Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why the Mar Saba Document Still Matters

There's a funny thing that happens to you when you get interviewed by someone.  You actually start to look at yourself and your ideas in a whole different way.  Last night I was talking to Miguel Conner about a number of different topics and as I was referencing this Mar Saba story, I finally realized why the documentary company ultimately passed over the story.  It's old news.  The discovery happened over fifty years ago.  This Jesus Wife Fragment had never been seen before.

It's strange how things unfold in your life.  Ever since I was in Florida and first had the email from the head of one of the big networks and then later the email from the production company in London, I didn't know what to make of the trail going cold.  Was it something I said?  But that didn't make sense because we had already been acquainted through another project in 2010.  I didn't say anything terribly stupid.  It must have been that they simply thought the Jesus Wife Fragment was a better story.

Maybe it is and maybe it isn't.  I can't be objective here.  I can't escape the basic fact that Jesus is never identified in any early Christian material as being married.  The Mar Saba document fits in much better with what we know about (a) Alexandrian Christianity (b) the Platonizing trend in early Christian Church Fathers and (c) the things Irenaeus and Hippolytus say about a 'longer' 'mystical' gospel of Mark in existence in their day.

So for this reason I can't help think that the Mar Saba document matters.  It provides some grounding for the traditional association of St Mark with Alexandria (so Thomas Oden).  It helps us come to terms with the mysterious 'gospel' that Clement references throughout his writings which isn't quite Mark, Matthew, Luke or John.  It also assists in making a connection between the written gospel and the Christian liturgy.  According to Clement, the apostles really did establish not only the story of Jesus but also how that narrative was transformed into the daily church service.  This idea is of course present in later witnesses.  We still have liturgies that claim to be from various apostolic figures including Mark.  Yet having Clement's stamp of approval makes clear that this idea was not simply a later invention.

I simply can't understand why so many people think that the Mar Saba document 'overturns' Christianity.  If anything I have always thought that it helps ground some of the most fundamental principles of the religion - things, which are usually dismissed as 'myths' and 'fables' by critics.  Maybe that's why atheists never rally around the Mar Saba document.  Robert Price is actually one of the strongest doubters of its authenticity.  He says that he 'would like' to believe it isn't a forgery but that the evidence against it is just too persuasive.  Nevertheless this is the same guy who jumps upon many a dubious theory in order to cast doubt on the Christian religion.

And this is my bottom line.  The Mar Saba text in reality strengthens the case for early Christian origins.  No modern scholar believes in the connection between St Mark and Alexandria.  Few of them even want to take his existence seriously.  Morton Smith's discovery is nothing short of a historical anchor which grounds Alexandrian tradition in a late second century witness.  No wonder so few haters show the text any love.

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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