Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Next Chapter of the Myth of Jesus Christ [Part Five]

The understanding that Paul refers to the Gospel of Mark as 'his gospel' was championed in the last century by the Protestant theologian Hermann Raschke.  We will return to his theories later in the book yet for the moment it is difficult not to immediately recognize that the possibility that the Catholic tradition might have been deliberately trying to obscure the relationship between the apostle and the Gospel of Mark is pregnant with possibilities.  On the one hand, with every chance he gets Irenaeus goes out of his way to deny Mark the title of 'apostle.'  Indeed Mark is presented as a mere 'disciple' - a hearer as it were of the more important figure of St. Peter.  Mark's counterpart in the Catholic worldview is Luke of course who as we have just seen was the true disciple of St Paul.

Of course what rarely gets mentioned in books these days is that there were a great number of dissenters against this understanding and still are to this day.  The thirteen million strong Coptic Church of Egypt sees itself as the tradition which grew from Mark's historical missionary activity and takes issue with the Roman Catholic claims about their patron saint.  The current Pope of the tradition put the objection in the plainest language possible - "How much injustice did St. Mark receive from the followers of St. Peter? They tried to rob him his apostolic dignity, and credit all his efforts to somebody else?  I mean St. Peter."

While the Coptic Church identifies itself as the keepers of the original faith of St Mark, the faith that developed in Alexandria was certainly transformed in the theological debates of the fourth century which gave rise to the Nicene Creed.  No one can deny that the spirit of the community remains steadfastly devoted to Mark, the tradition itself was effectively steamrolled by the Imperial governments effort to bring the various churches under one orthodox rule.  There may have been a time where the pure faith of St Mark was indeed practiced in Egypt but that tradition simply no longer exists.

It is however an intriguing possibility that Marcionitism may well have been that faith.  Scholars are very certain that 'Marcionite' was what the tradition was called by outsiders.  The members of the faith undoubtedly referred to themselves as believers in Jesus, Christ or some such other epithet.  Marcionitism seems to have been most firmly rooted in the Aramaic speaking lands of the Near East.  They are supposed to have continued to exist here until the sixth century or later.

There survives a book from this period which tells of the story which survives to this day of the Patriarch Mar Aba I of the ancient Peria. Prior to his conversion, Mar Aba was an important Persian official, perhaps a Zoroastrian as he was well-versed in Persian literature. One day, while about to cross the Tigris on his way to his native village in Bet Garmai, he was offended by the sight of a Christian holy man in his habit and he arrogantly ordered him to be ejected from the ferry together with his bThe ferry was then rocked by a storm mid-stream and the violent winds did not abate until the holy man was readmitted on board. Struck by his distinctive dress, Mar Aba wondered if the holy man was a Jew or a Marcionite baggage.

At this point in the Syriac text of Mar Aba's life, the biographer makes an interesting editorial comment: 'for he [Mar Aba] called a Christian a Marcionite [mrqywn'] following the local custom. As Samuel Lieu points out "the numerical strength of the Marcionites in that region must have once considerable for the title of their sect to be used coterminously with that of the orthodox (ie Nestorian) Christians." Yet what escapes the eye of most scholars is that the very term still used by the orthodox to describe the sect has a very different meaning in Aramaic - it simply means "follower of Mark." Could the underlying truth that Irenaeus was desperately trying to hide from the world was that 'Marcion' was yet another invented figure developed only to obscure this tradition as the original faith of the apostle Mark? It would certainly provide us with a lot of solutions to problems which have plagued the study of Christianity since the beginning.

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