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Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Trans. John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma. Labyrinth Press, 1990.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.

The outlines of Harnack's landmark monograph on Marcion are well known from summaries and discussions of it as well as through the German original. But it is an event worthy of note for the work to appear in English, where the complexities and nuances of Harnack's presentation are now opened up to a wider readership. It is to be hoped that this fresh look thus provided may bring some of Harnack's neglected arguments and insights back into the contemporary discussion where they belong. Students of Paul and his reception in the second century (a key feature of the Walter Bauer thesis), of the history of the New Testament canon, and of the related phenomenon of Gnosticism should also avail themselves of a second look at the Harnack classic. Even with the regret table omission of the extensive appendices of the original, the book still offers a feast. One could do worse than to read Harnack along with John Knox's Marcion and the New Testament (together with the discussion of Knox and his theses in the recent symposium Cadbury, Knox, and Talbert: American Contributions to the Study of Acts, edited by Mikeal C. Parsons and Joseph B. Tyson, SBL, 1992), and Joseph R. Hoffmann's superlative Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity, which provides a helpful corrective and several counterproposals to Harnack, as well as breaking significant new ground.

It is interesting to read over Harnack's shoulder, so to speak, venturing to apply more recent theoretical tools to his discussion. What would Harnack have been able to reveal with the aid of the paradigm-conceptuality of Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)? Implicit in Elaine Pagel's books on the Gnostic reception of the Pauline Epistles and the Fourth Gospel (The Gnostic Paul and The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis) is the Kuhnian approach whereby it becomes evident that these early "heretical" exegeses of New Testament texts were alternative exegetical paradigms in Kuhn's sense: they sought to provide heuristic frameworks to make comprehensive sense of the data of the texts, especially of various texts that acted hitherto as "anomalous data" grinding in the gears of the "orthodox" paradigms. Valentinians could perhaps make better sense of the "psychic/sarkic/pneumatic" typology and of baptizing for the dead than their opponents. Tertullian sometimes seemed to admit as much. The thing to do was to eject them from the stadium before the game could begin.

In Marcion's case, he transfers from periphery to centrality several texts such as Paul's reference to "the God of this world" (2 Corinthians 4:4) and the giving of the Law by entities subordinate to the Father (Galatians 3:19-20), the Akhneton-like proclamation by Jesus of a God hitherto unknown (Luke 10:22), passages which ought to strike us as more problematical than they do on the usual reading. And then Marcion's various textual excisions are to be understood as "epicycling," the multiplication of hypotheses, special pleading on behalf of his paradigm. The community of exegetes decline his paradigm because it leaves more texts outstanding as "anomalous data" than the paradigm it sought to replace. Of course, had Marcion read Feyerabend, this wouldn't have stopped him (it didn't anyway!), as his approach would be a prime case of the "counterinductivity" commended by Feyerabend: who says simpler is better?

Another tool Harnack might have used to good advantage is the notion of a "plausibility structure," as set forth by Thomas Luckmann and Peter L. Berger (The Social Construction of Reality). Harnack can be understood as laboring mightily to bring his readers to view Marcion as standing in continuity with the Lutheran tradition. Berger would say he is trying to assimilate Marcion to the plausibility structure, the cognitive universe, of the implied reader. The reason Marcion could never before have been taken as seriously as Harnack took him was that Marcion existed primarily as a "heretic," a bogeyman falling outside the orthodox plausibility structure. One was at liberty to think of him merely as a sorry chapter in the history of heresy. And this is due to the fact that Roman orthodoxy prevailed in the great contest of rival Christianities in the early centuries.

But what was the view from within the Marcionite churches? In this communion, which throve all over the Empire for several centuries, things would have looked  different. It is disturbing to ask oneself whether some things look natural simply because we are used to them, others implausible because they are alien to us. Oh for the chance to jump for the moment out of one's historical skin and change places with Marcionite   exegetes! Perhaps through those lenses we might view the exegesis of the Alien God as no less unbecoming an elaboration of scripture than most of us now consider the Triune God. Who knows?

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Harnack's presentation of Marcion's case was his seconding of his ancient counterpart's motion that Christians cut loose the Jewish Scriptures as a non-Christian book. Indeed, here is another aspect of the book that looks a good bit different from the perspective of the late twentieth century. Hoffmann has shown how unjust it is to count Marcion as an anti-Semite. In the same way, we might  reconsider whether Marcion's proposal is not the Christian option on the question of the two Testaments that is not the most respectful of Judaism. In Marcion's estimation, the Jewish Scriptures are true enough in the Jewish frame of reference, a book antithetical to Christianity as he understood it (we still have many of the same difficulties) and in no way to be Christianized by the hermeneutical ventriloquism of allegory and typology. Here is a frank recognition that there is no meaningful "Judeo-Christian Tradition," that to maintain that there is, is a veiled attempt to co-opt the older religion in the interests of the younger. Should Jews take exception to such a posture?

As moderns we are perhaps most embarrassed by Marcion's delineation of two different Gods. But even this need not trouble us overmuch. Was not Marcion straining to say something that is said better in our conceptuality as a difference between two different God-concepts, between two different God-experiences? Or do we believe there is such a difference? When we are playing the role of ecumenists we tend to minimize or eliminate any differences, while as theologians we are quick to accentuate (or create) them, stoutly maintaining that Christian theology defines God "from below" through the Christian encounter with Jesus Christ. The latter is perhaps all Marcion was saying in his crude and shocking way. Do we want to say it? Would it be anti-Jewish to say it? Any more than it is anti-Hindu to draw distinctions between the Christian and Vedanta God-concepts?

Just now scholars are rethinking their theories on the origins of Gnosticism, whether it evolved from within Judaism or from Christianity, how much Platonic or Iranian influence there might have been. Here is another discussion in which Harnack should have a posthumous say. His acute sorting out of the similarities and differences between Marcionism and Gnosticism show that Marcion was by no means a Gnostic, nor even an heir of Gnosticism. Hoffmann is clear on this point as well. But I wonder if sufficient recognition has been given to the importance of this piece of taxonomy. If Marcion held beliefs so similar at point after point to the Gnostics, yet with such decisively significant differences, should we not conclude that the distinctive thing about Gnosticism was not a full-blown cosmological scheme pitting a superior God against an inferior demiurge, Christ being the envoy of the former, and a rejection of the Jewish Scriptures and eschatology--but rather a particular spin on these pre-existing ideas which the Gnostics and Marcion alike derived from a common source? Perhaps the Gnostics inherited and interpreted much more than they created. Perhaps it is the roots only of these Gnostic reinterpretations of established mythemes that we ought to be tracing, not the whole mythos.

One last word: it is a pity that this greatest interpreter of Marcion neglected to address the astonishing hypothesis of W. C. van Manen that Galatians itself is at root a Marcionite pseudepigraph. Of course, as a loyal Ritschlian, Harnack was no great friend of the Tübingen School and wouldn't have given the ultra-Tübingenism of the Dutch Radical School the time of day. But, as Feyerabend contends, even the most outlandish-seeming theory may provide just the lens we lacked to see some things about the text that remain invisible otherwise. Just imagine that the Epistle had first existed in a Marcionite draft. Then the analogy between Paul's uneasy reception by the Jerusalem Pillars and subsequent bitterness toward them, and Marcion's less-than-successful bid for recognition at Rome might seem no mere analogy. And, come to think of it, that strange business about the Law being the gift of the angels rather than the true deity would take on new meaning. The implied notion that Paul as a Jew had served the beggerly elements of this world would make new sense.

Harnack notes the similarity between Marcion's repudiation of the writing Prophets and the neglect of the same figures in the Qur'an (on this see also Tor Andrae's Muahammad: The Man and His Faith). But if van Manen were right, we would certainly have a striking Qur'anic analogy for the retrojection of Marcion in Rome as Paul in Jerusalem. Very frequently the Prophet tells forth "secret histories" of the biblical Patriarchs in which their exploits mirror those of Muhammad himself in mirror-fashion. The opponents of Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus all echo in verbatim fashion the jibes hurled at Allah's last Prophet by the hecklers of Mecca. And think of the Johannine retrojection of the quarrels and excommunications of his own day into the story of Jesus, as Louis Martyn has demonstrated (History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel).

Harnack by no means uttered the last word on Marcion. Knox, Blackman, Hoffmann, and Ldemann have all helped us refine our understanding of Marcion, but one is tempted to apply to Harnack the remark once made of Marcion himself. Marcion, we are told, is the only one in the early church who understood Paul, and even he misunderstood him. Perhaps we might be excused for saying that, even in Harnak misunderstood Marcion at this or that point, no one in the history of scholarship has understood Marcion as empathetically as Harnack.



CopyrightŠ2007 by Robert M Price
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