Marcion and “Gnosticism”

Recent scholarship has overthrown the dominant image of Gnosticism, which Karen King has shown to derive from a carrying over of anti-heresy polemics into the modern scholarly literature. No single document in the extant texts evinces all the qualities traditionally associated with the patristic/modern concept of Gnosticism, and many appear to be very difficult to understand in terms of the traditional concept at all. This raises the question of where the early Church Fathers came up with their vision of Gnosticism in the first place. I’ve suggested previously that “Gnosticism” looks suspiciously like an exaggerated version of certain questionable themes in “mainstream” Christian thought itself — the devil who corrupted the world is promoted into the evil demiurge who created the world, for instance.

Yet it strikes me that, ironically, the actual-existing theologian who fits the traditional definition of “Gnosticism” most closely is someone who is regarded by many modern scholars as not being a true “Gnostic” — namely, Marcion, who starts from within the Jewish-Christian tradition and comes to conclusions that are suspiciously similar to “Gnosticism.” What if we switch things around, though? What if it is actually Marcion who provides the template for the patristic vision of “Gnosticism”? And what if the attempt to paint Marcion as just one “Gnostic” among others is actually motivated by the desire to make him a foreign intrusion into the faith rather than a natural, but extreme extrapolation from within it?

That is to say, what if all the so-called “Gnostic” thinkers were collateral damage in the fight against Marcion?

11 thoughts on “Marcion and “Gnosticism”

  1. “the actual-existing theologian who fits the traditional definition of “Gnosticism” most closely is someone who is universally regarded by modern scholars as not being a “Gnostic” — namely, Marcion”

    Why is this? What reasons are there to deny that Marcion is a gnostic, beyond a rejection of the category as such? I would’ve thought he was a paradigm case of gnosticism, on anyone’s account. I suppose he’s clearly not an “oriental syncretist”, but I thought that view of gnosticism was already obsolete decades ago: I thought the consensus now was that “gnosticism” was a cluster of (broadly) Christian gentile groups?

    (Disclaimer: I haven’t read anything serious about gnosticism since undergrad. But I did spend a fair bit of time reading about it way back then.)

  2. He is not part of the general tradition that included figures like Valentinus and Basilides — he was independent. Even the Church Fathers themselves place some minimal distance between Marcion and those they considered Gnostics.

  3. I have corrected the post — I vastly exaggerated the assent to the view that Marcion isn’t a proper Gnostic. Harnack holds that view, but Jonas and King both casually refer to him as among the Gnostic writers (just dipping it at random to check).

  4. Yes, there’s a distinction between Gnosticism & “Gnosticism” (as in the first paragraph of Adam’s text). But there are clearly “Gnostic” or Gnostic elements in, e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls (The sons of light vs. the sons of darkness) which indicate that something like “Gnosticism” or Gnosticism was around before the Early Christian era, when it became a Christian heresy & engendered further heresies. so, again, you’d want to know what “historical” Gnosticism was so you could distinguish it from the Christian polemical version. I don’t suppose you could even clearly distingusih what was “Gnosticism” or “Gnosticism” and “orthodox Christianity” before the Early Church began theological & doctrinal policing operations to define orthodoxy. I admit that, on the whole, I actually sympathise with the position of “orthodox” Christianity (which is sacramental & anti-dualistic: the world & flesh are good, insofar as created by God; Christ is neither pure God or pure man but both; the Mystery of the Incarnation is central to Christian sacramentalism etc…) rather than the “Gnostic” position (which is anti-flesh, anti-world, dualistic, & war-like, at least rhetorically; and which sees this world as a prison top be escaped or destroyed etc….), but I’d gladly admit there’s no clear distinction between them (there are “Gnostic” or Gnostiic or gnostic elements in the Christian Gsoples & orthodox Christianity) & that both sides engaged in propaganda wars against each other. Still, it’d be nice to get a half-way civil answer from Adam Kostko to a simple question that was meant to be helpful. There’s not much scholarship on Zoroastrianism & I would be glad to hear from anybody out there who knows something about it…

  5. I apologize for incivility, but your comment seemed to presuppose a fundamental misunderstanding of the post and hence was not helpful. You beg the question of whether there was a “real” Gnosticism the fathers exaggerated, when I cited a major scholar in my first sentence who showed that Gnosticism is an artificial grouping created by the fathers and carried over by modern scholars.

  6. My question (…and it was just a question!…) was simply whether the historical origins of what’s called Gnosticism or “Gnosticism” (or gnosticism or “gnosticism”) don’t enormously pre-date the Early Church controversies about who and what are “Gnostic” (heretical). I wondered if you (…or anybody else besides you!…) knew anything about “Gnosticism” & “Zoroastrianism.” And whether that might help[ toward answering your question. I just looked over a few reviews of King’s book, and they suggest that while she questions the Early Church definition of “Gnosticism” and argues for its redefinition or re-naming, she doesn’t deny there were different trends in the Early Church which may or may not correspond to what’s called “Gnosticism.” In other words, neither she nor I beg the question of whether there was a “historical” Gnosticism which was misrepresented by the Early Church; we both think (…I think?…) there was a “something” and agree it was misrepresented. I just want to know what that “something” was! And whether it might have derived from Zoroastrianism before it was called “Gnosticism.” The question “where the Early Church fathers came up with the definition of Gnosticism in the first place” is a question about the historical origins of Gnosticism and “orthodox” Christianity (…which didn’t exist before the Church Councils defined it, often in opposition to “Gnosticism” or “Manicheaism” or “Arianism” or whatever…). But there was obviously “something” (…call it whatever you want…) that existed prior to the Early Church; that opposed, or was perceived to oppose, the Early Church; and that was either misrepresented or accurately represented by the Patristic & Apostolic Fathers as “Gnosticism.” Did that “something” originate from Zoroastrianism, which clearly existed at least 500 years (…or more?…) before “Early Christianity” & “Gnosticism”? I’d appreciate responses from anybody who knows something about “something.” Meanwhile, I certainly encourage anybody who knows more about Marcion & the Early Church controversies than I do to respond more specifically to Adam Kotsko’s question. Whether or not it has anything to do with my “un-helpful” question…

  7. If you’d read a couple more book reviews, you may have realized that King also characterizes attempts to trace down “Eastern” roots for Gnosticism (such as Zoroastrianism, for instance) as a deeply questionable and wrong-headed approach!

    The Christian thinkers whom the Church Fathers group together under the rubric of Gnosticism originated, as far as I can tell, from within the general milieu of Christianity. And in the post, I propose that Marcion, who most closely represents the traditional definition of Gnosticism out of any of the other thinkers we have access to, is in fact where the patristic picture of Gnosticism comes from. So again, you continue to misunderstand my point, presumably because, as usual, you have some kind of idiosyncratic agenda and, again as usual, are using my post as an occasion to spout off your pre-existing views rather than actually engaging me in a meaningful dialogue!

  8. You have two choices at this point: you can complain about how mean I’m being or you can endeavor to actually read my posts more attentively before responding — without making sarcastic remarks about how you hope you’re adequately meeting my standards, etc. If you do not prove to be up to the latter path, you will be blocked from commenting.

  9. I’ve been re-reading Thomas Sheehan’s The First Coming (1986), which while no doubt somewhat out of date, strikes me as a good introduction to controversies about “the historical Jesus” vs. “the Christ of faith,” to textual issues about the hypothetical “Q” text & Aramaic sources; and to possible Essene, Gnostic, or Zoroastrian sources of the Christian gospels & Early Christian Church dogma. (Prof. Sheehan accepts the then current hypothesis about the Dead Sea Scrolls, but that is perhaps a venial failing of his work.) I greatly respect Prof. Sheehan and am thankful that he’s sometimes gracious enough to respond to my “idiosyncratic” concerns. I’d reccomend his work to other readers. At this point, I don’t suppose it’s necessary to make sarcastic comments about meeting standards etc. Thanks, Adam, I’ll refrain from reading or commenting on your further posts.

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