Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why the Letter to Theodore Utterly Demolishes Everything We Thought We Knew About Earliest Christianity

If I was to define why I take an interest in early Christianity I would have to say that I am drawn to the role of 'defender of the vanquished.' As I am Jewish, the question of whether or not Jesus was the messiah has already been resolved for me. Jesus never claimed that he was the heir of David so why should I spend my time making arguments for him? In truth, I have very little interest in the gospel and the history associated with it. Someone at some time decided to write an account which attempted to provide some background information to the Passion of Christ. Whether or not that narrative was entirely historically accurate, I assume that the idea that a crucifixion and a resurrection were generally well known in the late first century otherwise one would expect more appeals to witnesses during the course of the narrative that this event actually occurred.

Indeed I have always found the writing style of the original evangelist quite puzzling. He seems so utterly detached from the rest of the world. One would expect some kind of contemporary reference to someone or something that knew about these events in Palestine. The fact that Mark does not feel compelled to point to some authority for his readership so that they can know that 'his words are true' implies to me at least that Mark was a recognized authority. Moreover the claim of Catholics that the gospel of Mark was really written by Mark for Peter seems equally perposterous as there no direct references to Peter being a source for this or that narrative.

I needn't cite the Muratorian Canon's fragmentary reference to Mark only witnessing things for which he was a direct eyewitness. It is enough that the Coptic tradition - and Severus of Al'Ashmunein in particular - confirms that this was an early historical understanding of the context of Mark's gospel writing.

I can't overstate the significance of this notion. Mark thought he had enough authority to write a narrative about the crucifixion of God and his ultimate resurrection. While we take these ideas for granted as cultural touchstones, the idea seems so utterly bizarre that we should pay closer attention to their implications for our knowledge about the person of Mark.

If for instance I was to write a book about my experiences as a father, I certainly wouldn't need to reference proof that I had children. The reader would simply think that anyone has the authority to write about a common experience for men. Yet if I was to argue that my son was God and that he was crucified in a perposterous ceremony where he and another guy were dragged in front of the Jews and they decided who would live and who would die and then not only did I claim that my son was crucified but he rose again from the dead and went on to be enthroned somewhere - perhaps heaven - not only do I think I would it difficult to get a publisher interested in such a book, at the very least one would again expect that I would provide some corroboration for the claims of my narrative.

The interesting thing as we noted earlier is that Mark does not do this. The general supposition is that Mark was merely gathering information from oral traditions. But isn't it curious that if the generally accepted dating of the gospel is correct - i.e. to around 70 CE - that no one before Mark decided to write a story about the circumstances of the Passion until forty years later. Indeed it isn't just the speculation of scholars. The Marcionite representative in the Dialogues of Adamantius makes it absolutely explicit - none of the disciples of Jesus wrote down their experiences with Jesus.

Now it has already been noted that the Marcionites themselves seems to imply that their apostle witnessed the Passion of Christ. I have written extensively that the Marcionite version of history would completely overturn our inherited assumptions about the origins of Christianity. I have also emphasized that I think that Mark was the true apostle of the Marcionites.

Yet I want to leave all this speculation behind us and merely note that almost nothing in the Catholic tradition really contradicts the Marcionite understanding. The only thing that Irenaeus claims is that:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. [AH 3.3.2]

Now Irenaeus does go on to say that John the disciple eventually wrote a gospel. This is why the Marcionite representative goes out of his way to deny that both Matthew and John ever wrote gospels. Yet even if we tenatively accept Irenaeus's outline for the writing of gospels. There were thirty to forty years where no one who had supposedly witnessed the circumstances of Jesus's ministry, crucifixion and resurrection bothered to write a formal account of these things.

It is of course generally assumed by scholars that Mark was the original gospel writer and that the Gospel called 'according to Matthew' was developed from his original narrative. If then we now reject Irenaeus's claims about a gospel writtern by a disciple before Mark's composition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1), we are back to the curious question about how Mark thought he had the authority to do what none of the disciples before him thought themselves worthy to attempt.

Did Mark think himself superior to other disciples? It is impossible to say anything with certainty of course but on some level Mark has to be described as at least adventurous. He clearly did not feel inferior to the (other) witnesses of Jesus's ministry. It would be interesting to be able to get into his head as he held the pen in his hand and put it to paper, but the explanation of Irenaeus that he was only the interpreter of Peter again can be easily dismissed by referencing the fact that Peter's witness is never directly referenced anywhere in the narrative and - as Weeden points out - there is a clear anti-Petrine agenda present throughout.

So if we dismiss Irenaeus's claims about the creation of both the gospels of Matthew and Mark what obstacle is there then to incorporate the claims of To Theodore that:

As for Mark, then, during Peter’s stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord’s doings (or 'acts of the Lord'), not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the mystic ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to those studies which make for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual gospel Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain traditions of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prepared matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is very securely kept, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries. [To Theodore 1.15 - 2.2]

I have always been fascinated by this account not merely because it provides an interesting counterpoint to Irenaeus's statement cited above.  I think one can even begin to see that Irenaeus is actually reacting to the existence of a gospel like that of Secret Mark.

Let's start at the beginning.  The position of Clement is actually surprisingly similar to that of the Marcionites.  The Marcionite representative in the Dialogues of Adamantius only emphasizes that no other disciple of Jesus wrote a gospel beside the 'true gospel' - the gospel text preserved in their canon.  The Marcionite representative is actually open to the idea that witnesses like Peter, Matthew and John may have preached an 'oral gospel.'   Yet they stress again that someone else - another disciple who they embraced as the apostle i.e. the only apostle - formulated the original any only gospel. 

I noted in another post that not only is interesting that the Marcionite avoids censuring Mark here, the Philosophumena reports that the Marcionites claimed they had the true Gospel of Mark. What is more interesting about Dialogues is that - even in the present corrupt state of the manuscript - there is a clear sense that the debate about the Marcionite gospel sounds eerily familiar to debates about the origin of the Gospel of Mark in Patristic literature.  The arbitrator again asks "Is Peter the one who wrote the gospel? How is it then that you claimed that the apostles taught without being recorded?" Of course no one raises any eyebrows today when the Marcionite declares that "Christ, not Peter, wrote the gospel."

Yet it is impossible now not to get the sense that the lost original debate was really delving into the origins of the Gospel of Mark here. As Petty notes "one is reminded here of the statement of Papias of Hierapolis (ca. 130) that Mark was the "interpreter of Peter" (Eusebius, Hist, eccles., 3, 39). In this sense only could Peter be truly said to have written the Gospel." As such the rejection of Matthew and John as spurious texts false written in the name of witnesses to Jesus, is followed by a discussion as to whether the Marcionite gospel has its origins in a text by Peter.

So as I noted originally, the parallels with the formulations of Clement in to Theodore and the Marcionites are particularly strong.  Both the Marcionites and Clement agree that at the time Mark wrote his gospel he was not aware of any other texts written by disciples.  Now we move on to the parallels between Clement and Irenaeus.  Whle it is true that Irenaeus does not directly reference the idea of another gospel written by Mark preserved in Alexandria, there are a number of striking features in both Clement and Irenaeus's account which might allow us to connect both reports to each other and other accounts in the age.

Let's start with the usual translation of Clement's statement that Mark's brought "both his own notes and those of Peter."  Marvin Meyer rightly notes that that the Greek original kai ta tou Petrou hypomnemata is actually better translated as "both his own and Peter's notes."  A careful reading of what precedes this statement reveals that Clement never claims that the public gospel that Mark wrote while Peter was at Rome was actually 'a gospel of Peter.'  Rather Clement is only saying that Clement incorporated something called the hypomnemata of Peter to Mark's public gospel. 

Meyer almost gets it right when he notes:

The public Gospel of Mark seems to be identical, or nearly identical, with the present canonical Gospel of Mark.  After the martyrdom of Peter, Mark came to Alexandria, taking with him kai tatautou (sic) kai ta tou Petrou hypomnemata ("both his own and Peter's notes"). From those hypomnemata, Clement states, Mark added more Petrine materials to the public Gospel of Mark in order to produce a Secret Gospel.

I think Meyer almost has it right save for the fact that Clement never says that the public gospel was a originally Petrine text.  The public gospel of Mark may well be similar to our surviving canonical text (we can't be sure) but it is never said anywhere in Clement's discussion that this gospel was written for Peter.  Scholars have projected this from other sources.  All that Clement says is that Mark's gospel was written when Peter was preaching in Rome.

Indeed if anyone is wondering out there, the reason that Meyer has added the word 'sic' in brackets in the original text, it is because the original meaning of the statement that Mark 'brought his own' is startling.  Meyer and others assume that Clement means that this public gospel is a hypomnemata like the 'hypomnemata of Peter' mentioned immediately after it, but I am not so sure.  I think that Clement is actually referencing a well attested text called the 'commentaries' (apomnemoneumata) of Peter or the apomnemoneumata of the apostles.  It was from the adding of this document and from Mark's own (something) - but not necessarily a hypomnemata, perhaps his own experience - that the secret gospel guarded in Alexandria was developed by Mark at a later date.

I don't see why people argue that this formulation of the composition of the gospel is so 'unprecedented.'  The idea seems to be anticipated - or at least referenced in Papias's famous statement about the relationship between Mark and Matthew.  While Eusebius (Church History 2.15) seemed to identify this hypomnemata with the Gospel of Mark itself, Papias, however, regarded the Gospel of Mark as the apomnemoneumata in contrast to the text associated with Matthew.   Paratactic and asyndetic style are characteristic of hypomnemata (cf. Theophrastus, Characters), both features of Mark.  Papias's assessment of Mark as an apomnemoneumata then, means that he thought of it as unfinished and unpolished. This is also reflected in his claim that Mark is "not in order," a rhetorical term meaning "not artistically arranged."

As Aune notes portions of the historical preface (prooimion)  of Papias' lost work survive complete with references to sources and method in accordance with historiographical convention (Eusebius, Church History 3.39.2-4, 15; note the formal parallels with Luke 1:1 - 4).  This reveals Papias' familiarity with the rhetorical conventions of Hellenistic historiography. His explicit preference for oral over written tradition (Eusebius, Church History 3.39.3-4) typifies ancient historians from Herodotus to Plutarch (cf. Plutarch Demosthenes 2.1).

What Aune's analysis opens up is the possibility that if we understand that the hypomnemata of Peter was one and the same with the public gospel of Mark (something again not explicitly stated in the text) then we can use Polycarp's identification of this same text as an apomnemoneumata to connect us back to Justin's reference to a work alternatively identified as the apomnemoneumata of Peter or the apomnemoneumata of the apostles.  While the name 'Mark' is not explicitly referenced anywhere in Justin's account, the plural form 'apostles' might well account for two people being involved in the production of the text. 

Yet there are broader implications than just this.  Irenaeus, as we saw makes explicit reference to a text called the production of the gospel of Matthew before the gospel of Mark.  While the relationship with a pre-existent hypomnemata or apomnemoneumata written in the name of Peter isn't specified, it would be hard to believe that Irenaeus wasn't already familiar with the account of Papias (when Eusebius mentions Papias he acknowledges that he got his information through Irenaeus).  The point then is that we can theoretically conceive of a situation where both Matthew and the public gospel of Mark went back to things said or associated with Peter.  Irenaeus can plausibly be identified with accepting Papias's idea that this, the accepted version of Mark's work was an inferior development of a common source used also by Matthew. 

Now I have already noted that the Marcionites denied that the historical Matthew ever wrote a gospel.  They certainly could not have denied that a text called 'the gospel of Matthew' existed or that people from the second century were claiming that he wrote a text.  Rather we must imagine that they would have argued that this text - the Gospel according to the Hebrews - was actually written by someone else who was not a disciple. 

Yet it is hard not to see that the way Clement speaks about Mark's eventual polishing of this hypomnemata into a 'perfect work' seems to be already known to Irenaeus by the time he wrote the Third Book of Against Heresies - although the name Mark is never specifically referenced.  Indeed if we look to the context of that original statement about the origins of Matthew and Mark in Irenaeus it is important to note what he says about 'other gospels' outside of the four accepted texts:

We have learned from none others [than these apostles] the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed "perfect knowledge," as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. [AH 3.1.1]

There can be no doubt in my opinion that the specific reference to the production of a later gospel which claimed to alone represent 'perfect knowledge' seems to reflect to Theodore's juxtaposition of a Roman gospel for the increasing of 'the faith' versus an Alexandrian gospel of gnostic 'perfection.'

Indeed the specific idea that Mark added 'his own' to the hypomnemata of Peter to make the 'secret' gospel of Mark also seems to be alluded to in what immediately follows in Irenaeus:
When, however, they are confuted from the [Catholic] Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, "But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world." [ibid 3.2.1] 
Now given the parallels between Clement's point of view and the Marcionites, it is worthwhile noting that the Marcionite held that the apostle (here identified by his Catholic name 'Paul') as the author also of the gospel.  In short then, we can see yet another parallel with to Theodore which has not been hitherto recognized owing to the general ignorance (or misinformation) about the Marcionite paradigm. 
For some reason people can't conceive of the implications of (a) the consistent identification of the Marcionite gospel with the gospel of Mark (b) the fact that in Greek and Aramaic the names 'Marcion' and 'Marcionite' imply that the sect was 'of Mark' and (c) the idea that this same apostle Mark undoubtedly also wrote - according to the Marcionites - the Apostolikon or the letters we ascribe to someone named 'Paul.'  If we actually pay close attention to the section of text that Irenaeus draws our attention to in the so-called Letter to the Corinthians and allow ourselves - for just one moment - to at least conceive of the idea that the Marcionite might have called this figure Mark we see the clearest confirmation of the existence of a two gospels - one public and one secret - in contemporary Alexandria.  All that the reader needs to be able to do is to substitute the word 'wisdom' (Gk. sophia, Aram. hochmah) in their imaginations for 'gospel.'  This is already anticipated by Pagels in her Gnostic Paul given the fact that the same terminology was used by the Jews and Samaritans for the Torah; the gospel being only the 'new Torah' of the Christian community.
Thus if we pay careful attention to the words of the apostle that I have suggested for many years was known by the name 'Mark' among the Marcionites - indeed was their original 'bishop' from which all their later officials were named - it is impossible not to have the veil lifted from one's eyes and to see at last the Clement was indeed a crypto-heretic, a secret adherent to the Mark.  We read this 'Mark' now declare to his followers at the very beginning of Christianity:
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified ... We do, however, speak a wisdom among the perfect, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.  No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. [1 Cor 1.1-7]
I want to make clear that it is not I who am making the argument that this material relates to a gospel, or a 'perfect gospel.'  Irenaeus makes the identification explicit.  If the heretical group or groups had similar views to the Marcionites (who are explcitly referenced in Irenaeus) then all of what is suggested by Clement in to Theodore including the secret nature of the gospel is already witnessed by Irenaeus's drawing our attention to their interpretation of this passage.
Indeed I have already made an extensive case for the idea that 1 Corinthians was the Marcionite 'epistle to the Alexandrians' referenced in the Muratorian canon.  I will come back to this idea in my next post.  For the moment though I want to stress over and over again that EVERYTHING that Irenaeus says about this rival gospel which claimed to be a 'perfection' of the apostle's preaching or the preaching of Peter can be argued to resemble something said in Clement's letter to Theodore only from a hostile point of view. 
Take for example Irenaeus's marked emphasis that only the Roman tradition preserved the true witness of the apostles.  One could argue that this is a deliberate contrast with Clement's emphasis of Alexandria as the place where the 'perfect' gospel was finally established and guarded.  Irenaeus also refers to the underlying idea associated with Alexandria in to Theodore - viz. 'hidden mysteries' for the perfect which is again referenced in to Theodore as that Mark:
composed a more spiritual gospel Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain traditions of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prepared matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is very securely kept, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries
I will argue that it is terrible significant that Clement emphasizes that there hidden mysteries were only performed at Alexandria and that the 'perfect gospel' apparently drew people from other places to Egypt to undergo this secret initiation. 
It is impossible now not to see that Irenaeus emphasizes another locale - Rome - as preserving a very public and open tradition which is utterly incompatible with the 'secret' and 'perfect' tradition of the heretics.  That 'Alexandria' is never named must be deliberate because Irenaeus sees no reason to draw even more attention to the tradition he hates.  The Alexandrians themselves clearly weren't going to openly advertise their tradition and Irenaeus above all else wants to marginalize his opponents as having no authority.  Butting heads with the tradition of Mark at Alexandria was problematic because it would end up necessitating Mark's authority - something which Irenaeus didn't want to do.  He didn't want to alienate the Markan tradition but rather bring it into the fold of Peter, indeed where Mark (and Alexandria for that matter) were ultimately subordinated figures in the Roman pantheon.
So we read in what follow in Irenaeus clear references to the ideas in the Letter to Theodore and more importantly his claims of Roman supremacy over the Alexandrian mystery tradition:
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [i.e. in Rome and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth ... [and] that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery. 
And again in the section that follows, Irenaeus is even more explicit in apparently juxtaposing Clement's 'hidden mysteries' at Alexandria with the open pronouncement of truth at Rome:

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to "the perfect" apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. [AH 3.3.1,2]

I find it difficult to believe that anyone who is familiar with the Patristic literature can claim that there is no evidence for the ideas of the letter to Theodore.  I see the exact opposite situation.   I would even go so far as to suggest that the evidence supports Schaff's original identification of Clement's affiliation with the followers of Mark (AH i.13 - 21).  The bottom line however is that those who want to claim that to Theodore is a forgery do so because of a personal agenda.  Anyone interested in the truth can clearly see it fits perfectly within the writings of the age.  Indeed one might even argue it is 'the missing link' for us to understand the most important chapter in our common history.

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