Reviews of

The Challenge of Marcion

In Cambridge University Press, Jordan Almanzar, Judith LIEU, Marcion, Mohr Siebeck, review article, Sebastian MOLL on March 1, 2017 at 4:36 pm


2017.03.05 | Judith M. Lieu. Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-107-02904-0.

Sebastian Moll. The Arch-Heretic Marcion. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010. ISBN: 978-3-16-150268-2.

Review article by Jordan Almanzar, Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen.


The significance of the second century for understanding Christian history is summed up by Gerd Lüdemann, who explains that from the first generation until the end of the second century, “more important decisions were made for the whole of Christianity than were made from the end of the second century to the present day.”[i] The contours of orthodoxy were defined in those years and it was during this time that Marcion and his followers were extracted from the orthodox and branded with the dishonorable label of heretics. Although their movement slowly died, its poignant memory, embodied in the figure of its founder, lingers dimly but permanently on the pages of Christian history.

The major challenge confronting those who study Marcion is that almost everything known about him is communicated through the testimonies of his most vigorous adversaries. For Marcion left no writings of his own and the primary evidences of his existence are recovered in the works of the more orthodox churchmen who wrote against him and his movement. Scholars sift the relevant testimonies in search of kernels of historical truth and assent by varying degrees to the credibility of these ill-suited sources. Yet, the figure of Marcion is so elusive that there has never been a permanent consensus on the man nor his influence on ancient Christianity.

What is most apparent in the accounts of Marcion’s adversaries is that they represent only one side of an intense provocation. Marcion was hated deeply and lastingly and the reasons for this should be taken seriously. Neither he nor his movement could have sparked such vitriolic accusations as the apologists made against him unless a real threat was perceived. It seems reasonable to assume that there was a sustained and equally malevolent provocation from Marcion’s side as well. The obvious difficulty here, however, is that after its defeat, Marcionism was completely eradicated by the orthodox victors. The escalation of the charges against Marcion to the point of sometimes juvenile accusations reveals that the apologists were not combating a problem far removed from themselves. Rather, they were dealing with a rival-at-hand who was made even more so by his similarity.

The French anthropologist René Girard argues that conflict arises not from individuals contending for different ends, but from those who desire the same objective.[ii] In the case of Marcion and his adversaries, the objective was the right interpretation of God’s revelation in Jesus. A key component of such a rivalry is unconscious mimesis, with each party striving to distinguish themselves while inevitably becoming more like the other. The evidence of such a situation with Marcion is striking. For one thing, even the fourth century Marcionite communities could not be easily distinguished from their Christian counterparts in terms of practice, and Christians had to be warned not to stumble into Marcionite communities unawares when entering a new village. With regards to authoritative scripture, it is remarkable that the so called Marcion bible–comprised of a Gospel (shorter version of Luke) and an Apostle (ten letters of Paul)–contained nothing which is not also present in the canonical New Testament.

Specialists will typically contrast the distinctions of Marcion’s teaching, along with the contents of his bible, against the backdrop of the emerging orthodox teachings and the New Testament canon, which became solidified during the early centuries. However, the results of such an approach are highly complicated because they are encumbered by numerous outside details concerning the uncertain maturity of the Church at various historical points. Highlighting the distinctions rather than the similarities serves to unwittingly shift focus away from Marcion and onto the apologists, as if mistaking a mirror for a window. But mirrors are valuable commodities and the studies which produce them often supply a host of facts concerning the history of Christianity in the earliest centuries; however, they also lose sight of Marcion.


Judith M. Lieu, Marcion and the Making of a Heretic

Judith M. Lieu’s book, Marcion and the Making of a Heretic, is an example of the approach described in the paragraph above. She presents a painstakingly comprehensive account of Marcion, or rather, the making of a heretic, within a two-step process of discovery. Lieu first uncovers the “Marcions” constructed by his enemies—men such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Ephraem the Syrian. Next, she analyzes the “most marked characteristics” which surfaced from these writers’ portrayals of Marcion and sets them within the social currents of the second century. According to Lieu, Marcion, as we have come to know him, was created both by the profile which emerged on the pages of his enemies and also by second-century society. There is a historical Marcion and, Lieu argues, he must be discovered in the two steps noted above.

After scrutinizing the sources, Lieu analyzes Marcion’s treatment of scripture and addresses his principles of thought under four broad topics: God, the Gospel, Life and Practice, and Contradictions in the Gospel. Having situated her assessment in the context of the second century, the only major distinction which materializes is that Marcion separated and degraded the Creator God from a higher force–the father of Jesus–which is central to Marcionite theology.[iii] Notably, Lieu claims that the historical Marcion was no reformer but rather was one of many Christian philosophers vying for influence in the second century–his “reforms” were the asynchronous projections of a later age.[iv]

What is interesting in Lieu’s approach is that Marcion is tamed while his detractors appear as increasingly wild. Marcion blends in with the crowd of second-century Christian thinkers who were each grasping at philosophical straws and trying to reconcile them with the emerging, authoritative scriptures. In his time, according to Lieu, Marcion’s teaching merely represented one of a number of options for understanding the Christian message. In this regard, readers will discover a sound impartiality in Lieu’s assessment of Marcion among his contemporaries.

Previous studies have argued that Marcion was the first to have the idea of a “New” Testament and that it was the Church’s reaction against this action which augmented and then canonized an official set of scriptures to be used in the churches. To Lieu, it is anachronistic to ask whether Marcion regarded his bible as a “New” Testament and she reminds us that he encountered his scriptural authorities, without rejecting any, while yet a Christian. Although Lieu does not offer a theory as to how the canon came into existence, she denies that it was as a reaction to Marcion or his movement. Marcion’s interpretation of the scriptures he inherited is more important than the fact that he had less of them than appear in the later canon.

Marcion was not an ecclesiastical figure in Lieu’s conception because she reads his context as revealing that schools of thought were predominant in the second century over Church structure. “A context,” says Lieu, “that brings Marcion not just over against Justin [Martyr] but also alongside him, as the founder of a school, if not the first of such, may seem very different from the conventional, still ‘heresiological’, view of Marcion as more of an ecclesial figure, being ejected from, or breaking decisively from, ‘the Roman church’ and forming an independent church with its own structures and hierarchy.”[v] In his time, according to Lieu, there was no definitively structured Church from which Marcion could be separated, neither was there such a unified body which might act decisively against Marcion and his movement. To maintain this claim, Lieu is careful to underscore the rapid development of Church hierarchy in the second century, and she persistently avoids projecting the situation of the third or even late second century back onto the historical Marcion. Rather, Lieu traces these projections to the contexts of the Church at more advanced ages in the decades after Marcion and, more precisely, to the proclivities of the individual heresiologists.

The reaction Marcion did trigger from the Christians, according to Lieu, was semantic. It transpired in the field of Christian rhetoric and, as her book title indicates, is in the making of a heretic. In order to provide a broader picture for the concept of “heresy”, Lieu analyzes the heresaical tradition, stretching back to Simon Magus and beyond, with special attention to Marcion’s place within it. Notably, Lieu’s Marcion emerges from this process without a demonstrable connection to the other heretics in the tradition. It is the later apologists who are responsible for the wider net being cast in their development of the heresaical tradition, which sought to group all of the ancient, aberrant thinkers together.

Lieu mentions a number of amazing similarities between the Marcionites and their orthodox contemporaries—common scriptures, parallel religious ceremonies, and even joint martyrdoms—and yet does not discern this similarity as a major reason for the Church’s fiery conflict with Marcion and his teachings.[vi] Rather, she offers one notable distinction between the parties, one that involves philosophical questions regarding the two Gods of Marcion’s scheme, and she reckons this singular philosophical deviation to be the sole basis of the conflict and the source of all Marcion’s woes.[vii]

Most interestingly, Lieu claims that Tertullian’s portrait of Marcion emerges from a “complex of antithesis and attraction.”[viii] Although she does not say it directly, Lieu seems to understand in this statement that Tertullian is scandalized by his adversary–Marcion. According to Lieu, “it is impossible to ignore the points at which their outlooks converge (…) It is also likely that they may have appeared to other observers as being far closer to each other in the behaviour that they advocated–and many would have been swayed by that impression.”[ix] Tertullian recognizes this attraction, watching his own agenda approach dangerously close to Marcion’s, and, subsequently, resorts to distorting the figure of his adversary in an effort to distance himself. Lieu writes, “The inconsistencies that Tertullian mocks in Marcion’s God may often be the consequence of the tensions that he projected onto the construction of his opponent.”[x] Here and elsewhere, Lieu has discovered something about one of Marcion’s enemies which convincingly appears to be a concealed attraction to Marcionite ideas. Although Lieu only locates this “complex of antithesis and attraction” in one apologist, she might have extended it to all of the heresiologists when she writes:

Perhaps most pressing [to the apologists] is their need to display their own authenticity, the incontrovertible authenticity of their expression of faith, their patterns of church practice and discipline, their participation in a network of other right-thinking holders of a faith they held was no less that of the earliest preachers of the Gospel. The Marcion with whom they did battle did, therefore, have to appear as the antithesis of all this; his priorities had to be theirs; his framework the mirror of their own, but fatally flawed.[xi]

To make Marcion “appear as the antithesis” to the orthodox program, the apologists disfigured the portrait of their rival and purposefully mangled his teachings. In an effort to fashion an unquestionable distance between themselves and the source of his parallel framework, they poured scorn upon the person of Marcion and exaggerated their claims to the point of freakishness.

Rightly or wrongly, Lieu limited her study by taking the position that Marcion was an indiscriminate philosopher and not an ecclesiastical figure. Her mode was to approach Marcion through the philosophy of the men who wrote against him and she completed her task by writing a book about the philosophical “Making of a Heretic”. Although she does not draw out the significance of the apologists’ secret attraction to Marcion noted above, readers will likely recognize its significance in her pages.


Sebastian Moll, The Arch-Heretic Marcion

Sebastian Moll seeks to offer a “new coherent portrait of Marcion” which might take the place of the portrait of Marcion established by Adolf von Harnack which has dominated the field until the present.[xii] As Moll openly states in his conclusion, it is up to the reader to determine whether he succeeded in his task, and his propositions toward that end are equally as bold as they are engaging. [xiii] A German writing in English, Moll supplies the reader with an exceptional backdrop for understanding Harnack’s Marcion in context. In general, Moll believes that Harnack’s theological motives caused him to mistakenly see a Protestant ally in Marcion. For example, Moll argues that Harnack forced upon Marcion the Lutheran idea of law and grace with respect to Marcion’s two gods. Harnack believed that Marcion was a proto-reformer in his own tradition and came to “love” him more than anyone else in the early Church.[xiv] Throughout Moll’s book, Harnack enters the discussion and Moll is quick to specify what he considers to be Harnack’s most relevant missteps.[xv]

Against Lieu, Moll maintains that Marcion was purely a Biblicist and no philosopher. In fact, Marcion discovered his two gods in the two testaments.[xvi] This is a fascinating assertion which is central to Moll’s overall proposal–namely, “Marcion did not understand the Old Testament in the light of the New, he interpreted the New Testament in the light of the Old.”[xvii] The Old Testament is the record of an evil, vengeful God who had burdened humans with the oppressiveness of the Old Testament Law. Marcion believed that a good God, who is above the evil God, sent Jesus to spite the Old Testament God and to free mankind from his reign of law and punishment. Moll calls this an “antithetical relation of the two Gods” and argues that it is entirely derived from the two Testaments.[xviii]

Marcion, according to Moll, was convinced that the Christians of his day were involved in a pervasive “Judaizing conspiracy” which sought to link Jesus of Nazareth to the God of the Old Testament. Accordingly, Marcion believed that the messiah of the Old Testament God had not yet come, but that the true messiah had been sent by the good God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Marcion casts blame for the Judaizing conspiracy on Peter for proclaiming Jesus as the expected messiah of the Old Testament (Luke 9:18). But not all of the earliest disciples were taken in this conspiracy, for Marcion deemed that Paul was a true representative of the revelation of the good God in Jesus. John Knox and others have argued that Marcion’s emphatic use of Paul forced the Church into claiming Paul for their side by, above all else, publishing the book of Acts which exhibits a domesticated Paul in subordination to the leaders in Jerusalem.[xix] Moll, however, downplays this proposal and claims that Marcion did not make Paul an authority but rather made use of his already established authority.[xx]

In Moll’s conception, Marcion was a convert to Christianity who had at one time been a prominent churchman. Moll also shows that the Church of the second century was remarkably tolerant of divergent views; however, it was Marcion who could not tolerate a Church which he believed was being led astray by a conspiracy. Moll writes:

(…) the complete break between Marcion and the Church was an unusual incident in the ecclesial world of the second century. The reason Marcion did not fit within the usual tolerance scheme of the Church towards dissenters was that he did not simply differ from the orthodox group in some way, but that he attacked what he believed to be a perverted church and thus started an anti-movement­.[xxi]

Moll, citing Blackman, is adamant that Marcion founded a church and not a philosophical school and appeals to the fact that Marcion’s church practiced Eucharistic rituals and even baptized its initiates in the name of the Trinity.[xxii] Furthermore, the Marcionites too had presbyters and maintained a succession of bishops.[xxiii] Instead of an “anti-movement,” it seems that Marcion set up a parallel church. The parallel structure of the Marcionite church confounds Moll, who writes:

Given this origin of the Marcionite movement it must surprise all the more that its founder would not attempt to distinguish its outer appearance more from the opponent. After all, Marcion believed that the entire teaching of the Church had been falsified due to a huge conspiracy, but apparently he did not feel that something similar was true concerning the outward structure of the Church. [xxiv]

Moll also notes that Marcion, whom he considers to be a pure Biblicist, did not rely on the Bible for his practice of administering the sacraments and, further, that his baptismal formula stems from a Gospel that he rejected. Moll says, “(…) the best explanation for this phenomenon seems to be that by the time Marcion broke with orthodoxy the sacraments had already been established within the Church for more than one generation, so that their origin had apparently already become hazy.”[xxv] Marcion’s task, as he himself saw it, was to restore the forgotten message that was only partially preserved with the apostles and had been lost with the subsequent generation. The skeletal structure of the Church and its rituals were not the issue.

Moll does not entertain the idea that the Marcionite church might have undergone a sustained development alongside and in exchange with the orthodox community. However, Marcionites were celibate and relied on the poaching of Christians to sustain their numbers.  From the Church’s point of view, according to Moll, Marcionism was an irritating parasite to its end.[xxvi] Ultimately, the Marcionite community died because of its lack of biological regeneration but, when the movement was strong, it seems reasonable to presume that the poached members would have brought their developing traditions with them. Regardless, when conflict is most heated, rivals look most similar.

It is up to the reader to decide if Moll has overthrown Harnack’s Marcion in his one-hundred and sixty-two-page book. Although Moll’s study opens new questions and offers creative solutions to old questions, one would have to commit to following his suppositions unquestioningly from the outset to concur with each of his assertions. Moll is aware of the need for sound methodology when approaching Marcion and says, “If we were to create a biography of Marcion solely based on hard facts, we would end up with not much more than a blank piece of paper.”[xxvii] Speculation is necessary and speculate Moll does.


Lieu and Moll

Walter Bauer’s call for historians to “let also the other side be heard” (audiatur et altera pars) is nowhere more relevant than when it comes to studying the role of Marcion as a shaper of Christianity and we can be grateful for those who have taken up the challenge.[xxviii] For Lieu brings to her study a penetrating insight into the patristic sources, which she utilizes effectively to set the context for understanding Marcion among his contemporaries. Moll, whose book is less than half as long as Lieu’s, displays a vast knowledge of all the issues and provides a refreshing critique on the dominating force of Harnack’s Marcion. In many ways, his book is a not so humble attempt to oust Harnack’s Marcion and can be appreciated for both its depth and creativity.

While complementary at certain points, Lieu and Moll have issued two strikingly divergent accounts of Marcion and his contemporary context using the exact same sources. Lieu sought the distinctions between Marcion and his adversaries and finished with a book about the adversaries. Moll, however, was struck by the similarity between the camps but did not distinguish this similarity as the cause of the lack of toleration from both sides. Above all, the two authors disagree as to whether Marcion was a philosopher who started a school of thought, or a Biblicist who founded a rival Church.


[i] Gerd Lüdemann, Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 12.

[ii] This theory is explained in many of Girard’s works and is currently being applied by scholars in various academic disciplines. See, “Imitatio,” accessed February 21, 2017 See also, René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1979); Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987); and, The Scapegoat (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1989).

[iii] Tertullian makes this aspect his central theme when writing about Marcion. See, Judith M. Lieu, Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 66-70.

[iv] Ibid, 396.

[v] Ibid, 322.

[vi] See especially Ibid, 397 where Lieu discusses Marcionites being martyred alongside their Christian counterparts.

[vii] Lieu says, “Where Marcion stands out is in his radical separation and degrading of the Creator,” Ibid, 434.

[viii] Ibid, 84.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid, 85.

[xi] Ibid, 125.

[xii] Sebastian Moll, The Arch-Heretic Marcion (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 10. See, Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1996 [first edition 1921]).

[xiii] Moll, 158.

[xiv] Moll says that Harnack is “in love” with Marcion. Ibid, 1.

[xv] Moll reminds his readers of the important early critiques of Harnack’s book made by Hans von Soden and Walter Bauer. See, Moll 4; Hans von Soden, “A. v. Harnacks Marcion,” ZKG 40, (1922), 191-206; and Walter Bauer, Review, “Harnack. Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott,” GGA 185, (1923), 1-14.

[xvi] Moll, 75.

[xvii] Ibid, 82.

[xviii] Ibid, 83.

[xix] John Knox, Marcion and the New Testament: An Essay on the Early History of the Canon (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1942).

[xx] Moll, 86.

[xxi] Ibid, 125.

[xxii] Ibid, 122.

[xxiii] Ibid, 124

[xxiv] Ibid, 125

[xxv] Ibid, 126

[xxvi] Ibid, 129.

[xxvii] Moll, 25.

[xxviii] Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), xxi.


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