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The Apostle John and Marcion of Sinope

The Apostle John and Marcion of Sinope

That Old Testament stuff, it can surely be on the embarrassing side – all that smiting hip and thigh, not to mention incest, murder and genocide; it would be rather convenient were it not there, and indeed, in some parts of what used to be called Christendom, one finds less and less emphasis on this. But just imagine it gone. All those Gospels, with their inconsistencies and comments about the Apostles being none too bright,all giving Christianity’s opponents a field day, imagine just having the one, mostly Luke; make matters a good deal simpler, and, one could then agree to disagree on Jesus being God, as you wouldn’t have the whole of one Gospel to explain away. Then there’s Paul’s letters and all the little letters; imagine dumping all the last and simplifying Paul to emphasise individual faith and not the church. This, if you played your cards right, would give you a Jesus who was a prophet and healer who emphasised love and individual self-fulfillment. Well, if you were thinking along these lines there is bad news – and good news. The bad news is that a man called Marcion did this back in the 140s and was expelled as an hereticΒ – the good news? The good news if you are that way inclined is that no one much believes in heresy, and Marcion has done the spadework for your new Jesus religion of ‘love and mystical understanding’. No more trying to reconcile the OT and the New, there’s a clear stuggle between the things of the flesh – bad – and the things of the spirit – good.

I am not, to be honest, sure that some parts of some churches don’t actually teach a modified Marcionism – emphasising those parts of the Gospels which fit with a version of the faith which suits their own beliefs. Christianity is supposed to transform us, but too often, we transform it to suit our requirements. Marcion lived too soon. Nowadays he could have pleaded in aid relativism and the need to adapt to the times. I rather think Marcionism would work very well in our times. Indeed, it worked fairly well at the time, and there were Marcionite churches around for about 400 years. As Marcion had given generously to the Church in Rome, the question arises as to why its members rejected him?

Here we come to a crucial factor in the history of the early church – orthodoxy. Despite the efforts of some scholars to deny its existence, we see in Paul, Jude, John and Peter, exhortations about believing in the traditions handed down, orally and on paper; right belief mattered. In an age when the Bible as we have it now did not exist, how were men even to know which books contained the authentic teaching? Here, the experience and advice of other churches was critical. For all the nonsense one reads about how the Canon was arrived at, it had nothing to do with Constantine. Bishops knew which books their dioceses received, and if in doubt, they would compare notes with others. So, St Jerome, who knew, as everyone did, that Hebrews was not written by St Paul, was minded to leave it out of the Vulgate. But St Athanasius, whom he consulted, said that it had always been received in the East as coming from the hand of one of St Paul’s collaborators and as containing the thoughts of St Paul; so in it went.

It is, of course, more tedious and less exciting and original to feel bound by tradition, and from time to time men come along who, like Marcion, want to drop certain books of the Bible. But the Church stands firm, not because it is stubborn or unmindful of changing times, but because there are some things it simply cannot change because they are not its to change. The hierarchs of the Church do not own it; it is not their church. They hold in in stewardship from the Apostles, and they will hand it on to their successors. The faith is ‘once received’, and however honey-toned Marcion was, the Church rejected him, as it must all those who propose dropping the deposit of faith over the side in favour of the axioms of the age.

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