by Natalie Barrett
In his persuasive work, The African Memory of Mark, author Thomas C. Oden compels the reader to reconsider Mark’s African origin and influence, going against the grain of traditional Western perspective; a mindset that prematurely rules out the traditional sources of early African Christianity before it has had a chance to be told (53). Though the West has been comfortable negating any semblance of apostolic succession outside their own, African Christians have held fast to their ancient Christian identity, “constrained by the weight of time-honored ancient social memories that arise distinctly out of Africa (33).”
The author states that the purpose of the book is to “reassess the value of tradition with respect to Mark as Gospel writer, interpreter of Peter and evangelist to Africa (14).” By first exploring Mark’s family tree, a plausible stance for Mark’s African origin is set, followed by examination of ancient documents that verify Mark’s ministerial presence in Africa.
The author references four classic texts that attest to the narrative of Mark. These are the Coptic liturgy, Martyrium Marci, Sawirus bin al-Muqaffa of al-Ashmunein, and Anba Shenouda III (current patriarch of Alexandria), (61). The Synaxaries, accounts of Saints and/or martyrs, of the Coptic liturgy particularly maintain the distinction that Mark was the first in Africa; “as with Peter in Rome, it gives Mark the foremost place among apostolic figures for Africa (61).” Further, Synaxaries from various locations and varying dialects agree, affirming the ecumenical nature of the texts (62).
The next phase of argument reconstructs Marks identity supported in the Gospel accounts and from the perspective of African memory. Suggesting plausible friend and familial relationships, the author exposes the African viewpoint which sees Mark in a more prominent role than is traditionally perceived (82ff), culminating in the African mosaic of the Lord’s Supper and Pentecost according to Mark (90ff).
Similarly, the African memory of Mark “has not hesitated to speculate that Mark was deeply involved, along with Peter, at some undefined points in this immense transition of paleo-Christianity from Jerusalem to Antioch and beyond (123),” and sharing the Gospel with the Greeks (125). According to the prescribed standards of Euro-American historicity, of course, “these nuances should be ignored for lack of hard evidence. But from an African perspective they are viewed as providential and confirming (93).”
In establishing the role of Mark as a pivotal in the establishment of Christianity, the author utilizes the language of the Coptic Synaxarion to demonstrate that Mark’s house was: the first Christian church, where the Passover meal was served, where the disciples hid after the death of Christ, and where the birth of the Church occurred at Pentecost (94). Affirmed by the author are the significant implications for African Christianity if such formational Christian events truly have a direct African heritage provided in the family of Mark.
Such implications, however, are more readily accepted as implied in African memory than by the more suspicious Western counterpart. However, the author strives to combine the African memory with traditional Western approaches to Mark’s Gospel sequence ultimately by not disregarding either perspective (123).
The African memory of Mark relies heavily on the relationship between Peter and Mark, and therefore establishing the connection between the church established in Rome with the church established in Alexandria (134). With the churches in Rome and Alexandria being founded nearly simultaneously (174), African memory holds to a general acceptance of the Gospel message being proclaimed worldwide; “the same good news was proclaimed in Africa on the premise that it was not ‘another gospel’ but the identical gospel that had been preached by the apostles in Roman Asia and Europe … The unity of European and African Christianity is embodied in the close relation of Peter and Mark (134).” Considering the size and prominence of North Africa in the first century AD, the Gospel message could not avoid being carried to such a prominent continent in the known world (137).
Regarding the early presence of Christianity in Africa, the author clarifies further that, “the previous narratives of the flight of the Holy Family, Simon of Cyrene, the Ethiopian eunuch and Apollos show early signs of Christianity on the African continent. Mark’s arrival, however, signaled the beginning of the apostolic mission in Africa (143).”
Like Peter and Paul, African memory remembers Mark’s evangelical efforts as intertwined with the placement of successive leaders, thereby preserving apostolic leadership of the community of faith under threat (150). As conditions for Christians became increasingly unstable and violent in North Africa, Mark began to be viewed as a threat, provoking rage from within the Alexandrian populace. Though martyrdom was a persistent reality for early Christians, the apostles, including Mark, considered the appointment of apostolic leadership of foremost priority. The idea of martyrdom was not pursued out of intentionality, but with the view that “life is not undervalued in martyrdom if the witness of martyrdom is the only way open to preserve the continuing life of the worshipping community (151).” This idea is reinforced by Tertullian when he said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Mark’s violent death was preceded by torture, all the while Mark “gave thanks to the Lord and glorified him (157),” in order to encourage the continued growth of the Church.
The narrative account of Mark’s death in the ancient source Sawirus, describes a scene in which Mark’s tattered body is to be burned as a saint; but the body was rescued by angels of God and believers moved his body to a secret burial site. These two locations are now designated with churches built upon them, growing up from the blood of their martyr, Mark. The author affirms that several burial sites in Alexandria align with the time of Mark’s ministry and martyrdom, suggesting at least potential accuracy purported by Sawirus. “The locations of the remains of the earliest known Christian sites in Alexandria correspond closely with literary recollections found in the accounts of Mark’s martyrdom.
It seems plausible to infer that the location of the events created the location of the churches (161).” Reasonable evidence that affirms the presence of such churches in early Alexandria is directly proportional to the presence of Mark in Africa, according to the author; an interpretation that is not unreasonable based on corroborating evidence (162ff).
In attempting to navigate between Western historical criteria and the African narrative, the author asks: “What would explain that there would be so many martyrial locations dedicated to Mark in Alexandria if Mark had never been to Alexandria (167)?” Though a reasonable question to ask, the Western tradition may continue to doubt the historicity on lack of proof. If thoroughly authenticated, however, the traditional dating of the Gospel of Mark would likely need to be reconsidered for the placement of Mark in Egypt at a much earlier date which would corroborate with the Coptic chronology.
The author is persuaded that the ecumenical consensus up until the nineteenth century affirmed the African memory of Mark to the extent that “it was remembered in virtually the same way by both great Sees of Rome and Alexandria (173).” The nineteenth century reductionist philosophers are blamed for the disappearance of the saints within the universities, though the author supplies no explanation for what would motivate such digression from supposed traditional ecumenism (173). Further, what would motivate a ploy to negate the physical evidence of Mark in Alexandria, which is equally as compelling as Peter in Rome? The author argues that “both arguments are based on large accumulations of circumstantial evidence (174).”
After the bulk of the work which supplies reasons for the plausibility of the accuracy of the African memory of Mark, the author finally closes in on the more interesting, in my opinion, implications surrounding the issue, though not in substantial detail. Why would the African memory be suppressed and what are the repercussions for the largely Western tradition which has infiltrated the whole of Christianity?
The author first qualifies the prevailing authenticity of Peter’s story over Mark’s as his hunch that it is a “Eurocentric predisposition that wishes to be regarded as valid scientific evidence (174).” However, earlier in the work, the author makes a more convincing argument stemming from a racial prejudice, though more complex. According to the author, the numerous causes “have to do with silent cultural conceits and prejudicial assumptions in which racial prejudice may play a part but hardly the whole. They arise out of cultural egocentricism and nativism that are so common as to be almost endemic to the human condition of every race and latitude (137).” Explanations such as these may be argued, though sociological, circumstantial, and inferential evidence may be surprisingly supportive of the African perspective. If these arguments can be validated to any extent, it would seem that the Church’s ecumenical integrity has been compromised.
The author’s final remarks again become persuasive, imploring the reader to consider the plausibility of his thesis. Avoiding explanations of personal views on hagiography and historicity, the author’s view is limited to the plausibility of Mark’s presence in Africa as the initiator of African apostolic succession. Though perhaps at some point some consideration of historical criticism regarding comparative African and Western methods should be broached, the author does provide evidence enough for a plausible scenario for truth in the African memory, eliciting a challenge to the dominating Western perspective. “The evidence is stronger than is generally accredited by the older school of Euro-American historical interpreters and is ripe for a careful review (232).” The African memory must be considered in light of its own methods for historical criticism, rather than forcing it to bend to the Western approach. For African historicity, “the metaphor of ancestors points to the apostolic witnesses as continued by the ancient Christian writers (237).” The Western demand for empirical evidence threatens to destroy the vitality of the African memory which depends on the stories of the saints.
In Africa, the story of Mark perpetuates the remembering of the entirety of African Christian identity. Digressing from the discussion of historical methodology, the author wisely states that in a hypothetical situation which was able to prove the African memory of Mark entirely wrong, that nevertheless has the African memory shaped their Christian belief in its entirety. There is undeniable truth in this reasoning which begs not to be disregarded “in the fog of academic ideological warfare (238).” However, the authenticity of the African memory should not quickly be dismissed as a verifiable historical account.
The African Church remains steadfast in its belief in its apostolic heritage. Not only because Mark is regarded as their founding apostle, but because he: ordained bishops, priests and deacons to maintain the continuity of apostolic ministry, because he was martyred and buried on African soil, and because his successors have been viewed as an unbroken chain of witnesses since the apostolic age. “In this direct way the African church preserves the apostolic teaching throughout her life, spirituality, liturgy, and dogmas (245).”
In his concluding remarks, the author acknowledges the easy objections that may be aroused based on the abundance of hypotheticals (253). He maintains, though, that there exists enough plausible evidence in favor of the truth demonstrated in the African memory of Mark. Reminding the readers of his objective, the author says, “my purpose in this book has been to show the greater plausibility of the African memory of Mark than of its modern mythic alternatives (256).” Indeed, I would agree the author has successfully achieved his objective.
What is missing, in my inquisitive opinion, is more attention to the “why” and “what now.” There must be more explanation behind the generic Western egocentrism that would lead to a two-thousand year deviation from an ecumenical identity and elicit an assessment of “bad historical method” (256) for the West. More so, the potentiality of truth held in these allegations of the West suppressing an equally sound apostolic see suggests there must be repercussions for ecumenism since the birth of Christianity.
As a Church history nerd through and through, who would enjoy reading more on the implications derived from the author’s arguments, I must ask: A sequel, Dr. Oden?