Marcion, a noted and permanently influential heretic of the 2nd cent. Life.—Justin Martyr mentions Simon and Menander as having been instigated by demons to introduce heresy into the church, and goes on to speak of Marcion as still living, evidently regarding him as the most formidable heretic of the day. He states that he was a native of Pontus who had made many disciples out of every nation, and refers for a more detailed refutation to a separate treatise of his own, one sentence of which has been preserved by Irenaeus. This work seems to have been extant in the time of Photius. Irenaeus also states that Marcion came from Pontus. He adds that thence he came to Rome, where he became an adherent, and afterwards the successor, of Cerdo, a Syrian teacher who, though he made public confession and was reconciled, privately continued teaching heretical doctrine, was betrayed by some of his hearers, and again separated.
Irenaeus places the coming of Cerdo to Rome in the episcopate of Hyginus, which lasted four years, ending, according, to Lipsius, 139, 140, or 141. Irenaeus places the activity of Marcion at Rome under Anicetus , whose episcopate of 12 years began in 154. He says that Marcion meeting Polycarp at Rome (probably 154 or 155) claimed recognition, on which Polycarp answered, “I recognize thee as the firstborn of Satan.” Irenaeus contemplated a separate treatise against Marcion. There is no direct evidence of his having carried out this design, but as its proposed method is stated to have been the confutation of Marcion by means of his own gospel, and as this is precisely the method followed by Tertullian, who is elsewhere largely indebted to Irenaeus, the work of Irenaeus may have been then written and known to Tertullian. It has been stated under HIPPOLYTUS how the contents of the lost Syntagma of Hippolytus are inferred. It appears to have named Sinope as Marcion’s native city, of which his father was bishop; and to have stated that he was obliged to leave home because he seduced a virgin and was excommunicated by his father .
Epiphanius tells, apparently on the same authority, that Marcion, his frequent entreaties for absolution having failed, went to Rome, where he arrived after the death of Hyginus, that he begged restoration from the presbyters there, but they declared themselves unable to act contrary to the decision of his venerated father. The mention of presbyters as then the ruling power in the church of Rome, and their professed inability to reverse the decision of a provincial bishop, indicate a date earlier than that of Epiphanius; but Epiphanius further states that Marcion’s quarrel with the presbyters was not only because they did not restore him to church communion, but also because they did not make him bishop.
This has been generally understood to mean bp. of Rome, and possibly Epiphanius intended this, but he does not say so. It is absurd that an excommunicated foreigner should dream of being made bishop of a church from which he was asking in vain for absolution. Epiphanius must have misunderstood some expression he found in his authority, or Marcion must have been already a bishop (possibly one of his father’s suffragans), been deposed, and was seeking at Rome both restoration to communion and recognition of his episcopal dignity. Optatus alone directly countenances the latter view, speaking of Marcion as “ex episcopo factus apostata.” But there is indirect confirmation in the fact which we learn from Adamantius that Marcion was afterwards recognized as bishop by his own followers and was the head of a succession of Marcionite bishops continuing down to the writer’s own day. The Marcionites appear to have had no difference with the orthodox as to the forms of church organization.
We may conclude that episcopacy was the settled constitution of the church before the time of the Marcionite schism, else Marcion would not have adopted it in his new sect, and it seems more likely that Marcion had been consecrated to the office before the schism than that he obtained consecration afterwards, or by his own authority took the office to himself and appointed others to it, a thing unexampled in the church, of which we should surely have heard if Marcion had done it.
Many critics have believed that the statement as to the cause of Marcion’s excommunication arose from the misunderstanding of a common figurative expression, and that it meant that Marcion by heresy had corrupted the pure virgin church. We are inclined to adopt this view, not on account of the confessed austerity of Marcion’s subsequent life and doctrines, which are not inconsistent with his having fallen into sins of the flesh in his youth, but because the story goes on to tell of Scripture difficulties propounded by Marcion to the Roman presbyters and of his rejection of their solutions. If the question had been whether pardon were to be given for an offence against morality, neither party would have been likely to enter into theological controversy, whereas such discussion would naturally arise if the cause of excommunication had been heresy.
The story proceeds to say that he asked the Roman presbyters to explain the texts, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit,” and “No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment,” texts from which he himself deduced that works in which evil is to be found could not proceed from the good God, and that the Christian dispensation could have nothing in common with the Jewish. Rejecting the explanation offered him by the presbyters, he broke off the interview with a threat to make a schism in their church. The beginning of Marcionism was so early that the church writers of the end of the 2nd cent., who are our best authorities, do not themselves seem able to tell with certainty the story of its commencement. But we know that the heresy of Marcion spread itself widely over many countries. Epiphanius names as infected by it in his time, Rome and Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Syria, Cyprus, and even Persia. Its diffusion in the latter half of the 2nd cent. is proved by its antagonists in numerous countries: Dionysius in Corinth writing to Nicomedia, Philip in Crete, Theophilus in Antioch, besides Modestus, Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Rhodo, and Tertullian. Bardesanes wrote in Syriac against the heresy, as did Ephrem Syrus later
Now, Marcion would seem to have travelled much and probably used his journeys to propagate his doctrines. Ephrem Syrus speaks of him as wandering like Cain, but possibly only refers to his leaving his country for Rome. Tertullian constantly describes him as “nauclerus”. His travels seem more likely to have preceded than to have followed his settling in Rome under Anicetus. Unless, therefore, the story of the interview with the Roman presbyters is to be rejected altogether, we think it must be taken date and all. The interview must be placed immediately after the death of Hyginus and we must suppose Marcion then to have left Rome on his travels and only to have settled there permanently some years later, first as a member of Cerdo’s school and afterwards as his successor.
The authorities as to the chronology of his life are very conflicting. The statement on which we can most rely is that he taught in Rome during the episcopate of Anicetus. We have no good warrant to extend his activity later, for we can give no credit to Tertullian when he names Eleutherus in connexion with the excommunication of Marcion. If Marcion did not survive Anicetus he may have been born c. 100. The Chronicle of Edessa names 138 for the beginning of Marcionism, and with this agrees the first year of Antoninus given by the Fihrist (Flügel’s Mani, p. 85). This date is not improbable, if we suppose an Oriental preaching of the heresy to have preceded its establishment at Rome; A.D. 150 is a not unlikely date for Justin Martyr’s Apology, and 12 years’ growth is not too much for Marcionism to attain the formidable dimensions that work indicates. If Justin Martyr’s work is dated earlier, the date of Marcionism will be similarly affected.
The time of Marcion’s death is unknown, but he probably did not survive Anicetus. The only works he is known to have left are his recensions of the Gospel and Pauline Epistles; his Antitheses, in which by comparing different passages he tried to shew that the O.T. contradicted the New, and also itself; and Tertullian refers to a letter of his, then extant, as proving that he had originally belonged to the Catholic church. We learn from Rhodo that after his death his followers broke up into sects, among the leaders of which he names Apelles, who only acknowledged one first principle; Potitus and Basilicus, who counted two; and Syneros, who counted three. Other Marcionite teachers mentioned are Prepo, an Assyrian, by Hippolytus, Lucanus by Tertullian; Pitho and Blastus (the latter probably erroneously) by Theodoret. Epiphanius says that Theodotion, the translator of O.T., had been a Marcionite before his apostasy to Judaism, and Jerome states that Ambrosius was one before his conversion by Origen. These sectaries were formidable to the church, both from their numbers and the strictness of their life. They were very severe ascetics, refusing flesh meat, wine, and the married life. Unlike some Gnostics who taught that it was no sin to escape persecution by disguising their faith, the Marcionites vied with the orthodox in producing martyrs. Eusebius tells that the same letter of the church of Smyrna from which he drew his account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, told also of the martyrdom of a Marcionite presbyter, Metrodorus, who, like Polycarp, suffered at Smyrna by fire, and in the same persecution. When, later, the Montanists appealed in proof of their orthodoxy to the number of their martyrs, they were reminded that this could be equally pleaded for the Marcionites. Other Marcionite martyrs mentioned by Eusebius are a woman who suffered under Valerian at Caesarea in Palestine, and a Marcionite bp. Asclepius, who in the Diocletian persecution was burned alive at Caesarea on the same pyre as the orthodox Apselamus.
The strictness of the Marcionite discipline is proved by the unfriendly testimony of Tertullian, who tries by their practice to convict of falsity the Marcionite theory, that a good God could not be the object of fear: “If so, why do you not take your fill of the enjoyments of this life? Why do you not frequent the circus, the arena, and the theatre? Why do you not boil over with every kind of lust? When the censer is handed you, and you are asked to offer a few grains of incense, why not deny your faith? ‘God forbid!’ you cry—’God forbid!'”
At the end of the Diocletian persecution the Marcionites had a short interval of freedom of worship. An inscription has been found over the doorway of a house in a Syrian village bearing a Syrian date corresponding to the year commencing Oct. 1, 318. This is more ancient than any dated inscription belonging to a Catholic church. With the complete triumph of Christianity, Marcionite freedom of worship was lost. Constantine absolutely forbade their meeting for worship in public or private buildings. Their churches were to be given to the Catholics; any private houses used for schismatical worship to be confiscated. But the dying out of Marcionism was probably less the result of imperial legislation than of the absorption of the older heresy by the new wave of Oriental dualism which in Manicheism passed over the church. The Theodosian Code contains a solitary mention of Marcionites. They were not extinct in the fifth cent., for Theodoret, writing to pope Leo (Epistle 113, p. 1190), boasts that he had himself converted more than a thousand Marcionites. In Ep. 145 the number of converts rises to ten thousand; in Ep. 81 they are said to be the inhabitants of eight villages. In his Church History Theodoret tells of an unsuccessful effort made by Chrysostom for their conversion. Probably this survival of Marcionism was but a local peculiarity. But as late as 692 the council in Trullo thought it worth while to make provision for the reconciliation of Marcionites, and there is other evidence of lingering remains so late as the 10th cent.
Doctrine.—There is a striking difference of character between the teaching of Marcion and of others commonly classed with him as Gnostics. The systems of the latter often contain so many elements derived from heathenism, or drawn from the fancy of the speculators, that we feel as if we had scarcely any common ground with them; but with Marcion Christianity is plainly the starting-point, and the character of his system harmonizes with his being the son of a Christian bishop and brought up as a Christian. But he has been perplexed by the question of the origin of evil, and is disposed to accept the solution, much prevalent in the East then, that evil is inextricably mixed up with matter, which therefore could not be the creation of the Supreme. He tries to fit in this solution with his Christian creed and with the Scriptures; but naturally only by a mutilation of both can he force an agreement. Indeed, he sometimes has even to alter the text, e.g. “I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil,” into “I am not come to fulfil the law, but to destroy.” Still, the arbitrary criticism of Marcion has more points of contact with modern thought than the baseless assumptions of other Gnostics. A modern divine would turn away from the dreams of Valentinianism in silent contempt; but he could not refuse to discuss the question raised by Marcion, whether there is such opposition between different parts of what he regards as the word of God, that all cannot come from the same author.
The fundamental point of difference between Marcion and the church was concerning the unity of the first principle. Marcion plainly asserted the existence of two Gods, a good one and a just one. What he meant to convey by these words Beausobre well illustrates by a passage of Bardesanes, preserved by Eusebius. He says that animals are of three kinds: some, like serpents and scorpions, will hurt those who have given them no provocation; some, like sheep, will not attempt to return evil for evil; others will hurt those only that hurt them. These three may be called evil, good, and just respectively. Marcion then thought the infliction of punishment inconsistent with perfect goodness, and would only concede the title of just to the God of O.T., who had distinctly threatened to punish the wicked. The God, he said, whose law was “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” was a just God, but not the same as that good God whose command was, “If any smite thee on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” The command, “Thou shalt love him that loveth thee and hate thine enemy” was that of a just God; “Love thine enemy” was the law of the good God. Further, the God of O.T. had said of Himself, “I create evil”; but since from a good tree evil fruit cannot spring, it follows that He who created evil cannot Himself be good. He could not be the Supreme, for He was of limited intelligence, not being able to find Adam when he hid himself, and obliged to ask, “Where are thou?”, and also obliged to come down to see before He could know whether Sodom had done according to its cry. Marcion’s theory was that the visible creation was the work of the just God; the good God, whose abode he places in the third or highest heaven and whom apparently he acknowledged as the creator of a high immaterial universe, neither concerned Himself with mankind nor was known by them, until, taking compassion on the misery to which they had been brought by disobedience to their Creator who was casting them into his hell, He interfered for their redemption.
The Marcionite denial of the unity of the first principle was variously modified. Some counted three first principles instead of two: a good Being who rules over the Christians, a just one over the Jews, a wicked one over the heathen. Others, since the world was supposed to be made out of previously existent matter, held that matter was a fourth self-originated principle. Marcion himself only counted two principles, but used the word in the sense of ruling powers, for it does not appear that he regarded matter as the creation either of his good or his just God, and therefore it should rightly have been reckoned as an independent principle. Tertullian, indeed, argues that Marcion, to be consistent, should count as many as nine gods. In all these systems the good Being was acknowledged to be superior to the others, so it was not a violent change to assume that from this principle the others were derived; and Apelles and his school drew near the orthodox and taught that there was but one self-originated principle. The ascription of creation and redemption to different beings enabled the church writers to convict the Marcionite deity of unwarrantable interference with what did not belong to him. This interference was the more startling from its suddenness, for Marcion’s rejection of O.T. obliged him to deny that there had been any intimation of the coming redemption, or any sign that it had been contemplated beforehand. His God then suddenly wakes up to trouble himself about this earth; stoops down from his third heaven into a world about which, for thousands of years, he had given himself no concern; there kidnaps the sons and servants of another, and teaches them to hate and despise their father and their king, on whose gifts they must still depend for sustenance, and who furnishes the very ground on which this new God’s worshippers are to kneel, the heaven to which they are to stretch out their hands, the water in which they are baptized, the very eucharistic food for which a God must be thanked to whom it had never belonged.
Marcion’s rejection of O.T. prophecy did not involve a denial that the prophets had foretold the coming of a Christ; but the Christ of the prophets could not be our Christ. The former was to come for the deliverance of the Jewish people; the latter for that of the whole human race. The former was to be a warrior—Christ was a man of peace; Christ suffered on the cross—the law pronounced accursed him that hangeth on a tree; the Christ of the prophets is to rule the nations with a rod of iron, kings are to set themselves against Him, He is to have the heathen for His inheritance and to set up a kingdom that shall not be destroyed. Jesus did none of these things, therefore the Christ of the prophets is still to come. Tertullian successfully shows that if Jesus was not the Christ of the prophets, He must have wished to personate Him, coming as He did at the time and in the place which the prophets had foretold, and fulfilling so many of the indications they had given.
What Marcion supposed his own Christ to be has been disputed. Some have supposed that he did not distinguish him from his good God, for Marcion’s Gospel was said to have commenced: “In the 15th year of Tiberius God came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and taught on the Sabbath days”; but we believe the true reading here is “eum,” not “deum,” and that Marcion held his Christ to be a saving Spirit, but did not confound him with the Supreme.
Marcion’s Gospel told nothing of the birth of Christ, and Marcion’s “came down” has a very different meaning from what it has in the original passage (Luke vi. 31), in Marcion’s use meaning “came down from heaven.” In fact, the story of Christ’s birth would represent Him as a born subject of the Demiurge, deriving from his bounty the very body in which He came; so it was preferred to tell the improbable tale of a divine teacher unheard-of before making a sudden appearance in the synagogue. That Christ had a real earthly body Marcion of course could not admit.
It was an obvious argument against the Docetic theory that if our Lord’s body were not real we could have no faith that His miracles were real, nor in the reality of His sufferings and death, which Marcion was willing to regard as an exhibition of redeeming love; nor in the reality of His resurrection. Marcion, like the orthodox, taught that the death of our Lord was followed by a “descent into hell”; but Irenaeus tells us that he taught that there Cain, the people of Sodom, and others condemned in O.T. as wicked, received Christ’s preaching and were taken up by Him into His kingdom; but that Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, the prophets, and other righteous men imagined that the Demiurge was tempting them as on other occasions, and so, being afraid to join themselves to Christ and accept deliverance from Him, were left in the underworld. Christ’s salvation, according to Marcion, affected the soul only, and did not affect the body, of which he held there would be no resurrection. Indeed, none of those who regarded matter as essentially evil could believe that evil would be made eternal by a material resurrection. Tertullian points out that sin originates with the soul, not the body, and pronounces it unfair that the sinful soul should be redeemed and the less guilty body punished. On unredeemed souls no punishment would be inflicted by Marcion’s good God—he would merely abandon them to the vengeance of the Demiurge; but Tertullian showed that if direct punishment were inconsistent with perfect goodness, such abandonment must be equally so. The Marcionite system as described by Esnig has more of a mythic than of a rationalistic character, and if we accept this as the original form of Marcionism, Marcion owed more to the older Gnostics than we should otherwise have supposed.
Marcion is said by Esnig to have taught that there were three heavens: in the highest dwelt the good God, in the second the God of the Law, in the lowest His angels; beneath lay Hyle, or matter, having an independent existence of its own. By the help of Hyle, which played the part of a female principle, the God of the Law made this world, after which he retired to his heaven; and each ruled in his own domain, he in heaven and Hyle on earth. Afterwards the God of the Law, beholding how goodly this earth was, desired to make man to inhabit it, and for this purpose requested the co-operation of Hyle. She supplied the dust from which man’s body was made, and he breathed in his spirit, and made him live. He named him Adam, gave him a wife, and placed him in Paradise. There they lived, honouring and obeying their Maker, in joy and childlike innocence, for as yet they had no children. Then the Lord of Creation, seeing that Adam was worthy to serve Him, devised how he might withdraw him from Hyle and unite him to himself. He took him aside, and said, “Adam, I am God, and beside me there is no other; if thou worshippest any other God thou shalt die the death.” When Adam heard of death he was afraid, and gradually withdrew himself from Hyle. When Hyle came after her wont to serve him, Adam did not listen to her, but withdrew himself. Then Hyle, recognizing that the Lord of Creation had supplanted her, said, “Seeing that he hates me and keeps not his compact with me, I will make a number of gods and fill the world with them, so that they who seek the true God shall not be able to find him.” Thus she filled the world with idolatry; men ceased to adore the Lord of Creation, for Hyle had drawn them all to herself. Then was the Creator full of wrath; and as men died he cast them into hell, both Adam, on account of the tree, and the rest. There they remained 29 centuries.
At length the good God looked down from the highest heaven and beheld what misery men suffered from Hyle and the Creator. He took compassion on those plagued and tortured in the fire of hell, and he sent his son to deliver them. “Go down,” he said, “take on thee the form of a servant, and make thyself like the sons of the law. Heal their wounds, give sight to their blind, bring their dead to life, perform without reward the greatest miracles of healing; then will the God of the Law be jealous, and will instigate his servants to crucify thee. Then go down to hell, which will open her mouth to receive thee, supposing thee to be one of the dead. Then liberate the captives whom thou shalt find there, and bring them up to me.”
This was done. Hell was deceived and admitted Jesus, who emptied it of all the spirits therein and carried them up to his Father. When the God of the Law saw this he was enraged, rent his clothes, tore the curtain of his palace, darkened his sun, and veiled his world in darkness. After that, Jesus came down a second time, but now in the glory of his divinity, to plead with the God of the Law. When the Creator saw Jesus thus appear, he was obliged to own that he had been wrong in thinking that there was no other god but himself.
Then Jesus said, “I have a controversy with thee, but I will take no other judge between us than thine own law. Is it not written in thy law that whoso killeth another shall himself be killed; that whoso sheddeth innocent blood shall have his own blood shed? Let me, then, kill thee and shed thy blood, for I was innocent and thou hast shed my blood.” Then he recounted what benefits he had bestowed on the Creator’s children, and in return had been crucified; and the Creator could make no defence, seeing himself condemned by his own law, and he said: “I was ignorant; I thought thee but a man, and did not know thee to be a God; take the revenge which is thy due.” Then Jesus left him and betook himself to Paul, and revealed to him the way in which we should go. All who believe in Christ will give themselves to this good and righteous man. Men must withdraw themselves from the dominion of Hyle; but all do not know how this is to be done.
Though this mythical story differs much in complexion from other ancient accounts of Marcionite doctrine, we cannot absolutely reject it; for there is nothing in it inconsistent with Marcion’s known doctrines or such as a Gnostic of his age might have taught. It is, indeed, such a system as he might have learned from the Syriac Gnostic Cerdo. But Marcion must have given the mythic element
little prominence, or it would not have so disappeared from the other accounts.
Discipline and Worship.—In rites Marcion followed the church model. Thus he had baptism with water, anointing with oil, a mixture of milk and honey was given to the newly baptized, and sacramental bread represented the Saviour’s Body. Wine was absent from his Eucharist, for his principles entirely forbade wine or flesh meat. [ENCRATITES.] Fish, however, he permitted. He commanded his disciples to fast on Saturday, to mark his hostility to the God of
the Jews, who had made that His day of rest. Marriage he condemned. A married man was received as a catechumen, but not admitted to baptism until he had agreed to separate from his wife. This probably explains the statement of Epiphanius that the Marcionites celebrated the mysteries in the presence of unbaptized persons. The sect could not have flourished if it discouraged married persons from joining it; and if it admitted them only as catechumens, that class would naturally be granted larger privileges than in the Catholic church. Nor need we disbelieve the statement of Epiphanius that a second or a third baptism was permitted. If a member married, or one who had put away his wife took her back, it is not incredible that on repentance a second baptism was necessary before restoration to full privileges of membership. Again, since the baptism of a married person was only permitted in articulo mortis, it would sometimes happen that catechumens were surprised by death before baptism, and it is not incredible that in such cases the device of a vicarious baptism may have been resorted to, as Chrysostom tells in speaking on the females to baptize.
The Marcionite baptism was not recognized by the church. Theodoret tells that he baptized those whom be converted. He tells also that he had met an aged Marcionite who, in his hostility to the Creator, refused to use his works, a principle which could not possibly be carried out consistently.
Canon of Scripture.—Marcion’s rejection of the O.T. involved the rejection of great part of the New, which bears witness to the Old. He only retained the Gospel of St. Luke (and that in a mutilated form), and ten Epp. of St. Paul, omitting the pastoral epistles. In defence of his rejection of other apostolic writings, he appealed to the statements of St. Paul in Galatians, that some of the older apostles had not walked uprightly after the truth of the gospel, and that certain false apostles had perverted the gospel of Christ. Marcion’s Gospel, though substantially identical, as far as it went, with our St. Luke’s, did not bear that Evangelist’s name. That it was, however, an abridgment of St. Luke was asserted by all the Fathers from Irenaeus and not doubted until modern times. Then it was noticed that in some cases where Marcion is accused by Epiphanius or Tertullian of having corrupted the text, his readings are witnessed by other ancient authorities.