Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Myth of Jesus Christ Chapter Two

It would seem to be as easy as pie. If you want to get to understand a great piece of art do some research and find out what the artist was going through while making it. Of course things are not quite so simple in early Christianity. We find ourselves unable to simply ‘Google’ what Mark was up to in 75 CE. It would seem a most hopeless ordeal as Paul J. Achtemeier, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia once quipped - “the best conclusion is to admit the uncertainty of our knowledge about the author of our Gospel.”

Yet scholars aren’t nearly as troubled about making far reaching conclusions about Jesus. There are more cockamamie theories about the central character in Mark’s mythopoetic creation than you can shake a stick at. There have been books written on the subject of Jesus the Galilean peasant, Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the rabbi, Jesus the magician, Jesus the pacifist, Jesus the Cynic, Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Gentile, Jesus the Buddhist, Jesus the hermaphrodite, Jesus the sage, Jesus the Essene, Jesus the Pharisee, Jesus the king, Jesus the socialist and of course Jesus the Christ.  How is it that so many people can come to completely different conclusions about the same historical figure?  Perhaps the reason has something to do with the fact that the gospels weren't real biographies but instant works which developed from subjective trance states.

This theory isn’t as crazy as it might seem at first glance. An ancient Christian romance from the late second century makes reference to a duel between St Peter and Simon Magus where the heretic is quite proud to have only met Jesus as a figment of his imagination. Simon acknowledges that his rival Peter holds “that real sight is more satisfactory than vision, not knowing that real sight can be human, but that vision confessedly proceeds from divinity.” This is a complete revaluation of what we would naturally think about the ancient environment which produced the gospels. It is our inherited presupposition to suppose that the gospel writers were trying to write accurate histories based upon reliable eyewitness testimonies. Yet this isn’t necessarily so.

If we look carefully at this tradition Simon Magus takes the unusual position in this fictitious debate that visions are superior to eyewitness testimony because revelations come from God:

And Simon said: If you maintain that apparitions do not always reveal the truth, yet for all that, visions and dreams, being God-sent, do not speak falsely in regard to those matters which they wish to tell.

And Peter said: You were right in saying that, being God-sent, they do not speak falsely. But it is uncertain if he who sees has seen a God-sent dream.

And Simon said: If he who has had the vision is just, he has seen a true vision.

And Peter said: You were right. But who is just, if he stands in need of a vision that he may learn what he ought to learn, and do what he ought to do?

And Simon said: Grant me this, that the just man alone can see a true vision, and I shall then reply to that other point. For I have come to the conclusion that an impious man does not see a true dream.

And Peter said: This is false; and I can prove it both apart from Scripture and by Scripture; but I do not undertake to persuade you. For the man who is inclined to fall in love with a bad woman, does not change his mind so as to care for a lawful union with another woman in every respect good; but sometimes they love the worse woman through prepossessions, though they are conscious that there is another who is more excellent. And you are ignorant, in consequence of some such state of mind.

And Simon said: Dismiss this subject, and discuss the matter on which you promised to speak. For it seems to me impossible that impious men should receive dreams from God in any way whatever.

This debate goes on for many more lines all over the most surprising bone of contention – is divine revelation superior and more valuable than direct firsthand testimony about Jesus. Peter is clearly understood to be the one who saw Jesus in the flesh. The gospel makes clear that he saw and heard Jesus for many months. Yet who is the historical figure described here as the embodiment of the one who communes with Jesus through visions?

It is rather simple-minded to take the debate as simply a battle between heresy and orthodoxy.  Scholars long noted there is more than meets the eye with respect to the figure of ‘Simon Magus.’ There is a specific point in the text where Peter condemns Simon for things said by Paul against his person.  In other words, the name ‘Simon’ appears to be little more than a convenient substitution for the real identity of Peter's opponent - viz. St Paul.

The Catholic tradition acknowledges of course that Paul might have said some bad things about Peter.  It also makes reference to the existence to a 'disagreement' between them.  Nevertheless the Catholic traditions also brings forward the Acts of the Apostles as proof that they quickly reconciled with one another.  This may be good enough for theologians to return to the comfort of their own presuppositions.  Yet many scholars do not believe that this reconciliation ever occurred.  One of the reasons for this doubt is that the traditions outside of the Church rejected the Acts of the Apostles as a forgery and furthermore denied that the two men ever kissed and made back up. They held that the war went on unabated until long after both men gave up the ghost.

The reason we mention this state of affairs of course is that it reinforces the idea that there were two very different understandings about Jesus in the second century. Yet we may also take matters one step further and assume that Peter the eyewitness reinforced the idea of Jesus the man while his opponent that of Jesus the god. Of course it is here that we face the ultimate stumbling block to the historical Jesus. It may well have been claimed that Peter came into contact with Jesus during his ministry. Nevertheless Peter is never acknowledged to have written a gospel.

This is a very serious problem for the advocates of a historical Jesus.  The canonical gospels were certainly not written by eyewitnesses of Jesus. As such we are left to consider what dubious methodologies might have been employed to make all the gospels differ and then miraculous come into agreement with one another when the canon was being arranged in the late second century.  Indeed the whole state of affairs is so suspicious we might well ask with the heretics - “why is it that the disciples whose names are recorded in the Gospel did not write, while men who were not disciples did?”

If the whole claim to the historical Jesus rests on the claims of Peter having witnessed in the flesh, why is it that his testimony is said to be preserved by Mark, someone who is not usually ranked as a witness of Jesus. There is something very unusual about this formulation. The testimonies of the earliest Church Fathers only agree in the barest details. Scholars have also long noted that the name ‘according to Mark’ was likely added later. The text was likely originally known by the opening line – the gospel of Jesus or the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of course the more layers we keep adding to the authorship the more likely that one has to be thrown out of the mix. As it stands we have:

  1. a text called the gospel of Jesus 
  2. written in some form by a man named Mark 
  3. but also allegedly written on behalf of a man named Peter.  

Yet doesn’t the proper title ‘the gospel of Jesus’ imply that the text was written on behalf of Christ? Why wouldn’t Mark simply call the text ‘the gospel of Peter’ if he had meant to write it for this disciple? Clearly the gospel was meant to capture the essential teachings of Jesus. However are we sure however that Mark did so solely on the authority of things he heard from Peter? One has to wonder whether Mark might also have been one of those people who received visions directly from Jesus.

It would be expected that Peter’s authority would be sufficient to preclude the possibility of ‘correction’ by people who never saw Jesus face to face. The Catholic tradition of course makes Matthew a disciple of Jesus. Yet others outside the tradition denied that Matthew was ever present at the things laid out in the gospel. Indeed there are several reasons to doubt this claim beyond the contentions of a rival tradition. If Matthew was present during most of the ministry of Jesus why would he rely so heavily on Mark’s alleged second hand account? The only direct evidence for Matthew status as an eyewitness to Jesus is the second-rate hack job of replacing the original name ‘Levi’ with ‘Matthew’ in the gospel of the same name.

The most likely scenario then is that which is expressed by the heretics namely that none of the gospels were written by actual eyewitnesses. Those who wrote gospels did so by means of divine inspiration. This notion is present in our earliest description of the composition of the four gospels – “for, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds ... it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.” There is a tendency among scholars to ignore this description, and characterize it as something of an exaggeration. Yet if this understanding is too poetic there is the pagan explanation of the same phenomenon which is worth considering also “Christian believers, like persons who in a fit of drunkenness lay violent hands upon themselves, have corrupted the Gospel from its original integrity, to a threefold, and fourfold, and many-fold degree, and have remodelled it, so that they might be able to answer objections.”

It would seem then that despite the consistent claim that the gospel was written by ‘eyewitnesses’ there is a well-established tradition that the gospel writers ‘wrote according to the spirit.'  In fact, if we take matters one step further we can say that those who allegedly saw Jesus as a man never wrote anything down while at the same time, those who did write seemed to have done so on the basis of spiritual inspiration. Of course this kind of literary activity can cut both ways. ‘Inspiration’ could lead to the establishment of new revelations about Jesus or contrarily to correct those already established in previous gospels. The knife cuts both ways.

Of course our real purpose in all of this is to determine what type of writer Mark was. We are told he couldn’t have been an eyewitness because he never saw Jesus firsthand. On the other hand, in the Alexandrian tradition which claimed him as its patron saint he is most commonly addressed as ‘the beholder of God.’ It would seem the only way this epithet makes any sense is if Mark was understood to have had visions of God like Simon Magus. Yet Thomas Oden in his recently published African Memory of Mark interprets the title as meaning “that of all those who attested God in the flesh in Africa, Mark holds a unique place of having beheld the Son of God face to face.”

Oden’s re-interpretation of the terminology isn’t convincing for several reasons. The most obvious is that one doesn’t have to have literally ‘met’ Jesus ‘in the flesh’ to have seen him ‘face to face.’ Simon Magus provides a clear ancient example of this. More troubling however is Oden’s unfamiliarity with the earliest Egyptian – or ‘African’ as he calls it – sources about Mark. Oden begins his discussion of the Coptic tradition’s devotion to Mark with an eleventh century writer named Severus of Al’Ashmunein yet seems to be unaware of a ninth century Coptic writer of the same name who lived in the town of Nesteraweh. In this much older tradition Mark was about three years old when Jesus was crucified – far too young to have been a source for any of the stories in his gospel.

All that can be said for certain is that the title is as old as the Coptic liturgy which means that it is very old by Coptic standards. The fact that Mark is associated with seeing Jesus as God supports an interpretation of the title as involving a vision of sorts, bringing us back to the central question of Mark’s relationship to the ‘gospel of Jesus.’ Did Mark write this text after an ecstatic out of body experience? The Catholic tradition certainly reinforces the idea that Mark wrote his gospel on behalf of Peter. Nevertheless it is worth noting that the various explanations of how Mark did this do not agree with one another.

Our earliest Coptic source, Severus of Nesteraweh tells us three important things about how the gospel was written. The first is an extraordinarily cryptic statement about the relationship of both Mark and Paul with the gospel associated with Peter:

As for the great St. Mark, he returned to St. Peter, the Apostles chorus leader, and he clung to that as a disciple for a full year. It was during this time that Peter wrote the Gospel that bears the name of St. Mark, and he preached in the great city of Rome and the Latins in the country. But the apostle Paul, having heard this, fell into the greatest astonishment.

It must be noted that Severus wrote originally in Coptic and this is a thirteenth century Arabic translation of the lost original. The exact meaning of the statement ‘heard this’ has baffled scholars for centuries. Yet it probably means that Paul heard by a vision the gospel that was composed by Mark for Peter. The idea here certainly goes back to the statement in the Pauline letters that the apostle ascended to heaven and ‘heard unspeakable things.’ While the Catholic tradition is deliberately ambiguous about what it was Paul heard, those outside of the orthodox faith made clear that what he heard was the gospel.

As such it is not completely surprising that Severus should understand Paul to have received the gospel by vision or revelation. The Alexandrian tradition that Severus draws from may well be connected to the ancient heresies. Indeed Severus mentions a visit of Paul to Alexandria which is only known to the Marcionite sect. The ninth century author consistently transfers traditions usually with Paul back to Mark and vice versa. Most significant of all is the idea in the very same text that Mark experienced Paul’s ‘vision on the road to Damascus’:

While the holy martyr, the Evangelist Mark, was engaged in these sad thoughts, mind and uncertain about what to do, suddenly the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him a bright cloud covered and surrounded by a great glory, as it appeared to the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. At the sight of the glory of the Lord, St. Mark worshiped the face against the ground and remained thus as still as death for some time before Jesus Christ. Then, recovering his senses and returned to him, he said to the Saviour: "Lord, who are you?" The Savior replied:" I am Jesus Christ. Arise now and go to the province of Egypt, to preach the Gospel, because that is your legacy … you distribute all your possessions to the poor, after which will make yourself read in Egypt, to preach the kingdom of heaven. Here I am with you until the end of the world. That my virtue and my blessing remain forever with you, with your seat with your children who will come after you in every time. " These are the words that the Savior spoke to the great St. Mark the Evangelist, then ascended into heaven, surrounded dune glory, while the pious apostle was with his eyes and gazed. St. Mark the Evangelist when he awoke, he felt fortified, and the disorder that caused her vision is being dissipated, he made all his arrangements for the trip, he left for Jerusalem, as he commanded had received from the Lord.

This narrative explains what was going on in the head of St Mark as he wrestled with the idea of sailing out to convert the population of Egypt. There is of course no explicit mention of the reception of the gospel yet it is important to remember that the context suggests this to us – i.e. the reference to Paul’s ‘vision,’ the ascension to heaven and seeing God.

Indeed in the heretical ‘Marcionite’ tradition which seems to have supplied at least some of the ideas in Severus’s text Paul ascends to heaven, hears ‘unspeakable things’ which ultimately become a part of the sacred gospel used by the tradition. An obscure fourth century Syriac text has this to say about this Pauline gospel which was received by a visionary experience:

O wonder beyond wonders, rapture, power, and amazement is it, that one can say nothing at all about the gospel, nor even conceive of it, nor compare it with anything.

The Catholic tradition goes out of its way now to discount the claim that Paul wrote a gospel in an ecstatic state. Nevertheless the traditions outside the Church rightly point to frequent allusions in his letters to his having produced a text – i.e. ‘according to my gospel’ or according to ‘the gospel of Christ.’

There is thus very solid evidence that a ‘mystic gospel’ received by an evangelist while in an ecstatic state. Indeed the Marcionites themselves specifically identify this as an expanded Gospel of Mark. The difficulty for us as we continue to examine this tradition is that an uncomfortable blurring of distinction between Paul and Mark travels back with us as go back in time from Severus of Nesteraweh. The fifth century Armenian bishop Eznik of Kolb says that the Marcion, the legendary founder of the Marcionites claims that he also heard the unspeakable utterance that was given to Paul in a state of ecstasy. Not surprisingly numerous Church Fathers accused him rather than Paul of being the author of the gospel used by the Marcionite community.

It is difficult not to see the parallels with the early Coptic tradition about Mark. We have no uncovered four different early Christian figures who claimed to have Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. The natural tendency of scholars is to side with what is familiar. As such ‘the reliable understanding’ here is that only Paul had the visionary experience and the other names associated with the ascent to the third heaven were either misunderstandings or misrepresentations. Nevertheless the reality is that that our Catholic sources provide us with very little information about Paul and his beliefs. The Marcionites certainly knew him better and at an earlier date. All that the Acts of the Apostles tells us is that Paul wasn’t even the apostle’s real name. He only took over this appellation after receiving the revelation from heaven.

All that we can say for certain then is that there appears to have been a very influential gospel which was made manifest to its author by means of a vision. There are very good circumstantial reasons for believing that this text was the gospel of Mark – if not our canonical text, a gospel which contained ‘mystic additions’ to the main narrative. The third century author of a Patristic text called the Philosophumena denies that Mark ever wrote this gospel. He seems instead to argue that this was accomplished by someone living in a later period who was deeply interested in Greek philosophy. It is worth noting however that an ancient letter of Clement of Alexandria was recently discovered which makes reference to a very similar concept albeit with Mark as the author of this expanded Markan text.

We will take a more detailed look at the tradition related to ‘secret Mark’ and its relationship with the testimony in the Philosophumena in subsequent chapters. The important thing is to see that there is a nexus of material which confirms the existence of a longer gospel established by means of a visionary out of body experience attributed to Mark but referenced in the letters of Paul. The third century Church writer Origen of Alexandria puts forth the relationship most explicitly in one of his late treatises:

In addition to what has been said, we must know this too about the gospel. First of all, it is the gospel of Christ Jesus, the head of the whole body of the saved, as Mark says: "beginning the gospel of Christ Jesus." But further, it is also the gospel of the apostles, on account of which Paul says, "According to my gospel."[emphasis mine] But the beginning of the gospel (for its greatness consists of a beginning, a sequence, a middle, and the end) is either all the Old Testament, John being its type, or, because of the connection of the New with the Old, the final events of the Old Testament which were presented through John. For the same Mark says, “beginning the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” And here I must wonder how the dissentients can connect the two Testaments with two different Gods. These words, were there no others, are enough to convict them of their error

The ‘errors’ that Origen is referencing here are the heretical beliefs of the Marcionites, who allegedly separate the Old and New Testaments as deriving from two different divine powers. Yet notice quite clearly that he presents the gospel of Mark as the gospel which Paul identifies as his own and more importantly the statement which Marcionites used to argue that this apostle knew and used a written gospel (in contradiction with the Catholic tradition which denied that Paul had anything in writing).

The Catholic tradition apparently had grave difficulties with the idea of a gospel written according to a visionary experience. As such, the Roman Church seems to have ‘demoted’ all parties associated with this mystic text. The Acts of the Apostles effectively subordinates both Paul and Mark to St Peter in spite of vehement protests by the Marcionites that this text was spurious. Indeed if we allow for the heretical objections to stand, the ‘playing field’ in early Christianity suddenly opens up and the possibility of a ‘secret gospel’ used by Paul, Mark, the Marcionites and the early Alexandrian Church suddenly becomes a real possibility.

If we leave aside the question of the existence of a gospel established by ecstatic experience for a moment, we should turn our attention now to the gospel which is more traditionally associated with St Mark – the canonical text said to be ‘according to Peter.’ If Paul using a mystic gospel of Mark seems odd, the idea that Mark should have been credited for writing a text that really belonged to St Peter should be twice as problematic. The only reason it isn’t is because we have heard the claim so many times that we no longer even think about it anymore.

As noted early, the surviving witnesses to this phenomenon only superficially agree with one another. When we really scrutinize the evidence we find that no clear consensus emerges on even the most basic ‘facts’ of Mark’s authorship of the gospel. With regard to the claim that Mark never saw Jesus firsthand this is upheld by our earliest source about Mark, an obscure second century Church Father named Papias who influenced most of the important Patristic figures after him. Nevertheless there are dissenting views on the subject. On the other side of the ledger – the Muratorian canon and the Dialogues of Adamantius as well as various later Coptic sources preserve a rival account of Mark having direct contact with Jesus.

There is also general agreement that Mark somehow wrote a gospel for Peter yet at the same time great disagreement about how and when this occurred. Papias established the view that the gospel of Mark was to be viewed as ‘memoirs of Peter’ a term also used by a contemporary of his – Justin Martyr. Many people have been led to believe that Justin must have known about the existence of our canonical text of the gospel of Mark because reference to a passage which only appears in this one of the four gospels:

And when it is said that He changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in the memoirs of him that this so happened, as well as that He changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder…

While at some scholars have been convinced by this argument this is hardly a convincing proof given that Justin’s student Tatian was famous for being associated with a gospel which was understood to have bits and pieces from all of the canonical gospels. The fact that Justin makes what seems to be one reference to Mark here and another reference to Luke there should not be taken as a proof of his use of our canonical set of four gospels. Instead he must have had a source which was used by later gospel writers which he explicitly identifies here as ‘the memoirs of Peter’ and which Church Fathers would ultimately claim was authored by Mark.

All that we can safely say about Justin’s gospel is that it was associated with Peter and that it must have had an unfinished quality to it – otherwise it would not have been identified by a great number of terms related to the Greek hypomnema. A hypomnema literally means a ‘notebook.’ It was something in which you would write notes which you might later want to complete in a finished treatise. The fact that this terminology comes up over and over again in relation to the gospel associated with Peter seems to indicate that it wasn’t quite polished enough to stand as a gospel. Indeed it is only Papias who ever indicates that this composition was fine the way it was. Yet it is interesting to note that he makes this statement in the course of subtly running down the author of whatever gospel he associated with Mark.

Indeed if we look carefully at the testimony of Papias he actually uses a word related to ‘memoir’ to describe the gospel of Mark. We are told that Mark “remembered” as best he could when completing his composition but that “Matthew put together the utterances in the Hebrew language” correctly “and each one interpreted them as best he could.” Papias’s testimony is the most critical and it is likely misunderstood by scholarship because they try to harmonize what this second century writer says in light of the harmonization effort of all the Church Fathers who come after him.

Papias’s testimony can be read as an indirect reference to the lost Hebrew text of Matthew representing the true ‘memoirs of Peter.’ In other words, both Mark and Matthew go back to Peter but Mark did a bad recording job. Of course we only have Papias’s writings in a fragmentary form. It is preserved in the chronicle of Eusebius (who identifies Papias ‘stupid’ in the course of his narrative where we are told:

Mark, being the recorder of Peter, wrote accurately but not in order whatever he [Peter] remembered of the things either said or done by the Lord; for he [Mark] had neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to make teachings according to the cheias, [a special kind of anecdote] but not making as it were a systematic composition of the Lord's sayings; so that Mark did not err at all when he wrote certain things just as he had recalled [them]. For he had but one intention, not to leave out anything he had heard, nor to falsify anything in them". This is what was related by Papias about Mark. But about Matthew`s this was said: "For Matthew composed the utterances in Hebrew style; but each recorded them as he was able"

If you look very carefully then at this testimony we see the door open to the possibility that Justin’s ‘memoirs of Peter’ was the Hebrew gospel of Matthew. This makes intuitive sense because Epiphanius says that this Hebrew gospel was the text used by Justin’s disciple Tatian. The place where all of this leads of course is that there may have been a very old controversy in antiquity where by the gospel of Mark was nothing more than a mystical expansion of Hebrew gospel of Matthew. This text may have been identified as the ‘memoirs of Peter’ or even the ‘Gospel of Peter’ in some circles. A late second century bishop of Antioch similarly makes reference to “the heresy of Marcian” and their “Gospel of Peter” which was determined to have “many things in accordance with the true doctrine of the Saviour, but some [heretical] things added to that doctrine.” This gospel written in the name of Peter was certainly not our canonical Mark. It was likely a remnant of Hebrew Matthew. Nevertheless the expansion of that text by someone with a name related to ‘Mark’ certainly brings to the things said by Clement in the Letter to Theodore.

We should all begin to see that there are consistent reports of an ancient gospel controversy which was covered up by the structure of our fourfold gospel canon. Our canonical gospel of Mark was neither the ‘before’ or ‘after’ in the dispute. It was neither the original gospel associated with Peter nor the final ‘complete’ gospel written in Alexandria. The ‘before’ gospel was more than likely the lost Hebrew gospel of Matthew allegedly written on behalf of Peter. All that the later Church Fathers did to avoid this controversy was falsely identify the canonical gospel of Mark as the ‘memoirs of Peter’ when in fact these memoirs were clearly first associated with Matthew.

To this end, it is worth bringing forward an ignored tradition which was certainly very influential in later Coptic Christianity – the fourth or fifth century text of the Acts of Barnabas. The Acts of Barnabas explicitly identifies the Gospel of Matthew as Mark’s source text. The reason this is significant of course is that the author must have been aware of the existence of the canonical text in Mark’s name. Barnabas was written in the fourth century. You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that. As such, the introduction of a tradition where Mark received the gospel of Matthew before going to Alexandria implies two very important things:

  1. that Mark did not ‘hear’ Peter at all or act as his secretary but rather drew from the Hebrew gospel of Matthew which may in turn have been understood to be the ‘memoirs of Peter.’ 
  2. that Barnabas is another witness for the composition of the gospel of Mark in Egypt 

The fifth century Church Father John Chrysostom is another witness to the idea of the gospel of Mark being composed. So too Clement’s Letter to Theodore which also references that it a written ‘memoirs of Peter’ was the source of gospel which Mark composed in Alexandria.

It should really come as no surprise that the Acts of Barnabas is closely related to the Alexandrian tradition of St Mark. The author has established Mark as the narrator of the text. Indeed there are several points of contact with the Acts of Mark and the oldest Coptic traditions about Mark. For instance, our oldest surviving Homily on Mark is a sixth century text which wrestles with Acts 15’s claim that Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus after having a disagreement with Paul in a way that is very reminiscent of the treatment in the Acts of Barnabas. In Barnabas we read:

Paul said to Barnabas: If you will take John who also is surnamed Mark with you, go another road; for he shall not come with us. And Barnabas coming to himself, said: The grace of God does not desert him who has once served the Gospel and journeyed with us. If, therefore, this be agreeable to you, Father Paul, I take him and go. And he said: You go in the grace of Christ, and we in the power of the Spirit.

It is at Cyprus that Mark and Barnabas come across the gospel of Matthew – “Barnabas had received documents from Matthew, a book of the word of God, and a narrative of miracles and doctrines.” We are told that that the two men taught the Jews from this Hebrew text of Matthew:

And having set sail in a ship from Citium, we came to Salamis, and landed in the so-called islands, where there was a place full of idols; and there there took place high festivals and libations. And having found Heracleides there again, we instructed him to proclaim the Gospel of God, and to set up churches, and ministers in them. And having gone into Salamis, we came to the synagogue near the place called Biblia; and when we had gone into it, Barnabas, having unrolled the Gospel which he had received from Matthew his fellow-labourer, began to teach the Jews.

The Acts of Barnabas deals with the circumstances which lead to Mark’s missionary activity in Egypt. That Mark should have taken a copy of the Hebrew gospel of Matthew isn’t at all surprising because it is said that this text was prominent in the Catechetical School of Alexandria of which Clement may well have once been the head.

As we continue to go through the Acts of Barnabas it very interesting to note this gospel isn’t merely described as a Hebrew text of Matthew but quite specifically a ‘secret’ gospel. The text has to be ‘hidden’ from the view of the angry Jews who seek out those who dared convert members of the congregation. After the Jews manage to capture Barnabas they burn him alive and Mark tells us that he managed to preserve the head by hiding in cave with this gospel:

finding an opportunity in the night, and being able along with Timon and Rhodon to carry it. we came to a certain place, and having found a cave, put it down there, where the nation of the Jebusites formerly dwelt. And having found a secret place in it, we put it away, with the documents which he had received from Matthew. And it was the fourth hour of the night of the second of the week.

It is only after the Jews give up searching for Mark and his associates that the narrator tells us that they left the caves and:

having come to the shore, we found an Egyptian ship; and having embarked in it, we landed at Alexandria. And there I remained, teaching the brethren that came the word of the Lord, enlightening them, and preaching what I had been taught by the apostles of Christ, who also baptized me into the name of Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost

It is of course not our point to suggest that the Acts of Barnabas are a factual, minute by minute account of how Mark became an Egyptian missionary. It is just one of many surviving accounts which provide a glimpse about what information early Christians preserved for us about the patron saint of Alexandria.

The Acts of Barnabas preserves a tradition that Mark came to Alexandria with a copy of Matthew which must presumably have been used to manufacture his own gospel. In this respect the tradition agrees in many ways with our proposed reconstruction of Papias testimony. It wasn’t that Mark and Matthew were drawing from a common oral tradition which was ‘the memoirs of Peter.’ The Acts of Barnabas agrees substantially with the core understanding of the Letter to Theodore too insofar as Mark was drawing from a written document whose roughness led to its identification as a hypomnema.

Of course even though the Acts of Barnabas does not mention the eventual composition of Mark’s gospel, it is possible to see that its composition must have resembled what is described in Clement’s earlier letter. It is here that we finally reveal that what new things Mark added to his gospel must have came to him by some sort of heavenly revelation. The language throughout implies a gnostic communing of the spirit:

As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both the memoirs of Peter and his own, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prepared matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.

Of course Clement’s account only disagrees with the tradition of the Acts of Barnabas insofar as he puts forward that Mark was the author of the ‘memoirs of Peter.’ Nevertheless one would have to immediately see that if Clement let the original tradition stand – the tradition which Papias likely stood very close to – he would likely reopen old wounds that had divided the Christian community throughout the second century.

We should suppose then that it was well known originally that Mark added to and perfected the Hebrew gospel of Matthew, otherwise known as the Gospel according to the Hebrews. He did so by means of a spiritual revelation very similar, if not identical with the one described in the Second Letter to the Corinthians chapter 13. Nevertheless the question over which text had legitimacy – viz. the more original ‘memoirs of Peter’ or the more refined mystic gospel of Mark – remained a very contentious issue until leading voices within the Church basically agreed to identify the canonical Gospel of Mark as the ‘memoirs of Peter.’

Indeed it was Irenaeus who was the prime mover in the deliberate obscuring the original controversy. The Roman presbyter places Mark’s gospel of Peter second behind Matthew and argues that only it was connected with Peter:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.

Of course, Irenaeus’s testimony about the manner in which the gospels came into being is highly treasured by scholars studying the New Testament. They give what is written here greater weight than all other testimonies and effectively make them agree with Irenaeus or ignore them entirely.

The reality however is that what Irenaeus says is subtly out of step with everything else that has ever been written about Mark. The idea for instance that Mark wrote after the deaths of Peter and Paul disagrees with Clement’s other statements that this ‘proto-gospel’ was developed while Peter was still alive. Irenaeus was merely inserting the gospel which Clement says in his Hypotyposeis ‘was thought to be according to Mark’ into the chronology of the Letter to Theodore and its secret gospel of Alexandria. Irenaeus never identifies where his gospel of Mark was written. It only represents however one of many attempts to diffuse points of contention within the Church. The myth that Peter and Paul made up at Antioch was another.

The important point to take away from all of this is that it is sheer madness to assume that the canonical gospel of Mark was what it claims to be. It is neither the proto-gospel nor the finished secret gospel of Mark any more than the canonical gospel of Matthew was the Gospel According to the Hebrews or Luke was the gospel of Paul. The circumstances by which Irenaeus eventually introduces the four canonical texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are highly suspicious. Indeed when we factor in the widespread claim that the Gospel of John was a fake, it is difficult not to see the set as a carefully crafted pious fraud to help end factionalism within the Church. The fact that Irenaeus’s efforts ultimately proved to be so successful make it that much harder to track the origins of the real gospel of Mark.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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