THE REAL MESSIAH BLOG: The Antichrist of the Catholic tradition

The Antichrist of the Catholic tradition

copyright 2008 Stephan Huller

When you begin to see the “picture buried beneath the sand,” it is difficult not to see our surviving Christian tradition as a reaction against its original messiah. In order to bury the original expectation, the authorities anathematized it, officially condemned it as heretical blasphemy. The one thing which “Mark” and “Marcion” always share in the Catholic tradition is that they are identified as “Antichrists.” The title is interesting because it confirms what we have long suspected: Marcion proclaimed himself messiah. One man’s Christ is another man’s “Antichrist.” Yet early Christian tradition is very specific when it intimates that the “Antichrist” emerged at the time of the destruction of the temple and was somehow involved with the outcome.

Look again at Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy and specifically at the key words the “abomination of desolation.” I suspect it is impossible ever to sort out what the Marcionites originally took the passage to mean. The subsequent Rabbinic tradition identifies the shíqqûç shômem as something related to the “new religion” established by the Flavians in the wake of the destruction. The Catholic gospels similarly emphasize an idol “in the wrong place,” “in the holy place,” in the same historical period. The closest we ever get to the original Marcionite interpretation is found again in Abarbanel, a later Rabbinic writer who sees the passage as blaming the Jews. Nevertheless, it is important that most of the rest of the Jewish and Christian interpretations see the shíqqûç shômem as connected somehow with the conquest of the city. In other words, it was developed in hostility to Mark’s original messianic claims.

In this same manner Polycarp re-engineered the Marcionite canon to include the deutero-canonical 2 Thessalonians letter. This new text seems to take aim at Marcus Agrippa’s involvement in the Flavian inspired “idolatry” and “desecration” of the Torah as reflected in various sources. For the early Christian tradition, the Antichrist was not simply a figure who would appear in future. In fact, he was embodied in the historical figure of “Marcion.” Marcion wasn’t simply a “heretic” in the sense of a mere teacher of esoteric doctrines. He was another claimant to the divine status of the “the Apostle.” And despite what is most often said, neither was Marcion a mere spokesperson for “Paul.” That is a harmonizing creation of the Church Fathers. The truth is that Marcion was “Paul,” or should one rather say, “the Paul,” denoting “the Apostle” whose revelation led to the composition of the original gospel and apostolic letters, the basis of the original Marcionite canon.

This means Marcion was also the very “Antichrist” for the Catholic tradition because he dared to hold himself up as the true messiah. The Church Fathers knew otherwise – they knew that “Jesus was the Christ,” and so, as a result, Mark became a dangerous and anathematized individual. Nevertheless, by examining the original Catholic “Antichrist myth,” we can learn some more details about Marcion. He was Marcus Julius Agrippa owing to his necessary involvement in the whole shíqqûç shômem (abomination of desolation) prophecy. Polycarp couldn’t deny that the original tradition identified “Mark” as being present in Daniel 9:24-27. He only needed to inject into the writings of the Apostle himself that “Marcion” was its Antichrist.

As Price notes in his introductory comments about 2 Thessalonians, “it is striking that the writer makes ‘Paul’ warn of the Antichrist … in terms exactly like those in which Paul himself was being vilified by contemporary Jewish Christians.” The letter, as he notes, “has an apologetic agenda” where “Jewish Christians characterized Paul himself in precisely these terms – an Antichrist – who prompted great apostasy from the Torah hence ‘the Man of Lawlessness.’” [Price, Pre-Nicene New Testament] Price rightly connects the underlying “denial” in 2 Thessalonians with the accusation raised against “Paul” in Acts 21:27-30. It was all part of the process of separating the Catholic apostle from his original historical identity as Marcus Julius Agrippa – or if you prefer his Catholic alias, “Marcion.” Polycarp couldn’t get around the fact that Agrippa was universally regarded as the messiah in the period. His point was to find a new way to interpret the seventy weeks prophecy so it would “boomerang” against Mark.

There is no denying that the Antichrist material in 2 Thessalonians was connected to the “abomination of desolation” reference in Daniel. Various ancient sources recognize this, from Origen (Against Celsus 6:45. 46) to the Didache. What must have happened is that Mark announced that Jesus had been resurrected in the person of Marcus himself, and now in a later age this claim was being challenged as a lie. It was, then, the person of this “false messiah” which was the idol “standing in the holy of holies.” How did he stand in the Inner Sanctum of the temple? Figuratively, to be sure, but it was believed a Real Presence nonetheless: the survivors of the Jewish War learned to venerate Mark as the very living tabernacle of the Father. It is for this reason that both “Mark” and the very Pope who sits on his throne in Alexandria is called the “Father” of the Coptic community. Marcus Agrippa must have offered himself up as the new tabernacle, the very thing which replaced the former holiness of the altar and holy of holies of the temple, and it was this outrageous claim that provoked the wrath of so many of his contemporaries.

Tertullian says that “[a]ccording indeed to our view, he is the Antichrist; as it is taught us in both the ancient and the new prophecies, and especially by the Apostle John, who says that … [he] does not acknowledge Jesus (to be the Christ).” Polycarp of Smyrna famously made the same point, that Marcion was the Antichrist, three generations earlier. It would be impossible to cite every single reference to the concept of “Antichrist” in the early Catholic tradition. Nevertheless a few recurrent themes can easily be demonstrated to go back to the person of “Mark” or Marcus Julius Agrippa.

(a) The Antichrist, like the apostle Mark, has the lion as his symbol. Irenaeus writes “the lion, that is, antichrist, rampant against mankind in the latter days, should be trampled down by Him,” [cf Hippolytus: The Antichrist 6; ibid., 14].

(b) The Antichrist during his reign suppressed all other forms of “Christianity,” i.e., the tradition of Simon “Peter.” Tertullian’s statement that “Heresies, at the present time, will no less rend the church by their perversion of doctrine, than will Antichrist persecute her at that day by the cruelty of his attacks, except that persecution makes even martyrs, (but) heresy only apostates” [Prescription against the Heretics 4; cf ]

(c) The Antichrist will found a separate apostolic order from Peter (cf. Cyprian of Carthage "[B]oth baptism is one and the Holy Spirit is one, and the Church, founded by Christ the Lord upon Peter, by a source and principle of unity, is one also. Hence it results that with them [heretics and schismatics] all things are futile and false, that nothing which they have done ought to be approved by us. . . . Wherefore we who are with the Lord and maintain the unity of the Lord, and according to his condescension administer his priesthood in the Church, should repudiate and reject and regard as profane whatever his adversaries and the antichrists do; and to those who, coming about of error and wickedness, acknowledge the true faith of the one Church, we should give the truth both of unity and faith, by means of all the sacraments of divine grace" [Letters 54,69:19]

(d) The Antichrist, like the Marcionites, was “too close to the Jews and Judaism” for the liking of the Church Fathers. Hippolytus writes "Above all, moreover, he will love the nation of the Jews. And with all these [Jews] he will work signs and terrible wonders, false wonders and not true, in order to deceive his impious equals.... And after that he will build the temple in Jerusalem and will restore it again speedily and give it over to the Jews" [Discourse on the End of the World 23-25 [CE 217] cf. Catechetical Lectures 15:12]

(e) The Antichrist, like Marcus Agrippa, was a conquering military figure. So Cyprian of Carthage: "If they [the heretics] desire peace, let them lay aside their arms. If they make atonement, why do they threaten? Or if they threaten, let them know that they are not feared by God’s priests. For even Antichrist, when he shall begin to come, will not enter into the Church [even though] he threatens; neither shall we yield to his arms and violence, [though] he declares that he will destroy us if we resist" [Letters 69,70:3 cf ]

(f) The Antichrist, like Marcus Agrippa, is identified as a king of Syria. Lactancius writes "[A] king shall arise out of Syria, born from an evil spirit, the overthrower and destroyer of the human race, who shall destroy that which is left by the former evil, together with himself... But that king will not only be most disgraceful in himself, but he will also be a prophet of lies, and he will constitute and call himself God, and will order himself to be worshipped as the Son of God, and power will be given to him to do signs and wonders, by the sight of which he may entice men to adore him. He will command fire to come down from heaven and the sun to stand and leave his course, and an image to speak, and these things shall be done at his word.... Then he will attempt to destroy the temple of God and persecute the righteous people" [Divine Institutes 7:17]

Irenaeus goes so far as to identify that the original tradition of Mark understood that the word “another” in the gospel was a mnemonic device testifying to the presence of “another” Christ which the Church Father once again sees as nothing short of the Antichrist [Irenaeus Haer. V:25]

Now I think the reader can begin to see that the central “messianic proofs” of the shared Markan tradition necessarily become turned out as negative things associated with an “Antichrist.” So it should not be surprising that the very shared tradition of the Markan and Rabbinic traditions regarding the messiah of Dan 9:24 – 27 becomes transformed into a sign of the Antichrist. As Montgomery notes “Irenaeus (Haer V, 25 4) inherits the apocalyptic interpretation of the New Testament [regarding the seventy weeks prophesy although it is now] the prophesy of the Antichrist; he relates [Dan 9:27] with Paul’s prospect of the Antichrist in Thesalonians 2:3f and the Antichrist is to take up his abode in Jerusalem.” So it is that the very same figure could be interpreted in two ways – once as the Christ and once as the Antichrist even with this very same chain of transmission.

Hippolytus whom Montgomery describes as a man “who is to a great extent Irenaeus’ scholar includes in his chronological argument [regarding Dan 9:24 -27] also Irenaeus’ theme of the era of the Antichrist.” Yet even with this Montgomery cannot help but point out that this same man and most of the rest of the Church Fathers in his tradition maintain with the Jewish and Alexandrian traditions that “the climax of the Weeks is generally found in Christ’s death, in which there was the cancellation of the Jewish ritual but with a balance of 3.5 years left over which is treated most vaguely; it is often regarded as representing the period down to the destruction of Jerusalem, or, after ancient precedent it understood as the era of the Antichrist or with Polycronius [the Apostolic age].”

The state of affairs here seems actually quite easy to discern. “Mark” was originally held to be the messiah by the early “Marcionite” community and later anathematized by Polycarp and those closest to him. Notice the reference to the age of the “Apostle”; we saw that the Mishnah identifies the “Apostle” as the one who personally took part in the destruction of the Jewish temple. Similarly in the example which Montgomery just gave of the general characteristic which binds over a dozen or so Church Fathers from the period the Christian interpretation regarding “Christ who is yakarathed” can only be Agrippa – indeed many of these same sources make that explicit.

I think it is safe to say that the tradition of “Jesus Christ” – so wholly contrary to the messianic expectation of the very “old testament” the Church claims to defend – had a most dubious origin. The original Christian tradition put forward Jesus as the messenger and someone else as the Christ. This formulation was never entirely forgotten by the population of the Middle East. It came to be fulfilled by the “apostle” of Islam. The only way that the newly invented Catholic tradition of Europe managed to get around this original understanding of “another Christ” was effectively by demonizing the tradition associated with it. It is for this reason that everything about the Antichrist seems to be related to the historical Marcus Julius Agrippa. In order to fulfill the mandate set out by its Roman political masters, the new orthodoxy of Polycarp had above all to make “Mark” seem like a false Christ.

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