Jesus Against the Scribal Elite

Monday, December 3, 2012

So You Need a Dissertation Topic? Part Four: Marcion and Tatian—Chris Keith

Anthony and Joel Watts have dialogued a bit (here, here, and here) on Anthony’s suggestion of the Diatessaron as a form of counter-memory being a good dissertation topic.  In response, Joel asked, “But is the Diatessaron about memory or ease?” 

I want to jump in here (with serious hesitance since Diatessaron studies is absolutely one the most complex areas in Gospels studies) in defense of my co-blogger and in light of Watts’ perceptive engagement.  The question is one we’ve heard before, usually in a warning tone of seeing “memory” everywhere.  Joel’s tone isn’t like that, but I should also concede that those criticisms are right—we do, in fact, see memory everywhere.

Pace our good friend Joel, though, I would hesitate to describe the intentions behind the Diatessaron (so far as we can speak of them) in terms of “ease” at all.  There was nothing inherently easier about consulting a harmony over a scroll or codex of an individual gospel.  Nor was there anything inherently easier about producing such texts.  Both practices (consultation and production) were labor intensive, especially compared to modern textual practices, and the majority of the ancient world was utterly incapable of either.

Rather, I’m more inclined to see the re-shaping of the Jesus tradition in Tatian’s work as ideological to the core.  In defense of this notion, I would cite another physical re-shaping of the Jesus tradition from roughly the same time period that was, without question, ideological to the core—Marcion’s taking of the scissors to the Gospels.  Marcion (a contemporary of Tatian’s teacher Justin Martyr and, like Justin, prominent in Rome) and Tatian both were not content to argue about the content, authority, and nature of the Gospels.  Rather, they contributed to the ongoing debate by altering them physically.  Both also shared the fate of eventually paling in comparison to the dominance of the fourfold canon (although the Diatessaron was wildly popular for some time later).  One of the real interesting aspects of social memory approaches that has yet to be applied fully in Biblical Studies is the connection between physical, material artifacts and the commemorative practices they enable or reflect, along with the identity construction processes involved therein.  Here, I would suggest, is a promising dissertation—comparing early Christian responses to the physical re-shapings of the Gospel tradition by Marcion and Tatian.


  1. Chris, correct me if I'm wrong ... but we don't know that Marcion "took scissors to the Gospels." We don't have Marcion's Gospel. All we have are the descriptions of Marcion's Gospel provided by later heresiologists. The characterization about scissors (or was it a razor? All I can find are references in Irenaeus and Tertullian to "mutilation") was made by Marcion's opponents. We don't know that Marcion did any such thing.

    You are probably familiar with Tyson's "Marcion and Luke-Acts" - Tyson doubts that Marcion's Gospel was derived from canonical Luke. My understanding is that Tyson's work is well respected but represents a minority opinion. Still, I'd say that it's hard to know HOW Marcion went about reshaping Jesus traditions if we don't have a firm idea of WHAT he did.

    Trying to put this in terms of memory, it is possible that Marcion was heir to a different memory tradition concerning Jesus, and that he recorded this memory tradition faithfully. Advocating for one's own memory tradition is not the same thing as trying to re-shape another's memory tradition.

    Moreover, Marcion lived in a time of heterodox Christian diversity -- the extent of the diversity is a matter for debate, of course. But even if Marcion knew the canonical Gospel of Luke, it's possible that he knew of other then-current memory traditions, and that he had no reason to regard any single one of these traditions as church orthodoxy. If it's true that Marcion did not regard any one of these traditions as dominant, then how can we say that he sought to re-shape any single one of them?

    I have more to read about memory and the study of early Christian history, but it seems that the focus on memory effects a paradigm shift in these studies. If our focus begins not with what Jesus said and did, but on how Jesus was remembered, then there's no reason I can think of why we should give historical preference to the memory tradition that eventually won out.

  2. Larry, thanks so much for your comments. Of course I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek with the reference to scissors. It's possible that Marcion was heir to his own memory tradition, but it's also quite clear that he was working with tradition that his contemporaries identified as (what were becoming) canonical Gospels. We could write books and books about what we do not know about Marcion, but that much seems clear. I think you're right that a memory approach to such things would shift the study--that's why I suggested it as PhD-worthy! But I don't think I anywhere made a statement about how WE should make decisions about which tradition to prefer. I observed only that, as early Christianity progressed, the fourfold canon eventually won out in what became orthodox Christianity.

  3. Keith, sorry if I misspoke. I understood your proposal as based on the idea that Marcion created his Gospel by physically altering the Gospel of Luke. My main point back is that we don't know that he did this. In more memory-centric terms, you proposed that Marcion produced his Gospel by reshaping then-existing memory traditions. My reply was that he might simply have been giving expression to his own memory tradition. If instead (or in addition) Marcion intentionally tried to reshape then-existing memory traditions, we don't know that those traditions included (or were limited to) the traditions identified with what were to become canonical Gospels.

    As for my last comment about preferring traditions ... you're right, you never said that. But I think there are problems with preference in the area as a general matter, particularly when we seek to move back in time and reconstruct an earlier memory landscape. The temptation is to take our current set of memories and project them backwards, as if we could run the memory videotape in reverse. But backwards projection is a fallacy for a number of reasons. First, we don't understand the trajectory of memory well enough to trace a memory backwards. Second, we're not talking about a single memory -- we're dealing with countless strands of memory woven into a complex pattern that is not easily unraveled and reconstructed as of any point in the past we'd like to examine. Finally, there are the strands of memory that did not reach us, but that were very much a part of the fabric in a century like the 2nd.

    I think it is a fair question to ask, how did Marcion affect our memory tradition? It is a much harder question to ask, how did Marcion set about to alter the memory tradition of his own day? We know our tradition; we're guessing at his. And if we assume that his tradition is a 2nd century version of our own, then I think we ARE engaging in tradition preference.

    We used to say that history was written by the winners, but as a Jew I know this isn't entirely true -- history is also written by those who remember. As moderns/post moderns, we're sensitive about recovering the histories of those who have lost. We should also be sensitive about forgotten histories, and perhaps even the points of view of those who were present at the outset and failed to remember anything.

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  5. Larry, of course we need to be sensitive and I wouldn't suggest otherwise. As historians, though, we must also work with the sources that we have, biased and partial they may be. And your criticism cuts both ways--if I don't know exactly what Marcion was working with, you don't either. But I think this whole perspective is unduly pessimistic. We DO know some things about Marcion's Gospel and, though I did not mention Luke, it's clear is a trimmed version of Luke. It's highly unlikely that Marcion was simply preserving a pristine stream of tradition that never interacted with other streams of Jesus tradition and much more likely that he was altering a version of the Jesus tradition that had already gained significance in early Christianity.

  6. Chris, I appreciate this opportunity to engage in dialog.

    It occurred to me as I pondered this topic last night that if one wants to write a disssertation about the reshaping of the Jesus tradition, one might write about Tertullian. It's not fair to single out any one person, but Tertullian was part of a successful effort to cause Marcion to be largely forgotten ... so that you can fairly say that we can write books about what we DON'T know about Marcion. It's also one of history's little ironies that, if we want to know about Marcion, we have to turn to the works of those who fought so successfully to cause Marcion to be (largely) forgotten.

    I agree that Marcion's Gospel as we reconstruct it today IS a trimmed version of the Gospel of Luke as we have it today. That's how the reconstruction is done -- we start with Luke and (to our best ability) we make the deletions described by Irenaeus, Tertullian and Epiphanius. This is what WE do, and if Marcion knew canonical Luke that is what Marcion MIGHT have done, but that's not necessarily what Marcion DID. This argument is laid out fully in the Tyson book, so I need not repeat it in full here ... but one point noted by Tyson (relying on David S. Williams) is that Tertullian sometimes accuses Marcion of omitting gospel material that never appears in Luke.

    Yes, for certain, the various streams of Jesus tradition interacted with each other in complex ways. Even if Marcion did not know our canonical Luke, he certainly knew of Jesus traditions that went into the creation of canonical Luke. We can also state confidently that Marcion himself influenced Jesus traditions, including a handful that are part of the memory trajectory that has reached us today. Perhaps Marcion is responsible in part for our notion of an Old Testament God of wrath compared to a New Testament God of love.

    Of course we must work with the sources that we have. We have no other choice. And in all likelihood, these sources nicely account for the vast bulk of our present-day memory tradition. But if what you propose is a dissertation on how Marcion tried to alter the fabric of the memory tradition of his 2nd century, you have to account for strands of this tradition that were current then but did not reach us. Granted that's a tall order, but the dissertation doesn't work if all we can do is take our current memory traditions and interject them back 1900 years (perhaps adding some 2nd century "secret sauce" to give things that Patristic flavor!).

  7. Larry, now there's a dissertation topic--the second-century secret sauce!

  8. I was hoping you'd enjoy that! Actually, if you google "Nate Silver Secret Sauce", you'll see where I came up with that phrase.


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