Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Do Roman Catholics Eat Marcion Every Sunday at Their Services? [Part One]

I have never been satisfied with the claims about Marcion in the Church Fathers.  There is no actual evidence for the existence of the person of 'Marcion' save for what Irenaeus of Lyons tells us about an encounter with the heretic presumably at Rome.  Most people accept the claim that Irenaeus was Polycarp's most devoted student.  I have doubted this story ever since I became aware of the rivalry which existed in the late second century between Irenaeus and a certain Valentinian heretic named Florinus.

At one time, as Peter Lampe notes, Victor the bishop of Rome was favorably disposed toward Florinus.  Devoting oneself to 'Valentinianism' - whatever that was - could not have been a 'crime' at this time.  Yet Irenaeus continued to work on Victor and likely by the reign of Septimius Severus, Florinus was not only banished from the Imperial court but also from the favor of the Roman bishop.

The reason I bring this up of course is because Florinus was acknowledged to have been closer to Polycarp than Irenaeus ever was.  Irenaeus makes a back handed confession in one of the surviving fragments in his name - acknowledging that (a) he only knew Polycarp when he was very young and (b) that Florinus was always seen in the master's company.  The only reason that anyone buys the argument that Irenaeus was a faithful spokesperson for the beliefs of Polycarp is the fact that Irenaeus is all we have.  Florinus's writings have not survived and any association that Polycarp might have had with Valentinianism disappeared with him.

We certainly should expect that there was an association between Polycarp and the Valentinians in Rome.  Irenaeus's implicit argument that Florinus fell from Polycarp's orthodoxy simply isn't believable given the fact that there is no evidence for Irenaeus's authority on the Smyrnaean master.  All of which takes is back to Irenaeus's claim that Polycarp rejected Marcion and identified him as the firstborn of Satan in their brief encounter.

I have long argued - ever since I published an article at Hermann Detering's site on the subject - that Lucian of Samosata's 'stranger' in his Christian parody the Passing of Peregrinus is none other than our Polycarp of Smyrna.  There was clearly a body of literature associated with Polycarp which Irenaeus channeled into a newly rebaptized figure of 'Ignatius of Antioch.'  The Latin name 'Ignatius' no less than its Syriac equivalent Nurono certainly go back to the Jewish Aramaic term seraph (= angel).

We have to imagine Polycarp then - at least from the eyes of his pagan contemporaries - as something of a wandering charlatan, a man claiming to be an angel and longing to establish a fiery martyrdom for himself.  There were apparently several 'public suicide events' associated with the Olympic games which ultimately succeeded in 161 CE.  Nevertheless we know so very little about the real Polycarp that we simply buy into Irenaeus's claim that he was rejected by his master.

There is a part of me, I must confess, which always sees this sort of 'rejection stories' as little more than a denial of association.  In other words, that Irenaeus goes out of his way to say that Polycarp rejected Marcion is nothing more than an attempt to cover up an original association.  Of course we know so very little about Marcionitism it is difficult to say anything definitive about the context of such a relationship.  Nevertheless one thing seems to be clear from the Acts of Archelaus and Mani's historic appeal to Marcion as a witness for his 'prophethood' - Marcionites seemed to be waiting for the coming of the Paraclete.

Of course some people are now asking - what is a Paraclete?  The simplest way to answer the question is that Mohammad wasn't alone in claiming to be the one prophesied by Jesus.  There were a host of previous incarnations of a figure called 'the Comforter' - a messianic role associated with a variant text of the material which has now made its way into the gospel of John.

Origen tells us that the Marcionites and Valentinians apparently saw Paul as this Paraclete.  Nevertheless this doesn't seem to have stopped at least some Marcionites from continuing to expect 'Comforters' to appear in the future - perhaps in every generation.  To this end, I am left suspecting that Valentinus or even Polycarp may have been figures claiming to be the Paraclete.  This shouldn't be at all surprising given the success of another contemporary figure named Montanus who founded what was called the 'New Prophesy' movement.

The point here is the image of Polycarp 'pushing away' the heretic Marcion isn't really worth anything.  It is a stock narrative which early Christianity shared with rabbinic Judaism and Samaritanism.  Irenaeus might well have been making this story up to deny the historical reality that Polycarp was something of schismatic from the original Marcionite orthodoxy.  Of course the next questions are - what is Marcionitism, who was Marcion?  This we will begin to tackle in our next post.

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