copyright 2008 Stephan Huller
copyright 2008 Stephan Huller
Aristobulus and Salome,
NO KNOWN DATE Bronze.
ΒΑCΙΛΕΩC ΑΡΙCΤΟ- ΒΟΥΛΟΥ, (King Aristobulus)
rev. ΒΑΙCΙΛΙCCΗC CΑΛΩΜΗC, (Queen Salome)
(Imhoof, Por- trätköpfe, Pl. VI. 21 and 22).
By almost all accounts the first gospel was written by a man named “Mark.” In it Jesus is shown to have a special relationship with a disciple named “John.” Forget everything you ever learned about “Peter” for the moment; the Coptic Pope laments: “how much injustice St. Mark did receive from the followers of St. Peter [when] they tried to rob him his apostolic dignity, and credit all his efforts to somebody else? I mean St. Peter.” Now, understandably, the Copts are going to advance the claims of a “favorite son” apostle. But what if there is something to it? Supppose they have preserved a genuine tradition? We will only know if it turns out to illuminate other, hitherto puzzling, matters, and I think it does. It is high time we looked at the Coptic-Markan paradigm.
The Coptic and early Latin traditions acknowledge that Mark was present as a witness to all the things Jesus accomplished which make their way in to the Markan gospel. However never once does he identify himself by his name “Mark.” Instead he is “John.” “Mark” denotes his true identity as the contemporary monarch of Israel, Marcus Agrippa, and this would have been revealed only to those properly initiated. We can begin to see this historical connection when we restore the original understanding of both “Mark’s” and “John’s” relationship to a prominent Jewish woman of the age, a woman named Salome. Salome was the mother of both Agrippa and the disciple John, despite what we read in our Catholic-redacted texts of Josephus. The Coptic tradition just comes right out and says that the apostle Mark had a father named Aristobulos and a mother who was “one of the Marys.” It’s not hard to piece things together when we realize his “other name” was John. The name of Mark’s mother was Salome, also called Mary (these being by far the two most common female names among Jews). The Catholicized versions of Josephus develop a complex scenario with two Agrippas, Aristobulos being killed by “Herod,” and the mother of Agrippa II called “Cypros.” But we can find other sources which confirm the Coptic and rabbinic understanding.
The most obvious confirmation of the true name of Agrippa’s mother is found in the near contemporary Acts of Isidore. It is one of the great tragedies in the history of literature that we don’t have more information from this now entirely fragmentary work. Isidore was one of Alexandria’s leading citizens in the middle of the first century CE. He was brought before the Emperor on charges of leading a pogrom against Alexandria’s Jewish residents. Why did he attack the Jews? There was ongoing unrest in the city because the Emperors were defending the rights of Jews to be citizens equal to Greeks and native Egyptians. Isidore eventually concludes his testimony before Claudius by pointing his finger at the now twenty-something year old Marcus Julius Agrippa and declaring:
My lord Caesar, what do you care for a twopenny-halfpenny Jew like Agrippa?... I accuse them of wishing to stir up the entire world... They are not of the same nature as the Alexandrians, but live rather after the fashion of the Egyptian... I am neither a slave nor a girl-musician's son but gymnasiarch of the glorious city of Alexandria, but you [Agrippa] are the cast-off son of the Jewess Salome!
Claudius’ mother was named Antonia. He certainly wasn’t Jewish, so the only person Isidore could have been accusing here was Agrippa. Thus the identification of “Cypros” in the familiar text of Josephus must be a later corruption. It was presumably planted in the text to hide the fact that “John who was called Mark” and this “Marcus who was called Johnny (Jannai)” both had the same mother. Nevertheless, there is something about the identification of Mark as a “bastard” son which finds a strange resonance with familiar themes in early Christianity. There, too, “Christ” is accused of being “born of fornication” from a mother “Mary” who appears in the gospels and the rabbinic tradition as “Mary Magdala.” The Marcionite tradition makes absolutely clear that Jesus was an angelic hypostasis and so did not have a human mother. Mary then was the mother of someone else – but whom?
Interestingly, Tertullian shows that, not only was the Marcionite gospel different from our own, but it seems to go out of its way to develop Mary Salome as a more prominent figure than she appears to be in our Catholic tradition. We already see a similar pattern with the “secret gospel” of the Alexandrian tradition; however, the Marcionite reference adds that it was Salome who said “blessed are the breasts which gave you suck.” [Against Marcion ] There can be no doubt that Salome figures prominently in the Markan tradition as a whole. The Gospel of Mark is the only canonical text which mentions her by name. She appears in the Diatessaron as well. However, consider how she is emphasized as a spokesperson for the “shame of childbirth” in the aforementioned “secret Alexandrian” gospel tradition preserved by Clement. Every single surviving mention of the mother of Mark in the so-called “Gospel according to the Egyptians” casts her as the mother who learned motherhood was a bad thing. All of the surviving references to Salome in the Secret Gospel of Mark tradition have Jesus lecture the mother of his beloved disciple on the virtues of abandoning her wanton sexuality. He declares to her, “I came to destroy the works of the female.” Salome then muses, “I have done well, then, in not bearing children.” Wait a minute!Are we talking about Salome the mother of Mark—or of anyone else for that matter? She says she has not borne children! Like Athena, the Holy Mother is said in Coptic tradition to be “ever a virgin” despite her child-bearing. (Or the comment might reflect the holy celibacy to which she would have converted when she joined Jesus’ entourage, like the chaste “widows” and “virgins” of the early Church.) In the original gospel (and likely even some of the tractates of the Talmud) it is Salome who is the subject of the “woman who marries many brothers” story. The new halakhah is that one should be “like the angels” and marry no one in order to receive redemption.
So so we arrive at the tradition of the Christian messiah born out of wedlock. In later versions of this account, such as the Toledoth Yeshu, Jesus is openly identified as this bastard child. Yet in the earliest versions of the same story in the rabbinical tradition, it is simply impossible to identify this recurrent figure as Jesus, for “ben Stada” (as he was called by the rabbis) is said to have lived on until the late first century CE.
It may prove possible to piece together some of the pertinent details from the deepest strata of the surviving tradition of Josephus. There we read of a Salome, the daughter of Salome, the daughter of Miriam, the wife of Herod the Great, who “was married to Philip, the son of Herod, and tetrarch of Trachonitis; and as he died childless, Aristobulus, the son of Herod… married her.” This couple resurfaces again later in the text with a son named Agrippa, interestingly enough. We approach the great secret of the gospel: the main characters were all tied to the house of Herod. The apostle Philip was the Herodian Philip, the uncle of the gospel writer. Salome wwould have been another like Joanna, who was connected to the house of Herod through Chuza in Luke 8:3, but now it is equally apparent that she must have been the “sinful woman” who had married and remarried a series of brothers.
A coin featuring this original couple, Aristobulos and Salome, appears at the beginning of the chapter. Aristobulos apparently took Salome as his wife, but rumors must have persisted that their child wasn’t really his. Somehow Salome and Marcus end up on their own again, and we have the beginnings of the gospel story of his other uncle Herod Antipas looking to kill the messiah, originally, as I argue, Marcus Agrippa.
I can’t help but see the absence of any real father figure for “John” in the gospel as somehow connected to all this. “Zebedee” is merely the Aramaic equivalent of “Dositheus,” emphasizing that the future messiah was connected to the Samaritan figure. Interesting also is the fact that the Orthodox tradition knows a Saint Aristobolus, one of the seventy whose feast day is March 15 and who “is possibly mentioned by St. Paul and is identified with Zebedee, the father of Sts. James and John.” The Greek Orthodox tradition has an odd story that “there was a merchant named Zebedee, who was cousin to Herod the Great and so also had a public Greek name which ran in that family: Aristobulus.” He was supposedly born in Cyprus [remember Agrippa’s supposed mother of this name] and had spent time in Alexandria, and had two sons in the Galilee: James and John, both of these being called “followers of Jesus Christ.”
MARK AS MAMA’S BOY
It is hard for me not to consider Salome a Herodian. The image of a strong, independent woman wandering the countryside with her beloved “little prince” (a latter-day Hagar with her Ishmael) doesn’t merely fit into the gospel milieu of the messiah; it also fits exactly the psychological profile for Agrippa. Most scholars write Marcus off as “weak,” a “puppet prince of Rome.” [Wild 1917; Phillips p. 467] However, Leivy goes one step further and, while acknowledging Agrippa’s “weakness,” cites a tradition that he was nonetheless also “arrogant.” He interprets Targum Pseudo-Jonathan’s rendering of Isaiah 28:1 as if it referred to Agrippa viz. “woe to him (the Roman Emperor) who gives the crown to the arrogant, the big fool of Israel (i.e. to Agrippa) and woe to him (Agrippa) who gives the mitre (i.e. the high priesthood) to the wicked ones of the Temple.” When we factor in the Talmud’s reporting that Agrippa was prone to flattery, we find ourselves able to reconcile these various characteristics only with the idea that Agrippa was very dependant on his mother Salome and later his sister Berenice. He must have been an over-indulged prince who suffered from the typical weakness of too great a dependence on women.
The same pattern is evidenced in the writings about Marcion. If we look carefully, we see a clear sign that, not only was the Church itself a “she” (i.e., pictured as the female bride to “Christ” the bridegroom), but that the Church was acknowledged as established through a woman. Jerome shows the importance of women to the original church of Mark when he explains that Marcion had sent a woman before him to Rome to prepare the minds of the people for his doctrines.
There is no doubt that over time the sanctity of “Mary” (originally associated with Marcus’ mother Salome) became replaced by that of his sister Berenice, whom we shall examine shortly. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that Mark and his tradition had an unusually friendly attitude toward women which must be connected first and foremost with his relationship with Salome. It must have been Salome originally who came as the woman hoping to grasp a piece of Jesus’ “garment” in order to be made whole. The symbolism ultimately was transferred to Berenice (Veronica), as we find in a fragment of an otherwise lost work, The Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes. In Book 1, Chapter VI, we read:
Concerning Berenice, or the woman with the issue of blood. . . . Berenice, who once was mistress of a famous place, and honoured ruler of the great city of Edessa, having been delivered from an unclean issue of blood and speedily healed from a painful affection, whom many physicians tormented at many times, but increased the affection to the worst of maladies with no betterment at all, He made to be celebrated and famous in story till the present day in Mesopotamia, or rather in all the world---so great was her experience ---for she was made whole by a touch of the saving hem of His garment. For the woman, having had the record of the deed itself nobly represented in bronze, gave it to her son, as something done recently, not long before....
(preserved in the Antirrhetica of Nicephorus, Spicil. Solesm. I, p. 332.
Yet it fits so well into the anti-sexuality message associated with his mother that it is hard to ignore. So it is that we see in the Marcionite Testimony of Truth that Mary’s example becomes paradigmatic of the path all devotees of the messiah must follow: “no one knows the God of truth except solely the man who will forsake all of the things of the world, having renounced the whole place, (and) having grasped the fringe of his garment.”
Whenever a feminist writer ends up championing the cause of women in the Church, the name of Marcion is never far from the conversation. It usually goes something like this: Yes, he was a “heretic” but he did allow women to become priests. The argument is sometimes extended to the gnostic tradition as a whole. As Elaine Pagels notes, "Whereas the orthodox often blamed Eve for the fall and pointed to women's submission as appropriate punishment, gnostics often depicted Eve... as the source of spiritual awakening." The actual reason why Marcionites seem so much more progressive than their Catholic counterparts has never been fully investigated. I think the answer lies in the importance of the role that Salome and her daughter Berenice played in the tradition. It must be judged quite significant. Marcus’ mother was ultimately pushed aside in favor of his sister, in part because it was Berenice who delivered the ultimate triumph to the community. Nevertheless, it is important that Salome occupied the same position as her daughter – down to volunteering to seduce leading Roman men in order to advance the cause of Markan messianism. Finally, Salome was the historical equivalent of our “Mary the mother of Christ” and Berenice was our Mary Magdalene. This perspective allows us to start piecing together the amazing lost story of how women, not men, founded the Church.
SALOME, CALIGULA AND ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT
We begin to understand the manner in which a very young Marcus Julius Agrippa was moulded into the messiah. He was the prince of peace – the very contemporary Roman “best hope” to stem the violence which was spilling into the streets of the eastern portion of the Empire. The scheme to make Mark into Christ was certainly originally developed by Marcus’ mother Salome. It was her dream to make her son a star. Salome personified the doting Jewish mother who maps out her child’s future, making him live out her ambitions and her dreams. Salome must been deemed responsible for the first attempts toward establishing this syncretic cultus of Christianity – this fusion between Jewish and Hellenistic cultures - in Alexandria. The final formula wasn’t exactly right, however. The correct balance of Israelite and pagan elements still had to be struck for the adherents of traditional Judaism to accept it. The right recipe would eventually be found, only it would occur under Berenice’s supervision of their seemingly eternal child Marcus Julius Agrippa.
We hear that this Emperor in particular was very fond of young Agrippa. It must have been Salome who fostered this relationship. In these early years of his life the cult of his divinity was wholly in the hands of his mother. I am certain that the Christian heretical sect of “Harpocrates of Salome” goes back to these days. Marcus was the “little Horus” for the Alexandrian community, and it was likely his mother – attempting to win the favor of Gaius – who encouraged this development. Here we also get our first inkling of an esoteric doctrine associated with the king of Israel. For some reason this “apostle” describes himself as not only being in bonds but resurrected from the dead.
We should also keep in mind that Caligula is usually described as the “mad Emperor” because of the many “nutty” things he did during his reign. The idea of befriending a ten year old boy is crazy enough, but what follows is even more incredible for anyone but an insane ruler. A thirteen-year-old Agrippa is sent in the dead of night with a party of “spies” to Alexandria to check up on the welfare of the Jewish community there. Philo also reports another incident, this time set during the tenure of a certain Flaccus who was prefect of all Egypt. Philo says that the community hailed Agrippa as its messiah. Flaccus apparently had reported that a teenaged Marcus Julius Agrippa slipped into Alexandria’s harbor in the dead of night and went to a secret meeting of Jewry where eyewitnesses report members waved palm branches and hailed Agrippa as their messianic "Lord!" Caligula apparently dismissed these charges no less than his heir Claudius whom we see engaged in a similar situation a generation later.
Let me say a few more words about the historical relationship of Marcus Agrippa to Alexandria and how it relates to the traditional Coptic devotion to their “Father Mark.” Agrippa was hailed as its “Lord!” from the age of Caligula– even a resurrected Lord. It is noteworthy that, based on the testimony of Philo concerning the mystical Therapeutae sect, Eusebius places at this very juncture the sprouting of early Christian “monasteries of Mark” in Alexandria, the rest of Egypt, and the rest of the world. Philo’s Latin translator (ca. 375–400) comments on “Philo the Jew’s book on the way of life of the Essenes, i.e. monks, who in the times of King Agrippa made monasteries for themselves.” De vita contemplativa (cf. C-W 6.xviii).
Marcus Julius Agrippa was in Alexandria when the Jewish War broke out and had to race back to Palestine to rescue his sister who was trapped in Jerusalem. The Coptic tradition claims that their Marcus died some time in the same decade but his death sounds too similar to that of his uncle “Simon” – i.e. the “rock” of the Jewish rebels – to be taken seriously. Many other Jewish and Christian traditions similarly attempt to “kill off” Agrippa in this period even though we have firm archaeological and linguistic evidence to contradict this claim. The underlying effort again is to obscure the central position of Agrippa throughout the ages.
The Marcionites had a letter to the Alexandrians in their canon (subsequently dropped by the Catholics because they didn’t have even a church there). The Copts interestingly admit that Marcus was also called John and identify a certain “Anianus” as following immediately after him (itself a variant of “John”). Marcus reappears in the list of popes in the second century, and the name “Agrippinus” is also there.
If we go back for a moment to the time of Caligula, it is interesting that this same “Mary” is being threatened by the same “Herod” of the gospels, i.e., Antipas, who is afraid that “Christ” will be allowed to become king of Israel. “Herod” wants that title for himself. However because of the closeness of Agrippa to the Emperor, Herod Antipas is eventually stripped of his rule in Palestine and Agrippa is put in his place. This secures Marcus’ messianic claims for the next one hundred years.
WHY THERE ARE SO MANY MARY’S IN THE GOSPEL
The influence of Salome called Mary over her son Marcus cannot be underestimated; it likely will also never be fully appreciated. There was a palpable backlash in antiquity to her libertinism - especially accute among what we must presume to be Pharisaic Jews who objected to her "dropping" one husband (Aristobulus) and her subsequent marriage to his brother (Philip). She also appears to have had a significant influence over the development of an overtly "paganized" messianic cult for her son Marcus and close contacts within the Claudian family which ruled the Empire at the time. At the very least, all who have studied her immediately recognize her significance in her times. She looks like a Palestinian version of some of Shakespeare’s great women: Hamlet's mother, Lady Macbeth, etc. The story becomes even more intriguing owing to what is certainly one of the greatest false historical identifications of all time, the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. The early Catholic tradition certainly recognized this original "Mary" and wasted no time displacing her.
Some might say that the closeness which had seemingly always existed between Herodian and Roman rulers naturally led to this “messiah project.” However, we must give Salome her due. Salome’s wonton ambition certainly kickstarted the enterprise in the close of the first half of the first century CE. The Christian tradition still recognizes this. It is why “Mary” is hallowed as the “divine mother” in the Church – not merely as “Mary the mother of Christ” but “Mary mother of the Church.” The idea still permeates the cult of “Mary” even after she was transformed into somebody else’s mother. When Pope John Paul II noted that “[f]rom the very beginning, Mary carried out her role as ‘Mother of the Church’: her action encouraged understanding [in the early community] … [and l]astly, Mary expressed her motherhood towards the community of believers not only by praying to obtain for the Church the gifts of the Holy Spirit necessary for her formation and her future, but also by teaching the Lord's disciples about constant communion with God,” we would also agree. Salome certainly began the process by which Christ was established in the community. As we have already noted, the emerging portrait of a messiah entirely dependant on his mother and sister is simply extraordinary. The early Church wasn’t so much the product of some imaginary “divine will” as it was the fruit of the limitless ambition of “Mary.”
We know that Marcus was present at the crucifixion of Jesus. The Copts identify him as “Mark-who-was-called-John.” He is also the “beholder of God” – why acknowledge him by this title unless Marcus saw Jesus or God at some time when no other disciple was present to share the experience and thus the epithet? But at one critical juncture the surviving text just wipes out his name, though he is certainly standing alongside his mother and sister watching Jesus crucified.
In order to get a sense of the original context, all we need to do is go back to the gospel narrative and scrutinize of one of the last scenes. There we can immediately see yet another example of the obvious relationship of the two Marys with Marcus – only once we acknowledge that our surviving text has been tampered with. Here is an absolutely literal rendering of the Syriac rendition:
now were standing at the cross of Jesus his mother and his sister of his mother … and Jesus saw his mother and a disciple whom he loved standing there and he said to his mother, “Woman behold your son” and he said to that disciple, “Behold your mother” … and at that hour Jesus knew everything was complete so that the scriptures might be fulfilled … [so] Jesus said “It is perfected” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit
The first line, listing the characters present at the scene, completely drops the beloved disciple. If we restore the figure of little Mark-who-was-called-John to the previous sentence of the narrative (which only makes sense), we get instead:
now were standing at the cross of Jesus were his beloved disciple, his mother, and his sister of his mother… and Jesus saw his mother standing there and he said to his mother, “Woman behold your son” and he said to that disciple, “Behold your mother”… and at that hour Jesus knew everything was complete so that the scriptures might be fulfilled… [so] Jesus said “It is perfected” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit
In other words, rather than having to read the passage as if it were some kind of allegorical relationship between Jesus’ mother and his beloved disciple (as if they just somehow became “mom” and “son”) we should see that in the original tradition they were always mom and son.
So we have not one Mary but two, and we argue that none of these women was ever actually called “Mary.” It was a title sacred to the Herodians. For Marcus Julius Agrippa and almost all his close family relations were connected to the original messiah David through the Hasmonaean princess Miriam, who married his grandfather Herod the Great. So important was this connection that scholars as late as Rashi use it to prove not only Agrippa’s Jewishness but also his claims to be the messiah. The Koran has a similar tradition of an apparent “resurrecting Mary” when “Miriam” is identified at once as the mother of Christ and at the same time the sister of Moses. Mary wasn’t a proper name for these women but rather an identity. The idea of an individual representing or embodying an important person from the past in the contemporary age appears over and over again in the writings of early Christianity. Some Christian groups speak of a reincarnated “Helen of Troy” who was captured and fought over by the “rulers of the age.” Related reports regarding an “eternal whore” have been preserved for us also.
Salome must have initiated the propaganda that Marcus was divine in Alexandria as far back as 40 CE. She was “rewarded” with the various titles associated with the “mother of God.” However, the gospel material is deliberately ambiguous as to just which “Mary” we are dealing with at any one time. Among the figures identified by the Syrian tradition of Ephraim (fourth century CE.) as being one and the same person we find: the unnamed Samaritan woman, the sinful woman who annointed Jesus with her tears, the woman who discovered the empty tomb and had the revelation in Christ. Why is there such ambiguity? Again I suspect that Berenice – the “other Mary” – was being “rewarded” for her assistance in establishing the cult in the years leading up to 70 CE. The characters of “St. Mary” and “St. Veronica” in our tradition weren’t anonomyous historical figures. They also weren’t (as some scholars would have it) wholly invented literary characters, either. Salome and later Berenice were “paid back” for their help in making Marcus the messiah. Marcus, his mother and his sister were the original “family of Christ.”
Our surviving Christian tradition has its deepest roots in the sect the Church Fathers called “the Herodians.” It was a specifically messaniac community which “held Herod to be the Christ.” “Herod” here must necessarily be Marcus Julius Agrippa. Yet credit was also given to his mother and sister. They were, strangely, recognized as “great whores” of the age. The former couldn’t help marrying all of her relatives, and the latter, according to tradition, couldn’t stay out of bed with everyone else. Yet isn’t it odd that the originally celibate cult of earliest Christianity owed its success to a couple of harlots? The contradiction seems insurmountable until we remember that the idea of “redemption” is central to the Markan community. These are whores who are redeemed by Marcus just as we, too, are “whores” seeking redemption through the Savior.
So let’s recap: the Marcionite sect (“followers of little Mark”) identified the sinful woman of Luke 8:36 with Mary Magdala. At the same time, related Christian traditions identify Mary Magdalene with Berenice, and the rabbinic tradition says that Mary Magdalene was the mother of the messianic pretender called ben Stada (“son of the unfaithful woman”). The confusion only arises because one Mary came to betoken the mother-daughter tandem of Salome and Berenice in the period 40 – 80 CE. Thus we find ourselves dealing with a “Mary” who transmigrated from one woman to another throughout the generations. The point of the Christian covenant is to exemplify this formerly wonton seducer of men now become a repentant harlot. Her sexuality is identified as a hunger for union with perfection – the “completion” finally manifest in the person of little Mark. The historical union between Marcus Julius Agrippa and Berenice in the reign of Claudius must have provided the cultus with a new model for “spiritual marriage.” This sexless bond between members of the family of God may even be the reason Christians refer to one another as “brothers” and “sisters” and why the Church is the “mother” of us all.
The scene where mother and son “behold one another” under the cross is the very origin of the new Christian paradigm of redemption. At the very moment Jesus says “it is perfected,” he “gives up his spirit,” allowing it to become established in Mark. He becomes the very new tabernacle of love for the Church to behold. He is properly identified by the original tradition as the “Only-born” of God. We are all to acknowledge “Mary’s” son Marcus as the awaited messiah, the one in whom Jesus resurrected himself. It is the very means through which Mary was saved – viz. “behold your son” – just as Mark himself saw the Father in Jesus’ crucified example (and hence is called “the beholder of God”) by the Copts to this day.
copyright 2008 Stephan Huller