Marcion was born around 85 AD in the region of Pontus. On our maps that would be the north coast of Turkey, along the Black Sea. Some historians say he was a wealthy ship owner who converted to Christianity as an adult. Others claim that his father was a bishop. In any case, Marcion went to Rome and joined a church, possibly in 135 AD or so. And that’s where our story really begins.
Marcion was an original thinker who developed his own version of Christianity. Whenever he tried to promote his views among church leaders he was rebuffed. He kept pressing, but to no avail. He was excommunicated in 144 AD. Church historians know him as the first great heretic.
He didn’t give up and head home to Sinope. He had gone to Rome in hopes of becoming a man of influence in the established church. Failing that, he started his own church. I don’t mean that he started a congregation there in Rome. No. He started a new denomination – a new religion, really – with only incidental similarities to Christianity. History knows it as Marcionism. He was a fervent missionary, and he established Marcionite churches throughout the Mediterranean world.
Marcionism was a decidedly anti-Semitic religion. Marcion wanted not the slightest tinge of Judaism in it. He rejected the entire Old Testament and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. Luke he accepted, but even there he cut out those verses that referred to Old Testament prophecy. His “bible” included most of Paul’s epistles but nothing from James, John, Jude, or Peter.
According to Marcion, the God of the Old Testament was a demiurge, an inferior god who had created an imperfect, evil world. Since the Sabbath memorialized that creation, it should not be observed. He pushed this point further. He said that since the Jews observe Sabbath with feasting and celebration, his followers should do just the opposite: on the Jewish Sabbath, Christians should fast.
While historians are not in full agreement about whether or not the fasting idea was original with Marcion, it is clear is that Sabbath fasting soon gained traction in the Roman version of Christianity. Sylvester, bishop of Rome in the 4th century, made it official:
“Christians are enjoined to mourn and abstain from food on the Sabbath, not only on ‘account of the burial’ of Christ, but also to show contempt for the Jews, and for their Sabbath feasting.” (S. R. E. Humbert, “Adversus Graecorum calumnias”)
This demonstration of contempt for the Jews was not universally accepted. Where the church of Rome had its way, the Sabbath fast was common. Elsewhere there was strong opposition. Greek “orthodox” Christianity resisted the Roman influence, rejecting the fast and maintaining reverence for the Sabbath for many centuries.
The “feast or fast” controversy is an almost-forgotten chapter in the history of the anti-Sabbath movement. It gives us an insight into what drove the protracted and resolute efforts against the biblical holy day. The controversy would eventually contribute to a schism that would divide the Christian world for a thousand years.
More about that in our next post.