Friday, April 5, 2013

Alan Segal on Marcion in Two Powers in Heaven

Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism by Alan Segal (1977) was one of those books that changed my life.  I rank it up there with reading Nietzsche or listening to Jimi Hendrix or the first time I scored I ever actually slept with an exotic dancer.  It was a revelation.  They say that we read to know we are not alone.  But reading great scholarly books about periods and cultures in history more remote from us than Atlantis takes that experience to the next level.  We unpackage the arguments in these books in the way botanists feel when they discover a previously unknown type of flower.  We read in order to know there were weird exceptions like us in every age, in ever period of history.

The truth is just as clearly as I can remember reading Two Powers in Heaven for the first time I can remember picking up the book a second time and essentially saying - so what? - when it came to Segal's understanding of Marcion.  I know this is a politically incorrect statement but in the same way that Gentiles typically 'don't get' Judaism, it has to be acknowledged that Jews also fumble the ball when it comes to Christianity.  Maybe it has something to do with Christianity being the traditional forbidden fruit.  Maybe it is because the religion of Jesus tests the limits and exposes the weaknesses in traditional Jewish thinking regarding the Tanakh.  I don't know.  But Segal just comes short on his understanding of Marcion.

I should mention that I have reread different sections of Two Powers in Heaven on and off for twenty years now and over time I come back to loving the work.  As you get older you mellow.  I am not so hard on writers and thinkers as I used to be.  I appreciate that in order to get where I am today, I needed to read Alan Segal at that point in my life, his 'missing the boat' on Marcion not withstanding.  And now to the material itself.

Segal begins by introducing the person of Marcion near the beginning of Two Powers in Heaven in the following manner:

Marcion must be mentioned as an example of Christian dualism. He is often classified as a gnostic, but his gnosticism is of such an individual kind that he would be better defined as a radical, Pauline Christian with gnostic affinities. Almost all our information about Marcion is derived from the church fathers, who were hardly complementary, but not necessarily totally inaccurate. When the rabbinic description of "two powers" heresy warrants it, Marcion's thought will have to be investigated. If growing knowledge of the Hellenistic world has widened the field of candidates for the identification of "two powers" heretics, the passage of time has also brought more sophisticated tools for study of the primary texts themselves. [p. 25] 

From here a long wonderful discussion of rabbinic material which Segal clearly knows inside and out.  At last he enters into the realm of early Christian reports of the 'two powers in heaven' tradition and eventually back to Marcion whom he introduces as follows:

And then the beginning of the section on Marcion in his book on the rabbinic tradition of 'two powers' in heaven: Marcion has been seen as a prime candidate for the rabbinic polemic against two powers. l However, we have already seen evidence that the controversy has roots that go back considerably earlier than he. It is growing clear that the rabbinic texts present us with a palimpsest of different traditions. Yet the Marcionite polemic has certain characteristics which will affect our identification of the targets of the rabbinic polemic. We shall see that, although he and his followers were participants in polemics, Marcion's method makes it unlikely that he himself could have been the target of the rabbinic charges. [p. 235] 

and again in this section:

By the time of Irenaeus, a legend had developed that Marcion had asked Polycarp for recognition as bishop only to be rebuffed by the words "I recognize you — as the first-born of Satan!" - The term "first-born of Satan" has a Hebrew equivalent (BKWR STN) which seems to have had a similar and contemporary use within Jewish exegesis — as a term of reproach for someone who did not follow the accepted tradition of scriptural (b. Yeb. 16a, j. Yeb. 3a). (In the rabbinic occurrence, the offender had followed Shammaite halakha.) Since the first-born of Satan is Cain, as we discovered previously, 4 the term probably alluded to the tradition we noted as early as Philo that the human race was descended from two different genealogies — the good from Seth and the bad from Cain. It seems likely that the term was developed in Jewish sectarian life and was later applied to Marcion. If we believe Harnack, (i there was good reason for this term of derision to have been applied to Marcion. What made Marcion extreme in his belief according to Harnack, and what would make him a good target for the term "first-born of Satan," was the idea that only those who had been rejected by the creator (e.g., Cain and his descendents) could be led out from the lower world by Christ, while Abraham and those justified by the creator must remain unredeemed. Apparently Marcion accepted the traditions that those who did not follow the "orthodox exegesis" were descended from Cain, but he transvalued that tradition so that Cain became the ancestor of those elected of Christ, in turn, the messenger of a good, saving God yet unknown and unprophesied in the Old Testament. Such common terminology between Jewish and Christian communities is important to us because it points to a relationship between them. [p. 235] 

Segal is undoubtedly correct about a Jewish original for Marcionitism or at least Marcionitism developing from pre-existing 'two powers in heaven' traditions.  His connection of Polycarp's 'firstborn of Satan' R Dosa reference to a certain Jonathan (Yebamoth 16a) is extremely creative and significant.  Yet I sometimes wish his knowledge of Patristic material equalled that of his command of rabbinic sources.

If he knew Irenaeus and our other sources better he'd know that there are two different understandings of Marcion existing side by side with many of the same texts in the Western tradition.  In other words, Irenaeus will repeat Justin's claims about Marcion being a radical dualist and in the next breath offer the contrary position that he was heretic merely for dividing the godhead in two powers in heaven - one of mercy the other of judgment.  In other words, Marcion was entirely in keeping with Jewish sources as early as Philo.

Indeed it is amazing to see how close Segal gets to my position but in the end - undoubtedly because of the superficiality of his readings of the Church Fathers (he relies too heavily on Harnack's warped German understanding of Marcion). Segal comes to the inevitable conclusion that Marcion is Jewish when he writes a little later:

Because Marcion's writings have not come down to us directly, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about the scriptural passages whichwere most important to him. However, from the reports about the Antitheses which Harnack collected, some of Marcion's techniques ofexegesis and certain of his favorite scriptures can be inferred. According to the church fathers he found those scriptures important which speak of the Old Testament god as the author of evil. This would include Isaiah 45:7 (which Tertuliian placed at the center of his thought),but also Jeremiah 18:11 and the several other passages which discuss the power of God to do evil. Still, Marcion does not want to describe the Old Testament god as purely evil. Rather, he wants to show that his justice is inferior to the goodness of the New Testament god.Therefore, he emphasizes those aspects of Oid Testament narrative which imply divine ignorance or inferiority. The god of the Old Testament has to ask Adam where he is. He has to ask Adam and Eve what they have done (Gen. 3:9). He has to ask Cain where his brother Abel is (Gen. 4:9). He must descend in order to see what the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah signifies (Gen. 18:21). Marcion further points out that the Old Testament god does and says many contradictory things, showing that he is inconstant. For instance, he repents. Now these passages turn out to be generally similar to the scriptural passages used by the critics of the Torah against whom both the rabbis and Philo polemicized. But they are not used by Marcion to develop "two powers" arguments.In fact, Marcion seems to agree with the rabbis that one god speaks through the whole of the Jewish canon. The rabbis would say that God is both merciful or just. Marcion would say that he is by nature just but this would include being cruel on occasion. However much the rabbis disagreed with his opinion of the Old Testament and the character of the divinity described therein, they would not have used "two powers" arguments to defeat him. Marcion himself, in the context of his own thought, finds principal support from the sayings of Jesus in Lk 16:13, (Mt. 6:24) and Lk 6:43 (Mt 7:18) which warn against serving two masters or against a divided household. Accordingly, rabbinic and Marcionite beliefs appear similar enough to Tertullian that he sometimes groups them both together:

It is now possible for the heretic to learn, and the Jew as well, wha he ought to know already, the reason for the Jew's errors: . . . 

Let the heretic now give up borrowing poison from the Jew—the asp as they say, from the viper: let him from now on belch forth the slime of his own particular devices, as he maintains that Christ was a phantasm: except that this opinion too will have had other inventors, those so-to-speak premature and abortive Marcionites whom theapostle John pronounced antichrists, who denied that Christ wascome in the flesh but not with the intention of setting up the law of a second god [alterius dens'] —else for this too they would have been censured (by the apostle)—but because they had assumed it incredible that God (should take to him human) flesh. [ibid]

Of course all of this is too painful to watch now.  Segal is so very close to the proverbial honey pot. But for some reason he refuses to (a) read ALL the passages from Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian et al in the western tradition and more important (b) to compare them with the consistent portrait of Marcion as a Jewish dualist in Ephrem, Eznik and the rest of the eastern sources. Why I don't understand (but then again it is hard to expect someone to be an expert on several different traditions at the same time; he was unfortunately relying here on the opinion of Harnack).

If Segal had treated the Marcionite sources with the same zeal that he had the rabbinic sources he would have had the breakthrough that is sorely lacking in the book. A little later he again writes:

Not only is Marcion's exegesis of scripture similar to the rabbinic exegesis in some respects, but also Tertullian, as an opponent of Marcion, exhibits many of the characteristics of "two powers" heresy which offended the rabbis. Of course, this is to be expected, in part, since Tertullian is usually seen to have developed his defense against Marcion out of writings which came down to him from Justin, Irenaeus, and Theophilus, all of whom have assumed candidacy for the charge of "two powers" heresy. It also implies that some modalists may have accused Christian orthodoxy of believing in a second God in order to group it together with Marcionism. The exegeses typical of this heresy in Judaism thus came to be completely revalued in Christianity.As his use of "alterius deus" seems to imply, Tertullian can also use anti-dualism arguments against Marcionism which are familiar to us from rabbinic writings themselves:To such a degree is this justice, even plentitude of divinity itself . . .God Father and Lord, Father in clemency, Lord in discipline ... Thou shall love God and Thou shall fear Him . . . The same God who smites also heals: He kills and also makes aüve, He brings down, He rises up: He creates evil, but also makes peace. So that on this suggestion too I have to answer the heretics. "See," they say, "He himself claims to be the creator of evil things when He says: 'It is I who create evil' ..." ' It is surprising to see Tertullian marshall what look like Philonic or rabbinic arguments against "two powers" to defeat Marcion. The backbone of the passage is Dt. 32:39 which was central to the rabbinicexegesis against "two powers." Nor is it the only time that Tertullian relies on this passage:Why need you explain a difference of facts as an opposition of authorities. Why need you distort against the Creator those antitheses in the evidences, which you can recognize also in His ownthoughts and affection? will smite, He says, and will heal, I will slay, He says and also will make alive by establishing evil things andmaking peace, In this case Tertullian might be relying on a rabbinic tradition directly or indirectly through other church fathers, who had used it in their battles with heretics.[ibid]

Segal's conclusions about Marcion is also worth quoting in full:

We are left with the conclusion that the rabbinic polemic against"two powers" may oppose Tertuliian's theology but could not have arisen to combat Marcion. In many respects Marcion's exegesis resembles some of the critics of the Torah in Philo's time. No doubt philosophical discussions about the nature of evil influenced him significantly. Many rabbinic traditions about justice and mercy may have had Marcion in mind. But the debate over "two powers" must be earlier than Marcion since Marcion's use of scripture, when relevant at all, presumes that the debate has already reached a certain stage. Since Marcion himself lived in the first half of the second century, we have more evidence that the debate antedates the earliest references in rabbinic literature and seems appropriate to the first century. Some of Marcion's followers,like Apelles, certainly become relevant to the polemic when they give up the radical dualism of Marcion and turn the inferior god into a helping angel or deus secundus. In this respect they are no different from a host of gnostic sects proliferating during this period. It is to gnosticism that we must now turn our attention

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