Friday, November 9, 2012

Marcionitism: The Fuzzy Dawn of Christianity [Part Two]

When someone takes the time to look at the actual evidence, it is impossible for me to understand how anyone can avoid coming to the conclusion that Marcionitism represents the starting point of everything we understand to be 'Christianity.'  In so many ways it reminds me of Samaritanism. The austerity of the tradition is striking.  To argue that from the complicated (and simply unbelievable) history of Acts the Marcionites 'streamlined' their Evangelist-Apostle and his Evangelion-Apostolikon is simply untenable to me.  It's no different with the arguments which make the case that Samaritanism represents a 'sect' of Judaism.

While the tradition has disappeared and the reporting about its composition is substandard at best, if people simply expose themselves to the information which survives about the sect (basically reading a handful of passages in Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Lactantius, Eusebius, Ephrem, Epiphanius and later writers) and then perhaps a greater amount of time reading these same sources for the broader context of 'heresy' and 'orthodoxy' in the age in which 'Marcionitism' flourished, it is possible I believe for any of us to close our eyes and visualize what this tradition would have appeared like to its contemporaries.

One inescapable fact - Mani's Church must have been greatly influenced by the Marcionite communities of Osrhoene and surrounding territories.  In other words, the basic model of a divided society - most people living according to one rule and the elect living according to some form of 'secret knowledge' is inescapable.  How do we know this?  It proceeds directly from the 'inescapable fact' that the Marcionite priesthood was castrated.  This evidence comes to us from innumerable sources (Tertullian, Origen, Ephrem, Jerome) and it is absolutely impossible for us to imagine that all Marcionites were eunuchs.

To this end, it becomes increasingly clear from the surviving evidence that only the members of the Marcionite priesthood were castrated.  One can roughly parallel this practice with what remains of ancient Roman celibacy in the Catholic Church.  Moreover the same practice must also be imagined to have existed in Alexandria.  Once we allow for the fact that a two-fold division with respect to this rite, it is not hard then to argue not only for a twofold division within the Marcionite community as a whole but also by extrapolation, a two-fold division with respect to its Evangelion (perhaps also explaining why this Greek word appears in the plural form rather than the expected singular).

Indeed the twofold division of Marcionite society is explicitly alluded to in the surviving information which appears in al-Nadim's testimony.  When Irenaeus describes Marcion's specific 'dividing' of the gospel, no less than the 'dividing' of the godhead into two powers related to justice and kindness, the identification of Marcion as a 'dualist' naturally takes hold.  Nevertheless it is important to note, as the testimony of Adamantius makes clear the caricature of Marcionitism as 'radical dualism' emerged a much later period.  While scholars like Sebastian Moll certainly see things the other way around (i.e. that Marcionitism went from a Manichaean dualism to 'adding' a third and fourth principles), he and others have failed to recognize the compatibility of the original dualism described by Irenaeus and others with the Alexandrian Judaism of Philo.

To this end, those who argue for the primacy of 'antinomian Marcionitism' have to make the case that at some later period sectarians were influenced by first century Hellenistic Judaism.  The difficulty even here is that our very sources for this tradition - Philo of Alexandria - not only divides the godhead into principles of justice and mercy but specifically identifies the 'good god' as ὁ χρηστὸς θεός.  There is clearly one too many 'coincidences' here to continue to posit the primacy of antinomian and anti-Jewish tendencies in Marcionitism.  Rather it would seem that this 'radical dualistic' form of Marcionitism was a later sectarian group which went on to influence Manichaeanism.

If, as we have just noted, Marcionitism emerged  directly from Alexandrian Judaism before further mutating  into a tradition which displayed hostility toward Judaism and Jewish conceptions of the godhead, it must be agreed that (a) this mutation could only have occurred far away from Alexandria or parts of the world where Philo's writings were accessible and (b) that it was done at a time in which 'Judaism' had already been defined as a strict belief in the one god Yahwen (= the Lord) who was above all else a just god.  In other words, only in an environment where the 'good God' was alien to mainstream Judaism could it be posited that Jesus the 'good God' was alien to Judaism, the Jewish people and the Pentateuch.

It is not hard to imagine this sort of corruption manifesting itself within a forbidden religion.  After all, one of the most obvious effects of having the Roman state outlawing Marcionitism (cf. Celsus's repeated intimations to this effect in Against Celsus) would be to breakdown the communications between Marcionite communities and moreover the 'decapitation' of the traditional presbytery from the lay body.  Many ordinary believers may well have been swept up by the Catholic Church..  Many more could have drifted off to form clandestine communities of their own under dubious leadership.  This certainly explains the situation at the heart of De Recta Fide (= the Dialogues of Adamantius) where two completely different belief systems are identified as 'Marcionite.'  Moreover the repeated identification of later Church Fathers like Tertullian that the heretical traditions were 'broken' and rundown would fit into this basic framework too.

Only the Catholic Church could claim to embody the kind of organized 'top to bottom' organization that was reflected in the Apostolikon.  Not only do we see the Church Fathers make the case that the decrepit 'heretical conventicles' proved the recentness of their origins, but they specifically reference often times these churches lacking the historical testimonies linking themselves to the past. Tertullian for instance ridicules the idea that "any heresies" claim to be 'apostolic' - "Let them set forth the earliest beginnings of their Churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops coming down by succession from the beginning in such a manner that their first bishop had for his ordainer and predecessor one of the Apostles or of those Apostolic men who never deserted the Apostles."  Yet clearly given the persecution that the Marcionite church faced in the time Celsus was writing - not to mention their different understanding of what the term 'apostolic' meant - would make this argument moot.

Moreover if what we see with respect to Clement of Alexandria and the secrecy that surrounded the apostlehood of Mark and his role in the Church shared with the Marcionites, it would be impossible to expect to have them announce their connection to an occultated leader.  As Hippolytus writes about other 'followers of Mark' who came across Irenaeus's description of their community in his Against Heresies - "For also the blessed presbyter Irenaeus, having approached the subject of a refutation in a more unconstrained spirit, has explained such washings and redemptions, stating more in the way of a rough digest what are their practices. (And it appears that some of them) on meeting with (Irenaeus' work), deny that they have so received (the secret word just alluded to), but they have learned that they should always deny." [Philosophumena 6 37]

In other words, perhaps Tertullian, Clement and Irenaeus are all describing the same 'crypto-Marcionite' community ...

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