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 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). In fact, if one reads Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, which contain the first inklings of an actual orthodox New Testament canon, one might conclude the Johannines were the only sect Irenaeus liked, given his affinity towards Polycarp, who history remembers as a student of the Apostle John (of course, this is a rather dim-witted view, all things considered).
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.
…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.
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.