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The Gospel of Mark for 'insiders' and 'outsiders'

Monday, 9 May 2016

Letter of Clement to Theodore on Dr John Dunn.

Clement of Alexandria's Letter regarding the Secret Gospel of Mark

Mark was the first of the gospels from which, together with Q, both the gospels of Matthew and Luke were derived. John’s Gospel is a special case, apart form the others, with many new elements.

Mark was written consciously with a group of early readers in mind. These readers were aware of a secret doctrine, enabling them to take more from the work than readers on the outside of the group, who could only engage with Mark on a superficial narrative level.

This was borne out by the discovery of the ‘Secret Gospel of Mark,’ at the Mar Saba monastery (founded in the 5th century AD on the West Bank of the Jordan) where evidence for a ‘Secret Gospel of Mark’ was discovered by Morton Smith in 1973.

A letter from Clement of Alexandria describes two versions of the gospel, one for those outside, and another for initiates. Mark served to vulgarise the secret, eventually negating the mystery. The canonical gospel was fashioned for the ignorant, for preaching, while the ‘true’ Christians transmitted the sacred tradition in secret. All this bypasses scholarship, as historians still insist upon searching for the meaning of Christianity only in the canonical works while assiduously ignoring all else! One only wonders why.

There are sufficient echoes of the two-tiered intention behind the separate gospels, in the Mark that has come down to us in the cannon, for the secret-versus-vulgarised dichotomy to be apparent

The secret doctrine had nothing to do with belief, the primary concern was with understanding. The inner circle was given models for understanding,whilst the outsiders were encouraged, with the supporting stories of healing ministry and miracles, merely to believe.

In Jesus’ parables understanding was founded upon an aspect of the story that remained undecipherable without the key being given. The key was only to be made known to the inner circle, as Jesus himself made clear.

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them,“The secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding”. (Mark 4.)

For each of the components of a parable there was an analogy. The key to drawing the parallel was given. Without it the analogy remained unknown and the parable could not function in the way that it did for the disciples. The latter were given ‘the secret of the Kingdom of God’, the rest were fed parables only.

The existence of a ‘secret’ Gospel of Mark suggests that, just as the parables must be understood to grasp ‘the secret of the Kingdom of God’ then, the life of Jesus must also be ‘understood’ to grasp a meaning beyond the mere level of a story. The series of events in his life were themselves the objects of reflection, hence the exasperation of Jesus at the disciples’ failure to understand,which followed his warning about the leaven of the Pharisees:

Do you still not see or understand?
Are your hearts hardened?
Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?
And don’t you remember?
Do you still not understand? (Mark 8)

Why the exasperation? Because the disciples were behaving like ‘those on the outside’. Because only ‘understanding’, be it of parables or the sequence of events in Jesus’ life, would open ‘the secret of the Kingdom of God’.

Finally,the two tiered rendering of parables and the sequence of events in Jesus’ life strongly suggests too that the Kingdom of God had a meaning beyond the superficialities of place, access and membership that might have been the belief of those excluded from the inner circle.*

*By way of a footnote... Dante attempted his own list of those likely to be excluded from the inner circle, understanding and the Kingdom of God.

Those with a defect of body occurs when its parts do not function correctly, so that it cannot receive anything, as with the deaf, the dumb, and suchlike.

Those with a defect of the spirit, which occurs when evil conquers it, so that it follows vicious pleasures, by which it is so deceived that through it everything becomes vile.

Those with domestic and civic responsibility, which properly engages most men, so that they have no time for contemplation.

Those with a defect arising from the location where someone is born and raised, which often not only lacks all places of learning, but is distant from educated people.

1 and 3 are deserving of excuse and pardon; the other two merit our censure and scorn, though one more than the other.

Anyone who reflects deeply can plainly see that there are few who can attain to that habit of knowledge desired by all, while those who live deprived forever of this nourishment are innumerable. Oh, blessed are the few who sit at that table where the bread of angels is eaten! And wretched are those who must graze along with the sheep!

(From the opening paragraphs of Book 1 of Il Convivio [The Banquet] by Dante Alighieri)
© John Dunn.

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