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The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation Christian Literature


7. Marcion and the Canon

By the end of the first century, long before anyone formally declared it so, the Christian church had an Old Testament (although they didn’t call it that) and a New Testament (although they didn’t call it that, either) consisting of four Gospels (and by extension the Book of Acts) and Paul’s letters and the Book of Revelation and a few other odds and ends. Other writings were coming into view as well, and were read with interest and enjoyment (1 Clement, Barnabas.)

Then two things happened, and they illustrate how the church responded when someone proposed a literature other than the Old and New Testaments. These are the rise of Marcionism, discussed on this page, and the rise of Montanism, discussed elsewhere.

Marcion was born in Sinope, a port on the Black Sea, near the turn of the second century. He was a ship owner and apparently well-to-do. He became a Christian, or had perhaps been raised as one. Through his reading of the letters of Paul, he came to have a view of Christianity that rejected other views as judaizing and erroneous. He traveled to Rome and joined the church there and gave it a bundle of money. He explained his ideas to the church leaders, and they expelled him from fellowship and gave him his money back (July 144). So Marcion organized his own church. These churches spread over the empire, and the movement lasted a few centuries beyond Marcion’s death.

Marcion taught that the God of Jesus and the God of the Old Testament were not the same God, but two separate Gods. The God of the Old Testament had created the world and given the Law. He was a just judge, but he was not loving. He was the God of the Jewish people and the God of the prophets of Israel. The other God was unknown until Christ came and told us about him. This God is the Father of Jesus and the God of love and goodness. Marcion’s driving concept was therefore to eliminate the Jewish God from the faith, practice, liturgy, and scripture of the true church.

Marcion was very clear in his opinion about what was Scripture and what was not. The Old Testament was not, because Christians worshipped a different God than the God of the Jews. Ten letters of the Apostle Paul were Scripture, because Paul understood the truth and the other apostles did not. Marcion called these books, collectively, the Apostolikon. The Gospel of Luke was Scripture, because Marcion understood Paul to refer to the Book of Luke when he wrote to the church in Galatia not to preach any other gospel than the one he had preached (Gal. 1:8–9). Marcion called this book the Euangelion. He rejected everything else that had come from the first generation of Christians, because Matthew and Mark and John and James and Peter and Jude and the author of Hebrews and the letters to Timothy and Titus didn’t understand the truth, but were still enthralled to the old inferior God. In fact, even the ten letters of Paul and the Gospel of Luke had been contaminated with Jewish ideas in textual transmission, and therefore it was necessary for Marcion to edit these books and publish “corrected” versions of them. So Marcion’s busy work was not only to organize an alternative church, but to draw up a list of acknowledged books and produce an approved recension of the text of these books.

What did the Christians think who were not swayed by Marcion’s arguments? Well, to judge by the volume of their polemic against him, they took Marcion to be the heretic of the century. It is easy to see why they thought so. Marcion departed severely from monotheism, and monotheism was one of the last things to give up, not one of the first. Marcion dismissed the entire theology and literature of the people of Israel, and rejected the idea that in their history we may see the determinate counsel of God. Marcion made it hard to see how the promises of God had reached their Yes and Amen in Jesus Christ, because for Marcion it had been the wrong God who made these promises. Those who could not accept the basic Marcionite tenets could not agree that the Christian literature functioning as canon for them could be as narrow and restrictive as Marcion’s Euangelion and Apostolikon. Therefore in their polemic against Marcion, they upheld the legitimacy of the other books and letters that came from the earliest church. In other words, they were prompted to think about which books were canon for them.

Influences upon the canon flowed both ways. On the one hand, the church’s wide literature made it necessary for Marcion to reduce Scripture to a narrow band of permissible writings. On the other hand, Marcion spurred the church to formalize, more or less, its understanding of received books, and if the margins remained fuzzy, at least to demarcate where the fuzziness was.

Then something else happened.


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