Marcion and the Ideology of Texts – By Judith Lieu

Judith Lieu on Dieter Roth’s The Text of Marcion’s Gospel

Dieter Roth, The Text of Marcion’s Gospel, Brill, 2015, 491pp., $220
Dieter Roth, The Text of Marcion’s Gospel, Brill, 2015, 491pp., $220
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The name “Marcion” will evoke one or both of two images. The first Marcion is the “arch-heretic” of the mid-second century, associated with the “rejection of the authority of the Old Testament,” according to the definition given in the Oxford English Dictionary, and so regularly revived whenever the status of the Old Testament is questioned in the Church, even where the conclusion is not drawn, as it was by Marcion, that the “God of the Old Testament” is not to be identified with the “God of the New.” More sympathetically, and also more contentiously, this Marcion was also described by his most influential interpreter, Adolf von Harnack, as “the only Gentile Christian who understood Paul, and even he misunderstood him,” and so has continued to cast his shadow over both ancient and modern battles as to quite what Paul meant in his language of “Law” and of “Grace” or “Gospel.” With such a profile it may not be surprising that this Marcion has continued to evoke fascination, covert sympathy, or vigorous rejection, even in an age which has rediscovered the diversity of early Christianity, questioned the power strategies implicit in the language of heresy, and rehabilitated the forgotten, marginalized, or silenced voices.

The second Marcion belongs to the history of the New Testament, famed for having his own version of a Gospel and a collection of Pauline letters at a time when the origins of the subsequent canon are still hidden by obscurity. Is he a witness to a process already underway or was he the catalyst for the subsequent collection undertaken and adopted by the (proto-orthodox) Church, perhaps in defense against him? Encompassed within this broader question comes a much more precise one, for according to the unanimous reports from the early Church, “his” Gospel was a heavily edited and abbreviated version of the Gospel of Luke, just as his Pauline corpus was a reduced version of the “authentic” one, both achieved by the exclusion of anything that contradicted his theological principles.

On this account Marcion’s literary activity is little more than a curiosity, perhaps of rather less interest than the newly-found or rediscovered other Gospels that have attracted scholarly and popular attention. But suppose, however, that rather than being a corrupt version of (canonical) Luke, Marcion’s Gospel was in fact an earlier precursor to it, perhaps producing the corollary that canonical Luke was to some extent a corrective to it. An example for this might be the birth narratives (Luke 1-2), which Irenaeus already accuses Marcion of excising, presumably because they contradicted his conviction that Jesus was sent from God without undergoing normal birth and therefore being possessed of a flesh different from that other mortals share. Yet students of the New Testament have long recognized the distinctive style of Luke 1-2, and the fact that there are few explicit continuities with the chapters that follow: might these chapters have been added subsequently, precisely to counter any views, such as those of Marcion, that questioned the full humanity of Jesus?

Such a possibility might seriously disrupt one of the fundamental principles — or, rather, hypotheses — on which much New Testament study is built. Often early in their introduction to the critical field, generations of students have been taught to observe and to analyze the interrelationships between the so-called Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke: most adopt the majority position that both Matthew and Luke drew on Mark, with additional shared material between Matthew and Luke being explained either by further literary dependence (usually of Luke on Matthew) or, more commonly, by their recourse to a lost common source (‘Q’); a minority might opt for the older principle of Matthean priority. The exercise, however, depends on the assumption that the texts to be studied, compared, and explained are in all that is essential — allowing for known textual variants — those known through the subsequent canonical manuscript tradition. Inserting Marcion’s Gospel early into the equation would be far more significant than the discovery or the removal of Q; it would demand rethinking the theological as well as the literary processes in the formation of a threefold (or fourfold) Gospel tradition and the timescale against which they took place.

Papyrus 69 (P. Oxy 2383). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Papyrus 69 (P. Oxy 2383). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The master-narrative, that Marcion’s Gospel was derivative from “canonical” Luke, has been questioned in the past, in particular within the vigorous debates of the mid-nineteenth century associated with F.C. Baur and the so-called Tübingen school. Although subsequently, the priority of Marcion’s Gospel, and its corollary that canonical Luke was some extent a corrective, have had occasional champions, in recent years it has been vigorously revived, and has become the lynchpin in far-reaching rewritings of the history of the Jesus traditions, and of the development of Christian thought. In particular, although published very late in the progress of Roth’s research, scholars such as Matthias Klinghardt and Markus Vinzent have given Marcion’s Gospel something closer to the place usually occupied by Mark, namely as being the earliest written Gospel.

Of course, to speak of two “Marcions” is misleading. First, the sources for both are the same, the sustained refutations or occasional denunciations by his ecclesiastical opponents; two of them, Tertullian writing directly Against Marcion in Latin and the fourth century Greek heresiologist, Epiphanius of Salamis, in his Medicine Chest against all Heresies, each provide something of their own conspectus, although a highly uneven one, of Marcion’s Gospel and Apostolikon, citing passages to illustrate his defacement of the text as well as his perverse interpretation of it. Secondly, in the eyes of those opponents, his textual activity gave expression to his theological principles, a view that surely influenced their reports just as it has regularly been presupposed by more recent interpreters, particularly if seeking to fill out the numerous uncertainties in the evidence. If no progress can be made towards locating Marcion’s Gospel in the history of the Jesus traditions without first establishing the text of that Gospel, then no progress towards so doing can be made without first developing the criteria for evaluating the patristic accounts.

The importance of Roth’s study is to exemplify the extreme care needed to avoid the numerous pitfalls that even the most assiduous may encounter. His authoritative review of scholarship provides a salutary reminder, not always sufficiently acknowledged, of how deeply the nineteenth-century debate in Germany about Marcion’s Gospel was embedded within ideologically framed reconstructions of the evolution of, and internal conflicts within, primitive Christianity. It also challenges the persistent tendency to appeal to Marcion’s supposed theological position to explain or even confirm the text and contents of his Gospel; any conclusions about Marcion’s theology, it is assumed, must follow and not precede a reconstruction of his Gospel. Of course this need not mean that that reconstruction would be sufficient ground for rewriting his theology, and one might still protest that it would be as wrong to ignore Marcion’s theology, however tentatively reconstructed, as it would be to exclude any sense of an implied author’s inclinations in evaluating a text.

The main substance of Roth’s analysis is to treat the main witnesses individually, on a consecutive verse by verse basis, drawing attention to the particular critical issues germane to each. In this he draws on the methodological principles formulated by Ulrich Schmid for Marcion’s text of Paul, although the Gospel text is both more extensive and produces further complications. Like Schmid, he also brings into the discussion other variations in the textual tradition which might suggest that some supposed Marcionite “alterations” in fact represent a particular form of the text, often assumed to be the western text.

Tertullian only occasionally explicitly draws attention to variations (“corruption”) by Marcion, and frequently fails to make it clear when commenting on Marcion’s interpretation whether or not he is quoting the latter’s text, something often assumed by recent studies, particularly where it seems to diverge from the later standard Latin Gospel text. Fortunately (at least for this purpose) much of Tertullian’s voluminous writings survives, and in a number of cases it is possible to compare the wording of the text he uses against Marcion with that he uses elsewhere, and to examine the freedom he adopts particularly regarding conjunctions and word-order. Passages only represented in the Against Marcion are more problematic, although internal variation or the line of Tertullian’s argument may give varying degrees of confidence as to how far they reproduce Marcion’s distinctive text as available to him.

Epiphanius represents a very different challenge: initially he reproduces a catalogue of passages from Marcion’s Gospel and Apostolikon that, according to a highly convoluted account, he had made on a previous occasion for the purposes of critical comparison with the “true text.” He then repeats this catalogue, reworked for the present context, and supplemented with refutations of varying length and perspicuity. Variations in the manuscript tradition of the two lists probably reflect and exacerbate the lack of clarity in Epiphanius’s own recollection and reuse of the material, and these difficulties are aggravated by his tendency to allude to or only partially quote from more extensive but unidentified passages. Whereas Tertullian’s account has provoked debate as to the language, Latin or Greek, in which Tertullian read Marcion as well as of the scriptural text familiar to him, Epiphanius also has to be understood in the context of the shaping of the text in the fourth century and of the dominance of Matthew in his mental picture of the Gospel text.

Both these witnesses, then, demand careful interrogation at a very close level, and may even then allow only tentative conclusions. There is some reassurance, however, where the witness of Tertullian and Epiphanius overlap and so can be compared and even be mutually supportive. This principle too comes into effect with the third primary source, the anonymous fourth century Dialogue of Adamantius, which is shown to offer only tentative further evidence, as is even more the case with other occasional witnesses, in commentaries of discussions such as those by Ephraem Syrus.

Roth concludes his analysis of the sources with a reconstruction of Marcion’s Gospel, in which he uses a combination of type face and of different styles of brackets to express degrees of certainty, both as to the actual content, the inclusion or exclusion of verses and passages, and of significant “deviant” forms of the text — although those keen to move on to the next stage of the exercise will in practice be most aware of the “degrees of uncertainty.” Some will feel disappointed by Roth’s resolute refusal to indulge in imaginative reconstruction or speculation, or even to do more than hint at what conclusions he thinks might be drawn regarding the history of Marcion’s Gospel. They would, however, do well also to take note that he makes no claim to recover Marcion’s Gospel as the latter produced it, but only the earliest recoverable form of its text — a mantra now familiar more generally in studies of the New Testament text.

This is a book for specialists: readers will have to be able to follow Roth as he works directly and meticulously through his Greek and Latin sources, avoiding explanation of the implications of variations in word order or tense, and as he discusses the textual history and variants of specific verses. In the cautious conservatism of its conclusions it is also unlikely to attract the popular attention through publicity and blogs gained by other more assertively daring reconstructions, whose conclusions may be swiftly adopted and used to rewrite the history of the past with as much confidence as have been applied to the more conventional hypotheses of New Testament origins. Yet in age which favors the rewriting of past master-narratives and embraces imaginative reconstruction, it is important that the call to heed the recalcitrant and often unhelpful witness of the textual sources be heard, and that we be reminded that hearing demands time, close attention, and linguistic skills that are too quickly being lost or dismissed as irrelevant. Few readers of Marginalia may go on to read The Text of Marcion’s Gospel, but hopefully they will recognize and defend the sort of scholarship which it represents.