Sunday, January 1, 2012

Did the Gospel of Mark Really Put Forward that Jesus was the Christ?

Have you ever been in the situation where you are in a room and a group women are looking at you whispering?   If you are a vain person you immediately think their secret is that one of them 'is into you.'  If you are insecure you are sure they are making fun of you.  The point is that you don't know until you confront them and even then the answer won't be immediately apparent to you.  It is a secret after all and things kept hidden don't rush out into the light without some probing.

The same thing is true with the earliest gospel - the one that is now labeled 'according to Mark.'  Almost everyone agrees there is a 'gospel secret' here.  The text is so short very little of its literary purpose is revealed to us.  We get a basic idea that Jesus appeared in a certain year at the beginning of the Common Era, began healing and preaching before being mistaken for a number of contemporary figures and ultimately crucified.

The assumption among Christians for centuries has been that Mark 'must' have believed that Jesus was the Christ.  This is why the four canonical gospels were bundled together - i.e. the four evangelists, living in four different parts of the world, put forward four very similar testimonies about the resurrected Jesus as they were inspired by one and the same Holy Spirit.

Yet the Gospel of Mark is clearly in some form the ancestor of the other two synoptic gospels (i.e. Matthew and Luke).  Matthew and Luke develop what was original laid out in Mark according to more explicit literary purposes.  There is no question that Jesus is the Christ of these two evangelists and also John.  But Mark?  Well that's another story and I think story is key to making sense of the development of the Catholic New Testament.

I can't find a single reference in the narrative of the gospel of Mark which confirms that Χριστός was understood by the author to be the proper title of Jesus.  Remember the Marcionites and Catholics were split on the question of whether Jesus was the Χριστός (= the Anointed One) or the Χρηστος (= the Good One).  Irenaeus directs us to Luke as a guide to understand the Marcionite position saying that Marcion 'cut' things out of Luke's gospel.  Yet other sources tell us that Marcion expanded or added things to the canonical gospel of Mark.  I favor the latter position because of its agreement with what is said by Clement in the Letter to Theodore.  Yet we have to consider the fact that the Gospel of Mark as it stands now in no way contradicts two core Marcionite principles - (a) that Jesus wasn't human and (b) that Jesus wasn't the Christ.

It is amazing to me that scholars haven't noticed what Vinzent has recently posted on his blog - namely that there were two editions of the Marcionite gospel.  Tertullian's clear testimony that the Marcionites had an expanded text not only agrees again with Clement's reference to the longer 'secret' Mark in the Alexandrian community but moreover the basic idea that an original text of the gospel acted as a 'building block' for the various longer gospels used by a number of sectarian communities.

In other words, just as one community or person expanded a text resembling our canonical Mark to develop our canonical 'according to Matthew' Marcion is reported in pseudo-Hippolytus's Philosophumena to have expanded a gospel of Mark to develop his own mystical text infused allegedly with the philosophical doctrines of Empedocles.

I am not asking my readership to accept unquestioned what any Patristic source says on the matter of the relations between the gospels.  The point is that there is a growing nexus of material which suggests that canonical Mark appeared to be a 'building block' or 'stepping stone' to a variety of expanded texts.  Matthew and Luke developed Mark's silence on the question of Jesus's nature to declare that he was born from a virgin, a descendant of David and Christ the awaited messiah of the Jews.  The Marcionite gospel according to pseudo-Hippolytus at least expanded canonical Mark to make manifest that Jesus was a divine being who descended from heaven to Jerusalem in order to manifest in some form that he was Chrestos the spokesman of a God unknown to the Jews.

This state of affairs is very useful for those arguing for the authenticity of the Letter to Theodore because this paradigm isn't even recognized today let alone at the time Morton Smith discovered the text in 1958 (i.e. that both orthodox and heretical texts were acknowledged in antiquity to be developments of the Gospel of Mark).  Indeed I think we can go one step further.  The Catholic tradition generally avoided the idea of Markan primacy because it undermined the authority of their tradition.  This is also why undoubtedly there are no Commentaries on the Gospel of Mark from antiquity.  The idea that a generic text which went out of its way to avoid acknowledging or supporting core claims of the Catholic tradition was the ancestor of the other canonical texts opens the door to the idea that heretical texts and the claims associated with them pre-dated orthodoxy.

In other words, Jesus was God on a 'visit' to humanity before the end times - a well established 'Jewish belief' of the Qumran community and not just some 'invention' of a bunch of sectarians from the 'true Church.'  The Catholic tradition tries to attach itself to Judaism by means of Jesus 'the Christ.'  But this argument was only added to Mark.  It appears secondary in the same way - the Catholics argued - Marcion 'added' his mystical mumbo jumbo to the same short text of Mark.  Clement however breaks the deadlock and says that it was Mark himself who added the mystical narratives.

Is Marcion a form of the name Mark?   Most certainly.  Could the claims about Marcion have developed out of a misunderstanding or an attempt to mask the existence of an expanded text of Mark which contradicted the core principles of the Christian tradition?  Of course.  Could Irenaeus have developed the claims about Luke (which is an expanded gospel narrative from Mark) in order to throw contemporaries off the trail of Marcion as Mark?  Let's put it this way.  What is the evidence for the existence of a Gospel of Luke before Irenaeus?  Yes Acts certainly was known to Church Fathers before Irenaeus.  But the claim that Luke was the author of Acts is put forward first by Irenaeus and interestingly he uses it as a key defense of his claim that Luke is the gospel of Paul (i.e. other than the expanded Marcionite text identified in the Philosophumena as effectively mystic Mark).

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