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Marcion of Sinope

Marcion (Greek: Μαρκίων, ca. 85-160) was an Early Christian theologian who was excommunicated[1] by the Christian church at Rome as a heretic. His teachings were influential during the 2nd century and a few centuries after, rivaling that of the Church of Rome. As he offered an alternative theology to the Canonical, Proto-orthodox, Trinitarian and Christological views of the Roman Church, the early Church Fathers denounced him sharply; their views dominate Christianity today. One of the greatest heretics in church history, he was condemned by all branches of what would become the orthodox Christian church, and was even supposedly called the "first born of Satan" by Polycarp.[2]

Marcion is sometimes referred to as one of the gnostics, but from what assessment of his lost writings can be gleaned from his mainstream opponents, his teachings were quite different in nature.[3] His canon included ten Pauline Epistles and one gospel[4] called the Gospel of Marcion, plus a rejection of the whole Hebrew Bible, and did not include the rest of the books later incorporated into the canonical New Testament. He propounded a Christianity free from Jewish doctrines with Paul as the reliable source of authentic doctrine. Paul was, according to Marcion, the only apostle who had rightly understood the new message of salvation as delivered by Christ.[5]


Biographical information about Marcion stems mostly from writings of his detractors. Hippolytus says he was the son of the bishop of Sinope (modern Sinop, Turkey), in Pontus province. Rhodon and Tertullian described him as a ship owner.[6] They further state that he was excommunicated by his father for seducing a virgin. However, Bart D. Ehrman, in Lost Christianities, suggests that his seduction of a virgin was a metaphor for his corruption of the Christian Church, the Church being the virgin.

Marcion had travelled to Rome about 142–143.[7] In the next few years, Marcion worked out his theological system and attracted a large following. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Marcion was a consecrated bishop and was probably an assistant or suffragan of his father at Sinope.[6] When conflicts with the bishops of Rome arose, Marcion began to organize his followers into a separate community. He was excommunicated by the Church of Rome around 144 and had a large donation of 200,000 sesterces returned.

After his excommunication, he returned to Asia Minor where he continued to spread his message. He created a strong ecclesiastical organization resembling the Church of Rome, and put himself as bishop.


Study of the Hebrew Scriptures and documents circulating in the early church (the New Testament canon had not yet been authoritatively delineated and closed) led Marcion to conclude that many of the teachings of Christ are incompatible with the actions of Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. This led to Marcion developing a dualist system of belief around the year 144.[8]

Marcion affirmed Jesus Christ as the saviour sent by God (the Heavenly Father), and Paul as his chief apostle. In contrast to the nascent Christian church, Marcion declared that Christianity was distinct from and in opposition to Judaism, a radical view given that Christianity was not yet established as a fully-fledged religion separate from and independent of Judaism. Not only did Marcion reject the entire Hebrew Bible, he also argued for the existence of two Gods: Yahweh, who created the material universe, and the Heavenly Father of the New Testament, of which Jesus Christ was the living incarnation. Yahweh was viewed as a lesser demiurge, who had created the earth, and whose law, the Mosaic covenant, represented bare natural justice: i.e., an eye for an eye. Jesus was the living incarnation of a different God, a new God of compassion and love, sometimes called the Heavenly Father. The two Gods were thought of as having distinct personalities: Yahweh is petty, cruel and jealous, a tribal God who is only interested in the welfare of the Jews, while the Heavenly Father is a universal God who loves all of humanity, and looks upon His children with mercy and benevolence. This dual-God notion allowed Marcion to reconcile the apparent contradictions between the Old Testament and the narratives of Jesus' life and ministry.

Yahweh, according to Marcionite thinking, is a legalistic entity. After creating the world and humanity, Yahweh grew to hate mankind for its sin. The Old Testament God thus felt justified in punishing mankind by causing humans to suffer and, eventually, to die. In a strictly legal sense, this was a sound approach. The Heavenly Father showed Himself to be far more compassionate when He revealed Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ. The Heavenly Father showed His love for humanity by healing sickness and performing miracles. Finally, He offered His Son for crucifixion. By sacrificing Himself, Jesus, as the Heavenly Father made flesh, was paying the debt of sin that humanity owed to the old God. This sacrifice wiped humanity's slate clean, and allowed humanity to inherit eternal life.

Marcion's canon consisted of eleven books: An edited version of the gospel of Luke, and ten of Paul's epistles. All other epistles and gospels of the New Testament were rejected.[9] Paul's epistles enjoy a prominent position in the Marcionite canon, since Paul is credited with correctly transmitting the universality of Jesus' message. Other authors' epistles were rejected since they seemed to suggest that Jesus had simply come to found a new sect within broader Judaism. Religious tribalism of this sort seemed to echo Yahwehism, and was thus regarded as a corruption of the Heavenly Father's teaching.

The Gospel of Marcion is based on the traditional Gospel of Luke, though the two books differ in a number of ways, with the Gospel of Marcion containing content which underpins Marcionite theology. The Gospel of Marcion is also shorter than Luke. Marcion also wrote The Antitheses which contrasts Yahweh with the Heavenly Father.


Marcion was the first well-known heretic in the history of the early church. His alternative interpretation of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ helped to create the idea that certain theologies should be sanctioned as orthodox while others should be condemned as heresy, a new term. As a reaction to the Marcionite church's popularity, the orthodox church attempted to prescribe a set of beliefs that should be catholic (in the sense of "universal"). The Marcionite heresy can thus be seen as a catalyst for the development of the unified, catholic and Judaism-derived form of Christianity that dominated political and social life in Europe until the Enlightenment.

The church that Marcion founded had expanded throughout the known world within his lifetime, and was a serious rival to the Catholic Church. Its adherents were strong enough in their convictions to have the church retain its expansive power for more than a century. It survived Christian controversy, and imperial disapproval, for several centuries more.[10]

Marcion was the first Christian leader to propose and delineate a canon (a list of officially sanctioned religious works). In so doing, he established a particular way of looking at religious texts that persists in Christian thought today. After Marcion, Christians began to divide texts into those that aligned well with the 'measuring stick' ('canon' is the Greek translation of this phrase) of accepted theological thought, and those that promoted heresy. This essential dualism played a major role in finalizing the structure of the collection of works called the Bible. The initial impetus for the orthodox Christian project of canonization flowed from opposition to the 'false canonization' of Marcion.

According to Irenaeus, Polycarp from Smyrna called Marcion "the first born of Satan."[11] His numerous critics also included Ephraim of Syria, Dionysius of Corinth, Theophilus of Antioch, Philip of Gortyna, Hippolytus and Rhodo in Rome, Bardesanes at Edessa, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria. Nevertheless, "not even Tertullian can find any strictures to pass on the morals of Marcion or his adherents".[12]

Some ideas similar to those of Marcion's reappeared among the Bulgarian Bogomils of the 10th century and the Cathars of southern France in the 13th century.

See also

  • Gospel of Marcion


  1. Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem, a near-contemprary polemic.
  2. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, III.3.4.).
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica: Marcion: "In Marcion's own view, therefore, the founding of his church — to which he was first driven by opposition — amounts to a reformation of Christendom through a return to the gospel of Christ and to Paul; nothing was to be accepted beyond that. This of itself shows that it is a mistake to reckon Marcion among the Gnostics. A dualist he certainly was, but he was not a Gnostic."
  4. [1], Eusebius, Church History; apparently it was the Gospel of Luke, with some excisions; see David Salter Williams, "Reconsidering Marcion's Gospel", Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (1989), p.477-96.
  5. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article on Marcion
  6. 6.0 6.1 Catholic Encyclopedia
  7. Tertullian dates the beginning of Marcion's teachings 115 years after the Crucifixion, which he placed in AD 26–27 (Adversus Marcionem, xix).
  8. 115 years and 6 months from the Crucifixion, according to Tertullian's reckoning in Adversus Marcionem, xv
  9. Eusebius' Church History
  10. Evans 1972 p. ix
  11. And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me?” “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” ([2], Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, III.3.4.).
  12. Evans 1972 p. xiv


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