Monday, March 5, 2012

The Myth of Jesus Christ [Chapter Two]

There are few figures in history as elusive as St Mark, the first evangelist.  Paul J. Achtemeier, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia acknowledges the bleak situation when he writes "the best conclusion is to admit the uncertainty of our knowledge about the author of our Gospel."  Indeed this gospel seems to have been intentionally left as an anonymous composition by its author.  Mark intended for it to be known as simply 'the Gospel of Christ.'  The identification  of it being 'according to Mark’ or ‘the Gospel According to Mark’ was added later in order to distinguish one text from the rest of the gospels in our canon.

It is often said that the earliest Christians paid little attention to the Gospel of Mark, yet this is not exactly accurate.  The secrecy which surrounds the person of Mark also seems to have extended to his literary composition.  There are no surviving commentaries on the Gospel of Mark while there are many written on the subject of Matthew, Luke and John.  It would seem that ancient Christian writers avoided Mark because they wanted to stay clear of getting mired in controversy.

It is also often repeated that 'all of the Fathers of the Church' believed that 'according to Matthew' was the first gospel.  Again this is not quite accurate.  It certainly doesn't appear to be true in the ancient Christian center of Alexandria.  St Mark was after all the patron saint of this city and indeed over all of Egypt.  There are also consistent indications that the Egyptian Church knew that Mark wrote the first gospel.  They continue to hold this to this day.

How far does this belief go back?  There is an interesting statement in the writings of Origen the great Alexandrian theologian of the third century.  He seems to indicate that the Gospel of Mark was not only the gospel of the apostles but that of Paul in particular:

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." 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 

Reading the ancient witness of Origen is like standing in a pocket of air trapped in a tomb that from the earliest period of Christianity.  The writings of the early Church Fathers don't just make one point.  They often testify on three or even four different things at the same time.  This is why it is so important to pay attention to the details.

At its most basic level Origen is saying two things at once.  On the one hand, the gospel of Mark is the 'start' or 'beginning' of all the gospels and on the other Mark is testifying to that the beginning of the gospel is the end of Judaism.  He is deliberately being evasive here.  He makes two point at the same time because Origen is very aware that he is developing an understanding usually associated with heresy or 'condemned beliefs' of Christians outside of the Catholic Church.  He can only 'hint' at the association between the beginning of the gospel and the end of the Jewish Law on the one hand and Paul referring to the gospel of Mark as 'his' gospel because he was already suspected of being of heretic.  A few years after the publication of these words he would be tortured and would ultimately die.

This is the point we will always have to be mindful of throughout our journey back in time.  Taking too much of an interest in St Mark, showing yourself to be too loyal to the tradition he established in Alexandria was bad for your health.  We have already made reference to this once before and we will continue to do so throughout the course of our investigation.  It wasn't as if the early Christianity 'wasn't interested' in the Gospel of Mark or the evangelist himself.  The topic was deliberately ignored by ancient writers or at the very least, they were avoiding as much as possible leaving explicit testimonies about what they actually believed about the patron saint of Alexandria.  Starting a conversation about Mark could only lead to something dangerous or forbidden.  It was like inviting a stranger up to your apartment after dark.  Once you opened the door there was no telling where things might lead.

The same situation existed to a large extent in ancient Judaism.  Mysticism was largely relegated to being passed on by word of mouth.  There are for instance no explicit references to the messiah, the resurrection of the dead or the final judgement in the official texts of the religion.  Even the oldest surviving commentaries on the Jewish scriptures avoid making reference to these matters.  Yet no one in their right mind would suggest they were developed in later generations.  Once again if you were a Jew taking too much of an interest in the coming of the messiah was bad for your health.  It immediately put you under suspicion.  So it was for the Christians who lived under the authority of the see of St Peter.  Making too much of Mark in turn made one into a 'marked man.'

Nevertheless we can be certain that this faith was always a part of the fabric of the Egyptian Church.  The figure of St Mark always seemed to resurface from the historical darkness whenever the Alexandrian community faced grave threats from without.  As the learned Coptic scholar Youhanna Youssef modestly notes "the remembrance and the commemoration of the founder of the Church was a great moral support for the congregation."  So it was that in the lead up to the imposition of the Nicene practices upon the ancient church, St Mark is said to have 'made an appearance' to reassure the flock.  Moreover the evangelist is openly invoked during the sixth century when the Egyptian Church was accused on denying the humanity of Christ.

Yet when the greatest religious crisis of all faced the Alexandrian Christianity - viz. the loss of the physical body and relics associated with St Mark in 828 CE - we see perhaps the most important revelation of the apostle to this flock since the apostolic age.  The Christian community was already suffering under the weight of two centuries of Islamic occupation when a particularly tyrannical regime forced them to abandon the very church founded by the St Mark on the eastern shores of Alexandria.  It was at that time that the body and the throne of St Mark were likely sold to the city of Venice for a hefty sum.  It was as if the whole world had suddenly been turned upside down.

The Egyptian Church was profoundly superstitious.  They revered the corpses of holy people in a manner which would seem macabre to modern sensibilities.  In the second and third centuries Christians were known to want to be so close to the dead that they often slept in graveyards.  If even the run of the mill saint was believed to heal the sick and make the blind see, one can only imagine what powers were attributed to the greatest saint of them all - St Mark.

Yet even more significant was the loss of the very throne that this holy man established for a future succession of Popes to 'commune' with his holiness.  Egyptians had always seen thrones as personifications of divinities.  The hieroglyph for the goddess Isis was a throne.  Each new Pope was understood to be the living representative of St Mark because they sat in his magical chair.  The ordination ritual was not surprisingly a three day affair which ended with the new Pope being seated as a living personification of the resurrection of Christ - or as the early ordination ritual references it " he has become a successor prepared to walk in his foot-steps unto the glory of the Lord."

Once the wicked Muslim rulers sold their most sacred possession the very universe around them seemed to be demystified.  The first Pope to appear after the loss of the body and the throne of St Mark was viewed with contempt.  The name of this unfortunate Patriarch was Simeon.  Not having a proper throne to sit in any longer, nor even the holy presence of the body of St Mark, he lasted on a few months.  The Church had loss its connection to the divine and it would take nothing short of a new set of myths to re-establish it.

This mythopoetic impulse was fully manifest in the so-called Homily on St Mark which survives in Arabic in two slightly different forms.  The original text was written in Coptic apparently at the end of the disastrous reign of Pope Simeon by a bishop named Severus from the town of Nesterawéh near Rosetta.  The texts is not properly called a homily.  It is actually an account of a vision Severus claims to have received in 830 CE:

When our Holy Father anba Jacob, patriarch of Alexandria, was deceased and he was gone to rest in the Lord, the bishops of Egypt gathered in this city, to make the appointment and the proclamation of his Beatitude anba Simeon instead of the late anba Jacob, and me, Severus unworthy pontiff, I found myself with them. But the night before the holy Sunday while I was sleeping in the patriarchal room, in Alexandria, I had the following dream. It seemed to me that I was near a church very high, very high, of extraordinary magnificence, which was built on a high mountain plateau. It was lit from within by a number of lamps shining. While I was looking for an opening to get in, behold, I came to discover a small window on one side of the building. Having approached me, I opened the window and plunging my eye in the interior of the church, I saw a man, resplendent with light, and seated on a magnificent throne. He carried with him the garment of the high priests, and his face flashed light rays of a dazzling brilliance. I also saw before him a couch and on this bed a sleeping man who looked like a martyr. I told him that sat on the throne: "Who are you, Lord, you who sit on this throne, and who are surrounded by so much glory?" - "I'm Mark," he replied with a loud and clear voice. As soon as these words were out of his mouth, I replied: "Which one are you Lord? Mark the apostle, or Mark the second of that name? "To this request he made this clear answer:" I am not Mark the second of that name, but indeed Mark the Evangelist who preached faith in the province of Egypt.

The narrative which follows is nothing short of an attempt to fill the void from the loss of the core of the traditional religious experience. Severus is said to be stunned by the appearance of the head of the Alexandrian Church. His first instinct however it to ask the saint to explain some of the mysteries which surround his person and the evangelist - perhaps sensing the religion he established some eight hundred years previously is falling to pieces, submits to answering each one of Severus's questions.

It is hard to imagine that Severus is actually developing anything new traditions about the historical apostle in these pages.  The real purpose for the Homily on St Mark as Youhanna Youssef notes, is to establish a new paradigm for the ordination of Popes after the loss of faith with Simeon's ascension.  Once the original relics had been taken away from the Alexandrians, Severus is now conspiring to claim that St Mark's skull somehow managed to get left behind.  This grotesque severed head would now become the effective substitute for the lost sacredness or as Youssef puts it "the composition of the text was made when the Venetian stole the relics of saint Mark in order to show that the Coptic church still hold the head of Saint Mark."  It was from this time forward that each successive representative of St Mark was ordained seated on a substitute throne and nuzzling a substitute skull representing the sanctity of the original evangelist.

The point of course is that Severus could only manage to carry out this complete abandonment of traditional values by revealing at least some of the traditional secrets associated with the patron saint of Egypt.  In order to get people to accept that the evangelist - rather than desperation - had sanctified the substitute skull he had to prove that St Mark had actually spoke to him.  To this end, he pretends to have actually met with the apostle and records each detail of this profound 'revelation' which really was only a recycling of tradition legends associated with his person.

When for instance Severus asks him to lay out the circumstances of his birth the evangelist declares "you ask me to explain a great secret, and that something very surprising, never anyone before you, has sought to discover. So if that is your desire if this is what interests you, you just have to hear me, I'll reveal it, easing your heart."  Yet this is only dramatic license to create an aura of sanctity around the introduction of the skull ritual.  Severus goes on to tell us that St Mark “opened his mouth and told me what I then recorded verbatim in this book (i.e. the Holy of St Mark) noting that the saint then immediately “whatever you come: to learn, put it in writing and filed in your book the church for the edification of all those who want the read." Yet all that is really going on here is for the very first time a preservation of established myths and legends traditionally withheld from public scrutiny in written form.

Severus of course knows that there are different traditions in various places in Egypt about this hallowed saint, so he is now attempting to establish the authoritative – even canonical tradition about Saint Mark. This becomes very clear when, a little over a century and a half later another Coptic bishop named Severus from a completely different town in Egypt develops a slightly different narrative related to St Mark.  The point here is that we shouldn't necessarily believe that any of these ninth and tenth century compositions is a biography of the hallowed saint.  Instead they are best viewed as a mixed bag of apocryphal material, some having greater historical value than others.

Indeed while much of the Homily on St Mark seems to follow from a traditional Alexandrian identification of its patron saint as the 'John Mark' of the canonical book of the Acts of the Apostles, there are again a number of legends and traditions which seem to go back to the very heretical traditions condemned by Origen and the rest of the early Church.  For instance, it is known that a particular heretical sect called the Marcionites had as part of their New Testament canon a letter from the apostle Paul to the Alexandrian Church.  This letter was either rejected by our church or now goes under a different name.  The Acts of the Apostles never mentions a visit by Paul to the city of Alexandria or an interest in Egypt, yet the ninth century Homily of St Mark certainly does.

One of the most interesting things about the Homily is that it presents Mark as following in the footsteps of Paul’s missionary activity in Alexandria.  We are told that Mark succeed where Paul failed because by the time Mark went out on his missionary activity he brought with him the gospel of Christ:

the inhabitants of the province of Egypt almost from the beginning did not convert to the faith by hearing preaching in their midst. It was because that the Holy Spirit did not permit then they should submit to the preaching of the other disciples, before St. Mark, who was originally from this country, had not received a lot as a hereditary and reserved land to its mission. Before him, it is true, the Apostle Paul had appeared in Alexandria, where he had preached the new faith, but nobody had consented to embrace it. On the contrary, infidels attached him to a column began to mistreat him, until, by the will of God (be He praised!), column split in half and received with in it the body of the holy Apostle, so he vanished from their eyes and we saw him no more.

The idea of a Pauline mission to Alexandria must be related to the Marcionite witness to a letter to the Alexandrians by the same apostle.  Yet most scholarship on early Christianity simply limits the discussion to what appears in the book of Acts, even though the Marcionites and other very early traditions rejected this whole history as utterly spurious.  In other words, they claimed that none of the things contained in our holy books ever took place.

It is very important then for us to engage in 'manuscript hunting' if we want to come to terms with alternative traditions in earliest Christianity.  If you stick with Acts, Jesus was a man and his church developed through Peter and the chosen apostles.  Yet if you start poking around in traditions related to ancient Egypt a wholly different version of how Christianity spread is witnessed.  Take for instance the familiar story of Paul's 'vision on the road to Damascus.'  The book of Acts tells us that Paul was formerly a Jewish rabbi named Saul who had a visionary experience as he was hunting Christians to bring them to trial in Jerusalem.  The Homily on St Mark seems to be constantly substituting stories about Paul into the life of the Alexandrian evangelist.  Not only does it argue that Mark followed in the footsteps of Paul's missionary activity in Egypt, Mark also had the very 'vision on the road to Damascus' too.  Only in Mark's case it happened in Jerusalem just before he decided to venture to Egypt.

The Homily on St Mark introduces this idea in the middle of presenting Mark’s uncertainty that he would be successful preaching the gospel in Egypt because of the superstitions of the people there.  We read:

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.

While Acts tells us that Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus transformed the former persecutor into an apostle, the parallel experience of Mark establishes him as the preacher of a gospel to the Egyptians.  As such there are clear differences in terms of the context of the original stories of how and why Mark and Peter had the same vision.  Nevertheless the fact that the two men should be paired is quite interesting given the fact that Origen already hints that when Paul says 'according to my gospel' he means the Gospel of St Mark.

What is of course very interest about this story is that it presents a very human portrait of St Mark.  He is said to have had strong doubts about his abilities before this visionary experience.  Yet the reader should be aware that Alexandrian tradition was always very certain that Mark ultimately developed into the most perfect of the apostles.  This visionary experience must certainly have utterly transformed him into the living embodiment of Jesus himself.  Indeed it is worth citing the opening words of the Homily itself so that the reader understands just how the Alexandrian veneration of St Mark eclipsed even the adoration of St Peter in the Roman Church.  We read Severus declare:

My beloved brethren, is illuminated by the Holy Spirit, which I now speak, to tell you the story of this holy man of illustrious virgin, St. Mark, Apostle and Evangelist, that light whose rays dispelled the darkness of error. I will first know the parents who were fortunate enough to give birth in this world body, I will then talk about his good conduct, his honesty and simplicity worthy of his eye that caused his whole body was bright, according to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in his holy Gospel: If thine eye be single, thy whole body will be light. Indeed, this holy admirable, this torch shining, the evangelist St. Mark, was all light from birth until the end of his days there was never at home nor darkness, nor envy, or anything hateful or trickery, or deceit, in a word, he never knew, and that from the earliest age, what it was like to hurt: far from it, it was always pure , innocent, virgin and chaste both in spirit and in his body. His heart, his soul was the residence of the Paraclete, who had endowed him with a speech, a wisdom so that the world could not resist him.

This is why it is true that Egypt with all its provinces was illuminated by the light that Mark will spread … all the inhabitants of Égypt and its nomes were immersed in idolatry, with no knowledge of God, the sovereign creator. But when the bright star, illustrates the saint, Mark the Evangelist, they had been sent, it's all lit up by the preaching of the Gospel, and he spread the light of true religion not only in Egypt, but also worldwide, according to what the Holy Spirit said to our fathers in faith, the apostles and holy disciples: their word was heard throughout the earth, and their language was heard to the ends of the inhabited world, because it is a fact that his Gospel and the life-giving words that the Holy Spirit has uttered by his mouth among the seventy-two regions of the earth, now read in all churches … St. Mark the apostle and servant of Jesus Christ, appeared among all creatures as mustard seed (which the Gospel speaks), which grows into a huge tree, so that the birds of the air come rest on its branches and get away from his shadow, for though our Lord Jesus Christ has sought to identify himself by this comparison, however, can also applied in the direction to St. Mark, the shining light, because those who follow Christ are themselves Christs and other members of Christ

The idea that Mark ultimately became transformed into the Christ after his visionary experience in Jerusalem goes beyond the limits of traditional orthodoxy.  Yet it must be noted that the very same notions are present in the lead up to Paul's remembrance of the same visionary experience in his Catholic epistles.  As Paul reference to himself being “caught up to paradise and having heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell" he puts forward that the experience made him in fact superior to the other apostles - "I am not in the least inferior to the so-called apostles ... the marks of a true apostle were demonstrated to you including signs, wonders and miracles."

Is Paul saying that he was the only apostle of Jesus?  There can be no doubt that there was a difference of opinion on this question.  The first Church Fathers put forward the opinion that Paul agreed to take orders from his enemies in the Jerusalem Church - ""for an hour we did subject ourselves so that the truth of the gospel might continue with you."  Yet this view was vehemently opposed by Christians outside of the Catholic tradition who argued that this and many other passages in our Catholic epistles were systematically altered in the second century to prevent the continuation of the view that this apostle established his own Church apart from the rest of the apostles.

This is not the place to settle these questions.  Nevertheless it is interesting that the Alexandrian Church of St Mark has the appearance at least of being a wholly separate Christian tradition apart from the authority of St Peter in Rome.  The Acts of the Apostles doesn't even mention Egypt as a region of planned missionary activity.  The story of how Egypt became perhaps the most important Christian community in the Roman Empire is only preserved for us in whispers and sudden revelations like that contained in our Homily.

It is however very difficult to reconcile the idea of Mark being the Christ with a canon of twelve other apostles.  The earlier statement that within "his heart, his soul was the residence of the Paraclete" is expressing the same messianic concept.  The underlying assumption of all Alexandrian writers was that Mark was a small child during Jesus's ministry.  He is repeatedly referenced throughout the gospel.  He is standing in the margins and brought forward as the 'little one' who embodies perfect faithfulness.  Hence the allusion to little Mark as the muster seed but there are countless others.

Yet Severus even develops a messianic character for the story of the baptism of 'little Mark.'  It took place supposedly at the time of Pentecost:

The name John was then changed to that of Mark, and Hannah, his mother, received the name of Mary, While the hand of St. John the Beloved was lifted above the head of St. Mark, for baptize, our Lady, the Virgin Mary, saw the hand of his only son, Jesus Christ, lying on the head of St. Mark, as if to testify that he who was baptizing was our Saviour Jesus Christ himself. She also saw the sky about to open, and the Holy Spirit descending as a dove and manifesting as a mild and pleasant wind, which diffused a smell of the sweetest and who was accompanied by a burst resplendent as the color of fire. The Holy Spirit descended visibly on the head of St. Mark, and wrapped his body, which is why he was filled with the Holy Spirit from his earliest years.

It is very strange to see Severus borrow so heavily again from gospel narratives about Jesus's baptism.  Clearly Severus is reinforcing that Mark is the second Christ.  Yet we should also point out that the notion of fire being present at the baptism appears in the earliest accounts of the baptism of Jesus, texts which are now lost to us but referenced by some of the earliest Christian witnesses.

The heretics argued then that Paul was the apostle, that Paul was the Paraclete, that Paul was the Christ in the same way that Severus now ascribes these titles to Mark.  We should consider for a moment also that this Alexandrian understanding goes against our normal reading of the Catholic material.  As the book of Acts tells it, Mark should really be considered a second rate figure in the early Church - not an apostle per se but a mere 'disciple' of the apostles.  Acts tells us that Mark was a disciple of Peter in the beginning and then at some point thereafter he became attached to Paul.  Mark was ultimately rejected by Paul and then he disappears from the narrative.

Severus's Homily on St Mark tries to complete the picture for us.  It says that he withdrew back to his mother and the wealth of his family in Jerusalem.  We are then told that after a brief rest he had second thoughts about his decision and re-joined Peter in Rome:

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 it, fell into the greatest astonishment.

This is of course a rough English rendering of a thirteenth century Arabic translation of a lost Coptic original which relied upon ancient sources that likely went back to the beginning of Christianity.  Yet is it to much to suggest that this last sentence reconfirms the heretical understanding of Paul having come into contact with the Gospel of Mark?

The traditional Catholic view is that Paul never came into contact with a written gospel.  When he says 'according to my gospel' he means a loose oral teaching that was never put down into a book.  Yet as we have already noted, the earliest Christians from outside the Catholic wrote this off as a lie.  Paul used the Gospel of Mark.  When he said 'my gospel' he was indeed referencing a version of the gospel of Mark which had mystical narratives added to the more primitive original text.

This is of course not the place to overturn two thousand years of inherited tradition.  Nevertheless it is enough to note that our Homily seems to be bringing forward a St Mark from the historical darkness which appears as something of a doppelgänger.  He not only wrote the first gospel but more significantly perhaps established a wholly separate Christian tradition based in Alexandria.  Indeed we may even be able to take things one step further.  Could it be that Mark was kept secret because he challenged the historical assumptions of the Catholic Church?   It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty at this moment.  Nevertheless one historical discovery made over fifty years ago seems to confirm this notion.

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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