And What of Those Who Don’t Want to Follow a Jew?
I have said that there were those who denied the Jewish heritage in the Christian tradition. The most important and perhaps most dangerous such a person was the heretic Marcion.
Marcion was the son of a bishop in Asia Minor. Most evidence is that he was not ordained himself. Instead, he was something of a shipping magnate. He is reported to have had a falling out with his father, perhaps over a sex scandal; and about 139 A.D. he moved to Rome. To establish a place for himself in the Roman church, he is said to have donated 200,000 sesterces to the congregation.
Marcion had a very dualistic sense of the world, focused less on “Good and Evil” per se than on “Law vs. Gospel.” He studied with Gnostics in Rome, although some of his beliefs differed from most Gnostics.
- He believed that there were two gods, the God proclaimed by the Jews, who was committed to Law and Justice; and the “Unknown God,” who was committed to Love and Grace. The God of the Jews was the creator of the world and all matter, which was corrupt and evil. That God was violent and could be brutal. The “Unknown God” was the Father who sent Jesus Christ. He loved all and saved by grace – although it was salvation from bondage in law and sin, and not a promise of resurrection.
- He couldn’t believe in the Incarnation. He couldn’t believe that Jesus had been born, because that would make him material, and make him subject to the God of the Jews. Instead, Jesus was a “manifestation:” visible, but not material.
- He accepted Paul’s writings, especially where he proclaimed Grace and condemned Law. Because the Jewish tradition in the Old Testament was the story of the God of Law, Marcion rejected it entirely.
- In fact, Marcion basically rejected any Scriptures Christians used that he thought were too accepting of, too corrupted by the Jewish tradition. For use by him and his followers he produced his own “Bible.” It consisted of a Gospel, based on Luke, and ten of Paul’s letters. For the book he cut out a lot, and even added a little, to eliminate anything too Jewish and to reinforce his belief.
In 144 the Roman church threw Marcion out. They even returned the 200,000 sesterces. He returned to Asia Minor and started his own church. While it wasn’t terribly important in the Western part of the Empire, in the East it was a serious competitor with the orthodox catholic Church and lasted for almost 150 years.
The success of Marcion provoked the Church to a reaction. That’s not to say that there was in those days a single institution that we might call “the Church” as we imagine it today. Instead, orthodox and catholic bishops wrote to one another and shared writings. There were local councils, and important writers wrote critiques of Marcion’s practices. Over time, they reached consensus on some important matters.
- They affirmed that the God Jesus proclaimed, whom Jesus made incarnate among us, was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God proclaimed by the Jews.
o So, there was only One God, whom Jesus called Father, in both Old Testament and New.
o The Old Testament, and those new Testament writings that reflected and affirmed the heritage of the Old Testament, were also inspired by God and could be used as Scripture.
o So, Jesus was fully human, as the author of Hebrews said, “in every was as we are, but without sin.”Jesus was not displacing the Old Covenant, Instead, he fulfilled it so that he could offer the new Covenant of grace.
- To be as consistent in faith and practice as Marcion sought to be, Christians came to consensus about a body of literature, the foundation of what we now know as the Bible.
o It included the Old Testament in the Septuagint, its Greek version.
o It also affirmed all the books thought to be written by Apostles, and not only by Paul. That included the four Gospels we have received, and the letters of James, Jude, and John. They were believed to have been written by Apostles or by their disciples (so, Mark and Hebrews), and this was confirmed by content consistent with the faith as the Churches had received it.
o That included even those writings that some then (and later) might have considered “too Jewish,” including Hebrews and the Letter of James.
With the ultimate failure of the Marcionite church, the consensus and ultimate canonization of the New Testament as we have it, and the thorough incorporation of our Jewish heritage in our faith and worship, we might think this matter was settled. However, it continues to be a concern that we need to address.
- How often have we heard, even in our own time, that dichotomy that God in the Old Testament is all Law, Justice, and Punishment, while God in the New Testament, as seen in Christ, is all Love, Grace, and Salvation?
- How recently was it that the Roman Catholic Church apologized for centuries of anti-Semitism, and stopped thinking of Jews as “Christ killers?”
- We need to recognize that even as great a theologian and scholar as Luther, who went to a rabbi to learn Hebrew to study the Old Testament, was still prone to see the Letter of James as “too Jewish,” to focused on works; and to express anger that the Jews would not see that the Messiah had already come in Jesus. We need to recognize that those sentiments have not disappeared, even if they are spoken less openly.
So, what does it mean for us now to appreciate the Jewish heritage of Christianity? What do we think is the most significant contribution of our Jewish heritage to our Christian faith? What new insights have we had this morning, and what new behaviors might those insights suggest? And where might we want to go from here in honoring the Jewish heritage in the Christian faith?