August 19, 2016

Jesus, Paul, Marcion & the Development of the Canon

A brief conversation between Steven Pidgeon and a friend and supporter of his who lives in Italy. It was in response to his reading of Steven’s article about Jesus and the Law. The question arose about Paul, Marcion, and alternate sources for discerning the original pure teaching of Christianity. The conversation is definitely not finished, and there is much room for more research…

Miles Saturni[1]: I was reading your piece on Jesus, and I think your vision of Jesus is basically the same as what I have of him right now. I’ve only read the canonical gospels though. So it may change once I study other texts.

Steven Pidgeon: Right, I have a copy of the gospel of Thomas[2], which I find quite interesting.

MS: I’m currently reading the other parts of the “New Testament.” I’m reading the epistles of Paul. I find the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles of Paul so boring.

SP: From my reading, there actually seems to be a conflict hidden in those writings[3]. I’m not fully clear about it yet, but Paul expresses issues that he was having with Jesus’ brother, James.

                             Marcion, Originator of the First “Christian” Canon

MS: Yes, Paul is an interesting topic. I wanted to share a thought I had about this. The standard NS view of Paul (as expressed by Savitri Devi[4], for example) seems to be that St.Paul (Saul or Shaul, in Hebrew) was a “false convert,” an infiltrator, who went on to “Judaize” and corrupt pure Christianity. But it doesn’t seem to be that simple to me. As far as I’ve seen, the first time that St.Paul’s epistles actually appeared was in Marcion’s canon[5].

SP: I believe that what Savitri Devi said about Paul could be true, but still it’s definitely not simple.

MS: Marcion’s collection of Paul’s epistles was smaller than today’s New Testament[6], and were also different. Some historians even think that they could have been earlier versions of the ones that we know today[7]. Marcion was the first to create the distinction between the “Old” and “New” testaments, and he clearly rejected the Old Testament. So it seems weird that he included in his canon texts which affirmed that the old Law and the new one were both valid.

SP: Paul seemed to affirm some elements of Old Testament as valid. I think that the issue isn’t necessarily what he said, but how he thought, his concepts. One clear example is the difference between what Jesus said about “becoming like a little child,” as opposed to what Paul said in Eph 4:14, “No longer be as children…”

MS:Some historians have pointed out that there are numerous inconsistencies between the Acts and Paul epistles (though mainly regarding the place where Paul was supposed to have been at certain times doesn’t seem to correspond). They think that the Paul of the epistles was actually an invention of Marcion himself. The Jew that “converts to Christianity” would be a useful narrative tool to show the passage from the “old law” to the new. If this hypotesis were true, it would also explain why Marcion’s epistles were different and fewer in number. Once they had became widely accepted, Judaeo-Christians could not eliminate them, but simply altered them.

SP: Maybe…. I’d definitely like to look into this more.

MS: These are only speculations, of course. But the fact that, as far as we know, St.Paul only appeared with Marcion remains. And the reality is that even if this hypothesis were true, right now we’re stuck with a “Judaized” Paul. So it would be easier to ditch Paul altogether than to try to recover Marcion’s “original version.”

SP: I personally see the account of the conflict between Paul and James (and with the original apostles) depicted by “Luke” in the Book of Acts[8] as an attempt to soften it. The trouble most likely arose because after Jesus’ death, there was a lot of confusion and many of his followers were still quite Judaized in their thinking.

MS: True, this is another issue that always repeats itself during the course of history: a great leader cannot find a worthy successor.

SP: Right, there are statements to the effect that he hadn’t yet told his disciples everything that he wanted to teach them. But in the Gospel of Thomas, he designated his brother as his successor[9].

MS: You mean James, the Lord’s brother?

SP: Yes, James. I definitely would like to do more research into this. It seems that the best thing to do to rebuild Christianity would be to start from the words of its “founder,” from what Jesus said, not only from canonical texts but from wherever we can discern his original teaching. Why use the words of the disciples when we have those from the master?


[1]My friend and supporter from Italy

[2]The Gospel of Thomas was discovered among the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945. It contains 114 “secret sayings of Jesus,” many of which are similar to canonical sayings, but some of which are quite different. There is a case for the possibility of Thomas being at least contemporary with Mark and possibly even being the source for it and the other canonical gospels. Some of the sayings seem to be simpler, from an earlier period before later redactors added their own embellishment to Jesus’ sayings: eg. http://users.misericordia.edu/davies/thomas/tomark1.htm for possible use by “Mark,” and also this article about the relationship between Thomas and John in the Syrian tradition: http://users.misericordia.edu/davies/thomas/johnthom.htm

[3]Such as Galatians 2:11-13

[4] Savitri Devi was a post-War exponent of National Socialism. See her essay on “Paul of Tarsus” at: http://savitridevi.org/paul_trans_english_fowler.html

[5]Marcionism – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcionism

[6]His canon contained ten Pauline epistles (without the Pastorals) and the Gospel of Luke (an interesting link: ) http://www.marcionite-scripture.info)

[7]Such as John Knox (not to be confused with the reformer) who suggested that Marcion’s canon may have represented a different tradition, rather than just Marcion editing the orthodox epistles and gospel

[8]Acts 15 relates James as the head of the Jerusalem Church. Later in Acts 21, Paul returns and encounters James once again, where he is directed by James to join others in a Nazarite vow to attempt to not appear as anti-Law as what people had thought him to be. At least, this is the official Acts account

[9]Gospel of Thomas 12 says, “The disciples said to Jesus: ‘We know that you will depart from us; who is it who will be great over us?’ Jesus said to them: ‘Wherever you have come, you will go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.’” This is in opposition to the canonical account (Matthew 16) which designates Peter as the “rock upon which I will build My church” – traditionally used by Catholics to mean the Pope.

This is following the canonical account of Peter’s confession of the Christ, which is quite different from Thomas 13, which shows Matthew, Peter and Thomas as answering the question, “Who do you say that I am?” and when Thomas says, “I don’t have words for describing who you are,” Jesus favours this answer and takes him aside and reveals “three words” to him secretly. (This is the same Thomas that the canonical John represents as practical and unbelieving)