Mark and Plato

copyright 2008 Stephan Huller

The human mind is capable of only so much information before it can no longer process any more material. The reader has now been confronted with a series of statements which if juxtaposed against one another might seem to indicate that nothing made any sense in early Christianity. The founder of the tradition was known as both “Mark” and “John.” The religion was about two separate figures – “Jesus” and “Christ.” Christianity was a mixture of Jewish scripture and Greek philosophy. At one time this messianic revelation united all Palestinian believers at the behest of one set of Roman Emperors and then later in a later age another Imperial dynasty broke it apart and restored the region into three separate religions.

If this is too much for my readership to accept as the basis for a new understanding of the Judeo-Christian I apologize in advance for any difficulty I have caused. We can always return to the fairy tales developed for us by our ancient guides from among the rabbis and Church Fathers. For those who are up for the challenge we are about to embark on a journey to Alexandria, the very place where the Markan religious sect survives to this day. It was here that Clement, the earliest Catholic representative in the city tells us that “Mark came over to Alexandria … [where] he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected.”

The most important sentence which appears in this entire letter is what immediately follows. For it is here where Clement says that Mark “brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue.” The word mystagogue ultimately comes from Plato’s Symposium where Diotima is so described. In other words, we have our first confirmation – as early as the late second century – that Mark was somehow connected to Greek philosophy as the modern Copts suggest. It is noteworthy that Marcion, his heretical “twin” is similarly identified only now it is turned around in an entirely negative manner. We find repeated mention of the claim that it is from “the philosophers whom we have mentioned [i.e. Pythagoras and Plato] from whom the Marcionites blasphemously derived their doctrine.”

In another place Clement notes that “sexual intercourse, as the cause of birth, was rejected long before Marcion by Plato is clear from the first book of the Republic.” He writes that “Marcion took from Plato the starting-point of his "strange" doctrines, without either grateful acknowledgment or understanding.” He adds in another place that “rom a dislike of its inconveniences the Greeks have made many adverse observations about the birth of children, and that the Marcionites have interpreted them in a godless sense and are ungrateful to their Creator.”

In our next book we shall examine the tradition associated with Philo of Alexandria and recognize that it is an important precursor of the Markan Church. The Copts will suggest that the two men were ultimately related to one another. Whatever the case may be, it is startling that while these two men are made to embody all that is positive about the mingling of Jewish scriptures and Greek philosophy, Marcion embodies “haeresis” – i.e. “something bad.”

How Clement can truly distinguish Marcion as “evil” and Pythagoras and Plato who themselves established “sects” is simply baffling. We must assume that Clement, Origen and the rest of the early Alexandrian tradition must have known better than this. It must have been transparent that there never was a “Marcion.” “Marcion” only existed in the minds of the Petrine Church in Antioch and later Rome. They must have known that it was there beloved disciple “Mark” and all that was associated with him which was “under suspicion” by the Imperial court and their ecclesiastical overseers.

Not only did the Marcionite canon betray its association with Alexandria by having an epistle addressed to the residents of the city (which somehow disappeared or was renamed in our New Testament), the presence of this “heresy” in the city was as old as Christianity itself. Interestingly the “followers of Marcus” (i.e. Aramaic “Marcioni”) are said to have believed in the same understanding of the godhead as we read about in the writings Philo and the Alexandrian tradition generally. Indeed it is a “positive understanding” of “two powers” in heaven which finds reflection in the early rabbinic texts and interestingly the opinions associated with Johanan ben Zakkai.

Most scholars are aware that Irenaeus writes “against the followers of Marcion” in his Adversus Haereses owing to the fact that his tradition was the first which first posited the existence of “another” or “second” god beside the Creator. What is interestingly however is that he emphasizes that while “the followers of Marcion do directly blaspheme the Creator, alleging him to be the creator of evils” they are said ultimately to be “holding a more tolerable theory as to his origin, maintaining that there are two beings, gods by nature, differing from each other” in their specific function within the godhead. Not surprisingly when we look closely we find an exact reproduction of the standard rabbinic (and Alexandrian) assumption about two powers in heaven.

Indeed it should be recognized that Irenaeus concludes his third book on the subject by explaining the “more tolerable” theory of the heretic in the following words:

Marcion, therefore, himself, by dividing God into two, maintaining one to be good and the other judicial, does in fact, on both sides, put an end to deity. For he that is the judicial one, if he be not good, is not God, because he from whom goodness is absent is no God at all; and again, he who is good, if he has no judicial power, suffers the same [loss] as the former, by being deprived of his character of deity.
Of course what Irenaeus and the countless generations of contemporary religious scholars fail to point out is that this is an exact reproduction of the Alexandrian and moreover early rabbinic understanding of the powers often represented as hesed (mercy) and din (judgement) but ultimately connected to the names Elohim (Theos) and Yahweh (Kurios) in the Law itself!

The point of all of this is to acknowledge for once that Marcion wasn’t “out there” inventing his heresy. It came from a now extinct first century Jewish cultural milieu which is represented in the writings of Philo but wasn’t merely limited to this one man. It was rather a product of two centuries of cultural intermingling between Jews and Greeks in the city of Alexandria which ultimately bore its greatest fruits with the Mark’s composition of the gospel.

Irenaeus says about those of Marcion’s “other” Christian tradition “feign another Father above the Creator.” How far are we know from what we read in the rabbinic tradition regarding the content of Akher’s heavenly revelation? We are told in later sources that:

Aḥer saw [the mediating angel] Meṭaṭron seated while he wrote down the merits of Israel. Whereupon Aḥer said: 'We have been taught to believe that no one sits in heaven … or are there perhaps two supreme powers?' Then a heavenly voice was heard: 'Turn, O backsliding children (Jer. iii. 14), with the exception of Aḥer.'"

Of course scholars find it difficult to recognize the bias of those writing these reports. Akher wasn’t devoted to Metatron; he was positing a higher god than the angel worshipped by the Jews. The rabbinic authorities just don’t have the heart to acknowledge that part of his doctrine when they transmit their information to us.

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