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Roth on Reading the Sources for Marcion

March 25, 2015

(LWH:  This is the third invited posting from Dr. Dieter Roth on Marcion.)

In my two previous guest blog posts (here and here) considering Marcion’s Gospel, I focused predominantly on issues of reconstructing this text, highlighting, first, problematic issues in Markus Vinzent’s new monograph[1] and, second, the most important methodological considerations when attempting a reconstruction of Marcion’s Gospel. In this third and final posting, I would like to return to Vinzent’s book and consider “the other side of the coin” of his argument involving Marcion, namely examples of his reading of the sources.

Of course, it is, once again, vital to remember that when reading the sources for Marcion we are dealing with hostile sources and that therefore great care and critical reflection needs to be used when assessing the polemics of the church fathers against “heretics.” Nevertheless, important insights can be gained from the ancient sources, and Vinzent has set forth what he believes are significant new insights into what the sources tell us about Marcion. These readings, however, seem to be to be quite problematic. In order to illustrate these problems, I will consider two examples of Vinzent’s reading of Tertullian, whose Adversus Marcionem (cited hereafter as Marc.) remains the most extensive, and one of the most important, extant sources for Marcion.

As noted in my first post, Vinzent has set forth the thesis that Marcion created the new literary genre of the Gospel and that he had no historical precedent in the combination of sayings and narratives about Jesus (cf. p. 277). Arguing for this view with reference to Tertullian, Vinzent contends: “Tertullian asserts that with his Gospel Marcion introduced a nova forma sermonis, a literary innovation, that there is in Christ a novel style of discourse, when he sets forth similitudes, when he answers questions” (p. 92). In support of this point, Vinzent offers a citation in a footnote from Marc. 4.11.12. His quotation of the Latin, here translated, reads: “In Christ [there is] a new form of discourse, with similitudes set forth, with questions answered” (p. 92, n. 352).

Though this comment would seem to support Vinzent’s view, the glaring problem is that this citation is taken completely out of context, and gives a misleading impression of what Tertullian wrote. In fact, Tertullian states exactly the opposite of what Vinzent asserts. In Marc. 4.11.12, Tertullian contends that though the Gospel is different from the Law (it is an advance out of the Law), the Gospel is in no way opposed to the Law. He goes on to say, “Nor is there in Christ any novel style of discourse. When he sets forth similitudes, when he answers questions, this comes from the seventy-seventh psalm: I will open my mouth, he says, in a parable, which means a similitude: I will utter dark sayings, which means, I will explain difficulties” (Evans translation). Vinzent simply omitted the opening Latin negation (nec) and ignored the manner in which Tertullian actually sees this “not novel” manner of discourse as fulfilling a Psalm.

Second, Vinzent also attempts to support his view that Marcion wrote the first Gospel by contending that Tertullian presents Marcion as the composer of his Gospel text, but as the redactor of Paul’s epistles. Vinzent writes “He [Tertullian] even terms Marcion the ‘gospel-author’, or as E. Evans translates evangelizator, ‘gospel-maker’, and as the German translator V. Luker [sic, Lukas] renders it ‘Evangelienschreiber’” (p. 92).

This interpretation of evangelizator referring to Marcion being a Gospel writer in the manner envisioned by Vinzent, however, strikes me as curious. Vinzent is referring to Marc. 4.4.5 where Tertullian, after stating that heretical emending of the gospel is due to human temerity and not divine authority, comments “even if Marcion were an angel, he is more likely to be called anathema than gospel-maker, seeing he has preached a different gospel” (translation Evans). Tertullian clearly has Gal 1:8 in mind where Paul addresses the proclamation of a gospel contrary to what he had proclaimed to the Galatians. It seems to me that Tertullian’s meaning here, therefore, is that Marcion has proclaimed a gospel message, one that Tertullian views as a different gospel from the message that he regards as valid and true.

Even if the idea is that Marcion “made” or “created” a gospel, this does not support Vinzent’s view that Marcion was the creator of the Gospel-genre. Indeed, in Adversus Marcionem Tertullian makes only one further reference to an evangelizator and two references to evangelizatores (plural). In Marc. 5.5.1, Tertullian refers to Paul as an evangelizator; in Marc. 5.7.11 he refers to true evangelizatores of the gospel; and in 5.19.5 he refers to Judaizing evagelizatores. In all of these instances, Tertullian rather clearly appears to be referring to the proclamation and preaching of a gospel message, not to writing Gospels. For, of course, if evangelizator means Gospel-writer in Vinzent’s sense, then according to Tertullian, Paul and not Marcion was the first to write a Gospel! Such speculation, however, seems unnecessary as there is no need to read Vinzent’s notion of “authorship” and “writing” into Tertullian’s reference to Marcion as an evangelizator; indeed, it seems highly dubious to do so.

A final point to be made here is that in Marc. 5.1.9 Tertullian explicitly states that Marcion’s treatment of the Gospel text that he has now made into his own heretical Gospel leads one to expect the mutilation of the number of Paul’s epistles. That is to say, in Tertullian’s view, the whittling down of Paul’s epistles from thirteen to ten comes as no surprise given Marcion’s excising of passages in the Gospel text. In short, it does not seem that the radical difference posited by Vinzent between Tertullian’s view of Marcion as “writer” of the Gospel on the one hand and “redactor” of the epistles on the other can be sustained. According to Tertullian, Marcion “wrote” his Gospel in the same way that he “wrote” his Pauline letter collection—by changing, editing, and excising already extant texts.

To summarize, I simply do not see Tertullian supporting the notions Vinzent ascribes to him. Once again, however, I welcome the renewed interest in Marcion and his Gospel. Yet, scholarship requires careful, methodologically controlled, and critical work on both Marcion’s Gospel and the sources, as it is only on such a basis that the discussion can move forward in a constructive way.

[1] Markus Vinzent, Marcion and the Dating of the Synoptic Gospels (Studia patristica supplement 2; Leuven: Peeters, 2014).

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  1. Fred Weston permalink

    I suppose I might allow that Christianity took the heaven\earth, spirit vs. mattter metaphysical dualism of Plato, and presented its defeat as a chronological goal. Heaven coming down to join the earth. Spirit retuning in a fleshly man and body like Jesus. And human flesh acquiring a new, heavenly spirit.

    • Fred: No, again, No! YOu don’t know what you’re talking about. YOu obviously have no knowledge of the ancient historical situation. CHristians didn’t invent the two-age eschatology, or fashion it from Platonism. God Lord, Fred! Do some reading! Early Christianity simply drew upon a basic eschatological framework that appeared in ancient Jewish tradition by the 4th century BCE or so. Maybe some Persian influence, but not Platonism!! But until you read and learn some stuff, please cease babbling nonsense here.

  2. Fred Weston permalink

    My position is that Marcionism and gnosticism are essentially the heir of hierarchial, Platonistic dualism. Which places mind, ideas, spirit, above matter.

    Since Plato wrote c. 350 BCE, there would be “Marcionite” elements in the writings of hellenized Jews, both before and after Marcion. Particularly after, of course. But this whole group eventually began modifying – hellenizing, platonizing – lements of Jewish writings.
    Over a long timefame.

    Likely there were crude early versions of the gospels. But early and later hellenists, Platonists like Marcion, were continually modifying the texts. Offering an optional reading of God and his physical miracles, as metaphors for spiritual rewards in a platonic heaven.

    So Marcion is just part of a much larger process. One which predates and postdates Marcion himself. Though a particularly thorough 140 Platonistic edit of early Luke, seems plausible.

    • Fred: You’re confusing/collating two quite different matters. Certainly, Plato and forms of Platonism were circulating all through the Graeco-Roman period, and, yes, many see in “Gnosticism” (a dubiously helpful term) Platonic notions
      But your final two paragraphs are unrelated to this, and have no real evidence. We have no evidence of “crude early versions of the gospels”. As for Marcion, the conventional wisdom is that he thought he was restoring his gospel text from earlier corruption, not modifying it to suit his whimsy. Moreover, most of the so-called “gnostics” seem to have simply written their own texts (e.g., Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Philip) rather than monkeying around with the text of the well-known ones. You need to get a firmer handle on the historical facts before you spout so confidently your erroneous claims.

      • Fred Weston permalink

        Many think that before the gospels was Q, or a list of sayings. Which I call proto gospels, along with early apocrypha.

        I see platonic influence in them and in modern gospels, given the many times the NT allows reading physical events as metaphors for spiritual things..

      • Fred: “Q” is thought to have been a collection of Jesus-sayings (and perhaps not a fixed single collection). It’s not a “gospel.” And there is no evidence of “early apocrypha” prior to the NT Gospels. The so-called “apocrypha” are commonly thought to have originated sometime in the 2nd century and thereafter.
        And the use of “metaphors” isn’t evidence of “Platonic influence.” Metaphors are a universal form of human thought. Scholars have actually been hard-pressed to find any evidence of direct “Platonic influences” anywhere in the NT. The closest that we come is in Hebrews, but even there it’s a contested matter.

  3. Fred Weston permalink

    Dieter, does Tertullian see a theology in Marcion? Cutting out the OT and its god as too materialistic, was the quintessential gnostic move. And one found in Paul, partially. Where a spiritual, not material move, is enough to realize the eschatological “new creation” or kingdom.

    • Fred: Dieter can reply for himself on your question about Marcion. But I’ll comment on your characterization of Paul: I see no basis whatsoever for your claim that Paul held “spiritual, not material” view of things. For Paul, the new creation (and salvation) is completed in the transformation of mortal embodiment into immortal embodiment, and the entire creation is to experience something of a release from its bondage (e.g., Romans 8). Paul remained a firm adherent of the one God who was creator and redeemer.

      • Fred Weston permalink

        I partly agree that an earthly kingdom, not just a heavenly one within, was ultimately envisioned. Yet Paul leaves us up in the air for some time, before returning us to material earth.

        Most acknowledge the full material kingdom is not yet here. In the meantime, it is a spiritual dream. Which platonists might even prefer, pending entry to a spiritul heaven.

      • No, Fred, you keep missing important stuff! Paul (and NT writers generally) don’t propose flight from “material” to “immaterial” (which is apparently what you take “spiritual” to mean). Instead, the envision a divinely-empowered transformation of the familiar/mortal world, ushering in “the age to come”. It’s a chronological dualism, not a metaphysical one. The latter is Platonism, the former is Jewish (and Christian) eschatology. Keep reading, Fred. And set aside your pre-conceived categories. You’ll learn some interesting stuff!

    • Dieter Roth permalink

      Thanks for your question, Fred. It certainly does appear that Tertullian sees a theology in Marcion, though the issue of the “material” is only one component in it. Tertullian’s polemic Targets Marcion’s dualism, his christology, his ecclesiological practice, his texts, and so forth. Though perhaps not directly a theological critique, Tertullian even criticizes the region that Marcion is from! For discussion of these and other issues, see the collection of essays in “Marcion and His Impact on Church History” (de Gruyter, 2002), the 2010 WUNT volume by Sebastian Moll, and the forthcoming monograph by Judith Lieu.

  4. Nathan Tumey permalink

    There’s a nagging question I’ve had about Marcion that I’m hoping one of you can address. I’ve heard from multiple sources that Marcion explicitly rejects the other extant gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John). Wouldn’t that imply that they at least EXISTED at the time of Marcion?

    This seems to fly in the face of what the author (Vinzent) is saying. I’m not a scholar, just armchair apologist – so I’m trying to make sense of the differing views of Marcion. I’m also curious how Vinzent can claim that Marcion was the first gospel writer (of Luke or “proto-Luke”) when we have such clear textual evidence that Mark was first gospel written. His assertion just seems to fly in the face of reason. Am I missing something?

    • Dieter responded this way:
      It is the case that we have sources depicting Marcion as having chosen Luke from among the Gospels to mutilate. For instance, Tertullian wrote “For out of those authors whom we possess, Marcion is seen to have chosen Luke as the one to mutilate” (Marc. 4.2.4; Evans translation). Statements such as these, along with other considerations, led Theodor Zahn or Adolf von Harnack, for example, to believe that the Fourfold Gospel existed prior to Marcion and that Marcion consciously selected Luke. The problem, however, is that as I noted in my post, we are dealing with hostile sources who may or may not be providing us with entirely accurate information. Certainly, Tertullian believed that the Four Gospels were written before Marcion, that Marcion chose one of them (Luke), and then mutilated it. There is a debate, however, concerning whether this actually reflects what happened or if it is simply Tertullian’s assumption. It has been argued, for instance, that Marcion did edit Luke, but that this was the only Gospel he knew. The discussion concerning how Marcion came to have one and only one Gospel is an ongoing one.

      Concerning Markan priority, it is undoubtedly the case that this is the view held by the vast majority of NT scholars (a position that I also hold). At the same time, there are advocates of the so-called Neo-Griesbach position that view Mark as the last of the Synoptic Gospels to have been written, condensing Matthew and Luke. They certainly would not agree that there is “such clear textual evidence” that Mark was the first Gospel written. In addition, it is important to note that Vinzent does not believe Marcion wrote (our canonical) Luke. Rather, the Gospel he wrote was used by the other Gospels. In addition, some, like Matthias Klinghardt, have argued that Marcion’s Gospel is the earliest Gospel (not written by Marcion but used by him) and was a, or even the, key source for the other Synoptic Gospels, which were also written long before Marcion. Thus, though you rightly sense that Vinzent’s view of Marcion being the first Gospel-writer is idiosyncratic, a variety of issues related to the precise character of Marcion’s Gospel are being debated in scholarship.

  5. Thank you for that, Dieter.

  6. Fred Weston permalink

    Tertullian will not criticize Jesus for any new words. So we well might wonder whether he reads Marcion and his largely subtractive gospel, as editing to the point of producing a new, albeit heretical, Word. Certainly he regards his particular construction as divergent enough to condemn.

  7. “Tertullian states exactly the opposite of what Vinzent asserts […]. Vinzent simply omitted the opening Latin negation (nec).”

    Mamma mia. I don’t know how to categorize such a thing: it can probably go from “sloppiness” down to “deception”. Will Roth publish his review on any scientific journal? Thank you.

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