The Development of the Canon of the New Testament
Marcion and the Marcionites (144 - 3rd century CE)
At the end of July, 144 CE, a hearing took place before the clergy of the Christian congregations in Rome. Marcion, the son of the bishop of Sinope (a sea-port of Pontus along the Black Sea) who had become a wealthy ship-owner, stood before the presbyters to expound his teachings in order to win others to his point of view. For some years he had been a member of one of the Roman churches, and had proved the sincerity of his faith by making relatively large contributions. No doubt he was a respected member of the Christian community.
But what he now expounded to the presbyters was so monstrous that they were utterly shocked! The hearing ended in a harsh rejection of Marcion's views; he was formally excommunicated and his largesse of money was returned. From this time forward Marcion went his own way, energetically propagating a strange kind of Christianity that quickly took root throughout large sections of the Roman Empire and by the end of the 2nd century had become a serious threat to the mainstream Christian Church. In each city of any importance the Marcionites set up their church to defy the Christian one. Although in definite decline in the West from the middle of the 3rd to the 4th centuries, the movement proved more durable in the East, where, after remarkably overcoming the 3rd-century Roman persecutions of the emperors Valerian and Diocletian, it continued to flourish until as late as the 10th century, especially in Syrian culture. A Catholic Encyclopedia article is online at Marcionites.
Marcion wrote only a single work, Antitheses (Contradictions), in which he set forth his ideas. Since it has not been preserved, we must be content with deducing its contents from notices contained in the writings of opponents -- particularly in Tertullian's 5 volumes written against Marcion - Adversus Marcionem. An English translation is available at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. The main points of Marcion's teaching were the rejection of the Old Testament and a distinction between the Supreme God of goodness and an inferior God of justice, who was the Creator and God of the Jews. He regarded Christ as the messenger of the Supreme God.
The Old and New Testaments, Marcion argued, cannot be reconciled to each other. The code of conduct advocated by Moses was 'an eye for an eye', but Christ set this precept aside. Elisha had had children eaten by bears; Christ said, 'Let the little children come to me'. Joshua had stopped the sun in its path in order to continue the slaughter of his enemies; Paul quoted Christ as commanding, 'Let not the sun go down on your wrath'. In the Old Testament divorce was permitted and so was polygamy; but in the New Testament neither is allowed. Moses enforced the Jewish Sabbath and Law; Christ has freed believers from both.
Even within the Old Testament, Marcion found contradictions. God commanded that no work should be done on the Sabbath, yet he told the Israelites to carry the ark around Jericho 7 times on the Sabbath. No graven image was to be made, yet Moses was directed to fashion a bronze serpent. The deity revealed in the Old Testament could not have been omniscient, otherwise he would not have asked, 'Adam where are you?' (Genesis 3:9).
Marcion, therefore, rejected the entire Old Testament. He accepted the following Christian writings in this order:
but only after pruning and editorial adjustment. In his opinion the 12 apostles misunderstood the teaching of Christ, and, holding him to be the Messiah of the Jewish God, falsified his words from that standpoint. Passages that Marcion could regard only as Judaizing interpolations, that had been smuggled into the text by biased editors, had to be removed so the authentic text of Gospel and Apostle could once again be available. After these changes, the Gospel according to Luke became the Evangelicon, and the 10 Pauline letters, the Apostolikon.
Marcion rejected the following Christian writings:
For a summary of Marcion's opinions see the Cross Reference Table.
Marcion's canon accelerated the process of fixing the Church's canon, which had already begun in the first half of the 2nd century. It was in opposition to Marcion's criticism that the Church first became fully conscious of its inheritance of apostolic writings. According to [Grant] (p. 126): "Marcion forced more orthodox Christians to examine their own presuppositions and to state more clearly what they already believed".
Marcion and the Gospel according to Luke
Marcion believed there was one true gospel which had been corrupted into many versions. He explained the corruption on the basis of Galatians in which Paul emphasizes that there is only one gospel (1:8-10) and states that false brethren are attempting to turn believers from this gospel (1:6-7).
Of the Gospels that were current among the churches, the only one that Marcion felt he could trust was the Gospel according to Luke. We cannot say with certainty why he had confidence in this Gospel, but perhaps the reason was that he regarded the author, Luke, as a disciple of Paul and believed him to be more faithful to tradition than the other evangelists. In any case, this was for Marcion the Gospel, without identification of its human author -- a deficiency for which Tertullian (Adv. Marc. 4.2) castigates Marcion.
Passages that Marcion could regard only as Judaizing interpolations, that had been smuggled into the text by biased editors, had to be removed so the authentic text of Gospel, which he called the Evangelicon, could once again be available. With thorough-going heedlessness of the consequences, Marcion undertook to expunge everything from the text of Luke which echoed or otherwise implied a point of contact with the Old Testament. Since Jesus, according to Marcion, had only the appearance of being human, he could not have been born of a woman. Therefore Marcion omitted most of the first 4 chapters of Luke. In the last chapters the omissions are rather more numerous than the first; the resurrection of Jesus is passed over in silence. More examples may be found in [Evans] (pp. 643-6).
Marcion and Galatians
Marcion deemed Galatians the most important of Paul's epistles. He explained the corruption of the true gospel on the basis of Galatians in which Paul states that false brethren are attempting to turn believers from the gospel:
I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel; which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-7)
and emphasizes that there is only one Gospel:
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8-10)
But Marcion removed whatever he judged were interpolations - that is, anything that did not agree with his understanding of what Paul should have written. For example, Galatians 3:16-4:6 was deleted because of its reference to Abraham and its descendants. More examples may be found in [Evans] (pp. 643-6).
Marcion placed Galatians first in his canon of epistles - the Apostolikon.
Marcion and the Pauline Epistles
Marcion was convinced that among the early apostolic leaders only Paul understood the significance of Jesus Christ as the messenger of the Supreme God. He accepted as authoritative these 10 Epistles:
which he called the Apostolikon. These became for him the source, the guarantee, and the norm of true doctrine.
But Marcion removed whatever he judged were interpolations - that is, anything that did not agree with his understanding of what Paul should have written. Examples may be found in [Evans] (pp. 643-6).
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