Old Testament god to be a ‘demiurge’ – something close to a devil. It’s a maltheistic view shared by more than a few modern secular readers (Mark Twain for example), though they would usually replace the theistic term ‘devil’ with ‘dictator’, ‘tyrant’ or ‘mass-murderer’. Interestingly, this god’s inflexibility and capriciousness led Marcion and others to be more rather than less convinced of his reality as the world’s creator. He felt the god’s activity pretty well explained the suffering and injustice of the world. With Jesus, a new god was introduced, superior to the demiurge, ethically if not in terms of power. Marcion’s emphasis on the non-Jewish text of Luke, and his suppression of genealogies linking Jesus to ‘King David’, was part of an anti-Judaic agenda which denied the idea of a Jewish messiah and emphasised the idea of a redeemer. He also highlighted Paul as the ‘one true apostle’ of Jesus, the only one who really ‘got it’ about Jesus’s universality, and the new hope he brought. However – and this is where Marcion leads us down the path into gnosticism, other-worldliness and the sort of contempt for physical reality that the likes of Malcolm Muggeridge were into – redemption could not be attained within the massively flawed world of the demiurge. This was a view in keeping with the apocalyptic eschatology that dominated the early Christian movement.
Marcion, one of Christianity’s first heretics, also seems to have been one of the most influential and enduring. He himself managed to avoid the fate of many heretics of the early Christian era, perhaps because his heresies were promulgated well before a well-attested orthodoxy was established (the Emperor Theodosius first promulgated a law declaring heresy a capital crime in 382), but also no doubt due to his wealth, prominence and popularity. He returned to Asia Minor after being ex-communicated, and apparently established a flourishing teaching and an alternative church in the area. He was a prolific writer, but almost all of his writings appear to have been destroyed by the control and power merchants of Catholic orthodoxy, along with the writings of many other heretics, probably in the fourth century. So we largely know about his thinking through the writings that have survived from that era – that’s to say the writers later accepted as orthodox, and so unsympathetic to Marcion. In fact most of what we know about Marcion derives from Tertullian’s work Adversus Marcionem.
Marcion’s ‘church’ may have survived even into the fifth century, and his teaching, still influential today, may have inspired the Cathars, a remarkably widespread and stubborn bunch of European heretics in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who held similar dualist and gnostic views. The extent of the connection, if any, will never be known, as the Catholic orthodoxy destroyed Cathar writings as comprehensively as they destroyed the Cathars themselves.
Long live secularism.