THE REAL MESSIAH BLOG: Agrippa's paradigmatic marriage to Berenice

Agrippa's paradigmatic marriage to Berenice

copyright 2008 Stephan Huller

King Agrippa made way for a bride, and the Sages praised him. — They praised him — from this it would seem that he did well. [Kethuboth 17a]

It isn’t enough for us to merely sketch out the various Christian legends associated with Marcus Agrippa’s sister Berenice. No, the name certainly was unique. The Christian Berenice can only be Mark’s Berenice (notice the way she ends up standing beside Titus in the Avenging of the Savior for instance). Yet I think that Berenice’s significance is so crucial to the proper understanding of the new messianic religion that she actually deserves another section entirely devoted to her sigificance as the “bride of Christ” – her brother Marcus Julius Agrippa.

I have already mentioned that Juvenal’s identification of Berenice “incestuous” marriage to her brother survives. If it was’t for this document we mightn’t have been able to see through the deliberate corruption of Josephus narrative in Christian circles. Here it is all too apparent that a later editor altered this fact and made Berenice’s husband Marcus “someone other” than Agrippa. “Marcus” is now a “son of Alexander” of Alexandria. Even the Coptic tradition has been affected by these changes acknowledging that “their Mark” is the Mark which married Berenice but necessarily being sidetracked from seeing who “this Mark” really is (and people continue to take our copies of Josephus at face value!).

When we go back to those legends of Berenice in early Christianity it is impossible to escape that she is here too “the kallah” or bride only scholars haven’t recognized it properly. In order to do this we have to fuse together surviving stories of Agrippa in the rabbinic literature with repeated reference to Berenice chief symbol in Palestinian Christianity – viz. as “the woman holding the sudarion.” When we do this everything immediately comes together for us. Her brother Marcus Agrippa was the symbolic “bridegroom” of the community and she as his historical bride also embodied the Church as a whole as Mary does for Catholics to this day. In the end we will see that we can still get a glimpse of this original relationship between “Christ” and Berenice his bride in the literature which survives from the Marcionite center of Edessa.


I started this section with a quote from the Talmud as to the contemporary significance of Marcus Julius Agrippa. In it Agrippa is described as “giving way” to a bride (Aram kallah), and, in a manner reminiscent of the discussion we saw earlier, the sages seemed to have praised him for it. We have already seen the manner in which “little Mark” was said to have been established by a woman. There is also the reference in Irenaeus regarding Marcus upon whom “truth” descended “in the form of a woman” and, as he adds in parentheses “for the world could not have borne it coming in its male form.”
All of these understandings naturally lead us back to the reality of what is surely an original “feminist” Church associated with Mark.

It has already been put forward that just as Peter epitomizes a historical antipathy toward women, Marcus in his many guises is above all else “the Christ of women.” As we read in what follows in Irenaeus’ account, this feminine hypostasis is related to what is called that first “unoriginated, inconceivable Father, who is without material substance, and is neither male nor female.” This sounds remarkably similar to the eunuch ideal we will examining later. However, Marcus now understands that the perfection of the Father which he epitomizes is developed among his faithful through their transformation into the female ideal of truth – in other words castrating themselves. In this way Marcus announces to his castrated brides, “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.”

Once we understand that beneath all of these figures of “Marcus” is the historical Agrippa, it is obvious what is being asked of the faith: they are to stand in her place as the “brides of the bridgegroom.” In other words if Mary is the church and the Church is female then at least according to the earliest strata of Markan Christianity we too much be made into living brides of Christ in imitation of the historical Berenice. Think for a moment of the messianic imagery of Matthew where it said that the kingdom of heaven is like virgins who took their lamps to meet their bridegroom and cry out “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” [cf Mat 25:1] The passage is necessarily Marcionite even if it isn’t generally recgonized as such by most scholars.

In the same way when we read that when we return to our original discussion of Kethuboth 17a regarding Agrippa “giving way to a bride” we have to come around to seeing the Talmudic passage as a reflection of messianism in the same Markan community. The section begins with the proclamation that “Our Rabbis taught: One causes the dead to make way (or pass by) before a bride and both of them for the King of Israel.” This is the context of the statement which follows, that King Agrippa “made way for a bride, and the Sages praised him.” On the surface, the text can be taken to refer to bridal procession. That sense is followed by most scholars, e.g., Edersheim, who notes: “[e]very man who met it, was bound to rise and join the marriage procession, or the funeral march. It was specially related of King Agrippa that he had done this.” However, the text can be taken in the singular sense of “bride” as well, which means that the writer is really saying that Agrippa “made way” for a particular woman who was a kallah. Remember that the Talmud also frequently calls Marcus Julius Agrippa “Jannai” (“Johnny”). There are several references to Jannai being related to a bride: “R. Jannai donned his robes, on Sabbath eve and exclaimed, ‘Come, O bride, Come, O bride!’” There must necessarily be some symbolic or “interior” meaning to the original reference.

We should never forget when we come face to face with these reports that this information has been passed onto us from members of the misogynist, later rabbinic tradition. With this said it is interestingly that along side these tendencies there are older contradictory elements which were difficult to shake off. The Babylonian academy itself interestingly had an otherwise unexplained two month ecstatic festival called the Kallah where it seemed huge crowds gathered together to be inspired by “the mazziḳim" (the unseen tormenting spirits which hover around people). There was a saying in Babylonia that whoever dreamed of going into a forest would become president of the Kallah (the Kallah being likened to a forest). In the same way later members of this academy, far away from the influence of Rome seemed to remember something special about the relationship of Agrippa to a kallah. It is recalled that just as the sages “flattered” Agrippa [a term identified in Genesis Rabba as meaning “Christian heresy”] they are now said to have “praised him” for his “making way” for the kallah.

Whatever the state of affairs originally were in Babylonian Academy in the early years it is apparent that over time a natural process of harmonization occurred between it and the rival center in Tiberius. In one particular Kallah gathering Rabbi Ashi (352–427) brought forth the most important document in Jewish history – a compilation of legal decisions known as the Talmud. Most Christian scholars don’t even recognize the significance of this document. It is a text which is recognized as having greater authority than that of even Moses Torah. It is as a result necessarily properly defined as a messianic text even if its authorship develops over a series of authors (much like the actual state of affairs with regards to the gospels in Christianity).

It has always been noteworthy in my mind that the original historical individual who received the “authority” to codify such a “Talmud” was named “John” and witness for “Jannai.” This isn’t the place to develop an understanding of Johanan ha Nappah as a continuation and refinement of currents associated with Marcus Agrippa. Nevertheless it is important in my mind to begin the process of seeing that the influence of various messianic concepts associated with Agrippa didn’t just “end” with the reformulation of the Palestinian religious form in the Antonine period. The Babylonian Kallah gathering can only be explained as another such vestige from the Agrippan period.

As such it is important to see that during his sixty year leadership of the Babylonian academy the codification of the Talmud as the new paradigm for Jewish belief was only one innovation developed on his part. There was also necessarily a clear dissenting opinion regarding Agrippa’s relationship to the Kallah which I believe was in stark contrast to all that seems to have come before it. In my estimation Judaism was still completing its process of moving away from Agrippa as its guiding light in the way we see in parallel Samaritan circles in the period. Ashi’s surviving statements against Agrippa should be seen in this light – viz. a turning away from ancient tradition towards something new and untried.


It is recorded in our gemara that he said that “if a king forgoes his honour (kavod), his honour is forgone,” while many others argue here that “if a king forgoes his honour, his honour is not forgone.” The issue at hand is whether Agrippa as king of Israel is allowed on his own to divest himself of his station in life as king. Can a king allow himself to “give way” to a kallah? Ashi, who himself was a ruler, says no, but the near-universal chorus of contemporary rabbis disputes his assertion. The parallel section in Kiddushin 32b shows that the original comparison puts Agrippa in the place of Moses or even God. There we read that those who support the idea of the ability of a ruler to “suspend his kavod” use the example of God during the Exodus. There we see in the very depicton of the angel “kavod” as leading the Israelites out of Egypt where the proper position for a king would be: at the rear of the advancing company.

Moreover, Ashi is again refuted when he argues that a king can’t suspend (balat) his kavod. Someone in the discussion brings forward the example of Gamaliel, Agrippa’s nasi or “prince,” who is said to have served drinks at a wedding party and thus acted in a manner which was “beneath his station.” The fact, then, is that there is something far more significant than a discussion of whether a superior can serve an inferior; it is really about Agrippa’s devotion to the kallah in question.

Most scholars just take just about any passage in the existing tradition at face value because it is a lot safer that way. “The text says such and such” and that is all that it says, they think to themselves, not for a minute understanding its interior meaning. Bit it becomes apparent that this passage, where Ashi attacks Agrippa’s status as a king because of his “giving way” to a bride, is obviously about heresy when we see the rabbi cite in the very same line the Deuteronomy passage (17:15) which Nachmanides always connects with the condemnation for “flattering” Agrippa. Ashi says that Agrippa’s giving way to a kallah made him lack the awe that was due a true monarch. Why? Simply bcause she was a woman. So the point here is that, because Agrippa subordinated himself to a woman, he disqualified himself as the messiah. Moreover, Ashi says that there was a parashah associated with this “making way.” Most scholars take this parashah to mean that the literal encounter where Agrippa gave way to a bridal procession happened at a “crossroads.” However, the word also means something else: a. point of departure, a division, branching off, separation. In other words, the whole business of Agrippa suspending his kavod in favor of the kallah really concerns his raising of the value of the bride or women over what was deemed proper. It was in effect another “innovation” of Agrippa’s, which the author links to the heresy of Christianity and the ultimate annulment of the Law of Moses. How do we know this? We read again in what immediately follows that “our Rabbis taught: One abolishes (batal) the study of the Torah for the sake of the bringing out of the dead and the bringing in of the bride.” This Agrippa is identified as “abolishing the study of the Torah” in favor of this kallah.

Jewish tradition identifies Mary M’gaddalah as the bride who bore the messiah as a product of “adultery” in the bridal chamber. She says “[w]hen I betook myself to the bridal chamber I was in my separation, and my husband stayed away from me. But my bridegroom’s best man came to me, and by him I have this son.” Berenice, the historical sister and bride of Marcus Julius Agrippa, is the historical Mary Magdala or “great Mary.” She is certainly the reason why the rabbis said Agrippa gave way to a kallah and suspended the Law on her behalf. However it is not simple to make sense of matters here. A proper understanding of this “Mary Magdala” is elusive because no one group which survives in the world today actually knows who she is or what she represented. As we have just seen knowledge of her influence makes some patriarchal authority have second thoughts about her brother Marcus.
If we want to understand what a kallah is and how it could apply ritually to Agrippa’s sister Berenice, we have to confront the original context of “the bride” in the contemporary Middle Eastern world. Brides were intimately associated with the act of “veiling.” There is still to this day a ritual of veiling the kallah in the Jewish marriage rite. It is impossible to say how old it is or whether it exactly represents the original beliefs of Palestinians living in the age of Agrippa. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that a kallah is necessarily veiled. Above all else, Berenice was remembered not only as her brother’s “incestuous” bride, but also as one who held the veil of Christ in her hand. Again, I am not completely sure that I understand the symbolism correctly, but the depiction of her in Catholic sources necessarily avoids the Talmud’s identification of her as a whore (someone who wears no veil whatsoever) and instead makes clear that she is the paradigmatic “bride of Christ” as she stands with her sudarion.
In the standard European tradition Berenice we see her as the one who holds the veil or sudarion of Christ in her hand. Thus we read that “[a]ccording to the Acta Sanctorum … Saint Veronica or Berenice was a pious woman of Jerusalem who, moved with pity as Jesus carried his cross to Golgotha, gave him her kerchief that he might wipe the drops of sweat from his forehead. The Lord accepted the offering and after using it handed it back to her, creating the image of His face miraculously impressed upon it.” In other words, in the Latin tradition she takes a sudarion, wipes Jesus’ face, and then, ever since that Kodak moment, we have this “snap shot” in our heads of Berenice standing there holding a sudarion with the image of Christ on it. As we shall see, it is an important symbol not only in the Latin Church, but in Galilee and throughout the Middle East.
We must go back to our reconstruction of the figure of Berenice to try to make sense of the symbolism of her “holding the sudarion of Christ.” We read again that “[a]ccording to various forms of the legend, Veronica is associated with the niece of Herod the Great [i.e. Marcus’ sister Berenice and] with the woman whom Christ healed of an issue of blood (Mark v. 25 sq; Matt. ix. 20 sq.).” We have squared away the two parts of her identity – the one ritual, the other historical; now let’s begin to make sense of the sudarion mystery.
The first is what is a sudarion? Catholic tradition ties the sudarion to the Shroud of Turin as some kind of “burial cloth.” The word means a hankerchief or sweat cloth which might have been used to bind the face of Jesus, but it does not mean “covering cloth” as many like to think. A sudar or sudara is a scarf or turban.
How does any of this have to do with Berenice as the original bride of Christ? Anyone familiar with Jewish rituals pertaining to weddings certainly understands this symbolism. The European myth of Berenice in the Vengeance of the Savior and other texts misses completely the significance of the very striking image of a woman holding on to the sudara of Christ. It cannot be anything other than a metaphor for the expectation of the “second coming” cherished by Berenice, the paradigmatic “bride” of the nascent Christian community. The first stage of the wedding ritual, generally performed before the wedding, is the signing of the ketubah. It generally takes about a quarter of an hour and is done around a table at the edge of the reception area. The rabbi reviews the ketubah with the groom, fills in missing details such as the precise names, location and timing, and has the witnesses sign (and usually the groom as well). Before the signing, the groom holds it in his right hand, lifts it, and returns it to the rabbi. This symbolic gesture, called kinyan sudar, “purchase through a shawl,” concretizes the groom’s acceptance of the obligations in the ketubah.
The sudar or sudara, the very same “napkin” which is in the hand of Berenice in the oldest Christian legends, is a sign from the bridegroom that “he will come back.” It is a deposit for his return. The custom of leaving a sudar does not extend only to marriage but to almost all transactions in contemporary Jewish life as we read that “it was customary to mark a sales transaction by means of a sudar, a kerchief or scarf used to cover the head or wrap around the neck. This transaction, in which ownership was officially transferred to the purchaser, was accomplished by the buyer handing a sudar or other object to the seller, which object, the seller would later return to the buyer.” What did this method of transaction express? It is barter. In the kinyan sudar, the buyer did not give the full exchange value of the deal, but only a sort of down-payment, and a symbolic one at that, insofar as the seller would return the sudar to the buyer. If we entertain the idea of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdala (our Berenice), it is impossible not to see that what is being expressed in her being in possession of Jesus’ sudara is in fact her embodiment of the betrothed bride who awaits the return of her bridegroom, the messiah.
This idea of “Berenice the kallah” must have been uniquitous in most ancient Christianity. Her cultus was to be found in every major centre where the new religion was said to have been “first established”: Galilee, Edessa, Armenia, Rome and many others. The early and ubiquitous nature of the cultus of Marcus Julius Agrippa’s sister makes perfect sense of the facts that, first, in the Talmud text we just examined Agrippa “gave way” to a kallah and, second, that he himself was married to Berenice, thus implicitly connecting him again to the second coming of Christ. But Berenice holding up the sudar of her bridegroom is more than a “theological” symbol. It is a snapshot of something real: Berenice’s relationship to her historical husband and the “true beloved” of the Christian community as a whole, Marcus Julius Agrippa. Juvenal makes this clear when he refers to “a diamond of great renown, made precious by the finger of Berenice. It was given as a present long ago by the barbarian Agrippa to his incestuous sister.”
Many scholars have identified the evangelist Mark as the anonymous youth of Mark 14:51, who flees the Garden of Gethsemane, leaving his one-piece linen garment in the grasp of a too-slow Roman pursuer. The word here in Greek is sindon which is exactly the word one would have expected the Latin tradition to have used to describe “Veronica’s veil” had it been understood as a burial shroud. But it is described instead as a sudarium, a piece of headgear. I suspect that the gospel texts were deliberately changed from having a little boy wrapped in a sudara to instead display a young man draped in a linen cloth. If I am correct, we have finally solved the enigma of the origins of Berenice’s veil. She picks up her brother’s sudara, dropped in the Garden, and waits for him to return. The ancient reader knew that she would eventually marry her beloved bridegroom. The symbol made it completely clear who the Christ was: Marcus Julius Agrippa, Berenice’s historical husband.
The point then of this seemingly silly report in the writings of the rabbis regarding Agrippa “putting a bride in front of himself” is actually quite significant. We should remember that the stories which made their way into the Talmud came down through written and oral traditions that spanned three to four centuries. Often times their original significance wasn’t even recognized by their compiler. In this case however it is isn’t difficult to realize the real context of the report. Marcus Agrippa never openly acknowledged himself as the messiah of his own tradition. He gave up overtly glorifying his own person establishing instead a cult of the kallah as the openly promulgated symbol of his faith.

So it is that we discover representations of “bridal processions” or Berenice the kallah not only in Palestine but in the very place that Jewish sectarians ran in great numbers after the failed Bar Kochba revolt and subsequent Hadrianic and Antonine persecutions – viz. Edessa. Edessa is now acknowledged as the first country to have formerly adopted Christianity as its religion (this isn’t exactly true as we have shown Marcus Agrippa’s historical kingdom was necessarily earlier). Yet notice Bauer’s observation about the Marcionite character of this “official religion” in Edessa and Osorhone. Whenever Marcionitism appears Berenice necessarily follows in a pattern strangely reminiscent of legends of Miriam and Moses.

Indeed despite the efforts to eradicate knowledge of Marcus’ secret religion icons of Berenice persist throughout the Roman world. Nevertheless despite the surviving traditions of “St. Veronica” there never was a doubt in antiquity where the origin of the phenomenon derived – viz. Paneas the very city where the historical Berenice resided in her lavish fortress throughout the Flavian period.

If we were to stop here we would have to admit we have made a very significant discovery here – viz. the integration (once again) of rabbinic and Marcionite lore. However I think we can do one better. In order to conclude this discussion we have to stop for a moment, put away all the books and reports and just think about the matter at hand. We must consider how an openly celebrated cult of “Berenice the bride” could have existed in Marcionite Israel (i.e. the greater Syrian territory when Marcus Agrippa was its ruler).

How could these things have been kept secret? How could the world have mistaken “little Mark” as the hidden messiah of the Christian tradition when Berenice “could only have been” his bride? In short, how could a cult of Berenice waiting for her bridegroom have been “misunderstood” as anything other than an obvious symbol confirming her brother as the “little Christ” of Christianity? The answer of course is obvious when you really think about it. The age old adage says that if you want to hide something you put it out in plain view and have it confused for something else. All we have to do is consider what else was going on “above ground” in the Flavian period with regards to the historical Berenice to help confound worldly opinion and we have our answer.

If the reader can’t figure it out on his own I will help him a little bit. Berenice was universally recognized to “be in waiting” to marry Titus at any time. This explicit truth is practically shouted out by historians of the period. So it is that in the contemporary age stretching from the beginning of the Jewish War down through until the end of the Flavian period and beyond the symbol of Berenice the kallah and the parallel phenomenon of hundreds of thousand of castrated “Jewish brides” appearing in Syria must have been taken as an expression of obedience to Roman rule. Anyone with any sensitivity can’t help see it any other way. The conclusion would have been inescapable and undoubtedly encouraged by the hierarchy of the contemporary Church to their Imperial masters in the age so soon after the first Jewish revolt.

The case must have been made that the gospel was formed after the manner of the pagan mysteries only adapted to the specific bibliophilic tastes of the Jews. This mystery the Herodians must have argued would “purify” the conquered Jewish masses of their “instinct for sedition” and instill a love of Caesar and its household in their hearts. The community of Israel as a whole was being fashioned as a bride waiting for its Titus. While Titus was never openly declared as the Christ of the revelation of a mystery religious was by its very nature ambiguous. There were undoubtedly enough clues to flatter Caesars tastes (Jesus was “thirty” the age of Titus at the conquest of the temple) and besides Titus love of eunuchs was well attested by contemporaries. The very existence of a community of castrated brides waiting to “love” the man their religion represented a weeping Berenice waiting in vain for might have been more than enough for most Roman citizens to shake their heads in disgust.

Is this all too speculative? Is it too much to believe that Christianity could at one time been developed as a “final solution” for getting the “eternal Jewishness” out of the eternal Jew? Let’s remember also that Hadrian’s laughable mystery cult of his boy lover Antinous was always identified as being patterned after Christianity. Christianity? Which Christianity? That other laughable mystery tradition epitomized by the eternal symbol of Berenice as “the bride waiting for Caesar” …

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