Friday, June 10, 2011

Han J. W. Drijvers's Brilliant Study of Marcion

Prof. Dr. Han J. W. Drijvers was professor of Semitic Languages and Literature and Archaeology of the Near East at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. His work on Marcion is especially valuable because he is able to make sense of the Syrian testimonies regarding the sect (which I have always felt are ignored because most scholars who study the Patristic literature don't have a clue what to do with Semitic testimonies).

Drijvers begins with the fact that the Syriac Church Fathers report that Marción knows three principles, the Stranger God, the Creator, and Matter. What follows is so brilliant it deserves special attention:

The Creator made the world together with Matter that functioned as a female and wife. When the Creator saw that the world he had created with Matter was good, he planned to make man. He descended to the earth to Matter and said to her: give me from your earth and I will give spirit and let us make man after our likeness (cf Gen 1.26). Matter gave of her earth and the Creator formed man and breathed his spirit in him (Gen 2.7) and a man became a living soul. The Creator formed Adam and Eva and put them in paradise and there the Creator and Matter together gave him their commands and rejoiced in him as their common son, The God of the Law, the kosmokrator, however, saw that Adam was good and tried to steal him from Matter. He said: "Adam I am God, and there is no one else, and you shall have no other god before me. When you will have other gods before me, know that you will die" (cf. Ex. 20, 1-5; Gen. 2, 17). Thereupon Adam separated from Matter and did not listen to her orders. Matter knew then that the Creator had deceived her and had broken the treaty. In revenge Matter created many gods and filled with them the earth completely, so that Adam could no longer find his Creator when he looked for him. And she created many idols and filled the world with them and the name of the Lord of creatures disappeared and was not be found any more' (Wardapet Eznik of Kolb, Against the Heresies, IV,1 ; JM Schmid, Des Wardapet Eznik von Kolb Wider die Sekten,174ff)

Two points in Eznik's report are of particular interest for our purpose, more so since they are confirmed by Ephrem Syrus. The first point is that the world was created by a sexual act of the Creator and Matter. The second is that idols were products of Matter and the cult of idols was so widespread in the world before Christ's appearance that even worship of the Creator had completely disappeared.[Marcion's Reading of Gal. 4,8: Philosophical Background and Influence on Manichaeism,” in A Green Leaf: Papers in Honour of Jes P. Asmussen (Leiden: EJ Brill, 1988) p. 321]

This analysis in turn gives way to even more penetrating insight into the Marcionite tradition:

The allusions to the Marcionite myth as told by Eznik are clear and in particular the reference to Gal. 4,8. The material elements the stoicheia of Gal. 4,8-9 are explicitly called idols like Tertullian did in Adv. Marc. V, 4. That Ephrem also knew Marcion's view of the cult of the idols as the veneration of the elements of the world that together form the Hyle, becomes clear from various strophes of Hymn contra Haereses 48. This hymn treats the place of Matter in Marcion's system and contains allusions to the same myth that is recorded by Eznik, whereas the Transfiguration on the Mountain is also discussed16. In strophe 2 Ephrem mentions the different manifestations of the Hyle: 'And when Hyle is a unity (hd' hy mdm), whence are then the kinds without number: heaven, and water, and also fire, and darkness, light, and wind, natures that are different from each other (kyn' prysy hd mn hd)'. Strophe 16 and 18 call the demons Hyle's products or offspring (yldyh dhwl') and even Hyle itself Satan. Is it too far-fetched to assume that Marcion identified demons and idols as Tatian (Or. 21,2) and Justin (1,5,2) did?17. Tatian also knew of the identification of pagan idols with demons and elements as appears from Or. 21,

Mind now what I say, men of Greece: do not allegorize either your stories or your gods, for if you try to do so your conception of divinity is subverted not only by us but also by yourselves.
For either the demons, if they are such as you describe them, are base in character, or, if they are transferred to the more natural plane, are not the superhuman beings you describe, I would neither be persuaded myself nor would I try and persuade my neighbour to worship the substance of the elements. The arguments of Metrodo- rus of Lampsacus, who turns everything into allegory in his work On Homer, are totally absurd; for he says that Hera or Athena or Zeus are not what their believers say, who made shrines and temples for them, but that they are natural substances and arrangements of elements' (φύσεως δὲ ὑποστάσεις καὶ στοιχείων διακοσμήσεις)[Tatian Oratio 21]

Tatian's mention of Metrodorus of Lampsacus work On Homer guides us into the allegorization of Homer's myths and deities that was normal practice in Greek philosophical circles and that form the background of Marcion's views of idols and elements. Ever since Empedocles Homer's gods were considered natural elements and his myths allegories of natural processes19. Marcion's view of creation whereby the Creator is a male principle and Hyle a female according to Eznik of Kolb and Ephrem Syrus may go back to the allegorization of the myth of Proteus and Eidothea (Odyssee IV, 365-440). Eidothea the waternymph and Proteus' daughter helps Menelaos on the island of Pharos to find out which sin he committed against which of the gods so that he cannot return to his home. According to Sextus Empiricus (Adv. Math., IX, 5) Proteus represents the demiurgic principle, the causa agens, and Eidotheia in her turn passive matter which can take various forms in the process of creation20. It may be of some interest that the same Sextus Empiricus preserved a text about a weak and malevolent god who shows great similarity with Marcion's Creator21. Starting from this text J. Gager argued that Marcion must have had some knowledge of philosophical issues of his time. Marcion's view of creation hints at the same.

Marcion's view of idolatry that was instituted by Hyle as the cult of the natural elements, stoicheia, that form together the Hyle and therefore can be considered as her offspring22, also finds its origin in philosophical teachings current in his time and in particular aiming at a demythologization of the traditional gods. One of the best representatives of this trend in philosophy is the first century rhetor Heraclitus, who wrote a long allegory of Homer's epic that is known under the title quaestiones homericae. Other examples are a work on the life and work of Homer that is attributed to Plutarch and must have been written in the first half of the second century AD, so during Marcion's lifetime23. A common trait of all these philosophical works is the allegorization of Homer's deities as natural elements, parts of Hyle, that together in various mixtures form this visible world24. It is a kind of philosophical knowledge that we also find in Justin, Aelius Aristides, and Tatian. Taking into considertation Tertullian's polemic with Marcion in Adv. Marc. I, 13 and V, 4 and the terminology used there, Marcion must have known these philosophical issues, must have used them in his conception of creation as a kind of cooperation between the Creator and Matter, and in his view of pagan idolatry as an institution in particular linked with Matter, and therefore must have expressed that philosophical knowledge in the wording of Gal. 4,8.

When indeed such details of Marcion's thoughtworld and Bible text betray his philosophical background, like the main lines of his system do too, there is no ground for ascribing such elements in Marcion's doctrine to later Manichaean influence on specific Marcionite groups in the Syrian area25. Marcionite influence on Manichaeism is rather much greater and more substantial than is usually assumed. Marcion's reading of Gal. 4,8 and the ideas lying behind it also exerted a certain influence on Mani. Of particular interest is strophe 2 of Hymn contra Haereses 48 which gives in condensed form Marcion's cosmology that is based on the creation story of Genesis 1:

Moses wrote that God Himself created the heaven and the earth.
From the earth that He had created He formed us (cf. Gen. 2,7)
And the name Creator testifies to (that).
And when Hyle is a unity, whence are then the kinds without number
Heaven, and water, and also fire, and darkness, light, and wind.
Natures that are different from each other'.

The occurrence of heaven as first 'nature' in the enumeration of the elements finds its explanation in Gen. 1,1-2: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void. The earth without form and void is the Hyle, the sum of the five natures or elements. That this Marcionite concept is aimed at by Ephrem and not Bardaisan's elements becomes clear from another passage in Ephrem's work, where he writes: Marcion (says) that a heaven also is found beneath the Stranger, the heaven of the Maker'26. The five elements in Marcion's system are the same as Bardaisan's. In Marcion they represent — unlike in Bardaisan — the evil stoicheia together forming Hyle, from which the Creator formed the whole visible world through his sexual cooperation or union with Hyle. That idea might go back to Gen. 1,2 "And the Spirit of God moved upon the water

The point of course is that Marcionitism is usually portrayed as an anti-Jewish tradition. This is obviously idiotic. I see also an underlying reflection of the environment in the pages of Celsus's anti-Christian polemic - the True Word. More on that later ...

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