Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Very, Very Rough Draft of Chapter Five of the Myth of Jesus Christ

The truth is that in the end we should all be thankful for the controversy surrounding the Letter to Theodore. It has turned out to be a very good thing. If it hadn’t been for the scrutiny, we might never have known the text was genuine. Indeed when we look at see how quickly many other modern forgeries were quickly identified in the age of internet and high speed communication, the fact that no coherent argument against authenticity is a very reassuring thing. We should only hope that every inherited belief, every document associated with the early Church should be placed under a microscope like this.

What we find instead with respect to the ‘accepted texts’ is an attempt on the part of most scholars to find the path of least resistance through the material. In basic terms it means that the four canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are for the most part taken to be the basic building blocks of Christianity. The skepticism in early antiquity regarding these gospels as essentially late second century documents is ignored. In the same way, the Acts of the Apostles – which we have seen went out of its way to subordinate St Mark – is taken as the basis to almost all reconstructions for the development of the Church. This, even though, the same detractors in antiquity derided the material as ‘spurious,’ ‘reactionary’ and ultimately ‘deceitful.’

To reimagine the early Christian landscape without the comfort of the canonical gospels and the Acts of the Apostles is simply a task too great for modern scholars. Nevertheless this is exactly what the Letter to Theodore demands from us. It is no wonder then that at least a few leading scholars have sought to have the testimony removed from the playing field. Indeed the challenge that the Letter to Theodore represented was overcome as easy as hitting the snooze button at 6 am in the morning. When no one was looking an unconscious conspiracy of laziness dubbed the discovery ‘questionable’ – this without so much as a coherent argument to accuse Smith of wrongdoing.

The whole campaign has effectively been conducted with nods, winks, smears and innuendo. Of course the desired result was ultimately achieved – at least for a while. The Mar Saba discovery became Morton Smith’s text. To even take ‘Secret Mark’ seriously at the turn of the millennium implied you were a ‘fossil’ who hadn’t yet ‘come to terms’ with the fact that ‘scholarship’ was having ‘reservations’ about the text. In the blink of an eye all the old models of Christianity were suddenly viable again. ‘We have to be cautious’ naturally transformed into ‘we’d better ignore’ the testimonial.

In a cynical age, skepticism becomes a mere tool for partisanship. Religious scholarship is ever increasingly becoming a battleground between atheist and religious people. The Letter to Theodore really serves neither side in this debate. On the one hand, it certainly does challenge many established assumptions about early Christianity. It is for this reason that Father Aristarchos of the Jerusalem Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church – the man who has de facto control of the manuscript today – will tell anyone that asks that this document should be ignored in favor of the established testimony of the canonical gospel of Mark.

Yet the document has even less appeal to modern atheist. After all, much of modern atheism revolves around the idea of actively ‘debunking’ religion. This reactionary movement wants above all else to solely define the original faith according to contemporary misconceptions. It has very little interest in the manner in which religious texts were interpreted in antiquity, let alone alternative traditions from the earliest period in Christianity. To this end, the most likely people to jump on the forgery bandwagon in scholarship are those academics who engage in debates over the ‘truth of the Bible.’

Since the atheist wants nothing more than the death of the Bible and religion, there is little point addressing their objections. The Mar Saba document simply gets in the way of their attempt to bring about the end of Christianity. The two camps in fact draw from the same basic types of arguments – i.e. appeals principally directed at the vulgar masses who show up to support either side.

Of all the doubts raised against the discovery only the ‘gay gospel’ charge has had any lasting resonance. The argument goes something like this. If you read any English translation of the original Greek text it ‘sounds sort of like’ a gay meeting between Jesus and a chosen disciple. This because there are terms like “loved him,” “be with him,” “remained with him that night” and “taught him the mystery.” Of course the handful of people who actually have a proficiency in ancient Greek know this is foolishness. The word for ‘love’ that is used in the text – agape - without question cannot be used to describe sexual relations. Indeed none of the terminology has any hint of tawdriness in Greek or even in English for that matter. Nevertheless, a young adolescent mind - the kind of person who might giggle or nudge his neighbor when the word ‘erection’ comes up in the study of architecture – might be attracted to these kinds of arguments.

In an infamous New York Sun article written by Bruce Chilton, an otherwise respected Bard University professor, embodies the emboldened approach by these men.  Commenting on early press coverage about the discovered text, Chilton writes that it was

wide and instantaneous, because "Secret Mark" climaxes with an evocative image: A young man who wore only "a linen cloth over his naked body" spends the night with Jesus, who "taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God." That proved too good a lure to pass up

Indeed even in academic books and articles these opponents of the discovery almost inevitable employ the same nudge-nudge, wink-wink analysis of the Letter to Theodore.  Just about everyone uses the word 'climax' and the sexually loaded euphemism 'spend the night together' (like old the Rolling Stones song) to describe the introduction of the lost passage from Mark's gospel.  It is just about as predictable as a pretty woman getting cat calls walking by a construction site.

The problem for the hypothesis that Secret Mark narrative was all about sex was that there are no sexual references.  In order to establish this, these under-sexed, over-imaginative nerds have to find ways to put into their analysis of the text and hope their readers don't notice. Indeed the reason all of this worked so well in the past in that they had powerful conservative forces both inside and outside of scholarship wanting to see the text that way anyway.  It was the classic case of an evangelical echo chamber. As a result the ‘Secret Gospel of Mark’ has been transformed into the ‘gay gospel’ of Morton Smith in the public eye ever since.

The charge of course is that Morton Smith ‘promoted’ the idea of a gay Jesus through the Secret Gospel of Mark. Yet the reality is that Morton Smith only made a single reference to the likelihood that a heretical group – not the Alexandrian Church proper – had inserted something in their version of Secret Mark which supported a homosexual relationship between Jesus and his disciple. Yet this is hardly controversial. Sexual depravity is consistently reported to among the deviant groups within early Christianity. The idea that Jesus was a homosexual is well established in rabbinic tradition. This doesn’t mean that Jesus was gay. It only means that the charge of homosexuality and fornication was commonly used to demean one’s opponents in early Christianity and Judaism.

Here again is the contentious passage from the Secret Gospel of Mark which has served to undermine the reputation of the document’s discoverer ever since. Clement, while apparently referencing what is chapter 10 of the canonical gospel of Mark reports that

after "And they were in the road going up to Jerusalem" and what follows, until "After three days he shall arise", the secret Gospel brings the following material word for word:

"And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan."

This passage does not appear in any known gospel, let alone any copy of the Gospel according to Mark, that has come down to us. As previously noted there is nothing specifically homosexual about the passage, yet in English at least it just feels ‘strange’ to have two looking at each other, ‘love’ one another and disappear from view with an curious reference to ‘nakedness.’

Yet the reality is that these are familiar traits of the canonical gospel of Mark. Mark stresses only a few lines earlier in chapter ten that Jesus looked upon a young man (perhaps the same man) with this same kind of pure ‘love.’ Similarly the narrative ends with an enigmatic reference to nudity in the presence of Jesus:

Then everyone deserted him and fled. A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. 

The truth then is that the very traits which seem so unusual at first about Morton Smith’s discovery turn out upon closer inspection to perfectly fit the literary interests of Mark the evangelist. Indeed if these traits were not present it might be more difficult to ascertain that the discovery was authentic.

Yet the letter isn’t just about the existence of a longer gospel of Mark. Clement not tells us that Mark made additions to the memoirs of Peter but more specifically that the gospel with these additions came to be used for the original liturgy of the Alexandrian Church:

Nevertheless, he [Mark] 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.

We should be quite certain that the reference to a shrine hidden by seven veils is to be taken quite literally and is connected with the act of being initiated into the great mysteries. Mark’s ‘church in Alexandria’ was a very famous place which was the site of a popular pilgrimage into the Islamic period. It was the very seat of the Alexandrian Patriarchate into modern times.

Yet there is more than that being revealed here. Clement is without question giving us a peak into the foundation of the mystical experience of Christianity in Alexandria. For instance the strange pattern that appears in this section of the gospel of Mark beginning with “and Jesus, looking upon him (the disciple) and loved him” and then later “the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him” was recognized as the basis of an Alexandrian love ritual which was ridiculed as something unseemly from earliest antiquity.

Even after almost twenty years of research, Morton Smith seems to have overlooked a important reference to the love relationship which connected Christ’s earthly representative to a chosen companion. The fourth century Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, Athanasius makes a sneering remark about the rituals in the Church of St Mark among the rival Arian faction which closely resemble the interchange between mystagogue (i.e. the person organizing the initiation rituals) and catechumen (the person being initiated) in Secret Mark. Athanasius writes that the Patriarch George:

finding one Epictetus a novice, a bold young man, he loved him perceiving that he was ready for wickedness.

As Philip Schaff notes the Greek for the 'he loved him' reference is derives from Mark chapter 10 verse 21. This cannot be coincidence.

Athanasius is mocking the traditional mystical drama was apparently continued to be re-enacted in contemporary Alexandrian Christianity. This ritualized acknowledgement of love between teacher and student which was acted o mystic drama from the pages of the gospel of Mark. Athanasius doesn’t make specific reference to homosexuality here and it is unlikely that it ever was taken as such in antiquity. Yet many modern scholars continue to make this error when dealing with the subject of so-called adelphopoiesis, or adelphopoiia or "brother-making." This ceremony has a long history in the Orthodox church and was used to unite together two people of the same sex (normally men). Nevertheless the late Yale historian John Boswell misrepresented the practice as being an ancient precursor to same sex marriage. Yet the reality seems to be a mystical rite rooted in the idea of being adopted by Jesus.

Athanasius makes reference to this concept when, again writing against the tradition Alexandrian emphasis on Jesus the firstborn rather what Athanasius sees as the proper title – viz. ‘Onlyborn.’

If then [Jesus] is Only-begotten, as indeed He is, [the title] 'First-born' needs some explanation; but if He be really First-born, then He is not Only-begotten. For the same cannot be both Only-begotten and First-born, except in different relations;— that is, Only-begotten, because of His generation from the Father, as has been said; and First-born, because of His condescension to the creation and His making the many His brethren (adelphopoiesin).

We should notice again that Athanasius is working diligently to ‘correct’ the traditional Christian understanding in Alexandrian and make them ‘jibe’ with the tradition outside of Egypt. Athanasius prefers the title ‘onlyborn’ to ‘firstborn’ because it was used by Alexandrians to argue that Jesus was a created thing, a being created by God rather than equal to the Father. Moreover the Alexandrians traditionally understood Jesus to be ‘the firstborn of many brothers’ (Rom 8:29). As a specific mystical terminology Athanasius reveals that the Alexandrians believed that Jesus ‘made’ us his brother by refashioning us after his likeness. This, in no uncertain terms has to be the original context of the ‘love’ ritual in the Secret Gospel of Mark.

To argue that there is any homosexuality in any of these rites ignores that the term ‘agape’ cannot be used to describe erotic love. We should pay close attention to Boswell’s English translation of a surviving adelphopoiesis rite and the number of times agape is invoked throughout:

The priest shall place the holy Gospel on the Gospel stand
and they that are to be joined together place their right
hands on it, holding lighted candles in their left hands.
Then shall the priest cense them and say the following:

In peace we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For heavenly peace, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For the peace of the entire world, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For this holy place, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That these thy servants, N. and N., be sanctified with thy spiritual benediction, we beseech Thee, O Lord. That their love [agape] abide without offense or scandal all the days of their lives, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That they be granted all things needed for salvation and godly enjoyment of life everlasting, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That the Lord God grant unto them unashamed faithfulness [pistis] and sincere love [agape anhypokritos], we beseech Thee, O Lord....
Have mercy on us, O God. "Lord, have mercy" shall be said three times.

The priest shall say:

Forasmuch as Thou, O Lord and Ruler, art merciful and loving, who didst establish humankind after thine image and likeness, who didst deem it meet that thy holy apostles Philip and Bartholomew be united, bound one unto the other not by nature but by faith and the spirit.

As Thou didst find thy holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united together [adelphoi genesthai], bless also these thy servants, N. and N., joined together not by the bond of nature but by faith and in the mode of the spirit [ou desmoumenous desmi physeis alla pisteis kai pneumatikos tropi], granting unto them peace [eirene] and love [agape] and oneness of mind.

Cleanse from their hearts every stain and impurity and vouchsafe unto them to love one other [to agapan allelous] without hatred and without scandal all the days of their lives, with the aid of the Mother of God and all thy saints, forasmuch as all glory is thine.

The non-Greek reader of this ritual will likely underestimate the significance of the mystic concepts being described here. They go to the very heart of the Orthodox understanding of Jesus’s salvatory mission which importantly and necessarily assumes a supernatural origin for Christ.

Interestingly enough, the official Greek website for the Grand Masonic Lodge reports that Benedict the Patriarch of Jerusalem who died immediately prior to the discovery of the Mar Saba in 1958 was a member of the "Adelphopoiesis" fraternity.

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