Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.31

Enrico Norelli, Averil Cameron, Markion und der biblische Kanon; Christian literature and Christian History. Hans-Lietzmann-Vorlesungen, 11; 15.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2016.  Pp. xiv, 53.  ISBN 9783110374056.  $28.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Joshua Yoder, Bryn Mawr, PA (


The Hans-Lietzmann-Vorlesungen honor the man who succeeded Adolf von Harnack as Chair of New Testament, Church History and Christian Archaeology at the Humboldt-Universitӓt Berlin (1924) and as editor of the series “Griechische Christliche Schriftsteller” from 1930 until his death in 1942. This volume contains two of these lectures, given in 2009 and 2013 by Enrico Norelli of the University of Geneva and Averil Cameron, emerita of Oxford.

Enrico Norelli’s contribution tackles the subject of the second century teacher Marcion’s role in the formation of the Christian biblical canon. It is well known that Marcion adopted a set of writings that would later be included in the New Testament—to wit, the Gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul—and adapted them to suit his own views and the needs of his followers. This is the first instance known to us of a prescribed set of writings in Christianity. What influence, then, did Marcion have on the gradual adoption of another prescribed set of writings that would be called “the New Testament?”1

Norelli begins his remarks by taking a wide view of second century Christianity as emerging from considering itself a sect of Judaism to forging an identity in contrast to Judaism. Before turning to Marcion he spends some time with Ignatius of Antioch’s deployment of the concept “Judaism.” He then gives an overview of Marcion’s life (of which we know little) and thought. Norelli’s depiction of Marcion’s theology is congruent with the foundational work of Adolf von Harnack,2 taking its starting point from Marcion’s understanding of Jesus’ message as a message of radical love. Marcion attributed humankind’s incapacity for such radical love to an inferior creator god, revealed in the Jewish scriptures as a creature of wrath who punishes those who violate his commands. In Jesus Christ, however, the true God who is fundamentally alien to our world has intervened to make possible salvation from this god and his world.

Marcion found support for his views in the letters of Paul, with their strong contrast between law and grace. He attributed the positive role played by the God of Israel and the Jewish scriptures in Paul’s writings and his gospel (Luke) to later interpolators who, like Jesus’ disciples themselves, confused the God of Christ and the creator god. With careful editing, however, the original form of these writings could be reclaimed. Thus, Marcion’s view of scripture contrasted markedly with the views of someone like Papias, who privileged the “living and abiding voice” over written sources (frag. 3, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39). For Marcion, the adulterated state of the tradition handed down from the disciples made the (purified) written text the only trustworthy source of authority for the church. “Here the normative authority was ascribed for the first time—as far as we know—not to the content of a tradition guaranteed by the precedence of its tradents, but only to a collection of definite written texts, and indeed because of such texts’ capacity, independent of the character of its tradents, to remain comparatively intact through time” (15-16).

Having traced out Marcion’s theology and view of scripture, Norelli makes three remarks on the question of Marcion and the canon in his closing pages. First, Marcion’s true canon was his principle of a radical opposition between gospel and law. Whatever written texts he accepted he did on the basis of their expression of this principle. At the same time, he derived his thinking from these writings, creating a circular process. Second, Marcion’s “canon” was not closed (his disciples probably added the pastoral epistles to it) nor inviolable (future “improvements” to the text were possible). It was not a canon in the sense in which the New Testament became a canon in the fourth century.3 Third, Marcion and the proto-orthodox church had different views about how tradition related to the written word. For the latter, the New Testament canon takes its place within a stream of church tradition. To the former, tradition is suspect and plays a much more limited role.

Norelli concludes that the question “was Marcion the creator of the NT canon?” should be reformulated: “What role did a collection of normative written texts play in Marcion’s system, on the one hand, and on the other in a system that designated itself as orthodox?” (26). Reframing the question in this way abandons the question of causality and influence in favor of considering Marcion’s canon and the orthodox canon simply as parallel developments. This result comes as something of a disappointment after one has made one’s way through all the preliminary remarks and general background on Marcion. Nevertheless, the lecture stands as a good summary of the author’s view of Marcion and his movement, and offers some well-grounded insights on the nature of Marcion’s “canon.”

As it was given in 2009, Norelli’s lecture does not take account of subsequent work on Marcion, notably new books by Sebastian Moll (2010) and Judith Lieu (2015).4 Norelli does engage with Moll in his footnotes (p. 7 n. 10; p. 11 n. 18), but for a more thorough assessment one must read his review of Moll in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History (2014). 5

Averil Cameron’s lecture focuses on approaches to Christian literature in the field of late antiquity. Unlike the field of patristics which it has to some extent displaced, this field “is not generally concerned with theological questions, except in terms of their contribution to intellectual history” (30), nor do its practitioners assess early Christian texts “from the primary point of view of the history of the church” (31) but rather within a matrix of various forms of Christianity, Judaism, Neoplatonism and, eventually, Islam. The ongoing shift from historical-critical concerns to literary and rhetorical analysis raises the question whether and how early Christian writing can be approached as “literature.”

Cameron finds that most current scholarship takes an instrumental approach to early Christian literature, examining how it operated “to win arguments and gain authority” (39) as well as to solidify various forms of Christian identity. In such work, literary features are assessed in terms of how they serve ideological purposes. Christian texts are seen as “constitutive of a late antique Christian world” (47).

Cameron proposes two alternatives to such an approach. One is to examine Christian writings within the larger context of late antique rhetoric. Rhetoric was the basis of education for Christian writers as well as non-Christian ones, and this necessarily impacted Christian writing. However, Cameron concludes that this factor “cannot be the main or only key to a critical analysis of Christian literature as a whole” because few Christian writers wrote works that clearly fell into the category of rhetoric. Here she utilizes the term “rhetoric” in a more restricted sense than in her earlier book, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire.6

A second approach takes aesthetics as a starting point, considering the texts as “literature.” The study of the literary aesthetics of late antique texts is just beginning (Cameron provides a healthy number of examples in the footnotes) and tends to focus on Latin and poetry. Cameron notes that “Part of the impetus behind this work is the wish to rescue late antique literature from the stigma of ‘decline’” (46). Including Christian literature in such study has the advantage of taking Christian literature “out of its special box” (46). In contrast to the functional approach, the literary approach considers literature not as constructing a worldview, but as reflective of its society of origin.

Cameron offers as an example the range of Christian prose dialogues that start with Justin Martyr and Minucius Felix and continue through the Byzantine period. (Cameron feels that study of these dialogues should include Christian-Muslim as well as Christian-Jewish dialogues.) To Cameron, the vitality of these dialogues in the Byzantine period counts as contrary evidence to the view that the advance of Christianity closed down “‘true dialogue,’ that is, unbiased discussion according to current ideas of what dialogue should be” (48-49). Cameron considers the relative influence of Plato and Aristotle in these dialogues, as well as the question of their basis in real public debate. More of the promised aesthetic evaluation would have been welcome here.

Cameron’s lecture provides an engaging and erudite overview of the state of the field of late antiquity as it relates to patristics and other disciplines, by a highly respected scholar in the field. Her call for a consideration of the literary- aesthetic qualities of late antique Christian literature is welcome. Surely at least some of this literature was not written solely to persuade, but also to delight. Indeed, a text’s aesthetic features can reinforce its persuasive power.


1.   Some different positions on this question are summarized in John Barton, “Marcion Revisited,” in The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002), 342-344.
2.   Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: Das Evangelium vom Fremden Gott (2nd ed.; Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1924).
3.   On the definition of the term “canon” see Eugene Ulrich, “The Notion and Definition of Canon” in The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002), 21-35, especially pp. 29 and 31. Ulrich would dispute that an inviolable text should be a consideration in the definition of canon—it is books that are canonized, not forms of the text (31-32).
4.   Sebastian Moll, The Arch-Heretic Marcion (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010); Judith M. Lieu, Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
5.   Enrico Norelli, “Un ‘Dieu Bon’ Agressif et Haineux? Le Marcion Discutable de Sebastian Moll,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 65 (2014), 347-353.
6.   Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 13, and see 73-88 on common ground between Christian and epideictic rhetoric in the early centuries CE.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010