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Joseph B. Tyson, Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle. University of South Carolina Press, 2006.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


One of the most important, pivotal, and impossible-to-find works elucidating canon history is the 1942 study Marcion and the New Testament by John Knox. Joseph Tyson is a successor his professor could be proud of, and in the present volume, Tyson re-presents Knox’s compelling case, especially for the benefit of the majority who will never have read it. And Tyson proceeds to update the thesis with reference to subsequent scholarship on Luke-Acts, much of which is quite relevant to Knox’s thesis without having it in view. In sort, Marcion and Luke-Acts bears pretty much the same relation to Knox’s Marcion and the New Testament as Heikki Räisänen’s The Messianic Secret in Mark’s Gospel bears to Wrede’s masterpiece The Messianic Secret. In both cases, the original theory only comes out stronger than before. But what was Knox’s thesis?

          Knox had an epiphany that F.C. Baur was only partly right about the New Testament books being divisible into those embodying Petrine/Jamesian Torah-Christianity on the one hand, Pauline Torah-free Christianity on the other, and mediating nascent Catholicism. Baur saw the first camp as akin to the Ebionites and Nazarenes discussed by Justin and Jerome. The second group were the colleagues and converts of Paul, who found faith in Christ and baptism in his name to be sufficient. The third represented a compromise between these two. What occurred to Knox was that Baur needn’t have cast about for hypothetical first-second-century entities to have waged this theological war. It would make as much or more sense if the Christians promoting freedom from the Old Testament Law were simply the Marcionite Church, with the Christians retaining the Torah simply being Catholics who opposed Marcionism. The “Catholicizing” documents were still exactly that, representing, not an ecumenical compromise and merger proposal, but rather a co-opting of Marcionite heroes and writings as a scheme for absorbing Marcionites into the emerging Catholic Church. The Book of Acts would be the Ministry of Truth version of early Christian history as it should have been. Paul and Peter are paralleled in such a fashion that no Marcionite could reasonably vilify Peter since he seemed cut from Pauline cloth. No Catholic could any longer damn Paul as a heretic since he was just so Petrine. Just as Genesis portrays Edomite-Israelite relations by telling stories of Esau and Jacob, so does Acts try to neutralize Marcionism by retelling happy stories of Peter and Paul.

          Entailed in Knox’s theory was the Tübingen view (one of them) that Marcion’s gospel was not, as the church fathers claimed, a tendentious abridgment of Luke, but was rather a lightly edited version of an earlier version of Luke than we have in the canon. Knox believed that the emerging Catholics reacted to the Marcionite canon of the “the Gospel and the Apostle” (the one gospel plus ten Pauline letters in shorter versions) by retaining the categories but stuffing more books into them in order to dilute the straight Paulinism of the originals. Marcion’s gospel was padded out as the sanitized Luke and supplemented by Matthew, Mark, and John (no doubt after a similar bowdlerizing at the hands of Bultmann’s Ecclesiastical Redactor). The Pauline Epistles were also padded (Winsome Munro would eventually show exactly how and where), and the Pastorals were added as a paradigm for reading Paul in a Catholic way. Acts supplemented the gospels so as to widen the circle of true apostles beyond Paul, and for the same reason a rag-tag collection of letters ostensibly of other apostles (or at least by people with similar names!) was added on. The theory is compelling and, I think, definitive. David Trobisch and Stephan Hermann Huller have carried the theory further, identifying the Ecclesiastical Redactor, the author of Acts and of the Pastorals as Polycarp of Smyrna.

          If one may fantasize, it would have been great if Tyson’s valuable book could have accompanied a long-overdue reprint of Knox’s.

          A pair of dissenting notes are in order, if only to help refine an excellent theory further. First, Tyson had for a while seriously weighed the possibility of eliminating the Marcionite middle man, even as the early Ritschl had, seeing the Marcionite gospel itself as the draft subsequently enlarged by the Redactor (i.e., Polycarp). But by the time he got to writing this book, Tyson was convinced otherwise. One of the reasons was this: “Although the simpler version of the earl Ritschl may seem more attractive, it would require us to believe something that is highly improbable, namely that a proto-orthodox author would base his work on a writing that he regarded as heretical” (pp. 84-85). Not at all! Keep in mind the Sitz-im-Leben as Tyson himself brilliantly draws it: the Catholic faction is coveting the Marcionite sheep and cannot hope to acquire them without welcoming their heretical scriptures in the bargain. In order to do this, they must, quite simply, bowdlerize them, both the Marcionite gospel and epistles.

          Second, Tyson several times “conclude[s] that the Acts of the Apostles was probably written about 120-125 C.E., just when Marcion was beginning to attract adherents” (p. 78). But that can’t be right. Surely it is more natural to suggest that it was only once Marcionite Christianity was well established as a rival and a threat that Catholicism decided it must try to take the wind out of the Marcionite sails. This makes Acts and the redaction of Luke some twenty-five years later. That still gives Polycarp time to have done the job.    




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