What If Marcionism Had Triumphed?

Many historians enjoy playing the “What if . . ?” game.  What if the South had won the American Civil War?  What if Hitler had won WWII?  Bart Ehrman has speculated on:  What if Marcionism had triumphed over proto-orthodoxy?

In his book Lost Christianities, he writes:

Marcionite Christianity was a forceful movement in the early church, and one can readily see why.  It took what most people in the empire found most attractive about Christianity–love, grace, wonder, opposition to this harsh, material world and salvation from it–and pushed it to an extreme, while taking Christianity’s less attractive sides–law, guilt, judgment, eternal punishment, and above all, association and close ties with Jews and Judaism–and getting rid of them.  Had Marcionite Christianity succeeded, the Old Testament would be seen by Christians today not as the Old Testament but as the Jewish Scriptures, a set of writings for Jews and of no real relevance to Christianity.  So, too, Christians would not see themselves as having Jewish roots.  This may well have opened doors to heightened hostilities, since Marcion seems to have hated Jews and everything Jewish; or possibly even more likely, it may have led simply to benign neglect as Jews and their religion would have been considered to be of no relevance and certainly no competition for Christians.  The entire history of anti-Semitism might have been avoided, ironically, by an anti-Jewish religion.

Once again, other aspects of the history of the West would have been quite different, but it is not easy to see how.  Certainly, the intellectual tradition of Christianity would have been distinctly different, as the Old Testament would not have been an issue of ongoing concern, and figurative, spiritual, allegorical models of interpretation might not have developed within Christian circles (as Marcion was a literalist), leading to a history of literary analysis and a set of reading practices entirely different from what we have inherited.  Economic and political history might have turned out to be quite different, since there would have been nothing in the sacred Scriptures, for example, to oppose lending money at interest or to promote the system of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Who knows what would have happened to to the environment, given the circumstance that so much of modern environmental concerns stem ultimately from a conviction, filtered through many layers, but with Judeo-Christian roots, that God is the creator of this world and that we are its caretakers.  Different, too, would have been so much of modern socialism, even (odd as it may seem) so much of Marxist theory, as it is ultimately rooted in notions of economic justice, fairness, and opposition to oppression that trace their lineage back to the Hebrew prophets.

But once again, it is impossible to know where we would be if Marcionite Christianity had won the internal debates among Christian groups.  At the same time, even if the Marcionites had established their supremacy within Christianity, it is extremely difficult to imagine them succeeding in becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, the way proto-orthodox Christianity did.  this is because of a unique feature that made Christianity initially palatable to Roman religious tastes (and to become ultimately successful, of course, something first has to be palatable).  Unlike today, in the ancient Roman world there was a wide-ranging suspicion of any philosophy or religion that smacked of novelty.  In the fields of philosophy and religion, as opposed to the field of military technology, it was the old that was appreciated and respected not the new.  One of the most serious obstacles for Christians in the Roman mission field was the widespread perception–and it was entirely valid–that the religion was “recent.”  Nothing new could be true.  If it were true, why was it not known long ago?  How could it be that no one until now has understood the truth?  Not even Homer, Plato, or Aristotle?

The strategy that Christians devised to avoid this obstacle to conversation was to say that even though Jesus did live just decades or a century or so ago, the religion based on him is much, much older, for this religion is the fulfillment of all that God had been predicting in the oldest surviving books of civilization.  Starting with Moses and the prophets, God had predicted the coming of Jesus and the religion founded in his name.  Moses lived four centuries before Homer, eight centuries before Plato.  And Moses looked forward to Jesus and the salvation to be brought in his name  Christianity is not a new thing, of recent vintage, argued the (proto-orthodox) Christian thinkers.  It is older than anything that Greek myth and philosophy can offer; it is older than Rome itself.  As an ancient religion, it demands attention.

By embracing “true” Judaism, that is, by taking over the Jewish Scriptures and claiming them as their own, Christians overcame the single biggest objection that pagans had with regard to the appearance of this “new” religion.  Had Christians not been able to make a plausible case for the antiquity of their religion, it never would have succeeded in the empire.

But what about Marcion and his followers?  They claimed that Jesus and the salvation that he brought were brand-new.  God had never been in the world before.  He was a Stranger to this place.  There were no ancient roots to his religion, no forerunners, no antecedents.  The salvation of Christ came unlooked for and unexpected, unknown to all ancient philosophy and unlike anything found in ancient religion.  Given the reverence of antiquity in antiquity, in its quest for ultimate dominance, Marcionite Christianity probably never had a chance.

After reading this passage from Ehrman, I wonder if proto-orthodoxy didn’t go too far in trying to make Christianity “old”?  Today, does Christianity really need its connection to the Old Testament and the God of the OT?  I wonder if this need for an “old” religion didn’t color some of the passages in New Testament?

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