Monday, May 16, 2011

Towards a Theology of Mark's Secret Gospel

At the end of a long day of work I inevitably drive home thinking about the greatest man who ever lived.  I think how different life must have been like for Mark the author of the gospel of Jesus.  He couldn't have held down a 'real job.'  It would have been impossible for him to contemplate the highest realities being burdened with task of flattering superiors, dealing with the pettiness of coworkers, rivals and the random assortment of assholes ever present in the world.  Only a messiah could have been equal to the task of writing a book as great as the divinely inspired Torah.

But let's start with a question which is never asked by modern New Testament scholars (because they are incapable of answering it).  What could be the need for a second Torah, seeing that the first was perfect? The first Torah, all five books of it, was implicit in the words written by the finger of God on the sapphire tablets given to Moses. And why sapphire?  It is because it was understood to designate 'heavenstuff' in this and similar contexts (the finger of God is the point of interaction between God and Creation; Creation is both Heaven and Earth).

In order to understand these things we have to comprehend the purpose of the original narrative.  Moses smashed these because the people were unable to bear their message, as he realised when he saw their well-meaning and devout but misguided work in making the Golden Calf. The second tablets were on the stone of this level of this world, and the writing was carved by Moses himself. Even so, only Moses was ever able to understand all the implications of the Torah (cf. Num 12: 7). Something greater than Moses was needed to help drag the people up to where they could start to take in all the meaning intended by the first tablets and the second tablets and the five books of the Torah.

They could certainly take in a significant part of it (Deut 30: 11-14). But Moses couldn’t drag the people up to his own level. The best he could do was to save them from annihilation by bearing their guilt (= imperfection) and dying with them instead of crossing the Jordan. Thus the need for a second Torah, but by the hand of one greater than Moses.

Jesus is “the firstfruits of them that slept” as the Apostle says.  Clement tells us explicitly that Christ was resurrected on the first day of the festival of first fruits.  This is clearly behind the Pauline reference. The implication in my mind was that Pentecost was ultimately the date on which the risen Christ was confirmed.

But for the moment let us pass on and ask - why Jesus and not Moses?  Why did Mark emphasize that this heavenly being that came down to earth to coincide with the messianic Jubilee of 26 CE took the name of Ἰησοῦς?  There can be no doubt that the symbolism of the numerological value of the name - i.e. 888 - certainly had something to do with this.  After all his namesake Marqe the Samaritan saw the number 888 in the first line of the Greek translation of the Song of the Sea (Exod. 15).  The number eight after all is again the symbol of the Jubilee (i.e. 7 + 1).  Yet Ἰησοῦς (i.e. Joshua) was also the designated successor to Moses in the Pentateuch. Ἰησοῦς is also there said to be 'son of Nun' where the letter nun has a value of fifty in the Hebrew alphabet.

Moses’s body was uncorrupted (Deut 34: 7). Moses was finally resurrected.  The resurrection of Moses, after a long period when his body was incorruptible (cf. Peter’s sermon in Acts 3).  However, the symbolism of the presence of Moses at the Transfiguration is clear. Jesus is somehow greater, by being the angel, the Angel of the Presence מלאך הפנים or Metatron, the angel that contains the germ of the created world.  The presence of death is the most eloquent sign that creation is not yet as it should be, or is lower than it should be.  When the rich youth was resurrected it was ultimately into the spiritual body, which does not mean insubstantial, but on the contrary even more physically present.  This body belonged to the coming perfected world.

Just look at the passing reference to the manner in which the rushing onslaught of the Jordan was crossed by the youth after receiving his initiation - And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan. How was this even possible? The disciple had already been transformed into a living tabernacle. This is how a single man crossed the Jordan on his own. Jacob after all had the help of an angel. The ancient Israelites had the assistance of the old tabernacle. Now the disciple who received the mystery of divine kingship had the spirit of Ἰησοῦς within him. The divine fire caused the rivers to dry up and go backwards as he crossed.

And look at the day this mystery occurred.  The first day of the first month. The original Tabernacle was dedicated on this date (Ex 40:2). It is the date of the very creation of the world.  The creation of the material tabernacle was understood by Jews to have fulfilled the very purpose of creation - “God desired to have a dwelling place for Himself in the lower worlds” (Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 16).  According to the Midrash it was the greatest day since the very inception of the world.

Yet now in the new age, the age of Pisces (which is itself a Jubilee i.e. nun = 50), one chosen disciple has been refashioned as the new human tabernacle of God.  This image runs throughout the New Testament - i.e. that man himself is the new temple.  This developed from the original significance of SGM 1 (= the first addition to the Secret Gospel of Mark) in early Christianity.  It is the gospel that was certainly known to the Apostle.

Now consider the significance of this transformation occurring on the first day of the first month of a new messianic era.  We mentioned before that Mark seemed to have the Persian calendar in mind when he understood that the youth was dead and resurrected before his ultimate perfection on the first day of the year. Clearly those who espouse the so-called 'Jesus myth theory' should at least consider Jesus in the SGM 1 narrative to be a development of the ancient Zoroastrian fravashi (i.e. the guardian spirit of a hero or great military leader) who on the morning of the fourth day after death, colllects the urvan (= soul) where its experiences in the material world are collected.

I think there is a great deal of significance to see Mark introduce this very un-Jewish concept of a guardian spirit into the gospel narrative.  Yet it really accompanies a parallel Zoroastrian borrowing acknowledged by almost everyone with respect to the gospel's intense demonology.  As John Hinnels notes in his Zoroastrian and Parsi Studies:

The obvious illustration of this point is the theme of demonology which dominates sections of the New Testament. Thus, the first half of the Gospel of Mark has as a crucial theme the conviction that Jesus' mission is centrally concerned with expelling demons from the world (1:27, 32, 34; 3:11, 15; 5:2-20; 6:7, 13; 7:25-30; 8:33; 9:15-29). [p. 78]

Hinnells notes that it is only when, in the structure of the Gospel, Jesus turns his face back to Jerusalem to begin his progress towards the cross, that demonology diminishes as a central theme. Yet this only ignores the significance of the 'tabernacling' of the Ἰησοῦς-fravashi in the person of the rich youth after the first of the new year (= SGM 1).

The resurrected Joshua of course has as his mission the destruction of the 'house of demons' (= the temple of Jerusalem) that opened the Marcionite gospel.  It may be argued that for Markan Christology a crucial idea is expressed in 3:22-27, that Jesus is the one who enters the house of the strong man, Satan, binds him and 'plunders' his demon- dominated house. Similarly, in Luke 9:1-12 the primary emphasis of the mission given to the disciples by Jesus is expressed in terms of demonology: 'And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases ...' The same emphasis appears in the parallel passage in Matthew 10:1 (see also 7:22), as does the idea that sickness is demonically caused (4:24; 8:16 & 28 ff.; 9:34; 17:14-18; 10:8).

It should be noted that from a Zoroastrian perspective the identification of unclean spirits with demons is theologically correct, as is the link between them and illness, and so also is Luke's, reference to a group of seven evil spirits (11:26, cf. Matthew 12:45) an absolutely precise parallel to the ancient Zoroastrian tradition of seven evil spirits as countering the seven divine beings or Amesha [cf. Hinnells p. 79]

The point of course is that we shouldn't imagine that Mark was writing the gospel for a specifically Persian audience.  Rather the gospel of Jesus can be seen as reflective of Persian religious concepts penetrating almost every aspect of Mediterranean social life including Judaism and Samaritanism.  We should imagine that the development of the gospel corresponded with a  popular belief in astrological systems widespread throughout the Roman Empire after 50 BCE.

It was believed during this time that the spring equinox had moved from Aries to Pisces, a momentous occasion that caused great public anxiety. Virgil and other Roman authors said the forthcoming age of Pisces would witness the advent of a new divinity. We should see that this as a demonstration of the anxiety and foreboding throughout the empire about the changing equinox shaped the context in which literature dealing with the expected divinities is to be interpreted, such as the Lament in the Hermetic Texts:

There will come a time when it will be seen that in vain have the Egyptians honored the divinity with pious mind and with assiduous service. All their holy worship will become inefficacious. The gods, leaving the earth, will go back to heaven; they will abandon Egypt; this land, once the home of religion, will be widowed of its gods and left destitute ... The Scythian or the Indian, or some other barbarian neighbour, will inhabit Egypt. The Divine One will ascend to the heavens again, and humanity abandoned will die completely out, and Egypt will be a desert, and widowed of men and god.

There was a foreboding sense about the change from Aries to Pisces which was opening the door to new popularized forms of spirituality.  Mark was only taking advantage of currents within contemporary Roman society.

It might we worth noting some New Testament scholars see evidence of Luke using the Zodiac in Acts 2:9-11 (c. 60- 100 CE) for theological purposes. F. Cumont compared the list of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the list of countries in Acts 2:9-11, for theological purposes. F. Cumont compared the list of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the list of countries in Acts 2:9-11, and a list of countries ranked under these signs in a work on astrology by Paul of Alexandria in 378 CE: (1) Aries = Persia; (2) Tarsus = Babylon; (3) Gemini = Cappadocia; (4) Cancer = Armenia; 5) Leo = Asia; 6) Virgo = Hellas and Ionia; 7) Libra = Libya and Cyrene; 8) Scorpio = Italy; 9) Sagittarius = Cilicia and Crete; 10) Capricorn = Syria; 11) Aquarius = Egypt; 12) Pisces = Red Sea and India. Cumont determined that Paul's source was the work of an Egyptian of the Persian epoch, whose source in turn was a second- century CE work on the Zodiac by Vettius Valens. (F. Cumont, "La plus ancienne geographic astrologique," Klio 9 (1909) 263 - 273. The list moves east to west geographically with northern and southern territories in the middle.

Furthermore, an apologetic function is suggested by the inclusion of this list: "These names convey to the reader the impression that the Christian mission was already reaching out 'to the ends of the earth.' "Haenchen, Acts of the Apostles, 169. The British scholar FF Bruce also observes that the marginal notes found in an offprint of Cumont's of Cumont's article intimates that Luke "however strange his list is, meant in fact to say 'the whole world' ... all nations who [sic] live under the twelve signs of the Zodiac received the gift to understand their preaching immediately." F F Bruce, The Book of the Acts rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1988), 55.

The point then is that it is not at all that crazy to suggest that the gospel might have been developed to capitalize on the contemporary anxiety about the transformation of the age. It is not incredible in the slightest that 'the mysteries of divine kingship' might have been placed at the first day of the new messianic Jubilee year symbolized by the 'fish' (= 50).  The reason the text is called 'the Gospel of Jesus' is that it is announcement of the coming of one who represents the re-standing of the first king of Israel who ultimately destroyed a wicked house of demons.  This mission began with the crossing of the Jordan in the first day of the first month of a similar Jubilee year as the Samaritan Book of Joshua makes absolutely clear:

And the children of Israil did as the king commanded them. And the cloud was lifted up, on the first (day) of the first month, of the first year of the first period of seven years of the Jubil (Jubilee) even from the beginning of the entering in of the children of Israil within the boundaries of the assigned lands.

The literary purpose of the gospel is to demonstrate that just such a figure was established in the first Jubilee of the Common Era (the year 1666 since Joshua according to the Samaritan Tulidah chronicle). 

We are on the threshold of finally understanding Marcionitism.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.