Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

By Everett Ferguson | Go to book overview

17. Marcionites, Those Called Gnostics,
and Related Groups

Writers in the mainstream of the church occasionally referred to the baptismal practices and ideas of those whom they considered to have deviated from catholic orthodoxy. What caught their attention was often practices that they thought peculiar or at least different from what they were familiar with. That means that there may often have been more similarities than differences, in spite of the impression left by some antiheretical statements. Nevertheless, there are in some sources for “heretical” groups express antibaptismal passages.1 For Valentinians and Sethians we have preserved from the Nag Hammadi library of Coptic writings some of their own writings. These do not give systematic treatment to baptism, but they offer fairly frequent reference to baptism and offer some control on what their catholic opponents had to say about them. We organize this chapter according to the Marcionites, Valentinians, Sethians, and miscellaneous other groups.


Marcionites

The Marcionites were not properly Gnostics, but they were considered by their orthodox opponents a prime example of heretical views on God, the world, scripture, and salvation. We know them almost exclusively through what is preserved in their opponents’ writings with all the limitation that fact imposes. However, the agreement of a number of their critics gives some assurance of the main outline of Marcion’s teachings. References to their teaching and practice in regard to baptism, however, are not so numerous. The indications are that in this regard they did not deviate that much from the church which excluded them.2

1. A good list of antibaptismal texts, given a maximalist interpretation, is found in François Bovon, “Fragment Oxyrhynchus 840, Fragment of a Lost Gospel Witness of an Early Christian Controversy over Purity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 119 (2000): 705–728 (723-726). See also Augusto Cosentino, Il battesimo gnostico: Dottrine, simbole e riti iniziatici nello gnosticismo (Cosenza: Lionello Giordino, 2007).

2. Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: Das Evangelium vom Fremden Gott, 2nd ed. (Leipzig: J. C. Hin-

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