The System of Marcion.

Web version prepared from

S. Ephraim's Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan


by C.W. Mitchell. Completed by A.A. Bevan and F.C. Burkitt

(Williams & Norgate, 1921), pp.cxvii-cxxii.

(Above)A portion of the Syriac manuscript (Folio 13b of the Palimpsest B.M. Add. 14623), from which underwriting C.W. Mitchell painstakingly recovered Ephraim's discourses against Marcion.

These treatises tell us more about Syriac-speaking Marcionites than is told in any other extant source. The main result is to show that they were very similar in their beliefs and practices to the Marcionites elsewhere, especially as described in Eznik's well-known chapters against them

[ Eznik of Kolb, "Against the Sects"]. In fact, it is very likely that Eznik's account is not so much an original description of the Armenian Marcionites known to him as a translation from some early Syriac writer.

It is important to notice at the outset that S. Ephraim's polemic against Marcion differs in one respect from that of Tertullian and Epiphanius: there is no controversy about Marcion's Gospel. Marcion, who rejected the authority of the Old Testament as the work of the Adversary of Jesus, considered that most of the writings current among Christians had been interpolated in the interests of Judaism, and the only Gospel he received was a shortened recension of Luke. According to Tertullian and Epiphanius, with whom almost all modern scholars are in agreement, Marcion's Gospel was an arbitrary mutilation of the text, while Marcion no doubt regarded it as the genuine Evangel purged of alien elements. In any case it was obviously a variant form of the canonical Luke, and opponents of Marcion who were accustomed to use the Canonical Luke were concerned to vindicate the superiority of the text familiar to them.

But Ephraim and the branch of the Catholic Church to which he belonged habitually used the Diatessaron, not the four separate Gospels. He seems to have been quite unfamiliar with the Gospels as separate literary works (though he knew something about the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel), and probably did not recognise Marcion's Gospel as being one of the Canonical Four used by Greek and Latin orthodox Christians. However that may be, he says nothing about it.

Possibly he did not even know the Marcionite Gospel itself, and only bases his polemic on Marcionite theological and controversial works which quote it.

The most striking new fact about Marcionite usage brought out by these treatises is that the Syriac-speaking Marcionites used a different transliteration of the name 'Jesus' from the orthodox. The ordinary Syriac for Jesus is [E-WAH-SHEM-YUD] pronounced 'Isho' by Nestorians but Yeshu' by Jacobites, which is simply the Syriac form of the Old Testament name Joshua. This form 'Isho' was used not only by the orthodox, but also by the Manichees. It was therefore a surprise to find that Ephraim in arguing against Marcionites, and certainly in part quoting from their books or sayings, uses the form 'ISU', a direct transcription of the Greek 'IHSOU (or IHSOUS). As it is always written [WAH-SEMKATH-YUD], never [WAH-SEMKATH-YUD-ALPHA], I suppose the pronunciation intended is IESU rather than ISU, but I have retained Mitchell's ISU (vol. i. p. li), not only for uniformity but also because it was desirable to emphasize the strangeness of the form [WAH-SEMKATH-YUD].

When Ephraim uses this Marcionite transliteration he is evidently basing his argument on Marcionite texts. The question therefore does arise, how far his references to Gospel incidents are quotations from the Marcionite Gospel. My first impression on reading the First Discourse against Marcion was that he was working on a copy of that Gospel, or at least was conscious of its main peculiarities. After an argument about Adam and the nature of his punishment he goes on to discuss the message of John the Baptist to ISU , and this is followed by a discussion of the Transfiguration. Both these incidents are contained in Marcion's Gospel, and most of the textual allusions might be regarded as taken from Luke, though the wording often differs from the ordinary Syriac.

But a closer examination made this view more than doubtful: I think Ephraim was, as usual, quoting the Diatessaron loosely from memory, and I do not think there is any tangible evidence that he knew that certain of his Gospel references were taken from passages and incidents which had no place in Marcion's Gospel-book, so that their citation had no weight in an argument against Marcionites.

Thus on p.84, 1. 24, and p.109, 1.13, he has sarcastic references to 'the girl,' i.e. the daughter of Herodias, playing with John the Baptist's head, while on p.108, 1.45, the 'soldier of the guard' is mentioned. But the whole incident of Herod's banquet is absent from Luke, and therefore from Marcion's Gospel, while the 'soldier' (espukiatra) is mentioned only in Mk. vi 27.

Again, on p.72, 1.26 f.,Ephraim quotes 'Blessed are the meek in their spirit': this is an inaccurate combination of Matt. v 5 and Matt. v 3, but neither element of the quotation is represented in the Lucan Beatitudes, accepted by Marcion. Further, 'Blessed is he, except he be offended in me,' on p.86,1.6 f., agrees neither with the Syriac vulgate nor with the Sinai Palimpsest text of Lk. vil 23, but it does agree with the Curetonian text of Matt. xi 6.

Finally, on p.82, 1.5, John is called a Light-bringer, which recalls Joh. v 35, but has no parallel in Luke. These passages are decisive enough to shew that Ephraim, unlike Tertullian and Epiphanius, is not attempting to confute Marcion out of his own recension of the Gospel.

Still less is there reason to regard the few references to S. Paul as taken from the Marcionite 'Apostle.' The most interesting of these, from a textual point of view, is the quotation of 1 Tim. ii 15 on p.100, 1.10 f.,1 but the argument could have meant little to a Marcionite, because Marcion never accepted the Pastoral Epistles. The most we can learn from Ephraim about the Biblical exegesis of the Marcionites comes from the few pasages which he directly quotes from them. The two most striing of these are to be found on p.106 in the Second Discourse and on p.125 in

the Third. On p.106, 11.38-12, Ephraim suggests that the only reason Marcionites can allege for John the Baptist believing at all in Jesus is a fantastic faith in the unknown: "'Because,' they say, 'John was near to die he sent his flock by the hand of the two under-shepherds to the Lord of the flock."'

And again, on p.125, 11.40-47, Ephraim says: "Two things the Marcionites proclaim about our Lord, which are contrary to each other, for they say, 'He annulled former Laws and healed diseased organs. " The interest of these simple sentences, which are shewn by the use of the particle LM [MEM-LAMAD] to be quotations, is that they seem to be polemical, isolated bits of Marcionite answer to orthodox criticism. It is not to be expected that they will be very profound or convincing, because they deal with points on which the Marcionite theory was weakest, viz. the events of the Gospel history.

John the Baptist was a specially inconvenient figure, for he is altogether linked up with the Old Testament and Jewish religion, and yet he appears as a forerunner of Jesus. If John recognised Jesus at all he must, as Epiphanius says (Haer. xlii, p.325), have known of Him before, while to the Marcionites Jesus is the Son of the Stranger, and His coming was altogether unexpected and unprepared. And with regard to the second quotation, it is easy for Ephraim to shew the inconsistency of regarding the cure of human bodies or organs as good, seeing that the whole domain of matter, or HYLE, is accounted by Marcionites as altogether outside the plan of salvation.

One feature of Ephraim's polemic with the Marcionites that cannot help striking the reader who comes to it after reading the tracts against Bardaisan or Mani is its more Biblical character. The religion of Marcion was essentially Christian and Biblical. He is a Dissenter from the orthodox interpretation of the Bible, but his philosophy starts from it.

Bardaisan, on the other hand, appears in these controversies as a Cosmologist or Natural Philosopher with a system of his own, who found in the Gospel, as he found in Greek philosophy, certain things which he adopted because they seemed to be in harmony with his own views. Mani also is a thinker, more or less independent of Biblical data. Both to Bardaisan and to Mani their cosmological notions are an essential part of their religion. But I have the impression that Marcion was only a cosmologist by accident, that he was essentially concerned with morals and the working of the mind and what may be called the psychology of forgiveness.

Ephraim makes some telling points against him over the Voice at the Transfiguration. Marcion, we know, had a clumsy presentation of the Universe as consisting of three Regions, one 'above' the other. In the highest dwelt the Kind Stranger; in the lowest, on the earth, was the domain of Matter; between them, above the earth, was the domain of the Creator or Maker, the God of Justice and Law, who had made Man out of Matter in his own image. When the Voice came at the Transfiguration, saying, 'This is My Son,' how, says Ephraim, did they know it was the Stranger's Voice, and not that of the God of the Law? If it was the Stranger, speaking from the heavens above us, how had He got there? This is a good debating point; but just as we see how very much easier the controversy between Ephraim and Bardaisan would have been, if they had considered Space as measured with Cartesian axes, so I venture to think Marcion would have made his meaning clearer if he had placed his Kind Stranger in a 'fourth dimension.'

The essential thing about the Kind Stranger who can and will forgive freely is that He is not in or of this tangible and measurable world. At least this is so, except in so far as the very notions in Marcion's mind are part of the whole of Nature. With this proviso, the whole of Marcion's system is essentially built upon the same lines as the religion outlined in Huxley's famous Romanes Lecture. Nature is red in tooth and claw, in this world an eye is exacted for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (or its equivalent). Action and reaction are equal and opposite, and the Law of the Conservation of Energy seems to be unbroken. But Man can imagine, more or less, another world where this is not the case, and his mind can take refuge in this fairyland, which is outside the visible universe.

Marcion did not, as a matter of fact, put his thoughts in this way. He was, as Ephraim says (p. lvii), 'half in and half out' of orthodox thought, and so was liable to charges of inconsistency. His great merit is that he felt the charm of the Gospel message apart from the sanction of the Old Testament. Ephraim starts off his polemic against Marcion by appealing to the miracles of the Exodus, and to alleged confirmations of Old Testament wonders in the archives of Egypt and Babylon, an argument which now only raises a smile. But Marcion's position is not similarly affected by modern discovery: the God to Whom he gave his allegiance was always outside of this visible world, and if the visible world has been found not to be geocentric that matters less to him than to those whose God had His throne 'above the bright blue sky'.

Apart from their views about the Bible the Marcionites appear in these treatises as an ultra-pietistic school, who fast more than Ezekiel and pray more than Daniel. Indeed, they claim to pray all day (p. xxxi med.). The early orthodox Syriac-speaking Church esteemed virginity so highly, that we need not be surprised that Ephraim does not touch upon Marcion's rejection of Christian marriage. According to vol. i. p.129, 1.1 (p. xciv), the Marcionites worshipped towards the West.