Rethinking Marcion’s Timeframe

marcionOne of my struggles, which I’ve droned on about over the past few months, is the theological discrepancy between Marcion and Valentinus.  Marcion seems to have been the first consumer of Paul, yet he, by all accounts, lacked the robust Gnostic myth that Valentinus had.  Though the two were both Pauline consumers, shared the same name for the God of the Old Testament (Yaldabaoth), and imagined Jesus as having been sent from a God above the Jewish God, Valentinus had a much more complex cosmological portion to his creation myth, particularly the idea that a divine and eternal idea (aeon) in the highest heaven (Pleroma) catalyzed the creation of the universe via her creation of Yaldabaoth.

What makes this discrepancy more puzzling is that both Marcion and Valentinus were said to have been active around the same time – between 120 and 140.  We see echoes of this claim from 2nd and 3rd century heresy hunters, notably Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Tertullian.

The conventional solution to how the Gnostic heresies arose begins with Marcion’s and Valentinus’ theological predecessor, Simon Magus:

Simon, a magician from Samaria, along with his apprentice Menander (also from Samaria) were, at some point, on the fringes of the apostolic circle.  One need look no further than Acts of the Apostles 8:9-24, where it claims Simon was palling around with Philip (Acts 8:13):

Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

According to Acts, the stories of Simon’s sorcery got back to “Christian headquarters”, and the apostles sent John and Cephas to Samaria to observe.  In the process, the apostles gave the spirit to the people of Samaria (Acts 8:14-17):

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria…Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Simon was astonished by the spirit, and wanted to buy some shares (Acts 8:18-20):

Then Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.

The story goes (and modern conventional wisdom tends to concur) that Simon Magus was a teacher of Menander sometime in the middle-1st century.  Simon does seem to have a historical analog, according to Josephus in Antiquities 20.7.2, the same book which Josephus shares information about Judas of Galilee and Theudas, which the author of Acts of the Apostles borrowed.

Simon’s heresies spread throughout the land, namely to Turkey, Syria, and Egypt.  This heretical wildfire led to the late 1st or early 2nd century advent of Gnosticism, Encratism, Docetism, and several other -isms which remained thorns in the Catholic Church’s side for centuries.

Needless to say, I have my doubts about the traditional narrative.  Of course, only the most religious presuppositionalists believe this narrative at face value, anyway.

Over the years, more than a few people have noticed that Simon Magus bears a tremendous resemblance to Saint Paul, the apostle.  In particular, Paul’s description of a disagreement involving John and Peter (and James) in Galatians bears a striking resemblance to the disagreement seen between Simon Magus and the Apostles in Acts 8.

Likewise, many “radical” thinkers have noticed that Marcion seems to have been Paul’s first theological consumer (or at the very least, Marcion resurrected a previously defunct line of Christianity).  Contributing to this tangled web is a story where Marcion donated 200,000 sesterces* (modern equivalent of millions of dollars) to the Roman church; I’m not the only one to wonder if perhaps Marcion, Paul, and Simon Magus are all the same person.

*1 Sestarius would buy 2 loaves of bread, or a bottle (.75 liters) of wine.
*At the end of the first century, an ordinary infantry soldier was paid between 3 and 4 sesterces per day

Given traditional timelines, if it was the case that Marcion, Paul, and Simon were all different names for the same person, that might imply that Christianity came later than the mid-1st century…or that Marcion was active much earlier than tradition holds (120-140).

My solution is a little of both.  It’s clear that the Synoptic story of Jesus was based, in part, on Jesus ben Ananias (early 60s) as described by Josephus.  Yet, if part of the inspiration of the Synoptic core was a person who lived in the 60s, it would be difficult to conclude that person’s apostles were sharing his secrets a decade or two earlier.  This inspiration fits nicely if one assumes that Marcion (or his immediate predecessor) contributed to the earliest gospel, which also functioned as a script for a dramatic enactment.

Galatians 3:1

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.

If Marcion and Valentinus were active at nearly the same time, as is asserted by Irenaeus (book 3 chapter 4), it is hard to understand how the two could have consumed Paul so differently.  If we are to believe that Valentinus preceded Marcion (and was a contemporary of Cerdo), I (for one) struggle to find a coherent and plausible narrative which explains this detail at all.

Valentinus came to Rome in the time of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and remained until Anicetus. Cerdon, too, Marcion’s predecessor, himself arrived in the time of Hyginus

My solution has been that Irenaeus got this detail wrong (alternatively, Marcion was indeed active prior to Valentinus, but didn’t go to Rome until after Valentinus).  In other words, Marcion must have preceded Valentinus, and it was Valentinus’ exposure to Gnostic theologies which informed his philosophy.  To support my assumption that Marcion was early, I appeal to Justin Martyr in his 1st Apology:

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

Many scholars put Justin Martyr’s apology in the 150s.  I think his first apology was in the early 140s, given Justin’s reference to Hadrian’s “son Verissimus the Philosopher”.  Verissimus was a nickname Marcus Aurelius had prior to Hadrian adopting him in 138.  Justin also referred to Bar Kokhba:  “For in the Jewish war which lately raged, Barchochebas…”.  In other words, Justin saw Bar Kokhba (132-135) as a recent event.

If Justin Martyr was writing in the early 140s about Marcion, and how he has caused “many of every nation” to follow him, that must mean that Marcion had been active for many years before the 140s, perhaps decades.  One is even reasonable to assume that Marcion was dead by the time Justin was writing (this would not be the only factual error Justin committed in his apology).

So what timeframe can we put Marcion in?  My running assumption has been that Marcion was a part (or a contributor) to the community that Pliny the Younger, governor of Pontus and Bithynia, noticed around 112 in Northern Turkey:

Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition….For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms… It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found

This conclusion about Marcion being active in the mid-110s, along with scarce evidence for existence of Christianity in the 1st century (even in Alexandria) is part of what gave rise to my (tentative) suspicion that Christianity as we know it today did indeed originate in Turkey (though there was no doubt Gnostic philosophies in Alexandria by the mid-1st century, and probably earlier…just not Christian Gnosticism).

Consider the following quote from the late 2nd/early 3rd century theologian, Clement of Alexandria:

Likewise they allege that Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas. And he was the pupil of Paul. For Marcion, who arose in the same age with them, lived as an old man with the younger [heretics]. And after him Simon heard for a little the preaching of Peter.

That’s an interesting chestnut, isn’t it?  Clement of Alexandria claims that Valentinus, who according to Irenaeus, went to Rome between 138 and 142 (during Hyginus’ papacy) became active at the same time as Marcion, despite Marcion being much older.

But the most confusing statement Clement makes is that Simon came after Marcion.

Is Clement referring to a different Simon?  Given the fact that Simon heard the preaching of Peter, and that there was a long tradition of Simon and Peter battling each other (specifically in the Acts of Peter), it’s hard to deny that Clement was indeed referring to Simon Magus and Peter the Apostle.

But that would mean that Clement saw Marcion and Valentinus as predecessors of Simon, the supposed father of all heresies!

What this says to me is that the story of Marcion is a big lie.  Early church fathers were desperate to cover up Marcion’s influence, and they did so because Marcion was extremely influential.  Given my other assumptions that Marcion wrote a bulk of the authentic Pauline epistles, as well as contributed to a Mark-looking gospel, these data align quite nicely.

If one assumes Marcion was even earlier than 112, the Marcion-Valentinus problem diminishes because there might very well have been decades between the two, plenty of time for Alexandrian* Gnosticism and Jewish mysticism to work their way into the simpler Marcionite framework.

*Note:  One interesting consideration, that I never really considered or was aware of before today, is that Birger Pearson, a prominent scholar of Christian Gnosticism (particularly Sethianism) has suggested Sethianism might very well originated in Antioch, Syria, which definitely adds plausibility to Turkish origins for Christianity


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

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