Sunday, April 26, 2009


A sample of what appears in the Real Messiah order it here

If you want to read an academic article on the symbolical meaning, the secret codes and the gnostic value of the throne of St. Mark (the book's major discovery) click here.

If you want to order my academic article on the throne of St. Mark in the latest Journal of Coptic Studies go here.

For almost a thousand years a remarkable object - the throne of St. Mark - has been openly displayed in the Treasury of the Basilica di San Marco. It has been seen by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. It has been the subject of about a half dozen or so academic papers. Yet few people have ever been able to make much sense of this enigmatic miniature alabaster chair.

Most of what we know about the relic comes from ancient legends. In the ninth century a company of Italian sailors plundered an ancient church devoted to St. Mark on the beaches just beyond the eastern walls of Alexandria. It is said that Mark came to this exact place a year after he witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion. Ancient sources emphasize that he wanted to build a shrine here in what was the ancient Jewish distinct of Alexandria called Boucolia or 'cow pasture.' His purpose was to found a new monastic 'community of God' in Egypt.

The details of this trip get very little attention in the West. Yet in a way, this is hardly surprising. Mark stands as the ultimate source of a number of curious aspects of earliest Christian doctrine. This is why it is almost fitting that he should be so closely associated with the Egyptian church. We have learned to ignore the Alexandrian claims about the origin of our religion because they complicate the seemingly straightforward picture that emerges from the canonical Acts of the Apostles.

It often seems in the West that scholarship leaps from the pages of this one book to the development of Patristic writings without wanting to develop an appreciation for the concept of the Papacy. After all we have been conditioned through over two thousand years of history to think of 'the Pope' as being associated with Rome. Because of the utter implausibility surrounding the dating of a Roman Papacy beyond the fifth century our Protestant instincts direct us to dismiss the existence of an office of an 'earthly Christ' from the very start of Christianity.

Yet as I would soon learn, the throne of St. Mark makes clear how dangerous it is not to question our inherited presuppositions. This miniature chair makes explicit testimony to the belief of Alexandrian Christians that God established a paternal ‘shepherd’ over the Church in the form of the Apostle Mark. I am of course not going to argue to the reader that he has to accept these Alexandrian claims. I merely think that they deserve the opportunity to be considered.

There is no question that the Alexandrians who first called their bishop 'Pope.' The custom can be dated as far back as Heraclas (early third century) but that doesn't mean that it didn't go back further than that. We simply do not have any reliable information about Alexandrian customs beyond this period.

It is equally certain that the Roman Church adopted the Alexandrian custom of identifying its bishop as Papa in the fifth century. Yet what often goes unreported is that the same understanding is also surfaces from the Orthodox tradition.

While this is not the place to introduce the reader to the complexities of ecclesiastical history it is enough to acknowledge that, owing to a complex set of historical circumstances, there have been two Alexandrian Patriarchs since at least the fifth century. The Coptic Orthodox Church principally developed among the native non-Greek speaking population and the Greek-Orthodox Church (the so-called Melekite Church) was established among the descendants of the Greek settlers who ruled Egypt since the time of Alexander the Great.

Both the Coptic and Greek Orthodox communities in Alexandria claim their apostolic lines go back to St. Mark. Yet it may surprise some readers to also learn that both Coptic and Greek Churches here identifies their Patriarchs with the title of Papa. Indeed within the Greek Orthodox tradition, only the Patriarch of Alexandria who bears the title of Pope and Patriarch. All the other Patriarchs, including the Ecumenical of Constantinople simply use the title of Patriarch. Orthodox protocol places the Alexandrian Patriarch second in rank after the Ecumenical Patriarch and his tile is: Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and of All Africa, 13th of the Apostles and Judge of the Eucumene.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of what emerges from the combined testimony of the Latin, Greek and Coptic Churches. The earliest Popes must have sat on an Alexandrian throne. Now I know that we are so conditioned in the West to develop theories about how the Church developed without referencing a Papacy that this whole avenue of approach goes something against the grain of modern scholarship. Nevertheless it is so surprising and indeed intriguing that ALL the ancient Churches agreed on this one important detail that we should be able to agree that it must contain a grain of historical truth.

It is very difficult to resist the temptation that Clement’s understanding of Mark as the ‘leader of the mystes’ or mystagogue is the earliest historical witness to this distinctly Alexandrian concept. It is now widely accept that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the four canonical gospel and that Mark was the original Evangelist. It is important to note however that this most scientific of conclusions went utterly against the consistent testimony of the surviving Church Fathers who argue for Matthew’s primacy.

In the same way, we should ignore the incompatibility of the testimony of the of St. Mark with the familiar history of the Book of Acts. There can be no doubt that Acts makes Antioch the starting place of organized Christianity. However one should always keep in mind the historic rivalry which existed in the Church between Antioch and Alexandria. The fact that Alexandria isn’t even so much as mentioned in Acts raises questions about the motivation of the original author.

Should an Antiochene text get the last word on Christian origins? Indeed should the fact that Acts doesn't mention any Pauline conversion efforts in Alexandria be taken as proof that it never occurred? The point of course is that it is entirely possible that Acts was written against pre-existent claims of Alexandrian primacy. To this end, the lack of mention of Alexandria could be taken together with the subordination of John Mark - the figure the Coptic tradition identifies as their St. Mark - as part of a campaign to establish Antioch as the center of the Christian universe.

The point is that scholarship needn't be as slavishly devoted to Acts for its reconstruction of Christian history. There were other early Christian traditions - Marcionitism in particular - which prove the reactionary characteristic of our tradition as a whole. Not only did the followers of ‘Marcion’ establish the first New Testament canon, they did so with an apostolic ‘letter to the Alexandrians’ and without the Book of Acts. The acceptance of the one seems necessarily to exclude the acceptance of the other.

To this end, let us at least tentatively accept the idea that at least some of the claims promoted by the Alexandrian tradition today are rooted in historical fact. The idea of an Alexandrian Papacy is not as crazy as it first sounds. Nor indeed that there was an active campaign to curb the influence of the Egyptian Church over Christianity as a whole. The point of course is that ultimately did not prove successful.

The ritual celibacy practiced by the Latin Church is rooted in the Egyptian monastic ideal associated with the person of St. Mark. It is difficult to find an important Latin Church Father who wasn’t influenced by the Alexandrian school of Biblical exegesis. We see also that Constantine ultimately needed to Alexandrian support for the constitution of the final edition of the New Testament canon and it was Alexandria again which determined the historical dating of the Passion - a detail which was central to the whole function of the Church.

When all the facts are weighed it is hard to argue that Alexandria had anything but the greatest influence over early Christianity. It almost seems to have been mistrusted, chastised and persecuted owing to its steadfast preservations of earlier doctrines which had since fallen out of favor with the Imperial court. As such it is safe to say that while Rome and Constantinople became the effective political and administrative centers of Christianity, Alexandria never lost its claims to being the spiritual center of the religion.


My rediscovery of the throne brings to the fore what is certainly the most unique aspect of Alexandrian Christianity - its emphasis of a Markan line of apostolic succession. St. Mark isn’t even ranked as an apostle among the churches in the West. By contrast the earlier we go back in Egyptian history the more pronounced is its exclusive association with the original Evangelist. For instance the Coptic tradition not only emphasizes that Mark wrote the first gospel but deliberately placed himself in the margin of its narrative. There are even intimations that our present gospel of Mark represents only some of his original experiences with Jesus.

There is a long standing discussion in academia regarding the lost ending of the Gospel of Mark. It is frequently noted here that Irenaeus, a prominent Roman Church Father at the end of the second century, argues that the Catholic texts of Mark in his day concluded with a description of Jesus being seated in a heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father. The context of this discussion makes clear that Irenaeus was making these claims against a group of radical adherents to St. Mark understood that his true gospel ended with someone else beside Jesus being enthroned.

While the precise details here remain murky, it is impossible to read Irenaeus’ statements without reflecting on the traditional Coptic emphasis of St. Mark's historical coronation in Alexandria. Yet it is even more clearly related to that famous statement by Clement of Alexandria in the late second century regarding St. Mark as “the “mystagogue” who through his gospel “led the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils.”

What has escaped most readers of the Letter to Theodore is that the traditional Jewish mysticism understands the divine throne to be the truth hidden by seven veils. The earliest allusion to this concept can be seen in the Qumran fragment 4Q405 15 ii-16 3 but the idea continues to filter through the Merkabah literature and early Islamic texts. The great secret that Clement is revealing to Theodore is that Mark’s true gospel, the one carefully guarded at his Church in Alexandria (ie Boucolia) concludes with the revelation of the divine throne.

The Coptic tradition has always been maintained an interest in St. Mark’s throne. Mark’s enthronement begins the Christian era in Alexandria. It necessarily is understood to have occurred at the beginning of Mark’s visit to Alexandria, a year after the historical Passion. His enthronement establishes the Alexandrian line of apostolic succession which continues to this day. Each Pope in their tradition is still understood to sit in a ‘throne of St. Mark and is taken to be a living representative of the Apostle. His coronation is taken to be a mystical event of the highest order transforming the earthly nature of the man sitting on the throne into something wholly sublime.

In the earliest Jewish mystical writings the one who sits on the divine throne is the Father. The Wisdom of Solomon’s prayer to God for "the wisdom that sits by your throne … send her forth from the holy heavens and from the throne of your glory send her … that I shall be worthy of the throne of my Father” [Wis Sol 9:1,4,10,12] being only the oldest and most explicit. The idea then of the one who occupies the divine throne of St. Mark being identified as ‘Father’ (Papa) clearly understands him to be a earthly representative of the divine.

This ritual hasn't changed much over the years and the earliest manuscripts of the Coptic ordination ritual demonstrate the earthly Father’s relationship to his heavenly namesake. After spending the night before his consecration in chains keeping a vigil beside the body of his predecessor, the Patriarch elect is led into the cathedral to stand between two bishops as his deed of election is read to the congregation “we besought the Spotless Trinity with a pure heart and an upright faith to reveal unto us him who was worthy of this mediation … [and] it was revealed unto us to have regard unto N for the Apostolic Throne of the divinely prophetic Mark.”

The ordination rite which follows makes absolutely that this living representative of Mark is meant to be regarded as an earthly reflection of the heavenly Father. The prayer references the Father above and says that the candidate was established to establish:

Thy service in the churches that it might be accomplished by priests and levites, being a type of the heavenly ones, in order that the service of the heavenly ones so that they may bless thy Holy Name, Only True God, with Thine Only Begotten Son and the Holy Spirit through Whom we pray and beseech thy goodness for thy Servant N whom thou has anointed and glorified. Thou hast elected him for Thee as a Metropolitain and a Father over Thy Church that he may be a ruler and a hegoumenos over thy people. Enlighten him Lord, with the light of Thy countenance, in order that in his heart may be enlightened from the source of Thy glory, that he may know the hidden mysteries in Truth [p. 117].

Clearly then the Papacy didn’t just begin with St. Mark’s visit to Alexandria. Its purpose was understood to establish someone who was the very fulfillment of the two advent system we find in writings of all the earliest Church Fathers but especially those in Alexandria - a royal messiah.

Clement and Origen repeatedly reference the idea that Jesus was only the first of two messianic figures. While Jesus was a meek, priestly anointed one, his purpose was to empty his soul into a candidate who would fulfill the Jewish expectation of a king and judge of the people. This idea manifests itself in the very next line of the ordination ritual where it is declared of the heavenly Father that:

Thou shalt pour forth upon him of Thy authoritative Spirit, thy gnosis which is thine, which he hath received in Thy Holy Church, that it may be renewed in those who please thee in every generation: the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Perfect Spirit, the Paraclete, whom thou didst give to Thy holy Apostles and prophets. Give to him, Lord, the rod of thy might which ascedeth in the root of Jesse upon whom rested the seven spirits of God which are reckoned a fruit of truth, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of gnosis and piety. Thou shall fill him with fear of Thee, God, that he may judge thy people with uprightness holding the declaration of the right Faith blamelessly whom thou hast covered with the poderion of thy holy stole of thy glory, whom thou hast anointed with the oil of gladness that he may be to thee God, a faithful shepherd over thy house which is the Church serving thee without blame all the days of his life, night and day unceasingly with holy sacrifices with a pure heart and soul which has been enlightened with fasts and pure works with love and gentleness ... [ibid]

It is impossible to discount the understanding that not only were all the Popes understood to be earthly representatives of the heavenly Father, they sat in a throne like their divine namesake because they were understood to be descendants of a royal line dating back to the Jewish apostle Mark.

There are a number of other fascinating statements which emerge from a careful examination of the Coptic ordination rite but for our immediate purpose we shall limit ourselves to the understanding of how the candidate was understood to be transformed when he sat on the throne of St. Mark. The prayer concludes with the declaration that

Thou shalt guard his priesthood blameless henceforth, serving thee with a spiritual sacrifice at all times according to the order of the great high priest IC XC through whom glory honour might and adoration is fitting for thee with him and the Holy life giving and consubstantial (homosusios) Sprit with thee now … [ibid p. 118]

As the Coptic Pope sat on the throne of St. Mark he was understood be the living representative of the heavenly Father established WITH Jesus and the Holy Spirit in one body.


As I mentioned earlier, the Coptic rite of ordination hasn’t changed very much over the centuries. One important detail of the ancient enthronement ceremony that did change took place in the fourth century owing a strange set of circumstances related to Peter I, the sixteenth Patriarch of Alexandria. While Peter had only marginal significance during his reign (he spent most of his time away from the Boukalia church) it is readily apparent that Athanasius developed Peter into a figure of major significance. His title is that of the ‘last of the martyrs,’ a second Peter made after the image of Simon Peter, the head of the universal faith being actively promoted by Constantine and Hosius of Cordoba at Nicea.

After Peter I’s death a major reshaping of the original ordination ritual took place. Each candidate for the office of St. Mark’s see was now ordained in an essentially disposable wooden throne chair specific to his reign. In other words, a unique ’throne of St. Mark’ is now established for each candidate. As each Pope passes on, they are mummified and buried sitting on their own person wooden chair.

The Coptic tradition inherently resists innovation. However the events of Peter I’s death were in my mind deliberately developed as a rejection of the Arian influence over the Boucolia shrine where the original throne of St. Mark was venerated. Just Athanasius developed arguments to counter the Arian invoking of Dionysius and various other ancient ’fathers’ to support their upholding the uniqueness of the Alexandrian tradition, the continued veneration of the original throne of St. Mark was recognized as a major stumbling block against the integration of the Markan tradition into the greater Church of St. Peter.

This is why the Athanasius went out of his way to develop the death of Peter I into a new paradigm for the ordination of Coptic Popes. The cult of Peter the ’last of the martyrs’ facilitated the occultation of the original throne. The ritual reenactment of this pseudo-historical event sanctified the subordination of the Alexandrian Papacy among the local populace.

It might help readers to revisit the original narrative of the Passio Petri. On November 25th 311 CE Peter I the sixteenth Pope of Alexandria was killed in the environs of the Martyrium of St. Mark in the Boucolia. For reasons that are never fully explained in the text, the congregation of believers there had been long annoyed by Peter’s refusal to sit in the throne of St. Mark.

While these details are usually glossed over by scholars it is important to note that when this throne is eventually buried along with Peter, the position identified with Peter ends up ‘winning’ by default. The authority of the Pope now exists independently of the supernatural ‘authority’ of the alabaster throne. It is clear from the Passio Petri that both Peter and his detractors saw ‘Jesus’ as being present on this relic. The occultation of the throne doesn’t attempt to disprove its sacredness; it just happens to remove one major stumbling block for the integration of Alexandria into the greater Catholic tradition of Nicea.

When Peter was killed the same congregation took his dead body, stuffed it into this chair and went on with the liturgy. The date of his martyrdom is significant because it marks the beginning of the Fast of the Nativity, which must have only been introduced into the Alexandrian liturgy quite recently given that it is calculated from a December 25th dating for the birth of Jesus. Was their a conflict here with traditional Alexandrian notions of incarnation of Jesus? While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact nature of the controversy in 311 CE seems to anticipate the Arian controversies which immediately follow.

According to the Coptic tradition, Peter was subsequently buried alongside his predecessors at the Martyrium of St. Mark in the Boucolia. As we have already noted the Passio Petri makes clear Peter was buried with the original throne of St. Mark that each of his predecessors had sat on previous to his reign. It is important to note that the Throne of St. Mark disappears from history subsequent to Peter I'd death. At the same time it is equally certain that successive Coptic Patriarchs continued to be buried in the Martyrium of St. Mark along with other important saints from the tradition.

All the luminaries of Egyptian Christianity continue to reside here including Athanasius, Alexander, Antony just to name a few. The population of holy men in the burial chamber was so great by the fifth century that Cyril of Alexandria even exported a few to bolster the churches of other districts in Egypt.

As such we must now come to recognize the original significance of the Martyrium of St. Mark in the Boucolia. It wasn’t just a place where saints were buried; it was also the place where Coptic Popes were enthroned since St. Mark‘s original visit to his Jewish residents of Alexandria. My friend and native Alexandrian Harry Tzalas, a historian-researcher in the topography of ancient Alexandria who for the last eleven years has led the Greek Archaeological Mission excavating underwater in Alexandria has recently determined the location of the Martyrium near the shores at Chatby. He also provided me with a great number of references from visitors to this Church through the ages which reveals that a remembrance of the original throne's mystical presence in this Church of St. Mark continued down to modern times.

It is remarkable to see how Tzalas’ work agrees in so many respects with Lohuizen-Mulder’s assumptions about how the Venetian throne of St. Mark was dug up and removed from this same Martyrium of St. Mark by Venetian sailors. Lohuizen-Mulder argues that the surviving traditions in Venice make clear that the Italian expedition party must have plundered a tomb on the shores of the Mediterranean. She develops a strong case that the throne which now is on display beside the coffin of St. Mark in Venice was taken during the same grave robbing attempt.

For those who are unfamiliar with this tradition, the story of this theft is preserved on four magnificent murals at the main entrance of the Basilica di San Marco. The pictures tell us that the Venetian sailors came to Alexandria in the ninth century and hid the relics of St. Mark by burying them under large amounts of pork which the Muslim authorities were forbidden by their religious beliefs to touch.

Though little in the way of proof has emerged as to where these objects originally resided, an Italian doctor Leonardo Manin was allowed to look inside the coffin of St. Mark in 1811. His testimony seems to confirm Lohuizen-Mulder’s thesis as he writes in his most important journal entry that:

On the left, near the place of the Evangelist’s head, a round wooden box was found with a lid in the shape of a cyma reversa minutely decorated with drawings, but plain and unadorned in its other parts. This box contained some relics wrapped in a silk cloth, more substantial than the others, and scattered among them there were ancient silver coins … [W]hen the box was more thoroughly observer, some words could be seen in its middle, which when read and examined by signor Counsellor Cavalier Abbot Morelli, late royal librarian were interpreted by him as AGIOS ANTONIOS, that is sanctus Antonius (Saint Antony). Since this saint was particularly famous in Egypt, one could infer that the relics that the relics in the case belonged to him and had been directly transferred from Egypt together with Saint Mark’s and that this wooden case too, whatever it was had come from Alexandria. This argument was disputed by some malevolent people, who took this discovery as a pretext for discrediting the others, and claimed that it was very difficult to reconcile the idea of Saint Mark with what the box suggested.

As already noted the presence of the box of ‘St Antony’ would suggest that the sailors grabbed whatever they could from the Martyrium and stuffed into the coffin of the saint that was buried alongside the throne.

Indeed we can take this one step further. Manin also describes the mummified body as being wrapped in the ornate garments associated with the Coptic Popes. This was part of the reason why many of those gathered there couldn’t believe that this corpse belonged to the first century evangelist. So let us ask again - was the corpse that was taken by Venetian sailors along with the throne of St. Mark and a number of fourth century relics really that of the historical Evangelist or was this identification made because of its connection with the chair? In other words, was Peter I's body mistaken to be that of St. Mark because it was still buried with the original Alexandrian episcopal throne?

It was Otto Meinhardus who first argued that the body of St. Mark in Venice was actually that of Peter I. There are a number of reasons to accept Meinhardus’ testimony not the least of which is the fact that the body of the saint in Venice was decapitated; the legends associated with St. Mark do not mention this and suggest instead that his head was so firmly attached to his body that his persecutors managed to drag him around Alexandria with a noose tied around his neck.

This unique physical characteristic of the corpse was finally confirmed on June 28, 1968 when the Catholic Pope Paul VI delivered the severed head of St. Mark to a Coptic delegation headed by Kyrillus VI. The head returned to Alexandria with great pomp and the day of its arrival is now celebrated as a holy day in the Coptic tradition. Nothing short of carbon dating will ever definitively prove the real identity of this individual and the Venetian and Alexandrian authorities have shown no signs that they want to have any part in this exercise.


When I first laid my eyes I was quite certain that the throne on display in Venice was one and the same with legendary object mentioned in Alexandrian tradition. Yet in order to prove my suspicions I had to make sense of the cryptic iconography on this object which had eluded the efforts of five generations of scholars. The starting point of my investigation was the inscription chiseled on the front of the seat portion of the throne in an archaic form of Hebrew mirror writing.

Many previous studies of the object took it for granted that the inscription was 'fake.‘ When Andre Grabar sought to argue that the throne was a Byzantine reliquary he enlisted a specialist in Punic Inscriptions down the hall from his office to echo his assumptions. James Fevrier, argued that the inscription had been added after the throne had been brought over to Venice. He postulated that the Venetians might have brought the relic to residents of the Jewish ghetto in order to give the object some mystical portent.

Fevrier didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing the inscription. His comments appear in Grabar’s footnotes as support for the Hungarian born scholars disinterest in the mirror-writing. In the end, Fevrier couldn’t make sense of all of the letters. He saw the Hebrew word moshav at the front of the inscription and ‘Marco’ the Italian form of the name ‘Marcus’ in what followed (which he argued confirmed his theory about it being made in Venice). Fevrier thought these words meant ‘throne of Mark’ and struggled with the rest settling on the idea that Jews mockingly added ‘donkey’s have dedicated it’ in order to find something to fulfill the Doge’s initial request.

The other attempts to make sense of the inscription didn’t fare much better. When I took photos of the object to a well respected Hebraist, Rory Boid from Monash University in Melbourne along with copies of Grabar’s work and a handful of others he noted that none of them had any real expertise in Hebrew. Almost immediately he questioned Fevrier’s rendering of moshav as meaning ‘throne.‘ The Hebrew word for throne is kisse; moshav by contrast denoted the act of sitting.

Boid spent a great deal of time examining the inscription. He immediately questioned the assumption of those who came before him that the use of mirror letters necessitated that the inscription was recent. Boid noted that this very type of mirror script was similar to what appeared in many of the documents discovered in the cave four of Qumran. Most of the differences were accounted by the fact that inscriptions were chiseled in stone and required the simplification of most Hebrew characters.

Boid began to wonder if Fevrier had ever seen a great number of Hebrew inscriptions before because his assumptions about the name ‘Marco’ were equally incorrect. The letter which followed the qof of Mark (in Aramaic MRQ) was an alef rather than a vav and belonged at the next word which was determined by Boid to be ‘Evangelistes’ or Evangelist. When each letter was reversed as if read in a mirror the inscription as a whole read - ‘the sitting (or coronation) of Mark, Evangelist of Alexandria.’

Indeed when Boid studied the PDF files of the inscription he noticed something else of great significance - there could be no mistaking that it developed in two different stages. Boid told me that the more recent mirror letters could be dated no later than the second century. Yet there was an older more interesting part of the inscription which came from a period much earlier than that - perhaps as early as the first century.

I was told that the four characters to the left most part of the inscription originally stood alone and represented a kind of script used only by the ancient Samaritan sect in Israel. The four Samaritan characters spelled out the word ‘eshel’ or tamarisk tree. There just happened to be a depiction of a tree that took up most of the backrest just behind where the Samaritan script was.

The presence of Samaritan letters on an Alexandrian holy relic was particularly intriguing. I knew that most of the early heretics in Christianity were converts from this northern Israelite community. Alexandria also happened to represent both the largest Samaritan community outside of Palestine and was a virtual Mecca of gnostic culture in the first two centuries of Christianity. Indeed as Walter Bauer noted, we know so very little about Alexandrian Christianity before the end of the second century precisely because of its inherent gnostic heretical bent.

Little by little all the separate lines of inquiry I was developing were coming together. Boid and I proceeded to transcribe the Samaritan letters in the cryptic inscription and we were surprised to learn that they pointed to yet another code in the image on the chair’s backrest. We were quite stunned. The object was in the words of Winston Churchill “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Indeed the depiction on the backrest was fairly straightforward. A ram was depicted caught in the branches of the Tree of Life which stood in Eden, the source of the four rivers of Paradise.

It seemed everyone before us had recognized that this image on the backrest was messianic or at least apocalyptic. Yet we struggled to find anything interesting about this tamarisk tree. I took it upon myself to solve this mystery and quite literally spent hours trying to find anything resembling a hidden inscription buried in the carving. I quickly realized there were no hidden images buried in the image. I tried all sorts of tricks, even spending long nights gazing at this primitive image upside down, right side up with no breakthrough forthcoming. It was only when I began to pay attention to the obvious asymmetry in the way the tree was represented that it all came together for me.

In the end I uncovered an even more mysterious code embedded in the thirty five fruit hanging from five principles branches of the main trunk of the tree. Going left to right there were eight fruit on the first branch and seven, six, five and nine fruit on the respective branches which followed. I knew from my own background that Jews often used groups of numbered things to spell out hidden words and phrases. In Hebrew letters were numbers and I had personally seen old men in synagogues spell out divine words with knotted tassels in Jewish prayer shawls.

So it was when I transposed the numbers of fruit on the tree to their equivalent letter in the Hebrew alphabet I discovered something utterly amazing. The letters spelled out the phrase - the ‘ninth vision’ - a reference which a colleague at Columbia told me had to be a reference to the ninth vision of Zechariah. The counting of nine visions in Zechariah was established in Alexandria and recently been demonstrated by Marie-Joseph Lagrange.

The vision that is seen is the messianic king enthroned and ruling with the High Priest. In the Alexandrian text of Zechariah the priest’s name is Jesus while the messianic king is only identified as the Dawn [anatole]. The text begins by telling of the historical 'crowning' of both Jesus and immediately goes on to announce the royal messiah who would follow him:

Behold the man whose name is Dawn; over the horizon he will dawn [anatelei], and build the house of the Lord. And he will take on nobility [or prowess: Greek aretê], and sit and rule upon his throne; and there will be a Priest on his right hand, and there shall be concord between them

It was immediately clear that the throne was testifying to the fact that the Papal line of succession from St. Mark in Alexandria was the fulfillment of this Jewish messianic expectation.

What immediately began to realize for the first time was how biased all of my assumption about Christianity were. They are all based on Protestant presuppositions about Christianity as a religion wholly about ‘the historical Jesus.’ To my knowledge there has never been an academic paper to take the position that St. Mark’s gospel was fulfilled by what happened during St. Mark’s visit to Alexandria a year after the Passion. Nevertheless as I had always questioned the inherent assumptions about Mark’s ‘unselfishness’ when writing his ‘narrative about Jesus’ I couldn’t help but see that something in this assumption made ‘worldly sense.’

Was the gospel just a set up for what happened next in Alexandrian history - ie the establishment of the worldly authority of St. Mark and his successors sitting on a throne acting as ‘judges of the ecumene’? Was Jesus just the setup man for a messianic figure more in keeping with the traditional Jewish expectation? I couldn’t help feel that the buried in the writings of Clement and Origen were many confirmations of this theory.

Indeed most of us don't even consider the possibility that the Papacy might have been established as the fulfillment of Jesus' 'emptying on the cross.' I am sure that most scholars, being in effect heirs to the assumptions of Luther and other great Protestant scholars would shudder at the traditional Alexandrian emphasis of Jesus as God often at the expense of his ‘humanity.‘ Indeed I doubt that many would even entertain the possibility that Jesus' authority was transferred to a series of holy men sitting in a divine throne established by his chief witness St. Mark.

Yet the purpose of scholarship shouldn’t be about reinforcing what is familiar at the expense of what is unfamiliar. If we are to give the Alexandrian a chance to express itself we can’t interject at key moments or turn our heads when it says something we don’t agree with.

I think it is very important to stress at this juncture that the Alexandrian tradition believed that the various occupants of the throne of St. Mark were both crowned high priest AND ruler of the Egyptian Christian community. We saw this in the ordination ritual. It was expressed even more forcefully to the first American missionaries to Egypt who reported with horror that the native Egyptians envisioned their Pope as a ‘king’ and even an ‘earthly Christ.’

Once I had been alerted to the encrypted message which appeared in the backrest of the Venetian throne I couldn’t help relate it to the ordination ritual and a number of other important parallels in the traditional Coptic liturgy. Here again we see Jesus identified as quite literally ‘sitting beside’ a particular Pope as he ruled from the throne of St. Mark.

Take the prayer associated with the feast day of Dionysius the Great which declares:

O God, who hast enlightened thy Church by the teaching of thy servant Dionysius: Enrich us evermore with thy heavenly grace, and raise up faithful witnesses who by their life and doctrine will set forth the truth of thy salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever

I realized that this wasn't some abstract theological concept. This prayer was clearly referencing the ‘ninth vision’ of Zechariah and by inference the little Alexandrian Episcopal throne stolen by Venetian sailors in the ninth century and which I had just seen on my Italian vacation.

It was only then that all the pieces started to come together. I started to realize how important this object might be in terms of the history of Christianity. It might be a kind of theological Rosetta Stone which helped connect Christianity to the writing of the gospel. I thought to myself that maybe all those Protestant scholars were asking the wrong questions. Maybe when trying to make sense of the document written by Mark they spent too much time looking backwards for an assumed historical relationship with an otherwise unplaceable ‘Jesus of Galilee.’ Perhaps the secret to making sense was looking forward at Mark’s interest in establishing just the kind of community represented in Coptic Christianity.

The idea that this throne of St. Mark was once associated with ancient enthronement rituals in Alexandria now seemed highly likely to me. Yet there was one more thing about the throne which had to be explained. As Grabar and many others noted, there was a large hole on the left side of the throne. It was among the most difficult things to explain in the design of the relic. As Grabar argued that it was a reliquary he put forward the idea that sacred things were stored here. However the rough unfinished nature of the inner chamber made that seem very unlikely.

Lohuizen-Mulder had already noted that a fifth century chair from Saqqara, Egypt was even smaller than the Venice throne and functioned as a bishops chair. She also demonstrated that the seat portion of the throne of St. Mark had become shiny from a number of individuals setting their bottoms on its surface. Grabar’s theories about the chair seemed all wrong, but no one yet had come up with a reasonable explanation for why a sizeable hole was established on its left side.

The thought that came into my head was that the throne itself functioned like an ancient booth or tabernacle in the Jewish tradition. The wind or spirit was originally understood to enter the sukkah and establish the divine presence in a particular place. Indeed I also knew that in Sephardic communities continued a tradition of placing a messianic throne within the booth as a sign that they were waiting for the one to come.

When you put all the pieces together it became increasingly obvious that one particular north African Jewish community - the one which resided at Boukalis in the first century - thought that this individual had already come in the form of St. Mark. In their culture, Jesus was only the heavenly high priest, the figure who in Zechariah’s ninth vision would come immediately before the mashiach nagid. Indeed Zechariah must have been interpreted in such a way as to argue that Jesus became one with Mark immediately after the Passion, likely as he was confirmed on his throne (the Hebrew equivalent yetsirah and notzrim, the early rabbinic name for the sect imply that a ‘transformation’ took place at this event and formed the basis to the priestly class of Christians).

Moreover I would argue further that the idea that Jesus continued to unite with each person who sat on the throne cannot now be seen as some wholly abstract theological concept. Whoever built this throne clearly imagined that the object would function in this manner. This is demonstrated not only by the large opening at the left side of the throne which allowed air or 'spirit' to 'vivify' the throne (the idea that ‘Jesus’ was present on the seat of the throne of St. Mark is repeatedly referenced in the Passio Petri and other early Alexandrian texts) but in the reference to Zechariah 6:9f encoded in the tree on the backrest.


It is only owing to the Protestant tendencies of modern scholars that throne of St. Mark now residing in Venice was not recognized. The study of Christianity has been deliberately divided into two separate fields of study. New Testament scholars develop theories about the ‘ministry of Jesus’ more or less in a vacuum while those who study ‘the history of the Church’ only go as far as the Acts of the Apostles as their historical starting point.

The rediscovery of the throne of St. Mark challenges these assumptions because it seems utterly unnatural now to treat these subjects as two separate events. If Mark wrote the original gospel, it can no longer be viewed as a simple narrative of the events in the ministry of Jesus. As Clement already notes, the early Alexandrian community understood that it was intended as a veiled proclamation of the coming realization of messianic prophesy. The narrative is repeatedly interested in establishing which one of Jesus’ disciples deserved to sit on the throne of God.

As such no one should be at all surprised that Mark’s original gospel secretly argued on behalf of Mark’s candidacy. To think otherwise is only a consequence of not being properly acquainted with the designs of the original Alexandrian mystagogue or his tradition.

Written on the Day of the Special Mass of St. Mark,
Sunday April 26, 2009

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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