Saturday, April 28, 2018

Marcion, Irenaeus and the Monarchia

I am of course a 'minority opinion' within the study of Marcion(1) - I don't think that any 'eyewitness testimony' about the Marcionism is 'eyewitness testimony' at all.  Who really ever met a Marcionite, let alone Marcion?  In this regard I find myself on the opposite end of the spectrum from most scholarship on the subject.  I think the only people to have ever met a Marcionite or engaged in any meaningful way with Marcionism are the Eastern sources - that is Ephrem the Syrian and Eznik the Armenian.   Yes they are late sources but they are also very good sources.

I am not convinced for instance that Epiphanius (fourth century) ever met a Marcionite or had any contact with the Marcionite canon.  'What's that?'  exclaim the Marcionite orthodoxy in scholarship, 'but he published detailed information about the Marcionite canon.'  But Epiphanius published lots of  alleged 'firsthand accounts' of things which are not what they appear to be.  He never encountered the 'Greater Questions of Mary' a text which he claims was in the hands of a particularly sexualized heretical group.  I have on this very blog listed over a hundred claims of Epiphanius which scholars have strong doubts about or are outright lies.

The point is that early Christian scholarship reverences 'textual evidence.'  The preservation of written documentation about early Christianity and early Christian communities forms the backbone of our knowledge in the field.  But I often feel there isn't sufficient suspicion about the reliability of a lot of this information.  Not merely that our sources are 'lying' to us, but that their dishonesty took a much subtler form - viz. instead of providing us with 'direct' firsthand experience of a phenomenon or controversy many of the most prolific Church Fathers simply plagiarized earlier reports which haven't come down to us in their original form.

So to this end, Epiphanius did not sit down at a table with the Catholic canon and the Marcionite canon and set out to write the little pamphlet that was famously attached to his Panarion, a tome of dozens of 'heretical sects' within the first three hundred and fifty years of Christianity.  I suspect that he simply got one of his underlings to cull the many 'Against Marcion' texts that were already in existence and lifted the textual criticism efforts of previous generations of Church Fathers.

Why does this matter?  Because I think it helps explain why Epiphanius's list of 'things in the Marcionite canon' doesn't match Tertullian's and vice versa.  Moreover, and this goes back to my original point,  it helps explain why Tertullian and Epiphanius 'agree' that the Marcionite gospel is 'like Luke' but disagree with Ephrem and Eznik who say essentially their gospel was 'like' a gospel harmony or like the Diatessaron.

The point of course is that both sets of claims can't both be true.  The gospel of Marcion can't both be what Irenaeus, Tertullian and Epiphanius say it is - viz. 'an adulterated version of Luke' and what Ephrem and Eznik take it to be - a gospel very similar to the Diatessaron.  This is a fundamental disconnect which is only explained by traditional scholarship by assuming that 'latter day' Marcionism moved completely away from the 'traditional variety' known to Irenaeus and Tertullian.

But there is something even more peculiar about the chasm which exists between these two camps of 'Marcionite reporting.'  Tertullian makes the case for a strongly dualistic - almost Manichaean - understanding of Marcionite theology.  The rest of our sources tend to disagree.  The Marcionites argued for three powers and most curious of all, Irenaeus - who is Tertullian's source for claims that the Marcionite gospel was 'like Luke' - is an important source for information that the Marcionite godhead was tripartite (or at least that the two principle powers of God were 'just' and 'merciful' rather than 'good' and 'evil').

How is all this confusion to be explained?  The short answer is that the Church Fathers are clearly not very good sources of information about Marcion.  This seems obvious to me given the situation but it is nothing short of heresy within the field of study of Marcionism.  The Church Fathers have to be considered to be reliable sources otherwise, the unconscious argument goes, we can really say anything with any certainty about Marcionism.

But sometimes that's the way it is.  I might like 'being intimate' with someone.  But if that person proves to be an unreliable, dishonest person I might have to break off the relationship or - if I am really enamored - acknowledge that things are going to end up badly but nevertheless 'hang in there.'  Just because I want to enjoy a passionate relationship with an uncommitted partner doesn't mean that everything is going to work out.

In the same way the undeniably contradictory information about the Marcionite sect - when the writings of the Church Fathers are taken as a totality - necessarily means that someone has to be wrong about the group.  But the underlying complexity of the relation between sources is also problematic.  For Clement of Alexandria, Marcion was an extreme Platonist.  For the author of the Philosophumena a devotee of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles.  Tertullian can say Marcion was too much a Jew and a Jew-hater almost in the same breath.

We can't keep pretending that there isn't something wrong with the state of evidence with respect to Marcion any longer.  It's like the girl who doesn't hear from her boyfriend for most of the night - almost every night - only to be told he's 'got problems with his phone service.'   The real issue with respect to the bad reporting about Marcion in the Church Fathers has to be identified.  How can so many people allegedly having firsthand experience with Marcion, his church and his canon contradict one another in their reporting?

The short answer is of course that no one - with the exception of Epiphanius - ever claims to have before them the Marcionite canon.  Epiphanius is a pathological liar who always aggrandizes his knowledge and his authority so let's dismiss that claim.  No one else actually claims to have before them firsthand information about the very thing they are writing about.  This in itself helps explain why there is so much bad reporting about Marcion.  On some level, some of the stuff is just made up.

Yet there is more to it than that.  Why did all these Church Fathers develop all these wacky theories about Marcionism if they in fact had no firsthand knowledge of the thing they were reporting on?  The real answer comes when we change the 'why' into a 'how.'  How did all this reporting come about?  The how is obvious - the opening lines of Tertullian's Against Marcion make absolutely explicit that at least three different versions of this heresiological tome were floating around at the time the surviving text was produced.  In other words, the world was filled with individual Christians proving that they could write something against Marcion.  It was sort of like the ancient equivalent of the 'ice bucket challenge.'

Given the number of 'Against Marcion' treatises that were floating around at the end of the second century (at least ten different known texts of this name in the span of fifty years) it seems self-evident there was some sort of demand for this type of text.  But why and by whom?  Why does no one in our surviving literature defend Marcion?  Why isn't there a 'For Marcion' pamphlet among all the negative reporting?  It wasn't that Marcion wasn't old, or wise, or learned, or apostolic.  He is credited with all these things and more.  For some reason Marcion was loathed or at least not actively defended by any influential Christians during the period of Commodus's rule.

Let's give the only historical example that has come down to us of a Marcionite.  The story of the 'questioning' of Apelles the Marcionite in Eusebius's Church History.  Eusebius picks up a text that is now lost to us.  It tells of an 'inquisition' of Apelles.  The treatise is directed to Zephyrinus of Rome's deacon Callistus - a man who would later go on to himself sit on the episcopal throne.  The unnamed recounts the story like this:
For the old man Apelles, when conversing with us, was refuted in many things which he spoke falsely; whence also he said that it was not at all necessary to examine one's doctrine, but that each one should continue to hold what he believed. For he asserted that those who trusted in the Crucified would be saved, if only they were found doing good works.  But as we have said before, his opinion concerning God was the most obscure of all. For he spoke of monarchia as also our doctrine does ... When I said to him, Tell me how you know this or how can you assert that there is monarchia, he replied that the prophecies refuted themselves, because they have said nothing true; for they are inconsistent, and false, and self-contradictory. But how there is monarchia he said that he did not know, but that he was thus persuaded.  As I then adjured him to speak the truth, he swore that he did so when he said that he did not know how there is one unbegotten God, but that he believed it. Thereupon I laughed and reproved him because, though calling himself a teacher, he knew not how to confirm what he taught.
The point of course is that Apelles is asked 'how do you know there is a monarchia' and Apelles the Marcionite refuses to answer.   Why does he refuse to answer?  Apelles was an intelligent man, very capable of making arguments.  And yet he pretends he doesn't want to explain what he knows of the heavenly monarchia to the assembled gathering?

It is worth pointing out that there is a contemporary parallel worth investigating.  In the Samaritan the chronicle of Abu'l Fath (who was clearly drawing from an earlier Greek MS) detailing the events of the reign of the Emperor Commodus there is a story which might shed light on why Apelles the Christian was so reluctant to explain his understanding of the heavenly monarchia.    Commodus sent Alexander of Aphrodisias - or the exegete (ὁ ἐξηγητής) as he was called by his contemporaries - to debate a Samaritan named Levi over the very same issue - the heavenly monarchy.  What follows in this lengthy document is a remarkable philosophical discussion but one which finds surprising parallels for what was going on elsewhere in the Empire under Commodus.

We are told Commodus mercilessly slaughters the Samaritans owing to their opinions about the monarchia by the exegete (ὁ ἐξηγητής) as revealed during the debate.  Was this the underlying historical context that was causing Apelles to avoid explaining his Marcionite understanding of the monarchia?   Did he fear for his life?  There is nothing in the surviving document from Eusebius which tells us that Apelles was martyred after his interrogation.  But is worth noting that another body of literature associated with the martyr Apollos - also from Alexandria, like Apelles - says that indeed that this 'philosopher' was killed after he reveals the Father of Jesus, the god whom Jesus told his believers to "honour [as] the monarch."

A great number of ancient witnesses see the names Apelles and Apollos as interchangeable - viz. Origen, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Grotius.  Could Commodus have been waging a war in favor of the religious veneration of the earthly monarchy (i.e. his own throne) as a reflection of the heavenly momarchia?  It is something clearly that Allen Brent would consider.  But I would go one step further as we return back to our original point.  The reason Marcion was vilified by the Christians of the Commodian period is because he promote what was deemed (by the authorities) the wrong understanding of the divine monarchia.  Irenaeus by contrast was favored because he promoted the right understanding - the right belief - associated with this phenomenon.

It is coincidence it seems that like Alexander of Aphrodisias, Irenaeus basically took to task an entire religion - the Christian religion that existed before him - on the subject of 'right belief' regarding the monarchia.  I can't think of a single individual let alone a community whom Irenaeus identifies as having the 'right understanding.'  He simply expounds to his readership - as if it never existed before. Interestingly Irenaeus's orthodoxy reconciling three gods as one ruler is developed at least in part from Aristotelian mixture theory according to the H A Wolfson.  Indeed like Alexander of Aphrodisias, Irenaeus is referenced by the epithet - 'the exegete' (ὁ ἐξηγητής).

The truth is that I don't know why there are so many parallels in two different religions regarding - the monarchia, Aristotelian mixture theory and an Imperial campaign to enforce political orthodoxy in religion. All that we can be certain of is that there seems to be some underlying commonality.  Indeed a recently discovered Hebrew fragment of Nicholaus of Damascus (usually dated to the court of Herod the Great where he held a prominent position) might make matters even more complicated. All that we know for sure is that a man who was usually dated to the period before Christianity seemed to anticipate very Christian ideas regarding the Trinity.  The fragment reads:
And concerning them Nicholas in the name of Aristotle wrote that God is one in substance, three in definition, that is to say, one cannot think that those (principles), being one substance which is God — i.e. that with which He makes the world, and that with which He is its form, and that with which He is its aim — are separated from Him, even in thought, nor even when we consider that24 the world was void and absent, and after this has come to be ; (in fact), if so (i.e. if those principles depart from Him), He (= God) would be neither a god nor a First Cause.
This fragment is explained by its discoverer Mauro Zonta in the following terms:
If this is the case, Nicolaus produced a peculiarly Peripatetic version of this dogma : God is one, being a single substance, but He is also three, insofar as He is the efficient cause, formal cause, and final cause of the whole world. The fragment immediately follows a reference to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and this suggests that it was quoted from Nicolaus’ exposition of this book (a work of his which is quoted by a famous scholion in the ms. of Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, gr. 1853, f. 312r, possibly a section of the DPA itself). If so, it is likely that its original location in the book was framed within an account of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Lambda, ch. 6ss. (although it must be remembered that Nicolaus did not always keep the same order of contents as the one he found in Aristotle’s books5). As for Aristotle’s own theology, the question whether his God, the Prime Mover, is an efficient or final cause is a very controversial matter, and it is not surprising that Nicolaus wished to harmonize those views as he could find good reasons in favour of both. If he was a Christian, the idea that God as Creator is an efficient cause fits quite naturally in his exegesis of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, as the introduction of the fragment indicates, in particular if one compares book 12, chapters 6-7, of this work.6 Concerning God as formal cause, this idea is less immediately evident in Aristotle. However in at least one passage of Lambda, his Prime Mover is said to be substance without matter, essence only (Lambda 1074a35, cf. 1071a36) ; this will allow Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 200 AD) to regard it as pure, immaterial form, εἶδος ἄνευ ὕλης (cf. e.g. Alexander’s Quaestiones I.1, p. 4.7-16,7 I.25, p. 39.9s.).8 As for the connexion of these different kinds of causes to each other, Aristotle’s Physics II.7 states that in living beings the efficient cause is identical (at least, i.e., specifically identical) with the formal cause, and moreover that this is identical (both specifically and numerically) with the final cause. Thus the doctrine of the fragment, even if unusual, seems a plausible one for a Peripatetic scholar, and it warrants some historical and philosophical analysis for its peculiar harmonizing character. Nicolaus’ interpretation of Aristotle’s Prime Mover seems to have been combined with the fundamental Christian view about the second person of the Trinity. According to this view, the Christ is ὁ λόγος as found already in the first words of St. John’s Gospel (λόγος belongs to Aristotle’s standard terminology to indicate the formal cause, see Metaph. passim, e.g. 983a28). Can the final cause be understood as representing the Spirit ? Certainly the final cause might be identified as the soul, in accordance with Aristotle’s natural philosophy, and especially with his definition of soul as the final cause or perfection (ἐντελέχεια) of the living being in De Anima II. While the Holy Spirit is not identical with Aristotle’s soul, the idea of perfection is often connected to it by Church Fathers (e.g. John of Damascus9). Moreover, the concept of “final cause” can be regarded as an expression of God’s perfection in truth, knowledge, will and love as we will see in some later, namely Mediaeval sources for Christian theology.
The fact that Nicolaus's ideas anticipate Christian notions regarding the Trinity does not mean, however, that we should move up the dating for Nicolaus.  Instead I would argue that the Trinity is in fact a secondary phenomenon within Christianity.  It developed from the very same period - and under the very same Imperial pressure - as we see document in the fragment preserved by Abu'l Fath.

The gospel itself - at least in its original form - had to explicit reference to the Trinity.  We should instead imagine that the pre-existent Aristotelian notion of a tripartite division in the godhead was used to 'correct' heretical beliefs to the contrary.

(1) in point of fact I am really a 'non-existent' opinion' as I have never formally published anything on the subject.  But I have thought, written, blogged, considered the problem of Marcion for over 30 years.

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