Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Paul, Marcion & the Church Fathers

Here are a few statements that (I think) can be widely agreed by scholars on all sides of the various fences as being 'facts':
  1. Marcion (or his followers) compiled the first collection of 'New Testament' books. This consisted of one Gospel and ten letters attributed to the Apostle Paul. This was in the early part of the 2nd century.
  2. The Gospel used by Marcionites (and which they thought was by Paul) was similar to the gospel we now call 'Luke' although it was considerably shorter than the canonical version of Luke we are familiar with today.
  3. The Epistles used by the Marcionites were, likewise, considerably shorter than the canonical versions of Paul's letters as we know then today. They were: Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Laodiceans [our "Ephesians"], Colossians, Philemon and Philippians.
  4. In the late 2nd century (and later), the Church Fathers had access to longer versions of the Epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke and compared these with the Marcionite versions.
  5. There is no documentary evidence of any pre-Marcionite Pauline Epistle or pre-Marcionite Gospel of Luke.
It is tricky to reconstruct what might have happened way back then.

The orthodox view is that:
  • Paul wrote the Epistles, pretty much as we have them today. Someone else wrote Luke, pretty much as we have it today.
  • Marcion took them and edited them to suit his own purposes.
However, given the lack of evidence, at least two other possibilities should be considered. First that:
  • Paul wrote the Episles and Marcion used them without editing. Similarly with Luke.
  • An anti-Marcionite edited them to conform to the emerging 'catholic' worldview. Rehabilitating Paul (and Luke) in the process.
Or, possibly:
  • Marcion wrote the Epistles (and gospel, perhaps) and attributed them to Paul.
  • An anti-Marcionite edited them to conform to the emerging 'catholic' worldview. Rehabilitating Paul in the process.
How can we choose between these options? I don't think we have any evidence to refute either of the latter two. All we can do is appeal to the majority - most people believe the orthodox view, so it is more likely that it is the truth. The problem is, that most people believe the orthodox view, because it was the orthodox view that won in the battle of the ideologies. The winner in a contest isn't always the 'right' one.

The water gets further muddied when you consider 'redaction criticism' - in many places it does look like the epistles of Paul have been edited or partially rewritten by later writers. I have on my shelf a copy of J.C. O'Neill's commentary on Romans. In it he pulls the book of Romans to bits and attempts to reconstruct the 'original' Pauline letter. His reconstruction is less than a third of the canonical version. I must say that I find it implausible that quite so much additional material was added to Romans in the space of a few decades, apparently by several different editors, and that no traces survive of earlier (less edited) versions of the letter. However, many of his points are valid, and it certainly looks as if someone has padded out Romans with some additional material. Bultmann referred to this person as the 'Ecclesiastical Redactor' and David Trobisch has claimed that this was Polycarp in his book "The First Edition of the New Testament".

So does the 'fact' that the canonical letters of Paul have apparently been edited lend any support to either of the later options? Well, possibly yes, although all it really casts a question over is whether the canonical letters of Paul are the same as when Paul wrote them. The evidence seems to indicate someone has edited them - presumably with a purpose. And presumably that purpose was to either remove offending content (i.e. content that disagreed with the view of the editor) or to add in sanitising content (i.e. content representing the views of the editor, which softens the blow of some other content, which has been retained).

I've not really got a conclusion here. Except to say that I can't see a strong case for believing in the orthodox transmission route. Someone wrote the Epistles, this much is clear. Some later person edited them, this is probable. Some of the content is not from the original writer, possibly. So how can you justify using these writings as a guide for living? Well, for the most part, it works. You could choose to simply be pragmatic and live by a system that has been shown to work. But what if its not true? This is where the buck stops for me. Not whether it works or not, but whether its true.

Still don't know.

15 comments:

James F. McGrath said...

The "Marcionite first" viewpoint is popular among mythicists, and so I have interacted with it more than many people. My own view is that, while it could theoretically be the case that events unfolded as this viewpoint suggests, the evidence we have leads to the mainstream conclusion, with this alternative viewpoint basically arguing that something else could have happened in the time before our earliest manuscripts. And I think the historian's appropriate response is to build a reconstruction based on the evidence we actually have, and revise it if necessary should new evidence come to light.

Ricky Carvel said...

Obviously I'm not an expert in these matters. But it seems to me, from what little I do know about document redaction theories, that the general trend of editing in antiquity was to add material to the original rather than to subtract material. If this is true or even likely, then it does add support to the theories that the Marcionite version not the canonical version is the original. Whether the material originated from Marcion or Paul is, of course, still open to debate.

But, of course, it all comes down to probabilities and theories. There's no certainty here.

James F. McGrath said...

It seems to me that, on the one hand, the letters of Paul with all the appeal to the Jewish Scriptures and treatment of the Jewish God as the God of Jesus removed would be removing the core, so that positing that the very essence of these letters was "added" is positing more than mere editing or redaction.

And, on the other hand, it seems to me that the focus of those letters, whether Gentiles need to be circumcised, makes sense in the context of first century Jewish Christianity and not in a later period such as Marcion's time, when that does not seem to have been an issue for the developing mainstream and largely Gentile church.

So it is indeed a matter or probability, but I think there is good reason why historians evaluate the probability as leaning rather more strongly in one direction as opposed to the other when it comes to this matter.

Tim said...

Ricky: just to be precise, Trobisch does not identify Polycarp in his book 'The First Edition of the New Testament'. In that work, he leaves the matter of identifying the publisher for another day.

James: I don't think linking the 'Marcionite first' thesis with mythicism is entirely productive here - though I appreciate your hobby horse. Consider, for example, Markus Vinzent; as far as I know he is no mythicist, yet his latest book 'Christ's Resurrection in Early Christianity', is built on the idea of Marcion's canon preceding the Catholic one. (Only just received my copy of the book so I can't comment at present on the nuances of his argument.)

Besides, I find Paul-Louis Couchoud's analysis of Marcion's Apostolikon quite compelling, where he demonstrates that Marcion's text of the Pauline epistles makes more sense as the primitive iteration of the text, before later a Catholicising redaction and rehabilitation of Paul.

James F. McGrath said...

Tim, I only meant to indicate my prior exposure to it in a particular context, not to suggest that the two are inextricably linked. Sorry that it came across that way!

Erlend said...

Though if Sebastian Moll's recent work on Marcion 'The Arch-Heretic Marcion' becomes the accepted study on Marcion there will need to be a lot of revision with regards to Marcion, and several aspects of the given narrative of 2nd second Christianity.

Anonymous said...

"In it he pulls the book of Romans to bits and attempts to reconstruct the 'original' Pauline letter. His reconstruction is less than a third of the canonical version."

Wow, that is all kinds of ridiculous! If Paul wrote less than a third of Romans I'll eat my hat.

"I must say that I find it implausible that quite so much additional material was added to Romans in the space of a few decades, apparently by several different editors, and that no traces survive of earlier (less edited) versions of the letter. However, many of his points are valid, and it certainly looks as if someone has padded out Romans with some additional material."

I would not be so generous, the conclusion O'Neill comes to (i.e. Paul wrote less than a third of Romans) is so obviously absurd that it discredits whatever methodology he used to get there in the first place. Clearly, the book of Romans cannot be pulled apart to the extent O'Neill thinks it can.

- NW

Ricky Carvel said...

Thanks for all the comments NW.

I acknowledge that O'Neill seems to take his points to the extreme, but that doesn't mean we should dismiss them.

For example. In chapters 1 - 8 of Romans and 12 - 16, the writer refers to 'the Jews' pretty consistently. The distinction between 'the Jews' and 'the Gentiles' is one of the main themes. Why then, from chapters 9 to 11 does the author change vocabulary and start refer, consistently, to 'Israel'? It looks like a chunk from another author has been inserted.

R.

Anonymous said...

Ricky,

"For example. In chapters 1 - 8 of Romans and 12 - 16, the writer refers to 'the Jews' pretty consistently. The distinction between 'the Jews' and 'the Gentiles' is one of the main themes. Why then, from chapters 9 to 11 does the author change vocabulary and start refer, consistently, to 'Israel'? It looks like a chunk from another author has been inserted."

Good question.

First of all, I would remind you that the Jew/Gentile distinction does continue in Rom 9-11 (e.g. Rom 9:24, 30; 10:12; 11:11-14, 25).

The reason for the change in vocabulary is that in Rom 1-8 Paul makes his argument that the long-awaited promised inheritance has come to God's elect, which is to say those who are called to faith in Jesus; however, this conclusion naturally raises the question of God's faithfulness to the house of Israel, for the coming of this long-awaited promised inheritance was prophesied to arrive in conjunction with the restoration of the house of Israel. In particular, it is this question that Paul is anticipating when he explains that the house of Israel in the new covenant is not the same as the house of Israel in the old covenant (Rom 9:6-26) and that the house of Israel in the old covenant failed in trying obtain the promised inheritance by works of the law instead of by faith (Rom 9:30-33). If it weren't for the fact that the promised inheritance was prophesied to arrive in conjunction with the restoration of the house of Israel in the prophetic writings found in the OT Paul might not have changed his vocabulary.

- NW

beowulf2k8 said...

"So how can you justify using these writings as a guide for living? Well, for the most part, it works. You could choose to simply be pragmatic and live by a system that has been shown to work."

That's just the thing, the system DOES NOT work. There may be several systems derived from parts of the epistles that work, but the epistles themselves do not.

In Romans 2 "not the hearers of the law but the doers SHALL BE justified" vs Romans 3 "by the works of the law SHALL NO flesh be justified."

And the contradictions get worse than this. We are supposedly justified by faith alone, yet "know you not that no fornicator...shall inherit the kingdom of God?"

The system doesn't work.

James F. McGrath said...

@beowulf, while there may be some very good reasons to conclude that the traditional systems of Christianity (there isn't a single, static one) do not work, I don't think the one you chose works. The problem may not be with Paul's logic but with the fact that Protestant interpreters have long interpreted "works of the Law" as a reference to any good deeds done to earn merit before God, rather than as works which are characteristic specifically of the Jewish Law and thus separate Jews from Gentiles - such as circumcision, food laws and Sabbath observance.

Paul's letters make much more sense when read in that way. Again, to be clear, I am not suggesting that that means it is possible or appropriate to simply adopt Paul's system at thought, but simply pointing out that the chosen example may not be as good an example of a contradictory element as it initially appears.

beowulf2k8 said...

I think my example are good enough, because here he has the law in view in both statements.

You say: "The problem may not be with Paul's logic but with the fact that Protestant interpreters have long interpreted "works of the Law" as a reference to any good deeds done to earn merit before God, rather than as works which are characteristic specifically of the Jewish Law"

Ok, let's see. In Romans 2 "not the hearers of the law but the doers SHALL BE justified" vs Romans 3 "by the works of the law SHALL NO flesh be justified."

Now I suppose we could add some bracketed words to correct his self-contradiction:

ch 2 "not the hearers of the [moral] law but the doers SHALL BE justified" -- ch3 "by the works of the [ceremonial] law SHALL NO flesh be justified."

But should we have to do this?

James F. McGrath said...

It is definitely wise to exercise caution when it comes to adding in interpretative phrases to "clarify" a text's meaning, since we may well be importing meaning rather than merely making what is there clearer.

But, while I don't think that Paul would necessarily have put it in precisely that way, I do think that a distinction between "the weightier matters of the law" and symbolic boundary markers of the Jewish people is clear in places. Otherwise, what could he have possilbly meant when he wrote that "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters, but keeping the commandments of God"?

beowulf2k8 said...

"Otherwise, what could he have possilbly meant when he wrote that 'Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters, but keeping the commandments of God'?"

This is precisely another point I would make. In Galatians 5 Paul begins by arguing that circumcision damns.

"I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing." In other words, get circumcised, be damned.

Again, "I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law." And since nobody can do the whole law (per Paul), again, this means: get circumcised, be damned.

But the, all of the sudden, "in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love."

So does circumcision damn or not?

Further, in Galatians 5 Paul views circumcision as a sign of submission to the law--indeed as a sacrament that makes you "a debtor to do the whole law." But not so in Romans 4!!!!!!

In Romans 4, circumcision is a seal of faith!!!

"And [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised"

So is circumcision a damning sacrament that makes one "a debtor to do the whole law" or a rather benign "seal of the righteousness that is by faith"?????

Paul can't make up his mind.

Jose Gonzales said...

"Paul can't make up his mind."

Or rather, Marcion and the Catholic editor can't agree with each other.