Part II: The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition

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What does Part II hold? It is to explore the identity of the Biblical Mark, or perhaps in modern lingo, the historical Mark, but as viewed from the lens of African Tradition.

I find it importantly, increasingly so, to allow for mythology in our theology. We are increasingly moving away from the ability to believe the things we read, although we use those things in our theology. God can save, but for some reason, he cannot move this world along according to His will. God can inspired, but nothing is inspired if it looks inspired. I believe equally so that we are losing touch with our past because we have forgotten to believe and instead, we analyze. Not only does it shape our theology, but these myths shape our reception history as well, as evidenced by Oden in this book. African Memory has contributed to the Gospel of Mark as much as Mark as contributed to the African memory. For example, the image of the lion which, as Oden notes, is used in a variety of ways in Africa and comes directly from the tradition around Mark, but there is the legend of Mark now being used to interpret the Gospel, such as the naked young man in chapter 14.

Chapter 5 is about Mark’s family relationships, and helps in settling Mark in as one connected to the Levitical priests as well as the leaders of the early Church, which put in him a unique position to watch as the Way got on its way, so to speak. It is an interesting take, and one founded in Scripture, as Oden said it would be, but spiced up with Tradition which goes beyond mere ‘facts of canon’ and draws in the situation around Mark which gave rise to the traditional understanding of the Disciple. This is helpful in understanding why Mark is so important to the African people, as well as to the Church Universal. Oden makes a statement on p82 that I believe goes overboard, at least in this instance. After detailing Mark’s familial relationships, rather bland on the pages of the New Testament by enlivened through African narrative,  Oden notes that if these things were true, they would “require a thousand shifts in our Western picture of Mark.” I’m not sure that by detailing that Mark was related to Peter, this would shift Western understanding, although it might unsettle some Protestant nerves… what with Peter sending Mark, claiming the position of a father to a son and all. Granted, the idea that we can take legend, myth and tradition seriously, especially in our exegesis is difficult for Westerners, but Africans have been living with Mark for 2000 years, and within the concept of cultural memory, the truth of Mark is kept alive.

The following chapter, that would be six for those of you keeping count, begins by citing the intrinsic connection that the canon, or rather, canonical events have in the African memory. True, we sometimes, in the West, do not look for connections, blushing at the thought that God could somehow connect coincidences together to fit a pattern which He had predetermined (see Oden’s statement on 93, paragraph 2). Of course, that’s not all that this chapter is about. Instead, it is too focus on the Eucharist and Pentecost in African Memory. I find the joy with which Oden rights a refreshing wind, especially when he makes these connections for his audience. In one of them, there is the connection between the Upper Room and Africa, so that wherein Africa shielded the Holy Family from Herod, so now a place of rest was given, from far away Africa, to Jesus and the disciples. This helps to tie the story back to Africa, to another people and land, bring more light to the Gentile mission. One thing which this book does is to remove, at least for me, the stigma which I often associate with the Alexandrian method of interpretation. Perhaps we could stop assigning this method to a pure Hellenistic culture and start to incorporate the idea that Africa contributed to the hermeneutic of allegory.  I have to wonder, though, what sort of validation this history gives to the African people, especially in light of colonialism and the tragic consequences of post-colonialism.

I also, taking Oden’s connecting of the dots into account, see the Gospel of Mark, as received by the African Memory, as a sort of Pentecost all unto itself. After all, Pentecost was about the in-gathering of Israel and the opening of the doors to the Gentiles. Here, if the picture as seen from Africa is indeed true (and if not historically true, spiritually true), it signifies that Mark, the son of Africa, was somehow present (perhaps personally, or through his mother) in a room, sent from Africa to Christ, while African women served Christ. This room housed the disciples for the Last Supper, the moments after the crucifixion, and even until the day of Pentecost. It is, then, a symbol of the African contribution to come to the Church. (Here, I think of Clement, Athanasius and Origen. Yes, even him). Oden doesn’t make this point, so I’ll make it for him: The Gospel of Mark itself, received, is Pentecost in the African memory.

The final chapter in section 2 deals with Mark with Peter and Paul. So far, I’ve been able to suppress my need to turn to an accurate timeline of Mark’s life; but I might be fighting a losing battle with this one. Admittedly, it is self-serving here, to deny the use of African memory for Mark’s travels, but, I’ll see if I can look at this objectively.

Oden is right about the African imagination. As he goes through this chapter, much more so than the previous chapter, he is challenging me to accept things unprovable, such as the Babylon mentioned in 1 Peter 5.13 is Old Cairo (details are in the book), but it is probable and reasonable. And it adds a further African connection to the events in Acts. This is not uncommon, as I’ve seen English people cite the Goths who were present at Pentecost as their own heralds (Don’t ask). What is fascinating about this chapter is that the two priorities which are developed, Peter and Mark. Of course, this chapter seems more about Peter than Mark, but it is a good nevertheless because it is about Mark’s reception as an apostle to that continent and how the African exegetes have melded the journeys of Mark through the years. Overall, there is not much to argue with the timeline, as it befits Africa and allows me work in my thesis project. Again, I turn to my previous statements,in that we have forgotten how to believe. We have let our imagination wane, fearful that it might escape our childhood, forgetting how the theologies of the Church came to be.

I also return to the thought of Oden, in that Africa gave a room for the early Church, which according to Tradition, became James’ Holy See. Perhaps, in time, Africa can again give us room.

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