Sunday, June 5, 2011

Irenaeus and the Consistent Catholic Devaluation of Mark's Original Gospel

When I said yesterday that Morton Smith's 1973 book has to be the starting off any discussions with respect to the Letter to Theodore, Secret Mark etc. I was saying that anyone who accuses Morton Smith of forgery or claim Mar Saba 65 is a forgery and hasn't read his scholarship on the subject isn't qualified to make that assertion.  Of course I am speaking directly about Agamemnon Tselikas's recent study for BAR specifically but there are many other notable examples.  For, as noted in previous posts, almost all of Tselikas's observations (for they can hardly be referenced as anything else) show up somewhere in the 1973 book.

There is a tendency among those who argue for authenticity to exaggerate the short comings of Smith's analysis as it demonstrates his inability to have manufactured the text.  As noted in my last article, this line of reasoning also has a backhanded way of opening the door to Scott Brown as the anointed interpreter of the text.

The reality is however that it is a gross representation to characterize Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark as "Morton Smith's interpretation" of the MS.  It really wouldn't be possible to have Mark's Other Gospel and Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (hereafter referenced as CASCOM) 'square off' in an imaginary sparring match because the latter really represents the collective voice of all the best scholars in the world up to 1973 and Scott Brown is one guy with a doctorate which happened to be on the subject of the discovery.  Brown can pick apart parts of the analysis in CASCOM but it would be a rather silly idea to pit oneself against all the participants in the 1973 work.

I have developed an interest in CASCOM's citation of Robert Grant and Pierre Benoit's apparent identification of the relationship between Secret Mark and the canonical gospels as that of Homer to a late second century cento.  As noted previously, I think Grant and Benoit have the relationship backwards.  Matthew and Luke are essentially centos of the longer Alexandrian version of Gospel of Mark referenced by Clement in the Letter to Theodore as the 'mystic' or 'secret' version of the text.  Their effort to cast the Alexandrian text as the cento is correctly rejected by Smith but he went out of his way to avoid tackling the core question (i.e. Matthew and Luke's relationship with ur-Mark) likely owing to his unfamiliarity with the subject matter.

Charles Hedrick once spelled it out to me simply in a phone conversation a few years back.  'Let's be honest, Matthew and Luke are little more than forgeries or copies of Mark anyway.'  Indeed if we look at the writings of Irenaeus, the first man to cite witnesses to any or all of these texts (Papias and Ignatius necessarily make their way to us through the Roman presbyter) there are instances where he references 'Mark' is identified as having pericopes and sayings that now only found in Matthew and Luke.

Irenaeus also knows of a heretical version of the gospel of Mark that differed greatly from the canonical text.  I can see no reason why Irenaeus defends the opening and closing of the received text unless it is owing to the existence of a very different text in antiquity.  As we noted in a previous post, Clement of Alexandria seems to reject the manner in which there is a 'stitching together' (συγκαττύσαντες) of Malachi and Isaiah at the beginning of the canonical text. Irenaeus's defense of this very strange citation in canonical Mark has to be seen as a hint that another version of Mark was known to both men which did not have this centonized version of the beginning of Malachi chapter 3.

Indeed as we noted in that post Irenaeus tactic with respect to defining the proper understanding of what the Gospel of Mark 'really is' is to identify it as being 'merely' the product of 'prophetic inspiration.' This is said about none of the other gospels and is a very curious and overlooked statement in his writings. As noted previous, Irenaeus says that because Mark is the most prophetic of the evangelists his text is abridged and cursory. Not only is this a strange thing to say about one of the holy and immaculate gospels (or at least so we presume given our inherited prejudices) there is a consistent argument from the beginning of Book Three that all the gospels were necessarily 'in harmony' with the writings of the Jewish prophets.

The reason the statement about Mark being a prophet is so strange now is that it seems to contrast with slightly with Clement statement about Mark in to Theodore where the evangelist is specifically identified as a 'mystagogue.' Of course in some sense Moses is both prophet (cf. Deut 18:18) and mystagogue in the writings of Philo. But Moses we have to remember is understood by traditional Jewish and Samaritan exegesis as standing above the rest of the prophets. The Samaritans repeat over and over in their writings that no one has or will ever appear again as great as Moses save for the one referenced in his prophetic utterances. In the Samaritan tradition and to Theodore there are nevertheless no so subtle hints that 'Mark' was that historical figure.

There should be no doubt then that given the statements in to Theodore which seem to suggest that Mark was somehow identified as a second Moses (notice also that he establishes not only a 'new Torah' = the 'mystic' gospel but a 'new' covenant at Alexandria based on the revelation of new divine mysteries). But Irenaeus's obvious efforts to chop Mark and his composition down to size (alongside his citation of Papias's testimony in a lost report known to Eusebius) necessarily come as a reaction to knowledge of parallel claims of that found in to Theodore in contemporary Alexandria.

Nothing remotely disparaging is ever said of Matthew, Luke or John or their compositions. Indeed at the very beginning of Book Three only Mark and Luke are subordinated as 'hearers of disciples':

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 [AH 3.2.1]

That this tendency does not show up in Clement's account in to Theodore is testimony of the same deliberate effort to devalue the significance of Mark once again.

Indeed while all the evangelists are consistently emphasized to have been 'in communion' with the same prophetic spirit that spoke in the Jewish prophets it is worth noting that Matthew and Luke begin with an accurate citation of Isaiah's original prophecy:

He (Jesus) preached to them, therefore, the repentance from wickedness, but he did not declare to them another God, besides Him who made the promise to Abraham; he, the forerunner of Christ, of whom Matthew again says, and Luke likewise, "For this is he that was spoken of from the Lord by the prophet, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough into smooth ways; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." [AH 9.1.1]

Yet Mark begins with a bald proclamation from a centonized version of the same prophesy of Isaiah 'stitched together' with material from Malachi. Why is this? Because Irenaeus is necessarily seeking to reinforce that Mark rather than Matthew and Luke is the real 'cento gospel.' It cannot be any other way.

In other words, I find it very difficult not to see that canonical Mark is a deliberate contrivance, an answer to the original understanding of the Alexandrian tradition that Mark wrote the original gospel. Everything about our surviving New Testament, developed certainly by Irenaeus's handiwork, indirectly takes on this claim by setting forth a pathetic emasculated text which necessitated now the work of Matthew, Luke and to some extent John. These are no longer seen as 'forgeries' (so the Marcionites) as much as the completion of the original prophetic revelation to Mark.

Email with comments or questions.

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