Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter One]

The Secret Life of Jesus

So many have attempted to tell the story of Jesus that it’s difficult now to know what the truth is any longer. Almost two thousand years separate us from the events described in the gospel. Most people have difficulty remembering what happened to them last week. What do we really know for certain about the person of Jesus Christ? There are so many versions of the truth. Whom should we believe and why should we believe them?

All other enquiries have merely reinforced the original beliefs of the person asking the questions. Protestants ‘search for the historical Jesus,’ Catholics delve into the mysteries of faith and atheists want to demonstrate the underlying lunacy of it all. This book was conceived in two parts because we wanted to try something different. This is not going to be an attempt to ‘prove something.’ Instead of attempt to get at the ‘real Jesus’ – that is assuming that there was one man beneath all the different and often contradictory accounts – we are simply going to let the evidence speak for itself.

To this end, after years of investigation and following the underlying assumption of all previous studies we will start with the assumption that there was at bottom two fundamentally different ‘Christianities’ – a Gentile and a Jewish church. Yet again unlike previous studies we will not let the existing tradition and its canonical Acts of the Apostles guide us out of the labyrinth.

There were two basic models which have come down to us from ancient times. But we will not assume that there was any resolution to the disagreements between them. There was a Roman Jesus and a Jewish Jesus and things were not exactly as they now appear; the ancient ‘guide books’ that have been laid down to ‘help explain matters’ obscure rather than reveal the ancient truths. ‘What is Paul’ and ‘what is Peter’ does not now easily correspond to Rome and Jerusalem. Perhaps this was deliberate. The question of whether there was a ‘real historical Jesus’ doesn’t need to be answered in every investigation about early Christianity. Sometimes the journey is more interesting than the destination. Indeed in this first of two investigations we will tell the story of what happened when the post-resurrectional Jesus settled in Rome and specifically the Imperial court of the Emperor Commodus.

If you accept the idea that Jesus has continued to 'live' in the Church, there is a surprising amount of good evidence to suggest that Jesus transformed his very identity to appeal to the tastes of this notorious ruler. He changed himself to make him appear more Roman. Long before the time of the Emperor Constantine, the Imperial figure most commonly associated with conspiracy theories, we shall demonstrate that the real beginning of the adaption of the Jewish story of Jesus to Gentile taste actually one hundred and fifty years earlier.

The subversion of Christianity began with a notorious Christian harlot. Indeed the best Christian sources from the second century acknowledge this fact. Pagan sources identify this woman as Marcia Aurelia Ceionia Demetrias, the concubine of the Emperor Commodus. Commodus was himself the only surviving son of the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a veritable philosopher king universally loved in antiquity. How did the one of the greatest and wisest rulers in history produce one of the worst but one who was loved and adored by Christians for centuries to come?

As we shall see, Commodus didn’t merely co-opt the network of house churches around the seat of power in the Roman Empire, his influence totally transformed the essence of how Jesus was worshipped for the rest of world history. The fact that the influence of Commodus isn’t generally celebrated in the manner of – let’s say Constantine – doesn’t mean that previous scholarship hasn’t recognized the underlying continuum.

As the great Australian Patristics scholar Eric Osborne explains “Commodus was persuaded to treat Christians kindly by his mistress Marcia who viewed them with favour. Under Severus monotheistic disloyalty to imperial cult brought sporadic persecution, which in Alexandria was harsh in face of triumphant Christian response … The state ceases to be neutral; its rejection of the Christian offer becomes as significant as the Christian refusal to comply with the requirements of the state. Only under Constantine, when state and church accept one another, is the conflict resolved.” The examination that follows is the first – and most important – step in that ‘resolution.’

Chapter One
Jesus in Rome


There are few things in more daunting in life than trying to making sense of something which is inherently unreasonable. We’ve all been there before. We meet a beautiful alluring woman and find it difficult to keep our passion for her from overtaking our mind. How do you find the truth about someone when you find yourself wholly consumed by the thought of her face and the smell of her perfume? There is no way out of this labyrinth of passion because emotions can’t be reasoned with. Passion has a mind of its own which is often far more powerful than cold hard logic.

Most of us have very little exposure to ‘the dark side’ of human nature. We are good parents or dutiful children. We have an unconscious belief in ‘the greater good.’ We like to pretend that unreasonable beliefs originate with unreasonable people ‘in another part of the world’ associated with ‘other religions’ and that all of our inherited beliefs are somehow ‘good’ and ‘true’ and ‘beautiful’ and are controlled by some ‘wholly reasonable’ supernatural force in the world always looking out for and protecting ‘wholly reasonable’ individuals such as ourselves.

Yet our most reasonable Western civilization is founded on one of the most bizarre myths in the history of the world – a Jewish man who died on the Cross and became God in order to transfer ‘the promise’ given to the Jews by God to the rest of mankind. What sense can be made of any of such foolishness? While we accuse the rest of the world of gross irrationality, our inherited faith could be argued to have cornered the market on craziness.

Did our ancestors rise to become ‘rulers of the world’ in spite of their crazy beliefs or – as the ancient Church Fathers had it, was it the very stupidity of the claim that Jesus’s death made us great, the very thing which made us great? For around the time that Jesus came to Rome, the Roman Empire was quickly disintegrating. After experiencing several generations basking in the glow of a ‘golden age’ the Emperor Commodus is often accused of depleting the imperial coffers. Indeed by the time of his assassination in 192 CE, the Empire had almost no money left.

In a very peculiar manner indeed Christianity – the very religion which was once viewed as the very disease which was causing the disintegration of the Empire – by the fourth century became viewed as the glue that would hold it together. It is difficult to understand how this turnaround took place in a mere one hundred and fifty years, but the change certainly occurred and by the time of the Renaissance the unifying force of Church and State walking in lockstep was certainly one of the most important factors in allowing the European powers to assume control of the entire world.

While it has become fashionable to search out and ‘rediscover’ the real Jesus of history, the only Jesus that ever mattered historical speaking was the grand ‘Imperial Jesus’ that presided over subjugated people and forced them to adopt him as their Lord and Savior. It shall be argued here that Jesus took on this Imperial persona during the reign of Commodus and never looked back. From this period forward, the Roman Jesus first sought to unify the believers in the Empire and then make as many converts in order to bring the Imperial throne itself under the authority of the Christian god.

It was because of the success of this unconscious ‘will to power’ in the hearts and minds of the earliest converts to the Roman Jesus that we are still talking about Christianity to this very day. The religion of Jesus undoubtedly would have gone the way of the dinosaur or perhaps better – the mysteries of Mithras or Serapis or any of the ancient faiths which are no longer with us – if it were not for the efforts of men and women living in the Imperial court of Commodus transforming the religion from its original ‘Jewish innocence’ to the cold, hard reality of Roman rule.


We will avoid the obvious question of who the real Jesus of history was until the second book in this series. Scholarship however does a wonderful job separating the ‘historical Jesus’ from the literary tradition associated from the so-called ‘gnostic Jesus’ – or as the great Dutch New Testament scholar Tjitze Baarda once termed it ‘the flying Jesus’ – the mythical Jesus who appears in the manuscripts discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt and hostile reports of the Fathers of the Church as a wholly supernatural being.

The rational part of our brain tells us that the latter is a fanciful distortion of the former. As such, much ink has been spilled on the manner in which all these fanciful distortions relate to one another – or in plainer terms, the way one silly text relates to another silly text. Yet no serious effort is spent attempting to prove that the historical Jesus is in fact a distortion of the flying, wholly supernatural Jesus. Such an endeavor would be foolish because we know men can’t really fly, that angels don’t exist and any tradition which presents Jesus in this light is wholly irrational.

Yet we may turn around and ask the question even before we begin to delve into the history of Jesus at Rome – how else but if Jesus were wholly fantastic could this ‘Son of God’ be turned around so many times and reinvented? If Jesus had a firm historical basis he would have naturally resisted the efforts to transform him into an Imperial symbol. His Jewishness alone would have prevented this from happening. In other words, it is only because the roots of the plant never needed to take hold that it was so easily and consistently transplanted from one place to the other. It was almost as if Jesus was designed as a shape-shifting alien from the very beginning.

Indeed the possibility that Jesus developed from pre-existent mythological expectations within Judaism is never even considered. All signs indicate quite clearly that the first Christians had a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality. What stood in the way of them believing they were walking and talking with an angel – or the angel – from heaven? In other words, they lacked the critical reasoning skills to prevent a lie, a distortion, a misunderstanding to be planted among their members and ultimately ‘bear fruit’ in the gospel – so why do we continue to pretend that they were ‘reliable witnesses’ about anything?

A good example is the Passion narrative – the core of the Christian experience. The events which form the basis to the entire faith of Christianity have no discernible source – credible or otherwise – to establish their veracity. If – as most scholars contend – that Mark’s is the first gospel, there is no sign where he got his information about the crucifixion of Jesus. Was Mark there? No. What about Peter? According to all our existing information, the answer is again no. So why should anyone ‘believe’ what is said about the last hours of Jesus when we simply don’t know where Mark was getting his information from? Indeed scholars often overlook the most important single piece of evidence that survives from antiquity to help us understand how the gospel of Mark – the earliest surviving gospel - was made and who it was written for. Many of them love to repeat the words that Mark wrote on behalf of Peter – something said often enough in the early Fathers. Yet our earliest testimony is quite specific about it being specifically manufactured for the Roman aristocracy.

The words of Clement of Alexandria, a Church Father from the last generation of the second century, are quite clear. He says specifically that:

Mark, Peter's follower while Peter was preaching publicly the Gospel at Rome in the presence of certain of Caesar's equestrians and was putting forward many testimonies concerning Christ, being requested by them that they might be able to commit to memory the things that were being spoken, wrote from the things which were spoken by Peter the Gospel which is called according to Mark.

In other words – if we break it down even further - the gospel upon which all other gospels developed was written specifically for the ruling classes, as the equestrian was the lower of the two aristocratic orders. It is unlikely that such a group would have cared much for the fanciful tales of Jewish mysticism.

Yet the connection with the knights of Caesar is quite significant because it takes us one step closer to the Imperial court – the place we will argue Catholic Christianity was forged in the late second century. Clement says that the gospel according to Mark was written for the kind of men who knew the Emperor as early as the middle of the first century CE. However is this the right age? Did Clement really mean that members of Nero’s imperial court at Rome requested this gospel’s manufacture or was he projecting a recent event in the distant past because it was necessary for him to do so?


One of the clearest indications of the Roman origins of the Gospel of Mark is the fact that the text features several signs of Latin influence in the language, including Latin vocabulary transliterated into Greek, Latin idioms rendered word for word in Greek, Latin syntactic features and language at times directed to an audience cognizant of Latin. Commenting on the extent of the phenomenon, Martin Hengel said that the gospel was written at "a clear distance from Palestine" and that "one could point to The Shepherd of Hermas, which was similarly written at Rome.” Looking at the evidence, Patrick J. Flanagan commented, "Mark had Latin as one of his languages and wrote in a Latin-speaking area."

Greek form - Significance - Marcan usage
δηναριον a denarius (coin) 6:37; 12:15; 14:5
κεντυριον a centurion 15:39, 44, 45
κηνσος [census] tax 12:14
κοδρατης copper coin, a quadrans 12:42
λεγιων a Roman legion 5:9, 15
μοδιος a measure of grain 4:21
φραγελλοω flog, flagellate 15:15
πραιτωριον quarters of a Roman governor 15:16
πυκμη “with a handful of water” 7:3
σπεκουλατωρ executioner 6:27
χεστης a liquid measure, a sextarius 7:4

Mark contains several Latin idioms translated word for word into the Greek. While the idea functions in Latin, the resultant translation is strange in Greek. While Flanagan found the Marcan use of fragellein ("flog") "unexpected", he found the rendering of satisfacere even more unexpected.

Greek form - Latin - English - Marcan usage
οδον ποιειν iter facere make way 2:23
Ηρωδιανοι Herodiani, like praetoriani Herodians 3:6; 12:13
συμβουλιον εδιδουν consilium dederunt take counsel 3:6
ο εστιν hoc est that is 3:17; 7:11, 34; 12:42; 15:16, 42
εσχατως eχει in extremis esse =be at the point of death 5:23
ειπεν δοθηναι αυτη φαγειν similar to duci eum iussit 5:43
εκρατησεν [memoria] tenere keep (=remember) 9:10
κατακρινουσιν αυτὸν θανάτω capite damnare condemn to death 10:33
ειχον... οτι habere =hold 11:32
ραπισμασιν αυτον ελαβον verberibus eum acceperunt receive/treat him with blows 14:65
συμβούλιον ποιησαντες consilium capere hold a council 15:1
ικανον ποιησαι satisfacere satisfy 15:15
τιθεντες τα γονατα genua ponentes kneel 15:19

There are two major examples that reflect Latin syntax in the Marcan Greek. The first involves the placement of accusatives (objects) and datives (indirect objects) before the verb, which reflects Latin word order not Greek. There are 37 instances of such Latin word order in Mark, with 12 in Matthew and only 5 in Luke, only two of which are independent of the Marcan text. Even more striking is the use of a structure involving verbs of speaking and the conjunction ινα, which mirrors the Latin verbs of speaking with the conjunction ut. It is found 31 times in Mark and many fewer in Matthew and Luke where passages parallel to Mark tend to use a more appropriate Greek structure. Adam Winn concludes, "Such an influence on an author's writing style is much more likely if the author was writing in Rome rather than in Syria or Galilee."

In Mk 7:26 we find a woman who was of Syrophoenician origin. The need to distinguish the type of Phoenician only becomes necessary when there are different types, as we find in Latin literature. Ben Witherington writes, "the use of this term is difficult to explain if the author and/or audience is in the East--whether in Israel or Syria. In Roman sources it is used to distinguish the residents of Syria from those of Carthage in Africa called Libuphoenicians (cf. Juvenal 8.159-60; Pliny the Elder, NH 7.201). Thus, when one combines this with the use of the Latinisms, it is more probable than not that our author resides in and writes for those in the West."


The point of course is that the double whammy of the gospel of Mark’s Latinized Greek and the early written tradition that Mark was written at Rome for the Imperial household seems to be significant of something – yet it is difficult to figure out exactly what it all means. Yes it is true, many ancient observers passed on the tradition that the original gospel of Mark was written in Latin. Yet this is surely an overstatement of the evidence. Similarly Clement’s tradition of Mark writing for the equestrian class is tied up in the legendary account of the visit to Rome of the arch villain of apostolic lore, Simon Magus. Surely if Simon Magus is ahistorical the idea that Mark wrote for the ruling classes is also legendary in nature.

Nevertheless we have to recognize that there is of course some truth in legend. It is just a difficult and ultimately an unsatisfactory process to make sense of oral tradition. Clement’s account of Mark writing his gospel for the equestrian class goes back to a tradition behind a surviving text called Acts of Peter. The original text that Clement used has now been lost but Clement’s original citation is inaccurately referenced in two surviving witnesses – the fourth century Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea and the sixth century Roman senator Cassiodorus.

The tradition has been studied by Francis Watson professor of Theology and Religion at Durham University. He confirms quite clearly that each citation clearly goes back to the same original noting that the “most striking difference is the absence in Cassiodorus of the surprising statement about Peter's indifference to his follower's literary endeavours. Cassiodorus explains exactly why such passages are missing from his translations. In Clement's commentaries he states, “many things are acutely said, but others incautiously, which we have translated into Latin in such a way that, with certain offensive elements [quibusdam offendiculis] removed, his purified doctrine may be more securely extracted."

If Cassiodorus basically admits that he ‘corrected’ the reporting of Clement, Watson notes that Eusebius’s manipulation of the material is far more elusive. The reality is that Eusebius has little to say about the origins of Matthew and Luke, merely repeating the traditional view that Matthew was written for the Hebrews and that Luke is the work of a disciple of Paul. As Watson notes however Eusebius provides an elaborate account of Markan origins in Book 2 of his Church History well before the material we are now considering.

Eusebius tells us explicitly that the context for Mark's composition is now Peter's victory over Simon Magus in Rome, a tradition which references Justin's claim that the Romans erected a statue to Simon and a summary account of his final defeat drawn from the Acts of Peter, a text Watson notes is elsewhere rejected as non-canonical. Indeed within this new context Eusebius gives his own rendering of the Clement tradition:

. . . When the divine word had thus been established among them [sc. the Romans], Simon's power was extinguished and immediately destroyed, along with the man himself. So greatly did the lamp of piety enlighten the minds of Peter's hearers that they were not satisfied with a single hearing of the unwritten teaching in the divine message, and with all kinds of appeals begged Mark, whose gospel is extant, as he was a follower of Peter, to provide them with a written record of the teaching they had received in oral form. Persisting in their request until they had persuaded him, they were thus responsible for the writing known as the Gospel according to Mark. It is said that, when what had happened was revealed to him by the Spirit, the apostle was delighted by their enthusiasm, and authorized the work, for reading in the churches. Clement gives this account in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes, and it is also attested by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis.

As Watson rightly notes “when Eusebius later cites the sources here referred to, we learn that Papias is barely relevant and that Clement's authentic account has been significantly modified.”

The point that Watson is drawing our attention to is that Eusebius is not reporting any of his sources original said but systematically editing and commenting upon their testimony in order to recreate something wholly original and ultimately far more acceptable for modern consumption. Again, at the core of what Clement actually wrote was:

When Peter publicly preached the word in Rome and in the Spirit proclaimed the gospel, those present, who were many, requested Mark, as he had long followed him and remembered what he had said, to put it into writing. This he did, and gave the gospel to those who had requested it of him. When Peter became aware of this, he neither explicitly prohibited it nor endorsed it.
Yet this is not what Eusebius passes on to his readers. If it were not for Cassiodorus we would not even know the subtle changes that Eusebius made because Clement’s original text is now lost owing to its fundamental ‘heretical’ nature.

As Watson rightly notes Eusebius's “preemptive rewriting” of Clement's original statement makes three closely related changes:

First, he stresses the urgency of the request for a written record, together with its pious motivation. If Peter's hearers have to overcome an initial reluctance on Mark's part, this underlines how much they wanted the written record and how precious it was to them when it eventually became available. Second, Peter learns what has happened through divine inspiration. Whereas the original account is tacitly critical of an unauthorized initiative, the new version implies that this initiative is already approved by the Holy Spirit, who is Peter's informant. Third, Peter's refusal to acknowledge the work written in his name is directly contradicted.

As such what has been systematically taken out of the text is Mark’s independence from Peter. As Watson again re-inforces “far from turning his back on this transcript of his own preaching, the apostle [Peter] commended the new gospel for public use and approved the conduct of those who had brought it into being.”

To this end, Eusebius wants to assure the reader of Mark's gospel that they should not for a moment believe that “this work has gone out into the world as an orphan, unblessed by its apostolic progenitor. If that had been the case, it would be impossible to justify its place within the canonical collection.” Yet this isn’t all that Eusebius has removed from the original testimony of Clement. All specific mention of Mark writing for the equestrian class has been excised from the citation too. Eusebius only references “all kinds of appeals” that led to the gospel rather than Clement’s rather specific “appeals from the equestrians of Caesar.” What justified this omission? This part of the story will prove to be even more interesting …


If might be useful for us to say that Eusebius just ‘removed’ the reference to Mark writing the gospel for the Imperial court. It is better to say that Cassiodorus and Eusebius each reference separately small bits of information that find parallels in the Acts of Peter tradition. For instance while Cassiodorus retains the association with the equestrian class, Eusebius keeps the reference to background of Simon Magus’s presence in the city which Cassiodorus fails to mention. In Cassiodorus’s case the omission is unlikely to be deliberate. After all he happens to be citing a section of Clement’s original text that does not happen to mention Simon Magus. Nevertheless it is important to take a closer look at this phenomenon as it points to the underlying corruption that has affected all texts related to the early situation in Rome.

The Acts of Peter tradition interestingly mentions many aristocratic associates of Peter - a senator Demetrius, another senator Nicostratus and his mother, who donated 6,000 gold pieces for the widows of the congregation; a senator Marcellus, of aristocratic lineage who possessed a magnificent house with colonnades, dining rooms, and a vestibule decorated with a marble statue of Caesar. It is extremely significant that the text has Roman equestrians appear behind the three senators: "Dionysius and Balbus from Asia, Roman equestrians and distinguished men.” It also says at another point that "many senators, several equestrians, wealthy women and matrons were strengthened in their faith.”

We see likewise mention made in the text of "two matrons, Berenike and Philostrate” and a "very wealthy woman" with the nickname "Chryse" or "Goldie" (from chrysos or gold), "because all the vessels in her house were of gold," donated 10,000 gold denarii for the "oppressed" of the Christian community, the four concubines of Agrippa, the prefect of the city, and the spouse of Albinus, a friend of Caesar, converted to Christianity as well as Gemellus, who had previously financed the ventures of Simon Magus.

It is not surprising that neither Eusebius nor Cassiodorus mention all of these specific details but one thing is rather significant which does not get noticed by Watson – the structure of the Acts of Peter avoids making direct mention of Mark writing for any of these individuals. Indeed Mark is not even mentioned at all in the narrative. Since there can be no doubt of the relationship between the material referenced by Clement and cited imperfectly by both Eusebius and Cassiodorus and dating to the middle of the second century and this ‘Acts of Peter’ tradition that came much later it would seem that the specific allusion to Mark and his gospel writing was edited out of the text subsequent to Clement’s original – and now lost - citation.

What could possibly account for Mark being edited out of an account of the beginnings of Christianity at Rome? The answer has to be that the same forces which led to Eusebius and Cassiodorus ‘correcting’ the narrative led to the third century editor of the Acts of Peter to remove all reference to Mark – i.e. the notion that the gospel of Mark was established independently of and even against Peter. Every early Church Father seems to be aware of this tradition and many – like the late second century writer Irenaeus – opt to subvert the original understanding by saying that Mark was merely ‘an interpreter’ of Peter. The idea now that Peter was friends with the aristocracy and in particular the person of ‘Marcellus’ was certainly a later addition which resulted from Mark being edited out of the narrative.

One of them is the Latin text called Codex Vercellensis, which “dates from the sixth-seventh century, but its text is likely to be a fourth-fifth century translation of the original Greek Acts.” It would seem then that the senator ‘Marcellus’ only appears as ‘Marcus’ is removed. If we imagine that the existing text of the Acts of Peter still retains at least part of the original narrative cited by Clement or at least knew its contents it becomes very interesting to take a second look at how this ‘Marcellus’ is introduced to its readership. About a third of the way into the narrative we hear that “the brethren repented and entreated Peter to fight against Simon” who say that he was “lodged in the house of Marcellus a senator, whom he had convinced by his charms” (morantem in domo Marcelli senatoris persuasum)

We are told that Peter then came to the ‘house of Marcellus’ to combat Simon. Nevertheless it is important to note that Peter’s birth name is also said to be Simon. While Shimon was a common Jewish name derived from one of the twelve sons of Israel, it seems odd to have the tension of a ‘Simon versus Simon’ battle unfold in the house of a senator this early in Christian history. We know that a parallel tradition has Peter and Simon combat one another in various locations in Judea before descending into the Colosseum before Nero. In that tradition it would appear that a ‘Peter versus Paul’ dynamic – already witnessed in Paul’s surviving letters – is being channeled.

The difficulty with reconciling these traditions with what Clement wrote is that Peter is still alive to witness the birth of the ‘aristocratic gospel’ of Mark and intimate his disapproval of it. In many early Roman histories Peter and Paul die together in the arena. The figure of Simon Magus in the house of an aristocrat seems to hearken back to the situation which gave birth to the gospel by assuming Mark was the magus. Yet the underlying tension between Peter and Paul makes this assumption difficult. The only way to overcome this problem is to assume – at least tentatively – that the name ‘Paul’ itself was adopted to obscure the original tension at the heart of the Mark versus Simon dynamic.

We should never lose sight of the fact that ‘Paulus’ is never understood to be the apostle’s actual name. Even in the Acts of the Apostles he was born with another appellation – ‘Saul’ – a name which the opponents of the Catholic tradition denied. What did they consider Paul’s original name to be? Marcus is a very plausible suggestion given the fact that one important Pauline tradition we will examine shortly, the so-called ‘Marcionite’ sect, repeatedly says Paul wrote a gospel, denied that it was called “according to Paul” and instead identified the text as being written “according to Mark.”


The intriguing relationship between Paul and Mark must be left aside for the moment other than to reinforce once again that when Peter’s disapproval of Mark’s relationship with the equestrians of Caesar is made to disappear the Acts of the Apostles replaces it with Peter’s mission against Simon in the domo Marcelli. Eusebius, undoubtedly aware of the reworked Acts of Peter tradition paraphrases Clement’s original testimony by referring to the time “when the divine word had thus been established among them [sc. the Romans], Simon's power was extinguished and immediately destroyed, along with the man himself. So greatly did the lamp of piety enlighten the minds of Peter's hearers that they were not satisfied with a single hearing of the unwritten teaching in the divine message, and with all kinds of appeals begged Mark … to provide them with a written record of the teaching they had received in oral form.”

The assumption now is that Peter was actively engaging the aristocrats in Rome. But this only derives again from the reworked text of the Acts of Peter. While there is no reason to doubt that this Simon may have triggered the Imperial interest in the Christian – a narrative echoed in the gospel’s subplot regarding Herod’s interest in the preaching of Jesus – it is hard not to shake the sense that the Acts of Peter’s specific identification of ‘the good Simon’ going out of his way to combat the influence of the ‘bad Simon’ in such homes is a later invention. Indeed we may even go so far as to say that it is a later invention which greatly expands upon Peter’s implied disapproval of Mark’s developing a gospel in order to respond to interest raised by his presence in the city of Rome.

The closest parallel to this situation in fact seems to be the statement we find in our existing New Testament canon. Here the man who is said to have changed his name to ‘Paul’ declares to his hearers:

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with superior word or wisdom as I proclaimed to you the mystery of God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified ... and my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God. We do, however, speak a wisdom among the perfect, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began ... as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived

It is hard not to shake the feeling that these very words could have been used by Mark to justify his going beyond the original teachings of Peter. On the one hand, the author acknowledges that he originally taught a simple message one that adhered to a doctrine that focused on the crucifixion. In due course however the same author explains that he developed a more sophisticated message for ‘the perfect’ that was certainly at least equated with members of the priesthood.

Of course it has to be acknowledged that the specific name ‘Mark’ is never used in conjunction with this declaration. We only know the author as ‘Paul’ but again a ‘Paul’ whose name was changed from something else originally. It is quite fascinating however that Clement of Alexandria, the very same source who tells us about Mark’s composition of a gospel independently of Peter, also makes a second reference to the creation of Mark’s gospel that seems to echo this passage just cited. Clement writes:

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 secret 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 notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former books the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected. Nevertheless, he 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 truth hidden by seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prepared matters, neither grudgingly nor incautionously, 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 initated into the great mysteries.

The manner in which both statements of Clement square with the situation described in the declaration attributed to ‘Paul’ is quite significant. It is completely ignored by Watson because he is distracted by his own hatred for the man who discovered the second testimony of Clement.

In this second witness of the Alexandrian Church Father he makes clear that something less than a gospel associated with Peter existed before Mark’s coming. Both Mark and Peter were in the possession of what Clement calls ‘hypomnemata’ which is term which references a collection of notes which haven’t been formally pulled together into a finished product. The great French philosopher of the twentieth century Michel Foucault identifies hypomnemata as “constituted a material memory of things read, heard, or thought." It is worth noting that all early Church Fathers save for one identify the existence of these hypomnemata. Clement seems to be suggesting again that Mark wrote two gospels – one while Peter was alive and another later in Alexandria, only the latter which seemed to have departed significantly from the teachings of Peter.

Yet we should be aware that Clement was still alive as the contemporary Roman reaction against his writings – or the traditions he was citing in his works - was taking place. The Acts of Peter for instance was written around the same time as these statements that “Mark wrote for Caesar’s equestrians” and “Mark only completed his own gospel in Alexandria after Peter’s death.” Many scholars have had a difficult time resolving these many contradictions. However the contradiction are by no means limited to Clement. None of the early statements ‘jibe’ with one another. Why is there so much confusion about what exactly happened at the beginning of Christianity? The answer might simply be due to changing ‘rules’ at the very top of the ecclesiastical organization – i.e. in the church of Rome.


When you put the two statements of Clement together – (a) Mark wrote a gospel for the Imperial knights without Peter’s approval and (b) Mark wrote two gospels one entirely according to Peter’s ‘simple’ message, the other developed from the first but now entirely his own – it would appear that Clement was adapting his message to the development of a newly forged Roman ‘counter-history,’ perhaps to be loosely identified by the Acts of Peter. It should be noted that in the first account there is nothing to specifically designate the tradition associated with Mark’s gospel as specifically ‘Alexandrian.’ Indeed, if anything, Mark’s gospel was firmly established at Rome for a Roman audience. The retreat back to a specifically Alexandrian defense for the ‘secret’ gospel seems to be an acknowledgement that Rome is now identifies ‘a gospel of Mark which is at once the Peter’s gospel’ with our canonical text of the same name.

In other words, in Clement’s original testimony he doesn’t even seem to realize that a second text of Mark exists apart from his own. The existence of a second text of Mark is brought to an associate named Theodore’s attention by the heretical Carpocratian sect and Clement knowing that this Theodore identifies ‘the gospel of Mark’ with our canonical text has to justify the ‘second Mark’ by referencing the existing parameters of what is now ‘canonical Mark’ – i.e. the ‘shorter’ text. The fact that Carpocratians are inevitably identified with Rome and specifically the person of a certain Marcellina is quite significant too for it reinforces the most likely locale that Theodore heard about this second text of Mark was at Rome also.

As it stands then we have a number of different reports from before the time of Commodus outlining the history of the Roman church and its attachment to the gospel of Mark. On the one hand there are Clement’s two attempts to establish that relationship. At the same time there is the native reaction against Clement’s original source – which was itself undoubtedly a Roman tradition now deemed heretical - which said that Mark wrote his gospel out of Peter’s original ‘simple’ understanding without his approval. At the same time there was one more important source which cannot be overlooked, a history of the Judean church written by a certain ‘Hegesippus’ where a certain Marcellina was referenced as ‘corrupting’ the Church in the middle of the second century.

It is difficult not to see a relationship between the figure of ‘Marcellina’ and Marcellus the senator in the third century Acts of Peter. Marcellina is nothing more than the diminutive of Marcella, the feminine equivalent of Marcellus. When the pagan critic references the various Christian sects active in Rome he references only two wholly separate groups of the “Marcellians” and the “Harpocratians” – the third century Church Father Origen fills in the details. Yet if there was a group of influential Marcellians - or in Greek Markellianous - in mid-second century Rome, it would be impossible on the basis of this name alone to distinguish those associated with the supposed Roman senator from those of this recent female arrival. The conflation of who or what the Marcellians were was added to the manuscripts of Hegesippus by someone wanting ‘re-imagine’ the origins of the Roman Church and most likely the aforementioned figure of Irenaeus in the late second century.

It was Hegesippus who said that he personally saw ‘Marcellina’ the ‘teacher of the sect of Carpocrates’ in Rome at the time of the bishop Anicetus. Yet there is clearly many versions of this same testimony floating around in antiquity. At the very same time as this information was added to the ‘Memoirs’ of Hegesippus, the pagan critic referenced the two separate sects of ‘Marcellians’ and ‘Harpocratians’ – the invention of ‘Marcellina the Carpocratian’ clearly being a reaction against the influence of Celsus’s original report. Moreover in the late fourth century the Latin Church Father Jerome knows of a report where this same woman – albeit unnamed – is specifically mentioned as a member of the Marcionite sect. Jerome’s tradition is echoed in other specifically Latin sources.

To this end the Acts of Peter’s invention of Marcellus the Senator only seems to be yet another attempt to explain the existence of a Marcellian sect in Rome at the time of Anicetus which had prominent female members. Clement of Alexandria demonstrates that he had access to the the invented histories of Irenaeus by the fact that he cites the specific form ‘Carpocratians’ rather than ‘Harpocratians.’ Yet the specific form used by Celsus draws our attention back to an early Latin source. For both Marcellianous and Harpocratianous and their –ian suffix is unmistakably a borrowed form Latin, which when added to a word shows ownership or belonging.

The point then that we cannot lose sight of is that there was certainly a sect identified in Latin by the name Marcelliani which later developed into the ‘positive’ reference of ‘the senator Marcellus’ in the Acts of Peter. Yet this cannot be the original reference. There is an important amount of detail that is lost to us now – perhaps forever. The only way we can perhaps rescue at least part of the story is by following the trail of another prominent character in the Acts of Peter – that of ‘Agrippa, the prefect.’


Christine Thomas Associate Professor of Religious Studies at UCLA has done a lot of the digging for us in her book The Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature and the ancient novel. She notes that there is a persistent figure of ‘Agrippa’ in the stories that seems to go back to the Jewish king of the same name. The tradition attested by Eusebius that the arrest in Acts took place under the reign of Claudius would set the dramatic date of Luke's story at about the same time as Peter's arrest in the Actus Vercellenses, if this is taken to have happened twelve years after Christ’s death. Thomas also notes that the arrest takes place at the end of Peter's active role in each narrative, and it is clear from both narratives that Agrippa, or Herod, threatens the aposde with death. There are also a consistent number of exactly four soldiers in the arresting party in either story.

Thomas takes great pains to note there is one significant difference – in Luke’s story Peter escapes while in the Acts of Peter he is actually executed. Nevertheless it is worth noting that the manner of his execution in that text is more reminiscent of the gnostic Simon Magus for his crucifixion is nothing short of a second death of Christ. Leaving this difficulties aside Thomas notes that “the Acts of Peter also show elsewhere a vague knowledge of some of the other events in the life of ‘Agrippa’ which she traces back to the historical king Agrippa. She concludes that “in the case of Marcellus, Christian memory in the Acts of Peter recalls the two or three major events in the life of a historical figure: Agrippa's arrest of early Christian leaders and his difficulties with and imprisonment by the Roman emperor— though the texts of the Acts of Peter anachronistically represent him as Nero rather than Tiberius.”

If indeed the figure of Agrippa does as Thomas suggests go back to the historical figure of king Agrippa how is the figure of Marcellus to be explained? The direction that Thomas sends us is to the Acts of Pseudo-Linus, yet another surviving version of the Acts of Peter tradition. In that text we read that the wife of the wicked senator Albinus “revealed the conspiracy of her husband and the prefect Agrippa to Marcellus, the prefect Marcus' son, who after turning away from the noxious teachings of Simon Magus had attached himself to the Apostle faithfully and beneficially in all things.” Thomas summarizes the rest of the account as follows - “Marcellus here finds out about the plot to execute Peter. When the Roman senators break out in a riot because of Peter, Marcellus tries to convince him to flee for his life (Linus 3-4). More significantly, Marcellus appears in the Linus text as a Christian witness, a role he retains later in the trajectory [of the Acts of Peter tradition] … When Peter appears to Marcellus after Peter's death, he also commissions Marcellus (Linus 16): ‘You, then, since you have learned from me, go, preach the kingdom of God.’”

In other words, Marcellus ‘the son of Mark’ is demonstrated to be himself a ‘second Mark’ – if not all that remains of Mark’s original presence within the tradition. Marcellus in the Acts of Linus appears exactly in the place of Mark For this reason, Marcellus and the brethren begged Peter to depart. But Peter said: "It is not right, brethren and children, to flee from sufferings on account of Christ the Lord, since he himself willingly submitted to death on behalf of our salvation." Marcellus, however, and the brethren said with great lamentation: "Have pity, merciful father, on the youths and on those who are untrained in the faith. Do not leave us and them deserted in the midst of the tempests of the unbelievers."

Then Peter said to those who were asking [him this]: "You are arguing that flight is necessary—you are persuading me to strike fear of suffering into the hearts of the youths and the weak by my example, whereas we ought to be proclaiming the word of God with constancy and preserving the holy foundations of chastity which we have laid. You think flight is necessary in order to avoid death—but we long for death with copious sighs and groans, as the entryway of life, and furthermore, by means of death we ought to glorify the Lord, in keeping with the revelation [we have received] about that [eternal life].

In the appearance after Peter’s death, the apostle seems to teach Marcellus the very words that will make their way into the gospel of Mark:

And immediately Marcellus, without waiting for anyone's opinion, but seeing that the blessed Apostle had breathed his last, took down the sacred body from the cross with his own hands, washed it with milk and the best wine, and grinding 1500 minae of mastic and aloe, with myrrh and silphium (?), and oil of myrrh along with the various other spices—another 1500 minae—he embalmed him most lovingly. He also filled a new sarcophagus with Attic honey and placed the body, anointed with the perfumes, in it. That very night, however, while Marcellus was keeping vigil at the tomb and weeping out of his passionate longing for him—for he had decided never to be separated from the grave of his most loving teacher as long as he lived—the blessed Peter came to him. When Marcellus saw him, and trembled, he quickly rose for him and stood before him. The blessed Apostle said to him: "Brother Marcellus, haven't you heard the words of the Lord, who said: 'Leave the dead to bury their own dead'?" And Marcellus said, "Dear master, I have heard them." Then Peter said to him: "Then do not let yourself seem like a dead man who has buried a dead man and weeps, but like a living man rejoicing better with a living, jubilant man; leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, just you have learned through me, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Marcellus made this known to all the brethren with great good-will, and through the favor of holy Peter the faith of the believers was strengthened by God the father in every way, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit.

It would stand to reason then to assume that the figure of the rich senator ‘Marcellus’ is a deliberate substitution for Mark himself. The only question left for us to answer is why it was so necessary for the late second century Church to remove all trace of the original tradition that Mark wrote his gospel indepently of Peter.

In the Patmos MS of the Acts of Peter the same account appears in a slightly different form:

And Marcellus not asking leave of any, for it was not possible, when he saw that Peter had given up the ghost, took him down from the cross with his own hands and washed him in milk and wine: and cut fine seven minae of mastic, and of myrrh and aloes and indian leaf other fifty, and perfumed (embalmed) his body and filled a coffin of marble of great price with Attic honey and laid it in his own tomb. But Peter by night appeared unto Marcellus and said: Marcellus, hast thou heard that the Lord saith: Let the dead be buried of their own dead? And when Marcellus said: Yea, Peter said to him: That, then, which thou hast spent on the dead, thou hast lost: for thou being alive hast like a dead man cared for the dead. And Marcellus awoke and told the brethren of the appearing of Peter: and he was with them that had been stablished in the faith of Christ by Peter, himself also being stablished yet more until the coming of Paul unto Rome [emphasis mine]

The idea now that the community waits for the coming of Paul to Rome to complete the understanding established by word in the person of Peter only too perfectly serves as a parallel to the original understanding of Mark. As we saw Peter told Mark things which he completed in his gospel without the explicit approval of Peter. This tradition is known to Clement but no one else when the specific name ‘Mark’ is referenced, but the Church Fathers witness a whole host of sects who attribute the very same narrative to ‘Paul.’

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

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.