Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Very Next Chapter of the Myth of Jesus Christ [Part Two]

There can be no doubt as to the context of the words of the Marcionite representative here.  They are to be understood as a rejection of the historical claims of the Acts of the Apostle.  This exchange would not be the last time the authenticity of the Acts would be challenge.  An ever increasing of scholars is expressing doubts about the value of this text as a historical road map to the development of the early Jesus cult.  Yet it must also be acknowledged that if we reject Acts out of hand we face a grave difficulty.  For Acts has been our tradition means of connecting the myth of Jesus to the real world.  

Indeed it must be acknowledged by all students of history that we really haven't the foggiest idea how the Marcionites connected their Church to their beloved apostle or their beloved apostle to Jesus.  The Catholic tradition tells us that Paul never met Jesus.  Yet what does this really mean when we know the Marcionites did not believe that Jesus was human being?  Could the Marcionites have countered that their apostle only met a divine hypostasis or God?

Some clues do emerge from the dialogue here between Catholic and Marcionite representatives.  The Catholic representative says that Mark and Luke were part of the seventy two disciples sent out by Jesus in the gospel (Luke 10:17).  This is now the official understanding of the Coptic tradition with respect to Mark.  However the Marcionite rejects this understanding - and in all fairness even Irenaeus and Tertullian would have sided with  him against the Catholic representative at least with respect to this one issue.

So we are left with the answered question - what did the Marcionites believe?  Despite all the best efforts of scholars, the sad reality is that it is now impossible to plumb the depths of this most ancient faith.  We can only get at it by gnawing at the edges.  We can only scrutinizing the tantalizing fragments of information that have preserved in the writings of the Catholic Church Fathers.  Yet some interesting possibilities emerge here if we pay attention to the patterns which emerge in this third century dialogue.

It is important to notice how the Marcionite uses the term 'Christ.'  We of course have been trained to believe that Jesus was the Christ.  Nevertheless the Marcionites certainly rejected this proposition.  They pointed to the undeniable fact that Jesus never once makes this claim in the gospel.  It is rather a dogma that was imposed on Christianity in order to obscure the subtleties of the original message of the faith.

The Marcionites were certain that Jesus never wanted to be recognized as the Christ.  The pointed to the gospel narratives where Jesus warns Peter not to tell people this and later condemns him for his imperfect understanding of who he really was.  The Marcionites said that Jesus was not the messiah or 'anointed one' expected by the Jews.  Indeed they were most intimately associated with call him Chrestos, that is - the kind, the merciful or the right one.  This is a well established and incontrovertible fact about the tradition.  We even have archaeological evidence which proves their beliefs beyond a shadow of a doubt.

So what did it mean earlier when the Marcionite representative says that "Christ did not have Mark and Luke as disciples"?   If Jesus wasn't the Christ of the Marcionite tradition and we are told that they understood someone else was their messiah the meaning of this statement is actually quite different from what it appears at first glance.  The Marcionite says at one point that 'Christ' wrote the gospel.  The name of their text was 'the Gospel of Christ,' the opening words of our canonical gospel of Mark.  At the very same time we are repeatedly told by various Catholic authorities that the Marcionites held that gospel was written by Paul, yet paradoxically according to Tertullian, they will not identify it as 'according to Paul.'

When you put together all the evidence the only solution to the age old question of Marcionitism is that (1) the apostle was their 'Christ' (2) he wrote a variant form of the canonical gospel of Mark but (3) they denied that Mark was his disciple because (4) the maintained in strictest secrecy that Mark was the apostle's secret name.

While it may be difficult for some to absorb the complexities involved in this understanding, one need only look to the most fundamental paradigm of the Coptic Church.  The enthronement of St Mark is the most important symbol of this faith.  The great Coptic historian Severus of al'Ashmunein identifies him as the Christ.  Perhaps most significantly of all, the Letter to Theodore makes plain that Alexandrian not only understood Mark was the 'mystagogue' who established the sacred liturgy of the tradition, Clement acknowledges that members of the faith routinely lied to protect their holy communion with the apostle.

When all these pieces are put into place we can see the Marcionite phenomenon in an entirely different light. The Church Fathers were not simply attacking some amorphous 'heretical tradition' but in fact the original faith of St Mark that had been rooted for over a century in Alexandria.  This reality is further confirmed by the report that among the epistles in their codex was one written by the apostle to the Alexandrian community.  The Catholics either removed, broke up or renamed this epistle in part because Acts does not mention Paul going on a mission to Alexandria.  Yet it was common knowledge in antiquity that Mark certainly ventured there as well as Rome and many of the regions which eventually received apostolic epistles.

The blurriness of our historical record becomes even more unfocused when we remind ourselves that even Acts acknowledges that Paul was not the apostle's real name.  We call him 'St Paul' even though the circumstances of the name adoption are not explained in the narrative.  Similarly Acts never reveals how John came to be known as 'Mark' for that matter.  Nevertheless it should be noted that understanding that this 'John' was a disciple of that 'Paul' ultimately helped neutralize the secret tradition of the Alexandrian faith.

It may well have been the Marcionites who originally adopted 'Paul' as a means of obscuring the sacred name of their apostle.  Various explanations of this name or title have been proposed; none of them seem very convincing.  In the end we may suppose that the two traditions may have shared the historical understanding that the apostle began as a persecutor of the Church.  Nevertheless it is certain that the Marcionites did not acknowledge that the apostle was formerly 'Saul' the student of Gamaliel and Pharisaic bounty hunter.  As has been noted before, there is nothing in his writings which suggests contact with the Pharisees.  The epistles in fact much more closely resemble the writings of Alexandrian Judaism.  The apostle after all uses the Septuagint throughout.  No Greek-speaking Pharisees have ever been documented.

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