Friday, October 7, 2011

Demolishing the Claim that Marcion and the Marcionites Actually Came From Pontus [Part One]

As many of my readers know, I have long been suspicious of the claim that Marcion and Marcionitism came from the northernmost Roman province of Pontus in modern Turkey.  Yes, many of our Patristic sources tell us this, but I have always felt that people haven't read the information critically enough.  It never made sense to me that Tertullian for instance should start his classic anti-Marcionite work with a long discussion of how the Marcionites were like the Scythian hordes that originally came from Pontus, if indeed Marcion himself was from there.

At best it reads like a lengthy regional rant - akin to 'Cretans always lie.'  Yet there is no attempt to explain how Christianity came to Pontus, how Marcion managed to be so influential if he was from some far away province and for instance, most of the rest of Christendom was centered in Rome, Greece, Syria and Alexandria.  Yes, there is that stupid story about Marcion being a 'ship builder' from Pontus and so presumably he sailed on one of his ships and came to the Church and showered money on everyone.  Yet this is so far fetched, that anyone who has ever taken Marcionitism seriously has found problems making sense of what do with the Pontus story.

At best, we can discern that the Marcionites looked and behaved like the Scythians from Pontus (Scythians being of course the native population in the northern province).  When for instance Tertullian tells us that Marcion was more repulsive than any Scythian, that the Marcionite women behave like men and the Marcionite men castrate themselves like Scythian males, it should have been obvious to everyone that the origins of the 'Marcion Ponticus' developed from an identification of Marcionites as a sect which appeared 'Scythian' to outsiders.

Of course the difficulty is that most of us no longer have any idea how the ancients viewed the 'Scythian' hordes of Pontus.  The classic description in antiquity of course is found in Herodotus which in turn clearly influenced Tertullian's description of the Marcionites (the original author likely never even so much as visited Pontus).  Yet the identification of Christians (in this case Marcionites) with Scythians actually comes to us two different ways. Not only is there the classic Tertullian account of the Scythian Marcionites of Pontus but also the story which develops of Mani's indebtedness to a certain 'Scythian of Alexandria.'  Almost every scholar who has ever studied Manichaeanism clearly Mani's debt to Marcion.  I strongly suspect that Scythian of Alexandria, is once again Marcion.

The earliest version of the Scythian story which comes down to us is from the Acts of Archelaus. The Acts developed in the Marcionite culture of Osroene and they pin Mani's dualism not on Marcion but a figure called 'Scythian' who lived at the time of the apostles:

This man [Mani] is neither the first nor the only originator of this type of [dualistic] doctrine. But a certain person belonging to Scythia, bearing the name Scythianus, and living in the apostles, was the founder and leader of this sect, just as many other apostates have constituted themselves founders and leaders, who from time to time, through the ambitious desire of arrogating positions of superior importance to themselves, have given out falsehoods for the truth, and have perverted the simpler class of people to their own lustful appetencies, on whose names and treacheries, however, you do not permit us at present to descant. This Scythianus, then, was the person who introduced this self-contradictory dualism; and for that, too, he was himself indebted to Pythagoras, as also all the other followers of this dogma have been, who all uphold the notion of a dualism, and turn aside from the direct course of Scripture: but they shall not gain any further success therein.

No one, however, has ever made such an unblushing advance in the promulgation of these tenets as this Scythian. For he introduced the notion of a feud between the two unbegottens, and all those other fancies which are the consequences of a position of that kind. This Scythian himself belonged to the stock of the Saracens, and took as his wife a certain captive from the Upper Thebaid, who persuaded him to dwell in Egypt rather than in the deserts. And would that he had never been received by that province, in which, as he dwelt in it for a period, he found the opportunity for learning the wisdom of the Egyptians! for, to speak truth, he was a person of very decided talent, and also of very liberal means, as those who knew him, have likewise testified in accounts transmitted to us. Moreover, he had a certain disciple named Terebinthus, who wrote four books for him. To the first of these books he gave the title of the Mysteries, to the second that of the Heads, to the third that of the Gospel, and to the last of all that of the Treasury. He had these four books, and this one disciple whose name was Terebinthus. As, then, these two persons had determined to reside alone by themselves for a considerable period, Scythian thought of making an excursion into Judea, with the purpose of meeting with all those who had a reputation there as teachers; but it came to pass that he suddenly departed this life soon after that, without having been able to accomplish anything. [Acts of Archelaus 51, 52]

It is difficult not to see that Scythian's mission to Palestine seems vaguely reminiscent of Paul's Jerusalem visit in Galatians 2:2. In Cyril of Jerusalem's Sixth Catechetical lecture the same basic story is presented only with some small additional details - Scythian dies from a disease, the disciples are no longer explicitly referenced etc:

Manes is not of Christian origin, God forbid! nor was he like Simon cast out of the Church, neither himself nor the teachers who were before him. For he steals other men's wickedness, and makes their wickedness his own: but how and in what manner you must hear. There was in Egypt one Scythian, a Saracen by birth, having nothing in common either with Judaism or with Christianity. This man, who dwelt at Alexandria and imitated the life of Aristotle, composed four books, one called a Gospel which had not the acts of Christ, but the mere name only, and one other called the book of Chapters, and a third of Mysteries, and a fourth, which they circulate now, the Treasure. This man had a disciple, Terebinthus by name. But when Scythianus purposed to come into Judæa, and make havoc of the land, the Lord smote him with a deadly disease, and stayed the pestilence. [Catechetical Lecture 6.21]

The point of course is that this claim that Mani was instructed by a certain 'Scythian' who wrote a gospel and passed a dualistic teaching has to be an allusion to Marcion Ponticus, albeit now the name 'Marcion' is expunged. I am a little under the weather but here is the classic Scythian description of the Marcionites from Tertullian:

The sea called Euxine, or hospitable, is belied by its nature and put to ridicule by its name. Even its situation would prevent you from reckoning Pontus hospitable: as though ashamed of its own barbarism it has set itself at a distance from our more civilized waters. Strange tribes inhabit it—if indeed living in a wagon can be called inhabiting. These have no certain dwelling-place: their life is uncouth: their sexual activity is promiscuous, and for the most part unhidden even when they hide it: they advertise it by hanging a quiver on the yoke of the wagon, so that none may inadvertently break in. So little respect have they for their weapons of war. They carve up their fathers' corpses along with mutton, to gulp down at banquets. If any die in a condition not good for eating, their death is a disgrace. Women also have lost the gentleness, along with the modesty, of their sex. They display their breasts, they do their house-work with battle-axes, they prefer fighting to matrimonial duty. There is sternness also in the climate—never broad daylight, the sun always niggardly, the only air they have is fog, the whole year is winter, every wind that blows is the north wind. Water becomes water only by heating: rivers are no rivers, only ice: mountains are piled high up with snow: all is torpid, everything stark. Savagery is there the only thing warm—such savagery as has provided the theatre with tales of Tauric sacrifices, Colchian love-affairs, and Caucasian crucifixions.

Even so, the most barbarous and melancholy thing about Pontus is that Marcion was born there, more uncouth than a Scythian, more unsettled than a Wagon-dweller, more uncivilized than a Massagete, with more effrontery than an Amazon, darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice, more treacherous than the Danube, more precipitous than Caucasus. Evidently so, when by him the true Prometheus, God Almighty, is torn to bits with blasphemies. More ill-conducted also is Marcion than the wild beasts of that barbarous land: for is any beaver (= castor) more self-castrating than this man who has abolished marriage? What Pontic mouse is more corrosive than the man who has gnawed away the Gospels? Truly the Euxine has given birth to a wild animal more acceptable to philosophers than to Christians: that dog-worshipper Diogenes carried a lamp about at midday, looking to find a man, whereas Marcion by putting out the light of his own faith has lost the God whom once he had found. His followers cannot deny that his faith at first agreed with ours, for his own letter proves it: so that without further ado that man can be marked down as a heretic, or 'chooser', who, forsaking what had once been, has chosen for himself that which previously was not. For that which is of later importation must needs be reckoned heresy, precisely because that has to be considered truth which was delivered of old and from the beginning.

But a different work of mine will be found to maintain this thesis against heretics, that even without discussion of their doctrines they can be proved to be such by this standing rule concerning novelty. At present however, seeing that a contest cannot be refused—for there is sometimes a danger that frequent recourse to the short-cut of that standing rule may be put down to lack of confidence—I shall begin by sketching out my opponent's doctrine, so that no one may be unaware of this which is to be our principal matter of contention.

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