Marcion, the heretic from Sinope, was once a member of the early Christian church in the 1st half of the 2nd century. Tradition holds that he donated 200,000 sesterces (in my estimation, this is conservatively the equivalent of $2 million, perhaps upwards to $4 million) to the church in Rome; the Roman church supposedly returned the money when Marcion’s heresy came to light.
Based on extant evidence, Marcion’s peak activity could be anywhere between 120 and 155. Justin Martyr made scathing reference to him in his 1st apology, written perhaps between 141 and 155, complaining to Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius that Marcion was still alive at the time. Justin (inadvertently) conveyed, in phrases such as “even at this day” and “has caused many of every nation” that Marcion was an aged proselytizer:
And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe
Though Justin’s remaining corpus provides useful information, there are reasons not to take Justin Martyr’s historical reconstructions as Gospel. For instance, in his first apology, Justin complained about a statue erected on behalf of his church’s arch-nemesis, Simon Magus of Samaria. This statue was claimed by Justin to be on the Tiber River. In 1574, this statue was discovered at the bottom of the river. Examination reveals this statue was probably erected for Semo Sancus, the Roman God of Trust and Honesty; given Justin’s folly, one can conjecture that his persecution complex overrode his commitment to intellectual honesty.
In order for Marcion to have spread his heresy to “every nation”, it would have taken a very long time – decades perhaps. Justin’s reference might either indicate Marcion was active as early as the 120s (perhaps as an active member in the Bithnya Christian community described by Pliny the Younger in 112), or it might mean that Marcion inherited doctrines that were already widespread by the early 2nd century.
This speculation about Marcion’s advanced age is supported by Clement of Alexandria‘s late 2nd/early 3rd century assertion:
For Marcion, who arose in the same age with them [Valentinus, Basilides, etc], lived as an old man with the younger [heretics]
None of Marcion’s original writings survived the Orthodoxy’s later purge, but a few texts have been reconstructed based on polemical treatises written against him, notably by Tertullian in Against Marcion. Reconstructed texts include Marcion’s Gospel, which was said to resemble the Gospel of Luke. Another modern reconstruction is his Pauline centerpiece, Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, reconstructed by the eminent 19th century scholar, WC Van Manen.
Marcionites were active and widespread until at least the 5th century CE. Epiphanius of Salamis (310-403) wrote in Panarion that Marcionites were active Rome and Italy, Egypt and Palestine, Arabia and Syria, Cyprus and the Thebaid.
Justin Martyr’s apology alludes to a relationship between Marcion and the Samaritan heretics Simon Magus and Menander, but the first concrete reference to Marcion’s direct predecessor was made by Irenaeus in Against Heresies (180-185). Irenaeus claimed Marcion’s teacher was a like-minded heretic named Cerdo.
Cerdo was one who took his system from the followers of Simon, and came to live at Rome in the time of Hyginus [138 to 142]…He taught that the God proclaimed by the law and the prophets was not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the former was known, but the latter unknown; while the one also was righteous, but the other benevolent…Marcion of Pontus succeeded him, and developed his doctrine
The word Cerdo translates to “Pig” in modern Spanish, and it meant fox in ancient Greek (at least according to Stephan Huller). A compelling conjecture given this curious vernacular oddity is that Marcion’s teacher’s name was a polemical reworking of a different, perhaps similar sounding name.
Epiphanius claimed Cerdo was from Syria, and moved to Rome in the time of Hyginus (138-142).
The objections the earliest heresy hunters gave about heretics they attacked centered around three concerns:
- Their view about who made the world (the Demiurge)
- Their view about which God sent Jesus to Earth
- Their view about whether Jesus was human or immaterial
Though there are specific elements within those alternative theologies which do not neatly fit into the above three categories, these issues were the primary differentiation between the heretics and what became the Orthodoxy.
To Marcion, and his predecessor Cerdo, there was a fall from the Godhead before the Earth and the Cosmos were created; prior to this fall, everything in existence was non-material. The fall gave rise to an inferior God named Ialdabaoth. According to Marcion (and by extension, Cerdo), Ialdabaoth created the Earth, but such action did not merit praise. The worst parts of the Old Testament were characteristic of Marcion’s malevolent Jehova. The God who sent Chrestos was an alien God, unknown before Jesus’ arrival on Earth.
There is a Demiurge notion that survived into modern Christianity. Arguably, the winning sect which emerged within a couple hundred years, propelled by Irenaeus’ reverence for Johannines Polycarp and the Apostle John. In the Johannine Demiurge model, the Word was the Demiurge:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God.
To the Johannines, the Word became flesh, manifested on Earth as Jesus, and was equivalent to God at the time of creation. In contrast with the Marcionites and Cerdo, the Johannines did not believe there was a fall from the Godhead which catalyzed creation. To the Johannines, the good God above was compelled to create the Earth; in this sense, the Marcionite view of evil was more robust and logically coherent than the Johannines, because the Johannines failed to sufficiently answer how a good God could allow for all the evil so commonly found on Earth.
One compelling connection between Marcion and the Johannines can be found in Irenaeus’ description of another heretic, Cerinthus.
Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from [the God] who [rules] the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation… after his baptism, Christ descended upon [Jesus] in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained [immaterial], inasmuch as he was a spiritual being.
Like Cerdo and Marcion, Cerinthus believed there was a fall from the Godhead. The primary difference between Marcion and Cerinthus was that Cerinthus saw Jesus as a material man who was filled with an immaterial spirit. Marcion saw Jesus as an immaterial phantom. In either case, the Christ which was sent from God never actually suffered on the cross – this view gave rise to the tenets of the later heretic, Arius.
Though this striking parallel between Marcion and Cerinthus might suggest some sort of connection, Cerinthus has an even more interesting connection to the Johannines than he has to Marcion.
3rd century theologian Caius the Presbyter gave the following insight about Cerinthus:
Cerinthus, by means of revelations which pretend to be written by a great apostle, speaking falsely, introduces wonders which he speaks of as if they had been shown to him by angels, saying that after the resurrection the kingdom of Christ was to be on earth, and that again men in bodily form would live in Jerusalem…he affirms that a thousand years will be spent in marriage feasting
Caius leaves no doubt that he believed Cerinthus wrote a book called Revelations. Of course, Revelation is one of the centerpieces of extant Johannine literature, important enough that it survived into the modern canon. As I mention in my post about Cerinthus, there was a group called the Alogi, located over 1000 miles to Caius’ East, in Roman Asia, who held that Cerinthus wrote Revelation and John’s Gospel!
Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, described an encounter between Cerinthus and John the Apostle, son of Zebedee.
There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.
I propose this anecdote was Irenaeus’ invention, and was designed to interject the Apostle John into history, despite a seeming lack of existence outside of Christian literature. Irenaeus specifically placed John in Ephesus (Roman Asia, modern day Turkey), because a growing community of “acceptable” Christians lived there; Irenaeus claimed membership within that community, stating that he was a student of Polycarp of Smyrna, another prominent Johannine.
Irenaeus went on to make another puzzling assertion in the very next sentence following his bathhouse anecdote:
And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, Do you know me? I do know you, the first-born of Satan.
In the prior sentence, Cerinthus was the enemy of John. In the sentence about Marcion, Polycarp, John’s student, was Marcion’s enemy. Though the chronological connection could be inadvertent, I propose that this link between John, Cerinthus, Polycarp, and Marcion was an unintentional gaffe which reveals a closer connection between Marcion, Cerinthus, and the Johannines than Irenaeus meant to convey.
The test which would give a Marcion-Johannine link explanatory power would be to find examples of Johannine literature which contains meaningful aspects of Marcion’s theology. One clear example comes in the Acts of John, where John describes Jesus walking beside of him, but leaving no footprints:
Like Marcion, the writer who contributed this line to the Acts of John also thought Jesus was an immaterial phantom who would not leave footprints as he walked. Another allusion to this phantom tenet can be found in the Gospel of John 20:17:
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to Him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). 17“Do not cling to Me, Jesus said, “For I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go and tell My brothers, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’”
This peculiar command Jesus gives to Mary, where he told her not to touch him, is probably a reference to the Gospel’s Docetic origins. A Docetic theology, which claimed Jesus was a phantom, would have probably held this position because of Jesus’ immaterial origins. The Jesus-phantom Docetics (Marcionites) would have imagined a significant barrier between the material and immaterial world. In this sense, it is not difficult to notice the Platonic underpinnings of this Docetism; in Platonism, there was a world of forms – the material world was simply an imperfect copy of the ideal world.
Contrast the Docetic Material/Immaterial dilemma with the notion of the virgin birth, introduced in the Gospel of Matthew, where the (supposedly) immaterial God inseminated the very material 13 year old Mary. To the Matthew sect (later Ebionites and Nazarenes), there was no Demiurge which separated humans from God, and therefore no philosophical concern for how an immaterial God gets to Earth.
Given this array of data, obvious connections emerge between Cerinthus and the Johannines, Marcion and the Johannines, and Cerinthus and Marcion. Yet the claim made adamantly by Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Eusebius, Epiphanius, and a host of other later heresy hunters was that Cerdo was Marcion’s teacher.
Consider my earlier mention that Cerdo might have been a polemical play on words. Both Cerdo and Cerinthus begin with the same three letters “CER”. Could it be that Marcion’s predecessor was not Cerdo, but rather Cerinthus, the fountainhead of the Johannine movement who contributed significantly to their literary centerpieces, John and Revelation?