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Marcion - 'The First-born of Satan'

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Marcion (c85-c.160) was a notorious heretic in the second century. He was described by Polycarp as ‘the first-born of Satan’. Marcion was the son of the bishop of Sinope, in Pontus, on the southern shore of the Black Sea. He made a fortune as a ship-master, arriving in Rome around 140, where he gave a large amount of money to the church. He became a keen student of theology, particularly interested in ethics and exegesis of the Scriptures.

According to Irenaeus, Marcion's teacher was Cerdo, who was a follower of Simon Magus, "a certain Cerdo, originating from the Simonians, came to Rome under Hyginus ... and taught that the one who was proclaimed as God by the Law and the Prophets is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Against Heresies, 1, 27, 1).

In his understanding, the key to all mysteries was to be found in Paul’s antithesis between grace and works. He said that there are two Gods - the evil inferior God of the Old Testament, which he called the Demiurge, and the superior good God of the New Testament. The Demiurge created the physical world and was only the God of the Jews, whose law emphasised justice and punishment for sins through suffering and death. By contrast, the God of the New Testament was the Heavenly Father, a universal god of compassion and love, who regards human beings with benevolence and mercy.

According to his distinction and antithesis between love and justice, Jesus came, not as the Jewish Messiah, but as the agent of the good God, whose mission was to destroy the work of the Demiurge. Jesus was merely a manifestation of the true God, without any actual birth of death. This is a similar teaching to the Docetists, who denied that Jesus had a physical body, but only appeared to have one. The way to attain the spirituality of Jesus was to free the body from all desires of the flesh through strict asceticism, including the rejection of marriage.

He wrote a book called ‘Anthitheses’ which is now lost, in order to expose the incompatibility between the Law and the Gospel and between the Demiurge of the Old Testament and the Heavenly Father of the New Testament, bringing a complete discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity.

Marcion’s teaching had similarities to the Gnostics, so he is often classified as a Gnostic. Many of his ideas were a good fit with Gnostic thought, especially in his teaching that Jesus was a divine spirit, who only appeared to have human form. However, he did not teach the Gnostic understanding of the levels of emanations between the god and the evil material world. He made less emphasis on knowledge, and more on faith in Jesus.

Unlike the Gnostics, Marcion made a deliberate effort to propagate his teaching within the church to attract Christians. This led to a breach with the Roman church in 144, who excommunicated him and returned the money he had previously donated. The Marcionites then organised themselves into a separate group, which rapidly spread throughout the Roman Empire.

He maintained the sacraments, but with modifications. Married people were excluded from Baptism, and water was used instead of wine for the Eucharist. Marcion had a far more limited canon of Scripture. As would be expected, he rejected the Old Testament entirely. In the New Testament, he only accepted the Gospel of Luke (without the birth narratives), which he called the Evangelikon, and ten of Paul’s letters (without the Pastoral Epistles), which he called the Apostolikon. According to several of the church fathers, Marcion edited Paul’s letters so they would fit his theology. He considered that Paul was the only correct interpreter of the teachings of Jesus, in contrast to the other apostles, and the early church. Tertullian called his approach to the Scriptures, ‘Criticising with a penknife’.

At this time, the church had not yet officially defined the canon of Scripture, but Marcion’s teaching stimulated the church to begin the process of defining its own canon.

Marcion’s most significant disciple was Apelles, who wrote a book called ‘Syllogisms’. He developed and strengthened Marcion’s teaching. Being a strict monotheist, he considered the Old Testament God or Demiurge is nothing greater than an angel. Later in his life he increasingly doubted his strictly rational approach and became more mystical.

Marcion was condemned as a heretic in the writings of many of the church fathers, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus and Epiphanius.

Marcion had a strictly literal approach to the interpretation of the Old Testament, in contrast to the allegorical approach used by many of the church fathers. His antithesis between love and justice continues to have resonance today in popular thinking that it is not possible for a God of love to bring justice.