Skip to main content

Marcion’s “Gift”

March 19th, 2021 | 11 min read

By Ian Olson

The church’s participation in various historical injustices is a familiar theme, one rehearsed in some instances to discredit her, but in others to prompt her to needful repentance. But the primordial sin of the church which makes other, more tangible forms of violence possible is her presumption of having replaced Israel. Sometimes this is manifested in identifiably outright bigotry, but more often it is recognizable in the neglect or even disparagement of Israel’s Scripture, and especially the inescapably embodied nature of her practices and her hope. Israel is defined by a specific history and bears witness to the scandal of particularity in the face of protests in favor of the abstract and timeless. For much of history this scandal has been unforgivable, and the adherents of abstract gods and timeless principles have sought to overrule her witness.

Already in the first century Gentile Christians were boasting of their superiority over Israel, as evidenced by Paul’s having to counter such attitudes and assertions in Romans 11:13-24. The status bestowed upon Gentile believers, previously exclusive to Israel, was the occasion for many of them, then and now, to over-esteem their significance in God’s sight. If adoption as sons was now theirs, did it not stand to reason that Israel’s right to that title had been revoked? But God’s gifts and his calling are irrevocable — the covenant made with Abraham has not been annulled (11:29), and God’s faithfulness to it expands the scope of its promised outcome. For somehow, in a way Paul struggles to articulate, a mystery is at work which is effecting salvation for the world in and through God’s ongoing covenant with this people.

The temptation to disparage Israel and claim she has been superseded in the purposes of God has been prevalent since Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho in the middle of the second century AD. Marcion, the arch-heretic who sought to purge the ancient church of every trace of Israel’s Scripture, is only a more visible and odious manifestation of that temptation lurking within the historical phenomenon of Christianity. That animus is not necessary for the truth of the gospel or the lordship of Jesus Christ and yet it is not wholly contingent, either, as the dispute between church and synagogue over the requirements of covenant fidelity and the expectations concerning the restorative reign of God was formative in nascent Christianity’s self-understanding. It is, rather, an insidious potential dormant within Christian identity and practice due to its having arisen out of Judaism. For good and for bad, Christianity had to distinguish itself from Judaism, and the shadow side of all distinction is the construction of a villainous Other.

The author of the Epistle to Diognetus, for example, spoke of Israel’s cult as though it were an embarrassing relic of the archaic past rather than a divinely appointed means of maintaining the covenant. Irenaeus, though opposed to Marcion, could write in Against Heresies, IV.36, “the Jews have rejected the Son of God and cast Him out of the vineyard when they slew Him. Therefore, God has justly rejected them and has given to the Gentiles outside the vineyard the fruits of its cultivation.”

John Chrysostom remarked that certain allowances — including sacrifices! — were “only permitted to the Jews… for the heaviness and grossness of their souls,” in his Homily on Psalm 149. Thomas Aquinas similarly wrote in Summa Theologiae II-II 91, 2 that the church’s worship was conducted without instruments “for fear of seeming to Judaize.” Though “in the Old Testament instruments of this description were employed… because the people were more coarse and carnal,6” Christians are motivated by more spiritual urges and promises.

Three centuries later Martin Luther would write in his infamous “On the Jews and Their Lies” that “such ruthless wrath of God is sufficient evidence that they assuredly have erred and gone astray. Even a child can comprehend this… Therefore this work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God.”

Examples of the opposite can be found in church history, to be sure, but the prevalence of these views and views close to them unfortunately characterize the presuppositions of a vast swathe of Christians, both ancient and contemporary. Too often even views which are not overtly hostile discount the significance of Israel due to a form of Enlightenment discrimination which demands anything true be general rather than particular and universal rather than national. Johann Salomo Semler typifies such a view when he wrote, “the Christian religion is for all people, the Jewish is only particular… therefore it had to be annulled, to give space to the Christian general religion, which… promises an entirely new covenant and a more perfected order of religion to all men.”

In the twentieth century this tendency has been operative in interpretations whereby “the Jew” is understood as paradigmatic of the prideful effort to assert a righteousness of its own apart from God. Irenaeus’ distortion of Jesus’ words in the Parable of the Bad Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19) quoted above has also become a commonplace among evangelical and Reformed churches and seminaries, bolstering the presumption that the church has “replaced” Israel.

That presumption of Jewish inferiority and supersession allowed Nazi ideology to blossom in post-World War I Germany, aided and abetted by the seed of “Christianized” anti-Semitism already planted by the theology of the liberal Protestants. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, a contemporary of the crisis in 1930s Germany, observed that Marcion was a welcome figure to many of the leaders of that world, particularly to Adolf von Harnack. Buber believed that his era was the apotheosis of Marcion’s “gift” of a de-Judaized world:

At the same time that Hadrian crushed Bar Kokhba’s revolt, made Jerusalem into a Roman colony, and constructed a temple to Jupiter on the place of the Second Temple, Marcion came from Asia Minor to Rome and brought his own gospel as a spiritual contribution to the destruction of Israel…

Harnack died in 1930; three years later, his thought, the thought of Marcion, was converted into action, not by means of the spirit, but by means of violence and terror… Marcion’s gift to Hadrian was passed down to other hands.

Marcion’s gift came home to roost in the capital of another imperial power, one no less dedicated to absolute fidelity to the state and the bending of its subjects’ worship to the head of that state. Though formally condemned, the lure of Marcion is always strong: to murder the predecessor, to sterilize history of the contingent materiality of the Semites with whom God entered into covenant, to locate Christian faith in a rational “spirituality” devoid of the particularity of flesh and place. The “general” religion coveted by Semler will legitimize any desire and any political order, and evacuated of any organic connection to Israel this is what Christianity becomes: another species of Gnosticism.

And when we indulge this reduction we conspire with the world which wants to eradicate the hope of that covenant and the bodies with whom it was made, neglecting all the while that salvation is accomplished in the Jewish flesh of Jesus Christ. The scepter promised to Israel (Numbers 24:17) is not a literary device signifying the non-corporeal conversion of atomic individuals. But it is just this sort of spiritualized gospel denuded of political materiality which has enabled the continuation of Gentile policy by other means, and its misprision of Israel’s scripture so strong and so pervasive that it has become normative for most Christians.

The existential unease that accompanies the supplanting of the predecessor — Oedipal guilt on a communal scale — has no natural outlet in the political processes of domination, and so what takes place is a doubling down on the contemporary order in an effort to either erase the era previous or to portray that era as a phase of its own history. We need the present to be what it has always been. For if it has not been, then our position in time is vulnerable and we, ourselves, are subject to usurpation.

We use that word to describe the hypothetical or potential loss of our place but not that of our predecessors. Instead, their regime is depicted as having been in inevitable decline or their sovereignty tenuous by reason of some moral or technological — the terms are synonymous in accounts of this sort — inferiority to ours. We narrate ourselves as the answer to the burden of history, arriving on the scene to deliver history’s judgment and put the past to death for the supposed good of the world. Even if the guilt of wrongdoing is acknowledged, the relinquishing of dominance is not an option because too much is at stake: history, we are convinced, requires our position precisely where we are.

It is now some 1,885 years since the massacre at Betar in which Bar Kokhba’s uprising was defeated. It has been almost as long since the hope of the Messiah generated a similar potency of political resistance prepared to die to halt the advance of idolatrous imperial ambition. The emperor Hadrian sought the extinction of Jewish religious practice as well as the erasure of the last symbol of Jewish sovereignty because the covenantal shape of their theopolitical commitments stood in the way of Roman salvation and this could not be allowed.

That one day contains nested within itself the anguish and grief of many others: the Rhineland massacres, blood libels, the expulsions, the ghettos, the Shoah itself. But it also bears witness to the fact that, despite the world’s best efforts, Israel persists. The descendants of Abraham have not been allowed to disappear, and this survival forces Gentile Christians to acknowledge to themselves and to the world that they are belated inheritors of Israel’s promises.

American Christians are undergoing a reckoning at present for their refusal to countenance the foundational racial sin of the United States. That refusal is of a piece with the triumphalism and misguided theology of history which relegates Israel’s significance completely to the past, as though Israel herself has been discarded as no longer important. Whenever this is done we forget the Apostle Paul’s admonition in Romans 11:19-21:

You will say then, “branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. So do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.

To be a Christian is to be an outsider. Not simply in the pietistic sense of one who does not fit in with the world, but in another, more properly canonical sense: one who is not a part of Israel and therefore has no part in the destiny of that people. That those who are baptized into Christ come to share in that destiny is solely due to their being grafted into the root which sustained Israel, not to any intrinsic right of theirs or to a status they have secured for themselves. There is no replacement: it is a shared participation in that root as members which collectively draw their life from that root. The inclusion of Gentiles into Israel’s destiny is therefore neither indicative of God’s forsaking of Israel or of their having eclipsed Israel’s righteousness or worth. The priority of Israel remains, and Paul thus warns Gentile Christians not to forget that they are not originary, as it is not they who support the root, but the root that supports them (Romans 11:18).

The tireless efforts of the Apostle Paul to build a network of multi-ethnic churches throughout the Roman Empire linked by a solidarity not only in spirituality but in material resources to the church in Jerusalem has long since ceased to be an unprecedented accomplishment and instead become a given. Israel is little more than an ancillary historical detail in the self-understanding of many Christian congregations: she becomes no more than a cipher for the prehistory of us, an allegory for our supposedly former resistance to God.

And so the foundational sin of the Gentile church is its relegation of Israel to the oubliette of a linear history in which the old must die to make way for the new and superior. We cannot repeat it enough: Gentiles are not the natural heirs to the promises of God. The very possibility of racism and colonialism as invisible, respectable Christian sins is dependent upon this prior grafting amnesia. The hope of the messianic age is not native to the Gentile moral imagination — it is something entered into and adopted as a result of the conversion of that imagination to the form of Israel’s hope. “You will not replace us!” is the cry of those who have purposefully forgotten that they are belated and not originary partakers of the covenant promises.

The same man who diagnosed Marcion’s “gift” to modernity also asked in “The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul” what Jews and Christians had in common. His answer? “A book and an anticipation.” That may seem a mere formal similarity. “But,” he went on, “we can wait for the advent of the One together, and there are moments when we may prepare the way before him together.” The differences between Jews and Christians are not superficial but it should not go overlooked that both await One sent by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

This side of the Shoah, we must spurn Marcion’s “gift,” both for our sake and the world’s. For all who sing of “Israel’s strength and consolation” claim that this One is the “hope of all the earth.” We cannot take the Nunc dimmitis upon our lips without thereby acknowledging the promises made to Israel. Israel protests an “as if not” (1 Corinthians 7:29) to any Christian triumphalism which presumes upon the nearness of the age to come. Israel tugs at the church’s shoulder to remind her of the “not yet” when she becomes puffed up with the “already.” We two are bound together in one mystery: “the Deliverer will come out of Zion,” Isaiah prophesies and Paul attests (Romans 11:26), ultimately linking the salvific destiny of Jews and Gentiles together in the inscrutable wisdom of God (11:25-33). Christians must repent of the pathology which commandeers the texts and the consolation of Israel and consigns the flesh of Abraham and of Jesus Christ to irrelevance. For in erasing the promise inscribed in the flesh of Abraham’s descendants we repudiate the matter which fulfills the covenant and incorporates aliens into that commonwealth (Ephesians 2:12). We must embrace our belatedness to Israel’s hope or else our own hope is nullified, too abstract, timeless, and disincarnate to be anything real.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0