Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How the Marcionite Antitheses Might Have Been Preserved Until the Time of Saadia Gaon (10th Century)

I have never known what to make of the reports about a Marcionite 'Antitheses' in antiquity. Now that I have taken a second look at the tradition regarding a Book of Questions associated with a certain Hiwi al-Balkhi I am fairly certain I know that - not only did this text once exist - it must have been preserved until the time of Saadia Gaon by means of the powerful Barmakid family who are identified in many sources as (crypto) Manichaean. It has been well established that the Acts of Archelaus make reference to the same Antitheses having been adopted or taken over by the early community of Mani.

Let's start at the beginning again. The Patristic tradition reports that a Marcionite work was entitled the Antitheses, because in it Marcion juxtaposed what he viewed as antithetical statements from the Hebrew scriptures and his NT collection. According to Tertullian, these Antitheses often deliberately set these statements in contrast so as to demonstrate the incompatibility of the God of the Hebrew Bible and the God who sent the Christ: e.g. Marcion’s purported rejection of the ius talionis by juxtaposing it with Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek.” In Marcion’s understanding, apparently, such statements were mutually exclusive and pointed to a conflict in laws, thus demonstrating Jesus’ rejection of the law found in the Hebrew Bible.

Gerhard May has convincingly argued that philosophical conceptions of the divine informed Marcion’s theology and interpretations of Genesis transmitted in his Antitheses. These Hebrew Bible stories that depicted God in ways disgraceful and anthropomorphic buttressed Marcion’s conviction that this god was separate from the God who sent Christ and for this reason ought to be rejected

In addition to Tertullian’s appellation of Marcion’s writings as “antitheses” or a “dos,” our other earliest descriptions of Marcion’s writings range from Irenaeus’s “scriptis,” to Epiphanius’s syntagmata, and an anonymous early Syriac writer preserved in Armenian, who refers to Marcion’s work as a “proevangelium” — a description that prompted Harnack to hypothesize that Marcion’s Antitheses could have been a type of introductory work read before (or perhaps prefaced to) the gospel.

Scherbenske contends that Marcion’s Antitheses was indeed an introductory tract, one that corresponded to the ancient isagogic genre. The early descriptions of the probable form and content of this Marcionite work offer a compelling solution to the problem of the genre and function of the Antitheses. Based on this evidence and connections to features of the isagogic genre, He makes the case that the Antitheses functioned as an introductory work and was fashioned so as to guide readers—perhaps neophytes—into the proper reading of (and perhaps were prefaced to) Marcion’s edition of the Gospel and the Apostle.

Without getting too deeply into the question of what was in the Marcionite Antitheses I think it is important that we move forward and demonstrate that this work had ultimately been transferred to the Manichaean Church at the end of the third century. For we see a letter preserved in the Acts of Archelaus which says exactly this:

Diodorus sends greeting to Bishop Archelaus,

I wish you to know, most pious father, that in these days there has arrived in our parts a certain person named Manes, who gives out that he is to complete the doctrine of the New Testament. And in the statements which he has made there have been some things, indeed, which may harmonize with our faith; but there have been alsocertain affirmations of his which seem very far removed from what has come down to us by the tradition of our fathers. For he has interpreted some doctrines in a strange fashion, imposing on them certain notions of his own, which have appeared to me to be altogether foreign and opposed to the faith. On the ground of these facts I have now been induced to write this letter to you, knowing the completeness and fulness of your intelligence in doctrine, and being assured that none of these things can escape your cognizance.

Accordingly, I have also indulged the confident hope that you cannot be kept back by any grudge from explaining these matters to us. As to myself, indeed, it is not possible that I shall be drawn away into any novel doctrine; nevertheless, in behalf of all the less instructed, I have been led to ask a word with your authority. For, in truth, the man shows himself to be a person of extraordinary force of character, both in speech and in action; and indeed his very aspect and attire also bear that out. But I shall here write down for your information some few points which I have been able to retain in my memoryout of all the topics which have been expounded by him: for I know that even by these few you will have an idea of the rest.

You well understand, no doubt, that those who seek to set up any new dogma have the habit of very readily perverting into a conformity with their own notions any proofs they desire to take from the Scriptures. In anticipation, however, of this, the apostolic word marks out the case thus: If any one preach any other gospel unto you than that which you have received, let him be accursed. And consequently, in addition to what has been once committed to us by the apostles, a disciple of Christ ought to receive nothing new as doctrine. But not to make what I have got to say too long, I return to the subject directly in view.This man then maintained that the law of Moses, to speak shortly, does not proceed from the good God, but from the prince of evil; and that it has no kinship with the new law of Christ, but is contrary and hostile to it, the one being the direct antagonist of the other.

When I heard such a sentiment propounded, I repeated to the people that sentence of the Gospel in which our Lord Jesus Christ said of Himself: I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil it. The man, however, averred that He did not utter this saying at all; for he held that when we find that He did abrogate that same law, we are bound to give heed, above all other considerations, to the thing which He actually did. Then he began to cite a great variety of passages from the law, and also many from the Gospel and from the Apostle Paul, which have the appearance of contradicting each other. All this he gave forth at the same time with perfect confidence, and without any hesitation or fear; so that I verily believe he has that serpent as his helper, who is ever our adversary [emphasis mine].

  • Well, he declared that there in the law God said, I make the rich man and the poor man; while here in the Gospel Jesus called the poornblessed, and added, that no man could be His disciple unless he gave up all that he had. 
  • Again, he maintained that there Moses took silver and gold from the Egyptians when the people fled out of Egypt; whereas Jesus delivered the precept that we should lust after nothing belonging to our neighbour. 
  • Then he affirmed that Moses had provided in the law, that an eye should be given in penalty for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth; but that our Lord bade us offer the other cheek also to him who smote the one. 
  • He told us, too, that there Moses commanded the man to be punished and stoned who did any work on the Sabbath, and who failed to continue in all things that were written in the law, as in fact was done to that person who, yet being ignorant, had gathered a bundle of sticks on the Sabbath-day; 
  • whereas Jesus cured a cripple on the Sabbath, and ordered him then also to take up his bed. And further, He did not restrain His disciples from plucking the ears of corn and rubbing them with their hands on the Sabbath-day, which yet was a thing which it was unlawful to do on the Sabbaths. 

And why should I mention other instances? For with many different assertions of a similar nature these dogmas of his were propounded with the utmost energy and the most fervid zeal.

  • Thus, too, on the authority of an apostle, he endeavoured to establish the position that the law of Moses is the law of death, and that the law of Jesus, on the contrary, is the law of life.

For he based that assertion on the passage which runs thus: In which also may God make us able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. But if the ministration of death, engraven in letters on the stones, was made in glory, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away; how shall not theministration of the Spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more does theministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excels. For if that which shall be done away is glorious, much more that which remains is glorious.

And this passage, as you are also well aware, occurs in the second Epistle to the Corinthians. Besides, he added to this another passage out of the first epistle, on which he based his affirmation that the disciples of the Old Testament were earthly and natural; and in accordance with this, that flesh and blood could not possess the kingdom of God. He also maintained that Paul himself spoke in his own proper person when he said: If I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. Further, he averred that the same apostle made this statement most obviously on the subject of the resurrection of the flesh. when he also said that he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh, and that according to the letter the law has in it no advantage.

And again he adduced the statement,

  • that Abraham has glory, but not before God;
  • and that by the law there comes only the knowledge of sin. 
And many other things did he introduce, with the view of detracting from the honour of the law, on the ground that the law itself is sin; by which statements the simpler people were somewhat influenced, as he continued to bring them forward; and in accordance with all this, he also made use of the affirmation, that the law and the prophets were until John. He declared, however, that John preached the true kingdom of heaven; for verily he held, that by the cutting off of his head it was signified that all who went before him, and who had precedence over him, were to be cut off, and that what was to come after him was alone to be maintained.

With reference to all these things, therefore, O most pious Archelaus, send us back a short reply in writing: for I have heard that you have studied such matters in no ordinary degree; and that capacity which you possess is God's gift, inasmuch as God bestows these gifts upon those who are worthy of them, and who are His friends, and who show themselves allied to Him in community of purpose and life. For it is our part to prepare ourselves, and to approach the gracious and liberal mind, and forthwith we receive from it the most bountiful gifts. Accordingly, since the learning which I possess for the discussion of themes like these does not meet the requirements of my desire and purpose, for I confess myself to he an unlearned man, I have sent to you, as I have already said more than once, in the hope of obtaining from your hand the amplest solution to this question. May it be well with you, incomparable and honourable father! [Acts of Archelaus 40]

It is worth noting that a number of scholars have connected this text to the Marcionite Antitheses and if this is true we have the beginnings of an explanation of how the text ultimately made its way to Saadia Gaon.

For the only clue we have for the provenance of this text in the ninth century is the fact that Hiwi (= snake) is associated with Balakh, a province of the Persian Empire in what is now modern Afghanistan. The city of Balakh was also home to the Barmakid family (originally members of the Persian royalty) who are identified as crypto-Manichaeans in a number of sources:

There is a veiled reference to this by the Twelve Imam Shi{i historian Masxudi when he wrote about the Persian predecessor book to the Thousand and One Nights, known as The Thousand Stories, which was about Sassanid kings like Khusrow II. Mas'udi has Khusrow discover that his vizier Bakhtakan is a Manichaean, and has him drowned in the Tigris river. An-Nadim, writing a little later, was more explicit in the Fihrist: “it is said that all of the members of the Barmak family were zanadiqah [crypto-Manichaeans] except for Muhammad ibn Khalid ibn Barmak [the one not arrested by Harun]. It is also said that al-Fadl and his brother al-Hasan were also Manichaeans.” This explains why the Barmakids were such successful governors, and also their sudden downfall. [Cyril Glasse How we know the exact year the Archegos left Baghdad (2009) New light on Manichaeism. Papers p. 129-144]

The point of course is that this family was renowned for their philanthropy in antiquity including establishing libraries and publishing rare books. One of its members even governed the province where Saadia lived most of his life:

In 765, Khalid ibn Barmak received the governorship of Tabaristan, where he crushed a dangerous uprising. During his governorship of Mesopotamia, Khalid, through a mix of firmness and justice, brought the province quickly into order and effectively curbed the unruly Kurds.

I think it is very likely that this Marcionite text may well have been reintroduced to the world by the Barmakid clan. The 'Buddhist' monastery associated with them in Balakh was renowned for possessing a great number of rare manuscripts which were destroyed in the Islamic conquest in the eighth century. Perhaps the Marcionite text was saved by the Barmakids.

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