Bettany Hughes, an expert in ancient history, was quoted recently in London’s Daily Telegraph as saying that Christianity “was originally a faith where the female of the species held sway. To oppose the ordination of women bishops in the Church of England is to deny the central role women played in the faith’s founding.” She added: “Who knows whether God is a girl, but mankind has turned to the female of the species for good ideas.”
It is not clear from the report whether Ms. Hughes was speaking as a Christian or as an expert in ancient history, but it doesn’t really matter, for she is wrong on both counts. In fact, though, her remarks can be connected loosely with two very old Christian heresies, Marcionism and Montanism, which seem to have undergone something of a revival among trendy religion pundits.
Marcion of Sinope taught that the teachings of Jesus were totally at odds with what the Old Testament revealed about the God of the Jews. Consequently, Jesus had been the messenger and savior sent by a previously unknown heavenly father, a merciful and compassionate God, to redeem mankind. The God of the Jews, by contrast, was an arbitrary, legalistic, punitive, and jealous god who had no connection whatsoever with Jesus or his message.
This meant that the Hebrew Scriptures had no authority for Christians, since they were the revelation of an inferior god to whom Jesus and his teachings stood in opposition. But it also meant, since Marcion’s views conflicted with the clear sense of most of the New Testament, that these books had either been corrupted at an early date or else had been the work of ignorant disciples. And so, Marcion produced his own heavily edited New Testament Canon, consisting of one gospel (a bowdlerized version of Luke) and ten of St. Paul’s epistles, themselves heavily edited, as well as his own Antitheses contrasting the inferior creator God of the Old Testament with Jesus the heavenly father of the New Testament.
In creating his own Scripture, Marcion appears to have driven the Church not only to confirm its acceptance of the Old Testament books as authoritative, but to begin to reflect on the identity and authority of the Christian books that comprised its New Testament.
Marcion himself went to Rome in the early 140s, setting himself up as a Christian teacher and apologist. His startling views soon drew the attention of the Roman Church authorities, and, after some contentious exchanges, Marcion was excommunicated, and went on to found his own church. Strange and arbitrary as Marcion’s ideas may appear to us, in its own time his theological system was subtle and intellectually appealing. Indeed, it would be no easy task to prove Marcion’s ideas any more fantastic in their context than those of Ms. Bettany Hughes in ours.
Montanus, a younger contemporary of Marcion, claimed to be a prophet who spoke in ecstatic utterances when possessed by the Holy Spirit. Unlike Marcion and his followers, Montanus and his colleagues did not, at least at first, have strictly theological differences with Church authorities. Rather, they claimed that their revelations clarified and supplemented what was obscure in Scripture, and they commanded a rigorous asceticism, forbidding second marriages under any circumstances and mandating strict fasts.
As time went on, they met with skepticism and opposition, and in some regions had to found their own separate congregations after being expelled from churches. They may have allowed female bishops and presbyters, while setting up a new superior order, or orders, of prophets and apostles over the bishops and presbyters; and they allowed the apostles and prophets to forgive sins.
The Montanist impulse, the desire to supplement or reinterpret the Bible, or the tradition of Christian doctrine and practice generally, has recurred constantly among Christians. One may think of the Millerite “great disappointment” of 1844 which, far from killing off their prophetic credibility, underwent various adjustments and in the end produced the various strands of Adventism, or how the Jehovah’s Witnesses (themselves an offshoot of a strand of “Milleritism”) continued to spread and increase after the world did not come to an end in 1914.
Contemporary academics and intellectuals generally do not incline much towards inspired utterance, ecstatic or otherwise, nor for prophesy (unless they wish to characterize as “prophetic” the expression of some political or social notion conventional in their circles), and so Ms. Bettany Hughes may owe relatively more to Marcion than to Montanus. But the very exuberance of her language, and the remarkable absence from her remarks of the kind of qualifications by which academic pundits can, if necessary, beat a safe retreat from exaggerated claims, may well betray an echo of what Montanus’ opponents labeled in their day “the Phrygian frenzy.”
William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College.
William J. Tighe, England Swings
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.