Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why Secret Mark was Kept Secret by the Alexandrian Church

Is there anyone out there who really believes that a guy named 'Matthew' wrote the gospel according to Matthew? Everything is very confusing about the story of the development of the four texts which form our gospel. Let's leave out the whole business about God sending four winds into four evangelists to spread one message for a moment. Let's just look at the gospels the way most people pretend to look at them - i.e. four 'books' written by four people named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Matthew is the first gospel in our canon because someone - i.e. Irenaeus - said that it was written before the other gospels. Now Irenaeus couldn't have just invented this idea of Matthean primacy in his head. It had to be at least loosely based on some pre-existent notion. Let's take a look at one of the only clues that Irenaeus gives us to make sense of this understanding. It comes from the beginning of the Third Book of Against Heresies, a work which introduces the idea of the fourfold gospel to the world. Irenaeus writes:

We have learned from none others 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. 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. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. [AH 3.2.1]

It should be noted that all of the speculation developed by New Testament scholars about how the gospel was established develops from this material.

Indeed it is because of Irenaeus that most scholars tell us that there was a period where the apostles "did at one time preach in public, and then, at a later period ... they handed down to us in the Scriptures." (gospels). Clement of Alexandria's understanding stands very close to what is written here.  His notions in fact almost seems to stand behind the claims of Irenaeus. 

Yet I don't think that people have looked closely enough at this very important section in Irenaeus.  It not only says that all the usual stuff about an 'oral tradition' and a 'written tradition' but more importantly that the Church only because authoritative when the four written scriptures became bundled together as one gospel.  In other words, the Catholic Church was only born in the time Irenaeus was writing these words. 

Just a look a little closer at what is actually being said by Irenaeus.  Again, there was this time when the apostles were 'preaching in public' (Lat. praedicaverunt) but then he says that only when the 'Scriptures' were established - i.e. in a later period - was "the ground and pillar of our faith" established.  

The average person may not be aware of the specific language being used here but the reference comes from 1 Timothy 3.15 - a false apostolic epistle - usually attributed to Polycarp rather than Paul.  The epistle actually doesn't mention 'scriptures' or 'gospels' at all but says 'the Church is the ground and pillar of our faith.'  Now Irenaeus has gone one step further beyond the original dictates of his master and said that the Church is now founded on the four gospels which are the "ground and pillar of our faith." 

One would assume of course - quite naturally from our inherited assumptions that the aforementioned 'public preaching' of the apostles would be one and the same authority as what was later 'codified' by them in their writings.  Yet Irenaeus seems to know of another tradition which suggests that the gospel which was written after the public preaching was actually superior to the original understanding of the disciples.  The language he uses is quite amazing:

it is unlawful to say (nec enim fas est dicere) that they [the apostles] preached before they possessed "perfect knowledge," as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles

The specific word fas is a legal term which can even mean 'court date.'  It was originally rooted in the idea of 'divine law' but can also mean "right, proper, allowable, lawful, fit, permitted."  But Harvey has here chosen the words in his translation carefully.  

Irenaeus has suddenly discovered the authority to make illegal the historical understanding outlined in the Letter to Theodore. 

I can't underestimate the significance of this realization.  For there is always this 'challenge' raised by those who deny the authenticity of the discovery - namely to explain a context for the existence of a 'secret gospel.'  We have now uncovered just such a context for just as Irenaeus makes absolutely certain that it is 'unlawful' to say that what Peter and the apostles 'publicly preached' was inferior to the "perfect knowledge" established in the gospel of those who called themselves 'gnostics.'  For in Clement's Letter to Theodore we read:

As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret 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 whatever makes for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual 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 sayings 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 most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.[To Theodore 2.15 - 28]

It is amazing to see how the two traditions agree with one another.  Clement the Alexandrian is saying exactly what Irenaeus condemns as 'unlawful' (Lat. fas).  What was established with the apostle Peter was ultimately 'improved' by Mark.  Irenaeus's mocking of the gnostics claim to have a gospel of 'perfect knowledge' finds agreement with Clement's positive description of the contents of Secret Mark. 

Clement brings forward two sentences to describe the composition that Mark finally completed by adding something to Peter's hypomnemata:

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 whatever makes for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected

We should even go so far as to say that Irenaeus specifically identifies a group of followers of Mark with holding this exact same position.  As we read in Book One again:

They [the followers of Mark] proclaim themselves as being "perfect," so that no one can be compared to them with respect to the immensity of their knowledge, nor even were you to mention Paul or Peter, or any other of the apostles. They assert that they themselves know more than all others, and that they alone have imbibed the greatness of the knowledge of that power which is unspeakable. They also maintain that they have attained to a height above all power, and that therefore they are free in every respect to act as they please, having no one to fear in anything [AH 1.13.6]

I have put foward fifty proofs that Irenaeus's 'Marcosian' sect is actually a tradition associated with the Alexandrian St. Mark.  Clement himself would clearly be described as just such a followers of Mark by a side by side comparison of their common faith. 

What we have been suggesting for some time is that the situation in late second century Christianity was actually a lot simpler than scholars have previously recognized.  While Against Heresies now mentions three distinct heresies - Marcionites, Marcosians and Marcellinians (also called Carpocratians) - there was really only an original Alexandrian tradition of St. Mark and a related and very influential sect associated with a Christian woman named Marcia or Marcellina who came to Rome in the middle of the second century.  The fact that 'Marcellina' and 'Marcion' are both diminutive forms of the name Mark (in Latin and Greek) is likely the source of the confusion.  Jerome apparently even goes so far as to misidentify that Marcellina as the female Marcionite who introduced this heresy to Rome. 

So it is then that while Irenaeus condemns 'those of Mark' who unlawfully promote the idea of a 'more perfect gospel' than the message preached by Peter and the apostles, Clement by contrast blames the Carpocratian sect associated - in other sources - with Marcellina.  A description of Marcellina's 'Carpocratian' sect has been added to the writings of Irenaeus which clearly sounds eerily reminiscent of the aforementioned description of the so-called 'Marcosians.  We read:

This idea [the idea of a god higher than the Creator] has raised them to such a pitch of pride, that some of them declare themselves similar to Jesus; while others, still more mighty, maintain that they are superior to his disciples, such as Peter and Paul, and the rest of the apostles, whom they consider to be in no respect inferior to Jesus. For their souls, descending from the same sphere as his, and therefore despising in like manner the creators of the world, are deemed worthy of the same power, and again depart to the same place. But if any one shall have despised the things in this world more than he did, he thus proves himself superior to him. [AH i.25.4]

By now my regular readership knows that I believe the inherent ambiguity in the original hypomnemata caused this confusing state of affairs.  But what matters for our immediate purposes is the fact that Clement's motives for hiding the 'secret gospel' is now clearly manifest.  He was afraid of breaking the law.

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