Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Marcionite Paul - A Reflection on Galatians 3:1

Ω ἀνόητοι Γαλάται, τίς ὑμᾶς ἐβάσκανεν, οἷς κατʼ ὀφθαλμοὺς Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς προεγράφη ἐσταυρωμένος

O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly set forth crucified?

It is amazing to see how little thought goes into the study of early Christianity. 'The Apostle Paul' is allowed to be defined by the identity given to him by the Catholic Church. I have never understood it but it is one of the principle reasons why I developed an interest in the study of Christian origins. The people who are positions of authority in the universities are systematizers. They can only deal with a neat house and so - even though they acknowledge on some level that the Marcionite Apostle must have been a very different person than our inherited portrait of the man through Acts and the 'false' apostolic epistles - they nonetheless go back to this rejected literary collection in order to define who Paul was, even for the Marcionites.

Indeed it always seems as if the Marcionite never existed or never had any influence over Christianity when you read the works of these men.

Yet I do believe that we can gain some insight into what must have been the Marcionite understanding by putting the few pieces we have available to us together again. One of the most important is the bald statement in Galatians 3:1 which - if read in its original context seems to confirm the idea that the Apostle was a witness to the Passion of Christ.

Indeed in order to help us along to this understanding it is important to note what Jerome writes when he acknowledges that “in certain manuscripts (in quibusdam codicibus)” of Origen’s writings he has the reading “who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth?” I have argued over and over again that even a casual glance at the surviving literature associated with Origen preserved often in Greek and Latin recensions makes absolutely clear that the original material was tampered with. Now we have a curious preservation of Galatians 3:1 which I believe represents the original form of the scripture.

O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly set forth crucified?

One could make a strong case that the Marcionites and Origen (whose master Ambrose was a (former) Marcionite understood the passage as saying Paul’s authority was rooted in his being a witness to the crucifixion. It was the Catholics then who deliberate divorced the Apostle from direct knowledge of Jesus. Why so? Well just think of the towering authority that one man now has over Christianity as a whole if he were really claiming to have been present at the Passion of Christ. Indeed, as I have noted many times here before, the original Aramaic terminology behind 'the Passion of Christ' undoubtedly had another shade of meaning not witnessed by the Greek - viz. the transformation of Christ. In other words, Christ was transformed or even 're-formed' by the experience.

If the Apostle who wrote the original gospel as the Marcionites claimed AND did so because he was there eyewitnessing the whole event, 'the Apostle' seems utterly removed from all we have come to take for granted with our familiar 'Paul' character. He seems to stand very close to the figure of John Mark - the Alexandrian 'apostle Mark' who is specifically identified to have been 'the only witness' to this same event. Indeed his stature becomes nothing short of messianic.

This is the whole point of the Marcionite formulation. Jesus isn't the Christ, he is Chrestos. The messiah was someone else evidently. My guess is that he was the man doing the eyewitnessing, the man writing down the gospel as the 'new Torah' of Israel. I even suppose that it was this man - not Jesus per se - who was being transformed or re-formed by the experience at the Passion. But enough of my speculation for now ...

Many other commentators have noted that the Catholic tradition deliberately seems to have subordinated 'Paul.' But let's try and restrict ourselves to the immediate context of this statement in Galatians cited earlier. It should be noted that the original New Testament had our familiar chapter divisions so if we follow the chain of thought it is clear that it would be natural to understand ‘the truth’ as the doctrine that the apostle was crucified with Christ:

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth? Before whose eyes was Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified?

In other words, the common assumption that Paul is somehow saying that Jesus was crucified before the eyes of the Galatians obviously makes no sense. What the Marcionite Apostle was actually doing was wondering why the community had fallen away from his authority, fallen away from the truth established by him after his transformational experience at the Passion of Christ.

This has to be the original context. It is the only sensible reading of the material.

At issue is why these ‘Galatians’ (the Acts of Archelaus has ‘Galatian’ in the singular) no longer acknowledge his authority when only he was in the presence of Jesus at the crucifixion. A scenario where ‘Paul’ was witness to the Passion is necessary to make sense of the Marcionite claim that this apostle was the author of the original gospel. For how could anyone believe a text which references a miraculous ‘crucifixion’ which purports to be the very fulfillment (and indeed ‘end’) of the Law if the person writing it had never been an eyewitness to the events in question. It is only the Catholic who invented a subordinated ‘Paul' and it was done to make room for the implausible idea that Jesus was the messiah of Israel.

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