Sunday, October 9, 2011

Why Marcion Was Identified as Being 'of Pontus'

I have had the most fundamental revision of my understanding of Marcion in the last couple of days.  It seems to be coming at me from a number of different angles.  I think this might explain why I have been writing as much at my blog.  Strangely, it seems that when you find something important you don't want to blurt it all out in the worry that you might get it wrong.

I had never thought very much about the Scythians.  I knew a people of this name existed in antiquity.  I knew they were something of a northern barbaric race.  However to be quite honest, I didn't see why I should know anything about these people.

As many of you have noted I have started to take the idea seriously that Tertullian (or his source) identifies Marcion as originally being 'of Pontus' because he and his people resembled the nomadic Scythian people.  I know this might sound quite bizarre to many of you.  After all so much has been written and assumed about 'Marcion Ponticus' that it sounds a bit bizarre to have someone come along and suggest that it might have arisen from a criticism taken literally.

We've already noted that the first book of Against Marcion begins almost begins with this lengthy comparison of the Marcion and the Marcionites to the Scythians of Pontus:

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.

Then a lengthy description of the 'reprehensible' sexual equality and castration rituals of the Scythians follows (cf. Herodotus and Hippocrates who form the basis to the reporting) but not before an explicit comparison between Marcion and the Scythians is made:

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 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?

If we look closely at this section Marcion and the Marcionites are being consistently compared to things Scythian - they are reprehensible as Scythians, uncivilized like another Pontic tribe and then a long list of other barbarous people follow before Marcion is again compared to the animals who are associated with that region - 'wild beast' and a species of 'Pontic mice' mentioned by Aristotle (History of Animals 8.3)

The normal way of viewing this material of course is to think that it was only because Marcion 'really was' from the Roman province of Pontus. No one disputes of course that in antiquity, Σκύθαι was the term used by the Greeks to refer to certain Iranian groups of horse-riding nomadic pastoralists who dwelt on the Pontic-Caspian steppe.  Yet for some reason - perhaps because Tertullian is a Church Father - the general consensus is that Marcion really must have been 'of Pontus' because he says so.  Yet I want to remind the reader that almost everything he says seems to develop from a comparison of Marcion and the Marcionites with the Scythian nomads who traditionally inhabited Pontus.  There is very little reason to believe that any of this has any basis in fact.

I hope that at the very least the reader can see that linking Marcion to a barbaric community of Iranian nomads would explain his alleged religious dualism.  Indeed in the case of his successor Mani this is made explicit with the introduction of a supposed 'Scythian of Alexandria.'  Where one might expect to find Marcion, there is instead:

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 Scythianus. 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. (Acts of Archelaus 51, 52)

Of course, I think the two descriptions are related - i.e. Marcion of the Scythian province of Pontus and a certain Scythian of Alexandria.  I think the two reports make it very likely that Marcion himself was really of Alexandria, but that is another story entirely.

I think it is enough for us to demonstrate that Tertullian demonstrates this very same Marcionite dualism with respect to the topography of the Scythian landscape.  Not only did we just see Tertullian begin Against Marcion with the words "the Euxine Sea, as it is called, is self-contradictory in its nature" (Against Marcion 1.1) he goes on to use the Clashing Rocks of the Bosphorus - the very place this sea empties itself into the Mediterranean as the alleged 'inspiration' to Marcion's theology:

This man of Pontus presents us with two gods, as it were the two Symplegades (duos Ponticus deos affert, tanquam duas Symplegadas) on which he suffers shipwreck: the one the Creator, whom he cannot deny, which is our God: the other, whom he cannot prove, a god of his own  (Against Marcion 2.1)

The topographical references continue when Tertullian shouts a little later, "you are stuck, Marcion, in the midst of the swell of your own Pontus:the floods of the truth keep you in on one side and the other. You can establish neither equal gods nor unequal: for two there are not." (Against Marcion 1.9) .Indeed Tertullian goes on to compare the Marcionites again to the Scythian nomads a little later:

The knowledge inherent in the soul since the beginning is God's endowment, the same and no other whether in Egyptians or Syrians or men of Pontus. It is the God of the Jews whom men's souls call God. Abstain, barbarian and heretic, from setting up Abraham as older than the world. Even if God had been the creator of one family and no more, he was not of later origin than your god: even the men of Pontus knew him before they knew of yours. (Against Marcion 1.19)

Of course there is going to be this resistance that Tertullian is only making these comparisons because Marcion was really from Pontus and he is branding his heresy as only reflecting his land of origin.

Yet there are some serious difficulties here not the least of which is that no one can seriously believe that Marcion 'got his ideas' from the Scythian nomads or the 'clashing rocks' of the Bosphorus or anything of the other things Tertullian says here.  Once we acknowledge that Tertullian was in fact speaking poetically throughout, the door is opened to the possibility that the Church Father was just developing a pre-existent likening of the Marcionites to the Scythian savages.  Why did this already exist?  The obvious facts are that the Marcionites and the Scythians (at least as recorded in the writings of the Greeks bore a striking similarity to one another in so far as they were both known for:
  1. being ruled by an ideal philosopher king (= gnostikos in the Platonic sense) 
  2. being governed by a class of eunuchs
  3. having greater equality between the sexes
  4. sharing all property shared in common in a kind of religious communism
  5. engaging in meat and wine abstention 
  6. abstaining from establishing altars for their gods
  7. calling their god father
Yet the most startling thing which I would actually like to spend more time examining in my next post is that Greek literature was very interested in a Scythian king named Anacharsis who bore a striking resemblance to the Marcionite apostle.  

The Cynics in particular treasured a canon of ten epistles of Anacharsis - the same number associated with the Marcionite apostle in their canon - which took aim at the perceived decadence of Greek culture.  This, I believe was the actual reason that Marcion himself was identified as being of Pontus.  Ian Gardner has even found Manichaean fragments which extol Anacharsis as 'the blessed' forerunner of Mani himself.

More on this in my next post ...

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