Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Marcionite Use of the Acta Pilati


The Marcionite Use of the Acta Pilati

By Stephan Huller


Tucked away in the opening book of the Latin text of Tertullian’s Against Marcion is a seemingly explicit dating of arrival of Marcionism into the world:

Anno xv Tiberii Christus Iesus de caelo manare dignatus est, spiritus salutaris. Marcionis salutis, qui ita voluit, quoto quidem anno Antonini maioris de Ponto suo exhalaverit aura canicularis non curavi investigare. De quo tamen constat, Antoninianus haereticus est, sub Pio impius. A Tiberio autem usque ad Antoninum anni fere cxv et dimidium anni cum dimidio mensis. Tantundem temporis ponunt inter Christum et Marcionem. Cum igitur sub Antonino primus Marcion hunc deum induxerit, sicut probavimus, statim, qui sapis, plana res est. Praeiudicant tempora quod sub Antonino primum processit sub Tiberio non processisse, id est deum Antoniniani imperii Tiberiani non fuisse, atque ita non a Christo revelatum quem constat a Marcione primum praedicatum.

Most commentators have taken the straightforward approach of simply starting with Luke 3:1’s “fifteenth year of Tiberius” and added 115 ½ years and ½ months to come up with an approximate dating of 144 CE for the arrival of Marcion in Rome. Harnack came to this conclusion. Roland Herbert Bainton paid special interest to the reference to “aura canicularis” and assumed Tertullian was connecting Marcion’s appearance with the rising of the Sirius. The rising of the Nile coincided with the ascendence of Sirius on July 17 – 19 for most of Egyptian history.  As Bainton notes [i]f then we add 115 years to 29 A.D. we get the year 144 A.D. for Marcion [a]nd if from the end of July, 144 A.D., we subtract 115 years, six months and a half, we are thrown back to the first week of January A.D. 29 … What can that be but Epiphany on January 6th?”

But it is worth pointing out a few problems with Bainton’s further analysis. The Marcionites were not Adoptionists as he claims.[1]  There is repeated reference in Tertullian that the baptism of Jesus by John was never referenced – viz. the Marcionite gospel lacking a reference to John the Baptist witnessing the descent of Jesus (4.7) and the off-handed remark that John only appears ‘suddenly’ deep into the gospel narrative (4.11).[2]  Lohr has noted another objection. After mentioning Jesus’s descent from heaven:

Tertullian continues by emphasizing that he does not bother to fix precisely the date of Marcion's first appearance on the scene … The following statement (A Tiberio autem usque ad Antoninum anni fere cxv et dimidium anni cum dimidio mensis) is clearly meant to determine the length of time that has elapsed between the reign of Tiberius and the reign of Antoninus Pius. But if that is correct the calculation is wrong or at least very imprecise. If we consider the year of the accession of each emperor, the period would run from 14 CE to 138 CE and the length of time would have to be calculated as (roughly) 125 instead of 115 years.

If I am allowed to simplify the problem even further – Tertullian’s reference to ‘what the Marcionites say’ doesn’t make sense because the apparent terminus ad quem is 29 CE and the terminus post quem is 138 CE which does not lead to a 115 ½ year ½ month period.

Yet there is a solution which has evaded all previous discussions of the material. It is worth noting that at least one ancient source further fixes the beginning of Antoninus reign to 1 Thoth or July 20, 137 CE – the Almagest Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) of Alexandria – itself a very authoritative ancient source.[3] In other words, it seems highly probable that the Marcionites fixed their appearance in world history to the start of the reign of Antoninus itself fixed to the start of the Egyptian New Year. All things related to the terminus post quem of the 115 ½ year ½ month period in Against Marcion 1.19 now seems firmly established. How then do we explain the apparent incomprehensible Marcionite interest in the 5th of January 22 CE, the eighth year of Tiberius, as the terminus ad quem of the period which corresponds with Tertullian’s statements that “this length of time do they [the Marcionites] posit between Christ and Marcion” and his conclusion based on the evidence that “the god of Antoninus' reign was not the god of the reign of Tiberius, and therefore he who it is admitted was first reported to exist by Marcion, had not been revealed by Christ”?  The answer is to be found in the Acta Pilati.

Let’s start with another fact which is often ignored in the discussion of this material. While Tertullian fixes the descent of Jesus from heaven in Against Marcion 1.19 to Luke’s dating of the 15th year of Tiberius as he does again in Book Four, it is worth noting that earlier in the same book he gives the dating of the 12th year of Tiberius.[4] The change from xii to xv is difficult to explain as a copyist error. It seems to be more likely that xv was imposed upon an earlier dating for the year of Tiberius.[5]  Indeed while generations of commentators have faithfully assumed that the claim that Marcion falsified Luke to make his own gospel is at the core of the material, it has long been noted that the commentary in Book Four cannot be explained with this assumption. Buried in the deepest layers of Against Marcion is a clear understanding that the original author claimed that Marcion falsified material from Matthew and the Lukan comparison was developed only in the most recent reshaping of the original material.

It is difficult to argue against employing this kind of ‘source criticism’ to the material in Against Marcion as Tertullian himself explicitly acknowledges no less than four rewrites in his opening lines of Book One.[6]  He says that the current Latin edition represents a ‘re-tracted’[7] re-formation of an unpublished treatise containing ‘incorrect ideas’ about the monarchy of God that was lost, stolen, published without his permission, and then subsequently corrected by himself.[8]  To this end, the change from anno xii to anno xv in Against Marcion 1.15 stands alongside other anomalies in the tome which suggest a deliberate falsification of original material associated with Justin Martyr to reflect the kind of treatise Irenaeus promises his readers in the middle of Book Three of Against Heresies including frequent – and ultimately puzzling - accusations of Marcion removing Matthew 5.17 as an interpolation, ‘expunging’ Matthew 15:24 – 26, explaining Jesus’s teachings on divorce from Matthew rather than Luke etc.[9]

This is not the place to argue for Irenaeus as the original forger of the Greek prototype for Against Marcion.[10] This will be developed in a subsequent monograph. It is enough to note with F Stanley Jones that an entire “branch of scholarship” starting with Harnack “believes Tertullian employed [Justin’s Syntagma] Justin in his own Adversus Marcionem.”[11] The principal advocate for this position in modern times is Enrico Norelli and the argument develops from the recognition that large portions of Book Three derive from the Dialogue of Trypho and the aforementioned anomalous material from Book Four with its assumptions of Marcion falsifying a gospel harmony. For our immediate purposes the argument that Justin was being recycled throughout will help explain not only the shift from anno xv to anno xii but ultimately anno vii. For we shall argue that not only Justin but other Christians also employed the Acta Pilati as a means of discussing the basic details of Christianity without divulging – overtly at least – the contents of their private and in some cases secret gospel.

That Justin employed an ‘Acts of Pilate’ is well known. That an 'Acts of Pilate' gave anno vii as the year of Jesus’s crucifixion under Tiberius is attested by Eusebius. This work has been determined to have influenced Josephus’s placement of Jesus in his chronology. Yet our present study will argue that its influence went far beyond one Jewish historian and Justin. The Marcionites necessarily employed the Acta Pilati to arrive at their understanding of a 115 ½ year ½ month period between the public preaching of Christ and the public preaching of Marcion at the start of the Antonine period.  For a careful examination of the context of Against Marcion 1.19 acknowledges that this is what is under discussion in the section. The argument can be summarized as Marcion’s public testimony of July 20, 137 regarding an antithesis or antitheses between two gods and their two testaments was not the one originally preached by Jesus and publicly witnessed in 22 CE. How do we make this accord with our presumption of a Marcionite use of the Acta Pilati?

Justin in his Dialogue twice references the account of the crucifixion from the Acta Pilati rather than the gospel narrative. Why would Justin prefer the one to the other?  Quite clearly for his audience, the testimony of a procurator of Judea would hold more weight than that any ‘memoirs of the apostles.’ Yet it is also worth noting that the Acta Pilati claims to be a public testimony.  Not only did the Acts reference the crucifixion but interestingly Pilate’s voyage to Rome and his address to the Senate as Tertullian notes:

Accordingly Tiberius, in whose time the Christian name first made its appearance in the world, laid before the senate tidings from Syria Palaestina which had revealed to him the truth of the divinity there manifested, and supported the motion by his own vote to begin with. The senate rejected it because it had not itself given its approval. Caesar held to his own opinion and threatened danger to the accusers of the Christians. 

No one can be certain how long the Acts said it took for Pilate to travel from Jerusalem to Rome but it is likely that it took at least as long as the approximate nine months we require to make Pilate’s testimony in Rome the beginning of the 115 ½ year ½ month period before January 20, 137 CE, that is January 5, 22 CE.

While the Acta Pilati used by the earliest Christians has disappeared there is a Latin document, Cura sanitatis Tiberii, which survives from the fifth or seventh centuries, which seems to preserve many of the details referenced by Tertullian. The Cura sanitatis Tiberii was later developed into the better known Vindicta Salvatoris and is the earliest preserved written text of the legend of Veronica’s veil.  In this document a period of ‘nine months’ is specified:

Nine months later Caesar Tiberius went to senate, and they agreed with one consent, that Jesus is to be worshipped as God, and there should be established images of the true God, and the emperor, and the significance of the city is to be celebrated. Even many of the members of the senate received Christ, including many of the most noble senate members, through the effect they had seen with Caesar Tiberius.

The document undoubtedly preserves what must be considered a corrupt version of the original Acta Pilati. Nevertheless, we get a glimpse of what amounts to being an outline for how the earliest Christians might have used the Acta Pilati in a manner that was later eclipsed by the Acts of the Apostles, a document the Marcionites rejected as spurious.

If this theory holds up the Acts of the Apostles was developed as a replacement for the Acta Pilati in the Marcionite canon in the same way the Gospel of Luke and its anno xv was developed to replace their gospel.  The very idea that the deeds of a group of followers of Jesus were originally preserved in a text called ‘Acts’ seems secondary to the proposed Marcionite understanding of an Acta Pilati. Acta were the “public acts or orders of a magistrate.”  At the end of his term:

his acta were submitted to the Senate for approval or rejection. After the death of Julius Caesar the triumvirs swore, and compelled all other magistrates to swear, to  maintain all his acta. Each new Emperor swore  to respect the acta of his predecessor, unless the  latter had been branded with infamy after death. On January 1st each magistrate, on taking office, swore to maintain the acta of the reigning Emperor … The various acta were much used by the Roman historians.

As such we must imagine that the Marcionite canon likely had a gospel which preserved details of the events in the ministry of Jesus beginning January 5, 21 CE down through his crucifixion March 25, 21 CE and the Acta Pilati a report of the Roman procurator delivered before the Senate at the beginning of January 22 CE. The totality of events described from one January to the other represent the yearlong ministry of Jesus commonly referenced in early Christian documents as ‘the year of favor.’ (Is 61.2)[12]

The Cura sanitatis Tiberii begins with an assumption that Tiberius has fallen ill and needs Jesus to save him. He sends an emissary named Volusianus to Jerusalem where he attempts to track down the god who can save Tiberius. Interestingly a Christian named ‘Marcius’ emerges from the tradition to direct him to Veronica the lady with the image of Christ:

After this Volusianus began powerfully desire that that they have to examine, if there is anyone capable to know how to proceed, there came certain man, named Marcius, knowing a woman who stays in secret. He said to Volusianus, "almost three years ago a woman was healed from her blood illness. She, our sister, has received the shroud of his body and she does know Jesus". Then Volusianus said to that young man, "can you tell me the name of that woman?" He said, "She is called Veronica, dwelling in Tyre"

That Μάρκιος is related to Μαρκίων is demonstrated in Plutarch’s biography of the early Roman general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus where he speaks of the clan of Marcius as ὁ Μαρκίων οἶκος.  Heresies are consistently referenced in the genitive form (Φαρισαίων, Σαδδουκαίων, Ἡμεροβαπτιστῶν, Ὀσσαίων, Νασαραίων, Ἡρῳδιανῶν etc).

Interestingly Lipsius, in order to reconcile the original statement regarding the 115 ½ year ½ month temporis ponunt inter Christum et Marcionem took Marcionem to be a third person plural, referring not to the temporal distance between Christ and ‘Marcion’ but Christ and the ‘Marcionites.’  He understands quite specifically understands the end date as the beginning of the Marcionite teaching in Rome (die Wirksamkeit des meisters eher von der Eroffnung seines διδασκαλείον in Rom).[13] In any event, one should imagine an Acta Pilati tradition that develops from a Marcionite exemplar which might have portrayed Μάρκιος as an active participant in the period immediately after the ministry of Jesus, and described the things which belonged to him as Μαρκίων.[14] While the later orthodox traditions avoid having Pilate being summoned to Rome and ‘confessing’ the report regarding Jesus before the senate, there seems to be a likelihood this was present in the Marcionite original. The preservation of Pilate as a saint in the oldest Egyptian traditions preserved in the Ethiopian Coptic Church likely hearken back to a Marcionite original.

What we can say for certain is that Tertullian’s reporting about the contents of the Acta Pilati are echoed in Gregory of Tours’s Decem libri historiarum 1.21.  While referencing it’s account of Joseph of Arimathea’s incarceration and deliverance from prison he gives as its source “Gesta Pilati ad Tiberium imperatorem missa.” Similarly the Vindicta Salvatoris while echoing many of the details of Cura sanitatis Tiberii departs from the earlier Latin text in preserving features of the original Acta Pilati including Pilate’s ‘confession’ before the Senate.  Judean reports from the aforementioned Volusius are read by Tiberius

With not a few standing by, all were astounded, because through the wickedness of Pilate the darkness and the earthquake had come over the whole world. And the Cæsar, filled with rage, sent soldiers, and ordered them to bring Pilate a prisoner.

And when he was brought to the city of the Romans, the Cæsar, hearing that Pilate had arrived, sat in the temple of the gods, in the presence of all the senate, and with all the army, and all the multitude of his power; and he ordered Pilate to stand forward. And the Cæsar says to him: Why have you, O most impious, dared to do such things, having seen so great miracles in that man? By daring to do an evil deed, you have destroyed the whole world.

Again, Lipsius’s arguments regarding the Antonine date being the public preaching of Marcionism in Rome dovetail quite perfectly with an assumption regarding the public confession of Pilate before the Roman Senate as the start date of the 115 ½ year ½ month period.

It should be noted that even though we cannot directly reference a second century confession of Pilate before the Senate in Rome, it can be easily pieced together from the available evidence by indirect means. In particular the consistent reference or comparison of the Marcionite terminus ad quem to the account of Romulus in the legendary Roman general Proculus Julius. If we return to the previously cited reference to the Acta Pilati in Tertullian we should pay careful attention to the Latin of the text “Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world [cuius tempore nomen Christianum in saeculum introivit] laid before the senate tidings from Syria Palaestina which had revealed to him the truth of the divinity ” The specific reference to the ‘name of Christ invading the world’ has strong echoes of the opening lines of Tertullian’s commentary on the Marcionite gospel in Book Four of Against Marcion where we shall note a lengthy discussion of Proculus Julius’s appearance in the same senate to report on his vision of the first king of Rome, Romulus.[15]

According to the traditional understanding, Jesus was born in the reign of the Emperor Augustus to Mary. The Marcionites however denied that Jesus was ever born of a woman and was instead identified with a ‘name’ reported by the gospel to have floated down from heaven.  The reference is repeated throughout Against Marcion and they are well known to those who study Marcion. However the same cannot be said for the related comparison of this descent with that of Proculus Julius’s Romulus. It has until now been ignored. The section we have just been examining, Against Marcion 1.19, questions the authority of Marcionite teaching regarding a ‘second god’ at the start of the reign of Antoninus. But it does so by placing Marcion in a continuum of ancient precursors who invented gods dating back to Romulus. At the start of Book 2 Tertullian says that the true god, the Creator “has been known of since the beginning, has never kept himself hidden, has always been a shining light, even before Romulus, and long before Tiberius.”

The reason why Romulus keeps getting invoked at every juncture in Against Marcion has never been explained. It will be argued here that it goes back to Pilate’s address to the Senate in the Acta Pilati. In Book Four and elsewhere it is explicitly compared with Proculus Julus’s vision of Romulus.  We read:

Marcion premises that in anno xv of the principate of Tiberius he came down into Capernaum, a city of Galilee—from the Creator's heaven, of course, into which he had first come down out of his own [world] … Who saw him coming down?  Who reported it? And who gave assurance of a fact not easily credible even to him who gives assurance. It is quite wrong in fact, that Romulus should have had Proculus to vouch for his ascent into heaven yet that Christ should not have provided himself with a reporter of his god's descent from heaven—though that one must have gone up by the same ladder of lies by which this one came down.

To generations of commentators the reason Tertullian mentions anno xv of Tiberius is owing to Marcion using a corrupt copy of Luke which retained the original Lukan dating. Yet we have put forward an alternative understanding that the original reading was anno vii and derives from an association with the Acta Pilati an in particular the recognition that the first public pronouncement of the gospel was made by Pilate in the Roman Senate in January 5, 22 CE.

The present text certainly goes on to make the case that the gospel reference to John the Baptist seeing Christ descend from heaven at Jesus’s baptism was removed from Marcion’s gospel.  Whether or not the baptism of Jesus was actually removed from the Marcionite gospel has been the subject of some debate for generations. All that we know for certain is that Tertullian brings up Proculus’s account of the vision of Romulus to dispute the Marcionite claim that Jesus descended from heaven as a ‘name’ or spiritual being. The question that remains before us is whether Tertullian is only referencing Proculus’s report to the Roman senate at the beginning of his account of the Marcionite gospel, because John the Baptist has been removed from the gospel, or, as I would have it, because in the original edition of Against Marcion the Marcionite reliance on Pilate’s confession before the senate which was the subject of the vitriol.

It seems rather coincidental that in Chapter 22 of the Apology Jesus’s ascent to heaven, Pilate’s appeal before the senate and Proculus’s earlier report to the senate regarding Romulus’s ascent to heaven in a whirlwind appear. We read:

Thereafter, having given them commission to preach the gospel through the world, He was encompassed with a cloud and taken up to heaven, - a fact more certain far than the assertions of your Proculi concerning Romulus. All these things Pilate did to Christ; and now in fact a Christian in his own convictions, he sent word of Him to the reigning Caesar, who was at the time Tiberius. Yes, and the Caesars too would have believed on Christ, if either the Caesars had not been necessary for the world, or if Christians could have been Caesars

What is hinted at in Against Marcion is made explicit in the Apology – namely that in anno vii of Tiberius Jesus both descended and ascended in a cloud to heaven like Romulus in the narrative of Proculus.  Whether or not the Marcionite gospel referenced Jesus’s baptism by John, the change from anno vii to anno xv – or the Greek equivalents - was clearly part of an effort to obscure the Marcionite reliance on the Acta Pilati.

One further point should also be brought forward regarding the Marcion/Romulus comparison. Livy preserves for us the context of Proculus’s account of the king of Rome an audience with the Roman Senate:

For Proculus Julius, whilst the state was still troubled with regret for the king, and felt incensed against the senators, a person of weight, as we are told, in any matter however important, comes forward to the assembly, “Romans,” he says, “Romulus, the father of this city, suddenly descending from heaven, appeared to me this day at day-break. While I stood covered with awe, and filled with a religious dread, beseeching him to allow me to see him face to face, he said, Go tell the Romans, that the gods so will, that my Rome should become the capitol of the world. Therefore let them cultivate the art of war, and let them know and hand down to posterity, that no human power shall be able to withstand the Roman arms. Having said this, he ascended up to heaven.”

If it were not for the explicit connection between Proculus and the Acta Pilati in the Apology we might be misled into thinking that the reference was limited to mock seriousness. Yet a careful reading of Proculus emphasizes certain features of the surviving Acta Pilati which support the Marcionite understanding.

Proculus stood in the halls of the government declaring what he saw in his visionary state. Many centuries later the Acta Pilati preserved an account of a Roman procurator standing in the same Senate giving an account of what took place in Judea when humanity was visited by a previously unknown god.  There are striking parallels between the two accounts. But what is especially important for our understanding is that the Marcionites placed 115 ½ years and ½ month between this event and something similar during the Antonine period. They argued that the same doctrine announced by Pilate to the senate in the first century was publicly preached in Rome by the followers of a certain Marcius or Marcion. Tertullian however vehemently disagreed. Yet the argument which he originally made no longer survives and what survives against the Marcionites is so distorted that it is difficult to disentangle how the orthodox and heretical traditions actually contrasted with one another especially on the question of Pilate announcing the gospel to the Roman senate.   









[9] Marcion “curtailing the Gospel according to Luke and the Epistles of Paul, assert[ing] that these are alone authentic, which they have themselves thus shortened. In another work, however, I shall, God granting, refute them out of these which they still retain.”

[10] However we choose to interpret this bizarre opening ‘confession,’ there are strong indications of the Latin text representing a recycling of second century Greek apologetic material.[10]  This process is attested in Against the Valentinians which is a repurposing of Valentinian material from Against Heresies, Against the Jews which derives its origins from Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho among other texts. Yet more significantly the process of reshaping original material is clearly present within the body of Against Marcion itself as Book Three consistent takes material directed against Jews in Against the Jews and repurposes it against Marcion and Marcionites.

The idea then that Book One’s ‘anno xv’ represented a correction of an original ‘anno xii’ is at least a possibility if not a strong one. The idea that ‘anno xii’ went back to ‘anno vii’ finds immediate support in the frequency of references to the Acts of Pilate in Tertullian. The origin of these references is clearly Justin Martyr and his frequent repurposing of material associated with the second century apologist.[10] 

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