Careful examination of the so-called early Christian heretics, and their chronologies, reveals Christianity evolved in a linear manner over its first 100 years; new sects arose in response to their predecessors, a common phenomenon even outside of religious cults.
Below is my truncated reconstruction of the chronological development of Christianity, in terms of the emerging theological ideas:
Emerged sometime at the tail end of the 1st century. Presumed there was a fall from the Godhead, and that Christ was sent by the highest God to become embodied within a human Jesus; this implied the God of Abraham and the Jewish prophets were inferior to Christ. Assumed a man suffered on the cross, but the Christ did not. Later followers presumably used something like the Gospel of Mark (AH iii.11.7, AH i.26.1), although Cerinthus was connected to other Johannine texts, including Revelation and the Gospel of John.
Emerged shortly after the Cerinthians. Held that Christ and Jesus were separate. Adherant to Jewish law, and did not presume Christ’s God was separate from Abraham’s. At some point prior to 180, were said to reject Paul’s teachings. Were said to use an early version of the Gospel of Matthew
Emerged sometime in the first decades of the 2nd century. Similar to the Cerinthians, except they held Jesus was not flesh at all, and did not presume Jesus was born on Earth. According to the Marcionites, Jesus could not have suffered on the cross because he was not made from material components; his construction was in heaven.
Similar to the Ebionites, except they injected the notion of a virgin birth, and thus eliminated the earlier Docetism from the Ebionite theology. Justin Martyr referenced the virgin birth in his first apology, in the middle-2nd century, which suggests the Nazarene virgin birth might have been as early as the first quarter of the second century. Their Gospel of Matthew was probably similar to the modern version. The virgin birth was probably invented in response to the Marcionite proposition which made Jesus even less attached to the material realm than the earlier Cerinthians believed.
A blanket term to describe several similar groups between Syria and Alexandria, including the Sethians and Ophites, and to a lesser extent, the Hermetics. Like Cerinthus and Marcion, the Gnostics had a robust notion of the Demiurge, or the world’s creator; their cosmological picture was much more complex than their Christian predecessors; this was probably due to the fact that these groups existed long before Christianity, and were only later Christianized. Their seeming lack of incorporation of Paul’s teachings suggests they preceded the Valentinians, and were either ignorant of Paul, or rejected him entirely.
Similar to the earlier Gnostics, and emerged sometime between 140 and 150. Integrated components of Marcionism (specifically their incorporation of Paul – supposedly via their discipleship of his pupil, Theudas), Gnosticism, and Nazarene teachings. They were perhaps at their peak at the tail end of the 2nd century, but survived for several hundred years after, splitting between Western and Eastern thought, after Christianity moved to Rome. According to Irenaeus, the Valentinians made “copious use of the Gospel of John” (AH iii.11.7).
Probably incorporated Marcionism in their earlier stages, as evidenced by passages within the Acts of John, as well as the Gospel of John 20:17. Emerged in the middle 2nd century, and held John as the highest apostle. In surviving letters, they explicitly rejected Marcion and Docetism. By the late 2nd century, this group was held as the gold standard of Christianity by Irenaeus, despite the fact that he might have mischaracterized their history and positions (my suspicion is that Irenaeus forged Polycarp’s surviving epistle).
There is a problem with this chronology, as it relates to the Valentinian timeframe. This problem relates to something Irenaeus made clear in Against Heresies:
Valentinus came to Rome in the time of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and remained until Anicetus [Note: 138-C 160]. Cerdon, too, Marcion’s predecessor, himself arrived in the time of Hyginus, who was the ninth bishop…Marcion, then, succeeding him, flourished under Anicetus [Note: Anicetus’ papacy was 157-168], who held the tenth place of the episcopate.
Irenaeus’ statement presents a dilemma, because it raises the question of how Valentinus could have been such a staunch consumer of Paul, who seems to have been discovered by Marcion. The picture Irenaeus paints suggests Valentinus was active perhaps as much as two decades earlier than Marcion.
Another problem with Irenaeus’ timeframe for Valentinus is that it injects a complex Gnosticism into Christianity before the notion of the “phantom Christ” that seemed so synonymous with Marcionism.
One way to economically parse Irenaeus’ timeframe is to reject the notion that Marcion discovered or invented Paul – that Paul was a historical character, active sometime in the mid-to-late 1st century, and that he was (for a time) lost or obfuscated in Christian development. I do not think this is true, but it is a possibility.
Another alternative is to presume Syrian and Alexandrian Gnosticism were influential to Christianity earlier than 125, perhaps as early as the late 1st century. Under this assumption, Valentinus took influence from Cerinthus, the Ebionites, and the Gnostics, and emerged with a complex cosmological model which integrated and enhanced Cerinthus’ Demiurge by merging it with Gnostic thought. Perhaps Basilides, who Irenaeus wrote (AH i.24.3) developed notions of the Nous, Logos, and other Gnostic ideas, played a role in the early Gnostic import into Christianity. Saturninus also occupied important space on the bridge between Docetic Christianity and Gnostic Christianity, particularly in Syria, which is geographically in between Roman Asia, where many of these heretics lived, and Judea, where the Gospel stories were claimed to have taken place.
Though this latter assumption is not harmful to my broader speculations, I think there is an even more plausible solution.
In Justin Martyr’s 1st apology, which was written sometime between 141 and 155, Justin alludes to Marcion as an aging man (“…is even at this day alive”, “…has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies”). There is further evidence of Marcion’s age in Clement’s Stromata, where he says
…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].
According to Clement, Marcion preceded Simon Magus, who was later claimed to be the
father of all heresies.
My conclusion based on this conflicting data is that the reason the early heresy hunters placed Marcion later is because they wanted to obscure his influence. What better way to demonstrate a Christian’s theological folly than to tell them their theology is much younger than the preferred alternative?
By moving Marcion two to four decades later, the pre-Orthodoxy was able to claim Marcion’s theology was a new heresy, as opposed to what it really was: a direct descendant of the earliest Christianity.