Thursday, November 4, 2010

Marcionitism as a Revisionist Tradition Within Christianity

I don't have a lot going for me as a thinker. The one thing I believe that sets me apart from the rest of the pack is that I bring a fresh set of eyes to old problems in Christianity.  My personal background is strange enough (a Jew with an interest in early Christianity).   How that interest got started is also unusual.  I think it began when I started dating my Catholic wife (if she had just given in to my original objections to her faith none of this would have ever taken place).  

Whatever the case though, I end up coming to the seemingly eternal problem of Christian origins by way of Marcionitism.   I walked through the doors marked with the 'Μαρκίων' sign hanging above it. 

After years of visualizing the tradition 'in three dimensions' a number of impressions have remained with me.  The first and most obvious is that Marcionitism makes sense.  Whereas the Catholic tradition has a bunch of Don Quixotes (and a few Sancho Panzas too) wandering around the ancient Mediterranean all inspired by the same Holy Spirit.  The Marcionite tradition is founded on the 'unspeakable' revelation given to Marcion (cf. Irenaeus 3.14, Eznik of Kolb etc.).  There is a purity about it that is reminscent of Moses and Mohammed.  The fact that Marcionitism argued that Jesus never claimed to be the messiah of Israel was also attractive for me. 

Yet I should also note that I am the furthest thing from being the kind of person who 'likes people who likes them.'  My wife can't stand me and I have remained married to her forever.

But seriously folks, despite my interest in Marcionitism I can't get around the fact there has always been something odd about the degree to which the tradition and its gospel seems to have depreciated Simon Peter.  Maybe the historical 'Simon' behind our St. Peter was as horrible as they say he was.  It just seems odd to me that the vitriol against this guy would be so pronounced in a 'personal revelation' to Marcion. 

Peter tries to be like Jesus and walk on water and instead he drowns.  Peter confess he is a sinner.  Peter says I will be with you to the end and then betrays Jesus the first chance he can get.  Peter is said to hate women.  The list goes on and on.  Even if these were historical incidents (which I very much doubt) why include them in a salvation narrative.  Weeden gets it right.  The gospel which set the template for all texts that came after it began with an anti-Petrine point of view.  The world calls it 'the gospel of Mark' but I think it was actually a highly redacted version of the original Gospel of Christ of the Marcionites. 

The anti-Petrine narrative is what is so unusual.  I could never quite explain it away.  When Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Christ and then Jesus condemns him.  These kinds of narratives betray the fingerprints of the Marcionite apostle most clearly. 

And then there is the strange punctuation in the Marcionite versuon of Mark 13.9.  The Marcionites read it as if Jesus was denying Peter's future claim that Jesus claimed to be the Christ:

Many will come and say that I am the Christ and they will deceive many.  Do not believe them. 

As a point of note "saying I am - The Christ' is added by eight MSS of Mark including Coptic, Armenian, Saxon, and four of the Itala.

The point of this discussion is that in spite of my interest and attraction to Marcionitism and my strong belief that Polycarp and Irenaeus were pathological liars, there does seem to be something written 'according to the authority of Peter' which the Marcionite text seems to be consistently responding to and rejecting.  If it was just this one statement making this point it could be argued that we are just paying too much attention to manipulated punctuation marks.  But the reality is that Peter is consistently vilified by the Marcionites for preaching a 'heretical gospel' which strangely agrees with the principles of the Catholic faith. 

Now where things fall apart for the Catholics who seize upon this as proof that their tradition was more ancient than Marcionitism is that the consistent sense from this alien literature is that it was Peter making this argument not only during the ministry of Jesus but - more importantly - in the lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem.  The context of this statement within the Little Apocalypse in Mark strongly infers that the claims of Simon regarding 'Jesus Christ' led to or had some roll in instigating the end of Judaism. 

I don't want to get too deeply into it but there is a whole Marcionite line of interpretation of Isaiah where Simon was the predicted 'stumbling stone' (kepha = 'stone') over which Zion ultimate fell (i.e. self-destructed).  Most scholars ignore the implications of the Marcionite literature because it doesn't fit within our existing presuppositions but it is there in black and white for anyone to see.  If Simon was called Kepha by anyone it would have been the Marcionites for the very reason just listed.  The original title associated with him seems to have been the Aramaic pitur 'the interpreter.' 

It is difficult to get a true handle on who Peter was or what he claimed to be, but it is strange that the Marcionites would take issue with his 'interpretation' that Jesus was the Christ.  This especially when there is ample evidence to suggest that the Marcionites themselves accepted the claims that their apostle, the guy who wrote this obvious 'revision' of Peter's original gospel, injected claims that Jesus came to announce him as the awaited Christ.  Just look at one reference to the Marcionite interpretation of Mark 13.9 in Tertullian's work:

Besides this, you have found it written that many will come and say, ‘I am Christ.’ If there is one that makes a false claim to be Christ, much more can there be one who professes that he is an apostle of Christ. Thus far my converse has been in the guise of a disciple and an inquirer: from now on I propose to shatter your confidence, for you have no means of proving its validity, and to shame your presumption, since you make claims but reject the means of establishing them. Let Christ, let the apostle, belong to your other god: yet you have no proof of it except from the Creator's archives. [Against Marcion 5.1]

There can be no doubt that Tertullian's source was accusing the apostle of the Marcionites (i.e. Marcion) of claiming to be the Christ at Jesus's expense  This argument manifests itself over and over again throughout the pages of Against Marcion.  In another passage directed against Marcionites, Tertullian says "so then those people will come, saying I am Christ. You, will receive them: you have received one exactly like them [i.e. 'Marcion' = Mark]. For this one too has come in his own name.” [Against Marcion 4.39]

The point then is that the fact is that the apostle of the Marcionites must have successfully convinced much of the world - even the Alexandrian tradition - to hold him up as the Christ.  This must have bothered Polycarp and Irenaeus to no end as they felt that Jesus should have 'exclusive rights' to this title.  Over and over again we hear from Irenaeus about heretics associated with a variant 'Gospel of Mark' arguing that Jesus and Christ were two different individuals (cf. AH 3.11.7).  My question - developed only because I like to be fair to everyone - is whether in spite of the fact that the original Petrine Gospel is now lost, whether it is possible to see that there actually might have been something to the claim that Peter at least was intimately associated with this argument that Jesus was the Christ.  Perhaps this explains the historical reason that the Church at Rome was built around his legacy. 

At the very least it seems to be true also that the Marcionite gospel - and its apostolic author's claim to be the Christ of Jesus - was developed against an original claim that Peter (wrongly) held that Jesus was the Christ. 

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