The Johannines and the Marcionites

Most people familiar with early Christian history would say that the Johannines and Marcionites had very little in common.

Left: John. Right: Marcion

The Marcionites may (or may not) have used a Gospel which looked like a Docetic Luke without the birth story.  But their real claim to fame was their vociferous use of the Apostle Paul…to the point of elevating him above all those other apostles who supposedly knew and interacted with Jesus on earth.  One wonders how the Marcionites could have developed such an anti-apostolic (the 12 other apostles) opinion, given that Jesus divined so much wisdom to James, John, Cephas, and the gang.

On the other hand, the picture we have of the Johannines, who seem to have been most active in western Roman Asia (modern day Turkey), is that of a Christianity influenced by Hellenistic culture, in particular, the unabashed implementation of a theology which borrowed from earlier Platonic influences (the Logos, etc).

Aside from relatively close (600 miles) geography, Sinope and Ephesus on the map, the only obvious link between the Johannines and the Marcionites appears to be Paul.


Even people who don’t believe Jesus Christ ever existed might explain this shared Pauline reverence by presuming Paul was active in the mid-1st century, and that each of these sects interpreted Paul from their own perspective, which gave rise to an enormously broad set of 2nd century Paul-friendly sects, notably the Johannines, Marcionites, and Valentinians.

There is some economy to Paul’s existence, notably that each of the above 3 sects were active throughout Syria and Roman Asia, which is exactly the geographic location where tradition holds Paul was active.

Yet, as I’ve droned on in many earlier posts, I have a lot of reasons to suspect that the large majority of what remains as the “authentic Paul” corpus was not written by the so-called apostle; rather, I think the “authentic Paul” was the work of early Marcionites, and later redacted and interpolated by Irenaeus’ orthodoxy.  Those Paul letters which contain “Gnostic flare,” and which give scholars trouble, including Collossians and Ephesians, were probably written later by Valentinians or other emerging Gnostics who had an affinity towards Paul and a likewise anti-apostolic framework.

A key attribute of Marcionism was their DocetismTertullian, in Against Marcion [208], describes the dichotomy between the Marcionites and the Johannines, and also hints at Marcionite Docetism:

…and henceforth vomit forth the virulence of his own disposition, as when he alleges Christ to be a phantom. Except, indeed, that this opinion of his will be sure to have others to maintain it in his precocious and somewhat abortive Marcionites, whom the Apostle John designated as antichrists.

According to Tertullian, the key to Marcion’s doctrine was the Docetism.  Docetism came in evolving manifestations – in one version, the Spirit descended onto Jesus at the time of his baptism; in another version, Christ was not flesh at all; rather, he was a phantom.  Marcionism appears to be closer to the latter than the former.

So, if we can find remnants of Docetism in the Johannine theology, then the link between the Johannines and the Marcionites not only becomes more plausible, but it would also allow us to actually see a previous symbiosis between the Marcionites and the Johannines that history seems to ignore.

A person defending the orthodoxy (and subsequently arguing against Marcionism’s influence on it) might cite John 1:14:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

It is a common theme that later edits to Christian texts were most often placed at the beginning and the end of the text.  This pattern can be found in other John-centric texts, including the Apocryphon of John, as well as Revelation.  So the fact that the Logos becoming flesh occurs so early in the Gospel of John gives me skepticism as to its original authenticity.

Though this is no proof, we can also find blatant Docetic passages in the Gospel of John itself.  For instance, in John 20:17

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

Jesus told Mary not to touch him because he hasn’t returned to heaven yet.  A curious passage, no doubt, but one wonders if John’s writer had a Docetic bias in mind when he wrote the passage.

Another John-centric text, arguably used by the Johannine community, was the Acts of John, which likewise contained blatant Docetism, by claiming Jesus left no foot prints when he walked.

And oftentimes when I walked with him, I desired to see the print of his foot, whether it appeared on the earth; for I saw him as it were lifting himself up from the earth: and I never saw it. …we must at the present keep silence concerning his mighty and wonderful works, inasmuch as they are unspeakable and, it may be, cannot at all be either uttered or heard.

One of the earliest criticisms of another Johannine text, Revelation (John’s Apocalypse) is that it was not written by John, but rather by a person who was John’s heretical contemporary, Cerinthus.  As I’ve proposed before, Cerinthus seems like a good candidate for the actual person who heresy hunters referred to as Cerdo (which translates in various languages to the fox, the pig, and the profiteer).  The detail which I would cite to support this claim is Cerinthus’ Docetism.  According to Irenaeus:

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 that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all…Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles

What makes this Docetic underpinning even more striking is the fact that Marcion and Paul’s primary antagonists, the Ebionites, also held a Docetic view.

Those who are called Ebionites agree [my note: with Irenaeus] that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus…They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law

Here, Irenaeus tells us that the Ebionites have a theological similarity with not only Cerinthus, but Marcion, as well, because their opinions “with respect to the Lord [Jesus]” are similar.  The only “opinions with respect to” Jesus Irenaeus had earlier mentioned (in terms of Cerinthus) was the Docetic nature of Jesus, as well as the Demiurge portion of the theology.  Irenaeus explicitly states the the Ebionites believe the world was created by the Abrahamic God.  Therefore, Irenaeus is saying that the Ebionites were Docetic.

There is a striking passage in 2 Corinthians 12 which, in my mind, ties these details together:

I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago was caught up to the third heaven.  Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows…[he] was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.


In other words, a trip to heaven (in middle-Platonic cosmology [Ptolemy], the third heaven was Venus, which was sometimes referred to as Lucifer, when it was visible in the morning.  The 3rd heaven was sometimes where the Garden of Eden could be found; however, my understanding is that the Garden was more often found in the 4th heaven, where the sun was), and the mysteries revealed in the trip, are part of the mystery of Paul’s Christianity.  Of course, Paul could be referring to anyone; likewise, a person defending Paul’s historicity and timeline could just as easily assert that Paul is referring to John’s experience as described in Revelation.  My point is that the timeline and reference works just as well if Marcion wrote this text* and he was referring to Cerinthus.

*Note:  It is widely recognized that 2 Corinthians is made up of at least 2 separate letters, where 2 Corinthians 10+ is a separate letter than the earlier portion of 2 Corinthians.  Given the fact that the letters are separate, this claim works even if one presumes that a real Paul wrote earlier portions of 2 Corinthians.

In my mind, the detail which brings this data together comes in Hippolytus’ 2nd century work “Refutation of All Heresies“.  In it, Hippolytus (who probably didn’t actually write this text) refers to a 2nd generation Marcionite, named Appeles

But Apelles, sprung from these, thus expresses himself, (saying) that there is a certain good Deity, as also Marcion supposed, and that he who created all things is just. Now he, (according to Apelles,) was the Demiurge of generated entities…And (Apelles) selects from the Gospels or (from the writings of) the Apostle (Paul) whatever pleases himself, But he devotes himself to the discourses of a certain Philumene as to the revelations of a prophetess…). And (he asserts that Jesus) was not born of a virgin, and that when he did appear he was not devoid of flesh.

Hippolytus earlier wrote:

But this heretic is in the habit of devoting his attention to a book which he calls Revelations of a certain Philumene, whom he considers a prophetess.

In other words, a 2nd generation Marcionite, who held remarkably similar views to both Marcion and Cerinthus, relied not only on portions of some Gospels, but also on a book called Revelations.

These details, when put together, amplifies the case that the earliest theologies (Marcion, Johannines, Ebionites) all held Docetic views and inherited the Book of Revelation.  And for some reason, perhaps by the 150s, there was an increasing need to inject more humanity into Jesus.  Incidentally, this exactly corresponds to the time that Christianity moved west into Rome, perhaps for lobbying purposes, as there began to be more apologies written to emperors around this time.

Justin Martyr

We might have some indication in Justin Martyr‘s 1st apology of what compelled this change:

And whether [Marcionites] perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds — the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh— we know not; but we do know that they are neither persecuted nor put to death by you, at least on account of their opinions.



Perhaps some Christian sects believed they were being persecuted more than others, which is what compelled them to ask Rome to reevaluate their perspective on Christians.


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

11 thoughts on “The Johannines and the Marcionites”

  1. I want to know your thoughts on this peculiar John passage:

    “There was a man sent from God,whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. [No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.]” – John 1:6-18, Revised Standard Version (emphasis added)

    I’m thinking that all this talk about the light or the divine pleroma are remnants of the Gnostic Cerinthus. The phrase “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, I think is a polemic against docetism but also the origin of the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception or being born without the sinful desires of sex. I’m thinking that the writer of John is appealing to Encratites (fl. mid 2nd cent CE) who was said to be started by Tatian; the alleged author of the Diatessaron. I think the real kicker here is the phrase “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” This has a very gnostic bent. Not even Bible-believing Christians nowadays would believe such because it contradicts the OT verses where Moses and Aaron having a meetup with God in a wee little tent or when Elijah ascending to heaven. Rather, it seems to me that it is some sort of a rejoinder to Matthew 11:25 which says “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes…” It looks like the typical gnostic notion that only the wise can penetrate the inner circle. But all things considered as to why the canonical gospels were written is because to combat the docetic heresy, they had a solution by adding Luke 24:38-39 and the entire doubting Thomas drama (John 20:24-29) is their way to prove to everyone that Jesus is not just a contrived idea but also a son of God who has both flesh and blood.


    1. I think the Gospel of John is more-or-less the Gospel of Mark version 2. It still has Docetic tinges, but the sect that authored it also had Gnostic influence, probably from the Valentinians, who used the Gospel of John as well…my suspicion is that Valentinus was from Syria, as opposed to the traditional opinion of Alexandria (or Carthage). Given that detail, Valentinian influence in the Roman Asia (Ephesus) Johannine sect becomes more plausible.

      As far as I can tell, the Gospel of John’s Logos is synonymous with the Demiurge, which is a carryover from the original Philo of Alexandria Hellenized Judaism, so I’m sure John’s author was indeed familiar with Philo and the surrounding philosophy.

      I think the most interesting bit in the GOJ is Jesus reaming the priests, telling them they are “of their father, the devil.” No doubt, this is clearly Gnostic.

      Tradition holds (in pseudo-Tertullian, I think) that (Samaritan) Simon Magus (AKA Paul and/or Marcion) was in competition with another Samaritan Gnostic named Dositheos for the John the Baptist sect. Given this detail, and earlier remnants of Docetism in the Johannine sect (evident in the Acts of John), I wonder if the inclusion of John the Baptist (and the Gospel of John’s Samaritan-friendly sentiments) might have been part of the fallout from that fight.

      There is a theory that someone (can’t remember) floated that the Gospel of John was originally written for John the Baptist, as opposed to Jesus…as time goes on, I’m finding that idea more and more plausible, as I think both characters were invented by borrowing from people described by Josephus (Jesus=Jesus ben Ananias, John=Theudas).

      As far as the “No one has ever seen god but me”, April Deconick’s position is that this was a passage that was familiar with the Thomas community in Syria, and the idea was to limit the visionary mysticism that was so rampant in that community – the notion that visions of Jesus could reveal more teachings from God/Jesus. Interestingly enough, this mysticism was an element in Valentinianism, as the story went that Valentinus had learned Godly communication strategies from Paul’s disciple Theudas.

      I think the “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is a later interpolation, as it barely fits in the surrounding “emanation” terminology that is so Gnostic.

      I think there was a very blurred line between Docetism and Christian Gnosticism at one point (perhaps C 120-135), re: Matthew 11:25. Matthew’s writers (who I think originally were the Ebionites) were also Docetic, but they did not have a robust Demiurge layer with Yaldabaoth, etc. So the fact that Matthew has Easter eggs I think reflects that detail…


      1. Indeed, especially if we factor in the 1 Corinthians 15:35-50 which contradicts the physical resurrection doctrine in the four gospels.

        But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. -Revised Standard Version, emphasis added

        If this doesn’t reek of Gnosticism, I don’t know what else will?


      2. If you come at Paul from the perspective that it wasn’t really Paul writing letters in the mid-1st century, the first candidate for “who is Paul” is Marcion. But there are so many overtly Gnostic themes in the Pauline letters, it’s almost too Gnostic for Marcion.

        Tradition holds that Valentinus was a prominent member of the early church until he was ex-communicated (or went his own way). I wonder if some of the overt Gnosticism in Paul actually came from Valentinus (or a Valentinian)


  2. I have to confess though that I haven’t made up my mind who could be this Paul of the epistles. Definitely the Paul of Acts of the Apostles is more of an embellishment after the church fathers have sanitized the Pauline epistles which they made Paul some sort of a champion for the poor Christians like their very own Captain America fighting the Jewish Hydra. Bob Price theorized that it is Simon Magus. Richard Carrier thinks he’s historical whereas Herman thinks he’s not.


    1. Richard Carrier just wrote a post (I think it was last night) on his website that certain parts of 1 Corinthians (the creed) were absolutely part of the original Christianity, and he (as far as I can tell) relied on details from Galatians to build his case – specifically that James and Cephas were integral parts of the mid-1st century Christianity.

      I haven’t paid much attention to RC for a while, but I was struck at how unconvincing his argument was. Yes, it is fallacious to make speculations about Marcion or Valentinian authorship, but I don’t see how presupposing Galatians’ authenticity is any less fallacious, particularly when Galatians is the single most likely epistle to have been authored by Marcion.

      It’s all speculation…my main hangup is that I see much more economy in later, non-Paul authorship. Of course, it is not totally unfathomable that the 1st century Celestial Christianity existed, as Carrier, Doherty, et al claim…certainly the Docetics had predecessors, and the Celestial Christianity is just as good of a candidate as any for who those predecessors were. I guess my answer is a big fat I-Don’t-Know 🙂


      1. Bob Price published a journal article as to why 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 as post-pauline interpolations. The verses 3-11 are definitely an interpolation in my opinion for it is an abrupt interruption and it contradicts the rest of the the spiritual resurrection drama in the epistles. The verses 8-10 seems to be inserted deliberately from Acts of the Apostles. First of all, Paul/Saul is absent when Jesus was crucified and it differs a lot from the gospel story. I think it was Danish scholar Dr. Christian Lindtner who mentioned that verses 3-8 parallels a Buddhist text from the Lotus Sutra where Buddha appeared to his 500 followers before attaining Nirvana (I’m not sure?). It was Bob Price who mentioned it in a Bible Geek episode before. Here and Here.


      2. The thing I like about Marcionite authorship is that all of these weird things get explained if you presume that the Pauline author already had a Synoptic Gospel (which Marcion probably did, IMHO). Even if 1 Corin was not authored by a Marcionite, I’m inclined to agree with you that this is at least partial interpolation.


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