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Marcion |
A tycoon-bishop

Marcion is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 237, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The God of Abraham was not the God of Jesus, says Marcion, as he rewrites the New Testament and his churches multiply over Christian denunciations

Marcion - A tycoon-bishop’s affluent son rejects the Jews’ God and starts his own faith

Marcion - A tycoon-bishop’s affluent son rejects the Jews’ God and starts his own faith

Thomas Jefferson was famous–or infamous–for producing a version of the New Testament in which all suggestions of Jesus’ divinity were excised. This better suited the famous deist’s view of the way Christ ought to be seen by enlightened humans. But it was not the first time Scripture has gone under a tendentious editor’s knife. In the second century, a religious leader named Marcion went a great deal further, tossing out most of the New Testament and all of the Old, in order to bring the Truth in line with his way of thinking.

Unlike Jefferson, Marcion’s theology attracted a host of followers–in critics’ minds, the best followers money could buy. So powerful did his movement become that it was officially condemned by most Christians. Indeed, Marcion was long known as the second century’s “arch heretic.”

He was born in Pontus, the big Roman province south of the Black Sea, to a father who was both a bishop and a shipping magnate. He enjoyed financial security and, like his father, had deeply held beliefs. The problem was with the nature of those beliefs. So bizarre were they that, sometime around 140, his father was forced to excommunicate his own son.1

Undaunted, Marcion moved to a larger stage–Rome–where he bequeathed to the Christians there two hundred thousand sesterces and went on with his preaching. By 144, the church fathers followed Marcion’s father’s lead, giving him back his donation and ousting him. Still undaunted, the twice-excommunicated Marcion established churches across the empire, as Tertullian later put it, “as wasps make nests.”

What were these controversial beliefs? They flowed from Marcion’s insistence that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New could not be one and the same. The Old Testament’s God was a fierce and unforgiving warrior-god, he said, who caused the sun to linger in the sky in order to prolong a slaughter. A woman suffered his punishment by having her children eaten by bears. In Isaiah 45:7, this God goes so far as to say, “I make peace and it is I who send evil. I, the Lord, do these things.”

Yet did Christ not tell us, Marcion argued, that a good tree could not bring forth evil fruit? And therefore how could the Old Testament’s ferocious God be the same God who sent his Son to redeem the world through love? Marcion’s conclusion: There must be two Gods. The first was the Creator–called the Demiurgos or Cosmocrator–who has served his purpose and has been superseded by the loving God of the New Testament.

His was a breathtaking doctrine, and it caused no small number of problems for Marcion besides excommunication. For instance, which Scriptures were to be preached? The Old Testament was definitely out, but there remained profound problems with the New as well. The Nativity, for instance. It not only fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy, but placed Christ in a human body, thus attaching him to the old Creator God. Marcion’s solution: Christ appeared in Capernaum in a.d. 29 as a grown man. Yet he was not really a man, but more of a supernatural being without human essence.

Before the editing was done, Marcion had whittled the New Testament down to a gutted version of Luke plus ten of Paul’s letters. His theology rejected bodily resurrection. It offered baptism only to those who were willing to reject worldly pleasures, including marriage, which it considered debauchery.

His ministry, unsurprisingly, was never without voluble critics. Polycarp pegged him as the “firstborn of Satan.” Justin Martyr observed that “with the help of demons,” Marcion was guilty of “denying that the Maker of this universe is the Father of Christ, and declaring that the universe was made by another, greater than he.”

Historian Eric Osborn in his Tertullian: First Theologian of the West explains the basic brief against him: “At the deepest level, Marcion’s denial opposed the central affirmation of Christian faith, which was that one God was only credible if he had, in Christ, redeemed the world which he had made.”

Yet Marcion was not entirely an anomaly. Says historian Paul Johnson in his A History of Christianity: “He represents two important and permanent strains of Christianity: the cool, rationalist approach to the examination of the church’s documentary proofs, and a plain, unspectacular philosophy of love.” As with other controversial teachers, he had a positive effect on Christians by forcing them to more firmly establish the books that were essential to the New Testament, which was then coming together.

Some Marcionite churches may have survived into the fourth century, though by then the movement was largely swallowed by another innovation, notably Manichaeism, which was similarly obsessed with the problem of evil.

Marcion is believed to have died in or around the year 160. The precise date and circumstances of his death are not known. Tertullian relates that Marcion repented and agreed to bring his followers back into the orthodox fold but died before this took place.

This is the end of the Marcion category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 237, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Marcion from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at