Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Marcion and Acts

I've been reading Joseph Tyson's Marcion and Luke-Acts. It's one of those books that I've read pieces of, but never read straight through. I have some thoughts about the book and decided to put them in a blog, primarily because I know Marcion and Luke-Acts has some influence among non-academic readers. And it's understandable: Tyson articulately presents a case for an extremely late dating of Acts. In fact, it's probably the best case that I've seen. In the end I think that it fails, but that does not change the fact that he's made a contribution, as scholars should always be engaging with the best version of positions with which they disagree. Tyson has provided me with such a version in the case of a mid-2nd century Acts.

For those who are not familiar with the work Tyson argues that Luke-Acts is a response to Marcion (with some nuance: a proto-Luke existed prior to Marcion and was used by those who produced Luke-Acts, whilst Acts was a novel creation that probably depended upon a number of sources). Tyson argues that this renders the specific content of our Luke and even more so Acts more intelligible than any other context. The question in response is thus: is our Luke-Acts actually more intelligible in the context of Marcion?

Tyson's thesis turns to a large extent upon the supposition that Peter and Paul were much further apart than Acts suggests. Acts, Tyson argues, is responding to Marcion by showing that the Jewish Christianity exemplified by Peter and the Gentile Christianity exemplified by Paul were not separated, as in reality, by a wide chasm, but rather were more or less allied. This leads me to ask: were Peter and Paul as divided from each other as Tyson supposes? The idea that Acts is attempting to retrospectively bridge the wide chasm between these leaders becomes difficult to sustain if in fact there was no such wide chasm in the first place.

As best I can tell the main text that Tyson takes as evidence for their relationship is Galatians 2. Let's begin with v. 14, wherein Paul tells us that he asks of Peter: "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" This is simply astonishing in the face of hypotheses that would say that Peter was strictly Law-observant, in stark contrast to Paul. Paul is explicitly telling us that Peter lived as a Gentile. Peter and Paul thus begin to look a lot alike: both Jewish, both Christian, both interacting with and operating to some extent as Gentiles. Peter's positive interactions with Gentile Christians are borne out elsewhere in the Pauline letters, notably 1 Corinthians, which indicates that at the very least Peter was an influential figure in the primarily if not exclusively Gentile church at Corinth. The picture that emerges of Peter in the Pauline letters is someone who like Paul interacts with Gentile Christians, assimilating himself to their conduct even to the point that he can be described by Paul as living like a Gentile. There is thus Pauline precedent for presenting Peter and Paul as similar in many regards.

If we read earlier in Galatians 2 we also see Peter and Paul (as well as James and John) reaching theological concord over the specific matter of the relationship between the Jewish and Gentile missions. Such concord is exactly what Tyson thinks makes Acts so clearly a product of the mid-second century. One wonders however: if Paul, a contemporary, was aware that he reached concord with the Jerusalem leadership, Peter included, why must the text date to the better part of a century after those events? Paul's awareness of such concord suggests that this theme did not originate in a post-Marcionite imagination concerned to bring the apostle into closer relationship with Peter; rather, it originated at the very latest with Paul's own writing of Galatians 2.

Once Tyson's central argument begins to waver further problems begin to come into view. For instance, there is Acts' treatment of Mark, which seems to me utterly unintelligible on the Marcion hypothesis. Consider, Mark is first introduced in relation to Peter, when the latter goes to the house of the former's mother (cf. 12:12). Then we see him go off on a missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas (cf. 12:25). So far so good for Tyson: we can easily read this as an attempt to show that the same figures were involved in both the Pauline and Petrine operations, and thus show them to have been more closely related than they actually were (but only, of course, if Mark's association with both figures can be reasonably judged to be a fiction, preferably one created by the author of Acts). Yet what follows seems to undercut such a purpose, for Paul and Mark suffer a breakdown in their relationship after the latter departs from Paul and Barnabas in Pamphylia (13:13). The author makes clear that Paul still holds a grudge some time later (cf. 15:36-4), and this grudge in fact leads to a breakdown in Paul's relationship with Barnabas. Neither Paul's relationship with either Mark or Barnabas (also associated early on in the text with the early Jerusalem community of which Peter is a leader; cf. Acts 4:36) is ever healed. Notably, the ultimately unhealed (at least in Acts) breach between Paul and Barnabas, which is explicitly over Paul's refusal to reconcile with Mark, comes about in the context of the Jerusalem council, or more specifically its aftermath: precisely the place in Acts wherein, on Tyson's hypothesis, one should expect an emphasis upon the harmony between Paul on the one hand and Barnabas and Mark, associates of Peter, on the other. That, however, is precisely the opposite of what one finds.

Overall, if Acts is indeed trying to maximize the concord between Paul and Peter and their respective camps well beyond that which is attested in contemporary texts then it is doing a fairly poor job thereof. The concord seems not that much greater than what we find in Gal. 2, and his characterization of Mark is really quite baffling on this hypothesis. Now, that being said, there seems little question that the author of Acts wants to show that the apostles found effective mechanisms for maintaining unity (although never homogeneity) across the early decades of the movement. Yet it still seems unclear to me why we need run off to Marcion in order to find a context wherein such a concern makes sense. We know that conflicts recurred throughout the church in the intervening century or so between the Jerusalem council and Marcion's flourishing. The church during this period was often thinking about how to resolve such conflicts. This is evident in the Apostolic Fathers, perhaps most notably 1 Clement. I see no reason that Acts' demonstrable concern with unity is not explicable in the ongoing ecclesiastical concern to maintain unity in the face of division.