Was Marcion a Docetist? The Body of Evidence vs. Tertullian’s Argument

in Vigiliae Christianae
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There is no credible evidence that Marcion was a docetist. Marcion’s alleged belief that Christ was a phantasm is found in accusations made by Tertullian, but these accusations are a form of reductio ad absurdum and not firsthand information on Marcion’s Christology. There are in fact remnants of data in Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem, which point to Marcion’s teaching about the material flesh of Christ, a flesh that suffers and dies on the cross. Tertullian dismisses these artifacts as proof that Marcion was foolishly inconsistent: he taught docetism, but still accepted Christ’s suffering and death. Scholars should no longer accept Tertullian’s caricature uncritically, especially in light of the overwhelming amount of other second and third century sources that are unanimously silent about any docetic thinking in Marcion. Moreover, much of the confusion in modern scholarship is shown to derive from Adolf von Harnack’s equivocating explanations about Marcion’s alleged docetism.

Was Marcion a Docetist? The Body of Evidence vs. Tertullian’s Argument

in Vigiliae Christianae




TertullianAdv. Marc. 4.10.15-16 (trans. E. Evans Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem [Oxford: Oxford University Press 1972] 303-305; text from R. Braun Tertullien: Contre Marcion [sc 456; Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf 2001] 140: . . . phantasmata . . . Si natus ex homine est ut filius hominis corpus ex corpore est. Plane facilius invenias hominem natum cor non habere vel cerebrum sicut ipsum Marcionem quam corpus ut Christum Marcionis. Atque adeo inspice cor Pontici aut cerebrum).


IrenaeusAdv. haer. 1.28.1; cf. Hippolytus Ref. 8.13 on the Encratites but he makes no connection with Marcion admitting that many different sects held to this teaching; and Eusebius Hist. eccl. 4.28 blames Tatian for the doctrine of encratism.


IrenaeusAdv. haer. 1.24.4 for Basilides. However Pseudo-Tertullian Adv. omn. haer. 1.5 adds that Basilides’s Christ was a phantasm and without flesh (in phantasmate sine substantia carnis) which is why Simon had to be crucified in his place. Cf. Treat. Sethvii2.56 (Robinson nhl 365).


E.g. EusebiusHist. eccl. 6.33.


Cf. IrenaeusAdv. haer. 1.7.2.


E.g. Hieracas (see EpiphaniusPan. 55.5.2-3; cf. Hippolytus Ref. 7.36).


E.g. the Ebionites (see EpiphaniusPan. 30.13.7).


E.g. Carpocrates (IrenaeusAdv. haer. 1.25.1; Hippolytus Ref. 7.32; Epiphanius Panarion 27.2.5). Cf. The Gospel of Peter 5.


Cf. EpiphaniusPan. 26.10.1-5.


E.g. the Ebionites (EpiphaniusPan. 30.13.7); and Theodotus (Hippolytus Ref. 7.35).


HippolytusRef. 8.3; cf. The Gospel of Philip (in Robinson nhl 144 151).


IrenaeusAdv. haer. 1.7.2; Tertullian Adv. Val. 27.


E.g. the Sethians (IrenaeusAdv. haer. 1.30.13) and Basilides (Hippolytus Ref. 7.27); cf. Ap. Jas.i2.12 (Robinson nhl 35); Gos. Truthi3.20 (Robinson nhl 42). Marcion’s denial of the bodily resurrection will be discussed below.


See A. von HarnackOutlines of the History of Dogma (trans. E.K. Mitchell; London: Hodder and Stoughton1893) 169-76.


IrenaeusAdv. haer. 1.6.1.


Clement of AlexandriaStrom. 3.7.59.


IrenaeusHaer. 1.7.2: erat factum inenarrabili arte/κατεσκευασµένον ἀρρήτῳ τέχνῃ (sc 264:104-05); cf. 3.11.3; Tertullian De carn. Christ. 1.15; Hippolytus Ref. 6.35.5-7; Ps.Tertullian Adv. omn. haer. 4; and Extracts from Theodotus 59; also see the Protoevangelium of James 20.1-3; Ascension of Isaiah 11.7-14.


E.M. Yamauchi“The Crucifixion and Docetic Christology,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 46 (1982) 5. J.L. Papandrea Reading the Early Church Fathers: From the Didache to Nicaea (Mahwah nj: Paulist Press 2012) 58-77 speaks of “hybrid Christology.”


According to HippolytusRef. 7.27.


TertullianDe carn. Christ. 6. Like the angelic “bodies” the various understandings of demons in antiquity can inform this discussion; see G.A. Smith “How Thin is a Demon?” jecs 16 (2008) 479-512.


See J.M. LieuMarcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2015) 375 for pre-Marcionite usage; cf. bdag 1049. Also see the e.g. of Saturninus at Irenaeus Adv. haer. 1.24.2 the Savior was “unborn . . . incorporeal and without shape (innatum . . . incorporalem et sine figura/ἀγέννητον . . . ἀσώµατον καὶ ἀνείδεον)” (sc 264:322-23); cf. Hippolytus Ref. 7.28; Ps.-Tertullian Adv. omn. haer. 1.4: Christum in substantia corporis non fuisse et phantasmate tantum quasi passum fuisse.


As reported by IrenaeusAdv. haer. 3.3.4 (trans. mine; sc 211:42-43 “Cognosco te primogenitum Satanae”/“Ἐπιγίνοσκί σε τὸν πρωτότοκον τοῦ Σατανᾶ”). Cf. Polycarp Phil. 7.1-2 which is no longer understood as referring to Marcion (see N.A. Dahl “Der Erstgeborene Satans und der Vater des Teufels (Polyk. 7.1 und Joh 8.44)” in Apophoreta: Festschrift für Ernst Haenchen ed. W. Eltester et al. [Berlin: Verlag Alfred Töpelmann 1964] 70-84). Moreover Irenaeus is sometimes understood to be exaggerating this encounter (at best; e.g. A.H. McNeile An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament rev. ed. [Oxford: Clarendon Press 1927] 269-70; William R. Schoedel Polycarp Martyrdom of Polycarp Fragments of Papias [= vol. 5 of Robert M. Grant The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary; New York: T. Nelson 1964] 3). More importantly it should be noted that Irenaeus’s theological aim in citing this confrontation between Polycarp and Marcion is to establish the catholic tradition and the scriptures as “unadulterated truth” (3.2.2) wherein “the Lord” and the Creator are one and the same—not an alien god opposed to the demiurge; docetism is nowhere in view.


EusebiusHist. eccl. 5.13.3. Rhodo also notes how divided the Marcionites are with later writers such as Apelles Potitus and Basilicus holding to different opinions.


EusebiusHist. eccl. 5.14.2 simply calls him a “certain one of these” (npnf 2-1:230) who wrote against the Phrygians. Jerome De vir. ill. 37 claims it was Rhodo.


EusebiusHist. eccl. 5.14.21.


Cf. TertullianDe carn. Christ. 5; Adv. Marc. 4.40-43.


Cf. TertullianAdv. Marc. 5.7.6.


EusebiusHist. eccl. 6.13.9.


See D.H. Williams“Harnack, Marcion and the Arguments of Antiquity,” in Hellenization Revisited: Shaping a Christian Response within the Greco-Roman World (ed. W.E. Helleman; Lanha md: 1994) 233 on how Origen had to differentiate Christianity from Marcionism because Celsus was attacking the latter under the name of the former.


For early modern scholars see RothThe Text of Marcion’s Gospel7-28. Knox Marcion and the New Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1942) 50-51 insists that most of Marcion’s “omissions” were in fact the more primitive readings of Paul’s letters. For recent discussion of this issue see U. Schmid Marcion und sein Apostolos: Rekonstruktion und historische Einordnung der marcionitischen Paulusbriefausgabe (Berlin: De Gruyter 1995); G. Quispel “Marcion and the Text of the New Testament” vc 52 (1998) 349-60; E.-M. Becker “Marcion und die Korintherbriefe nach Tertullian Adversus Marcionem V” in Marcion und seine kirchengeschichtliche Wirkung/Marcion and his Impact on Church History ed. G. May and K. Greschat (tu 150; Berlin 2002) 95-109; J. Tyson Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle (Columbia sc: University of South Carolina Press 2006); M. Klinghardt “Markion vs. Lukas: Plädoyer für die Wiederaufnahme eines alten Falles” nts 52 (2006) 213-32; Klinghardt “ ‘Gesetz’ bei Markion und Lukas” in M. Konradt and D. Sänger (eds.) Das Gesetz im Neuen Testament und im Frühen Christentum (ntoa 57; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2006) 102-03; and Klinghardt “The Marcionite Gospel and the Synoptic Problem: A New Suggestion” nt 50 (2008) 1-27; C.M. Hayes “M. vs. the ‘Plädoyer’ of Matthias Klinghardt” znw 99 (2008) 213-32; and Roth “Marcion’s Gospel and Luke: The History of Research in Current Debate” jbl 3 (2008) 513-27; and Lieu Marcion 183-269.


A. OrbeCristología Gnóstica: Introducción a la soteriología de los siglos II y III (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Christianos1976) 272 “Las alusiones tertulianeas a una pasión fantasmal sin sufrimento ni dolor verdadero vienen en segundo lugar por abuso de retórica.” A telling example is when Tertullian responds “And now he [Paul] cries aloud O the depth of the riches and wisdom of God! . . . and his ways past finding out! Whence that outburst? Out of his recollection of those scriptures to which he had already referred: out of his meditation upon those types and figures which he had previously expounded as bearing on the faith of Christ which was to emerge from the law. If Marcion has of set purpose cut out these passages what is this exclamation his apostle makes when he has no riches of his god to look upon” (Adv. Marc. 5.14.9 [Evans 600-3; Moreschini and Braun sc 483:280]; ref. Rom. 11:33 and then 11:26-27). But has Marcion really deleted these passages from Romans? (see 5.14.6). In fact does Tertullian even claim Marcion cut these out? Or did he assume that Marcion would (i.e. the indicative conditional sentence) since they are obvious quotes from Jewish scripture? In fact after a few more comments on Marcion’s error Tertullian mocks Marcion for not cutting out passages from Isaiah in the next verse: “When you took away so much from the scriptures why did you retain this as though this too were not the Creator’s?” (Adv. Marc. 5.14.10 [Evans 603; Moreschini and Braun sc 483:282]; ref. Rom 11:34 and Isa 40:13). This dizzying display of double-speak illustrates the kind of argument Tertullian makes: he is not recording accurate citations; he is persuading through what he sees to be logical inconsistencies in Marcion’s thinking. In doing so sometimes Tertullian attacks Marcion from one side (editing) and sometimes from the other (not editing). In neither attack can we accept Tertullian’s statement at face value.


See Löhr“Markion” 152-55; and further discussion in Eric W. Scherbenske “Marcion’s Antitheses and the Isagogic Genre” vc 64 (2010) 255-279. Although statements like that found in Adv. Marc. 3.3.3 (“. . . the same miracles which are the only evidence you lay claim to for belief in your Christ” [quas solas ad fidem Christo tuo vindicas]; Evans 174-5) may imply that Tertullian has firsthand knowledge of Marcion’s teachings from his Antitheses the numerous conditional clauses of the paragraph leaves the matter ambiguous at best. Moreover when Tertullian reports what the Antitheses consisted of (Adv. Marc. 1.19) he nowhere explicitly claims that he has a copy of Marcion’s work. The one possible instance where Tertullian makes such as claim (Adv. Marc. 4.9.7) would indicate that the Antitheses is a commentary. Adolf von Harnack (Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God trans. J.E. Steely and L.D. Bierma [Durham n.c.: Labyrinth 1990] 54) uses this passage as the basis of his understanding of Marcion’s original document. Harnack’s understanding however has been questioned (see S. Moll The Arch-Heretic Marcion [wunt 250; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2010] 107-11). See the recent discussion of Lieu Marcion 272-88.


OrbeChristología Gnóstica2:273. See for example Tertullian Adv. Marc. 4.26.1 where he attacks Marcionite interpretation of the transfiguration as a rejection of the Old Testament. In doing so Tertullian unwittingly admits that Marcion believed Christ was crucified: if the Creator-God could crucify Christ on Calvary surely he could have struck him dead on the mount of transfiguration. For this logic to work Marcion would have to have taught that Christ was crucified (not just in appearance).


BraunContre Marcion1:40. For discussion of the full chronology of Tertullian’s works see Braun Deus Christianorum rev. ed. (Paris: Études augustiniennes 1977) 567-77; J.-C. Fredouille Tertullien et la conversion de la culture antique (Paris: Études augustiniennes 1972) 487-8; and T.D. Barnes Tertullian: An Historical and Literary Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1971) 30-56 and idem “Postscript” in Tertullian rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1985).


Ibid.125“Verglichen mit den natürlichen Menschenleibern war der Leib Christi ein φάντασµα.” Cf. B. Aland “Marcion/Marcioniten” in tre 22 (1992) 96-97 who follows Harnack in deeming Marcion’s Christ to be a phantasm while still noting the blood and suffering of Christ; and K. Greschat Apelles und Hermogenes: Zwei theologische Lehrer des zweiten Jahrhunderts (Leiden: Brill 2000) 99 follows Harnack but later (p. 101) insists that Marcion’s Christ “einen echten . . . Leib angenommen hat.”


RiparelliIl volto del Christo dualista63; Greschat Apelles und Hermogenes 92-109.


P.N. HarrisonPolycarp’s Two Epistle to the Philippians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1936).




Ibid.175-6. Harrison cites Harnack’s statement from the Chronologie (1904—cited above) as the “definitive statement” of Harnack on the matter: “It is thoroughly incorrect to think that according to Marcion Christ suffered only in appearance etc. That was the judgment of his opponents. He himself regarded the substance of (Christ’s) flesh as mere appearance but there he stopped. Of course he did not assume that the Godhead suffered. But to conclude from this that the sufferings and death of Christ were to him a mere shadow-show is incorrect” (Harrison’s trans. and emph.).


KnoxMarcion and the New Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press1942).




For bibliography see G. May“Marcion in Contemporary Views,” Second Century 6 (1987/88) 129-31. It should be noted that Harnack’s attempt to hold to a more complex understanding of Marcion is reflected in the work of Greschat Apelles 99-109 (cited above).


P. Head“The Foreign God and the Sudden Christ: Theology and Christology in Marcion’s Gospel Redaction,” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993) 313.


H. Räisänen“Marcion and the Origins of Christian Anti-Judaism,” Temenos 33 (1997) 123.


B. EhrmanStudies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Leiden: Brill2006) 343-60 see esp. p. 348: Jesus “came to earth only in the ‘appearance’ of human flesh. Marcion in short is a docetist who thought that Jesus was a phantasm. He had not actually ‘come in the flesh.’ ”


R. PervoThe Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress2010) 206.


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