Friday, September 3, 2010

Marcion and the Gnostics [Part One]

The accepted history of early Christianity is essentially quite boring. It is all too much like the ramblings of old men, who - already old and out of touch - reminisce about a fabulous era slightly beyond their reach where everything was perfect and good. In short, these fictitious narratives only 'work' with individuals who have a preexistent longing for a lost golden age, a time where good and evil where readily discernible and the right path was clearly marked.

The official story of the founding of the Church was written and developed for 'believers' or perhaps better - people who wanted something to believe, something which would make sense of a seemingly senseless world.

Did these first converts to the message of Peter and Paul and the establishment of the Roman Church really have a strong critical sense? I think the answer is certainly that they did not. Whenever Christians of the 'great Church' are referenced by supporters or detractors in the second century they are identified as illiterate barbarians with little or no education. Does this mean that all Christians were uneducated simpletons? There can be no doubt that this also absolutely untrue. We have to sharply distinguish between two centers of Christian worship in the late second century - the highly educated and ultimately Platonized form of Christianity associated with Alexandria and the politically connected and ultimately untruthful form of Christianity associated with Imperial court which essentially defined orthodoxy in the age of Commodus.

The story of how the Church developed must sharply distinguish between these two forms of Christianity in order to avoid the partisan bickering that characterizes most of the debate nowadays about the religion. The Roman Church may well have imposed its assumptions about the origins of Christianity as some allege and those beliefs may have displaced older traditions which are only known to us now through later and ultimately more legendary sources but this should not in itself force us to accept the Roman model for Christian origins.

Indeed that there were historical rivals to the orthodox tradition is not in doubt. The so-called Marcionite Church supposedly founded by a historical individual named 'Marcion' from Sinope (Modern Turkish Sinópi) on the Black Sea is the earliest example of such a 'counter-Church'). The great German historian of the early Church was absolutely convinced that the Marcionite Church was the first to establish Christianity on the firm foundation of a definite theory of what is Christian based on a fixed collection of Christian writings with canonical authority.

It is universally acknowledged that the Marcionite Church was an extremely ancient tradition of Christianity which denied the history promoted by the canonical Acts of the Apostles. It is also universally acknowledged that the Marcionite Church was extremely hostile to the authority of St. Peter. As such they must have had a very different model for the development of the early Church.

The problem of course is that it is difficult for us to be entirely certain what exactly this 'Marcionite sect' actually believed and practiced given that all our information about them comes from the Fathers of our existing Church. This leads the debate to gravitate back to the assumptions about a Church of Peter and Paul in Rome even though we know very well that there were other understandings which were completely hostile to these very same presuppositions.

In other words, the Marcionites repeatedly maintained that Peter and Rome had nothing to do with the true beliefs of the original Church. Nevertheless modern scholarship has always felt compelled to ignore the very existence of these ancient objections merely because of the inherent difficulties involved in ascertaining what it was the Marcionites were arguing for.

One would think then that the scientific approach to the study of earliest Christianity would say something to the effect of "the following is the story of the development of the early Church according to our earliest Roman sources notwithstanding a contemporary objection of the Marcionites that the following is utterly spurious and false ..." Instead the Roman version of history is cited without even so much as a caveat leading to the perpetuation of the status quo.

The truth is that the debate over Christian origins is dominated by two polar opposite points of view - i.e. atheists who want to dig up any scrap of evidence which 'disproves' Christianity and believers who want to bolster the faith. Coming to terms with the actual beliefs and practices of the Marcionites doesn't quite suit the purposes of either camp so they are basically left as a kind of historical abstraction.

Yet the Marcionites absolutely critical to make sense of the true origins of Christianity. They answer the essential question - if not Rome and St. Peter then what else, where else could Christianity have originally have been conceived? The answer is quite certainly that the Marcionites testify that Christianity developed as a highly philosophically inclined Jewish messianic sect in Alexandria. In other words, the gospel did not originally grow from the lowest rungs of the social ladder but rather as even its earliest critics will admit 'a misunderstanding' or misapplication of Plato to traditional Jewish interests.

That Jews took an immediate interest in the writings of Plato once they came into contact with them is beyond question. Indeed it is startling to go back and read how close Plato's philosophical interests are to traditional Jewish theological concerns. Nevertheless there is one noticeable difference - Plato advocated the radical idea that the truly great divinely appointed ruler could only emerge if he suspended the authority of the old laws and instead tapped into γνωστικὴ ἐπιστήμη (i.e. "knowledge to influence and control") which guided the framers of laws in throughout the ages.

Of course most of us are probably familiar with the late derivation of this Platonic concept where certain Christian individuals are identified as possessing this same 'art of knowing' and thus identify themselves as 'gnostics.' Our earliest pagan critic of Christianity, Celsus of Rome, makes specific reference to this phenomenon and does so with a very clear connection to the terms original context in the Platonic writings adding i.e. that those who identified themselves by this term understood themselves to stand 'above the law' owing to their communion with a higher authority out of which the various laws developed imperfectly.

Celsus was clearly a well traveled pagan writer who had visited a number of places in the Empire before stumbling upon and writing about the contemporary Christian controversies in Rome in the middle of the second century. As with the Marcionites our only information about the details of Celsus's original work comes from the hostile report of a Christian writer. Nevertheless our source tells us quite clearly that the Marcionites are specifically referenced as one of the Christian sects which identify themselves by the Platonic term gnostikoi.

As such it is particularly startling to hear that von Harnack concludes that the Marcionites "cannot be numbered among the Gnostics in the strict sense of the word." Yet von Harnack's error is quite easy to identify. In making this statement he has gone beyond the original Platonic meaning of the term which meant as we noted the ideal leader who abrogates the law in order to tap into the sacred divine source behind the various legal ordinances and settled instead for the derived meaning of the term used in the Church Fathers which meant something like 'speculative science.'

Indeed I would make the case that not only Marcion but all the early leaders within Christianity before the establishment of the Roman tradition identified themselves as 'gnostikoi.' Not only does Celsus's testimony suggest this, Clement of Alexandria - writing from the last generation of the second century - most explicitly presents Christianity as a religion promoted by and developed for 'gnostics.' It was Celsus's report about crazy Christians claiming to possess what Plato identified as the true soul of divine kingship which led to a reaction against the term among Christians in the court of the ever paranoid Emperor Commodus (177 - 191 CE).

What is absolutely clear is that by very time Clement was still promoting the Alexandrian 'gnostic' tradition, another much more influential Christian writer named Irenaeus was using Celsus's report as a pretext to tighten controls over who or what doctrine could be identified as properly Christian. The title of his treatise really says it all - the Conviction and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So Called.

Irenaeus wrote a number of treatises or 'lectures' over the course of his life which were later assembled into this five volume work, likely by a close disciple. Throughout these treatises there is a systematic assault against those claiming to be gnostikoi however Irenaeus seems unwilling or unable to define the term in terms of its original Platonic context. Instead he seems to expand its meaning to include any Christian who claims to have any direct knowledge of God beyond what has been established in the canonical scriptures as a liar or a disreputable cheat and argues instead that only the understanding of those same sacred writings developed by authoritative commentators WITHIN the established apostolic Church should be recognized.

In other words, Irenaeus essentially plays with the term gnostikos for a specific political purpose. There may be many claiming to be gnostokoi - i.e. claiming to have been in contact with a superior power - but the gnosis each of them claims to have received from this divine source is easily discredited because it is "absurd and confused and cannot be reconciled with the truth." So it is that the Christian use of the Platonic term gnostikoi is dispensed with - the conflicting claims of the various teachers disproves the whole 'gnostic tradition.'

What is often overlooked in any discussion of Irenaeus's treatise is the obvious influence of Celsus on his argumentation. Celsus repeatedly argues that Christianity originally developed as a misunderstanding of Plato within certain circles of Jewish believers. The original gnostic 'misunderstanding' was further complicated by an effort to take this sublime doctrine and make it available to the masses. To this end, by the middle of the second century a situation arose where a great number of Christians preaching a great number of contradictory things settled upon every street corner in Rome - "if these (Christians) bring forward this person, and others, again, a different individual while the common and ready cry of all parties is, 'Believe, if thou wilt be saved, or else begone,' what shall those do who are in earnest about their salvation? Shall they cast the dice, in order to divine whither they may betake themselves, and whom they shall join?"

In other words, Celsus and Irenaeus point to the same proof that the system was broken - i.e. there are too many Christians preaching too many conflicting understandings of salvation. The situation was making Christianity look completely foolish. Indeed it can be demonstrated also that both men appealed to the same source - the Emperor himself - to straighten out the problem, make Christian belief conform to the principles of good citizenship in the Empire, make them embrace world-affirming principles. All of which left Marcionite Church and Alexandrian Christianity out in the proverbial cold.

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