Friday, October 11, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Nine] Final Edit

Why Mark was Kept Secret 

There is absolutely no reason to believe that large numbers of Christians sought out martyrdom as a means to salvation before the reforms of Irenaeus.  Irenaeus, as we have already argued, fundamentally changed the gospel message in order to encourage people to kill themselves to live in the hereafter.  We shall examine the methodology of Irenaeus in more detail in our next book.  For the moment it is enough to recognize how the Church Father managed to get away with these changes - the vast majority of Christian converts were ignorant slaves, drawn from the lowest class of people in the Roman Empire.  Because these people couldn't read or write and were naturally servile, it was easy to give the tradition associated with Mark a 'complete makeover.' 

At least part of this transformation is demonstrate in his changing the 'double-minded' female followers of Mark into the Catholic martyrs of Vienne and Lugdunum.  Nevertheless we should learn to recognize that this wasn’t the end of his craftiness. Irenaeus needed to find a way to subordinate Mark, to transform him from Peter’s superior into his inferior. This was accomplished by developing Paul a completely separate individual who had Luke as the guardian of his legacy. However another question naturally emerges – why didn’t the tradition of Mark speak up as the rug was being pulled from under its feet?  Why didn’t someone simply stand up and say - ‘Mark is not who you claim him to be!’

We have already demonstrated that there were Christians who complained about Irenaeus’s account of the Markan tradition and this may have included his portrait of Mark. Yet even this explanation does not address why ritual silence was maintained in the first place.  Perhaps the closest parallel to this situation in antiquity, as I have noted elsewhere, is found in the Samaritan – that is the northern Israelite – tradition and its veneration of a religious ‘Pythagorean’ named Mark.1  No information is provided with regards to his biography, the age he lived or the like. He is just ‘Mark’ of uncertain provenance who, like a second Moses figure appeared at a critical moment in the history of the people of Israel to refound the religion.

Scholarship has assigned dates for this ‘Mark’ ranging from the first to fourth century.2   An earlier date is much more reasonable judging from his use of Greek philosophy and a Greek translation of the Pentateuch like the Septuagint.  These elements may point to an Alexandrian provenance to his writings.3  Aside from an association with Egypt there are some other notable parallels exist between this ‘Samaritan Mark’ and what we might call ‘Christian Mark’ which deserve our attention - i.e. frequent allusions to the gospels and especially 'according to John' and the Epistle to the Hebrews.4  Even beyond their consistent ‘Pythagorean’ or kabbalistic exegesis of Scripture perhaps the most distinguishing feature of 'Mark' is his impenetrable wall of fog that surrounds him in every tradition.

The silence that surrounds this messianic figure, second only to Moses in the Samaritan worldview, is consistent with the Alexandrian cultural milieu reflected in Clement’s statement “one should not concede that the secret Gospel is by Mark, but should even deny it on oath” and again associated with Irenaeus’s report  that“they deny that they have so received, for they have learned that always they should deny.”  So the proper question is not why did these Christians obscure their Mark, but whether the same historical reality prompted the Samaritans to do the same thing with their Mark?

The simple answer of course is that people were trying to kill them.  It's like the old story about the policeman catching someone they were chasing.  'Why were you running?' 'Because you were chasing me.'  Traditions are driven underground because people are trying to kill them.  It's that simple.  To this end, when we attempt to come to terms with the persecutions of 177 CE, it is easy to see why Clement denied his association with Mark.  It is much more difficult to determine the exact causes of the persecution in the first place. 

William Tabbernee of Phillips Theological Seminary devoted a lot of attention to this very question and was unable to come up with a definitive answer. As he writes “although it is by no means impossible that the hostility toward the Christians at Lyons erupted spontaneously with no more cause than pagan religious fervor, the existence of some other factor not present in an earlier year certainly would more adequately explain the outbreak of the persecution in 177.”5  It should be noted that there have been a number of theories attempting to explain the killings of Christians under a philosopher king like Marcus Aurelius.  Almost all of them miss the mark so to speak because they fail to recognize the connection with events in Syria and Alexandria only a few years earlier. 

To this end, some have argued that the senatorial decree from 176 or early 177 to relieve the Sponsors of gladiatorial games by allowing them to use condemned criminals help shed light on the persecutions.  But as Tabbernee rightly notes, “if the Galliarch (i.e. the ruler of Gaul) did make some use of the senatus consultum (senatorial decree), he must have done so after the persecution had already started.” There has to be another explanation, one which connects the outbreak of violence directed by the Imperial government against a pathetic but already sizable minority in the Empire, to earlier historical events. 

The basis for any historical understanding of the period has to be connected to Eusebius's identification of Marcus Aurelius as the directing the violence.  This is echoed in the work of Marta Sordi formerly of the Università degli Studi di Milano who firmly holds that efforts were directed by the Emperor against an apocalyptic tradition within the ranks of Christians at Gaul which he could not distinguish from the ‘great Church.'6  Whatever answer we come up with has to acknowledge that this was not some local effort that 'spun out of control.'  The government had it in for the Christians in Gaul. 

The major difficulty in the plain testimony of Eusebius is that Marcus Aurelius is portrayed as a kind, gentle leader in all our sources.  Nevertheless what is fundamentally overlooked in this assessment is the fact that Christians - and especially the particular believers slaughtered in Gaul - were slaves.  As such Marcus Aurelius did not see them as people for whom he had to extend any courtesies.  Whatever habits and practices Marcus Aurelius was known for in the historical sources we should recognize them as established inter pares.  The bottom line is that because Christians were mainly drawn - as Celsus notes - from people considered to be garbage, they weren't afforded the same privileges as 'good people.'

With this reality in mind it might be useful for us to draw our attention to the possible explanation for the historical background to the persecutions developed in the works of another group of Italian scholars quite recently. In 2012 Marco Rizzi edited seven papers on the subject of Christianity at the time of Hadrian. The collection was published by De Gruyter in the Millennium Studies series and received the title Hadrian and the Christians.6

The papers for the most part take as their launching pad the interesting statement attributed to Hadrian in the Historia Augusta which begins:

From Hadrian Augustus to Servianus the consul, greeting. The land of Egypt, the praises of which you have been recounting to me, my dear Servianus, I have found to be wholly light-minded, unstable, and blown about by every breath of rumour. There those who worship Serapis are, in fact, Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are, in fact, devotees of Serapis. There is no chief of the Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no Christian presbyter, who is not an astrologer, a soothsayer, or an anointer. Even the Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Christ. They are a folk most seditious, most deceitful, most given to injury; but their city is prosperous, rich, and fruitful, and in it no one is idle. Some are blowers of glass, others makers of paper, all are at least weavers of linen or seem to belong to one craft or another; the lame have their occupations, the eunuchs have theirs, the blind have theirs, and not even those whose hands are crippled are idle. Their only god is money, and this the Christians, the Jews, and, in fact, all nations adore.

In other words, as we shall see shortly, instead of being secretive and separated from their co-religionists in Egypt, it can be inferred from this statement that Christianity was much more closely related to pre-existent forms of religion in the region. In short, it got along much better with its neighbors.

To this end, we can immediately see a cultural milieu which might be thought to explain the parallels that exist between ‘Samaritan Mark’ and ‘Christian Mark.’  Indeed the echo of the same person in two different cultures may result from the existence of a greater ecumenism in Egypt before the persecutions of 177 CE.  Yet it is worth drawing our attention to one paper in particular emerges from this collection which will have a profound effect on our understanding on the as of yet unexplained origins of the trial of Christians in Gaul.  Livia Capponi of Newcastle University in England contributed an important paper to this volume entitled Serapis, Boukoloi and Christians from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius which has been widely cited as an important contribution to history of the Roman province Egypt in the late second and early third centuries.7

Indeed if the volume as a whole can be said to develop from the aforementioned statement in the Historia Augusta, Capponi’s paper takes as its launching pad the intriguing description of a revolt near the end of Marcus Aurelius’s reign in Dio Cassius’s history, summarised by the Byzantine epitomist John Xiphilinus:

The people called the Bucoli began a disturbance one Isidorus, a priest, caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt. At first, arrayed in women's garments, they had deceived the Roman centurion, causing him to believe that they were women of the Bucoli and were going to give him gold as ransom for their husbands, and had then struck down when he approached them. They also sacrificed his companion, and after swearing an oath over his entrails, they devoured them. Isidorus surpassed all his contemporaries in bravery. Next, having conquered the Romans in Egypt in a pitched battle, they came near capturing Alexandria, too, and would have succeeded, had not Cassius been sent against them from Syria. He contrived to destroy their mutual accord and to separate them from one another (for because of their desperation as well as of their numbers he had not ventured to attack them while they were united), and thus, when they fell to quarrelling, he subdued them. [Dio Cassius 72:9]

It is well known that in the immediate aftermath of this revolt, Avidius Cassius himself was declared Emperor and moved his armies into Syria to attempt to take the Empire under his control. Cassius was ultimately defeated. Nevertheless there are several reasons which Capponi develops for supposing that Christians were involved in the revolt and these in turn can be used to help explain the unprecedented persecution in Gaul only a few years later.

Let’s start with the actual history before developing any speculation about its implications. In 172 CE there was a widespread Egyptian revolt that began with the Boucoloi. The name refers to a region just to the east of the walls which surrounded the city of Alexandria. According to Dio the rebels nearly captured Alexandria but were defeated by the governor of Syria, the aforementioned Avidius Cassius. However owing to the Emperor's withdrawal from affairs of state, Avidius Cassius believed reports of his death and once again raised the standard of rebellion in Egypt.

According to Dio, Avidius Cassius was proclaimed emperor in Egypt, a fact supported by A. K. Bowman's analysis of a letter of Cassius from the same period.8  This second insurrection quickly swept through Syria and reached as far and the provinces south of the Taurus mountains in southern Turkey. Many in the region acknowledged Cassius as Aurelius's successor and assumed that he would go on to claim Rome shortly. When the revolt was generally known, Marcus Aurelius rose from his isolation and had armies set out to meet Cassius.

A statue base with a dedication to Marcus Aurelius by a tribune of the Legio II Traiana has been found in Alexandria and dating to 176 CE suggesting - along with epigraphical evidence - that Aurelius spent the beginning of that year putting down the revolt. The Emperor never ended up capturing Cassius because the general died at the hands of one of his followers.9 The fact that Marcus Aurelius was in Egypt with armies reestablishing control over the region in the year before the persecutions of followers of Mark in Gaul and Rome might not seem to have much significance at first glance. Nevertheless Capponi points to an interesting coincidence which is worth considering.

Capponi notes that Boucolia, the very region from which the first rebellion also happens to have been the headquarters of the entire Markan tradition. A famous church, mentioned in the writings of Clement, and home to the martyrium and the underground tomb of St Mark mentioned in the Letter to Theodore was clearly destroyed and rebuilt many times in the course of the next two thousand years of history.10 Nevertheless the location of the church was well known into the twentieth century. Gamal Nasser's efforts to modernize Egypt led to the complete transformation of the shoreline of eastern Alexandria burying much of Boucolia under the waters of the Mediterranean. The site has been examined in detail by underwater archaeologist Harry Tzalas, who grew up in Alexandria and remembers seeing the original ruins of the site off the shore of what is now Casino el Chatby. Another mission to survey the remains of the martyrium are scheduled for the spring of 2014 in spite of ongoing uncertainty in Egypt. Some underwater photographs and surveys from previous expeditions are included in the back of the book.11

The church of St Mark in the Boucolia was the original Vatican for the tradition associated with Clement.12 It is not surprising that the very epithet 'Pope' or papa was appropriated by the Roman Church from the Alexandrian. According to the Acts of St Mark, this church was built 'in the area beside the sea under crags called Boukolou'.13 The martyrdom of St Mark is said to have taken place at the same place at the hands of pagan devotees of the Ptolemaic divinity Serapis. Strabo states that from before the foundation of Alexandria boukoloi ('herdsmen') lived in the area of Rhakotis near the Alexandrian Serapeum in the Delta quarter. It is important to note that while in Greece the term boucolos indicated an adept of Dionysos, in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt it could mean 'devotee of Serapis'. Serapis was often represented as either the sacrificial Apis Bull or as a shepherd.

With respect to the initial revolt of 172 CE Capponi begins her analysis by stating that it is most probable that "the revolt of the Boukoloi was not simply a native revolt against Roman rule by dissatisfied Egyptian farmers and herdsmen of the area of the Delta" but "a specific political group called 'Herdsmen'" where "the term did not (only) indicate real herdsmen" but again "a political and religious group of anti-Roman fighters and martyrs – possibly adepts of Serapis." After all she reasons, Dio Cassius specifically reports that the leader of the revolt, Isidorus, was a priest. Since the cult of Serapis had inspired Alexandrian riots against Roman emperors "it is thus possible that the Boukoloi were Egyptian anti-imperial militants, possibly including lower-class men with a common religiosity based on the idea of martyrdom."

If the Boucoloi were likely adherents of Serapis, Capponi argues that Christians probably played a part in the second revolt throwing their lot with Cassius. As she writes "the years of the revolt of the Boukoloi were a time of anti-imperial revolts elsewhere, especially the revolt of Avidius Cassius, a revolt in which the Christians may have participated along with other rebels." As part of her thesis Capponi not only points to reports about Christians from the age being identified as 'brigands' but to a specific denial of Christian involvement in the rebellion of Cassius.14

Moreover Capponi also points to a 'second wave' of apologetic literature taking after the revolt of Cassius in a framework where "Marcus Aurelius and Commodus were travelling in the East. At least five apologists defended Christianity in works addressed to the emperor and his heir." As she notes:

Apollinaris recalled episodes in which Christian soldiers remained loyal to Marcus Aurelius on the Danube in 175. At roughly the same time, Melito, bishop of Sardis, complained about new Roman decrees that ordered the expropriation of Christian property and the persecution of Christians, and asserted the loyalty of Christians to the empire. In 177 Athenagoras said that no slave would accuse the Christians, even falsely, of murder or cannibalism (although, according to Eusebius, these charges had actually been made against Christians by slaves from the persecuted churches of Lyons and Vienne in the summer of the same year). Finally, in 180 or 181, Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, alludes (To Autolycus 1,11) to the revolt Cassius and pleads for the loyalty of Christians to the emperor. Two decades later, Tertullian still spoke of the loyalty of Christian soldiers to Marcus Aurelius, and reiterated that no Christians had supported Cassius.

All of these apologetic works, Capponi notes may well have reflected some laws passed in 176–180 that punished Christians (along with other rebels) for their supposed participation in the revolt of Avidius Cassius. To this end, we have what is certainly the most plausible explanation for the massive persecutions in that closely followed the ‘clean up’ operations in Egypt c. 176 CE.

According to Capponi then some of the Egyptian Christians from Boucolia might have fought on the side of Avidius Cassius against the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. This in turn led to the charge that the Markan Christians were deemed responsible for the uprising of Cassius and that “at least some Egyptian Christians, like the Boukoloi, celebrated anti-imperial revolution as a religious mission and martyrdom as a value.”14  Capponi does make the connection between this revolt and the persecution in Gaul in 177 CE and Christians in the early period of Marcus Aurelius’s successor, his son Lucius Commodus. However Capponi does not recognize the parallel between ‘St Mark of Egypt’ and ‘Mark the Magician’ from Egypt which is at the heart of the accounts of Irenaeus and subsequent writers.

At the core of her argument for Christian involvement in the revolt of Cassius is (a) common geographical association between the rebels in Boucolia and Markan Christianity and (b) the following statement in Tertullian's Ad Scapulum:

We have not time to unfold in how many other ways your gods are mocked and despised by their own votaries.  So, too, treason is falsely laid to our charge, though no one has ever been able to find followers of Albinus, or Niger, or Cassius, among Christians [emphasis mine]; while the very men who had sworn by the genii of the emperors, who had offered and vowed sacrifices for their safety, who had often pronounced condemnation on Christ's disciples, are till this day found traitors to the imperial throne.   A Christian is enemy to none, least of all to the Emperor of Rome, whom he knows to be appointed by his God, and so cannot but love and honour; and whose well-being moreover, he must needs desire, with that of the empire over which he reigns so long as the world shall stand-for so long as that shall Rome continue. To the emperor, therefore, we render such reverential homage as is lawful for us and good for him; regarding him as the human being next to God who from God has received all his power, and is less than God alone. 

Capponi's argument seems to be that because Tertullian is forced to defend the Christians from the charge of being revolutionaries, they must have been so identified in contemporary pagan culture.  We know this is true from the writings of Celsus and the fact that Celsus wrote in the immediately aftermath of the insurrection by Avidius Cassius seems to imply that they were guilty of something.

Yet is this enough to make the case that Christians were involved in the revolt of Avidius Cassius?   At best it should be viewed as an intriguing possibility but the actual historical situation is much harder to properly divine.  Let us not forget that initially at least it was Avidius who put down a revolt of cross dressing barbarians led by a priest of some religion.  If, as Capponi suggests the revolutionaries here were followers of the religion of Serapis, one might imagine that the Christians embraced the Boucoli and were punished by Avidius Cassius or vice versa.  Capponi acknowledges here that the second possibility is the more likely.

Nevertheless even if this true the Christians it would only have been natural to have embraced Avidius Cassius as their liberator.  When he subsequently declared himself to be Emperor owing to the widespread belief that Marcus Aurelius had died, it would be difficult if not grossly unfair for the Emperor to have singled out the Christians for disloyalty when our historical sources make it plain that many were guilty of having thrown their lot in with the Emperor's general.  But herein lies the lesson of history. As we shall see in our subsequent chapters, the injustice and discrimination that the underclass faced helps explain Marcus Aurelius logic with respect to the subsequent persecutions in Gaul. He may have pardoned most of the supporters of Avidius Cassius, but nevertheless he had to make an example of someone.


Email with comments or questions.

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