Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Understanding the Mystical Significance of the Enthronement of St. Mark in Alexandria

On an early seventh-century ivory relief from Alexandria, now preserved in the Musee du Louvre in Paris (see left), the figure of Saint Mark the Evangelist appears in the foreground, seated on a throne and surrounded by a group of bishops who are gathered together beneath the gate of a city. In the background, tiny human figures lean out of the windows and balconies of a miniature cityscape — the residential skyline of late antique Alexandria — in order to catch a glimpse of the holy gathering below. This Alexandrian relief, carved virtually on the eve of Arab rule in Egypt, conveys to the viewer a vivid, sense of the emerging self- identity of the Coptic church and its patriarchate during the first six and a half centuries of its existence. The haloed figure of Mark — enlarged in relation to the other figures, seated in honor on an episcopal throne, holding his Gospel in his left hand and raising his right in a gesture of blessing — was viewed in church tradition as the founder of the Egyptian church and the first in a long line of bishops (also known as Alexandrian patriarchs or popes) who would succeed him in leadership of the church. Early Christian traditions recording Saint Mark's reputation as the founder of the church in Alexandria will be a primary focus of this first chapter.

In the Louvre relief, the thirty-five bishops who stand in a semicircular choir around Mark are meant to represent his immediate successors as patriarchs — or popes2 — of Alexandria. The number of bishops depicted here has helped scholars to date the relief: it was probably carved during the reign of the thirty-sixth patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Anastasius (AD 607-619), or perhaps on the occasion of his death and the consecration of his successor Andronicus in the year 619. It is noteworthy that the seventh-century artist of the ivory relief has portrayed the successors to the throne of Saint Mark in mute imitation of the evangelist: those on his left (the viewer's right) hold copies of Mark's Gospel in their left hands; those on his right (the viewer's left) raise their right hands, mirroring his silent gesture of holy blessing. Throughout the history of the Coptic church, the authority of the Egyptian patriarchs has been understood to derive from the imitation of Mark's virtues and from a direct lineage of apostolic succession. [Stephen J Davis The Early Coptic Papacy p. 1,2]
There is a fundamental difference between remembering a set of facts or terminologies and actually integrating that factual recall into something meaningful. Most of us think of something abstract when the gospel of Mark references τὸ μυστήριον τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ. Yet any knowledgeable person will immediately recognize that the Jewish writings make absolutely clear that what is being described here is a mystery which established one chosen individual to rule over the rest of Israel.

Just look at the two stage process in the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua. First the Israelites had been in bondage, slaves to the worldly power in Egypt, but God's intervention in history at the Exodus had freed the Israelites from that human enslavement; in the encounter with God at Horeb, they had submitted to a new enslavement under God. In the old servitude, Israel had served a worldly master and had no freedom to worship God (Ex. 8:1). In the new covenant, Israel had freedom to worship God and was servant to no worldly state. But the domination of Egypt had been exchanged for the Kingdom of God (Exodus 15:18), who had broken the fetters of the old bondage.

The Marcionites and those associated with them understood that the divine name (Ἰησοῦς) came to earth in a particular Jubilee six before the destruction and seven before the final revealing of the perfect Torah (= the gospel) in order to 'redeem' Israel from the Creator. The template for this redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις) was established by Oshea being transformed by the divine name into Jesus in the LXX narrative. The Marcionites however did not believe that Jesus the Son of God was signified by Joshua the son of Nun but rather the disciple whom Jesus loved and initiated into the mysteries of divine kingship (τὸ μυστήριον τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ) on the tenth of Nisan in that fateful Jubilee year.

There can be no doubt that this unnamed figure is Mark the evangelist himself. Meyer notes that many before the discovery of the Letter to Theodore "have even suggested that the figure of the streaker is the figure of the evangelist who introduces himself, a la Alfred Hitchcock in his films, into the story line as a minor character." (p. 176) The list of 'conspiracy theorists' here is actually quite impressive - Swete (Commentary on Mark 354), McIndoe (Young Man 125) etc. Theodor von Zahn, probes this consensus (Introduction, 2:490-92), but agrees that Mark "paints a small picture of himself in the corner of his work" (494).

Yet I will argue that those enlightened men of previous generations did not have the Letter to Theodore at their disposal. If they did they would have realized that the figure of the rich youth is the furthest thing from a 'minor character' in the gospel. This running narrative tells the story of the manner in which St. Mark 'secretly' undergoes the mystery of divine kingship and is ultimately enthroned - an untimely expression of the most fundamental principle of salvation in Alexandrian Christianity.

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