Sunday, November 7, 2010

On Mark the Beholder of God

The Coptic Church is wholly devoted to their beloved St. Mark. Yet they give us very little work to with. The one thing they tell us is that Mark somehow had a 'special relationship' with Jesus. Indeed when you scrutinize the tradition it is impossible not to get the sense that he was at one time held to be the Christ.

Of course these views get me into trouble with people, but who are these people?  Do any of these 'critics' have any knowledge of the Coptic tradition? Or is it that they simply want to project their own presuppositions from the European Christian tradition on the earliest witnesses from Alexandria?

Well I don't mean to promote my own theories at my blog (heaven forbid!). I am only interested in saying that in my humble opinion, the Alexandrian tradition was developed from a belief that the God Jesus came to announce the Christ who was named Mark. This understanding was deemed to be heretical very early in Christianity. Irenaeus frequently attacks it so it is not surprising that the earliest Alexandrian Fathers go out of their way to avoid openly proclaiming it. Nevertheless it does resurface from time to time in their writings and those who came after them.

The great Coptic historian Severus of Al'Ashmunein for instance reminds us that the various Patriarchs of Alexandria "sat upon his episcopal throne, one after another, each of them succeeding his predecessor; and thus all were his [i.e. Mark's] representatives, and the shepherds of his flock, and his imitators in his faith in Christ.” Who is this Christ you ask? As Severus again notes he is St. Mark -"St. Mark the apostle and servant of Jesus Christ has appeared among all creatures like the mustard seed (which speaks the Gospel), which grows and becomes a huge tree, so that the birds come to rest on its branches and get away from his shadow, because, although our Lord Jesus Christ (may he be glorified!) have wanted to nominate himself for this comparison, however, can also apply the meaning to St. Mark, this shining light, for those who follow Christ are themselves Christs and other members of Christ." [Homily on St. Mark 1 p.7]

Again, I am not trying to promote my existing theories.  Rather we are trying to piece together whether the original gospel of Mark - the text before Irenaeus got his hands on it - might have reflected these ver ideas we have just mentioned.  Indeed, what are the alternatives?  Can we really believe that the Alexandrians invented the idea of Mark's messiahood AFTER they were originally in communion (and indeed subordinated) to the beliefs of the Roman tradition?

I noted in my last post that Irenaeus continually hits us over the head with what the first words of the Gospel of Mark mean.  Irenaeus makes clear that the true copies of Mark's gospel begin with the words 'the gospel of Jesus Christ' because Mark - as Peter's interpreter - was witnessing that he believed that Jesus was the messiah of Israel or in Irenaeus's own words, that not does Paul

plainly indicating one God, who did by the prophets make promise of the Son, and one Jesus Christ our Lord, who was of the seed of David according to His birth from Mary; and that Jesus Christ was appointed the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead, as being the first begotten in all the creation; the Son of God being made the Son Of man, that through Him we may receive the adoption,--humanity sustaining, and receiving, and embracing the Son of God. Wherefore Mark also says: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the prophets." [Irenaeus AH 3.14.3]

And again:

Wherefore also Mark, the interpreter and follower of Peter, does thus commence his Gospel narrative: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face, which shall prepare Thy way The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make the paths straight before our God." Plainly does the commencement of the Gospel quote the words of the holy prophets, and point out Him at once, whom they confessed as God and Lord; Him, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who had also made promise to Him, that He would send His messenger before His face, who was John, crying in the wilderness, in "the spirit and power of Elias," "Prepare ye the way of me Lord, make straight paths before our God." [ibid 3.10.5]

So according to Irenaeus it is an open and shut case.  Just look at the reference to the 'gospel of Jesus Christ' - pay attention to the fact that Jesus is called the Christ by Mark - and that this reference is immediately followed by the reference from the Jewish prophet Malachi.   Most scholars are satisfied with this explanation because they themselves are believers in 'Jesus Christ.'  I happen to think that the situation in Alexandria is a little bit more complex than that. 

I for one do not believe that we have the original beginning to the Gospel of Mark.  This is a terrible introduction to the gospel narrative - not only adding the utterly superfluous 'arche' at the beginning of the first line or the incorrect attribution of Isaiah for the passage from Malachi but the terrible style employed throughout.  I simply can't believe that Mark would have written something so completely lacking any grandeur.  Indeed Clement's argument in to Theodore that there was a more polished version of the Gospel of Mark in Alexandria must have had something more substantive at the beginning.  My guess is of course that it resembled the surviving copies of the Diatessaron - i.e. Mark 1.1 followed by the introduction which now appears in 'according to John.' The Apostolikon seems to suggest this possibility. But that's another story. 

I am far more interested in delving into why Irenaeus might have arranged for this butchered introduction, having 'the Gospel of Jesus Christ' immediately followed by the words of Malachi as if to connect the latter citation to the alleged belief that Mark was a witness for 'Jesus Christ.'  What stands out in my mind is the fact that the Marcionites - and the Alexandrian tradition as a whole - seemed to have interpreted Malachi 3.1 in its original context as implying that Jesus came to herald someone else as the one to come. 

Let's start with other context for the saying in Luke chapter 7, Matthew chapter 11 and the Marcionite gospel (which I suspect is the longer 'secret' gospel of Mark of Alexandria).  At its most basic Jesus is asked  “Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another?"   The Catholic account has clearly been remodeled to counter certain inferences that the Marcionites originally drew from the narrative.  This is why I believe Malachi 3.1 now appears at the very beginning of what is called 'the gospel of Mark.' 

The account of Matthew chapter 11 explicitly frames the context of the inquiry as if John 'heard' that Jesus was the Christ and so sent two disciples to find out if it was true.  These words were certainly not found in the Marcionite version.  The Marcionites clearly had someone interacting directly with Jesus.  Something Jesus did or said 'scandalized' that person previously and so he asked if he was the one to come or do we look for another?  The Catholic narratives go out of their way to put distance between the questioner and the questioned.  The Catholic text makes the questioner John the Baptist but I am not so sure and Jesus references John's 'offense' in the most obscure way possible - "blessed is whosoever shall not be offended in me."

Yet I have my suspicions that in the Marcionite version Peter was the questioner and the narrative immediately followed Jesus' rebuke of his statement that he thought Jesus was the Christ.  The statement 'blessed is who finds no occassion for stumbling because of me" (σκανδαλισθῇ) sounds remarkably similar to various statements directed against Peter and the Twelve.  The Marcionites clearly took the name 'Peter' to mean a 'small stone' and in particular the stone of Isaiah 8.14 (cited in Romans 9.32) which would cause Zion to stumble and destroy their own temple in the Jewish War. 

I have long argued that 'Peter' or Kephas were originally Marcionite versions of Simon's original title - i.e. the pitur (the 'interpreter') of God.  The emphasis here was that Peter would cause others to stumble because of his claims about Jesus claiming to be the messiah of Israel or perhaps better yet - Jesus's crucfixion would become a stumbling stone for them:

But he turned, and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (σκάνδαλον) to me, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men."

and again:

Jesus said to them, "All of you will be made to stumble (σκανδαλισθήσεσθε) because of me tonight, for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.'

and again:

But Peter said to him, "Although all will be offended (σκανδαλισθήσονται), yet I will not."

Of course the narrative makes clear that ever since Jesus told Simon that he was not the Christ and would be crucified in Jerusalem this 'little stone' fell away eventually causing the destruction of the Jews.  This is then is the mystery of the σκάνδαλον of the cross referenced in the Apostolikon (1 Cor 1.23) as a central theme in the gospel.

So who did the Marcionites think Jesus was.  This is answered in the reference to Malachi 3.1 in the original narrative.  Jesus says of himself:

what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger (or 'angel') ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

This is precisely why this prophesy Malachi appears at the beginning of Mark again - to emphasize that the Marcionite interpretation was wrong.  Mark is made to testify as if he thought that Jesus was the Christ.  The reality as we have noted was that the 'little one' or 'least' in the kingdom of heaven - i.e. 'little Mark' himself - was the true messiah of the Marcionite understanding.  Jesus came to testify for his messianic claims.

The point now is that when we hear that the Marcionites emphasized that the question came from a scandalized Peter after he was rebuked for suggesting that Jesus was the Christ.  The anti-Marcionite accounts of the Church Fathers all avoid delving into the details of the heretical interpretation of the narrative, though it is interesting to read what Origen's explanation of the passage as an interesting substitute.  Origen always interprets the passage as confirming that Jesus was the first of two messianic advents.  He points to the fact that the question asks about 'the one who is to come' rather than 'the Christ' because Jesus was the one who was to enter the underworld after his crucifixion to redeem humanity. 

So in his Commentary on 1 Kings 28 he begins by noting that Peter wrongly identifies Jesus as the Christ in Matthew 16 explaining that he was 'scandalized' by Jesus explanation because:

he heard great things concerning Christ and he assumed great things and he did not accept divine aid" which was given to him: Behold we are going up to Jerusalem and it will be accomplished, and, The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the chief priests and elders and be killed and on the third day be raised," he said: God forbid, Lord. He knew great things about Christ, he did not want to accept the humiliation concerning him. Some such thing seems to me also for John. In prison, when he saw great things concerning Christ, he saw heavens opened, he saw the Holy he saw the Holy Spirit descending from heaven upon the Savior and remaining on him." After he saw such a great glory'" he doubted and perhaps he did not believe if one so glorious would also come down to Hades and to the abyss.  Because of this he said "Are you the one who comes or should we look for another?" [Homily on 1 Kings 28]

It is simply amazing that Origen connects the two passages exactly as we have suggested.  It would be my guess that in the original gospel of Mark there was no mention of John at all here.  The question of whether we should follow another followed directly from Peter's rebuke for suggesting that Jesus was the Christ and his being 'scandalized' by the future crucifixion of Jesus. 

The narrative goes on to explain that the mystery of Christianity was that Jesus had to be crucified in order to go into the underworld and redeem those who were there.  I find it particularly interesting that 'Adamantius' (i.e. Origen) develops the exact same theme only now with regards to a two advent theology:

However because he was His forerunner, he inquired whether he was to be that in the abode of the dead also.  For he knew that He had stated, "I go away, and I will send the Paraclete"— that is, the Holy Spirit.  But there is something truer still to be learnt in the incident: John's disciples were accustomed to reading about two comings of Christ, but they were ignorant that he himself was about to depart from the world.

or, as it is translated in the version of Rufinus

he asked if he was also to precede Him to the place of the dead. He knew, for instance, that He had said to His disciples, 'I go away, and I will send another Paraclete to you' — referring to the Holy Spirit. Moreover, this question implies also a further point: the disciples of John were not, ignorant of the two advents of Christ, but they did not know who he might be who should accomplish them both.

The point of course is that the Marcionite interpretation clearly distinguished between Jesus who was the 'angel' of Malachi and the 'little one' or 'least' of the kingdom of heaven who was the Christ.  The reference to the Paraclete here is also important (even if it has been subsequently 'corrected' to bring it in line with Catholic doctrine). 

Origen always makes reference to the two advent doctrine.  In Against Celsus Jesus is said to be the meek suffering servant who eventually returns as a glorious king.  Origen's predecessor Clement also accepted this doctrine so that it must have been deeply woven into the fabric of Alexandrian Christianity.  I happen to suspect that it had everything to do with originally holding that Mark was the Paraclete of Jesus in a manner which preceded the parallel claims of Mani and Mohammed. 

For the moment though it is enough to merely look again at the title of 'theorimos' in the Coptic tradition - viz. 'the beholder of God.'  It is St. Mark's most common epithet and I doubt very much that scholars have any clue that it is rooted in an important passage in Clement's Exhortation to the Heathens showing that it was always used in relation to the Apostle.  Clement writes: 
For this reason John, the herald of the Word, besought men to make themselves ready against the coming of God the Christ.[cf. Malachi 3.1]  And it was this which was signified by the dumbness of Zacharias, which waited for fruit in the person of the harbinger of Christ, that the Word, the light of truth, by becoming the Gospel, might break the mystic silence of the prophetic enigmas. But if thou desirest truly to see God, take to thyself means of purification worthy of Him, not leaves of laurel fillets interwoven. with wool and purple; but wreathing thy brows with righteousness, and encircling them with the leaves of temperance, set thyself earnestly to find Christ. "For I am," He says, "the door, which we who desire to understand God must discover, that He may throw heaven's gates wide open to. us. For the gates of the Word being intellectual, are opened by the key of faith. No one knows God but the Son, and he to whom the Son shall reveal Him.  And I know well that He who has opened the door hitherto shut, will afterwards reveal what is within; and will show what we could not have known before, had we not entered in by Christ, through whom alone God is beheld. [Exhortation 10]

The clear point then - despite Clement's attempt to express traditional Alexandrian ideas through a foreign canon - is that there were two 'Christs' in the Alexandrian tradition.  Jesus who is 'God the Christ' and then a later mortal manifestation 'through whom God is beheld.'  While the name 'Mark' is not explicitly invoked, it is implicit in the passage.

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