Categories: Early Christianity
I've seen the term "Marcionism" in various writings. I know it was some kind of heresy, but what else can you tell me about it?
You are correct; Marcionism was an early church heresy that lasted long after its founder had passed on. Most of our information about Marcion comes from the early church fathers, Iranaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. Keep in mind, that they were vehement opponents of him.
Tradition has it that Marcion was born in Sinope, Asia Minor around 85CE. His father was a Christian bishop. He was a wealthy merchant and ship owner. Along the way he had a huge "falling out" with his father and was excommunicated from the church in Sinope; some think it involved a young woman, but that may only be legend. The result was that Marcion left Asia Minor and went to Rome around 135CE. Upon his arrival, he gave the church a huge sum of money (200,000 sesterces – around $7,000), purportedly to buy his way back into the church. Details vary -- some say his request was refused outright; others indicate he was welcomed with open arms but his teachings proved to be too radical, and he was excommunicated again in 144CE. The money was returned.
During his time in Rome, Marcion studied with a renowned Gnostic, Cerdo, whose main teachings involved separating the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament. This resonated with Marcion, who believed that the Old and New Testaments simply could not be reconciled. The code of ethics in the Old Testament was "an eye for an eye." Christ taught "love your neighbor and turn the other cheek." When taunted by children, Elisha called down a curse on them and bears attacked them. Jesus blessed little children and said, "Let them come unto me." Divorce and polygamy were allowed in the Old Testament, but not in the New. Moses insisted on Sabbath Law whereas Christ said the Sabbath was made for man. The list could go on and on.
Additionally, the God of the Old Testament was portrayed as wrathful and anthropomorphic. He had to ask, "Adam where are you?" in the Garden of Eden. He supported killing (Joshua and Judges) and terrorists (David). In contrast, Christ revealed a "higher God," a God who was completely different from the Yahweh of the Old Testament. This was a God of love and grace who stood over against the deity in Isaiah who declared, "I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (45:7)." In Marcion's view there were simply two Gods, with the God of the Old Testament being a "lesser God," a Demiurge.
This had huge implications for the early church, which up to this point had taught that Christianity was continuous with Judaism and, indeed, that Christ was the fulfillment of the long-anticipated Messiah. By 144CE, the break between Marcion and the church was official. Undaunted, Marcion used his considerable wealth (the church had returned his gift of money) to further his own ministry. He tried to emulate Paul by establishing new churches to promote his version of Christianity. Even though he passed on around 160CE, his movement lasted for another 200-300 years, which is amazing in light of the fact that his followers were strict ascetics. He preached celibacy (marriage was thought to be similar to fornication), which must have had some impact on his sect being able to sustain itself.
Before his death, however, Marcion had created a canon that completely disavowed the Old Testament. He did his best to eradicate all references to the Old Testament from among the New Testament books, and passages that could not be deleted were at least reworded. He liked the Pauline concept of salvation through faith in Christ alone, so he used ten of his books (the Apostolikon). He rejected Mark, Matthew, and John, but used an edited version of the Gospel of Luke, beginning with chapter 3 (the Euangelion). Those few books comprised the Marcion bible. He wrote a full explication of his theology in a major work entitled, Antithesis, but copies of this document have not survived.
Marcion's impact on the church cannot be overstated. By rejecting the Old Testament, the God of creation, and the continuity of the Christ, Marcion called into question most of the Apostolic teachings that had been foundational for over a hundred years. The church fathers had to figure out how to deal with him. Their response came in three ways. First, they had to determine which writings would be formative, finally choosing four gospels, Paul's writings, and various other epistles to comprise the New Testament canon. Secondly, they reaffirmed that Christianity was not separate from Judaism, but the fulfillment of God's promises to them. And there was only one God. Thirdly, they affirmed the apostolic tradition. Because of Marcion, the church was forced to define its faith, which resulted in a much broader, more moderate theology than the one he had been proposing. Though these were tense times in the early church, the end result of having to confront this heresy was largely positive.