Monday, October 7, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Four] Final Edit

Mark as First Evangelist

At its very core of his testimony, Clement puts forward that Mark’s wrote independently of Peter. Watson, however, turn Clement’s understanding on its head and says that because Clement treasured Peter, he must have held the Gospel of Mark in low esteem.1 The conclusion is absolutely stunning given that it contradicts evidence about Clement's attitude to the gospel of Mark available to us from other sources. It is difficult to see how Watson makes this leap of logic. The fact that Clement cited writings associated with Peter in no way contradicts the evidence that he also treasured the things written by Mark. This either/or here exists only in Watson's imagination, yet Watson thinks he knows what must have been in Clement’s heart in contradiction to the actual evidence.

Of course men of faith often believe they know other men of faith because the commune with the same Holy Spirit. As one reviewer notes about Watson’s own acceptance of various doctrines of the Church as a starting point to his understanding of the Church Fathers finding "favorable references to the Trinity as a basis for hermeneutics … the Nicene creed as one of the creeds limiting ecclesial interpretation … and the reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ in accordance with the Scriptures”2 It should not at all be surprising then that Watson cannot quite allow all the evidence related to Clement of Alexandria to help shape his opinion of this Church Father. He knows what Clement really believed over and above what the testimony of his own writings.

Watson has become one of the leading voices arguing that we should ignore one key piece of evidence related to Clement on the grounds that it is a modern forgery – his 'Letter to Theodore' discovered in the Mar Saba monastery in 1958. We have already discussed the significance of the letter to help further our understanding of not only Clement of Alexandria but St Mark and the origins of Christianity. Watson wants us to ignore the letter but his arguments have been characterized by his peers as "a bit ridiculous."3 The underlying sense is that he is so desperate to make this letter go away that he will grab any argument - no matter how implausible to justify his ambition.4

Watson wants to create a portrait of Clement of Alexandria which is far more orthodox than his actual writings are. Above all else he wants to buttress the claims of absolute Church unity under the authority of the apostles. The actual testimony of Clement raises doubt about this claim. Indeed Watson's argument that Clement could not have at once acknowledge the authority of Peter while at the same time secretly holding Mark to be superior is quite foolish. We have already seen that Clement, by Watson’s own analysis accepted the gospel of Mark even though it was not approved by Peter. It is hardly a large leap of logic to go only a little further and assume that Mark was beyond Peter because he had attained perfect knowledge.

Indeed this is the gist of Clement’s argument in to Theodore, but of course Watson will have none of that text. Yet it is also implicit in a host of other testimonies both within and without Clement’s writings.5 Take for example the statement of the Marcionite in the third century text De Recta in Deum Fide “It was not Peter who wrote the Gospel, but Christ.” The English translator rightly recognizes this to be part of the tradition which identifies Mark developing Peter’s eyewitness into a written text. However Pretty overlooks the obvious – the Marcionite is merely referencing the first line of the text ‘the Gospel of Jesus Christ’ (Mark 1:1). We will bring forward another testimony from the same period which recognizes this community as venerating Mark’s gospel.

However the important point here is that Mark received a revelation of Christ also noted in the Acts of Mark.6 This ties in with the notion of the closely related testimony of Irenaeus mentioned earlier that the Gospel of Mark originally claimed that ‘Christ’ escaped unharmed from the crucifixion. It is only a small step from this to the understanding that Christ appeared to Mark or came into his person and dictated his words. This is the sense that arises from the Acts of Mark and related Coptic traditions – that is Christ was speaking through Mark.6 We should also compare the repeated mention that “in me (is) Christ” in the Pauline letters (2 Corinthians 11:10, 13:3, Galatians 2:20 etc).

Of course the Letter to Theodore associates Peter and Mark with ‘faith’ and ‘knowledge’ respectively. The implication seems to be that Peter was afforded one level of understanding but that Mark surpassed him. This seems to correspond well with the cryptic allusion to the apostle knowing of two ‘men’ who attained two different heights during their heavenly ascent (2 Corinthians 12:1 – 3). In Clement’s own writings we hear a clear and consistent identification of the superiority of ‘knowledge’ when compared to ‘faith’ such as"knowledge is superior to faith; as to be deemed worthy of the highest honour after being saved is superior to merely being saved” and again "knowledge is the perfection of man, as man, being perfected through the science (epistemen) of Divine things and being in unison with itself and the divine Word in manner, life and conversation. Through it faith is perfected, as the believer through it alone becomes perfect."

In the Letter to Theodore namely we hear the same idea expressed as “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.”7 In other words, the Letter to Theodore only attaches the names ‘Peter’ and ‘Mark’ with a pre-existent preference for knowledge over faith.

Watson’s objection that Clement had “little enthusiasm” for the Gospel of Mark can be similarly disposed of by taking a careful look at his obvious attachment to the text in a homily on the Gospel of Mark usually referenced by its Latin name ‘Quis Dives Salvatur’ (hereafter QDS) or 'Can the Rich Man be Saved’ in English. A manuscript of QDS appears to have once existed in the library at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher near the Mar Saba monastery.8 Our surviving text of this homily was probably a copy of this text anonymously attached to the end of a surviving manuscript by Origen.9

Like the Letter to Theodore QDS was developed by Clement as a response to an incorrect understanding regarding the gospel. Anonymous contemporaries who cite the gospel as saying "that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven" need to be corrected. They have what Clement considered an incorrect understanding of salvation and an incorrect gospel. The exact wording of their gospel citation is unusual. Clement’s opponents were using a non-canonical gospel.10

In response to this heretical citation Clement brings forward a long section from Mark's account of the Question of the Rich Man (Mark 10:17 - 31). We can even go so far as to argue that when Clement completes his lengthy citation of this section here he seems to indicate that all the other gospels used Mark's account as the basis for their own narratives:

These things are written in the Gospel according to Mark, and in all the others re-correspondingly (anomologemenois) to varying degrees, perhaps everywhere the same words exchanged, but all the same meaning displayed.

There is of course no such a word as "re-correspondingly" in English but its presence is necessary to show that the other gospels in the New Testament were understood by Clement to have been developed from Mark's original account - exactly as most New Testament scholars believe happened to this day.11

There was a long standing controversy in contemporary Christianity as to whether the Gospel according to the Hebrews – i.e. the text behind the canonical gospel of Matthew – or Mark was the original gospel.12 QDS can be read as the earliest surviving for Markan gospel primacy.13 Of course this argument about the origin of the gospel from either Matthew or Mark seems to date back much further than our existing canon based as it is on a four gospel set. Indeed there are strong reasons for associating Mark's gospel specifically with the community associated with the apostle Paul quite specifically.14

One community in particular seems to have been associated with this arrangement - i.e. the gospel of Mark being connected to the Pauline letters - that is, the tradition associated with Marcion. The Philosophumena - a text which dates to the early third century - makes reference to their canon following terms:

When, therefore, Marcion or some one of his hounds barks against the Demiurge, and adduces reasons from a comparison of what is good and bad, we ought to say to them, that neither Paul the apostle nor Mark, he of the maimed finger, announced such (tenets). For none of these (doctrines) has been written in the Gospel according to Mark. But (the real author of the system) is (the philosopher) Empedocles, son of Meto, a native of Agrigentum. And (Marcion) despoiled this (philosopher), and imagined that up to the present would pass undetected his transference, under the same expressions, of the arrangement of his entire heresy from Sicily into the evangelical narratives. 

At least one German scholar from the last century argued that the Marcionite gospel was Mark – Hermann Raschke in his Werkstatt des Markus-Evangelisten or ‘Worship of Mark the Evangelist.’

It will be our assumption that this was the original understanding of the Marcionite tradition. In other words, the Marcionite gospel was really a longer, mystical version of Mark outlined in the Philosophumena. The identification of the holy text of the community as the Gospel according to Luke only happened much later once Irenaeus had actually developed that text’s anti-Marcionite agenda.15 Since Luke was not introduced until the latter half of the second century, it's specific purpose was to 'liberate' the gospel of Mark from association with the sect which bore the evangelist’s name – i.e. ‘Mark’.16 To this end, we should understand that until the late second century the rivalry that existed between two groups affiliated with the gospels of Matthew and Mark, mirrored a historical divide between the Jewish-Christian and Marcionite communities. The emergence of the Roman Catholic tradition sought to encourage greater ecumenism within Christianity and so formally subordinate Mark to Matthew and Paul to the greater apostolic community.17

It is important to become aware of the Marcionite contention that none of the disciples of Jesus wrote gospels. In other words, they specifically denied the Catholic claim that Matthew and John were eyewitnesses of the Lord. According to a prominent Marcionite, Matthew and John openly preached an unwritten gospel however the gospel associated and referenced in the epistles of Paul (Romans 16:25) was the first written gospel narrative in Christianity.18 This is very close to the position taken ultimately by Clement of Alexandria, a testimony often misunderstand as arguing for Matthean primacy.

Indeed this misconception was ultimately corrected by the New Testament scholar Stephen Carlson at the beginning of this century. Carlson questioned the traditional translation of Clement's reference to Matthew and Luke being prographein. It is usually translated as 'first' so Clement is taken to mean that the gospels with genealogies were published before Mark. Yet Carlson has persuasively argued that the same word should be interpreted as meaning 'openly' and thus that Clement was really saying that Matthew and Luke were preached publicly - an understanding we should take to mean that the dissemination of the gospel was originally done out in the open and in contradistinction to Mark's gospel was done privately and 'in secret.'

So it is that when we go back to Eusebius's original statement about the contents of Clement's Hypotyposeis we should read:

Again, in the same books Clement set forth, in the following manner, a tradition of the early elders about the order of the gospels: Clement said that those of the gospels which contain genealogies have been published openly, but that the Gospel according to Mark had this arrangement: after Peter had preached the word publicly in Rome, and expressed the gospel by the spirit, those who were present, being many, urged Mark, since he had followed Peter from way back and remembered what had been said [by him],to write down what was said. After doing so, Mark imparted the gospel to those who were asking him [for it]. When Peter learned of this, he used his powers of persuasion neither to hinder nor to encourage it.

In other words, Clement was not making a statement either way as to which gospel - i.e. Mark and Matthew - was published first or last. Instead Carlson argues only that Clement was thinking in terms of how gospels were proclaimed in different ways by different evangelists.19

When all the existing evidence is taken together it would seem that the Marcionites and Clement both agreed that Mark wrote the first gospel. He undoubtedly did so in private – if not in secret – and so became the source of the other two canonical gospels as well as many others that were in circulation at the time Clement was writing. If we go back to Clement's citation of the gospel of Mark in Can the Rich Man be Saved we find that he also makes clear that Mark preserved the original 'secret' understanding of Jesus's words which were imperfectly preserved by the other 'public gospels' - "the Saviour teaches nothing in a merely human way, but teaches all things to His own with divine and mystic (mustike) wisdom, we must not listen to His utterances carnally; but with due investigation and intelligence must search out and learn the meaning hidden (kekrummenon) in them."

One can certainly argue that the same sense is gained from the Philosophumena's reference to Marcion "despoiling" the mystical writings of Empedocles "and imagined that up to the present would pass undetected his transference, under the same expressions, of the arrangement of his entire heresy from Sicily into the evangelical narratives" of Mark. How else could these additions have passed undetected unless the edition of the gospel of Mark they were preserved in was passed around in secret? To this end, it would appear that Clement’s witness for the primacy of Mark would also imply that what was originally developed in secret was being openly proclaimed by later witnesses. This would help square the Marcionite assertion that none of the evangelists were disciples of Jesus.


1. "Peter's indifference to the Gospel of Mark probably mirrors and expresses Clement's own attitude … For Clement, Mark adds little or nothing of substance to Matthew and Luke and is therefore unworthy of endorsement by the chief of the apostles. Mark is one of the ‘four gospels handed down to us,’ but in Clement's eyes it might just as well not have been. Genuine Petrine tradition is to be found elsewhere: Clement claims access to it in both oral and written forms (through the ‘elders,’ and in 1 Peter and the Preaching of Peter). In contrast, Mark’s unauthorized work excites little enthusiasm.” 

5 should take the example of Clement's consistent attitude to the superiority of 'knowledge' over 'faith' in his writings and the identification of the persons of 'Mark' and 'Peter' with the two concepts in the 'Letter to Theodore'. 

9 In spite of the uniqueness of this saying it is clear that it comes from a gospel related to our Matthew text because of its reference to 'the kingdom of heaven.' One of the most consistent features of the Gospel of Mark is its preference for the term - the 'kingdom of God.' 
11 Scholars have been slow to recognize what Clement is actually saying here owing the decision of the English translators to essentially drop the Greek prefix ana from their translations. The standard English text only reads "... and in all the others correspondingly." Indeed Liddell Scott identifies the root anomologeomai as meaning among other things “to recapitulate.” Perhaps the best way of translating the passage then is "these things are written in the Gospel according to Mark and in all the others recapitulatingly" - that is as a recapitulation or to "summarize and state again the main points" of what was originally laid down by Mark
12 Against this Alexandrian understanding of the gospel is the argument associated with Papias the earlier bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor. Papias argued for Matthean priority - in other words that Matthew wrote first - that is prior to Mark - and that in so doing, he produced an initial Aramaic edition of the gospel.11 There are however possible indications that Papias was developing his argument against an opponent who held to Clement's Markan priority position. It has long been noted that he cites Mark's gospel first and then brings forward Matthew as the source of the Markan text. 
14 - thus, this gospel and the canonical epistles associated with Paul may well have formed an original canon or 'rule' against the gospel of Matthew. 
19 Of course Stephen Carlson - like Francis Watson - does not want to admit that the passage in Clement supports the idea that Mark wrote a specifically 'secret' gospel. While Carlson admits that "Clement explained that Mark’s gospel was initially distributed to a limited number of people without the awareness or endorsement of Peter" and that "the adversative conjunction de implies that the passage about Mark contrasts in some way with the statement on Matthew and Luke" he is unwilling to admit that the specific contrast extended to the idea that Mark wrote in secret or mystic gospel while Matthew and Luke were public gospels.

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