Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Three]

Chapter Three
Mark His Words

There are few things in more daunting in life than trying to making sense of an unreasonable tradition. Wherever people have tried to piece together the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘where’ and ‘how’ of the story of Jesus they inevitably hit a brick wall. The story is at bottom senseless. It comes down to, salvation deriving from a crucified man. How is this possible? How is this reasonable? It is unfathomable mystery which has never been explained by anyone. The Passion narrative at the very core of the Christian experience is an unfathomable mystery. These events have no discernible source – credible or otherwise – to establish their veracity and yet everyone believes, everyone knows they will be saved.

If – as most scholars contend – that Mark’s is the first gospel, there is no sign where Mark got his information about the crucifixion of Jesus. Neither Mark nor Peter can be counted as witnesses at the crucifixion. While scholars often love to repeat the statement of Irenaeus that Mark wrote on behalf of Peter what isn’t said often enough is that all of our best information leads us right back where we left our investigation – i.e. back in the Roman Imperial court.

The words of Clement of Alexandria, a Church Father and contemporary of Irenaeus make this remarkably clear:

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 – as we just noted - the gospel upon which all other gospels developed was written specifically for the lower of the two aristocratic orders. But how could this be? How could a Jewish mystical tradition have made its way to the highest ranks of Roman society within a generation or two of Jesus’s crucifixion?

The connection with the Imperial knights is quite significant. It takes us to the very doorstep of the court of Caesar. Yet there are other ‘fingerprints’ of the ruling order on this document. One of the clearest indications of the Roman origins of the Gospel of Mark is found in countless signs of Latinisms in the Greek language used in the document. In other words, scholars – some as early as late antiquity – have noticed the presence of (a) Latin vocabulary transliterated into Greek (b) Latin idioms rendered word for word in Greek and (c) 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.”1 In a similar vein Patrick J. Flanagan commented that "Mark had Latin as one of his languages and wrote in a Latin-speaking area."2 It would go beyond the scope of this present work to cite all the examples which have been identified by these and other experts. It is enough to follow the conclusions of Adam Winn who notes “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."3

Perhaps one example might suffice to cement Mark’s connection with Rome. 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."4

Mark’s Latinized Greek and his contact with members of the Imperial household seem to reinforce the same underlying assumptions. Rather than being a native Judean faith, Christianity as we know it began life as a product of specifically Roman cultural values. One wonders - is there any way to squeeze more information out of Clement’s report of Mark’s first century activities? It is terribly unfortunate that Clement’s Hypotyposeis are now lost to us. As scholars have long noted, our information survives essentially in slightly inaccurate attestations from two surviving witnesses – the fourth century Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea and the sixth century Roman senator Cassiodorus.

This ‘wobbly’ tradition has been studied by Francis Watson professor of Theology and Religion at Durham University. Watson confirms quite that each citation clearly goes back to the same original text but adds that the “most striking difference is the absence in Cassiodorus of the surprising statement about Peter's indifference to his follower's literary endeavours.”5 In other words we have to ancient witnesses quoting the same source but doing so in slightly different ways. Cassiodorus confesses to his readers why he might have cut a passage like this from his Latin translation. He states somewhere else that “many things” in Clement’s writings “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."6

As such, Cassiodorus basically admits that he censored his reporting of Clement’s account of the origin of the Gospel of Mark. Watson goes to draw our attention to the fact that Eusebius’s manipulation of the material is similar but far more elusive. Eusebius never admits that he’s changed anything in any source. Yet Watson is certain that the fourth century Church Father has ‘edited’ another portion of the same report because he found another ‘offensive’ suggestion in Clement’s testimony about the creation of the Gospel of Mark.

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. Yet 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 goes out of his way to tell us that the context for Mark's composition is now Peter's victory over Simon Magus in Rome. Simon Magus was in effect the first heretic who tried to corrupt Christianity by means of false teaching. It is unlikely that Simon Magus ever existed, yet the Church Fathers certainly believed he was real. There was a wealth of invented detail about his battles with Peter especially in Rome before Nero.

The oldest surviving literary tradition for this encounter is the so-called Acts of Peter. This text exists in many different forms and we will examine many of the variant forms of this narrative shortly. Watson draws our attention to the fact that Eusebius himself rejected the Acts of Peter as a non-canonical text. In other words, it wasn’t seen to be a reliable source of information about the early Church. As such when he cites Clement of Alexandria’s testimony about the origin of the Gospel of Mark he is noticeably reluctant to relay all of his information as it reinforced a questionable understanding of the beliefs and practices of the early apostles and evangelists.

It was then Cassiodorus who relayed to us the important detail that Mark wrote in response to a request from the Roman equestrian order. In Eusebius paraphrase of Clement’s account this is one of many elements which ‘disappears’ from the narrative. Eusebius tells his readers that:

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 [emphasis mine] 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.

Watson points to the fact that Eusebius is consistently misrepresenting his sources. He notes that “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.”

In fact Eusebius is systematically editing and nudging their testimony in order to recreate something wholly original and ultimately far more acceptable for contemporary consumption. The passage which Eusebius has especial difficulty with is Clement’s understanding that Mark operated independently of Peter. 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 [emphasis mine]

Eusebius does not pass this italicized section 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 dangerous understanding of a pair of apostles who didn’t always walk in lockstep with one another.

As Watson rightly notes Eusebius's “preemptive rewriting” of Clement's original statement transforms the narrative. Eusebius stresses the urgency of the request for a written record as a means of explaining why Mark acted independently of Peter. Peter now learns what has happened through divine inspiration whereas the original account is tacitly critical of an unauthorized initiative. 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.”7

Yet there is an even deeper level of difficulty inherent in the original account of Clement of Alexandria which even Watson has neglected to consider. If we turn to the Acts of Peter tradition we see that there is consistent mention of many aristocratic associates of Peter. As another author notes, there is “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.”8 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 the Acts of Peter 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. As noted above, there is an underlying commonality between Clement of Alexandria’s source of information about Mark and the Acts of Peter tradition. Yet Clement’s source is much older – and more undoubtedly controversial – than anything which has come down to us.

It is absolutely critical to recognize that the Acts of Peter tradition avoids making direct mention of Mark writing for any of these rich individuals. In fact Mark is completely taken out of the narrative. 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 it wasn’t just fourth and sixth century Christians who had a problem with its portrait of the origin of the Gospel of Mark. Irenaeus’s statement that Mark was merely ‘an interpreter’ of Peter should be viewed as yet another attempt to ‘correct’ the original understanding of Mark’s independent authorship of the gospel that bears his name. Indeed we also have to suspect that the understanding of Peter being close to the aristocracy resulted from Mark being edited out of the narrative.9

One of the earliest surviving versions of the Acts of Peter which is the Latin text called Codex Vercellensis. It is generally agreed to “date from the sixth-seventh century, but its text is likely to be a fourth-fifth century translation of the original Greek Acts.”10 There is a rich senator identified in the text named ‘Marcellus’ who likely only appears as a result of Mark – i.e. ‘Marcus’ – removal from the narrative. To this end, if we imagine for a moment 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. Keeping in mind for a moment that Clement’s ‘Acts of Peter’ source has Mark write for members of the equestrian class after the vanquishing of Simon Magus – i.e.

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

it is intriguing that the Vercellensis Acts of Peter introduces Simon as being already present in the domo Marcelli.

Could the evangelist Mark have originally stood in the place where we now find the senator Marcellus? The names are certainly related – ‘Marcellus’ being of course the diminutive form of Marcus. Perhaps the way to rediscover this relationship is follow the detective work of Christine Thomas Associate Professor of Religious Studies at UCLA with respect to another prominent character in the Acts of Peter – that of ‘Agrippa, the prefect’ in her book The Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature and the Ancient Novel.

Thomas 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 who happens to have also been called ‘Marcus.’ 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 apostle 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 difficulty 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? For this understanding Thomas sends us 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.’”11

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. One begins to wonder if the introduction of a ‘father’ named Marcus was only put forward to explain his name change. We read for instance of a similar transformation at the Irish monastery of St Gall many years later where a monk was “later called Marcellus by our brethren after his uncle Marcus”12 – the diminutive being used here in the sense of “son of Marcus.” Indeed Marcellus’s closeness to Peter even after his death can even seem to anticipate the claim in Irenaeus that Mark only wrote for the community after the death of Peter.13

Indeed Marcellus is presented in almost the exact same manner in the Acts of Linus, yet another version of this lost Acts of Peter text. We are told there that “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." Peter refuses to give way to their encouragements to run away and then ultimately appears to Marcellus after his death quoting lines from the Gospel of Mark.

It might be worth quoting the very words of this visionary experience because it seems to echo the underpinnings of an original understanding of Mark writing his gospel after Peter’s death:

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.

Of course Clement’s Acts of Peter text had Mark write his gospel while Peter was still living. Nevertheless as the existing manuscripts of the tradition demonstrate, there was widespread variation which developed at a very early stage of transmission. We may even suspect that one branch of the literary tradition was specifically developed with Irenaeus’s understanding of Mark writing after the death of Peter.

It would stand to reason then that the various manuscripts of the Acts of Peter go back to the original text known to Clement of Alexandria. Clement’s report about the martyrdom of Peter’s wife in another one of his writings reinforces this association.14 To this it is not at all unreasonable to suggest that the figure of the rich senator ‘Marcellus’ is a deliberate substitution for Mark himself, leaving us with the strong likelihood that Mark himself was understood to be an extremely wealthy citizen of Rome. This understanding also seems to be confirmed within the surviving Coptic sources about the evangelist.15 To this end, we can at last explain why rich members of the equestrian order would have pleaded with Mark and Mark alone to preserve the truth about Christ.  

He was one of them. 

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