THE REAL MESSIAH BLOG: The messiah of the Marcionite tradition

The messiah of the Marcionite tradition

copyright 2008 Stephan Huller

Scholars can’t make sense of Marcion because they can’t get around their own presuppositions. To most Christians it is simply a “no-brainer” that “Jesus was the Christ.” Yet as I have already shown for the Marcionites (and the whole of the Markan tradition thereafter) this was simply not so straightforward. “Jesus” was the forerunner and “Christ” the one who came after. There is a god reason that “Jesus” and “Christ” are separated which appears over and over in the anti-Marcionite literature, but which scholars have never figured out. The Church Fathers mockingly report over and over again that the Marcionites interpreted Jesus as a “merciful” and “loving” divine hypostasis. Now at last we can finally make sense of this emphasis: it was to furnish evidence against the Catholic proposition that he was also the Christ. The Marcionite held the exact same understanding as the Jews in this regard. A messiah is a blood-thirsty instrument of judgment. Jesus wasn’t this kind of being; as such, he couldn’t have been the awaited messiah as the Catholics claim. In this manner, again, Marcion stands closer to Maimonides and the Rabbinic tradition – even though they are separated by one thousand years – than he does the new European adherents to “Jesus Christ.”

How could scholarship have completely ignored the “Jewishness” of Marcion? That’s the real problem: defining what “Jewishness” is. It is amazing how we have come to view “belief in the Law and the Prophets” as the sole characteristic of Jewish identity. In order to properly define what “Jewishness” is we have to address also the question of whether or not the sacrifices prescribed in the Torah were meant to be permanent features of the religion. If this is so, then no one can now lay claim to being “Jewish,” as the original Mosaic covenant must have perished with the destruction of the temple. Thus Marcionitism represents a valid historical reaction to the historical circumstances of 70 CE. With the end of sacrificial services, the Law and the Prophets were rendered null and void by the very “royal messiah” who destroyed it. This may have been hard for some Jews to accept, but it does represent a plausible application of the messianic prophecy in the ninth chapter of Daniel. Now we must branch out and notice that Marcionitism doesn’t just “agree” with Judaism in a very limited sense with regards to this one prophetic utterance. Instead the Marcionite messiah is very much the traditional Jewish and Samaritan “man of war” [Prose Refutations; Exodus 15:3] who, like Moses, is a conquering – if not bloody - monarch.

Irenaeus’ criticism of the Marcionite adherence to the traditional Rabbinic notion of “two powers in heaven” (one “mercy,” the other “judgment”) manifests itself in terms of an earthly pairing of “Jesus” and “Christ.” Look closely again at what is obviously Celsus’ commentary on the Marcionite theological understanding of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem. The argument is surprising given that it acknowledges that Jews and Christians share much the same understanding. He begins by saying that the Jews hold that “life, being filled with all wickedness, needed one sent from God, that the wicked might be punished, and all things purified in a manner analogous to the first deluge which happened,” whereas "the Christians, making certain additional statements to those of the Jews, assert that the Son of God has been already sent on account of the sins of the Jews; and that the Jews, having chastised Jesus, and given him gall to drink, have brought upon themselves the divine wrath."

We are used to the idea that Jesus is “the Son of God,” but that is something we can definitely prove the Marcionites did not hold. “The Son of God” is a title for the messiah who would come after Jesus according to Marcion. (The “Son of God” is used in Qumran as a messianic title, too.) This is why the gospel has Jesus continually deny that he is this person. Thus, a little later in Origen’s commentary, we read that the Marcionites used their doctrine of “Jesus” and “Christ” to explain the events of the destruction of Jerusalem. As Origen explains:

And as a sequel to his [i.e. Celsus’] non-understanding of the statements regarding the "wrath" of God, he continues: "Is it not ridiculous to suppose that, whereas a man, who became angry with the Jews, slew them all from the youth upwards, and burned their city (so powerless were they to resist him), the mighty God [i.e. Jesus], as they say, being angry, and indignant, and uttering threats, should, (instead of punishing them) send His own Son [i.e. the Christ], who [i.e. the Jews] endured the sufferings which He [i.e. Jesus] did?”

Origen goes on almost immediately to cite what he feels is the “true understanding” of the two advent doctrine, namely, the “second coming” of the messiah is yet in the future. We know what we are really dealing with here. Now we have finally come to understand what has escaped the minds of generations of New Testament scholars. The Marcionite Christ is identical with the traditional Jewish understanding of the “Davidic messiah.” What is disconcerting to us is that this figure is definitely not Jesus. The Marcionites made this point explicit. He is clearly Marcion himself, the author of the original gospel.

Catholics were horrified that anyone could deny “Jesus was the Christ,” and so Tertullian challenges Marcion’s understanding of the messiah, saying “[w]ith what evidence would you [Marcion] have Christ vindicated? Shall it come from the examples, or from the prophecies, of the Creator? You suppose that He is predicted as a military and armed warrior, instead of one who in a figurative and allegorical sense was to wage a spiritual warfare against spiritual enemies, in spiritual campaigns, and with spiritual weapons… you should learn that Christ also must be understood to be an exterminator of spiritual foes, who wields spiritual arms and fights in spiritual strife… Therefore it is of such a war as this that the Psalm may evidently have spoken: "The Lord is strong, The Lord is mighty in battle." [Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:20]

How close to one another were the Marcionite and Jewish understandings? Remember, the exact text Tertullian used to write An Answer to the Jews was reused in Book Three of Against Marcion. What could be a clearer indication than this? In Book Three Tertullian attacks the Marcionites, saying that “to this day they deny that their Christ has come, because He has not appeared in majesty, while they ignore the fact that He was to come also in lowliness. Our heretic must now cease to borrow poison from the Jew—‘the asp,’ as the adage runs, ‘from the viper.’” [Against Marcion 3:7,8] It doesn’t get more explicit than this.

It would take me a whole book to make the case, but I would argue that the Marcionite tradition is a wholly Jewish messianic tradition. For the moment, we need only say that the nonsense which is typically recycled from the Church Fathers about Marcion’s “hatred” for the Law and the Prophets is simply idiotic. As Rory Boid once noted about von Campenhausen’s understanding of Marcion “He is also too ready to believe what the Roman & Catholic polemicists say about Marcion. He knows there are Old Testament references in Marcion’s Gospel, but explains this by a lack of thoroughness on Marcion’s part, thus contradicting his own observation on Marcion’s editorial thoroughness. Neither does he notice having just said himself that what is actually preserved of Marcion’s work contradicts the polemical characterisation of him. How can everyone say that Marcion canonised Paul’s letters and still say he rejected the Torah? This is self-contradictory.” [personal correspondence]

Marcionites must have been a Jewish messianic sect which accepted the gospel as the new Law of Israel. This understanding was built into the prediction of Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy. Furthermore, if I am right that Marcus Julius Agrippa was the historical Mark called “Marcion,” we would have to imagine that the gospel actually was promulgated as the new law of the land of Israel during his reign ca. 50–100 CE. Is this too radical a hypothesis? We should begin through merely making the connection between “Agrippa” and “Marcion” and work our way to this other hypothesis.

The place to start is the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate ‘Abodah Zarah 54b and its commentary on a story from the Mishnah. In it Rabbis Gamaliel, Eleazar ben Azariah, Joshua ben Hananiah, and Akiba were sent to Rome, ca. 95 CE. to defend themselves against the charge of continuing to practice in Judaism. Emperor Domitian, Titus’ younger brother, had banned traditional Jewish practices. Marcus Julius Agrippa, still the king of Syria, was present and he sounds for all the world like an active spokesman for Marcionite beliefs. Someone, it is not said who, puts what sounds like a Marcionite question to Rabbi Gamaliel: “It is written in your Torah, ‘For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.’ Why, however, is He so jealous of its worshippers rather than of the idol itself?” It sounds like an attempt to expose Hebrew scripture as nonsense. When the questioner reappears in the next folio, he is identified as Marcus Julius Agrippa. And his next question sounds even more like Marcion. “The General Agrippa asked Rabbi Gamaliel, 'It is written in your Torah, “For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.” Is a wise man jealous of anyone but a wise man, a warrior of anyone but a warrior, a rich man of anyone but a rich man?’” In other words, the scripture text is supposed to imply the existence, not of dumb and lifeless idols, but of a great God who is nonetheless inferior to the Supreme God. [‘Abodah Zarah 55a] Marcionites thought of their God in exactly this way: superior to the divine Creator.

Much the same argument is made be an unnamed sect mentioned in various early Rabbinic texts. They are variously identified as “heretical Christians,” “Sadducees” and “Samaritans.” All use Exodus 15:3 and other familiar Marcionite references to justify the existence of two powers in heaven. [Seagal, Two Powers in Heaven p. ] We get a little closer to identifying Marcus Julius Agrippa as Marcion when we look to a parallel argument in ‘Abodah Zarah 55a in another folio of the Talmud, this time Sanhedrin 39a. Here Agrippa is transformed into an “an infidel” (or even an “Emperor”) who asks questions which appear very close to the Marcionite Antitheses (pairs of contrasts between Jewish and Christian, or Old and New Testament, Gods) cited in the first two books of Tertullian’s Against Marcion. Among the many “questions” raised and answered in the Sanhedrin text, we read “Your God is a thief, for it is written, ‘And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man [Adam] and he slept [and He took one of his ribs,’ etc.]” [Gen. 2:21]. Compare this with Marcion’s approach to the Genesis narrative as reflected in Tertullian’s tirade against it: Marcion had gloated over “weak points, and inconsistencies, as you deemed them [in the Genesis narrative when] God calls out to Adam, ‘Where art thou?’… [and when the Creator] inquired whether he had eaten of the tree, as if He were in doubt.”

Let us return to Agrippa’s original point, where he was distinguishing between the “old Law” of Gamaliel and the Jews and apparently a “new Law” which is at once “his Law” in the land of Israel. In another story in the Talmud. Shabbath 116a, Rabbi Gamaliel again emerges as the leader of contemporary resistance to official application of the gospel as the new Law of Israel during Marcus Julius Agrippa’s rule – ca. 90 CE. In the story, Gamaliel and his sister Salome stand before a judge who uses the teachings of the gospel to decide legal matters. We read that

Salome said to him, “I desire that a share be given me in my [deceased] father's estate.” “Divide it,” ordered he. Said [R. Gamaliel] to him, “It is decreed for us, ‘Where there is a son, a daughter does not inherit.'” [He replied], “Since the day that you were exiled from your land the Law of Moses has been taken away and the law of the Evangel has been given, wherein it is written, 'A son and a daughter inherit equally.'” The next day, he [R. Gamaliel] brought him a Lybian ass. Said he to them, “But at the end of the book, wherein it is written, ‘I came not to destroy the Law of Moses nor [or some versions “but”] to add to the Law of Moses,’ and it is written therein, ‘A daughter does not inherit where there is a son.’” Said she to him, “‘Let thy light shine forth like a lamp.'” Said R. Gamaliel to him, “An ass came and knocked the lamp over!” [Shabbath 116a]

This is what a Marcionite gospel looked like. It wasn’t a “revelation” to stand alongside the Law and the Prophets. It was the new Law of Israel written by a man named “Mark,” established in a kingdom ruled by a man named “Mark.”

As Schecter notes it is “a fact beyond all doubt that in the second third of the first century Gamaliel (of whose father, Simon, nothing beyond his name is known) occupied a leading position in the highest court, the great council of Jerusalem.” Yet “Judaism” as a separate religious phenomenon was very much an underground tradition. Its participants met in secret and had to swear by cursing the dominant Christian tradition and its governors from Rome who ruled the land. According to the fragment we just saw in Shabbath 116a, the Marcionite tradition is one and the same with that “official ecclesiastic body” governing the land of Israel in the period when Gamaliel flourished and Marcus Julius Agrippa was the king of Israel. Yet look again at the invented history of the Catholic Church. Mark the apostle of the Marcionite assembly has been replaced by a figure named “St. Paulos” who just happens to have a teacher named “Gamaliel.” Coincidence? Definitely not. It is a deliberate falsification effort by Polycarp. By replacing the true founder of Christianity, Marcus Julius Agrippa, with “the Apostle Paul,” and making “the Apostle” a law-abiding Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 21:24), a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the Catholic Church could once again bring its members under the old Law and the old Prophets of Israel.

Yet notice how at every step, this new saint “Paulos” has to deny his original identity. In the invented Book of Acts, our Apostle denies that he is one who tried to destroy the temple (Acts 24:18-19). Just a little earlier we hear he had been charged with daring to take “a Gentile proselyte” whom he identifies as “Titus” into the temple to offer sacrifice. The specific accusation against Paul is that of “defiling the holy place” (the Temple) verse 28. What we have to recognize here is the obvious pattern of the subsequent rewriting of history in the Catholic canon. The thinly-veiled reference is to the “future” act of desecration, the “abomination of the desolation,” the climactic event of Daniel’s seventieth week. The actual “apostle” in question is Marcus Agrippa, while “Paul’s” Gentile companion “Titus” is of course the Roman general Titus. Acts is reacting to the contemporary report of the Mishnah we saw earlier: “the Daily Sacrifice was discontinued, the walls of the city were breached, and the Apostle burned the Torah and erected an idol in the Temple.” (Taanith IV. 6)

All we need to realize finally is that Marcion himself was the Apostle of the Marcionite tradition. In other words, only with the Catholic tradition does “Paul, the Pharisaic disciple of Gamaliel” emerge. Why did Polycarp falsify the pre-existent Marcionite canon? He was trying to neutralize the traditional hatred that Christianity directed toward the “separate” Jewish religions. Thus the Pharisees rejected Marcus Julius Agrippa’s claims to be the messiah. If we bracket Josephus’ “revisionist history” of the Jewish War (a similarly rewritten history, heavily edted by Catholic Christians), we see from other traditions that it was the Pharisees who rose up against Agrippa (it probably read that way in the now “lost” parallel history by Justus of Tiberius). We shall see that the Apostle was originally named “Mark” rather than “Paul” as the later Catholic tradition claimed. The two men at his side were real historical individuals “Titus the associate” was the future Flavian Emperor of the same name, and Barnabas (or “Barsabbas” as he is also called) was “Justus” Agrippa’s secretary during the volatile period of the revolt. His enemy “Simon” (whom we know as “Simon Peter” and “Cephas”) was “condemned” (Galatians 2:11) just as Agrippa’s rival of the same name was defeated and punished during the Jewish War: Simon bar Gioras, the brother of Josephus.

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