Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Disentangling the 'Zoroastrian Caricature' of Marcion in the Patristic Writings

I know it might be strange or perhaps even difficult to imagine a Zoroastrian underpinning to the gospel of Jesus. After all most people can't make sense of Christianity's Jewish roots and Judaism is in many ways the furthest thing from an exotic religion. The only time I ever actually met a modern Zoroastrian was went I was doing an event for the Toronto Transportation Club and its secretary turned out to be a member of the sect. I just thought he was Indian but we had an enjoyable but ultimately superficial discussion about 'Mitra' and little I knew about the ancient Iranian religion twenty years ago.

The next time I ever spoke to someone about Iranian culture was at my local bank. There are a surprising number of Iranians in the United States, perhaps dating back to the close relationship of the two countries under the last Shah. I actually dined at an Iranian restaurant when I was in Naples some years back where the family of the Shah frequented (those Farsis really know how to cook a lamb).

The point is that most people likely don't know what an Iranian looks like or worse yet appreciate how unique their culture really is. Nevertheless when virtually every reasonable New Testament scholar tells us that there are clear Zoroastrian elements in the demonology of the Gospel of Mark, the idea that this might only have been a vestige of something more substantial (i.e. 'Secret Mark') shouldn't be discounted.

Indeed I have always been struck by how the description of the Marcionite sect in Tertullian Books One and Two especially seems to be rooted in a Zoroastrian caricature. What I mean by that is that if you compare this dualistic interpretation with what appears in Irenaeus's description of the sect in Books Three and Four of Against Heresies or that of Ephrem, Eznik or even Adamantius there isn't this utterly unworkable 'radical dualism' at the heart of the description.

To be certain the early description of the Marcionites in Irenaeus is dualistic. Yet it would be wrong to identify this as specifically 'Persian' or 'Zoroastrian.' The notice tells us that Marcion:

advanced the most daring blasphemy against Him who is proclaimed as God by the law and the prophets, declaring Him to be the author of evils, to take delight in war, to be infirm of purpose, and even to be contrary to Himself. But Jesus being derived from that father who is above the God that made the world, and coming into Judaea in the times of Pontius Pilate the governor, who was the procurator of Tiberius Caesar, was manifested in the form of a man to those who were in Judaea, abolishing the prophets and the law, and all the works of that God who made the world, whom also he calls Cosmocrator. [AH 1.27]
Zoroastrians never believed that the world was evil and Irenaeus has a very different - almost Philonic description of the two gods of the Marcionite system in Books Three and Four. As most people identify the material from Book One to be related to Justin's Syntagma we can't even be sure that Irenaeus was the one who incorporated the material into the compendium which is 'the Five Books Against Heresies.'

I must stress once again that the notion that the Marcionites thought that the world was 'evil' is not a specifically Zoroastrian belief. I have always had my doubts that this was ever the opinion of Marcion. The Church Fathers should never be mistaken to have engaged in serious scholarship. A much better explanation of the Marcionites appears in who says that Marcion "introduced two sovereignties" (Eusebius, HE 5.13.3). This is far closer to the original Zoroastrian conception and resembles what is said of Florinus, the student of Polycarp in Irenaeus's lost Letter to Florinus. We do not know a lot about this letter, but Eusebius tells us that it too went under a theological title: To Florinus, On the Sole Sovereignty or That God is not the Author of Evils. As Charles Hill notes "it bore this title, Eusebius says, because Florinus 'seemed to be defending this opinion' (HE 5.20.1), that is, the opinion that there were two Sovereignties or Gods, not one, and that one of them, the God of the OT scriptures, was the author of evils." (From the Lost Teachings of Polycarp p. 13).

Again I am always very cautious to continue to recycle the propaganda that the Marcionites actually believed that the Creator was the Devil. We know that in later reports associated with the Marcionites that the sect distinguished between the Just God of the Jews and Satan. I have always accepted the legitimacy of these reports quite frankly because it would be impossible to believe that the Marcionite Apostolikon could have cited material from the Jewish scriptures if the material was originally associated with the Devil. Rather I think the over simplification of the Marcionite system to be a deliberate tactic on the part of Irenaeus and those who followed him to present a mere caricature of the original tradition. It was quite frankly much safer to present the Marcionite faith as something absurdly irrational.

That Eznik makes explicit that the crucifixion of Jesus led to the repentance of the Creator is surely the right thread to make sense of things. The reports of a tripartate division in the divine household (i.e. 'merciful' but hitherto unknown Father, 'just' but ultimately ignorant Creator and evil Satanic 'Devil') go back much earlier than Eznik and are intimated in fact as early as Irenaeus. Given the fact that Jesus was for the Marcionites an entirely divine angelic hypostasis it would be tempting to assume that this Jesus was himself the repentant Logos returning to his own to destroy the 'house of demons' (both temple of Jerusalem and the malignant 'hosts' of this world). It is of course dangerous to engage in too much speculation.

The point of course is that Irenaeus's rallying cry is effectively to 'restore the dignity' once associated with the Jewish God. Yet we should notice an important change that is witnessed in the writings of Irenaeus which has served to confuse our understanding of Marcion. While the heretics including Marcion are said to have accused the Jews and their god of ignorance of the true God (cf AH I.5.3, 7.4, 15.2, 21.4, 26.1. 29.4 etc) Irenaeus does not identify the Jewish god as the Logos hypostasis (cf. AH 2.2.4). Irenaeus makes it seem as if the Jews always worshiped a god called 'the Creator' and his Logos which is actually a misrepresentation of the original Alexandrian system. The Logos was in fact the Creator. It is because of this essential 'accounting error' that all that calculations which develop from his and other reports about the heresies are essentially misguided.

For instance when Irenaeus writes that:

it will not be regarded as at all probable by those who know that God stands in need of nothing, and that He created and made all things by His Word, while He neither required angels to assist Him in the production of those things which are made, nor of any power greatly inferior to Himself, and ignorant of the Father, nor of any defect or ignorance, in order that he who should know Him might become man. [AH 2.2.4]

He makes it seem as if the Marcionites and their ilk attacked the God that stood behind the Logos. It is this figure who is identified as 'the Creator.' Yet the reality must have been the Marcionites felt that it was the Logos who fashioned the world. The LXX makes clear that it was by the Logos that Moses, the Patriarchs and the ancient Israelites were brought into acquaintance with God Almighty. The argument that the Marcionites solely took issue with the God behind the Logos seems deliberately irrational akin to a person who is having difficulty making calls with his mobile phone blaming the person on the other end rather than the things that more immediate to him - i.e. the company which provides him with mobile service and coverage.

Irenaeus's consistent avoidance of making manifest that the heretics took issue with the Logos throughout his writings makes me strongly suspect that this was actually the original position of most of these groups. It is Irenaeus who consistently recasts the Creation as not merely a directive of the Most High God to his Logos but a process which is a referendum on the power of God Almighty saying that the position of the heretics is that:

the Forefather purposely left this chaos as it was, either knowing beforehand what things were to happen in it, or being ignorant of them. If he was really ignorant, then God will not be prescient of all things. But they will not even [in that case] be able to assign a reason on what account He thus left this place void during so long a period of time. If, again, He is prescient, and contemplated mentally that creation which was about to have a being in that place, then He Himself created it who also formed it beforehand [ideally] in Himself. [AH 2.3.1]

Yet these sort of arguments are the furthest thing from being convincing testimonies about the actual beliefs of the Marcionites and related sects. It's like taking the word of a hostile prosecutor at face value that X necessarily means Y.

Anyone who has ever read Irenaeus's writings however knows that his tactic is effectively to wear down the reader with a seemingly endless series of absolutely monotonous arguments with ever slight variation to this effect. So we read in what follows:

Depth, therefore, whom they conceive of with his Fullness, and the God of Marcion, are inconsistent. If indeed, as they affirm, he has something subjacent and beyond himself, which they style vacuity and shadow, this vacuum is then proved to be greater than their Fullness. [AH 2.3.1]

to affirm that what was mentally conceived and pre-created by the Father of all, just as it has been actually formed, is the fruit of defect, and the production of ignorance, is to be guilty of great blasphemy. For, according to them, the Father of all will thus be [regarded as] generating in His breast, according to His own mental conception, the emanations of defect and the fruits of ignorance, since the things which He had conceived in His mind have actually been produced. [AH 2.3.2]

they speak of what is without and what within in reference to knowledge and ignorance, and not with respect to local distance; but that, in the Fullness, or in those things which are contained by the Father, the whole creation which we know to have been formed, having been made by the Demiurge, or by the angels, is contained by the unspeakable greatness, as the centre is in a circle, or as a spot (labem) is in a garment,--then, in the first place, what sort of a being must that Depth be, who allows a stain (labem) to have place in His own bosom, and permits another one to create or produce within His territory, contrary to His own will? Such a mode of acting would truly entail [the charge of] degeneracy upon the entire Fullness, since it might from the first have cut off that defect, and those emanations which derived their origin from it, and not have agreed to permit the formation of creation either in ignorance, or passion, or in defect. For he who can afterwards rectify a defect, and does, as it were, wash away a stain, could at a much earlier date have taken care that no such stain should, even at first, be found among his possessions.[AH 2.4.2]

if they explain being within and without the Pleroma as implying knowledge and ignorance respectively, as certain of them do (since he who has knowledge is within that which knows), then they must of necessity grant that the Saviour Himself (whom they designate All Things) was in a state of ignorance. For they maintain that, on His coming forth outside of the Pleroma, He imparted form to their Mother [AH 2.5.2]

Again my point here is that these are not 'reports' about the actual beliefs of the Marcionites and their fellow 'heretics.' They are instead 'inferences' about 'what is wrong' with the beliefs of the sects outside of the Great Church of Rome. They amount to being a series of 'if/then' propositions which again resemble the tactics of a prosecutor rather than a serious attempt to understand alternative belief systems in early Christianity.

If we look carefully at the closest thing that resembles a statement from the heretics it is the reference to the work of the Logos as a 'stain' or labem in Latin. The use of this word implies clearly that the fault that Marcion and the heretics attributed in the manufacture of the world was with the one doing the manufacturing not the designer. In other words, you go in to get a suit made and while the tailor eats his hamburger and French fries he gets a spot of grease on the fabric of the jacket.

The point of all this being that Marcion's original system undoubtedly assumed that it was the Logos who was responsible for the manufacturing errors not the 'Jewish God' per se. This would necessarily correspond to the 'repentance of the Logos' in Eznik's report about the Marcionite interpretation of the crucifixion and the Nag Hammadi treatise Tripartate Tractate's portrayal of the revelation of the Savior to the Logos reinforcing his thoughts of repentance and enabled the Logos to separate himself from his offspring and to form their organization. (cf. Tri Tract. 88.15-89.7). The point of course is that we should be cautious when using Irenaeus as our only source about the various sects that he was actively trying to hunt down and destroy (AH 1.31.2). Even his claims about the underlying differences between the sects were undoubtedly exaggerated to reinforce their inventiveness and novelty.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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