Marcion and Tertullian: A Tale of a god Who Wouldn’t Be

In the middle of the second-century there developed within Christianity a rival movement that would consume virtually the whole of nascent Christendom. Christianity would employ some of its greatest intellectuals in order to defend itself against this enormous and all-consuming heresy. Irenaeus would write scathing critiques of it. Justin Martyr would mock it. However, the death blow to this movement would come from the pen of Tertullian of Carthage. He would write lengthy volumes covering virtually every aspect of Christian existence—whether it would be issues concerning baptism or the veiling of virgins. Of all the lengthy works that he had written, the longest one of all—which consumed his energies for a number of years—was Adversus Marcionem. It was his five-volume work that would take Marcion of Sinope to task, forever carving notches on Tertullian’s theological pistol. This work, almost single-handedly, responded to Marcion’s theology and killed it; it was thorough, fought Marcionism on its own terms, and engaged in dialogue with various Marcionite responses to orthodox Christianity’s critiques. Tertullian had the advantage of watching Marcionism flourish for over half a century—he was a giant standing on the shoulders of giants who, too, had written critiques of Marcionism.

Marcion of Sinope originated from a region situated on the south shores of the Black Sea called Pontus. He was born around the year 85 C.E.[1] and would later bring his version of the gospel to Rome around the years 140-150. He may have come from a Jewish background, as the city that he came from was also home to Aquila, the great Jewish biblical translator. According to Adolf von Harnack, Marcion was familiar with Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament (OT) and was rooted in a very literal approach—which is not to be surprising since Aquila also translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek very literally, following a word-for-word approach. [2] Christians were apparently in Pontus since the beginnings of Christian evangelization. The First Epistle of Peter presupposes Christians in Pontus, as do the famous letters written between Pliny the Younger and the emperor Trajan around the year 111. Not only was Marcion familiar with Judaism, he appears to have been brought up a Christian from his earliest years. His father, according to Hippolytus, was the bishop of Sinope.[3] His father would later excommunicate Marcion from his own home; thus forcing Marcion to flee to Rome. When Marcion came to Rome, he did not come as a poor outcast; he came loaded with money, donating 200,000 Roman sesterces to the Roman church. He was a shipbuilder and probably sailed into Rome on his own ship. Before coming to Rome, he experienced a number of unsuccessful attempts to preach his version of the gospel message to Christians located in Asia Minor. It may have been at Ephesus that Marcion encountered Polycarp, as reported to us by Irenaeus, and was rejected by him as the “first-born of Satan.”[4] Within a period of time, Marcion probably began to infiltrate the Christians at Rome with his teachings. It appears that he took a modest approach at first, giving people the necessary time to digest his teachings. We have reason to believe that the Roman church probably was initially sympathetic towards him, as he donated a large sum of money, came with letters of recommendation from his brother, and was the son of a Christian bishop. Notwithstanding all of the above, once Marcion had summoned key leaders of the Roman church and presented his version of the gospel, he was immediately excommunicated and his money was returned. The Christians of Rome wanted to have nothing to do with the likes of his teachings. The break with the church most likely happened around the year 144.[5] Apparently, Marcion had presented to the leaders of the Roman church a version of the gospel that sounded a little bit too Gnostic and dualistic.

Marcion took as his point of departure Luke 6:43. He believed that, if Jesus is to be taken seriously, the “good tree” produced good fruit and the “bad tree” produced bad fruit. Since the Creator God created human flesh, which is obviously evil (with all of its sinful inclinations), Marcion believed that Jesus’ saying implied that the Creator God created bad fruit (i.e., human flesh). Since the fruit was bad, the Creator, too, was bad. This implied a whole lot theologically. If Marcion was to be taken seriously by the Roman church, the Christians of Rome would have had to eliminate the OT as sacred Scripture and would have had to do away with references to the Creator God in the New Testament (NT). The presbyters that were gathered on that fateful day decided that Marcion was wrong.

Marcion took his money and began his own Christian world mission. His was the first massive, world-scale religious proselytizing mission rivaling the work of the Apostles. Within merely five years of his break with the Roman church, Justin Martyr was able to say that Marcion’s gospel had flooded the entire human race.[6] Fifty years or so later, Tertullian would likewise remark, “Marcion’s heretical teaching has filled the whole world” (Adv. Marc. V. 19).[7] Despite what anyone thinks about Marcion’s theological credentials, he was a man who was energetic, productive, extremely smart, and an able leader. The church that he would produce (called the Marcionite church) would inundate virtually the entire known-world and would have a united theology and united front. Whereas the early Christians of the time were too busy bickering amongst one another about peripheral matters like veiling and whether or not one should add vanilla flavoring to the Eucharist wafer,[8] Marcion was out conquering the world in an Alexander-the-Great manner. What made Marcion’s church so great? How did Marcion set about preaching his gospel and what were the contents of what he preached? To this I now turn my attention.

Marcion appears to have recognized the existence of at least two gods: the righteous/bad Creator God and the loving/good father god of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was the Son of God in the Marcionite sense that He came from a father who was not of this world: Jesus’ father was not the Creator God but an alien god. This alien god was completely unknown and would always remain unknown. The only thing people could know about this god had been revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Marcion believed that the OT contained the actions and story of the bad Creator God, while the NT contained the actions of an alien god. Because of this strong and mutually-exclusive dichotomy which Marcion had set up, the OT and the NT had virtually nothing to do with each other. They should not both be read at one and the same time as sacred literature. Marcion, inevitably, removed the OT from his canon; in the process, he was the first known Christian to have had created a definite canon of Scripture. Moreover, if the Creator God gave the Jews a canon of Scripture, why weren’t the Christians in possession of one? “[F]or a littera scriptura must be available, and if the creator of the world had provided such, then the alien God must all the more do so.”[9] His canon of Scripture was authoritative, set-in-stone, impenetrable, and theologically “all-consuming” in the Hegelian sense—for his canon was “truth” that would “swallow” everything else up. His canon would filter all Scripture through its own highly-idiosyncratic microscope. Marcion comes across as an all-or-nothing type of man: either you accept his canon as truth or you go to hell! Theologically speaking, the lines that he drew between “Law” and “Gospel” were permanent, bold, and huge. Where did Marcion get this idea of breaking with the OT? Apparently, according to Marcion, from Jesus Himself.

Marcion believed that Jesus broke the law again and again in His lifetime. In the words of Harnack, “Did he [Jesus] not declare war against the teachers of the law? Did he not call the sinners, while those teachers desired only righteous men as their pupils?”[10] Jesus was starkly set against the OT from the beginning. Moreover, did not Jesus Himself preach that you could not patch up old wineskins with new? (In Marcion’s mind, this was Jesus declaring that His teaching not be mixed and “patched” onto the OT.) “[F]or [Marcion] the God of the Jews, together with all his book, the Old Testament, had to become the actual enemy.”[11]

Marcon’s hero also happened to be Paul the Apostle. Reading his Epistle to the Galatians, Marcion was able to discover that Paul battled Judaizing apostles. Who were these Judaizing apostles? Marcion believed that they were, most likely, Jesus’ original disciples themselves. Doesn’t the Gospel of Mark in particular portray the Apostles as a bunch of ignorant hillbillies who misunderstood Jesus all the time? Marcion connected the dots and formed the “original idea” that only Paul truly understood Jesus because Jesus had to commission him after His Resurrection (Adv. Marc. IV. 21, 22). To Marcion’s mind, it seemed somewhat ridiculous that Jesus would need to bring in another apostle into the fold had the original disciples been doing their job. So why did Jesus call Paul? “Aha!” Marcion probably thought, “Jesus called Paul because the original disciples had misunderstood Jesus and had not taken His words seriously about the bad Creator God.” Marcion believed that only Paul could be trusted out of all of the disciples, as he alone claims that his gospel came not from man but from Jesus Himself (Gal. 1:12). But Marcion faced an enormous textual problem that would consume the rest of his miserable existence: Paul’s very own letters.

Paul had written some 10 letters which Marcion appeared to be aware of (excluding the Pastoral Epistles). In those letters, any reader finds Paul citing OT texts left and right. He sees Jesus Christ fulfilling the OT. Marcion was dumbfounded. How did this all happen? Why would Paul do away with the OT, as Jesus had secretly commanded, and yet cite the OT? Marcion searched his brains for an answer—and found one.[12] He believed that the letters of Paul were corrupted by Judaizers. In his opinion, these Jewish opponents of Paul were so good and so thorough, they even edited the letters of Paul and made them look as if Paul were Jewish. Not only that, Marcion believed that “the entire apostolic age had been moved exclusively by one major topic, that of the struggle of the Judaistic Christians against the true (i.e., Pauline) gospel.”[13] Marcion also saw that the Christians read roughly four gospels. He looked at them and found none of them appealing. He decided that, since Luke was Paul’s companion, Luke’s Gospel must have been more original to the authentic gospel message. But even Luke’s version of things has way too much Jewish material in it. Marcion was not moved by this: the Jews got to it before he did! He believed that the Gospel of Luke must have been corrupted by these same Judaizing false apostles. But Marcion was not as arrogant and autocratic as he initially seems to be; you see, he was actually somewhat of a modest man. Marcion wanted to have an authentic gospel and suffered the “temptation to write such a gospel himself”[14] and yet it is “[h]ere in particular there is shown with special clarity and remarkable interweaving of criticism and fidelity to history.”[15] Marcion did not write a gospel on his own authority, though he certainly could have, but worked tirelessly to “restore” the texts he had before him. Marcionites were, as Origen would later put it, “slaves to pure history” (Comm. XV.3 in Matt., T. III).[16] He worked hard to restore the biblical texts he set out to restore—he would later leave the task of “restoring” to his devoted followers. The texts he had chosen to include in his canon were eleven in number: ten of Paul’s epistles and the Gospel of Luke (all of which were combed for “corruption”; thus being, to our mind, “highly-edited”).

Marcion saw himself as a restorer of the text and felt that this was his special calling in life—he truly was a man that “thought with his blood.” He was, arguably, the first protestant reformer in Christian church history; albeit, a heretical one at that! Being a self-proclaimed textual critic, he set about editing the texts before him in a thorough-going manner. References to Peter and Paul in Galatians 1:18-24 were excised wholesale; Peter could not be seen as in agreement with Paul.[17] The text about Abraham and all that “Old Testament gibberish” was removed from Galatians 3:15-25. The reference to the “seed of Abraham” in verse 29 was also deleted. Since the alien god of Jesus Christ was non-judgmental, loving and good, he would not— as in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:17— “destroy” any man. Where the text read “God will destroy him” Marcion felt obligated to convert this phrase into “he will be destroyed.” There simply was no room in Marcion’s theology for a “destroying” God who was tied to Jesus.[18] In 2 Corinthians 7:1 Paul writes “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.”[19] Marcion would have nothing to do with this—he changed “spirit” into “blood.”[20] References to the OT like phrases such as “as it is written” in places like Romans 1:17 were deleted; how could Paul, who knew that the OT was from the bad god, cite the bad god’s text?[21] Marcion believed that Jesus was not born of Mary since He could not participate in the Creator God’s matter. So in Luke 8:19 the reference to Jesus’ mother and brothers was deleted.[22] Many such emendations were made to the Marcionite Canon.

But why did Marcion refuse to believe that Jesus took on a human physical body? The reason was simple: Jesus had come from an alien god and He was not about to put on any bad “fruit” created by the bad Creator God. Marcionite ethics were as radical as Marcionite “textual criticism.” Marcion’s theology had huge implications for human daily activity. For example, if a couple were interested in getting married, Marcion would object and tell the couple to refrain from the evil inclinations of the flesh. In fact, to participate in communion, Marcionite Christians had to either be widowed, eunuchs, or single virgins; one could not be married.[23] To participate in sexual union was to obey the commands of the bad Creator God who had said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Moreover, to reproduce would be to produce more human beings that would be trapped in this evil world and evil body. One could not satisfy the flesh in eating habits also. For Marcion, even enjoying created food was sinful; how could a true Marcionite Christian enjoy the “bad fruit” of the Creator God? Impossible! This meant that Marcionite Christians would, essentially, be extremely ascetic. They rejected wealth, marriage, family, sex, enjoyment, bodily pleasures, etc. After learning about such ascetic manners, modern western-raised Christians may find such asceticism and hate for human life repulsive. One is pressed to ask the question: Why was Marcionism so attractive to the second and third-century mind? It is to this question that I now turn.

During the first-century, there arose a movement within Christianity that would later become known under the umbrella term Gnosticism.[24] (Though “full-blown” Gnosticism is recognized—by predominantly American scholars—as coming on the scene in the second-century.) It was a dualistic religion that emphasized the dichotomy and separation between good and evil. The world was ultimately evil and the spirit was ultimately good. The Gnostics were preoccupied with the problem of evil and pushed it “upstairs”; they believed that evil originated with the evil Creator God. Moreover, the Gnostics lived in the problem and paradox of human existence; they saw themselves as exiles in an unknown and foreign land. This was not home. The spirit was good and it was trapped in our created body. And not only that, there could simply be no resurrection of the human body: the good god would not suffer to raise the flesh—that would be unnecessary. From an ethical perspective, the Gnostics generally fell into two groups: libertines and ascetics. Both groups had the same premises but vastly different conclusions. Both believed that everything in the world was created by a bad (lesser) god; however, the ascetics argued that a true Gnostic Christian must abstain from the evil pleasures of this world, while the libertines argued that since the good god did not create the flesh and that only the spirit mattered, one could do anything while being in the flesh. Already in the NT we find Paul battling Gnostic thinking in his epistles. Whether it be the question of food or resurrection, the Gnostics were a thorn in Paul’s side.[25] In 1 Timothy 6:20, Gnosticism is out-rightly named and attacked mockingly as “gnosis so-called.” The Epistle of 1 John is adamant about attacking a movement within the congregation that claims that Christ did not come in the flesh (cf. 4:2). Because Gnosticism was already either a nascent faith in the first-century or somewhat more fully developed, it was most probably the launching pad for Marcion’s thinking. Tertullian relates that Marcion was taught by a certain Cerdo. Taken at face value, this indicates that Marcion’s ideas were not second-century at all and neither were they innovative and “new” in their entirety. Marcionism came into a world that was already very familiar with the problem of evil, fleshly inclination, dissatisfaction with human life, and the problem of marriage. Women were often times left to the wills and whims of their husbands—seeing themselves as restrained, they joined the Gnostic movement and bought into it hook, line and sinker. Why? Because Gnosticism was very women-friendly. The author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, undoubtedly a Gnostic (contra Tertullian), reveals to us just how “liberating” Gnosticism was. Marriage is seen as a barrier to progress in an individual woman’s life, so Thecla is told by “Paul” not to marry her fiancé—she is rather to escape with Paul and preach the gospel. It is against such Gnosticism that the author of 1 Timothy writes the following words: “She [i.e., woman] will be saved through childbearing (2:15). The author here was combating a form of Gnosticism that forbade marriage (which is why the author reminds woman that childbearing is both good and actually salvific!). All of these things would eventually come into play when Marcion came around. He was not exactly the “new kid on the block”; he came pulling baggage from the first-century. So what made Marcionism so attractive? Its familiarity. Marcionism was a variant form of Gnosticism. Whereas the Gnostics retained the OT and reread it in light of the coming savior Jesus Christ, Marcion did away with all of the so-called “Jewish myths.” In other words, Marcion was bolder than his Gnostic contemporaries and predecessors; he alone was willing to single-handedly remove the OT from the canon of accepted Christian Scripture—and he almost succeeded. But in removing the OT, he did not reject its contents entirely; no, he believed that his followers should continue reading it in order to know what the bad Creator God was up to.

Seen in its entirety, being set within its own historical context, Marcionism is a religious philosophy and way of life that helped explain away some of man’s greatest fears. In the second-century, children were being left “exposed” on a Roman hillside. Mothers would die in labor. Marriage was seen, at least for woman, as a threat to existential freedom. In such an environment, Marcionism seemed like a very enticing option. It reduced all of the world’s problems to a series of pithy categorical imperatives: do not get married, do not have sex, do not have children, do not enjoy pleasures, do not worry about this world, do not be concerned about wealth, etc., etc. All the things people had trouble obtaining (health, children, food, etc.) were rejected as unnecessary. All of man’s hopes and dreams for a better life were rendered useless. Marcionism offered an explanation for this world’s evil. It preoccupied itself with the problem of evil because the world was seen at that time as being predominantly evil. Gnostics roamed the streets the world over. And along came Marcion. He was not an outcast in any usual sense of the word; he was an ordinary individual who thought mostly like half of the other population populating earth in the second-century. Because evil appears to have been on everybody’s mind, Marcionism was welcomed in. As a bonus, it did away with the issue of race, class and sex. If the Creator God was wrong in creating us, He too was wrong in making us black, white, male, or female. Marcionism was able to provide people with a sense of complete unity and identity. There was no longer an us-against-them mentality—anybody and everybody could and should be welcomed in. It did not matter whether you were a Jew or a pagan: Jesus came to save us from this world. (Of course, many people chose to ignore this message, but they were merely “deceived.”) If ever a problem was presented to a Marcionite Christian, one could simply resort to excision: excise the verse (or problem or whatever) out! All this goes to show that Marcionism was very much at home with a large portion of the second-century population. However, despite its attractiveness, an equally large amount of people found problems with Marcion’s thinking. It is now that I turn my attention to Marcion’s greatest critic: Tertullian of Carthage.

Tertullian was a fiery second and third-century writer who composed his five-volume work against Marcion around the first few years of the third century. He was allegedly a lawyer, well-trained in philosophy and rhetoric. He may have begun his first edition around 198 C.E. but would not have completed the entire work—entering its third edition—until April 207 or 208.[26] His work drew upon his predecessors Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and maybe Theophilus of Antioch. Tertullian’s originality is brilliantly distilled in the fourth and fifth volumes of the work, where Tertullian goes practically verse-by-verse through Marcion’s Antitheses and biblical canon (with all of its deletions and corruptions). Tertullian summarizes what his thesis is in book in the following words: “I have set before you Jesus as the Christ of the prophets in his doctrines, his judgments, his affections, his feelings, his miracles, his sufferings, as also in his resurrection, none other than the Christ of the Creator” (Adv. Marc. IV. 43). Tertullian sets out to argue a number of things concerning Marcion’s theology: (1) Jesus of Nazareth was prophesied in the OT; (2) Jesus of Nazareth is the Creator’s Messiah; (3) The Creator is good; (4) Jesus is judgmental too; and (5) Jesus may, at times, appear more harsh than the Creator and His prophets. All of this goes to show that Tertullian is willing to accept Marcion’s theology on its own terms and then he finds multitudes of problems with it. In the five-volume work, simply known as Adversus Marcionem (“Against Marcion”) and being written in Latin, Tertullian attacks Marcion’s theology and ethical system in the first three books. In the fourth volume, he writes an anti-Marcionite commentary on Marcion’s version of Luke’s gospel, and in the fifth volume he does the same with Marcion’s ten edited Pauline letters. With that being said, I would like to examine the contents of the five-volume work and summarize its basic arguments. (As a note of caution I would like to add that my presentation of Marcion will, inevitably, follow Tertullian’s representation of him. For example, if Tertullian’s version of Marcion contradicts Harnack’s, then you must use scholarly judgment to ascertain who is in the right, be it Harnack or Tertullian.)

In the first volume, Tertullian begins by poking fun at Marcion’s birthplace and heritage. Using his usual wit, he situates Marcion amongst the cold, winter peaks of Pontus. He introduces Marcion to us with the following description: “Marcion was…more unsettled than a wagon dweller…darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice…” (Adv. Marc. I. 1). He relates to us that “Marcion had an unhealthy interest in the problem of evil—the origin of it—and his perceptions were numbed by the very excess of his curiosity” (I. 2). Marcion, according to Tertullian, argued that God creates evil. Citing Isaiah 45:7 as his proof text, he demonstrates that the Creator God, therefore, must be evil. Tertullian will argue that “evil” here should be taken to mean punishment for sin. There are “two sorts of evils” for “not only sins but also punishments are described as evil”; that is, Christians “take note of the difference between evils of sin and evils of punishment…” (II. 14). Moving on past this argument, Tertullian develops his idea of the oneness of God. He argues that “God is an entity supremely great” and that “Christian verity has decisively asserted that if God is not one only, he does not exist” (I. 3). Tertullian believes that if the definition of “God” is “supreme being,” then there cannot be two “supreme beings”—either one is supreme or none are supreme. If one is supreme (as is the Christian God), then He is one and He is alone in His supremacy. Moreover, “[t]he reasoning which could admit two could admit also a great many: for after two comes a multitude, once unity had been exceeded.” (I. 5). Thus, for Tertullian, the supremacy and unity of God must be maintained in opposition to pantheism. He does not believe that other gods exist beside the Creator God within the Trinity. Tertullian points out that if the OT speaks of other so-called “gods” it is merely mocking so-called gods. “[T]here are large numbers of worthless slaves who bring discredit on the names of kings, being called Alexander or Darius or Holophernes: yet this will not degrade the kings from being what they are. Also the idols of the heathen are gods to the vulgar, yet none of them is a god simply by having the name of ‘god’” (I. 7). Tertullian then goes on to argue that “All new gods are false gods” (I. 9). Because Marcion’s alien god appeared so late in salvation history, he must, admittedly, be false. Tertullian sees God—the true God—as always being present in the minds of men; the knowledge of Him being innate. “The knowledge inherent in the soul since the beginning is God’s endowment, the same and no other whether in Egyptians or Syrians or men of Pontus. It is the God of the Jews whom men’s soul’s call God” (I. 11). He argues that the alien god could not be God since our knowledge of God had existed prior to his so-called revelatory work in the person of Jesus; no, Tertullian believes that Jesus preached the same God that we innately worshipped since the beginning of time. Marcion’s alien god is not God. “God can never keep himself hidden, can never be unattainable: he must at all times be understood, be heard, even be seen, in such manner as he will. God has his evidences, all this that we are, and in which we are. Such is the proof that he is God, is the one God, this fact that he is not unknown, while that other one is even yet struggling after recognition” (I. 11). Not only is God known, but he is known through nature (i.e., natural theology). As for Marcion’s god, “[o]ne solitary little chick-pea of his own ought Marcion’s god to have brought to light, and he might then have been proclaimed a sort of new Triptolemus”[27] (I. 11). This then brings us full-circle: “And so it follows that just as no one doubts that the Creator is God—for he has created all this—so no one has the right to believe the godhead of that other, who has created nothing…” (I. 11).

After demonstrating that God is one and that He was known before Jesus’ coming, Tertullian sets out to demonstrate the Creator’s goodness. He exclaims, “[L]ook at man, within and without[,] at least this work of our God will obtain your approval, a work upon which your lord, your superior god, has set his affection…” (I. 14). Not only that, Marcion’s alien Jesus has “not even yet rejected the Creator’s water.” Moreover, even in his rites and ceremonies, the alien Jesus “cannot do without things begged and borrowed from the Creator” (I. 14). All of this goes to show how dependent Marcion’s alien Jesus—sent from an alien god—was upon the Creator’s products. The Marcionites were not only interested in the Creator’s material things, they also, apparently, guided their lives according to the Creator’s stars—being amateur astrologers (I. 18).

Tertullian goes on to show that even where the Gospel (NT) appears to contradict the Law (OT), the Creator God Himself had already foretold such changes. The Creator had issues with sacrifices and Sabbaths already in the OT (cf. Jer. 7:22, Ezk. 20:25-26, Isa. 1:14, etc.), therefore, the fact that the Gospel stands in stark contrast to the Law was already prophesied and instituted—not by some alien god—but by the Creator Himself! Paul the Apostle was not preaching a different God either. “[The] Creator had long ago rejected all these [i.e., sacrifices and Sabbaths], and the apostle’s pronouncement was that they must now be rejected, evidently the fact that the apostle’s judgment is in agreement with the Creator’s decrees, proves that no other god was the subject of the apostle’s preaching…” (I. 21). Not to mention the fact—but Tertullian does!—that Marcionite Christianity appeared late on the scene and was not apostolic in origin. “[Y]ou will find no church of apostolic origin whose Christianity repudiates the Creator” (I. 21).

Tertullian also finds problems with Marcion’s claim that this alien god—the alleged “father” of Jesus—is any better than the Creator God. If the alien god was really “good” in any meaningful sense of that word he would have come and saved the whole of humanity. Why does he only save a few, Tertullian asks? Moreover, why is this alien god only doing his salvific work now? Why didn’t he come earlier—let us say, at creation? Either he was powerless to overcome the creator (which would make him a lesser god) or he was evil and wanted to see humanity suffer under the alleged “cruelties” of the Creator God (I. 22, 24). Tertullian puts it succinctly: “What would your opinion be of a physician who by delaying treatment should strengthen the disease, and by deferring remedy should prolong the danger, so that his services might command a larger fee and enhance his own repute?” (I. 23). Moreover, once this idiotic construct “Jesus” of Marcion’s—coming from a stupid alien god—breaks into the Creator’s world to save human life, what does he really save Marcionites from exactly? “[T]he Marcionite still gets malaria, and the aches and pains of his flesh still bring forth for him those other thorns and briers: he is exposed not only to the Creator’s lightening, with his wars and pestilences and other chastisements, but even to his scorpions. In what respect do you suppose yourself set free from his kingdom, when his flies still tread upon you?” (I. 25).

Tertullian saves his best critique for last before ending his first volume: if this alien god is good and non-judgmental, “[w]hy does he forbid the commission of an act he does not penalize when committed?” (I. 26). For example, if I was to join the Marcionite church, learn about this non-judging, all-loving, heavenly Santa Claus—and I was, at the same time, to get married and have sex—what would this non-judging god do? Punish me? Since Marcion’s god forbids marriage, sex, riches, reproduction, etc., this means that he, too, is a judge (just like the Creator God). “For by not wishing it he forbade it. And has he not also become a judge, by wishing it not to be, and therefore forbidding it? For that it must not be done was a judgment, and that it must be forbidden was a sentence. So then he too is now a judge” (I. 27). In other words, “he forbids you to sin—but only in writing” (I. 27).

Not only is this alien god a judge, it appears that Marcionites fear him too. “Why also during persecution do you not at once offer your incense, and so gain your life by denial? On no, you answer, far from it. In that case you are already in fear—of doing wrong: and by your fear you have admitted your fear of him who forbids the wrong” (I. 27). But even in his judgments, this alien god is idiotic—for “he washes a man never to his mind defiled [in the waters of baptism]” (I. 28). “Not even a rustic will go and water land which is to return no fruit—unless he is as stupid as Marcion’s god” (I. 28). And, last but not least, even Marcion—that alien god’s favorite human being—was born of marital intercourse. “How can he show affection to one of whose origin he does not approve?” (I. 29). This “god” of Marcion’s has as many paradoxes and contradictions as Marcion’s version of the Creator God. In fact, one could say that this alien god is stupid and more so bewildering in his actions!

In the second volume, Tertullian further develops the idea that God the Creator was good (II. 4) and that evil is to be found in human freewill (II. 6). “[O]nce God had granted the man freedom he must withdraw from his own freedom, restraining within himself that foreknowledge and superior power by which he might have been able to intervene to prevent the man from presuming to use his freedom badly, and so falling into peril. For if he had intervened he would have cancelled that freedom of choice which in reason and goodness he had granted.” Then Tertullian continues, “[S]uppose him to have intervened, suppose him to have cancelled that freedom of choice, by calling the man away from the tree…” (II. 7). Tertullian wants Marcion to say “Yes!”— for he knows that the moment the Creator cancels out freewill is the moment that Marcion would exclaim “Look! A god full of contradictions! He gives freewill only to take it back again!” This Tertullian does to show that God could not be blamed for the evils of mankind. Even in breathing into us, when God gave us His Spirit, this did not make us insusceptible to evil. “You yourself do not by blowing into a flute make the flute into a man” (II. 9). Just because God, a sinless being, breathes into a man and gives him life does not mean that the man would be sinless too—all because of freewill. God has the right to judge sin because He has given man the ability to fulfill His commands. When man sins, God can function as the judge; He is a just God. Criticizing God for judging people is stupid. “Justice is an evil thing only if injustice is a good one” (II. 12).

After making such arguments, Tertullian tries to synthesize a theology of the OT. “One should rather see there that careful interest by which, when the people were prone to idolatry and transgression, God was content to attach them to his own religion by the same sort of observances in which this world’s superstition was engaged, hoping to detach them from this by commanding them to do these things for him, as though he were in need of them, and so keep that people from the sin of making images” (II. 18). Tertullian, in a way, agrees with Marcion that the laws and commands of the OT are not what God desires; however, he believes that God commanded these things out of genuine concern and love for His people. When Marcion attacks the OT God as being evil for commanding the theft of Egyptian gold, Tertullian wittingly responds that—since God is just, and since the Egyptians had not paid the Jews for four hundred years of labor—God was simply commanding the Hebrews to take their wages (II. 21)! Remember: the laborer is worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7). And not only that, but even where God commands the Hebrews to “work” on the Sabbath (as on the day when they marched around Jericho), Tertullian differentiates between doing “man’s work” and “divine work” (II. 22).

After answering these Marcionite critiques of the OT, Tertullian looks at God “repenting” in the OT. Tertullian believes that God doesn’t “repent” in the sense of committing a sin and then trying to change sinful behavior; that is, God doesn’t change His mind because He “sinned.” Rather, Tertullian suggests that “[i]t is to be understood as neither more nor less than a simple reversal of a previous decision” (II. 24). In fact, if Marcion is blaming the OT God for repentance—when He acts in a certain way and then changes His behavior—Marcion is actually condemning his own alien god. For this alien god at first did not care for mankind for thousands of years; he came only in the 15th year of the emperor Tiberius. This means that he, too, “repented” and changed his previous decision not to save mankind from the bad Creator God. “For the fact that he did at length have respect for man’s salvation was an act of repentance for his initial disregard—such repentance as is owed to an evil deed” (II. 28).

In the third volume, Tertullian turns his attention to the fact that Marcion’s alien god came so unexpectedly. He argues that God should come announced and expected (III. 3). Not only that, Tertullian believes that a son of god should come after a father god. In Marcion’s theology, you have a son figure coming before a father figure (who remains unknown and unannounced throughout). Tertullian then looks at Marcion’s hate for allegorical readings of the OT. He points out that even Paul, Marcion’s favorite apostle, used allegory in his own epistles (III. 6). Tertullian calls Marcionitic theology “antichrist” because it denied the fleshly reality of Jesus’ body. “[L]et him [i.e., Marcion] from now on belch forth the slime of his own particular devices, as he maintains that Christ was a phantasm: except that this opinion too will have had other inventors, those so to speak premature and abortive Marcionites whom the apostle John pronounced antichrists, who denied that Christ came in the flesh…” (III. 8). Marcion, according to Tertullian’s report, denied the fleshly body of Jesus Christ. He chides Marcion for preaching a Christ who “being flesh and not flesh, man and not man, and in consequence a Christ [who was] god and not god” (III. 8). Tertullian then argues that such a phantom Christ could not have actually bore our sins and suffered. “[T]he sufferings of Marcion’s Christ will fail to find credence: one who has not truly suffered, has not suffered at all, and a phantasm cannot have suffered at all (III. 8). Throughout his entire discussion, Tertullian cites generously from the OT texts. He wants to ground the Creator’s Christ in the OT. For example, at one point in his argument he writes, citing Psalm 96:10, “The Lord hath reigned from a tree,[28] I wonder what you understand by it…why should not Christ be said to have reigned from the tree?” (III. 19). He argues that Jesus of Nazareth was the OT Christ prophesied by the Creator God. Marcion, on the other hand, believes that the OT Messiah is yet to come. According to him, he will be a Jewish Messiah who will merely save the Jewish race and not be concerned with the whole of humanity (III. 21). After debunking Marcion’s “two Christ theory” and his idea of a docetic Christ, Tertullian concludes his third book by saying, “As things are, you are giving invitations to dinner, but not showing at which house: you are telling of a kingdom, but not pointing out the palace. Is this because your Christ promises a heavenly kingdom when he has no heaven, in the same way as he made profession of humanity without having a body? What a phantasm it all is!” (III. 24).

The fourth volume is essentially commentary on Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke. Tertullian points out textual emendations that Marcion made and objects to Marcionite interpretations of the Gospel. Tertullian points out that, despite what Marcion thinks of the so-called “Judaizing corruptions” of both the Gospel of Luke and the Pauline letters, Paul himself is guilty of “Judaizing.” For example, “Paul himself made himself all things to all men so that he might gain them all” (IV. 3). For Tertullian, then, if Paul sounds Jewish it is because he himself assimilated for the Jews! This implies that nobody corrupted his epistles! Making his way to the Lukan text, Tertullian reminds Marcionites that “it was only when Marcion laid his hands upon [the Gospel of Luke], that it became different from the apostolic gospels, and in opposition to them” (IV. 5). It was not “corrupted” and emended by Judaizing Christians; rather, it had been Jewish all along. Tertullian points out that if the alien god of Jesus was adamant about destroying the Jewish Creator, why, then, did he send Jesus to the Jews first? Isn’t it idiotic to believe that Jesus was not a Jew when He was a Jew (IV. 7)?

Surveying the gospel text, Tertullian looks at how Jesus cast out demons. He examines Luke 4:16-43 and points out that even in the Marcionite version the demons still flee in fear and trembling. But doesn’t this make Jesus a God to be feared? “Yet how did he expect them to come out—a thing they would not have done except from fear?” (IV. 8). Tertullian points out that even in Marcion’s gospel, Jesus still remains silent when people He heals go and fulfill the OT law by offering gifts in the Temple (IV. 9). Moreover, the Jewishness of Jesus does not stop there: He also calls Himself by that Jewish epithet “son of man.” Why would an alien Jesus—who came to destroy the OT law—take up an OT name? Tertullian is baffled by this (IV. 10). To top it all off, this Jesus of Marcion’s does not look any different for Tertullian than the Creator God: He forgives sin as well. Tertullian reasons, if Jesus forgives sin, has He not also “judged” something to be a sin in order to call it sin? Marcion also liked to play the “Jesus-broke-the-Sabbath” card: he would point out how Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Tertullian’s response is that “the work of healing or of rescue is not properly man’s work but God’s” (IV. 12). Therefore, Jesus did not do any of His own (human) work on the Sabbath, but God’s work.

Coming to Luke 8:16, Tertullian cites Jesus saying about the hiding of a lamp in a jar. How could Jesus have said that? “I wonder how one can talk about a lamp never being hidden, who through all those long ages had hidden himself, a greater and more essential light: and how can he promise that all things secret shall be made manifest, when he is all the while keeping his god in darkness, waiting I suppose for Marcion to be born” (IV. 19). Recalling that Marcion blamed the OT God for being “ignorant” in the Garden of Eden, when He asked Adam “Where art thou?” (Gen. 3:9), Tertullian responds by pointing out that in Marcion’s gospel, Jesus too asked the woman who was hemorrhaging, “Who touched me?” (IV. 20). Using such an approach, Tertullian is able to apply Marcion’s own logic to Marcion’s very own scriptural canon and destroy it. He grounds Jesus in the OT and reminds his readers that what Marcion has said about the OT God could just as easily be said about Jesus. This, however, should only lead to the conclusion that Jesus and the Creator are actually of one and the same nature. With such argumentation, Tertullian goes through the Gospel of Luke and concludes his fourth volume.

In his last and final fifth volume, Tertullian comes to the highly edited ten Pauline epistles. He begins by pointing out that Paul the Apostle was prophesied in Genesis under the code name “Benjamin,” the one who would come like a ravening wolf during the morning and would distribute food at night. Tertullian argues (V. 1) that this is Paul; he came killing Christians in the beginning of his life (i.e., morning) and then would repent and spread the gospel (i.e., the food) at the end of his life (i.e., night).[29] Tertullian begins by examining Marcion’s interpretations and emendations of Galatians. Apparently, Marcion interpreted 1:8 (“if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you”) as referring to a “gospel of the angels”—the “angels” in this case belonging to the Creator God. Thus, Marcion saw in this passage a Paul who foresaw that the Creator God would even send His own angels to proclaim a gospel message contrary to Paul’s (this message being the message of the Jewish false-apostles). Tertullian, quite naturally, responds that Marcion’s approach to this passage is coming straight out of his rear-end (V. 3). For reasons unknown to us, Marcion apparently left Galatians 3:11, which has Paul citing Habakkuk 2:4 (“the just shall live by faith”). Tertullian takes this passage and points out that Paul was “expressing agreement with the prophets” (V. 3). Marcion deleted the reference to Abraham in 3:29 and had the text read instead “you are all sons of faith” (V. 3)—it should have been “sons of Abraham.” At 4:3 Paul writes that “while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.”[30] Marcion took this passage to mean that the OT was given to the Hebrews by the god of this world, who used evil “elemental spirits” as his mediators (allegedly Moses would have been in contact with them). Tertullian responds by arguing that the phrase “elemental spirits” actually means “early instruction” (V. 4). Such elements are equivalent to “that early schooling in the law.” The OT law would then be seen as a guardian that kept the Hebrews safe from any extreme errors. Yes, Tertullian would agree with Marcion that the OT law was not perfect; no, he would not agree with Marcion that it was given by a different god and inherently evil.

When Tertullian comes to the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Marcion’s entire worldview comes undone. In this epistle, we have a direct critique of pro-Gnostic thinking and, most probably, an attack upon the docetic Gnostics of Corinth. What is bewildering to the modern mind is that—despite all of the deletions and emendations of Marcion—he kept this particular epistle somewhat intact. It still dealt with marriage and resurrection. Tertullian criticizes Marcion for not allowing marriage when Paul allows it and so does Jesus (V. 7). Regarding the resurrection, Marcion apparently had to reinterpret the whole of chapter 15 in the epistle through the phrase “flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” He took this as his point of departure and filtered the rest of Paul’s writings on the afterlife and resurrection through this phrase. Tertullian makes ingenious comments regarding the entire episode, trying his best to point out how stupid Marcion’s canon within a canon really is. For example, Paul uses the analogy of wheat falling into the ground, dying, and then rising up again. Tertullian argues that if Paul was preaching an escape from the evil flesh, why then was he using examples given us by the Creator (V. 10)? Using this form of argumentation, Tertullian goes through the entire Pauline corpus, as found in Marcion’s canon, and concludes his research by pointing out that only Philemon, Paul’s shortest writing, was left untouched by Marcion.

Tertullian wrote his five-volume work because he felt an urgent need to combat a heresy that was in some ways ridiculous and yet so captivating. “By the year A.D. 200 Marcionitism had called forth attacks in three languages—Greek, Latin, and Syriac.”[31] Marcionism was in some ways very much rooted in the NT, and yet—from an orthodox perspective—completely in opposition to it. Christians living in the second and third-centuries would not have been as informed about Marcionism as we are now. Many could not see the differences. “The content of the Marcionite divine service must have been very similar to that of an orthodox one, so much so that orthodox Christians had to be careful not to go into a Marcionite church by mistake.”[32] Upon examination, one could see the world of difference between Marcionism and orthodox Christianity, but to the untrained eye, they were the same thing. Moreover, in a world of hierarchy and subjugation—where slave was set against master and husband against wife—Marcionism gave the lower class folk a sense of heightened equality and importance. Tertullian obviously felt obligated to respond to this growing threat within Christianity. As someone who was educated amidst a people who were predominantly illiterate (90-95 percent of the population were illiterate), Tertullian had the advantage of reading Marcion’s Antitheses first-hand. He wrote because they wrote. But what if he had not written his five-volume set? What if he chose to ignore Marcionism as too stupid to hold its own? Marcionism would have, most likely, died out nonetheless. What began as a quest for knowledge of the problem of evil, ended in the abyss of infinite evil itself. “If Marcion’s god is good and kind, why did he ignore human suffering for so many centuries? thereby showing that the problem of evil still exists for Marcion.”[33] The problem of evil never disappeared—sadly, even for Marcion. The whole of human existence was filtered through Marcion’s lenses—and yet they, too, failed. “He did not realize that his own rigidly literal exegesis might also miss the truth, and that it was possible to fail to see rightly a whole picture because parts of it were viewed in too great detail.”[34] Marcion’s theology, with its emphasis on evil, turned a beautiful picture—with a small scratch in it—into one that was holocaustically horrendous and terrifyingly evil: only the “scratch” became visible in Marcion’s theology. In all of this, “Marcion is a typical representative of Gnosticism.”[35] He may have thought he was somewhat innovative, but he ended up being just another Gnostic looking out for God, trying to solve evil. And when he was confronted with the problem of sin and why Marcionites still avoided it (if the alien god was never going to punish and judge anyhow), Marcion replied, paradoxically, “Absit, absit” (“God forbid! God forbid!”).[36] Anybody who would have confronted this sort of religious philosophy would have found problems with it at some point. A god who didn’t punish and yet forbade you to sin sounded…strange (to say the least). “Marcion’s thinking is superficial; to the deepest things in religion he is insensitive. He is the slave of dualistic presuppositions, seeing everything antithetically, incapable of perceiving the subtleties which are the very essence of human experience and which cannot be pressed into a rigid classification, dualistic or otherwise. His temperament fitted him to be an organizer and a textual critic, but not to be a prophet or pastor or comforter of sin-sick souls.”[37] And so, Marcion has died twice: he died when he died and he died when his philosophy was incapable of sustaining the human individual living in a world full of beauty, good food, beautiful marriages, children swinging on trees, flowers blooming in May, and all of that other stuff that makes life worthwhile. Marcion is no longer remembered because his philosophy could not sustain itself—it simply could not stand on its own two feet (for it was ghostly and had none!).

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Jerry Sittser (of Whitworth University) – for being “the monk who wouldn’t be”!


Blackman, E. C. Marcion and His Influence. London: S.P.C.K., 1948.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament. Translated by Kendrick Grobel. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951.

Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Harnack, Adolf von. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Translated by John E. Steely and      Lyle D. Bierma. Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Viking, 2009.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. Translated by Robert McLachlan            Wilson. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.

Schmithals, Walter. Gnosticism in Corinth: An Investigation of the Letters to the Corinthians.        Translated by John E. Steely. New York: Abingdon Press, 1971.

Schmithals, Walter. Paul and the Gnostics. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and       Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 and 5. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and    Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.


[1] Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, trans. John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma (Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990), 15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 17-18.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The vanilla flavoring is not to be taken seriously; it is “scholarly humor” that probably has some truth to it.

[9] Harnack, Marcion, 28. Italics original.

[10]Harnack, Marcion, 22.

[11] Ibid., 23. Words italicized in the original.

[12] According to Tertullian, Marcion had no brains. “Evidently you could more easily discover a man born without heart or brains, like Marcion, than without a body, like Marcion’s Christ” (Adv. Marc. IV. 10). Translation taken from Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 and 5, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 2, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 304-305. All following citations from Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem come from Evans’ 2 volume translation.

[13] Harnack, Marcion, 26. Italics original.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 46. Citation taken directly from Harnack.

[17] Ibid., 31.

[18] Ibid., 32.

[19] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

[20] Harnack, Marcion, 33.

[21] Ibid., 34.

[22] Ibid., 37.

[23] Ibid., 72.

[24] For scholars who think that Gnosticism can be traced to the first-century see Walter Schmithals, Gnosticism in Corinth: An Investigation of the Letters to the Corinthians, trans. John E. Steely (New York: Abingdon Press, 1971); Paul and the Gnostics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972); Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, trans. Robert McLachlan Wilson (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983), see esp. pp. 299-306; Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel, vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), see esp. pp. 167-183.

[25] “The troubles at Corinth over the resurrection and enthusiastic spiritual gifts have also been traced to Gnostic thinking” (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 292.

[26] Ernest Evans, introduction to Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 1, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), xviii.

[27] Triptolemus was a hero sent to teach men agriculture (Ovid, Metam. V. 645 sqq.).

[28][28] Ernest Evans writes a footnote here that reads: “’From the tree’ is not in the Hebrew or the LXX or Latin Vulgate of Ps. 96:10: but it was known to Justin, apol. i. 41, 42; dial. 73; and the epistle of Barnabas (8.5) seems to be aware of it” (Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3, 227).

[29] This tradition was already present in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.

[30] NRSV.

[31] E. C. Blackman, Marcion and His Influence (London: S.P.C.K., 1948), 3.

[32] Ibid., 7.

[33] Ibid., 73.

[34] Ibid., 82.

[35] Ibid., 85.

[36] Ibid., 97.

[37] Ibid., 106.

7 thoughts on “Marcion and Tertullian: A Tale of a god Who Wouldn’t Be

  1. I’m still trying to figure out my faith, but I can definitely see the appeal in some parts of Marcion’s theology.
    His struggle with the old and new testaments is one that is very real in the minds of many but remains unvoiced by most practicing Christians today. Most of us don’t really know what to do, when while reading the OT, we stumble across a verse in which God commands the extermination of the Canaanites- women and innocent children included in the mix. There are so many things In the OT that no way in heck describe a loving, caring God. You wrote that Marcion died two deaths, his second being “when he was incapable of sustaining the human individual…”, but I would argue that the remenants of Marcionosm are still very prevalent today. Though most Christians would be quick to dismiss Marcion’s ideas as heresy, a lot of people don’t read the old testament at all because we dont really know what to think of it sometimes.. The OT might as well be nonexistent for many. In churches we focus on God and his love and his ‘positive’ attributes and no one ever brings up the God of the OT who sometimes appears very belligerent and bloodthirsty.
    Furthermore, when Tertullian wrote that Marcion was too concerned with, or had an unhealthy interest in the problem of evil, that made me a little angry. Evil isint just a tiny minor detail, that is left unanswered by the Christian faith but it is more like a gaping black hole that threatens to suck the life out of my faith in God sometimes. This is why I applaud Marcion for at least undertaking the task to try to find some answers for us..
    I know I proabably sound like I have no idea what I’m talking about but I guess I just think Marcion was a lot smarter then we give him credit to have been.
    Also do you go to Whitworth?!

    • Hi Olga. Regarding your question: I used to go to Whitworth University. I graduated this year and moved to attend Emory.
      The reason I wrote about Marcion is because I, too, think the problem of evil is still very much an issue for most of us today. It’s quiet a “black hole” indeed!

      • Meeee too! I love your blog. Theology+philosophy are my jam. I bet we wouldve been good friends.. Except the more I learn, the more confused I get about everything, which can be quite a problem.. That’s the coolest coincidence though!!

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