Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why I Am So Interested in the Mar Saba Letter

I am still waiting for a number of digital scans of handwriting samples from seventeenth and eighteenth century manuscripts which I hope will finally solve this long-standing 'mystery.' I hope to get them by the beginning of next week.  So until then I am forced to fill in some time speaking frankly about my seeming 'obsession' with this text.

Almost everyone in the 'Secret Mark' debate has had some motive for adopting their position. You know, there's the 'religious zealot position' (= most of the hoaxers), the 'atheist typology' (which interesting breaks down both in favor and against the discovery apparently) etc. Yet none of this describes me.

My interest in the text was rooted in a quest to find something which shed some light on the early Alexandrian Christian tradition.  I have always sought to demonstrate that Clement and Origen weren't just anomalies in early Christianity.  They both represent links to an enlightened past.  Yet a love of Alexandrian Christianity does not necessarily translate to an acceptance of the authenticity of the Mar Saba document.  One need look no further than Birger Pearson - a man whose dedication to the same lines of inquiry - takes the exact opposition position.

How then can my interest be explained?

I suppose the conspiracy-minded might attribute my interest to my having come into the world from a Jewish womb. You know - we Jews 'have it in' for Christianity or something like that.  But I don't accept that at all.  Alexandrian Christianity is one part Moses, one part Plato.  It developed from Philo Judaeus for God's sake.  There is more than enough love here to go around.  But I've heard these 'Jewish conspiracy' whispers and Secret Mark before on internet chat boards.

Being Jewish doesn't make one a hater of Christianity any more than being Christian predisposes oneself to hate Judaism. So what's the story with my interest in this document. My friend Harry from Athens asks me this question all the time. Even my mother can't understand why I would 'waste' my time blogging about some obscure text from a monastery when I could devote my time telling the world about our family and our blood relation to Karl Marx, the Marx brothers and Jacob Frank.

I think at bottom the document embodies all that's wrong about the humanities and scholarship into early Christianity in particular. We chose to go down a road because its the road that our ancestors trod. However, when you take that journey back through the period back to the fourth century, the collective testimony of our ancestors isn't worth much as they were utterly ignorant peasants for the most part.

We are basically left with an organized religious body telling very stupid people what to think and what to believe.

Now I have to make clear that I am not one of these people that buys into a great Imperial conspiracy at the time of Constantine, but clearly there was Imperial involvement in the development of Christianity from the last generation of the second century to the time the faith attained favored status. While I do not believe that Constantine 'invented' the four gospels, I do not believe the similarities and differences between the four gospels came about naturally or 'supernaturally.' The synoptic gospels were all forgeries of a lost original text which had something to do with the heretical faith known as 'Marcionitism.'

I also believe that the Gospel of John was deliberately developed into something wholly different than the other three. In other words, there was a time when the Gospel of John associated with Polycarp was a synoptic text with a lot of added material. Now almost all that is left is the added material.

To this end, Clement's testimony about a 'mystic gospel' in Alexandria written by someone named Mark is the key to unlock the original Christian culture in Egypt. I think the name Μαρκίων is just a preservation of the core difference between this Alexandrian faith and its Roman cousin - the Alexandrian culture understood Jesus to have adopted his beloved disciple Mark (also called John) as his son.  Μαρκίων is, as we have demonstrated the Greek diminutive form of the Roman name Mark.

I have sought to prove that the early Alexandrian Church actually called its patron saint by the diminutive form of his name.  I think there is more than enough evidence to demonstrate that they identified him as the youth in the gospel of Mark (i.e. Mark 14:52) since the earliest recorded testimonies of the tradition (= the Acts of Peter of Alexandria).  But I think we can actually take that one step further.

The evangelist was also the youth of the Secret Mark fragment in to Theodore.  His initiation into the kingship of God was at once his adoption as God's son.  This 'mystic act' wasn't just some 'curiosity' that develops in an otherwise unconnected gospel narrative discovered in an obscure book in the Mar Saba monastery.   They were viewed as a secret, historical event that grounded the very episcopal line of the Alexandrian Church.

How do we know that such a ritual existed outside of the Mar Saba document? We know this from Athanasius's Historia Arianorum where we are told that one of the last true Patriarchs of St. Mark in Alexandria (Athanasius and his predecessor Alexander were little more than handpicked dupes of Constantine) was linked to an associate with mystical language derived from the same chapter of the Gospel of Mark as the material just referenced from the Letter to Theodore.

Athanasius writes that the Patriarch George "finding one Epictetus a novice, a bold young man, he loved him perceiving that he was ready for wickedness." As Philip Schaff notes the Greek for the 'he loved him' reference is ᾽Επικτητόν τινα…νεώτερον…ἠγάπησεν, ὁρῶν ... It derives from the Question of the Rich Youth in the Gospel of Mark "νεανίσκος, ῾Ο δὲ ᾽Ιησοῦς ἐμβλέψας αὐτῷ, ἠγάπησεν αὐτόν." (Mark 10. 21). This cannot be coincidence. Athanasius is mocking the ritualized veneration of Jesus and St. Mark as teacher and student in the tradition Alexandrian (= Arian) understanding.

Let's not forget that the Arians (= the native Egyptian Church) had control of the martyrium of St. Mark from before the time of Arius and never let go until the end of the fourth century. They are accused by their Orthodox opponents of being Origenists, Jew-sympathizers - indeed all the attributes that distinguished the earliest Christian representatives of Alexandria. Yet the thing about some sort of mystic rite developed from the Gospel of Mark chapter 10 is too much of a coincidence for me to ignore. The same idea manifests itself in the writings of Clement, Origen and various Origenists (cf. Jerome) - these people understood Jesus to have initiated a beloved youth and this mystic rite in turn established the Alexandrian Church.

And isn't this, my friends, exactly what the Letter to Theodore is telling us? Why then should be bothered by the fact that various religious bigots 'suspect' that something is wrong with the discovery? They fail to produce any shred of evidence that it was forged and instead go back to endless gossip, innuendo and 'suspicion' as their sole debate tactics. I don't see any reason why Morton Smith ever took an interest in the Alexandrian Church or its patron saint Mark. Why then did he forge a text which fits so perfectly with the scraps of evidence available to us from Patristic sources regarding the beliefs and practices of this obscure tradition?

I just don't buy it. One would have expected a man who made his career developing the connection between 'tannaitic parallels' to the gospels to have forged something related to the Ebionites or some other Jewish Christian sect. But a text which makes reference to St. Mark in a Palestinian monastery written into a seventeenth century book devoted to Ignatius and Barnabas? Come on, now. Absolutely none of this can be connected to Morton Smith and his theological interests before or after the discovery at Mar Saba.

Anyone who tries to make up some argument to square this circle is just engaging in deceit. If we were to call in the FBI and tell that we are looking to find a profile for the responsible for creating this text we'd be told the candidate was likely an early Christian living in Alexandria seeking to explain a tradition which actually forbid its members from explaining itself to outsiders.

In short, we'd learn that the only possible author of the text was Clement of Alexandria himself.

Email with comments or questions.

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