Sunday, July 31, 2011

Answering Professor Markus Vinzent's Query About the Underlying 'Jewishness' of Marcionitism

The sole reason I started this blog was to allow me to engage in stimulating discussions about topics that interest me. Unlike my wife, who only seems to care about movies and celebrities, I happen to have interest in the origins of Christianity. I don't have a clue how and why this developed. On some level, I think God is responsible for my obsessive interest in a subject that I have quite literally no obvious qualifications for. Nevertheless I have been posting some idea or line or line of inquiry just about every day since the passing of my father (a man who had absolutely no interest in religion and who constantly belittled my interests as brotlose Kunst).

The amazing thing I have noticed in the last couple of days is that this blog is actually making a difference. I know this sounds bizarre but while I have published any thing in my own name since my Journal of Coptic Studies article a few years back, ideas developed at this blog will be referenced in a number of articles written by really reputable people). For instance, I will be credited with inspiring a new article by one of my heroes Tjitze Baarda. I can't even tell you about the other two articles because I am sworn to secrecy. Nevertheless it is amazing how influential a 'breadless art' such as blogging about the origins of Christianity has become.

I mean we're all going to die so why is money the end all and be all anyway? My father spent all of his time worrying about things, which is perfectly understandable having gone through the terrors of World War II and concentration camps and the like. I respect him. I just don't know how he ended up being my father. I mean, I'm the bull that's not going to be stopped without having a bullet put in its head. My tenacity can fairly be described as 'off the chain.' I actually find it frightening some times. The only person who has managed to subdue me is my wife and I think that's owing to an inherited English reserve bu that's another story.

In any event, here I am with this blog and my having made contact with another of my favorite scholars - Markus Vinzent. Why do I like him so much? Well it's not just because we share an interest in Marcion. That's not fair. The truth is that Marcion represents the ultimate question in early Christianity. There are all these petty distractions - you know, the writings of the Church Fathers, their beliefs, their interpretations of the canonical gospels - and then there is the Holy Grail, which is Marcion and his Church.

Why is this so? I don't know really - it's hard to put into words. But the core Marcion logic just makes sense on a level that the rest of surviving writings in early Christianity don't. I mean that sincerely.

Indeed if we 'cut the crap' as they say over here in America, there isn't much in the way of sense and sensibility in the early writers of Christianity. The gospel as it stands now feels more like a story that is preserved third or fourth hand. I remember reading that there is an epic related to the last Emperor Heraclius preserved in Swahili among some Kenyan tribes to this very day. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have a similar feeling of distance from their original source.

The writings of Paul are rendered senseless now, having been reworked too many times by someone trying at the once attempting to inject new ideas into the text and obscure original themes. The whole state of the received New Testament is so dreary and dismal that even the idea of Marcion appears as something of a hero figure. You know, a literary Alexander, who can solve the Gordian knot in a flash. The difficulty - as always - is that our Patristic sources don't preserve the original material about Marcion as well as we would like. Very few people recognize that. They are all too busy engaging in the business of scholarship - i.e. publishing their hot air to help further their career.

The starting point to understand Marcion is that our principal source - Tertullian's Against Marcion in Five Books - cannot be the writing of one person. Book Three stands out like a sore thumb. It has been copied from some lost original source (probably a work by Justin Martyr) which has been simultaneously adapted into this work and Tertullian's Against the Jews (or more commonly known as 'An Answer to the Jews' for the sake of political correctness). Book Three is the key to everything - it and the opening 'confession' at the beginning of Book One which acknowledges that three different versions (some by different authors) were floating around in the third and fourth centuries.

Once you realize that the original source material behind Book Three could be simultaneously turned into a treatise against Marcion and the Jews you know something is up. All of our inherited notions about the Marcionites and the so-called 'anti-Jewish agenda' is complete bullshit. It all comes down to too many scholars who don't have a clue what Judaism is all about and who are too eager to accept the nonsense developed by generations of similarly clueless academics perpetuating an idiotic view of Marcionitism.

With this long and completely unnecessary introduction I can now bring forward Professor Markus Vinzent's inquiry at the comments page of one of my previous posts. It reads:

Here is a text which I had written a few days ago which will be part of a summary of the commentary on Marcion's Gospel - and which ties in so much with your own thoughts

Marcion’s Gospel provides us with a paradoxical phenomenon. It is in many ways a Jewish, even a pharisaic, but also sadduceic and samaritan response with the goal to reject a particular form of judgemental, law-abiding and limiting interpretation of the Jewish scriptures, while establishing a new Christian anti-law and testament. Marcion’s Gospel as part of his New Testament is this new edict with its core, the Beatitudes, set as contrast to the Mosaic Ten Commandments. This Gospel is the indiscriminately and unambiguously good angelic news contrasting the mixture of salvation and condemnation of the old prophecies. But as with all antitheseis, the positive carries all the traces of its negative counter-part. Insofar, his critiques were also admirers of his project and even those who did not accept the sharp antithetical character of his work and theology did not entirely miss Marcion’s point. Like nobody else before him, Marcion, through the antithetical nature of his Christian message had secured the Jewish tradition a lasting place within Christianity. Taken to the extreme of positioning Judaism as antithesis of Christianity, Marcion did neither neglect, nor reject, nor deflect the Jewish background of Christianity, but made it the necessary and even essential portfolio that provided the counter-messages without which Marcion’s own theology cannot be understood. His idea of the unknown was not based on revelatory idiosyncracies, but rested on an in-sightful and rational reading of the Jewish traditions through a radicalized and sharp-ened Pauline lense. In a certain way he is a very special product of the after-135/6 Bar Kochbar scenery, where the Hasmonaeans and Sadducees had lost their centre, the Temple, where the Pharisees had seen the land of Israel been given to the Romans and where the Christians had not supported the political fight against the oppressors. Marcion delivers the core principles for a non-violent position that even grants salvation to enemies, persecutors, to the ignorant and cynic: The incomparable, wonderful, delight-ful, powerful and astonishing love, love which endures, suffers, pays, but does not pay back, an anti-business economy of salvation, a peaceful and all-forgiving revelation
Vinzent is such a perceptive scholar I don't even feel qualified to add anything to this wonderful and concise summary of a subject that quite literally consumes the fire in my soul.  Nevertheless as he has asked me to add my comments, I will do so reminding my readership that I am completely unqualified to do so.

The historical beginnings for understanding Marcionitism as a Jewish messianic phenomena is to remind ourselves of something at the core of Abraham Heschel's Heavenly Torah - namely only the Ten Commandments were divine.  All the other words of the Torah were deemed to rest on the all too human authority of Moses.  The Samaritan writings of Marqe still preserve this distinction and Heschel demonstrates that the logic is at the core of the gospel teaching on divorce (i.e. God said one thing and Moses taught another).

Once we come to terms with the clear fact that the normative Jewish interpretation of the Pentateuch in the period before Marcion distinguished between 'heavenly' and 'man-made' Torah much of the Pauline interest in separating things 'according to God' and 'according to man' take on a new meaning. The person of Moses - and indeed other Jewish gnostic (used in the original Platonic sense i.e. a mediator between man and God) figures such as Solomon - becomes the focus of the Marcionite invective. For instance the Marcionites clearly questioned whether all the things initiated by Moses were divinely inspired as we read Tertullian write:

In the same way, when he forbids the making of the likeness of any of the things in heaven and in earth and in the waters, he explains also the reasons for it—reasons which keep in check that upon which idolatry is based—for he adds, Ye shall not worship them nor serve them. But the image of the brazen serpent which the Lord afterwards commanded Moses to make, had no reference to the clause concerning idolatry, but to the healing of those who were plagued with serpents [Against Marcion 2.22]

Clearly Tertullian is going out of his way to answer the Marcionite objection to the narrative in Numbers 21. Yet it is difficult to believe that the Marcionites were simply 'writing off' the accuracy of the whole Pentateuch owing to the apparently inconsistency here with Exodus 20. The Marcionites did not simply 'expunge' all references to the Jewish scriptures in their New Testament. Many - if not most - of these scriptural references 'remained' and the Marcionites were apparently still interested enough in the Jewish writings to have had Theodotian translate the text into Greek.

Anyone who has bothered to read all of the surviving anti-Marcionite material can't help but see that the Marcionites developed interpretations of Jewish scriptural material. The Pentateuch, Isaiah and most especially Daniel are mentioned. I would argue that the original juxtaposition between Exodus 20 and Numbers 21 which Tertullian references but does not provide us with the specific Marcionite interpretation has something to do with the original distinction between 'divine Torah' (= ten commandments) and 'human Torah' (= the stuff written on the authority of Moses). Its difficult to know how the Marcionites specifically explained what happened in Numbers 21 but my guess is that they would argue that Moses was acting on the authority of a lower hypostasis, i.e. angels or even demons.

The clearest sign that the Marcionites were invoking the whole 'authority of God' versus 'authority of Moses' paradigm from contemporary Judaism is the fact that a few chapters later we see it come to the surface when Tertullian writes:

On that other occasion also God made himself little even in the midst of his fierce anger, when in his wrath against the people because of the consecration of the (golden) calf he demanded of his servant Moses, Let me alone, and I will wax hot in wrath and destroy them, and I will make thee into a great nation. On this you are in the habit of insisting that Moses was a better person than his own God—deprecating, yes and even forbidding, his wrath: for he says, Thou shalt not do this: or else destroy me along with them. Greatly to be pitied are you, as well as the Israelites, for not realizing that in the person of Moses there is a prefiguring of Christ, who intercedes with the Father, and offers his own soul for the saving of the people. [Against Tertullian 2.27]

I don't see how anyone can argue against the idea that Tertullian is consistently witnessing that Marcionitism developed from the traditional Jewish interest in distinguishing between 'things written on the authority of God' and 'things written on the authority of Moses.'

Again I am not sure that the Marcionites were really saying that the God who gave the Ten Commandments was the same as the hypostasis who is depicted as interacting with Moses 'on the ground' so to speak. The point is clearly that the Marcionites believed that there was a God who was higher or superior to the God who is revered in the Mosaic narrative. The Marcionites called this God 'the Father.' Nevertheless, we know so very little about the actual beliefs and practices of the Marcionites other than the fact that they distinguished between the 'Good God' the 'Just God' and the Devil.

I have always been inclined to believe that the Marcionites somehow envisioned the descent of Jesus as embodying the repentance of the Just God. In other words, that at the end of time the God who established the covenant with Moses repented of his creation and perhaps his original covenant. One must suppose that the whole need for God to offer himself on the Cross for the sake of 'saving all of humanity' must have developed as an expression of repentance. But to be honest, I haven't worked this thing out in my head completely.

The one thing that we can be certain of is that the Marcionites and the early Christians generally saw the temple-based religion of Judaism as deeply offensive and contrary to even what was laid out in the Pentateuch. My guess is that the first step in bringing forward the 'perfect religion' - the doctrine which completes or fulfills what was first established among the Israelites in the desert - is the destruction of the offensive building in Jerusalem. The Jews have went off to venerate demons and have become ignorant of the hypostasis who tabernacled with Moses in the wilderness - i.e. the Logos = Jesus. Yet on some level the self-abnegation of the Creator also clears the way for the revelation of the Good God.

It is difficult to make sense of the Patristic evidence with respect to the Marcionite division between 'Just' and 'Good' gods but it is found already in the early writings of Irenaeus and of course the second book of Tertullian.

I do think however that the core to making sense of Marcionitism is accepting the term 'gospel' as being rooted in the surviving Samaritan conception of besorah (= the announcement of the Jubilee). The Jubilee is declared on the Day of Atonement of the 49th year, announced in all countries over a period of just under six months (six months less nine days, because the Day of Atonement is on the 10th of the 7th of year 49), and then it runs from the first to the last day of year 50, which is also year 1 of the next seven years.

The Arabic bashîrah means annunciation, and is the normal Arabic word for Gospel. It is obviously the equivalent of the Hebrew bassorah (or besorah). Mubashshir (= Hebrew mevasser) means the person that carries a message; it also means Evangelist. Bashîr is a title applied to John the Baptist. It means herald.

The word Besorah, and from this the Greek Euangelion, comes from the numerous instances of the verb (always in the pi’el) and the derived pi’el participle mevasser מבשר in Isaiah and then the innovation of the use of the noun Besorah for the new literary form. The specific Marcionite application of this terminology clearly has to do with the underlying connection between the Jubilee and the abolishing of the ordinances of the Law. The presumed understanding must have been that with the coming of the one better than Moses the ordinances established by Moses were now useless and were no longer binding.

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