Monday, October 14, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Eleven] Final Edit

Communion With Mark

Once we establish the link between the Markan tradition in Egypt and the Markan tradition in Gaul we have something we can work with to reconstruct the original Christian faith before Irenaeus. The identification of Mark with Alexandria and Egypt is very ancient. It stands at the core of the Acts of Mark tradition. The same text also hints at a possible journey to Gaul. Sulpicius Severus, writing from Gaul at the end of the fourth century says that the heretic Mark was originally from Egypt but travelled into the parts of Gaul about the Rhone river and the Garonne then crossed the Pyrenees into Spain. Jerome echoes the same tradition without explicitly referencing Sulpicius.

Irenaeus himself does not say his ‘Mark the magician’ was actually present in Gaul at the time he was writing. Instead he mentions great numbers of his followers here and in other places. The complete absence of any recognized tradition associated with St Mark in the West has to be explained especially if we assume that the gospel was first written in Rome as we saw Clement originally declare. The claim that Mark was a tireless worker for Peter is a pleasant bit of propaganda; one that is full of Christian virtue but stands completely against what we know about human nature. It is only the artificially developed parallels that exist between Mark and Peter’s relationship and Luke and Paul that we never delve further into this mystery.1

The point here is that the tradition that Mark wrote from his own theological perspective is far more believable than the idea that he was merely parroting Peter's point of view. This understanding not only emerges from the writings of Clement of Alexandria and the surviving ‘Coptic’ tradition in Egypt but also the Acts of Mark.2 In the source latter for instance, we hear Mark is said to have written the gospel "by divine illumination, harmoniously interpreting with excellence and perfection, revealing these lofty divine discourses clear to all. So from this and from his virtuous way of living, the people called this man mystery speaker [mystolektês] and holy herald [hierokêroux]." God himself is said to have ‘been in’ Mark as he spoke and acted, an understanding that seems to emerge from the Marcionite veneration of their unnamed apostle.3

There certainly was a Markan tradition that survived from antiquity. It lived on in Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia and other places and was effectively outlawed, run out of town, marginalized, brutalized and abused in so many ways in the rest of the Roman world. In the stirring words of the last Coptic Pope "How much injustice did St. Mark receive from the followers of St. Peter ? They tried to rob him his apostolic dignity, and credit all his efforts to somebody else? I mean St. Peter." It is incredible to even think how this tradition managed to survive with the weight of Empire directed against it since the time of Irenaeus. Nevertheless the reality is that it did manage exactly this.4

Already before the Nicene Council we see Peter I's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to co-opt the Markan tradition while Arius was presbyter of the Martyrium.5 The struggle between Arianism and Orthodoxy - that is the 'orthodoxy' by the standards outside Egypt - undoubtedly left the Church of St Mark firmly in the hands of the Arians in the early part of the fourth century. The influence of Alexander and Athanasius only extended to the walled cities where the majority of Greeks lived and perhaps some new monastic settlements.6

So how was it that the tradition associated with St Mark managed to perpetuate itself for almost the next two millennia? It would seem not only his name, but his very person is invoked whenever a crisis confronts the community in his name. I have already written about the eerie parallels between the death of Pope Peter I in 311 CE at the very beginning of the power struggle between various factions in Alexandria.7 There appears to a deliberate identification of Peter I as St Mark in the various texts describing his martyrdom.8 Indeed the circumstances of the martyrdom of Peter I unmistakably echo those later associated with St Mark. For instance the location of the two events - i.e. on the beach sand outside of the church that bore the evangelist's name - is identical.9

The body of Peter ultimately became identified as St Mark's in the fifth century.10 We can safely assume that no one knew anything of St Mark’s ‘martyr’s death’ until long after the circumstances of Peter’s execution. Yet it is because Peter I had joined the episcopal line of the evangelist that he is at once a ‘second Mark.’ This mystical understanding of the Pope as ‘living evangelist’ caused the further development of details associated with Peter’s death to be incorporated in the various accounts of Mark’s death. Yet Peter I wasn’t the one Alexandrian Pope to help reshape the later martyrdom tradition of the evangelist.

The idea that Mark was dragged around with a rope certainly derives from the details of the death of another Alexandrian Pope George the Arian bishop of Alexandria who was killed by the Orthodox in 361 CE. This thesis was first developed by the Italian scholar Gianfresco Lusini in his recent paper on Ethiopian versions of the Martyrium Marci.11 Mark in Egypt in the late fourth century was still very much like Mark in Gaul in the late second century. The evangelist seems been reincarnated through his representatives as living tabernacles of his spirit. There seems to be a connection here with the long standing doctrine of ‘incarnation’ – that is that that Egyptian Christians understood the Incarnation to enable human participation in divine or heavenly realities in the here and now.12

This continual pattern of mistaking a leader of the Coptic community for St Mark himself cannot have been invented in the fourth century. Instead we should see it as an outgrowth of the unique cultic practices of the community of the evangelist and its secret baptism. Of course the Coptic ordination rite does not involve baptism any longer. The present rite has the new Patriarch reverently carry the head of St. Mark and declare his vows for the congregation to follow in the steps of St. Mark. But this was not the original means of communion with the ‘father of fathers.’

Already in Athanasius's account of George in his Arian History we see traces of the original baptismal rite associated with Secret Mark. Athanasius writes that George while Pope “commanded to enter Alexandria with military pomp, and supported by the authority of the General. Next, finding one Epictetus a novice, a bold young man, he loved him perceiving that he was ready for wickedness [emphasis mine] and by his means he carries on his designs against those of the Bishops whom he desires to ruin.” The Greek text here which is translated 'he loved him' etc has been recognized to have an echo of Mark's gospel account of Jesus and the youth in the section discussed in the Letter to Theodore.13 The sense here is that the Arian Pope's relationship with this youth was criticized for its alleged homoerotic mysticism rooted in the same material cited from Secret Mark.

When Arianism died out in the late fourth century, we may also suppose that all traces of the original Markan rite also disappeared. The surviving apocryphal Acts associated with St Mark have all been edited with strong Athanasian or orthodox doctrines added to them.14 The original Alexandrian communion with St Mark was co-opted by the new Imperial regime. All that was left was a vague superstition which physically cleaved to Peter I’s body, which in turn were associated with the new Nicene doctrines.

As Stephen J Davis notes "throughout the history of the Coptic church, the authority of the Egyptian patriarchs has been understood to derive from the imitation of Mark's virtues and from a direct lineage of apostolic succession." The Pope is understood to be a living personification of the evangelist. The account of the suffering of Peter I and his prayer at the shrine of Saint Mark as Davis notes "not only links his identity with the evangelist himself, but also with the patriarchal lineage after Mark."15 The important thing for us to see here is that the connection between St Mark and his successors was not one of an abstract or merely symbolic nature. The apostle is understood to become resurrected in their bodies throughout successive generations. This is why the relics associated with the evangelist (i.e. his head and his body before 811 CE) have such importance for the community.

When for instance the church of St Mark had been destroyed by fire during the fighting between the Byzantines and the Arabs in Alexandria in the seventh century the significance of rebuilding his church took on the greatest significance for the Coptic tradition as Mark Swanson notes "as they provided a sacred setting for the regular reenactment of their claim to continuity with St. Mark, evangelist and first patriarch of Alexandria."16 He adds further that this claim is clearly asserted in the History of the Patriarchs of the Islamic period where George the Archdeacon reports that St. Mark himself appeared to Patriarch Benjamin in a vision,saying, "O my beloved, make a place for me with thee, that I may abide therein."

The purpose of the Church of St Mark was to establish a reliquary for the physical remains of the evangelist to facilitate the continued communion with the Patriarchs of the community. We can see the significance of the relics in the consecration rite of the new Pope in a text attributed to Severus of Nesterwah at the time of the death of Pope Jacob (819–830 CE) and tells of the evangelist again coming to him in a vision. As we was sleeping in a room not far from Mark's Church in Alexandria before the holy Sunday of his confirmation he had a dream:

I was near a church very high, very high, of extraordinary magnificence, and was built on the plateau of a mountain. It was lit from within by number of lamps shining. While I was looking for an opening to get in, now I came to discover a small window on one side of the building. Having approached the window I open my eyes and plunging into the interior of the church; I perceive a man while bright light, and seated on a magnificent throne. He carried with him the garment of the high priests, and his face flashed beams of light of a dazzling brightness. I also saw before him a couch while erect) and the bed on a sleeping man who looked like a martyr. I told him that sat on the throne: "Who are you, Lord, you who sit on the throne, which are surrounded by so much fame?" - "I am Mark," he replied in a voice loud and clear. Just those words were out of his mouth, I replied: "The-what are you, Lord? Mark the apostle, or Mark the second of that name? "At this request he made this clear answer:" I am not Mark the second of that name, but Mark the Evangelist who preached the faith in the province Egypt. I was emboldened to send him again this question: "Who is this person lying on that bed? - "He," he said, "is the holy martyr Demetrius. "

Severus says that Mark opened his mouth and revealed to him all the secrets of his personal life, the name of his father and mother, how he grew up. Mark is said to have instructed him to "put it in writing and file your book in the church for the edification of all those who wish to read."

Yet the far more interesting part of the story is when Severus visits the newly consecrated Pope the next day:
The next morning we ordained His Holiness, Patriarch Simeon in the pulpit of the supreme pontificate. However, throughout the ceremony, my mind was preoccupied, I was upset with myself and agitated by various thoughts, was because of what I saw and heard in my dream. After much thought, he came into my mind a thought. So I turned to the patriarch, I told him: "Truly, sir, you relieve my heart, if your Holiness deign to grant me the favor to kiss the sacred head of St. Mark the Evangelist before I went to my seat. "Having attained my desire, he sent to accompany me, the deacons attached to his service, and ordered him the order of admittance to the sacred crypt. It opened in front of me the shrine in which lay the body of St. Mark the Evangelist.

While taking the venerable head of the holy apostle in my hand, I kissed it three times, and holding it standing over him, I said in my heart: "I ask you and beg you humbly my lord, ye a disciple, an apostle, a holy martyr of our Lord Jesus Christ, relieve my heart about what I saw in my dream: is it a true vision, or is it just a dream the empty product of my imagination? If it really comes from you, I would be duty to confirm and put in writing for the edification of all who hear the story if, instead, it is a dream, I'm attached to silence and not speak to anyone. "This is the prayer that I made in my heart, while I held the head of the virtuous martyr in my hands, St. Mark the Evangelist, and afterward I went to the burial crypt and retired. But the next night, while I gave, I saw again in a dream the church that I first noticed. The calm and tranquil mind, I began to open the window, and for the second time I saw the man surrounded by light, seated on the throne as he had appeared before.

Of course the evangelist goes on to confirm every word of his previous encounter with Severus, making it clear to the reader that the bishop of Nesterwah really stood in the presence of St Mark.

We should see then that the superstition that St Mark was an abiding living presence with his followers lived on. The basic idea stayed the same – i.e. that the Jesus spirit came to live inside of the Patriarchs in the manner that we see first displayed in the Acts of St Mark. Mark had Jesus inside of him and so was made divine. This is an extension of the Alexandrian doctrine of the Incarnation (i.e. the divine Word’s act of becoming flesh in Christ). The manner in which a man became Christ in the heretical communities was baptism and in specific the second baptism called ‘redemption’ by the tradition of St Mark. This rite was kept secret as it was the profoundest of mysteries. Nevertheless the idea that human beings could participate in the divine lived on and as Davis notes it is “sometimes described by Alexandrian patristic theologians in terms of human deifcation.”17

Davis does not specifically identify St Mark as the example which first established Christ becoming incarnate in humanity. Nevertheless the understanding is implicit in the Coptic understanding of salvation. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt. Mark established the episcopal line of the ‘father of the other fathers’ (= Pope) that was the living testimony to the continued incarnation of Christ in men. Under the influence of the fourth century Nicene revision of Christianity it was the physical relics of the apostle allow for each successive Pope to commune with the holy evangelist. Yet they were only communing with the dead body of the first orthodox bishop of Alexandria, Peter I.

When we look at George and the line of Arian bishops that clearly identified themselves as perpetuating the original beliefs of the first through third century Church Fathers, the use of Peter I’s bones was certainly viewed as an innovation. While we have absolutely no idea what their consecration rite would have entailed Athanasius makes explicit allusion to a homoerotic mystery interpretation of Mark chapter 10 suggesting it had something to do with Secret Mark. Clement similarly emphasizes that the ‘second baptism’ was a priestly ordination rite. Origen can be understood to allude to the same thing too.18

Yet it is also worth noting that our familiar notion of what constituted a ‘priest’ must have been very different from that of the early tradition of Mark. All signs point to the early existence of a single church in Egypt – the church of St Mark in the Boucolia. What did all the ‘priests’ do who were ordained according to these secret rites? We must imagine that anyone who was baptized according to the redemption rite was a holy person – even a God-person – who, like Moses represented a living tabernacle of the divinity. He or she didn’t require a fixed place of residence or a physical address to perform his duties. He or she must have appeared to the outside world like a wandering magician.

To this end all the Markan heretical groups that are identified in the second century period – i.e. Celsus’s Marcellians, Irenaeus’s the Marcionites and the followers of Marcian in the writings of Justin, Serapion and others – assumed the existence of living ‘sons and daughters’ of Mark. Indeed Irenaeus identifies Mark as specifically "drawing away a great number of men, and not a few women, he has induced them to join themselves to him." Moreover Irenaeus says Mark "enables as many as he counts worthy to be partakers of his grace" and adds an important fragment of their liturgy:

I am eager to make thee a partaker of my grace, since the Father of all doth continually behold thy angel before His face. Now the place of thy angel is among us: it behoves us to become one. Receive first from me and by me grace. Adorn thyself as a bride who is expecting her bridegroom, that thou mayest be what I am, and I what thou art. Establish the germ of light in thy nuptial chamber. Receive from me a spouse, and become receptive of him, while thou art received by him. Behold grace has descended upon thee; open thy mouth and prophesy.

This sacramental rite reflects the understanding that the male and female priests who underwent the redemption rite were in fact reincarnations of Mark distributed throughout the world, the apostle himself being the original paradigm of deified man for the community.

Irenaeus adds that the bride here "expresses her thanks to Marcus for having imparted to her of his own grace. She then makes the effort to reward him, not only by the gift of her possessions ... but also by yielding up to him her person, desiring in every way to be united to him, that she may become altogether one with him." It is worth noting here that 'the bride' could have been originally male or female. So we see in Clement the initiate described as “no longer a bride but has become a Logos and rests with the bridegroom together with the First-Called and First- Created, who are friends by love, sons by instruction and obedience, and brothers by community of origin." The allusion seems to suggest that Mark stood in the place that we would normally associate with Jesus during baptismal rites.

If baptism is to be identified as the ‘bridal chamber' of the Markan community then there are clear signs that Mark rather than Jesus was the original bridegroom of the community. Indeed the tradition of Mark might simply have assumed that the Jesus and Mark were interchangeable because the latter was the former’s spokesperson – i.e. ‘apostle.’ To this end we should note that in that early liturgy of Mark we find uncanny parallels with a hymn found in Clement’s Exhortation to the Heathens. We read the Church Father declare:

Come to Me, that you may be put in your due rank under the one God and the one Word of God; and do not only have the advantage of the irrational creatures in the possession of reason; for to you of all mortals I grant the enjoyment of immortality. For I want, I want to impart to you this grace, bestowing on you the perfect boon of immortality; and I confer on you both the Word and the knowledge of God, My complete self. This am I, this God wills, this is symphony, this the harmony of the Father, this is the Son, this is Christ, this the Word of God, the arm of the Lord, the power of the universe, the will of the Father; of which things there were images of old, but not all adequate. I desire to restore you according to the original model, that ye may become also like Me. I anoint you with the ungent of faith, by which you throw off corruption, and show you the naked form of righteousness by which you ascend to God.

It is impossible not to see that Clement is making allusion to a baptismal rite used in his Alexandrian community. We should take note of the references to anointing and nakedness. It is interesting also note the verbatim parallels again with Irenaeus’s Markan community.

If we remove the small digression that Clement adds in his own voice we are left with the following early Markan liturgy:

For I want, (1) I want to impart to you this grace, bestowing on you the perfect boon of immortality. and I confer on you both (2) the Word and the knowledge of God, My complete self. This am I, this God wills, (3) this is symphonia ... I desire to restore you according to the original model, (3) that you may become also like Me.

Compare this to the original prayer in Irenaeus from the community of Mark:

(1) I want to impart to you my grace, since the Father of all doth continually behold (2) thy angel before His face. Now the place of thy angel is among us: it behoves us to become one. Receive first from me and by me grace. Adorn thyself as (3) a bride who is expecting her bridegroom, that (4) you may be what I am, and I what thou art.

The parallels are simply uncanny here and point to perhaps the clearest sign yet that the secret rites of the followers of Mark in Gaul were developed from the secret gospel of Mark used by Clement's Alexandrian community.

Let us put the two sections even more closely under a microscope. The first sentences here read:

I want to impart to you this grace,

ethelw kai tautes humin metadounai tes charitos

I am eager to make thee a partaker of my grace

metadounai soi thelw tes emes charitos

The parallels in language here leave no doubt that the two texts are related. Further in the next line Clement speaks of conferring the Word and the "knowledge of God" while the followers of Mark in Gaul speak of the angel which beholds the presence of the Father (= knowledge) being present in their midst. The two divine intermediaries who commune with their respective communities are clearly one and the same.

Clement goes on to speak of a 'symphony' or 'concord' between mystagogue and the initiate. He deliberately avoids using the metaphor of 'bride' and 'bridegroom' because he has just finished admonishing the pagan religions for encouraging sexualized marriage metaphors.19 Yet the two accounts are again identical. The idea in each case is that union between the male and female will lead to mystical perfection. Where Clement speaks in terms of restoring the initiate so that that he or she can be reformed "according to the original model, that ye may become also like Me" the followers in Mark in Gaul in terms of adorning themselves as brides waiting for their bridegrooms "that thou mayest be what I am, and I what thou art." It is impossible to argue that these two passages are not related. Clement has merely consciously 'cleaned up' all the sexualized imagery from the original material.

To this end we can begin to understand the development of the veneration of the bones of Peter I as the relics of St Mark as a deliberately cultivated orthodox replacement of the traditional Markan value placed on redemption baptism. In other words, as we see from the Letter to Theodore, the baptism of catechumens in the pre-Nicene Markan Church had as its object the establishment of new earthly tabernacles of the apostle. This is why Irenaeus tells of a story of Mark the magician defiling a woman in Asia Minor. This also surely accounts for why there are so many examples of figures whose names translate to 'Mark the less,' 'the son of Mark' or 'of Mark' in the late second century period. The same mystical process of baptism surely also accounts for the apostle's title as the perfect 'work' (po'olo) of God.20


1 When for instance Polycarp of Smyrna tirelessly worked for the Church, we have on the one hand Irenaeus's hagiography to guide us. Here a selfless portrait of a saint is attested. Nevertheless the writings of the pagan satyrist Lucian of Samosata present a completely different portrait of Polycarp or someone like Polycarp - describing him as a man "who said everything with a view to glory and the praise of the multitude, even to the extent of leaping into fire, when he was sure not to enjoy the praise because he could not hear it." 


7 ᾽Επικτητόν τινα…νεώτερον…ἠγάπησεν, ὁρῶν, κ. τ. λ. So in the account of the νεανίσκος, ῾Ο δὲ ᾽Ιησοῦς ἐμβλέψας αὐτῷ, ἠγάπησεν αὐτόν. Mark 10. 21. 

9 Indeed in the Acts of Peter the parallel is made explicit - " they took him up and brought him to the place called Bucolia, where the holy St. Mark underwent martyrdom for Christ." Both evangelist and Pope spend a night in jail before the events that lead to their execution. Both Mark and Peter are present in sanctuaries devoted to the evangelist before being dismembered by the angry mob. Indeed in the account the Acts of Peter, the evangelist's representative has a vision where Mark tells him that his death will be a participation in his holiness. Peter is said to have been beheaded by the soldiers outside the Martyrium. I argued in my article that the body identified by the Venetians as St Mark's is really St Peter's as there is no report of a head and it was taken together with the throne in the ninth century to Italy. 
10 The reason Peter's death does not echo the features of the Acts of St Mark, where the evangelist is dragged around with a rope before being set on fire, is because these features come from the circumstances of the death of yet another Pope who lived after Peter I. In other words, those details hadn't been yet invented for Mark. 
11 As Lusini writes the details of George's death resembles several details, this episode reveals a striking similarity to the narrative of the Acts of Mark. chapters 7-9 of the apocryphal work: which are devoted to the last hours of the martyr, recount that the apostle was assaulted by a pagan crowd and put in jail for one night; the following day he was dragged, with a rope around his neck, until he died and soon after this his body was set on fire. These coincidences may have a historical explanation if we assume that the final part of the Acts of Mark was written immediately after the death of George, in 362 or soon after, when the memory of the most horrifying aspects of the ecclesiastic's death was still vivid. One must consider that, thanks to the physical elimination of George, Athanasius was allowed to come back to town for the third time, and some sources report that the supporters of the exiled bishop were accused of being the true instigators of the riot and the murder, which was actually committed by the pagans. The author of the Acts of Mark was probably one of the representatives of the pro-Athanasian faction in Alexandria, who were eager to overshadow the memory of that bloody Christmas (24 December 361) and suppress the rumours of their involvement. In other words, the author looked for the effect of "substitution" by manipulating realistic details of the story of George in creating the myth of the martyrdom of Mark: even the date of the death of the apostle, Easter Sunday, was probably suggested by the need to wipe out and substitute another awkward aspect of the murder of George, i.e. its occurrence during the Christian rites of 24 December. 
12 Of course Lusini's reconstruction of the transmission cannot be completely accepted as the original identification of George with St Mark must have first taken place among his followers. 
14 The Acts of Mark, after listing many of miracles of the evangelist's account adds by way of emphasis "for he who accomplished these things is the Son of God and God the Christ, of the same substance as the Father and the Holy Spirit, who encompasses everything."9It is unclear when this reference was added to the narrative, however it seems to confirm that the final editing was accomplished after the middle of the fourth century. The same pattern seems to hold true for all the texts related to the Martyrium Marci. 
15 In a prayer invoking Christ, Peter says, 'You chose the blessed Anianus because he was worthy; and after him (you chose) Abilius, and those who succeeded those two; then Demetrius and Heraclas and Dionysius and Maximus; and the blessed Theonas, my father, who brought me up until I came to the ministry of this see after him." Already this pattern of invoking episcopal succession of St Mark is evidenced within the earliest references to Arian documents.

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