Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Preliminary Look At Chapter Four of the Myth of Jesus Christ

It is not difficult to give reasons in favor of the authenticity of the Letter to Theodore. The problem is that it is quite impossible to prove that Clement wrote this particular text. The difficulty exists in all branches of the humanities. There is great debate for instance as to whether all the works attributed to Shakespeare were really written by Shakespeare. The further back in time we go the more questions of authorship tend to take over the discussion.

It is generally acknowledged for instance that none of the writings attributed to the great medical writer Hippocrates were actually written by Hippocrates. The situation with letters and collections of letters associated with celebrated figures in Greek literature is much the same. It has been established since the celebrated work of Richard Bentley at the end of the seventeenth century that the vast majority are not what they claim to be, but instead the work of later authors impersonating these great figures of the past ( hence 'pseudepigraphic', involving a false or lying attribution).

The Letter to Theodore then sounds very much like something that Clement might have been written. There is even an ancient witness to the existence of a collection of letters attributed to Clement of Alexandria at the Mar Saba monastery. Nevertheless even with the strength of these arguments we can never be entirely certain about anything from antiquity. We should consider for a moment what is often said about the gospel of Mark – namely that it is ‘really’ the gospel of Peter. This is a most curious statement in itself and speaks to the great difficulty ascertaining any truth in early Christianity.

Severus tells us that the gospel which is attributed to St Mark was really written by St Peter. The Latin Church Father Jerome in the fourth century presents Peter as the narrator and Mark as the secretary. The Church Father Eusebius, writing a little before the Council of Nicaea, presents the situation as follows - ‘It is Mark indeed who writes these things. But it is Peter who testifies them concerning himself, for all the contents of Mark's Gospel are regarded as memoirs of Peter's discourses.’ The late second century Church Father Irenaeus said that Mark acted as Peter’s interpreter in writing the gospel after his death in Rome. The earliest testimony being the obscure figure of Papias who says the same thing about Mark being the ‘interpreter’ of Peter but takes this to mean a certain creative license on the part of Mark, putting the details in the wrong order when compared with the true account of Matthew.

The situation here is quite clearly one of disputed authorship yet it is amazing how many studies dance around this issue. There is a text which goes by the name of ‘according to Mark’ which apparently was taken to be ‘according to Peter’ by a great number of people. Each Church Father apparently took it upon himself to somehow reconcile the disputed authorship in a slightly different way which makes it clear that there was no definitive tradition. No one really knew anything about why the gospel according to Mark was so-called, when and under what circumstances it was written. Indeed from the very earliest period there appears to be a conflicting tradition in need of immediate resolution. This is undoubtedly one reason why the very subject of the gospel of according to Mark was generally avoided.

The first datum that seems to be generally agreed upon is that a text identified as ‘the memoirs of Peter’ was established some time before 70 CE. At some point thereafter a work later identified as the gospel according to Mark was also referenced. The uncomfortable dance that every Church Father seemed to face was arguing that the two texts were one and the same. Part of the difficulty seems to be that some Church Fathers made reference to Peter’s memoirs without calling it ‘according to Mark.’ On the other end of the spectrum, Clement of Alexandria when referencing the contents of the Gospel according to Mark makes absolutely no reference whatsoever to its alleged connection with Peter.

The Catholic tradition may well be argued to be finding a way to reconcile the ancient tradition of Peter with the equally ancient tradition of Mark. By all accounts – even Clement’s in the Letter to Theodore – Mark developed his own gospel out of the basic building blocks preserved in Peter’s memoirs. Yet it is difficult to avoid seeing that the combined testimony of Justin and Clement argue for the idea of two separate texts. It was Irenaeus’s original effort to arguing that Mark’s later composition of a gospel was identical with the ‘memoirs of Peter.’ This was a bald face lie and Irenaeus likely knew he wasn’t telling the truth. Yet it served the making it appear that there was only one text when it reality there were two.

The reality was that Peter’s memoirs were likely established before the destruction of the Jewish temple and Mark’s gospel thereafter. This is the crucial thing that we should walk away from this discussion. The situation in second century Christianity was that there were a group of believers who claimed to have the oldest memoir of the ministry of Jesus and then there were another group of Christians who claimed to have the perfect or most fully realized gospel. There must have been arguments in favor of either text. Yet it is only because the current Church presents us with four gospels each representing the testimony of a particular tradition within Christianity that scholars end up losing sight of the big picture.

If we look carefully at the testimony of Papias for example he uses the word ‘memoir’ to mean something imperfect and attaches this term to 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.” When Clement makes reference to Peter’s ‘memoirs’ it represents something essentially unfinished which become completed when mixed with Mark’s ‘mystic’ wisdom:

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 mystic 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 his own and the memoirs of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to those studies which make for progress to knowledge

It is Clement’s understanding that Mark wrote two gospels – the memoirs of Peter and a gospel which had no overt mention of authorship used in Alexandria as the community’s preferred text. Clement’s formula here is very similar to what is preserved by Irenaeus save for the fact that Roman presbyter has assumed only one literary composition.

When we look to Clement’s other writings it is interesting that he only mentions one composition – the memoirs of Peter which passed under the name of according to Mark. We read: When Peter had preached the gospel publicly in Rome...those who were present...besought Mark, since he had followed him (Peter) for a long time and remembered the things that had been spoken, to write out the things that had been said; and when he had done this he gave the gospel to those who asked him. When Peter learned of it later, he neither obstructed nor commended It often goes unrecognized that the same differences are present with respect to Irenaeus testimony about Mark writing his gospel after the death of Peter. Clement makes clear that Peter only knew about the first gospel of Mark or as he references it again elsewhere ‘what is called the gospel according to Mark.’ Clement does not mention the secret text which Mark wrote in the subsequent period. Yet Irenaeus himself engages in a similar deception delaying the original composition of the gospel written from Peter’s memoirs to the time of the secret gospel.

Indeed it is incredible that so few people recognize that Irenaeus’s testimony doesn’t simply fall out of step with Clement’s but also that of the other Church Fathers who preceded him. For Justin makes reference only to the existence of ‘memoirs’ while Papias gently dismisses Mark’s ‘remembrances’ in favor of Matthew. How could such plurality have existed in one supposedly ‘united’ Catholic Church? The only solution to this dilemma is that Irenaeus was changing the rule, that Irenaeus expanded the number of acceptable gospels to disentangle an age old debate between the greater authority of the original Hebrew text of Matthew and the Greek gospel of Mark.

For it is strange that Matthew witness the primacy of Peter but that Peter’s gospel is now associated by Irenaeus with Mark. Irenaeus indeed places the gospel of Peter second behind Matthew in his canon even though Peter is clearly the more authoritative witness. Irenaeus explains this by the fact that Matthew wrote before Mark. Yet if we revisit his actual statement in this regard it becomes apparent that Irenaeus has merely inserted the composition of Matthew’s gospel in the place of Mark:

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.

In other words, Irenaeus makes the case that “a written Gospel, representative of the Roman apostolic doctrine, existed prior to the written Gospels distinctively representative of the Gospel of Peter and Paul.” This sounds suspiciously like the proto-gospel of Mark in Clement’s narrative.

There are so few references made to Matthew it is difficult to even see how this gospel was even conceived. While Catholics present Matthew as a disciple of Jesus, the Marcionites vehemently denied this association. “Why is it that the disciples whose names are recorded in the Gospel did not write, while men who were not disciples did?” Whoever wrote the gospel of Matthew was not a disciple of the Lord. Indeed Matthew is apparently a late gloss substituted in favor of Mark’s original identification of Levi the tax-gatherer. The point of course is someone named Matthew who was not a disciple of Jesus may well have been understood to have original composed ‘the memoirs’ associated with Peter and then subsequent efforts to streamline the faith transferred the composition of this text over to Mark.

Are there witnesses to this idea? One could argue that Papias supported this understanding. Justin does not contract it. Irenaeus knew a tradition that Matthew was written while Peter was still preaching in Rome and Mark was completed after his martyrdom. Yet we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Irenaeus implies that this original text was written in Hebrew. Scholars have always commented upon the importance of Peter in our Gospel of Matthew, as well as his leadership role among the group of disciples, is emphasised by three further additions to the text of Mark. Yet whenever we are given glimpses of the proto-Hebrew text behind our Matthew that interest in Peter only gets stronger.

Jerome tells us that for instance that in the Hebrew gospel Jesus it was to Peter not Thomas that Peter demonstrated he had been resurrected in the flesh:

he came to Peter and those who were with Peter, he said to them: Lo, feel me and see that I am not a bodiless spirit (demon). And forthwith they touched him and believed.

More significantly this Hebrew gospel directs the famous ‘camel through the eye of a needle’ to Peter:

And he turned and said unto Simon his disciple who was sitting by him: Simon, son of Joanna, it is easier for a camel to enter in by a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven

We can’t forget the fact that we are only given a handful of references to this Hebrew gospel and in that small pool of evidence Peter’s presence is even more pronounced than the already pronounced interest in Peter in the canonical text of Matthew. The point then is that it is not at all difficult to see that there may well have been a tradition that the Hebrew gospel behind Matthew may well have been the gospel of Peter but more importantly that it might have been Mark’s source text.

It is well known that an oft repeated story in the Church Fathers that the founding of the catechetical school coincided with the bringing of the gospel of Matthew in Hebrew letters to the city. Yet it is often overlooked that a fourth or fifth century text, the Acts of Barnabas, explicitly identifies Matthew as Mark’s source text. Mark, in fact, is claimed to be the narrator of the Acts of Barnabas, the author expanding upon Acts chapter 15’s claim that Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus after having a disagreement with Paul:

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.

Interestingly this isn’t just a Hebrew text of Matthew but moreover a specifically ‘secret’ gospel because the text is specifically ‘hidden’ from the view of the angry Jews. After the Jews capture Barnabas and burn him alive Mark tells us that he managed to preserve his head and:

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.

After the Jews give up searching for them Mark tells us that:

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

Clearly then the Acts of Barnabas preserves a tradition where Mark with him to Alexandria a version of Matthew which appealed its message to Jews. While most scholars view the text as reflecting Cypriot traditions, it is often overlooked that many of the ideas contained in this text are shared by the sixth century Coptic Homily on Mark which until now has not been translated into English.

Some of course will contend that the Letter to Theodore only mentions Mark's expansion of his original text written for Peter in Rome.  This is certainly what Clement says but one has to imagine that he is only conforming his explanation to the general consensus in the world at large.  It is worth noting that Morton Smith after consulting with some of the greatest authorities in New Testament scholarship in his day came to a very similar conclusion independent of the arguments laid forth in this chapter:

Essentially I conjectured that an original Aramaic gospel had been twice translated into Greek; John had used one translation, Mark another. (This accounts for their agreement in outline, but difference in wording.) Each left out some elements and added many. Mark was then variously expanded—by Matthew, by Luke, and by the author of Secret Mark, who imitated Mark's style, but added episodes from the old Greek translation, inserting them where they had stood in the original outline.

And this is the ultimate paradox of the forgery argument.  Morton Smith has to be understood to have developed a forgery which has Clement present an understanding of the development of the 'secret gospel' which Smith himself rejects while developing his Hebrew gospel primacy theory.  Indeed Smith consistently contradicts or disagrees with Clement's explanation on numerous occasions, all of which makes the case for forgery utterly implausible.

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

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