Who did Polycarp call “firstborn son of the devil”? In this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Stephen Nichols tells the tale of Marcion and Polycarp’s first meeting.
“Do you know who I am?” That question was posed to Polycarp, the great early church bishop. Polycarp was faithful right up to the very end, and he was one of the early martyrs for the faith. And he had an interesting encounter with another very well known figure in the early church, one who is well known not for the good things he did but for the bad things he did.
This figure was also apparently very impressed with himself. On one occasion, he met Polycarp. He went up to Polycarp, looked him right in the eye, and said, “Do you know who I am?” Polycarp would have none of this posturing. He looked him right back in the eye and quickly retorted, “Yes, I know you very well, you firstborn son of the devil.” This figure was Marcion. He was a well-known heresiarch, or founder of a heresy.
Marcion’s birth year is unknown; estimates range from AD 85 all the way up to 110. We do know that his death was around 160. He was the son of a bishop in Turkey. Marcion was apparently in the shipping trade, and he did very well for himself. Around 140, he made his way to Rome. He wanted to buy influence in the church, so he turned over a significant amount—one estimate says twenty thousand coins—to the church at Rome. Early on, however, church officials saw that he was not a good guy and this was not a good direction for the church to go, so he was quickly excommunicated and sent away with all of those twenty thousand coins.
What was the teaching of Marcion that was so problematic? Marcion had bought into Plato’s idea that matter is bad, and so, the God of the Old Testament, the God who created the world, was not a God that he could stomach. There needed to be a distance between God and matter in Marcion’s thinking, so the creator God of the Old Testament was not a true God or He was a lesser God. As a result, Marcion basically wrote off the entire Old Testament. He also wrote off those New Testament books that are very dependent on the Old Testament. Of the four Gospels, he really only liked Luke. And among the Epistles, he certainly didn’t like Peter or Hebrews. Marcion’s canon—his understanding of what God’s revelation is to us—was a very short canon. It consisted of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles, and even then he went back into some of Paul’s epistles and excised some of his teachings.
Marcion’s canon actually had a positive side effect: his heretical teaching prompted the church to think about the canon. By the end of the second century, the church was articulating the canon of the Old Testament, largely in response to Marcion and his heresy. The church also responded to Marcion’s view of Christ. Obviously, Marcion did not have a good view of the incarnation—because he denigrated the material world, he denied the true humanity of Christ. Church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian went after Marcion on this too.
So, “Do you know who I am?” Yes, Polycarp knew who he was, and Polycarp knew that he was bad for the church.
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