Sunday, March 31, 2013

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

When trying to piece together the beliefs of the Marcionites most have resisted the comprehensive report of Eznik the fifth century bishop of Koghb in Northern Armenia.  The argument seems to be that because almost three centuries had elapsed between the beginning of Marcionitism and Eznik's report, it might be unreliable.  But I see the exact opposite.  We can see quite clearly the origins of Marcionitism from first century Alexandrian Judaism - so how could that have been 'faked' or adopted in a later period?  Since the ideas associated with Philo show up in 'patches' in the reports about the Marcionite sect in Irenaeus, Tertullian and earlier sources, the consistency of Eznik with those sources make it hard to dispute the Armenian bishops accuracy.

The difficulty is clearly that the actual beliefs of the sect became distorted into something else by the Western Fathers perhaps for political purposes.  Marcion was not a radical dualist.  Yet the writings that emerge in third century which makes these claims about him were undoubtedly influenced by the rise of the Sassanid (Persian) Empire.  Both Rome and Ctesiphon were essentially locked in a bitter struggle for a series of kingdoms and principalities which straddled the borders of the two Empires.  There were Marcionites in great numbers throughout this 'no man's land' - and most importantly for our understanding of this period - Marcionitism lay claim to the name 'Christian' in many of these territories including the influential kingdom of Osroene.

It seems very plausible to suggest that the idea of Marcion as a 'radical dualist' was developed by the third century Church Fathers to encourage the Roman authorities to mistrust the sect.  Since Zoroastrianism - a religion founded on a radical dualism between light and darkness, good and evil - was the official faith of the Sassanid Empire, Marcionitism was increasingly being portrayed as a typically Persian dualistic religion.  The great German authority on Marcion Adolf von Harnack made the case for a Zoroastrian origin to Marcionitism.  His contemporary Wilhelm Bousset argued even more strenuously for the Persian origins of the sect and many more have followed suit.  Yet all of these men are being misled by the contemporary propaganda attempts of Christian editors reworking earlier reports about the sect for political advantage.

The actual Christian Church Fathers who lived among the Marcionites tell a far different story and one which ultimately takes us back to Jewish Alexandria in order to find the origins of the sect.

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