One of the most fascinating themes which was a major conversational detail in 2nd and 3rd century Christianity, both pre-Orthodoxical and heretical, relates to the Demiurge, Yaldabaoth, and his role in crafting the universe.
In the pre-Orthodoxy space, occupied namely by Ireaneus and Justin Martyr, this notion of a malevolent lower God who created the Cosmos was the height of arrogant blasphemy. To others, including Cerinthus, Marcion, and Valentinus, the creator of the Cosmos was the same God of the Old Testament, and he was different than the God who sent Jesus to save humanity and rescue them from this inferior material realm.
This conflict becomes easier to parse when you consider the implications of a malevolent Demiurge.
If the God of the Old Testament was not the highest God, then the rules set forth in the Old Testament are not pertinent to Christians. The law and Judaism were, in those earliest Christian iterations, moot.
Consider the Gospel of Mark 1:10-13:
And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens rent asunder, and the Spirit as a dove descending upon him (!!!): …straightway the Spirit driveth him forth into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan.
The heavens opened, and a dove descended upon Jesus. There is no clearer reference to Mark’s intent than this line. It is also clear that Mark’s author, and his counterparts, the Ebionites, both saw Jesus and the spirit as separable entities, which contributes to the assumption that Mark and the Ebionites were the earliest theologies, and were the first to meaningfully disagree about Christianity’s intent. Consider Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, Book 1 Chapter 26:
Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates.
The passage which immediately precedes the Ebionite reference was about Cerinthus:
Cerinthus taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him.
A notable distinction Irenaeus drew between the Cerinthians and the Ebionites relates to their preferred Gospels:
For the Ebionites, who use Matthew’s Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark(!!!), if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified
This contrast Irenaeus drew roughly describes the disagreement history remembers: Matthew was written to contrast Mark.
A bolder, yet parsimonious assertion is that the Ebionites used Matthew exclusively because they wrote a Matthew-like Gospel which omitted a birth narrative and (perhaps) a resurrection. If one follows that line, Mark’s underlying theology was Docetic, then Mark’s Gospel can be linked conclusively to Cerinthus via Irenaeus’ reference to “the dove”. This detail is part of the reason why I think Cerinthus and Cerdo (Marcion’s predecessor) are the same person, as Cerinthus’ theology seems an obvious predecessor to Marcion’s.
A curious detail follows in the Gospel of Mark. After the dove descended, the spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness so he could be tempted by Satan. That doesn’t make much sense…unless you consider that this text was written by people who believe this Earth is ruled by a lesser God, hell-bent on manifesting evil and keeping humans ignorant. And of course, Jesus’ desert locale is a clear reference to the scapegoat ritual (Lev 16:8), which was later confirmed by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
Next in Mark, after his temptation, Jesus goes to collect apostles, and then went into the synagogues, where he encountered a demon (Mark 1:21-24):
And they go into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at his teaching: For he taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes. And straightway there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus thou Nazarene? art thou come to destroy us
Jesus told the unclean spirit to be silent and come out of the man (Mark 1:25). This seems to allude to both the mystery that surrounded the earliest theology, as well as the fact that unclean spirits were infesting the synagogues.
Mark then makes another reference to staying quiet in 1:34:
And he healed many that were sick with diverse diseases, and cast out many demons; and he suffered not the demons to speak, because they knew him.
The theme emerges here: the demons knew who Jesus was.
Given the relationship between Mark, and Cerinthus’ theology, which had a fall from the Godhead and an inferior material realm in which humanity was trapped, one might conclude that the demons knew Jesus because they were commanded by the God of this world (in the later Marcionite theology, this was the Cosmocrator) to work against him!
Irenaeus’ reference to the Ebionites (“agree that the world was made by God”) makes it clear that their motivation was to respond to Mark; one of the central tenets of Matthew is that the God of the Old Testament is the God who sent Jesus, and that Christians should remain adherent to Jewish law (Matthew 5:17-18):
Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished
The later addition of familial lineage and virgin birth to Matthew, presumably added by the Nazarenes sometime before the mid-2nd century, is the logical endpoint of the Matthew counterpoint that Yahweh is the (good) ruler of this world. Likewise, the Marcionite notion that Jesus was a phantom, and not actually flesh, is the logical endpoint of the notion that the material realm is inferior.
In this Marcan theology, where the Demiurge is separate from the high God, giving tribute to Yaldabaoth (Yahweh), or partaking in the gifts he has given, would do nothing for a Christian’s salvation. In that sense, the only thing a Christian could do to give reverence to the “most high” was to HAVE FAITH (Mark 10:52):
And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole
In this context, we see another link between Mark and Paul. Faith was the central theme to these theologies.
There are echoes of this continuing fight in Pauline letters (this is particularly pertinent if you presume that Galatians was written by Marcion, a later successor of Cerinthus’ theology). Consider Galatians 2:10-11
They only asked us to be mindful of the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. When Cephas came to Antioch, however, I opposed him to his face,because he stood to be condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself, for fear of those in the circumcision group
For law-abiding Jews (men from James, probably a reference to the Ebionites), disdain at God’s offerings to humanity (or unapologetic consumption of “unclean” meat) would have been quite controversial. Indeed, this explanation seems at least as plausible than the explanation that Jews rejected Gentiles simply because they were not Jewish (or circumcised).