Markus Vinzent's Blog

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Love your enemies - Marcion's ethics

Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back and you will be sons of God (Luke 6:35 - the Most High), because he is kind to ungrateful and evil people (The Gospel)

This verse directly builds on the previous one and summarizes the development from the earlier ones (‘love your enemies’, ‘and do good’, 'lend, without expecting anything back'). Human beings are asked to mirror God himself: Those who act as god does, are ‘sons of God’, because they are what he is, ‘kind to ungrateful and evil people’. Tertullian has difficulties to understand, why Marcion uses the term ‘sons’, when he disregards ‘matrimony’, and finds this even ‘outrageous’. Cynically he continues: ‘Well done, Marcion. Cleverly enough have you deprived him of rain and sunshine, that he might not be taken for the Creator’, benchmarking Marcion’s Gospel with Tertullian’s preferred one, that of Matthew (Matth. 5:44).
Why does Luke change Marcion’s title God into that of the ‘Most High’ (Luke 6:35)? Richard Bauckham provides an impressive list of works of early Jewish Literature (250BCE – 150 CE) that refer to God as the ‘Most High’.[1] He identifies as key passage about the ‘Most High’ Deuteronomy 32:8-9, a text ‘that has played a prominent part in discussion of Jewish monotheism’. In the Masoretic Hebrew, the text reads as follows:[2]
32:8 When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he divided up humankind,
he set the boundaries of the peoples,
according to the number of the heavenly assembly.
32:9 For the Lord’s allotment is his people,
Jacob is his special possession.
In the early Jewish interpreations of this verse, the ‘Most High’ and the Lord were seen as ‘one and the same’, but Marcion accused this ‘most high’ Lord of Israel of being a biased sovereign ruler, one who ruled over all the nations and all souls, but who had allocated spirits and angels to rule over the many nations and people, while only Israel was solely ruled by himself. Hence, he accused the God of Israel of making a difference between the wise or virtuous souls and the wicked ones who are lead astray from following the Most High, an interpretation that Luke corrected by giving the all-merciful God the title ‘Most High’, of course a sort of tour de force in the eyes of Marcion, if read against the Jewish writings of his time:[3]
He appointed a ruler for every nation,
But Israel is the Lord’s own portion (Sir. 17:17).[4]
4:24 … It is the decision of the Most High that this has happened to my lord the king. 4:25 You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and you will become damp with the dew of the sky. Seven periods of time will pass by for you, before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes. … 4:34 … I extolled the Most High, and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever. For his authority is an everlasting authority, and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next. 4:35 All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he wishes with the army of heaven and with those who inhabit the earth. No one slaps his hand and says to him, ‘What have you done?’ (Dan. 4:24-35)
And he sanctified them [Israel] and gathered them from all the sons of man because (there are) many nations and many people, and they all belong to him, but over all of them he caused spirits to rule so that they might lead them astray from following him. But over Israel he did not cause any angel or spirit to rule because he alone is their ruler and he will protect them and he will seek for them at the hand of all his authorities so that he might guard them and bless them and they might be his and he might be theirs henceforth and forever (Jub. 15:31-2).[5]
But from the sons of Isaac one would become a holy seed and he would not be counted among the nations because he would become the portion of the Most High and all his seed would fall (by lot) to the Lord, a (special) possession from all people, and so that he might become a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Jub. 16:17-8).[6]
When God divided and partitioned off the nations of the soul, separating those of one common speech from those of another tongue, and causing them to dwell apart; when he dispersed and put away from himself the children of earth, then did he fix the boundaries of the offspring of virtue corresponding to the number of the angels … But what are the portions of his angels, and what is the allotted share of the All-sovereign Ruler? The particular virtues belong to the servants, to theRuler the chosen race of Israel.[7]
Marvel not at all, then, if the title of special portion of God the universal Ruler, to whom sovereignty over all pertains, is bestowed upon the company of wise souls, whose vision is supremely keen … Is not this the explanation of that utterance in the Greater Song [Deut. 32:7-9]?[8]
            Bauckham has shown that early Judaism had developed a monotheistic ‘uniqueness of the one God in terms of an absolute difference in kind from all other reality’, and he adds:
We could call it transcendent uniqueness. It means that there is no class of beings to which God belongs and of which he can be the supreme instance. I takes a ‘binary’ view of reality. In my view, early Jewish literature (with few, if any, exceptions) is strongly committed to such a view by the way it constantly understands the uniqueness of the God of Israel as that of the one Creator of all things and the one sovereign Ruler of all things. Because these definitions of God’s uniqueness drive an absolute difference of kind between God and ‘all things’, they override any oder gradient features of the Israelite-Jewish worldview (such as survive in some of the vocabulary used) and create an essentially binary view of reality. This does not and need not deny the existence of many heavenly beings, but simply insists that they are created by God and subject to the sovereign will of God. In early Judaism, the binary distinction between God and all other reality was observed and inculcated – in daily religious observance – by monolatry. In a gradient worldview (such as the pagan, inclusive monotheism of antiquity), many beings are accorded honour, each to a degree appropriate to its rank in the cosmic scale. Early Judaism turned monolatry (which had originally been a concomitant of henotheism) into a powerful symbol of exclusive monotheism.[9]
            Bauckham’s emphasis on monolatrial monotheism, the unique view of God that results in a ‘binary’ view of reality between things and God, highlights another feature that bridges Marcion and his contemporary Judaism. With Marcion rejecting a biased God of an elected people in the midst of a rejected world, he endorses and epitomizes God’s sovereignty, the uniqueness of the one and developes a sharpened interpretation of God and world. Christ’s God is no longer the God of the wise and the virtuous, but that of all, most prominently the merciful of the ridiculed, the persecuted, and even the robbers and the sinners. While the sovereign was the ruler of all and everybody, he is no longer regarded as the creator of this creation of imbalance and inequality. Against Marcion who has taken the Jewish ‘binary’ view of reality to the level of antithesis, Luke reconnects the ‘Most High’ and his divine judgement with Marcion’s entirely merciful, non-judgemental God.[10]


[1] R. Bauckham, ‘The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus’ (1999 = 2008), 123-6.
[2] R. Bauckham, ‘The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus’ (1999 = 2008), 111.
[3] See R. Bauckham, ‘The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus’ (1999 = 2008), 113.
[4] NRSV, not extant in Hebrew.
[5] Trans. by O.S. Wintermute, ‘Jubilees’, in J.H. Charlesworth (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (1985) II 34-142, 87.
[6] Trans. by O.S. Wintermute, ‘Jubilees’, in J.H. Charlesworth (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (1985) II 34-142, 88.
[7] Philo, Post. 91-2, trans. F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker, LCL.
[8] Philo, Plant. 58-9, trans. F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker, LCL.
[9] R. Bauckham, ‘The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus’ (1999 = 2008), 109.
[10] The link between the ‘Most High’ and divine judgement in Ps. 82:8; 2Bar. 13:8; Jub. 39:6; 1Enoch 9:3; 10:1; 97:2; 100:4; 1Qap Genar 20:12-3; 16; T. Mos. 10:7; Sib.Or. 1:179; 3:519, 718, see R. Bauckham, ‘The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus’ (1999 = 2008), 116.

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