Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Radical New Understanding of the Beginning of the Marcionite Gospel [Part Two]

As we noted in our last post, scholars begin with the underlying similarity in the testimony about Marcion from Tertullian and Epiphanius about the shape of his gospel.  They become emboldened moreover by the fact that Irenaeus is cheering them on - 'Marcion corrupted Luke! Marcion corrupted Luke!'  It all seems too easy and so - given the general inherent intellectual laziness of people in unproductive fields - it becomes convenient to just 'go with it.'  Tertullian + Ephiphanius = the truth about Marcion.

Schmid's rigorous book on Marcion goes so far as to mostly ignore Pauline readings from other sources (= Adamantius) in order to streamline our understanding.  Yet there is a problem here which is pushed to the side of most of these reconstructions - the testimony of the Eastern witnesses.  There can be no doubt that Ephrem's Marcionite gospel is not the text that manifests itself to us through the troika of Irenaeus, Tertullianus and Epiphanius.  Ephrem makes no mention at all about the brevity of the Marcionite gospel which is unusual given the fact that he is comparing it to the much longer Diatessaron.  Eznik's testimony about the gospel's ending seems to draw elements from all four gospels.  

The point is that it seems more far more believable that Tertullian and Epiphanius are using the same source perhaps in a slightly different form - an anti-Marcionite treatise originally based on a Diatessaron (see previous post) but adapted to a 'corrupt Luke' argument by Irenaeus or someone in his circle - than it is to continue to exclude Ephrem's eyewitness testimony.  For no one can honestly say that either Tertullian or Epiphanius has actually seen the Marcionite gospel.  As I have demonstrated in previous examinations, they are merely copying out some pre-existing source.  The same cannot be said for Ephrem and Eznik.  They live and come into contact with Marcionites perhaps as frequently as every week.  

To this end, we have to go beyond the comfort and satisfaction of imagining the Marcionite gospel as Luke minus the beginning and 'chunks and pieces' thereafter.  The Marcionite gospel is very different than that and - as Ephrem's testimony makes clear - nowhere is that more true than with respect to the opening of the narrative.  

We can be certain for instance that Jesus came down from heaven to start the narrative.  This is reinforced as early as Irenaeus (AH 1.27.2) and continued by Tertullian.  Tertullian says quite specifically that Jesus is described as "coming down from heaven" at the beginning of the gospel (Adv Marc 4.4) and moreover "that Jesus was descended from that god (= the Father), to subvert the Creator and overthrow the law and the prophets." (ibid 4.11), that "that better god, loved (this world) so well, and for your sake was at the pains of descending from the third heaven to these poverty-stricken elements, and for the same reason was actually crucified in this cell of the Creator" (ibid Marc 1.14), and that "in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, Christ Jesus vouchsafed to come down from heaven, as the spirit of saving health (spiritus salutaris)." (ibid 1.19)

In this much all the accounts agree.  But scholars often lack the delicacy to think about these matters with the proper objectivity.  For instance despite the alleged 'hostility' to the law and the prophets shown by the Marcionites Tertullian concedes that they themselves depended on the Pentateuch and its description of "the Creator's angels ... when in converse with Abraham and Lot were in a phantasm, evidently were of putative flesh, and yet really met with them, and partook of food, and performed the task committed to them." (ibid 3.9).  In other words, there was an underlying compatibility with Judaism and its most sacred book throughout the supernatural understanding of their gospel.

The revelation of the gospel might have represented the end of the Law but no more than a digital music player represented the eclipse of a phonograph record.  The underlying idea what that the time of the Law had come to an end.  This certainly offended those who zealously clung to old ways.  However it can't be coincidence that the gospel is understood to have been revealed in an age which saw the end of the sacrificial religion of ancient Israel.  The Marcionites offered those proselytes who had recently come over to Judaism a solution to the coming to an end of the old way of worshiping God (ibid 3.21).  What they proposed may have been a radical solution, one which 'offended' many people including Jews, but it was nevertheless a essentially a 'Jewish' solution in some sense.

In spite of the consistent reporting of 'hostility' against 'the Jewish god' it is important to recognize that there is a consistent recognition of Jewish principles of scriptural exegesis.  The messiah who is to come will be as the Jews imagine him to be.  Jesus is not the Christ.  He is instead a wholly divine figure called 'Chrestos,' one of two powers of god, the embodiment of mercy who is wholly separate from the bloodthirsty military general predicted by the Law and the prophets.  Rather than being a wholly unknown god, this merciful power was well known to contemporary Jews; who they seemed totally unaware of, by contrast, was the heavenly Father.

Indeed the ancient critics confounded two competing notions of 'secrecy' in the original Marcionite system.  There was the Father who had always existed in heaven but was ignored in traditional Jewish worship and then there was the suddenness of Jesus's appearance at the beginning of the gospel - the failure of contemporary Jewish leaders to recognize who he was.  It is impossible not to see that there was a deliberate irony here.  The Marcionites were making a point clearly, that the Jewish leadership had 'lost sight of' or failed to recognize mercy (= Jesus).  But this is certainly not the same thing as saying that the god Chrestos was an unknown commodity among contemporary Jewry.  Scholars it seems have great difficulty seeing the poetry in the original gospel paradigm.

The failure of the Jews to recognize the angel of mercy who visited and communed with their Patriarchs was a deliberately cultivated irony on the part of the first evangelist.  We have simply learned to read our gospels badly in what approaches now, almost two thousand years since Marcion.  

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