The guy who tried to delete the Old Testament.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 February 2021

I’ve touched upon Marcion briefly before. Thought I’d discuss him in more detail today.

Marcion (Greek Μαρκίων/Markíon, though English-speakers keep pronouncing his name 'mɑr.ʃ(i.)ən) was born round the year 85 in Sinope, Pontus, a city south of the Black Sea which is today’s Sinop, Turkey. Back then Pontus was a Roman province, and Marcion’s dad was the bishop of its Christian church. Marcion himself was a shipbuilder and sailor, and we don’t know much about his Christian life till he got into his fifties.

At that point, in the late 130s, we hear of him trying to join the church of Rome, and offering them a big donation of 50,000 denarii. (Roughly $120,000 American.) And of course they take it; you can help a lot of needy people with that money! But within five years, they booted him from their church and gave him back his money, ’cause they concluded he was a dangerous heretic. He insisted Jesus only appeared to be human; he wasn’t really. Theologians call this docetism, and yep it’s heresy: Jesus isn’t faking his humanity. Really born, really died—and really rose again.

Rejected in Rome, Marcion went back to Sinope and taught his heretic ideas there. And managed to get a bit of a following. Some historians call him gnostic ’cause his whole “matter bad, spirit good” ideas are similar to what Greco-Roman pagans believed, and gnostics taught. But properly, gnostics are big on secret knowledge—and of course charging lots of money to give up the secrets they know. Marcion shared his wonky ideas with anyone and everyone.

The big one—the idea which wound up getting called Marcionism and still gets taught by various Christians from time to time—is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who handed down the Law to Moses, the God of the Old Testament, the LORD… is not the same god as Jesus’s heavenly Father. Different god. Lesser god. A demiurge, meaning a god who creates stuff—but not, Marcion insisted, the highest God, the Almighty. The Father is the Almighty. The LORD is some other guy.

Marcion went through the entire Old Testament, listing all the ways he figured the LORD was unlike God, and published his findings in a book called Antitheses. We no longer have a copy of it, but Tertullian of Carthage wrote a critique of it, and Marcionism in general, in his five-book series Against Marcion. In general Marcion figured the LORD is an evil god, or at least not worthy of our worship.

Where’d he get such a cockamamie idea? From reading the Old Testament literally—or so Marcion claimed. In Genesis, you read of the LORD physically walking around Eden, calling to Adam and wondering where he’s wandered off too. Ge 4.8-9 Well that’s clearly a material god; not a powerful Spirit who’s unlimited by spacetime. How’s this LORD who can’t find Adam, the same as the Father who sees everything we do in private? Mt 6.6

Yeah, you might be throwing up your hands in exasperation: We’re not meant to read the creation stories with this level of literalism! (Although you try telling that to young-earth creationists. But I digress.) But bear in mind Marcion was deliberately looking for inconsistencies. He already had an axe to grind: He didn’t believe in a material Jesus, didn’t care to believe material creation is good, and didn’t want to think of the Almighty as its creator. The cosmos had some other creator; some agent of the Almighty who made it for him. Some demiurge.

Doesn’t John point-blank state Jesus is the creator? Jn 1.3 Well yes, but Marcion either didn’t have a copy of John, or didn’t consider it bible. And yeah, let’s finally get to what Marcion did consider bible.

Picking and choosing the parts he liked.

Every Christian has parts of the bible we like best, and quote most often. We all have our favorites. If we don’t, it’s usually because we haven’t read it enough to come up with favorite parts. So anybody who claims, “I don’t have a favorite bible passage”—yeah, you just outed yourself as someone who doesn’t read. Whoops.

Likewise some of us have parts which are our least favorites. Most people really don’t care for the genealogies; so boring. Others don’t care for any of the commands which Jesus superseded, like the temple rituals and the sacrifices and the priests’ duties and the super-boring repetition. Others don’t know any history, so they haven’t a clue what the prophets were talking about; others don’t care for poetry, so the psalms don’t interest them. Whatever parts of your audio bible you fast-forward through, that’d be your least favorites.

But would you erase your least-favorite parts? Delete them from the bible altogether? Black ’em out with a Sharpie, cut ’em out with scissors, rip the pages out and burn ’em like a fascist censor?

Well no; it’s bible. Boring or not, it’s God’s word, isn’t it?

Christians today might have this mindset. Christians in the second century did not: The books we solidly consider holy scripture were still up for debate. They wouldn’t be locked in (or out) for another two centuries. So some Christians felt everything the first apostles wrote should count as bible; other Christians felt everything the first apostles, and second apostles—the next generation of Christian leaders which succeeded them—and even third generation of apostles, should be considered scripture and collected with the rest. Popular devotional books like the Didache and the Shepherd were getting bunched into their collections of scripture.

Plus of course the Hebrew scriptures—our Old Testament. Although for Greek-speakers, that’d be in the Septuagint translation, and include a few more books than Protestants care to count.

But Marcion, unlike other Christians, decided to fix a limit on which books he counted as bible. To him, the Old Testament was about a different god than the Almighty; a god he considered too legalistic and more into reciprocity than grace. (You know, like a lot of Christians still imagine God behaves in the Old Testament.) So while these books were interesting, and filled in a lot of Jesus’s backstory, Marcion didn’t consider them bible. There was no Old Testament in his bible. It was out.

What was in? Eleven books.

  1. The Evangelikon, a gospel Marcion wrote which was based on Luke. It didn’t include any of Luke which Marcion didn’t believe—like Jesus getting born, or dying.
  2. Galatians.
  3. 1 Corinthians.
  4. 2 Corinthians.
  5. Romans.
  6. 1 Thessalonians.
  7. 2 Thessalonians.
  8. Laodiceans.
  9. Colossians.
  10. Philemon.
  11. Philippians.

So besides the Evangelikon, Marcion only included Paul’s letters. Not the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus—probably because he didn’t care to follow Paul’s advice about leadership. And including Laodiceans—which either doesn’t exist anymore, or might actually be another name for Ephesians.

Ancient Christians also claimed Marcion edited these letters to remove the parts he didn’t like. Probably. As much as Marcion claimed Paul was the ultimate interpreter of Jesus, you can tell by his really limited booklist he kinda he felt he was. Same as other heretics—and sad to say, same as a lot of Christians too.

Growing up, I’ve run into many a dispensationalist who treats the Old Testament like it’s no longer valid. Not entirely invalid; you’ll catch ’em using proof texts from the OT, quoting its prophecies about Jesus, and quoting any of its commands which they personally like. They’ll even tell Old Testament stories in Sunday school and sermons. They’d never suggest we rip its pages out of our bibles and burn them. But they will insist it doesn’t count anymore, ’cause we’re in a new dispensation where God neither behaves like that, nor saves people like that, anymore. Jesus changed him top to bottom.

Yeah, no. Jesus is God. The problem isn’t “God doesn’t act that way anymore”; it’s their attitude is entirely wrong about God’s actions and motives in the Old Testament. Any interpretation of God inconsistent with the Spirit’s fruit, with who Jesus reveals him to be, is wrong. If you think you’re getting that from the OT, you’re not; you’re projecting that upon the OT.

The Old Testament isn’t wrong; we are.

Yet throughout history Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) have read the OT through fruitless lenses, and haven’t recognized we’re wrong: We insist we’re not the problem, the bible is. We struggle to reconcile Jesus in the gospels, with the angry vengeful Zeus-like being we presume the LORD is. how we imagine the Old Testament’s LORD in the OT. (More accurately, they found nothing. They never even tried.) Much easier to just chuck the Old Testament as an inadequate revelation of God, and only go with the New Testament.

That’s what Marcion did. And it wasn’t even the whole New Testament; just a version which leaves out James, Peter, and John—the three apostles Paul considered the pillars of the ancient church Ga 2.9 —and Matthew, Jude, the author of Hebrews, and more than half of Luke’s writings. That’s more than half the NT. Filtered to suit Marcion, much like dispensationalists do with Revelation.

The biblical canon.

We can say this in Marcion’s favor: His truncated bible got other Christians to put together their own booklists.

And pretty much all of them made sure to include the Old Testament. Churches today may argue which books belong there, and include apocrypha or not, but the ancients were firm that there should be an Old Testament, because the God of Abraham is the God of Jesus. Is Jesus, for that matter.

The first actual list might’ve been composed by Origen of Alexandria, although the one most Christians point to is by Athanasius of Alexandria. In his letter for Easter 367, he listed all 27 “canonized” books of our New Testament: Those are the books he and his fellow orthodox Christians recognized as totally valid. But other booklists of the day might drop James as too legalistic, or Hebrews because its author was unknown, or Revelation as way too weird. Or throw in Thomas, Barnabas, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Hebrews, Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd, the Didache, and 1–2 Clement.

What finally cemented the books of our New Testament? The Vulgate, actually. Bishop Damasus of Rome wanted a properly-translated Latin bible, hired Jerome of Stridon in 383 to translate it, and gave him a booklist to translate—consisting of Athanasius’s 27 books. That became the New Testament, as far as Latin-speakers were concerned, and since Greek-speakers already largely agreed on the books, that was that.

Nope, it wasn’t determined by any church council, although you might’ve heard otherwise. Later church councils confirmed the booklist, but largely it was determined by popular consensus, and solidified by the Vulgate. Martin Luther might’ve wanted us Protestants to remove a few of the books, or at least put ’em in a New Testament apocrypha, but his idea never caught on. And most of us are pretty sure if the Holy Spirit wanted us to have more or fewer books, he’d’ve moved the ancient Christians to add or take away those books.

Today’s Marcionists don’t outright remove the books they don’t like from the bible. They just find all sorts of other ways to undermine them. They may fully accept the LORD is God, and Father of Jesus; he’s not another God; there is no other God. But similar to Marcion, dispensationalists believe the LORD of the Old Testament is no longer our God; that he used to be all about legalism and karma, but now he’s about grace. Jesus’s death triggered a complete transformation of his personality, and the “Old Testament God” is simply not who he is anymore. He’s functionally a different guy. And for this reason, it’s okay to downplay the Old Testament, ignore its revelations, and reject any interpretation of God they don’t consider consistent with their worldview, even if the interpretation totally comes from bible.

I’ve caught such people claiming the Sermon on the Mount no longer applies to Christians, ’cause Jesus taught it before he died for our sins, so it’s part of the old covenant which Jesus has since overthrown. Or that James doesn’t apply to gentiles because James specifically wrote it to Jews, Jm 1.1 who are somehow still under that old covenant… even though Jesus is the king of the Jews. They’ll carry around the entire bible on their phones, but functionally their canon is smaller than Marcion’s.

Does that make them heretic too? Well, they claim multiple dispensations mean there are other ways to be saved than through Jesus, yes it does. If they claim Jesus isn’t really human, didn’t really die, isn’t a member of a trinity; that the Father Almighty isn’t the LORD of the Old Testament; that the Holy Spirit of the New Testament hasn’t “spoken through the prophets” of the Old (as the Nicene Creed puts it), yes it does. No, heretic doesn’t mean they’re going to hell; it only means they’re so wrong about God, they’re clearly not following him, ’cause the Holy Spirit shouldn’t let ’em wander so far afield! And if you’re not following the Spirit, or the inspired bible he uses to correct us, watch out.