Saturday, November 10, 2012

Marcionitism: The Fuzzy Dawn of Christianity [Part Three]

We have been taking steps toward the proper understanding of the original Christian faith which belonged to what is called 'Marcionitism or 'the Marcionite tradition' in the early Church Fathers.  When we look at all the evidence available to us, it is clear that 'Marcionitism' was little more than an extension of the 'two powers' doctrine of Alexandrian Judaism only here 'Jesus' is the name of 'the good God' or ὁ χρηστὸς θεός an epithet found for the power of mercy in the writings of Philo.

Contemporary researchers are unable to 'find their way' through the labyrinth simply because they are unwilling to abandon the 'certainty' that our inherited Catholic historical myth offers them.  I cannot understand how any person can read the 'the Book of Acts' without it straining his or her credulity.  Yet be this as it may it has nothing to do with the Marcionite reconstruction of 'Christian history.'  None of the personalities are the same (so Irenaeus).  The context of the Apostle's ministry is also significantly different.

Indeed in spite of all our uncertainty there is one thing that we can be sure of- the Marcionites understood Jesus, the 'good God' (= Elohim) as the divinity who came to 'ransom' humanity from the 'just Lord' (= Yahweh).  This basic formulation is central not only to Marcionitism but ultimately its relationship with Judaism.  The major shortcoming in all previous efforts to understand Marcion is with respect to an underlying need for certainty among scholars.  If 'Christianity' as such is defined as 'X' a priori, little headway can be made into a newly discovered tradition.

To this end, even though work has been carried out on the 'two powers in heaven' doctrine within Judaism - most notably by Alan Segal - these attempts inevitably fall short because of the inherent presuppositions of those conducting the research.  The greatest stumbling block is clearly the pre-existing belief that 'Yahweh' was the 'god of the Jews.'  Jews certainly begin their religious life with this assumption.  Nevertheless, it is self-evident to anyone who has been brought into acquaintance with the material associated with the 'two powers' doctrine that in many of the earliest traditions 'our one and only God' had a peer.

Since 'Judaism' as such is defined as 'Yahwehism' in the minds of the Jewish and Christian scholars who attempt to make sense of the 'two powers' doctrine we never get past first base with respect to Philo.  For it is absolutely certain to anyone who has read the volumes of commentary that have survived that the god named κύριος in the LXX (= Yahweh) is not the ultimate God of the tradition.  Yahweh/κύριος is the just god, he is power who is control of bad people epitomized by Jacob.  But as Clement notes, Philo makes explicit that Jacob prayed for the hope to 'change' gods at Bethel - in other words, he prayed that the 'kind God' later identified as 'Jesus' in the Christian tradition would become his lord.

The fact that all previous studies of Marcionitism have failed to grounding of the 'redemption' rite - not only for this sectarian group (or at least 'sectarian' in a later period where Marcionitism lost its original authority) but Christianity as a whole.  To be certain, Origen and other Church Fathers learned to present the 'ransom' doctrine as if it was Jesus purchasing the initiate from the power of Satan.  Yet it is clear from Clement and the Marcionites that the original context was Philo's understanding of a transfer between the two Jewish powers in heaven (i.e. from  κύριος/Yahweh to θεός/Elohim the two divine beings named in the Pentateuch).

Indeed it cannot be ignored that Philo himself no less than Marcion in a later period acknowledges the secret existence of a Supreme Being later identified as 'the Father' in the writings of Christianity.  These are also the three gods of Marcionitism.  As such it must be acknowledged that in Marcionitism and early Alexandrian Christianity we begin with the same mythical being mentioned by the Alexandrian Jewish community at the time of Philo - ὁ χρηστὸς θεός.  This is 'who Jesus was' for the Marcionites as he is so identified in a Marcionite inscription from Deir Ali, Syria dating from 318 CE.

Just as Clement sees Jacob's declaration at Bethel as a foreshadowing of the Christian redemption rite, Philo confirms its unusual mystical core - someone under the authority of the just Lord chose to be under the authority of the kind God.  In Christian terminology the process of 'changing affiliation' is adoption.  This is certainly because the 'kind god' is identified as the Son of the 'good god' (= the Father).  It is difficult to make out how much of this formulation was new to Christianity or how much was 'already there' in Alexandrian Judaism.

Indeed while Philo never describes this process as a 'ransom' or a 'redemption' we have to remember that by the time of Christianity the Cross changed everything.  Now we have 'God crucified' which is presented in such terms.  What has escaped most attempts to understand the Marcionite redemption is that aside from the 'just Lord' and the 'kind God' there was also his Father the 'good God - ὁ ἀγαθὸς θεός. This identification comes up over and over again in the report of Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Epiphanius and other writers.

The situation we find ourselves in of course is confirming the mention in the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem that the Marcionites may seem to have a 'Trinity,' their churches may appear to resemble Catholic ones but that the faithful should be aware of their doctrines.  The 'Trinity' in question is clearly the Father (= the good God), the Son (= the kind God) and Paraclete (= the just Lord).  In light of this statement we find ourselves forced into acknowledging that the 'just god' could not have been 'hated' by the Marcionites.  Indeed his original role must have resembled what was found among the Alexandrian Jews at the time of Philo - i.e. that he was merely the god of bad men (= the common man).

If the transfer from 'just Lord' to 'kind God' was already existent in Alexandrian Judaism it would seem that it resembled what is portrayed in Genesis chapter 28.  There must have been a heavenly ascent followed by a revelation of a previously unknown divinity (= the kind God).  Jacob has yet to be informed about the 'good God' the Father according to Eusebius explanation of the term El Shaddai (= the 'sufficient God') in another section.  So at once we see a gradiential approach to the divinity.  First we have faith fearing κύριος/Yahweh.  Then we love θεός/Elohim.  Finally a few elect individuals are instructed in secret knowledge to come into acquaintance with the ultimate 'good God' the Father.

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