copyright 2008 Stephan Huller
The Coptic Church of Egypt is properly considered a Markan tradition. It is also unfortunately almost completely ignored by scholars. This is probably because of a major church split in the fifth century. Theologians were debating whether, as of the incarnation, when the Holy Spirit implanted the seed of Jesus into Mary’s womb, the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ fused or mixed into one (essentially divine) nature, or whether the two natures remained distinct albeit inseparable. Were Jesus’ humanity and divinity like salt and water which readily combine into a distinctive mix? Or like oil and water which may be separated by nary a molecule yet without mixture? Those who believed the natures remained distinct were called “Diophysites” (“Two-Naturists”); those who believed the natures fused into one were Monophysites (One-Naturists”). The Diophysites won the vote at the Council of Chalcedon in 481 CE. Many Eastern Churches, including the Copts of Egypt and Ethiopia, were Monophysites. They chose not to knuckle under, so they went their separate ways, unphased by being excommunicated as heretics by the majority (whom we today call the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, though they had not yet separated).
So-called “heresy,” however, was nothing new to Egyptian Christianity. The first forms of Christianity we know of in Egypt was Gnostic, a mystical form of faith based on claims of elite knowledge passed on secretly from Jesus to chosen apostles and unsuspected by run-of-the-mill Christians. Some say Gnosticism bgan in Egypt. Others say Christianity began in Egypt, not Palestine, and that it began as a form of Gnosticism. The bewildering variety of Platonic, Zoroastrian, Hermetic, Sethan, and other documents discovered at Chenoboskion, Egypt in 1945 (the Nag Hammadi Library) bears eloquent witness to the pluralistic and exotic character of Egyptian Christianity. Once Roman Orthodoxy began to be imposed throughout the empire, the bishops sought to cover up this heretical past and created a “santizied” pedigree for the Egyptian Churches. They said that Mark, who had been the secretary for Peter, had sailed to Egypt to become the founding bishop of Egyptian Catholicism. This is fiction, as fictionl as the Roman claim to have Peter as their founder. And yet there is no denying that the Roman tradition has a unique interest in Peter, whether historically accurate or not. In the same way it is safe to say that the Egyptian Coptic Church is a Markan tradition. Its present Pope Shenouda III for instance sits on the “throne of Mark” in Alexandria in the same manner as his Roman counterpart reigns from an Episcopal chair of “Peter.”
Shenouda explains his tradition’s belief that at one time the Markan tradition was spread around the world as a universal Church. “Although St. Mark was particularly the preacher for Egypt, yet he was a universal preacher for all humanity. St. Severus, Bishop of Nastora (from the ninth century) truly said that the great St. Mark, enlightened Egypt, and the world… With his holiness, all the world benefited. He established the Theological School of Alexandria which enlightened the world with knowledge. The only known continents at that time were limited to Asia, Africa and Europe. St. Mark preached in all of them to spread the Word of God.” [Mark the Evangelist, p. 20]
According to Shenouda, Mark was a wealthy Jew from Palestine who went by the name “John” among the Jews and married Berenice. [ibid p. 8] This “John Mark” is the same as Marcus Agrippa, but the Rabbinic tradition, I admit, never refers to Agrippa as “Marcus” (a study of Jastrow demonstrates that no Jew named Marcus is ever recorded as ever having lived in antiquity). But it does identify Agrippa as Jannai (“Johnny”) in various places [viz. Yebamoth 61a; cf. Derenbourg, Essai, pp. 248ff]. Contemporary sources also identify Agrippa as having married his sister Berenice [Juvenal, Satires, vi.]
Shenouda says this “Marcus” wrote the first gospel with a special – even secret – purpose. “It is agreed among [ancient] scholars that the Book of Mark was the first of the Gospels, however they differed about the time it was written … He wrote it in detail regarding the names, the time, the place the numbers, the colors, with such an inspiration, proving that he was present in all its events.” [The Evangelist Mark, p. 97] The same idea of a secret purpose of Mark’s composition appears at the very beginning of the Alexandrian tradition. Clement (end of the second century CE.) speaks of Marcus as the author of the truest, holiest gospel, an evangelist who “brought in certain sayings [of Jesus] of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils.” [Epistle to Theodore] Clement argues that in the beginning of the tradition there was a now lost “fuller gospel text” written by Mark which is “most carefully guarded by the church in Alexandria, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.” [ibid] This “fuller gospel text” appears to have been associated also with Origen’s teacher Ammonius Sacca in Alexandria in other sources [Eusebius Church History, vi. 19; To Carpianus]
According to Coptic tradition, the great secret associated with Mark’s original gospel was that Mark placed himself as an unobtrusive character here and there in the text [cf Severus of Hermopolis, The Acts of Mark]. The Latin Muratorian Canon (late second century CE.) confirms this understanding when it declares “those things at which [Mark] was present he placed thus [in his gospel].” Scholars usually read the terse note of the Muratorian Canon as implying that Mark transcribed what he was present to hear Peter recount. But suppose it meant that Mark was an eye-witness and recounted his own reminiscences?
One of the factors leading me to identify this apostolic Mark with the Herodian prince Marcus Agrippa is the striking fact that the Gospel of Mark is founded on the very messianic proof text which is used throughout the Rabbinic tradition to prove that Agrippa was the Christ. “Mark [at Mark 13:14] inserts his own comments about the abomination, suggesting the phrase was some kind of code between him and his audience. It is a quote from the Book of Daniel where it appears in 9:27 as part of a prophecy that the book claims was given to the prophet Daniel by Gabriel during the Babylonian captivity about Jerusalem's future. An ‘Anointed One’ would come, be ‘cut off,’ and then another people would come and destroy Jerusalem and set up the abomination in the Temple. 11:31 speaks of it in context of a great battle of Kings, and 12:11 uses it as part of Daniel's end time vision.”
It is also noteworthy that in Mark 13:14 the Byzantine text phrase "spoken of through the prophet Daniel" is missing in the Alexandrian text. As Haines notes “[b]oth the Alexandrian and Byzantine texts agree on Matthew and Mark's ‘abomination of Desolation’ quotation from the Septuagint version of Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11, but the Alexandrian omits the ‘Daniel’ reference. And both texts agree on the parenthetical admonition, ‘Let the reader understand.’ This statement, when taken in context, appears to be Jesus' own words. But there are differences in the immediate text. Matthew states the Abomination will stand ‘in the holy place,’ whereas Mark states ‘where he ought not.’” [Haines, Translations and the Greek Text]
The Alexandrian tradition, devoted as it was to Mark, shows remarkable agreement with the surviving Jewish interpretation of Daniel. Clement follows the methodology employed by the rabbis – only a thousand years before them – saying at one point "[i]n those ‘sixty and two weeks,’ as the prophet said, and ‘in the one week,’ was he [Christ] Lord. The half of the week Nero held sway, and in the holy city Jerusalem placed the abomination; and in the half of the week he [Christ] was taken away … [a]nd Vespasian rose to the supreme power, and destroyed Jerusalem, and desolated the holy place.” [Stromata 1:21] Clement’s successor Origen is similarly connected with the Rabbinic tradition’s interpretation of the passage in Daniel. As Montgomery notes, the messiah of Daniel 9:26 is for “Origen ‘Herod’ or ‘Agrippa’ [just as it is] for Eusebius ‘Herod.” [Montgomery The International Critical Commentary on Daniel, p. 399] Origen himself writes, "since the temple was destroyed, there exists no longer sacrifice, nor altar, nor priesthood… the weeks of years, also, which the prophet Daniel had predicted, extending to the leadership of Christ, have been fulfilled … [for] according to Daniel, seventy weeks were fulfilled until Christ the Ruler.” [De Principiis 4] Eusebius’ identification of “Herod” as the messiah of Dan 9:24 – 27 can similarly be attributed to his indebtedness to the Alexandrian tradition and Origen in particular.
The amazing and almost completely unrecognized truth is that, in what is certainly the most important prophecy of the messiah, no Christian writer before the Protestant Reformation identifies the mashiach of Dan 9:26 with Jesus. There simply has to be an explanation for this omission, yet none is forthcoming. Almost all Christian interpretations of Daniel’s seventy weeks follow the original Jewish understanding which not only identifies the events as corresponding to the destruction of the temple [Mark 13:14] but which also identify the messiah as Mark. [Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews 8] The parallels with Jewish interpretation are completely stunning when we take into account Hippolytus’ [third century CE.] recognition that Daniel’s prophecy not only identifies the point at which “Christ is come” with the end of the Jewish religion in 70 CE., but also as the time when “the Gospel is preached in every place.” [Seventy Weeks] This not only parallels the “tradition of the [ancient Jewish] Sages” referenced in Nachmanides but also conforms to the time frame when most scholars date initial publication of the Gospel of Mark.
Sulpicius Severus [fourth century CE.] speaks of a Roman conspiracy vis a vis the doomed temple. After the standard application of Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy, he adds that "Titus, it is said, after calling a council,… deliberated whether he should destroy the temple… Titus himself thought that the temple ought specially to be overthrown, in order that the religion of the Jews and of the Christians might more thoroughly be subverted; for that these religions, although contrary to each other, had nevertheless proceeded from the same authors; that the Christians had sprung up from among the Jews; and that, if the root were extirpated, the offshoot would speedily perish.” [CH. XXX]
The uncanny parallels between the Jewish and Christian traditions regarding the identity and circumstances of the messiah prophecy in Daniel collide with the cornerstone of orthodoxy in the Catholic tradition: the very idea that Jesus was the Christ. We have seen consisently how Jews regarded the prophecy as predicting the fall of Agrippa as the messia, while many Christians mention the interoretatioin without challenging it. In light of this surprise we are forced to take a second look at a too-familiar remark by late second-century Catholic bishop Irenaeus of Lyons. Cataloguing various heretics, he notes how “Those, again, who prefer the Gospel of Mark separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered.” [Haer. 3:11:7] We have learned to read this notice as if Irenaeus attributed to these hertics a belief that the crucified Jesus was something ike a channeler for a disincarnate Christ-spirit who ceased speaking and acting through his human host as of the crucifixion, casting him aside at that time. But wouldn’t it be simpler, much more straightforward if he meant that these “Marcan” heretics had a different human candidate for the messianic office, not Jesus but another (Matthew 11:3)?
copyright 2008 Stephan Huller