How a rich ship owner affected Christianity 10

From time to time, for the entertainment of our atheist readers, and also (being lovers of argument) to stimulate the indignation of any believers who may visit our website, we provide notes on a religion.

The following is about Marcion and his doctrine.

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There was a time when the followers of Marcion were as numerous as those of the Pauline Christian church, and the importance of his movement is that it had an impact on the direction in which Catholic Christianity was to develop.

Marcion, son of the bishop of Sinope, a Black Sea port in Asia Minor  (modern Anatolia, Turkey), was a very rich owner of ships, a shipping magnate – the Aristotle Onassis, one might say, of his time.

He established himself as a religious leader and theologian circa 142 C.E. in Rome, which remained the centre of eventually widespread Marcosian Christianity, though he himself returned to Asia Minor where he died. Tradition has it that he started off as a Pauline Christian, but then found himself drawn by the Gnostic teachings of Cerdon, one of the many teachers who followed and diverged from Simonian Gnosticism (the teaching of Simon Magus). Cerdon preached – in Rome and elsewhere in the Empire – that the God of the Jews was not the Father of Jesus Christ. But he did not, as many other Gnostics did, anathematise the Jewish God or replace him with an evil Demiurge. While he did not hold Jehovah to be good, he did not go so far as to say that he was evil; the trouble with him was that he was merely just, and Justice was not good enough, being hard and often harsh. He was the Creator of this world, and did not know that far above him was the True Father, unknown and unknowable except by the spark of the Gnosis (the Knowledge) deep within individual souls. Only the True Father was good.

Marcion became convinced that Cerdon was right in the belief that the supreme unknown God was separate and distinct from the ‘known’ Creator and Legislator who was ‘just but not good’. Marcion named this lesser God, the God of the Jews, ‘the Cosmocrator’.

In Marcion’s system there are three planes of the universe: The highest plane or third heaven, home of the Unknown God, who could only be known to mankind after the revelations of Pauline Christianity. This is a point particularly worth noticing as very rarely has St Paul’s teaching been connected with a remote Unknown God, though he did claim that he ‘knew a man in Christ’ who was  ‘caught up to the third heaven’ (II Corinthians 12.2).

Next down was the plane of the Cosmocrator, God of Genesis and the Law, whose ‘visage is like the Devil’s’ – distorted, as it were, by an insatiable appetite for justice.

The lowest plane contains the Earth and its visible heaven, where dwells the (female) Power of Matter – in Greek, Hyle.

In Marcion’s cosmogony, the Cosmocrator creates the World along the lines told in the Book of Genesis, except that he does it in partnership with Hyle. It is she who, when he has fabricated Adam out of dust, breathes a living spirit into him. God, in fear that Adam might worship Hyle, forbids his creature to worship any other gods but himself on pain of death. But Hyle distracts Adam by multiplying gods innumerably about him, and as he cannot recognize which one of them is his Master whom he dare not fail to worship as commanded, has no choice but to worship them all. By this device, Hyle leads Man astray from obedience to the Cosmocrator, and draws him instead to herself. The Cosmocrator, angered by the defection of humankind, punitively thrusts the souls of all men into Hell – indiscriminately, in contradiction to his just character – as soon as their earthly lives come to an end, condemning them to remain there for 29 ages. But the good unknown God, the remote Stranger, sends down his Son, the Christ, to ‘take on the likeness of death’ (ie seem to die as Jesus) in order to descend into Hell, rescue all the souls of men – also indiscriminately – and take them up to the third heaven.

It was because his way to Hell lay downwards through this world, this life, that Christ came to earth. While he sojourned here, he did good. As the Good Stranger’s representative he was instructed to ‘heal lepers, raise the newly dead, and open the eyes of the blind, so that the Lord of Creatures will see thee and bring thee to a Cross. Then, at thy death, descend to Hell and bring them hence.’

When the Cosmocrator, the ‘Lord of Creatures’, realised that this was what was happening at the crucifixion, his wrath was great. ‘He tore his garment, rent in twain the veil of the Temple, and covered the sun with darkness.’ But he was helpless to intervene, and Christ emptied Hell.

Christ descended a second time, and appeared in his divine form before the Cosmocrator, and charged him with the shedding of innocent blood, the blood of Jesus. He demanded justice from him ‘for the death I suffered’. Only then did the Lord of Creatures realise the divinity of Jesus and that there was another God above himself who had sent his Son to redeem mankind. When he had fully comprehended this revelation, he supplicated Christ, confessed that he had sinned, but pleaded that he had killed him in the person of Jesus unwittingly, ‘not knowing he was a god’. Wanting to make recompense, he bid Christ ‘take all where thou wilt, until all believe in thee.’ Then Christ decreed that all who believe in him would be saved. To Paul he revealed the conditions and price (ie the blood of Jesus Christ) for mankind’s salvation, and Christ himself sent Paul to preach the redemption. So, Marcion taught, ‘the Good has purchased us with a purchase price from the God of Creatures.’ Therefore the God of Creatures, who was the God of the Law, should no longer be worshipped, his laws no longer obeyed, and the books of his Law, which had been given to his chosen people the Jews, no longer held holy.

There has been much debate as to whether Marcion should be classed as a Gnostic. The only significant difference between his teaching and that of Pauline Christianity, it has been argued by those who disregard or deny the influence of Cerdon, is that Marcion rejected the Law of Moses and the Jewish scriptures in their entirety, whereas the ‘Pauline Church’, against the wishes of Paul himself, adopted the Jewish Bible into its canon as the pre-history of Christianity, and held that the moral law it enshrined remained valid, even though the Jewish faith had been superseded – or ‘fulfilled’ – by the new revelation, only its ritual requirements being no longer in force. As it was the putative author of the Epistles himself who first proclaimed the message that the Law was abolished by the sacrifice of ‘Christ Jesus’, that the Christ had always existed since the beginning and had come to earth to save mankind; and as he sometimes used the same vocabulary, and sounded the same notes of rejection and hope that is found in the Gnostic creeds, it might be nearer the truth to class Paul as a Gnostic, rather than insist that Marcion was not.

It is not implausible to suppose that the Christian Church, beginning with Paul’s innovative ideas, was one among many emerging Gnostic creeds. That it had shed almost every discernible thread of Gnostic theogony, with its layers of heavens full of mystic Powers, by the time it came to assemble its canon for a New Testament towards the end of the 2nd century, was at least partly due to the failed efforts of Marcion to establish a purer Pauline church, according to his interpretation of the message of Paul.

Some distinctly Gnostic passages remain in the Christian canon, such as this from the Epistle to the Ephesians (6:12):

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

But the Church-approved New Testament revised, diluted,  contradicted, reinterpreted, and to a large extent transformed the Paulinism which Marcion knew and loved, until such exciting and beautiful passages of Gnostic poetry that lie like nuggets of gold in the leaden texts have lost the meaning they once had.

The Catholic Church, carefully developing internal order by means of a structured hierarchical system, made the decision to retain the Jewish scriptures and reaffirm the commandments engraved in the stones of Sinai precisely because its leaders could see in the rival church of Marcion what happened to a new religion if its adherents clung to antinomianism and depended on inspiration alone for continuance. The Marcionite church steadfastly refused to take on a structure, so it could not last. As the centuries of our common era wore on, it gradually dissolved before the eyes and – to the relief of the Catholic Church – lost itself in the opacity of an esoteric mythology, and slowly faded away. In the West it lasted for some three hundred years, longer in the Byzantine empire.

Before it disappeared, it taught the Church a lesson, by means of which it contributed to the history of Catholicism and all the faiths that sprang from it in heresy or rebellion or reformation in later ages. What happened was that Marcion put together a New Testament (Apostolicon). The Church Fathers did not approve of all his choices, but realised that a body of scripture was vitally necessary to the validation and spread of doctrine, and could be as important to the survival of the Church as a constitution. Marcion’s New Testament was not sufficient in itself to keep Marcosianism alive, but Christianity, however well organized and established and governed, found it could not do without the written word. Of course it might very well have come to the same conclusion had Marcion not given it the idea, but it was in reaction to Marcion’s compilation of Christian scriptures that the Church decided to do the same thing. The Church compiled a New Testament after Marcion had done so. There are similarities and differences between the two sets of gospels. What Marcion started the Church built on, and the eventual result was the much redacted New Testament that the ages have inherited.

Jillian Becker  January 2, 2010

Posted under Articles, Christianity, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Saturday, January 2, 2010

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