The First Heretic

The two towering figures of Acts, Peter and Paul, were dead, martyred at around the same time in Rome. A few years later, only John, of the original apostles, remained. After suffering exile on the Island of Patmos, he ended his years in Ephesus. He was quite ancient by then and a man of great renown. After all he was not only the last surviving witness to Jesus in the flesh, but was also one of the Messiah's closest friends. It's no wonder that eager young Christians flocked to sit at his feet and learn from this mighty apostle.

One such man was Polycarp, who John himself ordained as Bishop of Smyrna. Here was a man eager to continue the witness of John. He had memorised many of John's eyewitness accounts of Jesus' miracles and teachings and was proud of his association with the apostle. He lived a life dedicated to the teachings of the apostles, a pure witness and a much needed witness, because changes were afoot. Heresy had arrived and Polycarp met it head-on in a visit to Rome at around 154 AD.

The Christian heretic was Marcion. His ideas were wrong but heavyweight enough to wreak havoc for centuries to come, and Polycarp was annoyed enough to declare him the firstborn of Satan. These ideas were the first whiff of the anti-Judaism that was going to infect the Church in later years and Polycarp would have none of it. In fact, after ensuring the excommunication of Marcion, his next task was to try and stop the Roman Church from dumping the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus according to the Hebrew calendar. All he was doing was trying to preserve the Biblical traditions of the original apostles. Unfortunately, he was to fail in this worthy task and met his end shortly afterwards, one of the first Christian martyrs.

The legacy of Marcion, known as Marcionism, was the first great assault on the pure faith of the apostles. Here was a man so heavily influenced by the Greek philosopher, Plato, that he was willing to allow these pagan ideas to create a wedge between the Old Testament of the Jews and the New Testament of the Christians. Plato believed in dualism, a separation between the spiritual and the physical, the former being "good" and the latter "evil".

Marcion took this dualism and applied it to the Bible. He reasoned that the Old Testament represented the failed religion of the Jews, supplanted by the spiritually-charged New Testament of the Christians. He also rejected the nasty, wrathful, "God" of the Old Testament, in contrast to the forgiving God of the New Testament. In his dualistic thinking, the people (the Jews) and the god (Yahweh) of the Old Testament represented the evil physical world and the people (the Christians) and the God (Jesus) of the New Testament represent the good spiritual world.

To Marcion, Paul was the only apostle worth considering and chose Luke as the only reliable gospel. But he didn't leave it there. As the gospel of Luke contains many Scriptures at odds with his dualistic views, he got out his scissors and snipped away. Out went all references to the Old Testament, such as the nativity narratives, in fact out went the first three chapters entirely! So, in his "gospel", Marcion presented to his followers a Jesus with absolutely no back story!

How on earth did Marcionism survive? It was clearly a case of trying to fit a square pagan peg into a round Biblical hole and, when it didn't fit, to hack away at the hole with a chisel. Yet survive it did and we are going to see it emerge again and again as we follow our story through the pages of history.

Steve Maltz
July 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Truth: And How it Can Find it Again)

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