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

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Oden opens chapter 8, which will deal with the commissioning of Mark, with the oft-repeated tradition of Peter’s call. What? According to the African Narrative, the Spirit of God called Peter to both Alexandria and Rome. Interesting that Mark is so intertwined with Peter who seems to have a just-above primacy, as does Rome, in the ecumenical spirit produced by the African Memory. Peter went to Rome and Mark to Alexandria, but it was through Peter that Mark received the Call and Apostleship to Africa. Now, how does that play out in ecclesiastical polity? Oden cites the personal connection between Rome and Alexandria, something I think that needs to be explored in a more ecumenical way. And, why do we not focus on Mark as well as the others who went out, especially given the success of his ministry which is equal to that of Peter and Paul?

Oden lays the reasons on the table (136-137) and they are reasons which some will not like. Classism. Racism. Ethnocentrism. Nativism. It may also be, in some small part, a fear of issues of primacy.

Of interest to me is Oden’s description of Mark’s likely intellectual background. According to the author, Mark, a Levite, would have had access to the best of the Roman, Greek, African and Hebrew thought-worlds.

The eight chapter of this book is a history lesson for the Saint. It involves his coming to Africa and his subsequent mission work. There is not much to interact with, except in the recesses of our imagination wherein we relive with the storyteller the preaching of Mark and his labors at establishing, according to the power of the Spirit, the church in Africa. It is interesting the connections which Alexandria shares with Rome,through Peter, and the developed traditions of these men delivering the Gospel by wonderful acts and finding themselves martyred for the Cause of Christ. So, no, not a lot of review on this chapter, except to say that listening to this Narrative must put some at displeasure when they consider the way the Church was first settled in various lands.

The next chapter deals with the martyrdom sites in Alexandria. It is an odd one, actually, since as a Protestant, I rarely can behold relics and the like with that Lutheran grin. I know of a few Catholics to whom relics are little more than someone else’s religion. But, I also look around at the battlefields in the U.S., and our graveyards of the honored dead, and know that while we do not have a religious devotion to the fallen, we still very much have a political devotion which matches the religious devotion we claim to abhor. Oden, here, takes up on an archeological dig to supplement the Narrative, in that we can believe the Tradition of St. Mark.  These are his evidences. And he believes that the list of cites associated with Mark points to an intentional effort to identify Mark for posterity.

I love his challenges to Western historians, such as this favorite quote,

But no one can doubt that there are few events of two millennia ago that are still remembered by millions, even if they do not conform to absolute demonstration according to Western historians (168)

His evidence is circumstantial at best, but I do believe that it is weighty in of itself, especially given various other outside events and attestations over the years. Could we believe in such a series of stories which helped to create the African narrative or do we still find ourselves needing fact after flat fact to prove something to ourselves? The fact is, is that what Oden is reporting, if we were to take it to a judicial bench, would no doubt be heralded as a legal truth, given the large body of evidence and continued existence of the African memory. Of course, what else might be on trail, as he points out numerous times, is the lack of Western ascription to the Markan story. Maybe we simply don’t want to think Africa had the Gospel until we brought it there through colonization.

He continues next with the Heirs of Mark, a section devoted to what we might call Apostolic Succession. He insists that this is not some power-play, but a real way in which a local church was able to connect itself back to Christ through the Apostolic mission. He writes, “It is a form of historical evidence.” Of course, this section could perhaps be used to cover the Historical Jesus debate as well. Indeed, he turns the tables on the mythmakers, to face the historians of the 19th century.

Part of his evidences continue to be the Apostolic histories from those such as Irenaeus. For Oden, an ecumenical consent weighs heavily in accepting that Mark died as the Apostle to Africa, and he often ties it to the historical evidence of Peter in Rome. Further, he notes that often times, Church historians are only interested in tradition if it can substantiate European tradition.

This chapter as been about giving solid ground to the African Memory, if not trying to prove the legitimacy of believing the Narrative. Interesting…


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