Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Most Outstanding Difficulty About Reconstructing the Marcionite Gospel

I am continue to enjoy Professor Markus Vinzent's reconstruction of the beginning of the Marcionite gospel. It is absolutely essential to consider this text because it is regarded by many as the oldest gospel. Indeed most people aren't even aware of the central difficulty that text presents to anyone who has ever tried to reconstruct it - and this the complete absence of the familiar Jesus baptized by John narrative.

On the one hand this is not surprising given the fact that the Marcionites knew Jesus to be a wholly divine being - even the Word of God. Yet the overriding difficulty we are faced with is the fact that we know for certain that the Marcionites practiced some sort of 'baptism' (recognizing at once that the Greek terminology has a very broad range of meanings and possibilities).

There is absolutely no reference to Marcionite baptism in the writings of Irenaeus. Yet interesting a very Pauline form of baptism already seems to be associated with the followers of Menander the supposed disciple of Simon Magus. We are told that he believed that:

the world was made by angels, whom, like Simon, he maintains to have been produced by Ennoea. He gives, too, as he affirms, by means of that magic which he teaches, knowledge to this effect, that one may overcome those very angels that made the world; for his disciples obtain the resurrection by being baptized into him, and can die no more, but remain in the possession of immortal youth. [Irenaeus AH 1.23.5]

It is worth noting that there is absolutely no reference to water in any part of the Simonian baptism rite. In fact, Simon is very much attached to the importance of fire in later Patristic writers (although his attachment to the element does not appear anywhere in Irenaeus's writings).

What we see instead is a very unusual formula - undoubtedly one filled with exaggeration - yet one which sounds unmistakably Pauline. That "his disciples obtain the resurrection by being baptized into him, and can die no more' certainly sounds like a belief or practice shared with the Marcionites. It is worth noting also that the Philosophumena has nothing to say about Simonian baptism - nor indeed anything whatsoever about Menander.

In fact, if we go through the statements about baptismal practices in the heresiological catalogues only those sects which use the familiar Jesus baptized in water by John with the dove appear. For instance in Irenaeus we read that the various Jewish Christian sects all shared the familiar narrative. The Cerinthians are said to hold that:

after his baptism, Christ descended upon [Jesus] in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being. [AH 1.26.1]

so too the so-called 'snakes' (the Ophites):

when he recognised her (that is, the Sophia below), her brother descended to her, and announced his advent through means of John, and prepared the baptism of repentance, and adopted Jesus beforehand, in order that on Christ descending he might find a pure vessel, and that by the son of that Ialdabaoth the woman might be announced by Christ. [AH 1.30.12]

They strove to establish the descent and ascent of Christ, by the fact that neither before his baptism, nor after his resurrection from the dead, do his disciples state that he did any mighty works, not being aware that Jesus was united to Christ, and the incorruptible AEon to the Hebdomad; and they declare his mundane body to be of the same nature as that of animals. But after his resurrection he tarried [on earth] eighteen months; and knowledge descending into him from above, he taught what was clear. [AH 1.30.14]

the Valentinians are similarly said to have held that:

Jesus "continued to preach for one year only after His baptism" [AH 1.3.3]

This Christ passed through Mary just as water flows through a tube; and there descended upon him in the form of a dove it the time of his baptism, that Saviour who belonged to the Pleroma, and was formed by the combined efforts of all its inhabitants. [AH 1.7.2]

and we are told that the Marcosians believed that:

Jesus was the illustrious Ogdoad, and contained in Himself the entire number of the elements, which the descent of the dove (who is Alpha and Omega) made clearly manifest, when He came to be baptized; for the number of the dove is eight hundred and one [AH 1.14.6]

on His coming to the water, there descended on Him, in the form of a dove, that Being who had formerly ascended on high, and completed the twelfth number, in whom there existed the seed of those who were produced contemporaneously with Himself, and who descended and ascended along with Him. [AH 1.15.3]

Yet the followers of Mark are presented as a hypocritical brood given the fact that they pretended to embrace Catholic water immersion while holding fast to another form of immersion called the redemption which other sources make clear involved fire rather than water.

Given the manner in which Simon, Menander and Marcus are all said to be 'magicians' who took an interest in fire - is it likely or even possible - that their traditions were all united by the fire baptism described in the Anonymous Treatise on Baptism and other Patristic treatises:

this class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole [Christian] faith. They maintain that those who have attained to perfect knowledge must of necessity be regenerated into that power which is above all. For it is otherwise impossible to find admittance within the Pleroma, since this [regeneration] it is which leads them down into the depths of Bythus. For the baptism instituted by the visible Jesus was for the remission of sins, but the redemption brought in by that Christ who descended upon Him, was for perfection; and they allege that the former is animal, but the latter spiritual. And the baptism of John was proclaimed with a view to repentance, but the redemption by Jesus was brought in for the sake of perfection. And to this He refers when He says, "And I have another baptism to be baptized with, and I hasten eagerly towards it." Moreover, they affirm that the Lord added this redemption to the sons of Zebedee, when their mother asked that they might sit, the one on His right hand, and the other on His left, in His kingdom, saying, "Can ye be baptized with the baptism which I shall be baptized with?" Paul, too, they declare, has often set forth, in express terms, the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; and this was the same which is handed down by them in so varied and discordant forms.

For some of them prepare a nuptial couch, and perform a sort of mystic rite (pronouncing certain expressions) with those who are being initiated, and affirm that it is a spiritual marriage which is celebrated by them, after the likeness of the conjunctions above. Others, again, lead them to a place where water is, and baptize them, with the utterance of these words, "Into the name of the unknown Father of the universe--into truth, the mother of all things--into Him who descended on Jesus--into union, and redemption, and communion with the powers." [AH 1.21.2,3]

I think it is very important to connect the complete absence of the Jesus baptized by John narrative in the Marcionite gospel with a strong likelihood that the Marcionites never used any water in their immersion rites. Everything in my mind points to a fire baptism sacrament which I will explain in more detail in my forthcoming posts.

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

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