Paul and Marcion

One is informed by Acts that St Paul's early day stance was as "Saul, the Christian persecutor". Yet if Saul really was a vigilante for orthodox Judaism at the time of Stephen's stoning (Acts 7.58-8.3), becoming the chief persecutor of Christians, no less – one wonders just where was Saul, not long before, when a supposed radical rabbi called Jesus was stirring up whole towns and villages?

Paul's role as religious policeman seems not to have awakened until shortly after the Savior's death. But in itself this suggests Jesus of Nazareth had no great impact. After all, Saul was a contemporary of Jesus in time and place, raised in Jerusalem ("at the feet of Gamaliel" – Acts 22.3) at precisely the time the Savior was overturning moneychangers in the Temple and generally provoking Pharisees and Sadducees.

Would not Saul, a young religious hothead ("exceedingly zealous of the traditions" – Galatians 1.14) have waded into those multitudes to heckle and attack the Nazarene himself? Would he not have been an enthusiastic witness to JC's blasphemy before the Sanhedrin? And where was Saul during "passion week", surely in Jerusalem with the other zealots celebrating the holiest of festivals? And yet he reports not a word of the crucifixion?

Paul, another "witness for Jesus", saw and heard nothing!

Two Pauls – One Illusion

The trail-blazing Christian missionary and apostle, St Paul, appears nowhere in the secular histories of his age (not in Tacitus, not in Pliny, not in Josephus, etc.) Though Paul, we are told, mingled in the company of provincial governors and had audiences before kings and emperors, no scribe thought it worthwhile to record these events. The popular image of the saint is selectively crafted from two sources: the Book of Acts and the Epistles which bear his name. Yet the two sources actually present two radically different individuals and two wildly divergent stories. Biblical scholars are only too familiar with the conundrum that chunks of Paul's own story, gleaned from the epistles, are incompatible with the tale recorded in Acts but live with the "divine mystery" of it all. Perish the thought that they might recognize the whole saga is a work of pious fiction.


The Paul of Acts is a team player. His conversion on the road to Damascus is so important that it is repeated three times (son et lumiere). From a previous state of error (as "Saul", the persecuting Jewish zealot) he is brought into the loving embrace of the fledgling church.

Now part of the brethren ("with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem" - 9.28), he is "managed" by the elders. Disciples "took him" from Damascus (9.25) and Barnabas "brought him" to the apostles (9.27). They "brought him" to Caesarea and then they "sent him" to Tarsus. Barnabas "brought" Paul back to Antioch (11.26) and then with him was "sent" to Jerusalem with famine relief (11.30) – (as it happens, a visit to Jerusalem completely unknown to Paul himself).

Eventually the brethren "send" Paul on his first missionary journey (13.4). As a missionary, Paul is very much on the collective message:

"And as they went through the cities they delivered them the decrees for to keep that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the churches established." (Acts 16.4,5).

From Thessalonica, Paul is "sent away" to Berea by the brethren (17.10). He is also "sent away" by sea and "brought" to Athens (17.14,15). In Cenchrea, Paul even takes a Jewish vow and shaves his head! (18.18).

Though his name is cited in Acts 177 times, "Paul" is never coupled with the familiar honorific "apostle". The closest Acts comes to bestowing the title is 14.14 where his name follows Barnabas and the plural is used. In every other instance, Paul is an entity quite separate from, and implicitly subordinate to, the apostles. The slight is striking, given that Acts was supposedly written by Luke, Paul's companion and admirer.


In stark contrast, the Paul of the Epistles is a bombastic maverick, representing no one but himself and under no one's direction. It is Paul who is doing the directing. Full of his own importance, in all his letters Paul hammers home the point that he is an apostle and that his appointment comes directly from the divine. His "proof" of this is his own success as a missionary (e.g. 2 Corinthians 2,3) – an argument of dubious merit still used by churches today. Look at our success! We must be right!

Paul makes no reference to a "Damascene road" conversion nor to an origin in Tarsus (Jerome reported that Paul was from Galilee!). He makes no reference to Cyprus and the battle with a rival magician, nor does he refer to the edict from James on food prohibitions and fornication. Paul, it seems, owes nothing to any man. A bad-tempered bully, he wastes little sympathy on those who do not accept his point of view. Thus when he loses the support of Peter and Barnabas over eating with Gentiles, Paul rebukes Peter publicly and writes that he has reneged out of "fear" and Barnabas has been naively "carried away" (Galatians 2.12,13).

The Implausible Paul

It is curious that no Jewish rabbinic writings of the 1st or 2nd century so much as mention a renegade student of Gamaliel who, having studied under the master and vigorously enforced orthodoxy on behalf of the high priests, experienced a life-changing vision on an away mission. Not a word emerges from the rabbis about the star pupil who "went bad", a heretic who scrapped the prohibitions of the Sabbath, urged his followers to disregarded Judaism's irksome dietary regulations, and pronounced the Law and circumcision obsolete. Surely such a renegade could not have completely escaped the attention of the scribes?

How likely is it that Paul really studied under the Pharisaic grandee (Acts 22.3)? Paul clearly had difficulty with the Hebrew language: all his scriptural references are taken from the Greek translation of Jewish scripture, the Septuagint.

How likely is it that, as a young man, Paul – supposedly a Roman citizen and from the Hellenised diaspora – even got the job as chief policeman of the ultra-orthodox of Jerusalem? And if Paul really had secured such a position, he surely would have had far bigger fish to fry than a miniscule "Jesus group" in Damascus. We are told in Acts that the apostles continued to preach in Jerusalem even after the death of Stephen ("They all scattered abroad ... except the apostles." – Acts 8.1,2). So why didn't Paul go for the ringleaders, closer to hand?

"Nothing in his letters suggests that Paul had any official standing in his treatment of Christians ... Hence, in opposition to what Luke says, he could not have used arrest, torture or imprisonment as a means of forcing Christians to recognize that they had been misled." – Murphy O'Connor, Paul, His History, p19

Given that the Jewish High Council (the Sanhedrin) had no authority to empower a heresy hunter to operate in the independent city of Damascus, Paul's road trip is even more implausible.

How likely is it that Saul/Paul converted within a year or two of the crucifixion (Irenaeus says eighteen months)? If he truly was a precocious zealot of Judaism and was completely untouched by the perambulations and miraculous deeds of the Savior himself – short of the supposed blinding "miracle" – why would he, of all people, so readily embrace the heresy? The four Gospels neither mention nor even hint at a pioneering apostle called Paul.

There is also a curious parallel between the alleged "persecution" speech spoken by the celestial Christ to the blinded Paul ("Saul, Saul ... ") and the persecution of Dionysius found in Euripides work "the Bacchae" – and both use the word "goads".

If Paul (Saul) really had apostatised to the extent of joining (or establishing) a radical new sect, how is it the rabbis did not anathematize his name? To be sure, Jewish Christians (Ebionites) did condemn Paul and did so in the harshest terms – even suggesting that in reality he had been a malcontented Greek convert, whose ardour had been rejected by the High Priest's daughter! (Epiphanius, Panarion, 16). But that was in the 2nd century, long after any life and death of the apostle.

The "persecution" of the early church seems an extraordinarily unlikely construct because once Saul, the "destroyer of the saints", transforms into Paul the apostle, and is whisked away by the brethren to safety in Caesarea and home to Tarsus, the persecution abruptly stops. The "persecution" is entirely a one man circus.

" Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied." – 9:31

The entire pre-Christian "Saul, the scourge of the church" makes no sense at all as history – but does make a great deal of sense as theology. "Zealous Jew sees the light of Jesus, becomes Christian." The theological purpose is as obvious as the historical vignette is bogus.

"Murderous Jews" of Damascus

How likely is Paul's "escape by basket" from the city of Damascus (Acts 9.25) ? Typically, baskets lowered by rope are used by tenement dwellers to buy bread from street vendors, first lowering the basket with payment then raising the basket with their loaf. But man-sized baskets? And why could not Paul just climb down the rope like a normal person?

And just who was Paul escaping from? According to Paul's "own" testimony (2 Corinthians 11.32,33) it was "the governor under Aretas the king". Aretas IV was the Nabataean monarch who ruled a vast area from his capital of Petra, though Paul gives no explanation as to why Aretas was out to get him.

But Acts, consistent with its hostility to "the Jews", tells us it was Jews of murderous intent (Acts 9.23,24). Why were the Jews so murderous? Any reputation Paul had among the Jews of Damascus would have been as an enforcer of Judaism, not as a Christian heretic. The weak explanation offered by Acts is that the converted Saul had "confounded" the Jews in the synagogue with his Christ. Apparently, that was sufficient cause for them to organise the intended assassination and watch the city gates (and there were at least seven of them) "day and night" – a considerable investment of manpower. O'Connor asks the reasonable question:

"Why should the Jews watch the gates, when it would have been perfectly easy to find out where Paul was living and arrange an 'accident' there?" – O'Connor (A Critical Life, p6)

Faced with such hostility from his erstwhile co-religionists, how plausible is it that Paul, having just experienced a life-changing conversion, instead of joining the earthly companions of his newly acquired Lord, instead goes off to "Arabia" for three years – an "Arabia" that has just chased him out of Damascus?!

Surely he would seek safety with fellow Christians? Surely he would wish to speak with his Saviour's still living mother, visit the places where Jesus wrought his miracles, tread the path to Calvary and ponder on the spot where his Lord suffered his passion?

Acts 15 reports that Paul's "long abode" at Antioch which followed his first missionary journey is interrupted by "legalizers" from Judaea who insist that salvation required circumcision. The brethren are alarmed and Paul and Barnabas are chosen to lead a delegation to Jerusalem to meet the apostles and elders. The meeting is the famed "Council of Jerusalem". Conventionally dated anywhere between the years 48 and 52, Acts reports a pretty harmonious get together, with the main issue readily resolved. Paul regales the brothers with tales of "miracles and wonders" among the gentiles (15.12) and James rules that as far as circumcising the Gentiles is concerned, "we trouble them not" (15.19). Back in Antioch, the brethren "rejoiced" (15.32).

Yet Paul's own report on the meeting with "those who seemed to be the pillars" is very different. He goes to Jerusalem as a result of his own "revelation" (Galatians 2.2) and records what is actually a confrontation.

If there really was a "Council of Jerusalem" at which Paul won the argument that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised why did Paul so soon afterward personally circumcise Timothy, a disciple he found in Lystra? (16.3) To be sure, Timothy we are told is a half Jew so an apologetic argument is that it was to "gain acceptance" by the Jews of the region but such an argument presupposes a huge public awareness of poor Timothy's genitals. (There's no hint that Timothy was even asked how he felt about it!) But even more curious is what Paul himself says. Paul specifically declares that, not Timothy, but his other Greek sidekick Titus, was not circumcised!

"Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves." – Galatians 2.3,4.

"False brothers", "spies", are trying to make Paul and his entourage "slaves"?!

Such love, such Christian fellowship.

Founder of Churches?

More oddities exist. Paul supposedly established the church at Ephesus (Acts 18.18ff; 19.5,7), spending more time with his acolytes in that city than anywhere else (three months during the second mission, three years during the third). We are encouraged to believe that Paul's first and second "Letters to the Corinthians" were written from Ephesus, and that it was here that Paul received troubled delegates from Corinth and presided over Christianity's first book burning (Acts 19.19).

Yet it was the apostle John, settling in Ephesus after the crucifixion, who was ever after credited as founder of the Ephesian church. At the behest of Jesus himself, the Blessed Virgin had been placed in John's care and it seems off they had traipsed to Ephesus. Here Mary's house had been lovingly built by John with his own hands – a house which is is to be seen to this very day!

John was also said to have been the teacher of the venerable Bishop Polycarp, at nearby Smyrna. Whereas Mary's ultimate fate was not dreamed up for centuries, according to 2nd century Irenaeus (quoted by Eusebius, 23) John remained in Ephesus until the time of Emperor Trajan (98-117) and, according to 3rd century Dionysius of Alexandria, had not one but two Ephesian tombs.

Thus the story has it that the apostle John was a long-term resident in the very city evangelised by Paul on his second journey, "popularly" supposed to have begun in the year 49.

Yet for all the overlap in time and place, Paul neither met Mary nor consulted with fellow apostle John. Curious, to say the least.

Just what is going on here: mutual ignorance, churlishness, hostility – at the heart of the church of love?

Reality Check

What we are dealing with are two distinct (and rival) traditions, one centred on the collective of the apostles and underscoring the leadership of Peter (and hence Roman Catholicism); the other starring the apostle Paul, the pioneering theological genius and founder of churches. And for whom does "Paul" speak? Why, the faction that lost the political struggle – the church of Marcion, the very person who first "discovered" the epistles of Paul in the mid-to-late 2nd century.

In their original form (from the pen of the Marcionites) the Pauline epistles were far too dualistic and gnostic for a "mass market", with a theology which embraced escape from the material world. But they provided useful tales of the Holy Spirit at work among the Gentiles. The core Pauline (Marcionite) theology of individual salvation – "justification by faith" – severed the attachment to an exclusive Jewish bloodline and dispensed with the irksome dictates of Mosaic law. Initially alarming to the Jewish element of Catholicism, geopolitical developments would soon make such a theology very appealing.

The protracted struggle between the pro- and anti- "Jewish" Christian factions of the first half of the 2nd century ended after the Bar Kosiba war of 130-135 and the opprobrium in Rome of all things Jewish. In a half-baked fashion, the two "traditions" came together. The book of Acts was a Catholic triumph, which cut Paul down to size and brought the hero of the Marcionites into the securing arms of would-be orthodoxy.

To be sure, Paul himself was "glorified" and credited with extensive missionary activity, replete with miracles quite unrecorded in the eponymous letters. But in the new story, Paul writes no epistles. Instead, he delivers one from the top dogs in Jerusalem! In a weakly thought out story the "leader" of the Jerusalem apostles is moved to Rome ahead of Paul, and is placed upon the "pope's" chair. Paul, the superstar of a fabricated 1st century evangelical crusade, would ever after stand awkwardly at the shoulder of a far flimsier creature fashioned by the church in Rome – St Peter.

Thus was Paul, erstwhile hero of the heretics, refashioned into the "13th apostle" and assimilated into the Catholic collective, even as the Marcionite churches were being integrated into the greater and universal Roman church. The epistles ascribed to Paul – too useful and too popular to be erased from the record – were expropriated and doctored for the Catholic cause and augmented by others composed by the Catholic ecclesia.

These so-called "pastoral" epistles, addressed to the pastors or "shepherds" of the flock, reined in maverick and independent clergy and underscored episcopal authority. Nascent Catholicism, organizing itself in Rome, was very much of this world, and saw its future glory in accommodation with the imperial order. The approved "canon" followed, closing the door on further creative theology.

The fabricated Paul

"As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed ... For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ." – Galatians 1.9,12.

A Catholicised sainthood was the ultimate fate of our hero Paul but from where did the super-apostle arise? If, as seems likely, Marcion created what would become the New Testament Paul as a messenger for his own ideas, he almost certainly used biographical material from his own life, particularly the power struggle he waged with the collective in Rome. Marcion, like "Paul", alone knew the truth, a mystery made manifest to him by revelation.

As a shipping magnate from Sinope (a Black Sea port, a hundred miles north of Galatia) Marcion enjoyed financial independence and was able to travel extensively. At one point he even financed the church in Rome before being excommunicated and returning to the east. He would have been familiar with the sea lanes and attendant dangers that figure so prominently in the Pauline story. To give his theology added "authority" it had to be back projected into an earlier "apostolic age". He may have chosen the name Paul (meaning "small" or "humble") as reflective of his own position.

When Catholicism commandeered Marcion's creation, the novelists in Rome would undoubtedly have used the works of Josephus, the all-purpose source books of the Christians, for additional material. And here they found not a Paul but a Saul, an Herodian aristocrat of unsavoury character. This material became the core for the preamble to Paul's story, his "life in Judaism". And the life of Josephus himself certainly was plundered: episodes in the Jewish historian's biography resonate just too closely with the Pauline story, particularly the shipwreck on the way to Rome.

Josephus was not just an historian. Before the war, he had been appointed by the high priest Ananias as governor in Galilee, with a brief that meant suppressing ("persecuting") radical movements. One of the bandit groups he had to deal with in and around Tiberias was led by a bandit chief called ... Jesus. The name Joshua was quite common in those days. – Josephus , Life 12.


A. Who was Marcion and when did he live?

1. Marcion was born about 110 AD, being the son of the wealthy Bishop of Sinope in Pontus. Marcion was a wealthy shipping magnate himself.
2. By 144 AD, at age 34, Marcion had caused such a stir, that his teachings were the subject of an investigation and condemnation.

B. What did Marcion believe that made him a dangerous heretic?

1. Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was an evil creator god that Jesus came to destroy.
2. Marcion believed that this evil god did in fact reveal his will through the Old Testament. Thus he believed in the "inspiration" of the Old Testament from divine sources, although from an evil source.
3. Marcion’s canon
4. Luke + Paul’s writings. Marcion accepted only the gospel of Luke to the exclusion of the other three gospels. He also accepted all of Paul’s writings but he would "cut out" any Old Testament quote or anything else that contradicted his theological views. He rejected all other books of the Bible except Luke + Paul’s writings. "It is usually said that Marcion "rejected" the Old Testament and accepted in its place only his own canon of Luke plus Pauline Epistles, edited to remove all allusions to the Old Testament. This, however, obscures two important points. First, Marcion's rejection of the Old Testament was indeed total, in that he regarded it as completely alien to the revelation of salvation brought by Jesus and recorded in the New Testament documents he accepted. But this was not because he did not believe that the God of the Old Testament actually existed, or thought that the Old Testament itself was a purely human invention, pseudo-oracles of an imaginary god. On the contrary, Marcion firmly believed that the Old Testament God did exist, and that he was the Creator of the world. The problem was that his creation was evil, and he himself therefore a malign being; it was precisely the role of Jesus, and of the Unknown God now revealed in him, to deliver humankind from the malice of the evil Creator. Furthermore, the creator-god really had spoken the words attributed to him in the Old Testament: these were fully true and accurate oracles, not a human invention. They truly expressed the thoughts of the maker of the universe, and there could be no question of suggesting that they had been falsified in any way or contaminated by human intervention. "The Jewish Scriptures represent a true revelation of the Creator, but they do not speak of or for the God whom alone Christians ought to worship."" Marcion's "rejection" of the Old Testament thus needs to be qualified."" (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; John Barton, Marcion Revisited, p 344, 2002)
5. "Marcion, we may conclude, was important for two reasons. He rejected the Old Testament as the document of an alien religion; and he taught that Jesus had come to save humankind from the control of the evil Creator to whom the Old Testament witnesses. These are precisely the two aspects of his work on which patristic condemnations, from Tertullian onwards, focus. In the process he denied the validity of allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, which he saw as a means of accommodating it to Christian belief; this too is picked up by Tertullian. In short, Marcion was not a major influence on the formation of the New Testament; he was simply a Marcionite." (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; John Barton, Marcion Revisited, p 354, 2002)

C. Others quickly identified Marcion as a dangerous heretic:

1. At any rate, it is clear that Tertullian was not the first to realize that there was a problem with Marcion's Bible and try to answer his claims. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Everett Ferguson, Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon, p 311, 2002)
2. Tertullian too contrasted Marcion's reductionism with what he considered Valentinus's expansion of the gospel material: ‘Of the scriptures we have our being before there was any other way, before they were interpolated by [heretics]. . . . One man perverts the scriptures with his hand, another their meaning by his exposition. For although Valentinus seems to use the entire volume, he has nonetheless laid violent hands on the truth only with a more cunning mind and skill than Marcion. Marcion expressly and openly used the knife, not the pen, since he made such an excision of the scriptures as suited his own subject-matter. Valentinus, however, abstained from such excision, because he did not invent scriptures to square with his own subject-matter ... and yet he took away more, and added more, by removing the proper meaning of every particular word....’ (Praescr. 38) (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Everett Ferguson, Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon, p 312, 2002)

D. Marcion’s canon was much less than what was already accepted as scripture by Christians in general.

1. Marcion's concern was to exclude books that he disapproved of from his "canon." He was not assembling a collection of Christian books, but making a (very restricted) selection from the corpus of texts which already existed and which must already have been recognized as sacred by many
2. in the church-otherwise he would not have needed to insist on abolishing them. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; John Barton, Marcion Revisited, p 342, 2002) The New Testament books, or at any rate the central "core" of the Gospels and the Pauline and Catholic Epistles, were already used very widely in the time before Marcion
3. , and continued to be so used after him. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; John Barton, Marcion Revisited, p 343, 2002) In his attitude to the Old Testament Marcion really does look more like an innovator than he was in his "canonization" of the New Testament. Nevertheless it is unlikely that his theology seemed so new to him. Rather, he regarded it as the continuation of a central theme in Paul: the supersession of the law by the gospel. Paul "spoiled" the novelty of this theme by continuing to quote the Old Testament as though it were authoritative for Christians, and Marcion accordingly had to expurgate even the Pauline letters that he retained. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; John Barton, Marcion Revisited, p 351, 2002)

D. Roman Catholic and Orthodox get Marcion wrong:

Father James Bernstein, an Orthodox church leader wrote: "The first person on record who tried to establish a New Testament canon was the second-century heretic, Marcion. ... Many scholars believe that it was partly in reaction to this distorted canon of Marcion that the early Church determined to create a clearly defined canon of its own." (Which Came First: The Church or the New Testament?, Fr. James Bernstein, Orthodox churchman, 1994, p 7)

Refutation of James Bernstein (Orthodox):

1. It is clear from our documentation that most scholars today reject the idea that Marcion had any direct influence on the development of the canon. But the Orthodox church wants to desperately to believe that there was no Bible till the 4th century and that church tradition was the rule of the day.
2. The consensus of scholars is the Marcion started with a larger list of New Testament books and from this list of universally known inspired books, started removing books from the list.
3. Marcion clearly proves that all the writings of Paul were considered inspired and universally distributed. The Orthodox church practices countless things that contradict the writings of Paul.


1. When we study Marcion, it should be obvious that the vast majority of New Testament books were already recognized as part of the New Testament canon.
2. Marcion’s specific removal and denial of many New Testament books from his own canon, including all of Peter, James and John, proves they were already in use between 125-144 AD and widely accepted as scripture. by Steve Rudd

Now we know the same spirit present in the Christian church today which states emphatically, “If it is not found in Paul’s writings, I do not want to hear it!!” came from.

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