There might have been some kind of pre-Christianity percolating in the Eastern Roman empire before 50CE, particularly in Alexandria and other places where the mystery cults flourished. But pre-Christianity had nothing to do with a God-type Jewish man who lived near Jerusalem and was staked to a wooden cross. Instead, it was a Christianity that was focused on the heavens, and the stars that ruled the Earth; that’s why the number 12 is so prominent throughout the New Testament – there are 12-30 day groupings in a year, and those groups were representatives of the rulers, or archons, of the Earth. 12 is also heavily featured in other influential religions of the day, as well, such as the Eleusinian mysteries. This astrotheological concern managed to leech its way into the eventual orthodoxy, and it is most obvious in the Paul letters, Revelation, and the Gospel of John. The number 7 is prominently featured in these texts as well, an obvious reference to the 7 celestial bodies: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
This means that there was no Jesus who had Mary as a mother and who was crucified by the barbarous Pontius Pilate. There were, however, people who resembled this character of Jesus, and indeed, the later historicizers who, in the mid-2nd century, were inventing the Jesus-man did draw upon these characters who can be found in Josephus’ writings, notably Jesus Ben Ananias, as depicted in Josephus’ War of the Jews.
Jesus’ conversion from myth to man occurred in 2 phases.
The first phase of Jesus Christ’s emerging humanity began with Cerinthus, who was active in Western Turkey at the tail end of the 1st century. Among other things, Cerinthus wrote (or contributed heavily to) the Book of Revelation. He also introduced a Docetic view to a probably pre-existing, celestial-oriented Christianity, where the Holy Spirit, sent from a God (a God who was above the Abrahamic God), descended upon a human Jesus in the form of a dove.
One of Cerinthus’ successors, active to his East in Sinope (modern day Northern Turkey), was Marcion, a ship owner; despite the humanity that was added to Jesus between Cerinthus and Marcion, particularly in Marcion’s Mark-like Gospel (which I think he wrote), his intention was not to argue that Jesus was a human; rather, Marcion’s human characterization of Jesus provided an introduction to Christianity that was readable and easy to understand for young people and the “spiritually immature”. In a sense, I think it was arbitrary who Marcion modeled his human Jesus on, but the person that was selected was quite obviously Jesus Ben Ananias. The primary Christian texts which emerged during the Cerinthus/Marcion period (100-125CE) were the Book of Revelation, along with a Synoptic Gospel that might have looked something like Luke or Mark. The 6-10 Pauline epistles which are now considered “authentic” were also probably written during this period.
The second phase occurred a couple decades later, and was led by Syrians and Western Turks, notably (140s-150s) Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, and later (160s-180s) Theophilus and Irenaeus, who took part of their influence from Jewish Jamesians, notably the Ebionites.
Marcion lived in the region where Christianity was first unambiguously noticed; every other earlier mention of Christianity is probably fraudulent, including the Josephus passages that make reference to Christianity.
Pliny the Younger wrote letters to the Emperor in 112 asking for his advice on how to deal with those early Christians (he probably called them Chrestians, as that was what Marcion called his Messiah). The Christian groups Pliny encountered were groups of pre-Marcionites, probably led by Cerinthus, who seems to have spent some time in Asia (western Turkey), at least according to Irenaeus, who claims Cerinthus had a run-in with the Apostle John in Ephesus, Turkey.
But Christianity did not begin in Pontus or Bithnya in Northern Turkey. It had traveled North from Alexandria over the course of a couple decades.
Christianity really began to take shape in Alexandria at the tail end of the 1st century, and can be historically located in Alexandrian groups at the time, notably the Sethians. The real catalyst that drove this was the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 70CE. Ongoing persecution of Jews in the area led to an evolving Jewish theology, as well as the theological need for a messiah to provide an alternate atonement ritual now that there was no longer a temple.
In this sense, my hypothesis doesn’t really disagree with some mainstream scholars. Modern scholarship says the Gospel of Mark was written in (or after) 70CE, because that was when the temple was destroyed, and there are mentions and allusions to the temple in the Gospel; of course, there are mentions of a temple (and lack of need for a temple) in 1 Corinthians, but scholars seem to have no trouble putting the Pauline epistles in the 40s and 50s, which they’re wrong to do:
Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are
The reason Pliny the Younger noticed Christianity in Northern Turkey is because it was a hotbed of Christianity, later funded by an enormously wealthy Marcion.
Marcion either re-discovered Paul’s epistles after a long stretch of them being lost, or he invented them entirely… or he made tremendous additions to them. My position is that he either invented them entirely, or modified them to the point of being unrecognizable to their earliest readers.
Marcion wrote (or used) the synoptic narrative, too.
Early heresiologists, such as Tertullian, said that Marcion used a hacked up version of the Gospel of Luke, which is to say that it omitted the birth narrative and some details of Jesus’ humanity. My contention is that this Gospel he used was more Mark-like, and that it looked similar to what it looks like today (save for the later addition of everything after Mark 16:8, when Jesus was crucified, and then no one said anything about it).
Marcion didn’t use the Synoptic narrative to add historicity or humanity to Jesus. He wrote it as an initiation text for spiritually immature believers *. In his Christian immersion process, believers were to read, hear, and understand the Pauline texts. They should then read Marcion’s Mark-like Synoptic text through the lens of Paul.
*Note: This is my speculation. Something like my Paul hypothesis was put forward by Willem Chirstiaan van Manen in the late 19th century, but I was not aware of that hypothesis until today. van Manen saw the authentic Paul letters simply as Marcion interpolation, a view that I share.
However, I can’t find much evidence that anyone else thinks that Marcion had a multi-tiered Christianity. The first person to dig into Marcionism, Adolf von Harnack, explicitly rejected the notion that Marcion had such a framework. I disagree with von Harnack’s assessment in this matter, though.
My primary support for Marcion’s view of this matter is in 2 Corinthians 12, where Marcion describes a man he knows who was taken up to the 3rd heaven. This, in my opinion, is Marcion revealing that he knows Cerinthus; therefore, Marcion becomes connected to quite a broad set of still-surviving (extant) Christian texts: the Pauline epistles, the synoptic story, and Revelation. I surmise that the only way Marcion would have concerned himself with the epistles, a synoptic narrative, and Revelation is if there were multiple tiers of theology; additionally, Marcion’s “successor” Valentinus had a system of multiple tiers. There is no reason to believe this was not a common practice, particularly in a theological framework that had educated elite members, which Marcionism surely did.
The Synoptic gospel Marcion used was the primary input later Christians used to argue that Jesus was a man. Jews who heard Marcion’s theology, but didn’t like its anti-Jewish roots, wrote the Gospel of Matthew to provide an alternative to Marcion and his hero Paul. This Jewish/Gnostic fight probably happened somewhere between Samaria and Jerusalem between 125 and 140.
In this sense, the Christian story resembles the traditional narrative of a schism between Jews and Gentiles; however, this schism happened 100 years after what the traditional Christian narrative would purport.
Marcion probably used text made available by his predecessors: Cerdo and Cerinthus. I’m not sure if Cerdo and Cerinthus were the same person, but there is a case to be made that Cerdo brought an Alexandrian Sethian Christianity to Marcion (or Marcion borrowed from it during a trip south…he certainly could afford to make such travels). In this sense, Cerdo resembles an Alexandrian Christian that tradition says was active in the late 1st and early 2nd century, Pope Kedron, the 4th pope of Alexandria. Pope Kedron (Cerdo) was active at the same time that the Johannine hero, John the Apostle, was supposedly imprisoned on Patmos.
Cerinthus wrote Revelation, which is the more abstract version of the Synoptic narrative. Except, Cerinthus’ version of the narrative was for the more spiritually mature Christians to read, once they really understood Paul and Marcion’s gospel. The real thing for Christians to understand in Revelation was that The Logos’ actions created new pathways in heaven so that believers could navigate past the rulers of the world to rejoin God in the Pleroma. This work created more pathways for communication between heaven and earth, as well, which solved the atonement problem created in 70CE after Rome destroyed the temple.
As Cerinthus and Marcion’s theology moved to the West and South to the major population centers of Ephesus and Antioch, it continued to encounter Jewish pushback; this pushback manifested in a Jewish Jamesian theology which called for a coupling of acts and faith, rather than faith alone, in one’s Christianity (faith without acts is a dead thing). It also rejected the Alexandrian demiurge model, which posited that the Earth and lower heavens were created by a lower God.
The Syrians and Johannines eventually integrated this Jamesian theology. This integration manifests in the Gospel of Thomas, where the Syrians put James, and not Paul, as the person who the apostles should follow once Jesus dies.
The Syrian mutiny compelled Marcion to write a preface to his epistle to the Galatians, where he criticizes the Gospel of Matthew and describes a situation where James polluted Cephas‘ pro-Marcion theology because he refused to eat with the uncircumcised Gentiles.
The rift between Marcion and the Syrian and Western Turkish mutineers increased, and eventually led notably to Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, and later Irenaeus to become more adamant in their claim that Jesus was a human, a view the writers of the Gospel of Matthew would have argued for. There might have been political considerations in this theology as well, as the mid-2nd century saw a large increase in the number of apologies written to Rome, as well as a mass migration of leaders of various sects moving to Rome. Given the fight that was going on in Christianity at the time, sect leaders may have been compelled to argue for Rome’s acceptance of their particular brand of Christianity.
Within a decade of the rift, a pro-Marcionite named Valentinus attempted to merge the theologies by advocating a 2-tiered Christianity, which Marcion would have advocated; the difference between Valentinus and Marcion, though, was that Valentinus left more room in his theology for the God of the Jewish bible; Valentinus’ Jewish God was more ignorant and less malicious than Marcion’s Jewish God.
Valentinus seems to have thrived within the church for some time, perhaps ascending to a role of high bishop, almost becoming the Pope; however, his multi-tiered approach to Christianity eventually became incompatible with an emerging anti-Marcionism; yet, Valentinus remained arguably more popular than Marcion, and probably as popular as the Johannine/Syrian sects.
Once a more rigid orthodoxy emerged by the mid-2nd century, there was no room left for Valentinus, and by 180, Irenaeus was taking aim at the Valentinians and the Marcionites, even though both Valentinus and Marcion were probably dead by that point.
Interestingly enough, despite the orthodoxy’s rejection of Marcion and Valentinus, they did not reject their hero, Paul. The solution the post Syrians and Johannines used to integrate Paul was to sanitize him by modifying Marcion’s original letters, as well as by writing more of them, notably the Pastoral letters, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
The previous iteration of Paul, who was a function of Marcion, was converted to the magician Simon who was described in Acts of the Apostles, and was the father of all heresies, according to heresiologists at the time, notably Irenaeus.
As this emerging orthodoxy, characterized by staunch anti-Gnosticism, gained popularity and influence in Rome, there was less space for those Gnostics who were practicing Christianity’s earliest form. And even though these sects did manage to survive for a very long time, they did so under continuous persecution by a Christian-friendly Rome.