In my opinion, Marcion of Sinope was among the most influential figures in the development of early Christianity. Based on reconstructions of his theology, drawn from polemical treatises against him, he was probably the first person to use a canon which had any variety, and he also seems to have been the first person to consume and integrate into his system the now beloved Apostle Paul.
Though there were attempts to harmonize a growing number of disparate Gospels beginning in the mid-2nd century, notably the Diatessaron, many sects used their own preferred Gospels, not only to describe their own theology, but also to differentiate from competing sects. This is evident in the Gospel of Matthew, which is written in stark contrast to its predecessor, Mark. For reasons that are a mystery to onlookers, Irenaeus of Lyon put forth a canon which included 4 gospels, and deemed heretical any alternative or subset canon.
Despite Marcion’s reverence to Paul and Jesus, he was hated by the church fathers who are remembered by modernity as the “winners” in the matter of Orthodoxy. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Tertullian (Tertullian, like Marcion, later lost influence in the church), all wrote harshly against Paul’s earliest and most zealous consumer, Marcion.
Tradition holds Marcion was a shipyard owner, was extremely wealthy, and fell out of favor with his Orthodox Christian father, who held some sort of leadership role in the church. The source of this estrangement was, according to later polemical attacks, because Marcion raped a virgin and espoused heretical views (it is unclear which of these two sins was more influential in his father’s rejection of him). Marcion’s fallout with his father was said to have catalyzed his relationship with his heretical predecessor, Cerdo, who (in my opinion) is a pointer to the 4th Alexandrian pope, Kedron, Mark the Evangelist’s later successor.
In his five-volume tome, Against Marcion, Tertullian gave the following assessment of Marcion and the geographic region where he was active, on the southern coast of the Black Sea:
The dead bodies of their parents they cut up with their sheep, and devour at their feasts…They who have not died so as to become food for others…[women] uncover the breast, from which they suspend their battle-axes, and prefer warfare to marriage… The day-time is never clear, the sun never cheerful…Nothing, however, in Pontus is so barbarous and sad as the fact that Marcion was born there…
Adolf von Harnack in Gospel of the Alien God relays that Marcion donated 200,000 sesterces (2-4 million dollars, according to my own analysis) to the church; according to Epiphanius, this was to get back into good favor with the church in Rome; the church supposedly rejected the money. This anecdote, and the fact that Marcion appears to have been one of the only early heretics who attempted such a transaction, makes any story which refers to the evils of money a likely reference to Marcion (Acts of the Apostles 5, Acts of the Apostles 8, Acts of John – Callimachus, Shepherd of Hermas – Mandate 11:12).
The unskeptical reader might read the early saints’ dissertations against Marcion and presume Marcion was nearly as evil as Simon Magus, the arch-heretic and Saint Peter’s primary antagonist – plenty of modern Christians indeed believe this. To the like-minded non-skeptic, since Marcion’s influence dwindled over the centuries, we can presume Marcion’s influence was marginal. This sort of reasoning is erroneous.
Even the non-skeptic must deduce Marcion’s influence was enough to compel hundreds of thousands of words written against him – those early leaders would not have dedicated such energy and time to someone who lacked clout. The fact that polemical efforts were committed hundreds of years after Marcion’s death increases likelihood of major influence.
Critical scholars have long suspected dubious intent with regards to this several-hundred year anti-Mariconite polemical barrage. In the late 19th century, WC van Manen proposed Marcion’s likely authorship of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians – he cited Marcion’s curious attachment and elevation of the epistle – Galatians was the centerpiece of Marcion’s canon. Decades earlier, 19th century theologian FC Bauer noticed striking similarities between Peter and Simon Magus’ interaction (Acts 8) and Paul’s confrontation with Peter (Gal 2), along with (implicit) equivocation between Simon Magus and Paul in the Ebionite Clementine Homilies. In other words, Simon Magus, Paul, and Marcion might indeed have been rooted in the same historical person.
What can be deduced from Irenaeus and other 2nd and 3rd century heresy hunters is that these Simonian, Pauline, and Marcionite theologies were adamantly opposed by several sects, notably the Ebionites and Nazarenes, who rejected the notion that the material realm was created after a fall from the Godhead. I describe my thoughts on this Ebionite contrast in various posts, including The Brother of the Lord and Cerinthus.
My proposal, which is hardly new or groundbreaking is that the notable intellectual outputs produced by the Ebionites and Nazarenes were the proto-Gospel of Matthew (preceded by the Gospel of the Hebrews), the Pseudo-Clementine literature, the Epistle of James, and the Shepherd of Hermas. All these texts were influential in the formulation of the later Orthodoxy, which remained quasi-adherent to Christianity’s Jewish underpinnings, which kept the God of Abraham as the Godhead. Marcion, Valentinus, Basilides, Cerinthus, and other notable heretics all opposed this idea, which makes it likely that Christianity’s earliest formulation included a rejection of Yahweh.
Despite modern Christianity’s strong Jewish underpinning, which Marcion would have found detestable, echoes of Marcionism remain in modern Christianity. For example, Irenaeus gives indications that early sects tended exclusive use of particular gospels. The Ebionites used the Gospel of Matthew and the Docetics used the Gospel of Mark; this is a fascinating detail, considering most scholarship presumes Mark priority. My conclusion is, given the fact that the Ebionites were also Docetic, despite their rejection of an intermediary God, the earliest Christian theology was indeed Docetic. Docetism is the notion that Christ did not suffer on the wooden cross, either because the spirit left his body prior to crucifixion, or because his body was never material in the first place.
The detail which ought to raise flags for those interested is that Marcion’s theology was Docetic, as well – Marcion held the view that Christ was a phantom, and was not physically manifest. In this sense, the Marcionites have a curious connection to the Gospel of Mark, although they were more often associated with the Gospel of Luke. The fact that the Gospel of Mark retained its Docetic undertones, despite an enormous pushback against its theology is quite remarkable, and is probably indicative of Docetism’s ongoing influence within Christianity, long after one of its earliest inventors, Marcion, died.
Though the Ebionite view was Docetic itself, probably holding the notion that the spirit entered Jesus at the time of baptism, the more significant contrast between the Ebionites and everyone else came with the later introduction of the virgin birth by the Nazarenes, which implied that the God who brought Jesus to the material realm had the ability to interact with the material realm. This would have contrasted with Marcionites, who believed there was a fall from the Godhead, and that the inferior God who was created during this fall subsequently created the material realm. With Marcion’s view, as well as the Gnostic position, one motivation was to provide a way, not only for how to cope with the inferior reality in which we are imprisoned, but also to supply a way for faithful Christians to return to the high God (this was similar to the Egyptian view, which gave a way to return to Osiris via his proxy, Anubis). A tenet of the proto-Docetic and Gnostic view, which can be found in John 14:6, was that it was the responsibility of the spiritually enlightened to return to the father, and the son provided transport.
The Ebionite Gospel of Matthew, and its later Nazarene integration of a virgin birth, seems curious in contrast to Marcion’s supposed Gospel. As early as 180CE, Irenaeus claimed Marcion used a subset of the Gospel of Luke. Modern reconstructions of this Gospel, based mainly on Tertullian’s work, notably removes the virgin birth from Luke. Coupled with Irenaeus’ claim that the Docetics used the Gospel of Mark, a Gospel which likewise omits the virgin birth and Jesus’ family tree, one speculation is that the proto-Synoptic story is equivalent to the Marcionite alteration of Luke; in other words, Marcion’s Gospel preceded the Synoptic gospels, and that it was Mark, Matthew, and Luke which borrowed from Marcion, and not the opposite.
Though Marcion’s chief antagonists, notably the Ebionites and Nazarenes (men from James), got their way via Yahweh’s continued relevance within Christianity, it was another sect which was the gold standard among the earliest church leaders. Irenaeus concocted his own biography to include a link and allegiance to Polycarp, a supposed leader of the Asian sect called the Johannines. Like their name suggests, the Johannines held John to be the highest apostle; this is contrasted with the Ebionites and Nazarenes who elevated James. Marcion, of course, elevated Paul.
The most obvious surviving Johannine literature consists of the Gospel of John and Revelation.
One Johannine text now relegated among the other heap of inauthentic apocrypha* is the Acts of John
They are all inauthentic apocrypha!
One of my own opinions about the Acts of John, which as far as I can tell is original, is that it seems to capture a point in time where the Johannines were simultaneously attached to Marcion’s version of Docetism, which said that Jesus was a phantom, and coming to reject Marcion as a leader. The Acts of John reports an observation by John where he looked for Jesus’ footprints in the sand, but could not find them.
The reason why I believe the Acts of John is giving insight into a growing schism is because of its inclusion of a character named Callimachus. Callimachus was a wealthy “servant of satan” who was attracted to a woman who died. He gave money to get access to the woman’s tomb so he could rape her corpse. Upon entry to the tomb, he was told by another woman to “die, that you may live.” Compare that to Galatians 2:19, which had Paul say:
For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God…
Despite Marcion’s fall from grace within the Ebionite and Johannine communities, Marcion’s favorite apostle, and perhaps also his invention, Paul survived into modern Christianity (the Ebionites never accepted Paul as anything other than an apostate from the law). By all accounts, Paul was even used by the Johannine community – it is no coincidence that the (probably inauthentic – see WG Kummel) epistle to the Ephesians was directed towards people in Ephesus; Ephesus, in modern day western Turkey, was said to be ground-zero for the Johannine community. Tradition holds that the apostle John moved from Jerusalem to Ephesus around 70 CE, despite overwhelming improbability.
Given Marcion’s early position in Christian history, along with his zealous consumption of Paul and elevation of Paul’s letters, notably Galatians, Marcion becomes a likely contributor to Paul’s corpus. The fact that we can superimpose Marcion on top of Paul in the conflicts described in Galatians, and that it fits so well into the extra-biblical history we can derive from Irenaeus and the other heresy hunters, makes Marcion’s authorship more likely. The ancient, misguided opinion, based on the deceptions invented by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, which proposed Marcion was an anomaly within an emerging Orthodoxy, is both dimwitted and naive, and reflects the desperation on the part of Christians and pseudo-scholars who were, for millenia, motivated to construct a historical narrative which validated the array of lies invented by those earliest saints.