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Mark in Alexandria and Oden’s Gestalt   Leave a comment

In 1968, a commission (including my maternal grandfather) accompanied the Coptic patriarch Kyrellos VI  to Rome in a special visit to return the relics (head) of St. Mark the Evangelist. Happily, Pope Paul VI gave the relics to the Coptic patriarch who was later received in Cairo with great joy and huge celebrations for several days. The relics of st. Mark, which were stolen from Alexandria by Venetian merchants centuries ago and were smuggled to Venice, ended up in a beautiful shrine in the Coptic Patriarchate in Cairo. I used to go there on a weekly basis during my undergraduate years (my faculty of engineering is 10 minutes walk from the cathedral) and stay for some time for prayer. St. Mark the Apostle, Beholder of God and Evangelist (as the full Coptic title declares) has a very special place in the heart of every Egyptian Christian due to the classic or traditional ecclesiastical narrative that venerates him as the founder of Egyptian Christianity and the first παπάς of the Alexandrian See (the title was used in Alexandria way before Rome).


Patriarch Kyrellos VI and the relics of St. Mark (in the box with white cross) shortly after his arrival from Rome, 22 June 1968.


Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy

Like other ecclesiastical histories of ancient churches, this narrative went through centuries unchallenged until the early 20th century when Harnack stated in several places that Eusebius’ report cannot explain the complex phenomenon of early Egyptian Christianity. However, it was Walter Bauer’s  Orthodoxy and Heresy  (Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum) that offered the strongest critique against that scenario. There is a consensus in scholarship that the strongest part in Bauer’s case against the alleged precedence of Orthodoxy was his claims about the emergence of Egyptian Christianity. Mistakenly, some scholars represent Bauer’s case as argumentum e silentio i.e. because we don’t have sufficient information about the origins of Egyptian Christianity the classic scenario (about Mark as the founder of the Alexandrian church and his 10 successors as reported in Eusebius H.E.II.16) is baseless. Unfortunately, this misrepresentation is not uncommon. It is mainly due to the failure to fully digest the programme proposed by Bauer throughout his book, which hinges on 1- That there was a late driving force emanating from Rome behind the several ecclesiastical scenarios behind the foundation of the apostolic Churches 2- Ecclesiastical Orthodoxy had to provide a clear historical path from the apostles that deems the heretics as later, inferior and inauthentic corruption of Christianity. Bauer successfully showed how Eusebius drew on a legendary scenario given to him about the foundation of the Edessene Chuch. The careful study showed how that legendary history was meant to eradicate Marcion and other heretics systematically from Edessa. Bauer shows, carefully, how the scenario is not different in the case of Egypt. Therefore, the silence about the origins of Egyptian Christianity is not coincidental but could be deliberate if the official narrative appeared at the end of the second century at the time of Patriarch Demetrius who appealed to Rome in his struggle with Origen.

Without going the details of his research, the conclusion of Bauer was: the beginning of Egyptian Christianity was “heretical,” swinging between a Jewish Christianity (the Gospel of the Hebrews) and a gentile/national Gnosticism (the Gospel of the Egyptians) while Orthodoxy was as late as the first registered bishop of Alexandria Demetrius who tailored the legend of Mark to serve the apostolic needs for his claims. Bauer wrote his book in 1934, about a decade before the discovery of Nag Hammadi library. Helmut Koester, a strong proponent of Bauer’s thesis, was careful when he said that Bauer was “essentially right”; the scenario of the universal apostolic Orthodoxy that preceded the later heretical corruptions is terribly untenable. However, does this require the entire demolition of the Markan footprints on the shores of Alexandria? Just as Thomasene Christianity was shown by Koester to be indeed Edessan, despite the legendary nature of the records known to Eusebius, Mark’s place in Alexandrian Christianity should not automatically be entirely eradicated in the suspicious agenda of Demetrius.  It is difficult to impose a hoax about the origins of the Church of Alexandria, the second largest city of the empire and its intellectual centre. The presence of Mark in the course of Alexandrian history could have been enlarged and embellished by the ecclesiastical authorities in Alexandria to strengthen its position in Christendom and was perfectly employed by the Romans.

Several studies, from prominent scholars like Leslie W. Barnard, Cyril Roberts and mainly Birger A. Pearson whom I will return to, challenged Bauer’s extreme conjecture regarding Mark. In the light of their contribution, a modified model of Bauer’s thesis must be proposed. Quite recently, the Methodist scholar Thomas C. Oden offered an interesting contribution which I would like to survey now.

Oden’s The African Memory of Mark


Oden’s Book

Oden proposed an entirely opposite view to Bauer’s. His recently published book The African Memory of Mark
endeavoured to restore faith in the ecclesiastical narrative about Mark’s role in founding the Alexandrian Church. Oden mainly relied on external evidence beside the scanty data in the NT. The argument is that if we have such a huge and diverse amount of traditions about Mark and that these traditions converge on some major points, then the Gestalt of Mark’s apostolic role in the Alexandrian church could be maintained.

Defining “African Memory” in part I, Oden states that  the story was known throughout the different corners of African Christianity and it was retold by several churches through history. He depends on two types of sources: literary and archaeological. As for the latter, he mentioned the considerable number of places in Alexandria that were named after Mark’s events (mission, church, martyrdom). Oden accessed a good deal of materials about these places in contemporary and medieval Coptic sources. As for the literary evidence, he relied on: 1- Egyptian liturgical materials (the Synaxarium and liturgy attributed to Mark) 2-  Martyrium Marci which was part of the Acts of Mark, a late third early fourth century hagiography about Mark’s life and death in Alexandria. 3- The Coptic historian Sawirus Ibn al-Muqaffa’ (Severus of Ashmunin) who collected the different sources in the tenth century and wrote his very important History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria in Arabic. 4- The late patriarch of the Coptic Church Pope Shenouda III (who is by no means a source).

The book surveys these archaeological materials in an interesting way so that the reader enjoys going through Christian Egypt (Cairo and Alexandria). His access to Arabic materials enriches that survey. However, on the ground of historical reality, he did not dig deep in the origins of the names of these sites or whether they would really witness to independent testimonies about Mark’s mission. Legendary records are like a snowball that  expands through centuries and creates shrines and sites based on it, so he needed to go beyond the simplistic conclusion: (we have a lot of places named after Mark, he must have been there). Of course this was not the case in every single site he dealt with but that was the general approach.

Similarly his sources are not quite independent. Severus of Ashmunin relied heavily  on Acts of Mark (mistakenly confused with Martyrium Marci which is the part of martyrdom in the Acts). The original Arabic text of Severus’ History of the Patriarchs shows that he was quoting Greek words and terms and transliterating them in Arabic letters and that source was precisely Acts of Mark. Severus used it beside Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica and some other liturgical bits and pieces.  Instead of showing the literary relationship between his sources, Oden offered a synopsis from the different reports to construct a plausible traditional scenario about the life, mission and death of Mark.

Here, Oden appeals to the strongest evidence, and the most controversial one: Clement of Alexandria. Interestingly, Oden found that the recently discovered letter to Theodore by Morton Smith was too tempting for his case to ignore despite its disturbing findings about the Gospel of Mark for conservatives. He stated that the letter has gained universal validation and therefore should be maintained as a testimony to Mark’s activity in Egypt. Publishing the book by a press that identifies itself as “evangelically rooted” Oden seemed to be obliged to keep emphasising the “insignificance” of the Secret Mark Gospel quotations, deeming them as “heretical corruption of the canonical” .. something even Clement himself did not dare to say(!). Oden then shifted his focus onto Clement’s clear statements about Mark’s activity in Egypt (which includes writing the more spiritual edition of his Gospel).

In my opinion, the book offers many possibilities that are not necessarily less likely than what he calls “the Western approach.” But the excessive speculation weakens his “Gestalt.” Oden’s final conclusion is that all sorts of findings (literary, liturgical and archaeological) converge on: 1- Mark was with Peter in Rome 2- Mark was active in Alexandria 3- Mark had a distinctive position in the Church there. While the first one is nearly unbeatable, the second’s main evidence is primarily Clement’s letter to Theodore, not the dubious sources with excessive legendary nature. The third is untenable if compared to the huge diversity of the “church” if the singular term is accurate.

 Concluding Remarks

Thomas Oden’s book is by all means an important contribution to the subject matter for two reasons: first, it provides a host of information about the rich legacy of Mark in the Alexandrian Church as seen in literary, liturgical and archaeological sources. Secondly, it aims to give  well-deserved serious attention to the African memory which cannot be dismissed as a “puff of smoke” automatically. However, the limited reach on the question of Mark’s presence, detached from the complicated phenomenon of the Early Egyptian Christianity, weakens his case so that it still cannot explain the diversity of Alexandrian Christianity in its earliest known forms … Mark cannot be the founder of such a spectrum of “Christianities” unless Oden is happy to confine himself to the Eusebian perspective of ecclesiastical history.

Therefore, Walter Bauer is still “essentially right.” Christianity emerged in Alexandria within the huge Jewish population of the cosmopolitan city taking different forms of which a spectrum of Christian trajectories emerged. The silence about the first century and Mark’s “other” Gospel are well explained in the light of our increasing knowledge about the predominant Gnosticism (if the word is correct) at the earliest detectable strata of Egyptian Christianity. Mark’s presence in Alexandria and his secret Gospel do indeed support such claims. If the expansion of his apostolic role and the formation of a conventional narrative about Christianity was part of a later propaganda that aimed to affiliate Alexandria to Orthodox Rome, this backfired terribly in the first serious clash between Alexandria and Rome shortly before the full explosion in the council of Chalcedon (451CE). In 445 CE Pope Leo I sent a letter to bishop Dioscorus, who had just succeeded the mighty Cyril to the “See of St. Mark”, asking him to keep the tradition of following Roman rites “for since the most blessed Peter received the headship of the Apostles from the Lord, and the church of Rome still abides by His institutions, it is wicked to believe that His holy disciple Mark, who was the first to govern the church of Alexandria , formed his decrees on a different line of tradition: seeing that without doubt both disciple and master drew but one Spirit from the same fount of grace, and the ordained could not hand on anything else than what he had received from his ordainer. ” (letter IX.1).

Suggested Bibliography:

Barnard, L. W., 1966, Studies in the Apostolic Fathers and Their Background, New York: Schoken. p.1-22

Bauer, W., 1934, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum, Tübingen: Mohr. ET: 1971 Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Minneapolis: Fortress Press

Braun, S. G., ‘On the Composition History of the Longer (“Secret”) Gospel of Mark’, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 122, No. 1 (Spring, 2003), pp. 89-110

Koester, H., ‘ΓNΩMAI ΔIAΦOPOI. The Origin and Nature of Diversification in the History of Early Christianity,’ The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Jul., 1965), pp. 279

Pearson, B. A., and Goehring, J. E. (eds.), 1986, The Roots of Egyptian Christianity, Philadelphia: Fortress Press

idem. “Ancient Alexandria in the Acts of Mark,” ch. 3 in Gnosticism and Christianity in Roman and Coptic Egypt (New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 100-111

Roberts, 1979, Manuscript Society, and Belief in Early Christian Egypt, London: Oxford University Press

Posted April 4, 2014 by Mina Monier in Reviews, Uncategorized