Sunday, September 5, 2010

Was Marcion Father of All the Gnostics?

I happen to be a regular reader of Roger Pearse's site and have noticed that he has developed an interest in Marcion after attending a Patristics conference in the U.K. He asks - in reference to von Harnack's very influential works on the study of Marcionitism - in his most recent post at his wonderful blog "isn’t it curious how many people talk about Marcion online, yet have not troubled to make available the raw materials?"

If he was just limiting his comments to the original Patristic texts that are not online he is one hundred percent correct. We need a site which presents all the information that has come down through the ages about Marcion and the Marcionites. While it would be certainly nice to have von Harnack's observations available in English, he has caused so much damage to the proper study of the tradition especially with regards to his denying Marcion what was certainly his original identification as the father of the gnostikoi of ancient Christianity.

The various stories that have come down to us about Marcion are mostly legendary. The so-called 'Marcionite Church' for instance was supposedly founded by a historical individual named 'Marcion' from Sinope (Modern Turkish Sinópi). Von Harnack was absolutely correct in assigning the Marcionite Church as 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, completely abandoning the entire paradigm presented in Acts. 

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 hostile witness of the Fathers of our existing Church. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff in the reports of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian and the rest? The inherent subjectivity of such an endeavor leads most to throw their hands up in the air and drift back to our inherited assumptions about a Church of Peter and Paul in Rome even though we know ABSOLUTELY, CERTAINLY and without question that we are guilty of an injustice against the Marcionite tradition who vehemently opposed these very same inherited notions of our ancestors.

The reason the Marcionites matter is because we can't be sure what the truth is until we hear all sides from the original dispute. The Marcionites repeatedly must maintained that an episcopal tradition founded on Peter's throne in Rome - or Antioch for that matter - had nothing to do with the true founding beliefs of the original Church. What did they posit in its place? Where was the center of their Christian universe? These are good questions and however scholarship decides to answers those questions will ultimately reshape the whole study of the development of early Christianity. 

The problem is that these questions are not being asked. 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 what is essentially 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 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 infer that the Marcionites are specifically referenced as one of the Christian sects which identify themselves by the Platonic term gnostikoi.

Von Harnack - like most other Patristic scholars since his very influential work in the field - simply wasn't familiar enough with the original Platonic material to make a proper judgement. I have to admit I wasn't either until my recent vacation. I saw Plato's Politikos on sale at a local university bookshop and I decided to bring it along and read it over and over again by the pool. 

I always knew that almost all of Clement of Alexandria''s references to Marcion connected him to Plato (especially in book three of the Stromata).

The realization that Marcion was likely the figure who stood ABOVE all the gnostics of earliest Christianity (because his real identity goes back to the historical St. Mark) became very obvious when as soon as I reached the conclusion of the work. 

The point here is that von Harack would never have concluded that the Marcion "cannot be numbered among the Gnostics in the strict sense of the word" if he had actually read Plato's Politikos. I am sure he never read this work which effectively introduced the highly technical Greek term gnostikos to the world. If he had he would have seen what I saw. I am sure that if any of you are at all familiar with the writings of Tertullian Against Marcion you will see it too. 

As I noted 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.' 

What is absolutely clear is that by very time Clement was still employing what must have been a very old Alexandrian appropriation of the term gnostikos, 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.' 

Someone like von Harnack who was utterly unfamiliar with the original Platonic context of this term gnostikos had his understanding shaped by Irenaeus. This is very unfortunate because it misses the whole point of Plato's use of the term. 

Here are some notes from Jowett's translation of the Politikos, I thought might be interesting for my readers. With regards to the term gnostikos:

The imaginary ruler, whether God or man, is above the law and is a law to himself and others. Among the Greeks as among the Jews, the law was a sacred name; the gift of God, the bond of states. But in the Politikos of Plato, as in the New Testament, the word (nomos) has also become the symbol of an imperfect good, which is almost an evil. The law sacrifices the individual to the universal, and is the tyranny of the many over the few (compare Republic). It has fixed rules which are the props of order, and will not swerve or bend in the extreme cases. It is the beginning of political society, but there is something higher - an intelligent ruler, whether God or man, who is able to adapt himself to the endless varieties of circumstances. [p. 34]

It is immediately obvious to anyone who reads this that might have a little familiarity with the Marcionite tradition how these ideas were taken over by this the first school to have a systematic interpretation of the New Testament. Yet it is Plato's use of one particular image over and over throughout his writings (and especially in the Politikos) which clearly remains embedded in the surviving description of the Marconites which can at least be liberated and used to demonstrate that the understanding of Marcion as THE gnostikos of earliest Christianity wasn't simply theoretical - it stands at the core of the existing reports even its original significance was lost Tertullian.

Marcion is always identified as a naukleros (ship master) and the frequency of these references has always puzzled scholars. Schaff notes that "Marcion is frequently called 'Ponticus Nauclerus,' probably less on account of his own connection with a seafaring life, than that of his countrymen, who were great sailors (cf. Against Marcion i. 18. (sub fin.) and book iii. 6). [pp. 284, 325.] He is described as nautes and nauclerus by Rhodon and Tertullian. There can be absolutely no doubt that these terms are Platonic in origin. New Testament and Patristic scholars have to get out more

I will cite from the Blackwell Guide to Plato's Republic before referencing my notes from the Politikos. Given that the ship is a Platonic image for the state (see above):

Who exactly is aboard Plato's ship? Plato mentions “sailors” (nautai), "voyagers" (ploteres), a "shipowner" (naukleros), and a true and false "steersmen" (kubernetes). The quotation marks signal that the English nouns are only rough renditions of the Greek; none of the Greek terms has an exact English equivalent. The nautai on Plato's ship are clearly sailors, though the word is occasionally also applied to passengers (Epistle VII.347a2; Sophocles Philoctetes 901). The naukleros, in spite of the customary translation of his name, was not necessarily the ship's owner; he might only have use of the ship under a charter, which could be for a given period of time or in perpetuity (Casson 1971: 315 n 67) - a nicety that we shall henceforth ignore. In Plato shipowners are usually mentioned together with merchants (emporoi) (Protagoras 319d3; Politicus 290a1; Laws VIII.831c6.842d3), their chief clients. A shipowner makes his living by transporting a merchant and his goods from one port to another, if he is not a merchant himself transporting his own goods (Xenophon, Oeconomicus 8.12; Hellenica 5.l.21.10). As the owner or charterer of of his ship he hires the steersman (Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.6.38) and determines who and what comes aboard (Epistle VII.329e2 - 3,346e7 - 347a3; Thucydides I.137.2). The shipowner and steersman would no doubt discuss route and weather conditions together. In the vivid account of Saint Paul's voyage as a prisoner to Rome, the shipowner and steersman are pictured as jointly counseling, while safely in harbor, the leg of the voyage that was to end in shipwreck at Malta (Acts 27.11). Once under way a ship was apparently under the command of its steersman. In the Memorabilia (3.9.11) Socrates remarks, at any rate, that “on a ship the man who knows [ie the steersman] rules, and the shipowner and all the others on the ship obey the man who knows." [p. 191]

The important thing for us to remember is that the adjective gnostikos was first coined by Plato with reference to a kind of science which was exemplified by the κυβερνήτης (steersmen, pilot) which ran the ship. He may have received his instructions from the ναύκληρος but when he was captaining his ship he acted completely independently. To this end one might argue that the heretical tradition viewed the original Logos - the Creator - as the imperfect κυβερνήτης. He lacked the true γνωστικὴ ἐπιστήμη and so could not properly instruct his children and gave them instead imperfect laws. 

In the Dialogues of Adamantius there is a telling reference where Marcion is identified as the ἐπίσκοπος of the Marcionite tradition. I am not sure that this had the same sense as it did in the orthodox tradition where there were countless 'bishops' in every see. I suspect the Marcionites imagined their founder as the 'overseer' of a tradition which had many gnostikoi - 'Marcion' or 'Mark' being the effective ναύκληρος over a fleet of sees. It is interesting to note that in Plato Δίκη - the principle that stands above all laws - is described as 'ἐπίσκοπος' (Laws 872.e3).

If we look at Clement's use of the term gnostikoi it must have been the equivalent to the Catholic use of 'bishop.' It is worth noting that the term 'bishop' was only introduced in Alexandria with Demetrius near the end of the second century. So what other than gnostikoi could have been the original term?

It is worth noting that there might even be a Platonic origin for the idea of a shipmaster of Pontus. In Gorias Socrates says "And if you despise the swimmers, I will tell you of another and greater art, the art of the pilot, who not only saves the souls of men, but also their bodies and properties from the extremity of danger, just like rhetoric. Yet his art is modest and unpresuming: it has no airs or pretences of doing anything extraordinary, and, in return for the same salvation which is given by the pleader, demands only two obols, if he brings us from Aegina to Athens, or from Pontus or Egypt, at the utmost two drachmae, when he has saved, as I was just now saying, the passenger and his wife and children and goods, and safely disembarked them at the Piraeus, — this is the payment which he asks in return for so great a boon; and he who is the master of the art, and has done all this, gets out and walks about on the sea-shore by his ship in an unassuming way."

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