Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Eighth Chapter of the Myth of Jesus Christ

At this point we should make the point as clearly as possible – the gospel narrative has nothing to do with real history. There never was a man named Jesus. He was never born in Nazareth. His mother wasn’t named Mary. Indeed as the Church Father Tertullian notes - in the original gospel “his mother likewise is not shown to have adhered to him.” It is impossible to be certain what happened to Mark’s original narrative. So many old things must have been taken out of this lost narrative, so many new things were added and developed into new texts ‘according to’ various fictitious associates. The only thing that we can be sure of is that the original ‘vision’ which came to Simon was only gradually developed into a number of faux-historical narratives by the middle of the second century.

Yet if this gospel wasn’t ‘real history’ and we know that Mark originally ‘did something’ to Simon’s original visionary experience, how exactly should we characterize the grandfather text to our canonical gospels? The answer will again be found in the ancient liturgies. After all, the written gospel was never in the hands of the real members of the church in antiquity. The laity only came in contact with weekly readings from the original narrative which was hidden like the Wizard of Oz behind plenty of curtains, smoke and mirrors.

The original gospel could be changed. One text could be made into four. But the weekly arrangement of readings was a much trickier matter. We have many intimations of rebellion within the Alexandrian Church when someone tried to change their traditions. Of course the struggle the original tradition of Clement was ultimately run out of town. Nevertheless we have uncovered a surviving remnant of the Alexandrian liturgy in Rome. We will demonstrate shortly that the traditions were brought there by fleeing monks who made their way to the Mar Saba monastery – the very place where the Letter to Theodore was discovered centuries later by Morton Smith.

Nevertheless our purpose now is to go in the other direction in history. We want to see if we can get a glimpse into Mark must have done with Simon’s ‘visionary’ experience with Jesus. As he wasn’t dealing with ‘real history,’ the evangelist was free – as the Church Father Papias notes – to rearrange the original narrative. Yet the question for us is – what was the original template that Mark used to reorganize the pre-existent gospel? We already know at least part of the answer from the testimonies about the longer narrative originally written by Mark – it was about love and in particular the spiritual union that Jesus came to establish with ‘common men.’

While many ancient sources tell us that Mark added the doctrines of the Greek philosophers to his final product, this does not tell us what he modeled the shape of the narrative after. Much has been written on this subject by scholars over the last two hundred years and perhaps the best and most influential reinterpretation of Mark’s original gospel writing effort was put forward in the last century by an Australian scholar named John Bowman who wrote the now classic The Gospel of Mark: The New Christian Jewish Passover Haggadah. In this work Bowman laid down a very convincing case for perhaps the most obvious explanation for Mark’s gospel writing endeavor – he was modeling it after the Exodus narrative.

It is difficult to argue with Bowman’s understanding especially as we are looking in particular to the two and a half month period which leads up to Easter where – after all – the tradition liturgical reading in all traditions is Exodus 15. Bowman presents a great number of examples that the Gospel of Mark was arranged with the narrative of Exodus in mind – most of which are outside of the scope of the present investigation. Indeed we will actually go one step further than Bowman did and argue that Mark was consciously imitating the Samaritan liturgy during the two and a half months that Jesus’s original ministry was held to have taken place in his gospel.

Our arguments here are for the most part original, even though Bowman anticipates many of our points by noting how Mark’s gospel writing effort went hand in hand with the development of a rigid lectionary system – or if you will a cycle of public readings. As Bowman notes “it is indeed very likely that by the middle of the second century . . . the Gospels came to be looked on as the New Law. This combined with possible greater interest in liturgical Order may have led to the selection of some pericopes as being suitable for reading on certain Sundays, and in time led to the scribes copying out the New Testament making paragraph divisions such as one finds in Codex Vaticanus.” Indeed the editor of the Gospel of Matthew transformed Mark’s original narrative to make this even more explicit.

As M D Goulder notes in his 1969 Midrash and Lection in Matthew “a gospel is not a literary genre at all, the study of Matthew reveals: it is a liturgical genre. A Gospel is a lectionary book, a series of 'Gospels' used in the worship week by week in lectio continua. Such a conclusion is in every way consonant with the view of the evangelist.” Goulder argued that the portrait of Jesus in Matthew makes this conclusion impossible to deny as “he officiated, week by week, year by year, at worship that was Jewish in root and mainly Jewish in branch. He expounded Jewish readings with Christian traditions in the Jewish manner: and as the Jews read the Law by lectio continua round the year."

Of course the traditional approach to the gospel is that it is a historical narrative. The reason that the gospel resembles the ancient liturgy of the Hebrews is because Jesus was actively involved in this cycle. Yet we will now update this theory from half a century ago and argue that the reality is that the only reason why the gospel resembles a liturgical cycle is because Mark was artificially adapting Simon’s visionary experience to the established lectionary system. However we will break from convention even more when we suggest that the gospel resembles not the traditional arrangement of Jewish readings but in fact the cycle associated with their northern neighbors the Samaritans.

Bowman was an authority on the Samaritan people and would likely have been quite open to this suggestion. However the traditional model of Goulder and others is that of a gospel dependent on the Jewish liturgical cycle – “the theory I wish to propose is a lectionary theory: that is, that the Gospel was developed liturgically, and was intended to be used liturgically; and that its order it liturgically significant, in that it follows the lections of the Jewish year.” We shall argue that the links between Mark and Simon and certain features of his original gospel make it likely that there was a much greater degree of Samaritan influence than has previously been recognized. Indeed if we take matters one step further, the development of Christianity from Samaritanism was effectively buried and covered with the proclamation inserted into the gospel “do not enter any town of the Samaritans.”

The vicious propaganda that has been heaped upon the unfortunate Samaritan people goes hand in hand with an official policy of abusing the Samaritan people since the early third century. The simply matter of fact is that the Jews had a relatively favored position throughout the later antiquity when compared with their northern cousins; this in part may explain why connections with Judaism were allowed or even encouraged in the official religion and Samaritan ones were suppressed. In any event, the value that the Samaritan religion provides for us cannot be over-estimated. Indeed the seven hundred or so living representatives of this tradition are often times the last living link to core concepts in the Mosaic covenant.

To put in plain English - while it has to be acknowledged that change and adaptation are important principles of survival, the Jewish tradition did more changing and adapting that Samaritanism. To this end, while it is impossible to expect a religion to survive in a pristine state for two thousand years, Samaritanism today is much closer to the religion at the time of the ministry of Jesus than modern Judaism. The Samaritans do not accept the additional prophetic writings which make up the bulk of our so-called ‘Old Testament.’ They refuse to obscure what they claim was Moses's original vision for the community of Israel with fraudulent utterances.

The Samaritan have always laid claim to a sacred piece of land that happens to be a core geographic interest in the Pentateuch - the mountain called 'Gerizim' which now sits in what is called the Palestinian Territories. This is the place where most of the action happens in the Mosaic narrative in Canaan and recent archaeology tends to confirm their argument for Biblical primacy. Of course owing to changing political circumstances, while Nablus, formerly Neapolis, used to be an important Samaritan city, most members of the tradition live in Holon a suburb of Tel Aviv. In spite of the fact that they have always considered the Jewish people as kinfolk, the Samaritan people have not turned their back on their past. Even in the fact of recent regional realignement, the Samaritans still make the trek to climb the holy mountain for three specific pilgrimages each year - the last day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (late March/April), Pentecost (June/July) and the first day of the feast of Sukkot (late September/October).

This is the start of our introduction to the Samaritan liturgy. It must also be said that while Samaritans are certainly not Christians, it has long been noted that the Mark who organized their liturgy and the most fundamental aspects of their religion betrays many shared theological interests with the early witnesses of the Church. The English translator of the so-called Memar Marqe (= the writings of Mark) assumed that Mark must have been exposed to the New Testament. Yet John MacDonald’s fourth century dating for Mark has given way to a number of prominent scholars who open the door to Mark being active in the late first or early second century. MacDonald’s student Alexander Broadie, a Henry Duncan Prize lecturer at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, noted many remarkable parallels with Philo of Alexandria. Given the rarity of Hebrews with the Roman name ‘Mark’ it remains very tempting to identify both Marks as one and the same figure, even if that hypothesis is impossible to prove.

At the very least it is impossible to ignore that Samaritans and Samaritanism are essential to understand what the gospel originally was. Simon Magus is said to have been a Samaritan. We have also discovered that the baptism narrative in the Alexandrian gospel of Mark (i.e. 'Secret Mark') seems to be tied to the traditional Samaritan interest in the creation of man on the first day of the year. This creation of an androgynous Adam - i.e. a being who was neither male nor female - took place according to the mixing of fire and water. We also Mark’s Samaritan writings as first witnessing the idea that Adam was ultimately vested with a spiritual garment made of fire which many early Christian writers see as Jesus very purpose in coming to mankind at the end of time.

That scholars typically ignore the Samaritan tradition does not mean it isn’t worth delving into its depths. Only a handful of New Testament scholars have the linguistic skills for reconstructing what an Aramaic gospel might have looked like – this doesn’t mean that the text wasn’t original written in that language, only many scholars are unwilling to take the time to develop a new set of skills. The discovery of the existence of ‘Secret Mark’ has similarly suffered from the reluctance of academia to adapt to new things.

We have already determined that all the aforementioned ‘events’ took place on the same day in ‘mystical time’ – i.e. first day of the first month of the new year. We will keep coming back to this fundamental ‘fact’ over and over again over the next two chapters. The traditional manner of seeing Jesus’s ministry as a historical event overshadows the obvious parallels with the traditional Samaritan liturgy. We have already noted that Mark’s gospel necessarily assigned a much shorter than is generally recognized - i.e. only seventy seven days. Yet when we take that same two and a half month period before Passover and compare it with what is going on in the original Samaritan liturgy we see an important parallel – the Samaritans say that Moses and his brother Aaron were busy ‘giving signs’ to Pharaoh and the Egyptians warning of the imminent destruction of their civilization.

It will be our contention that the palpable artificiality to the gospel narrative is merely a consequence of it being what Bowman identifies as a first century Passover Haggadah. The frustration that pagan critics like Celsus felt when they read this account of Jesus ‘knowing’ that he would die in Jerusalem as the Paschal lamb disappear when you stop taking it as real history. Yet the original gospel of Mark was more than what our surviving canonical text reveals to us. At the heart of the narrative there was a ‘union’ between two men which is also an important part of the Samaritan liturgy. As Bowman notes the two and a half month Samaritan retelling of the warning ‘signs’ given to the Egyptians includes a holiday celebrating the ‘union’ or zimmut of Moses and Aaron.

Our point then is that the ‘love’ gospel of Mark, witnessed by countless ancient authorities bears such an uncanny resemblance to Secret Mark that we are forced to refine Bowman’s arguments even further. If Samaritan Mark and Christian Mark were two different people, we have to suppose that both were living in Alexandria and the latter Mark established the Christian liturgy after the pattern of the Samaritan tradition reaffirmed by his Samaritan namesake. If we allow for the possibility that they were in reality one and the same person, the only explanation for the similarities is that Mark was affiliated with the Dosithean sect, the first Christian heresy according to the third century Church Father Hippolytus and an important – albeit shadowy – community within Samaritanism and especially numerous at Alexandria.

Leaving aside the ‘who,’ ‘what’ and ‘where’ for a moment and concentrating only the ‘how’ we can use what we know about the chronology of the gospel to see how the myth of Jesus Christ was developed from the Samaritan liturgy. The Samaritans currently fix the ‘Sabbaths of Signs’ part of their liturgy for the two and a half month period that starts typically in January or February and continues through to March or April. Yet a much older liturgy published by the Australian Samaritanologist Simeon Lowy in the last century takes us back to the very lectionary system known to Mark. At the beginning of the eleventh month and down to the last Sabbath in the year, the ancient Samaritans read the entire contents of the second book of the Pentateuch (= the Book of Exodus):

Sabbath 1 - Ex 1:1 - 7:8 the burning bush/God teaches Moses signs

Sabbath 2 - Ex 7:9 - 11:10 Moses and Aaron perform the various signs

Sabbath 3 - Ex 12:1 - 18:26 the Exodus/Moses appoints officers

Sabbath 4 - Ex 19:1 - 25:1 Moses ascends Mount Sinai/enters into the cloud

Sabbath 5 - Ex 25:2 - 28:43 sanctification of the utensils

Sabbath 6 - Ex 29:1 - 31:18 appointment of the priesthood

Sabbath 7 - Ex 31:19 - 36:19 preparation of the tabernacle

Sabbath 8 - Ex 36:20 - 40:38 setting up the tabernacle

Then after the first of the new year the readings continued through the beginning of the third book of the Pentateuch (= the Book of Leviticus):

Sabbath 1 - Lev 1.1 - 6.8 burnt offerings

Sabbath 2 - Lev 6:9 - 9:22

After the first two weeks of the first month the Samaritans celebrated Passover. This entire two and a half month period fits perfectly within the liturgical beginning and end of the gospel – i.e. the sudden introduction of Jesus and John standing in the Jordan down until the empty tomb.

In other words the very manner in which the Samaritan High Priest Jacob b Aaron describes the Exodus narrative leading up to Passover applies equally well to the account of Secret Mark - "a certain amount of space elapsed after each miracle, that the two apostles might have time to carry their message to Pharaoh and to receive his reply thereto, and act accordingly. Thus the whole period of miracles amounted to two months and a half." Indeed the major difference between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John is that in the latter narrative ‘signs are given’ in order to prove that Jesus is the messiah. Yet why is the purpose of the performance of miracles in the synoptic tradition?

The answer that agrees with the most conservative interpretation of the gospel is that Jesus was establishing the kinds of signs that were expected to be performed by the apostles themselves. In other words, it is an instructive exercise taken from Exodus chapter 3 – i.e. where God gives Moses the rod by which he will perform magic. In other words, Jesus stands in the place of God and the twelve disciples ultimately learn from his example how to warn the Jewish people of the divine wrath which is about to come upon them (= the destruction of the temple in 70 CE). The first of Jesus’s instructions to his disciples in Mark is “take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” In Exodus the account reads “Then the Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ ‘A staff,’ Moses replied” and Mark paraphrases this account for his Samaritan readers as God saying “I have provided a rod for him out of the fire. I have shown him my signs that his heart may not weaken.”

The fact that Simon, the first of the apostles is most often depicted with a magic wand in his hand naturally develops from this tradition. The original gospel was meant to be read as a retelling of Exodus only now God instructs his disciples ‘on the fly.’ He is engaging his enemies directly as an example for what the readers of the text must continue to do until the end of time. Why did Mark take such an interest in the ‘sign’ narrative in Exodus? The timing of his composition of the narrative must have some role in this decision. As the sacrificial system of the Jewish religion had ended the nation as a whole was now taken back to the time before the Exodus. Even though the interest in ‘signs’ is put into Jesus’s mouth and the disciples of that age are portrayed as carrying out his instructions the message was really aimed at the people living after the end of Judaism.

Mark tells us as the disciples are about to leave armed – like Moses and Aaron – only with their staves – “whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” This ‘testimony against them’ is an essential part of the ministering ‘gig’ in antiquity. The Christian ministers come up the remnant of Jewish believers in the world living in the post-70 CE era and basically curse them as continuing to live in the abominable practices of their fathers.

The gospel narrative he constructs only tells the same story only now projected into the period before the destruction. Jesus already knows before he descended to earth that the Jews would not turn back from their iniquity. Here again is an obvious parallel to the 'hardening of the heart' of Pharaoh of Exodus. Indeed early witnesses such as the Church Father Lactantius explain the retelling of the story of the Book of Exodus in the gospel in the following manner:

It is contained in the mysteries of the sacred writings, that a prince of the Hebrews, compelled by want of grain, passed into Egypt with all his family and relatives. And when his posterity, remaining long in Egypt, had increased into a great nation, and were oppressed by the heavy and intolerable yoke of slavery, God smote Egypt with an incurable stroke, and freed His people, leading them through the midst of the sea, when, the waves being cut asunder and parted on either side, the people went over on dry ground. And the king of the Egyptians endeavoring to follow them as they fled, the sea returning to its place, he was cut off, with all his people. And this deed so illustrious and so wonderful, although for the present it displayed to men the power of God, was also a foreshadowing and figure of a greater deed, which the same God was about to perform at the last consummation of the times, for He will free His people from the oppressive bondage of the world. But since at that time the people of God were one, and in one nation only, Egypt only was smitten. But now, because the people of God are collected out of all languages, and dwell among all nations, and are oppressed by those bearing rule over them, it must come to pass that all nations, that is, the whole world, be beaten with heavenly stripes, that the righteous people, who are worshippers of God, may be set free. And as then signs were given by which the coming destruction was shown to the Egyptians, so at the last time wonderful prodigies will take place throughout all the elements of the world, by which the impending destruction may be understood by all nations. [Lactantius Divine Institutes 7:15]

For Lactantius the current age that he was living – fraught with Imperial persecutions against the Christian community – was the time ‘prophesied’ by both the second book of Moses and the second book of the four canonical gospels. Yet this basic interpretations of the parallels between Exodus and the gospel was hardly an innovation on Lactatius’s part. If anything the further back we go through the writings of the Church the more pronounced we see this Exodus parallel developed.

Irenaeus writing perhaps a century before Lactantius tells his audience that they are living in the very time of ‘redemption’ promised by the gospel and the book of Exodus – “for if God had not accorded this in the typical exodus, no one could now be saved in our true exodus; that is, in the faith in which we have been established, and by which we have been brought forth from among the number of the Gentiles” and again “this present time, therefore, in which men are called and saved by the Lord, is properly understood to be denoted by "the acceptable year of the Lord;" and there follows on this "the day of retribution," that is, the judgment.” With absolute confidence then, we should understand that the gospel was originally written as a contemporary foreshadowing of the events of Exodus. Irenaeus in particular, writing in the twilight of the third century, makes this absolutely explicit over and over again.

At one point in his discussion of the parallels with Exodus he condemns those who emphasize Jesus as being only a god of love. How can this be said, asks Irenaeus rhetorically, when one part of his mandate was clearly also to judge the sinners. He calls to task those who:

call attention with regard to the God who then [in the Exodus narrative] awarded temporal punishments to the unbelieving, and smote the Egyptians, while He saved those that were obedient; these same shall nevertheless repeat themselves in the Lord, who judges for eternity those whom He doth judge, and lets go free for eternity those whom He does let go free: and He shall [thus] be discovered, according to the language used by these men, as having been the cause of their most heinous sin to those who laid hands upon Him, and pierced Him. For if He had not so Come, it follows that these men could not have become the slayers of their Lord; and if He had not sent prophets to them, they certainly could not have killed them, nor the apostles either. To those, therefore, who assail us, and say, If the Egyptians had not been afflicted with plagues, and, when pursuing after Israel, been choked in the sea, God could not have saved His people, this answer may be given;--Unless, then, the Jews had become the slayers of the Lord (which did, indeed, take eternal life away from them), and, by killing the apostles and persecuting the Church, had fallen into an abyss of wrath, we could not have been saved. For as they were saved by means of the blindness of the Egyptians, so are we, too, by that of the Jews; if, indeed, the death of the Lord is the condemnation of those who fastened Him to the cross, and who did not believe His advent, but the salvation of those who believe in Him.

This is so critical for us to see time and time again as we go back to the original religion of Christianity in Alexandria. There is a core understanding that the gospel was a retelling of the ‘signs’ narrative from the Book of Exodus. All the various sects agree on this basic point. The main difference between Irenaeus’s tradition and those who came before it is with respect to the question of the manner in which Jesus was supposed to be understood to be a ‘god of love.’

Those sectarians who came from Alexandria made clear that Jesus was on a mission to unite his spiritual being with the flesh of believers. In ritualistic terms this was the very purpose of the Christian agape. Indeed starting with Irenaeus there is an ever increasing tendency to portray Jesus as a human being who happened to be God rather than just a god of love. As with all of Irenaeus’s criticisms of his opponents we have to be careful not to take his caricature as entirely factual. Nevertheless it is interesting to consider whether these ‘heretics’ Irenaeus rails against might be one and the same with the Alexandrian tradition of Clement.

Indeed despite Irenaeus’s claims, it is impossible to believe that his opponents were not aware of the fact that after Jesus 'gave his signs' to the Jews the Jewish religion was destroyed. This is of course the central irony of the gospel narrative. Jesus begins by witnessing that 'he is able' to destroy the temple and raise it up again in three days. This infuriates the Jews who ultimately try him for blasphemy on account of his statement against their house of God in Jerusalem. As Jesus is hanging from the cross they ridicule him for his claims – “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” - but in the end, by the time Mark sets about to write the gospel narrative, the outcome of world history is already well known - 'God' ultimately did destroy the offensive building and for the believers at least, established Christian believers as the true tabernacle of the Lord.

So just how did the Alexandrian tradition reconcile the Exodus narrative with the gospel? As we have already seen, Jesus is not understood to be 'like Moses' in the sense of a messianic being taking the role of 'leader of the people.' Instead Jesus is the divine power who instructed Moses, the one who sent 'the apostle' as the Samaritans refer to the historical founder of the nation of Israel. Clement repeatedly makes clear that he is the angel in the Exodus narrative - the glory - who comes to assist and strengthen Moses:

“For behold,” He says to Moses, “my angel shall go before thee,” representing the evangelical and commanding power of the Word, but guarding the Lord’s prerogative. “In the day on which I will visit them,” [Ex. 32. 33, 34] He says, “I will bring their sins on them; that is, on the day on which I will sit as judge I will render the recompense of their sins.” For the same who is Instructor is judge, and judges those who disobey Him; and the loving Word will not pass over their transgression in silence.

This is an extremely important point which is critical to understand how Mark originally pieced together his narrative from Exodus, preserved in the writings of a representative of his See, the city of Alexandria, a little under a hundred years after his death.

The God who instructed Moses from the burning bush - the one called 'the Being' (ho on), already announced in Exodus will come back to visit humanity at some point in the future in order to blot them out of the book of life owing to their sinfulness. It is impossible now not to see that the seventy seven day parallel between the instruction of Moses by God from the burning bush and the Passover on the one hand and duration of time between the fire in the water while Jesus stood beside John in the Jordan and the Passion. Jesus is understood to be the fulfillment of the typology established in Exodus, Moses witnessing signs before Pharaoh serving as a preparation for the coming of God doing the very same thing before the wicked Jews. Yet Clement isn’t just interested in the ‘signs’ but rather the essence of the very appeal to Pharaoh - the warning of imminent destruction - which is developed by Mark.

Clement of Alexandria tell us in no uncertain terms that Exodus is being channeled when Jesus warns the Jews with the words:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'

Indeed Clement writes this is "further, to Moses He says, ‘Go and tell Pharaoh to send My people forth; but I know that he will not send them forth.’ For He shows both things: both His divinity in His foreknowledge of what would take place, and His love in affording an opportunity for repentance to the self-determination of the soul."

 We can’t ever lose sight of the fact that Clement always thinks of Jesus as the ‘kind God’ (ho chrestos theos) who visited the Patriarchs in his Greek translation of the Pentateuch. The proper way of understanding Jesus’s ‘appearance’ in Palestine before the destruction was one of warning and salvation.  Of course we have yet to answer how Mark originally adapted the original Samaritan liturgy to establish the divine ‘love rite’ which would save the world. The gospel may be rooted in the book of Exodus, nevertheless it is the Samaritan fixation with the ‘union’ or ‘conjoining’ of Moses and Aaron, a mystery established by divine decree, which is essential to understand earliest Alexandrian Christianity and Mark’s blueprint for salvation.

As we shall demonstrate in our next chapter, when Mark wrote the words “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 thaught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God” he had the zimmut of Moses and Aaron in mind. Indeed once we come to understand this fact we will finally come to terms with the understanding of why it is that Secret Mark seemed to be sanctioning and even encouraging ‘perverted’ behavior among those who lived according to its authority.

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