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The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition

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We often regard the author of the Gospel of Mark as an obscure figure about whom we know little. Many would be surprised to learn how much fuller a picture of Mark exists within widespread African tradition, tradition that holds that Mark himself was from North Africa, that he founded the church in Alexandria, that he was an eyewitness to the Last Supper and Pentecost, tha We often regard the author of the Gospel of Mark as an obscure figure about whom we know little. Many would be surprised to learn how much fuller a picture of Mark exists within widespread African tradition, tradition that holds that Mark himself was from North Africa, that he founded the church in Alexandria, that he was an eyewitness to the Last Supper and Pentecost, that he was related not only to Barnabas but to Peter as well and accompanied him on many of his travels. In this provocative reassessment of early church tradition, Thomas C. Oden begins with the palette of New Testament evidence and adds to it the range of colors from traditional African sources, including synaxaries (compilations of short biographies of saints to be read on feast days), archaeological sites, non-Western historical documents and ancient churches. The result is a fresh and illuminating portrait of Mark, one that is deeply rooted in African memory and seldom viewed appreciatively in the West.


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We often regard the author of the Gospel of Mark as an obscure figure about whom we know little. Many would be surprised to learn how much fuller a picture of Mark exists within widespread African tradition, tradition that holds that Mark himself was from North Africa, that he founded the church in Alexandria, that he was an eyewitness to the Last Supper and Pentecost, tha We often regard the author of the Gospel of Mark as an obscure figure about whom we know little. Many would be surprised to learn how much fuller a picture of Mark exists within widespread African tradition, tradition that holds that Mark himself was from North Africa, that he founded the church in Alexandria, that he was an eyewitness to the Last Supper and Pentecost, that he was related not only to Barnabas but to Peter as well and accompanied him on many of his travels. In this provocative reassessment of early church tradition, Thomas C. Oden begins with the palette of New Testament evidence and adds to it the range of colors from traditional African sources, including synaxaries (compilations of short biographies of saints to be read on feast days), archaeological sites, non-Western historical documents and ancient churches. The result is a fresh and illuminating portrait of Mark, one that is deeply rooted in African memory and seldom viewed appreciatively in the West.

30 review for The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition

  1. 4 out of 5

    LeAnne

    I picked this up as research for a short story about John Mark, and it definitely gives me the background I was looking for. The author has an agenda to get the West to stop dismissing the African traditions about John Mark's birth in Libya and martyrdom in Alexandria as nothing more than fiction. He makes a case using early church documentation and archeology. Given that no other place puts forth competing claims, I see no reason not to give credence to the ideas. The book is more detailed and I picked this up as research for a short story about John Mark, and it definitely gives me the background I was looking for. The author has an agenda to get the West to stop dismissing the African traditions about John Mark's birth in Libya and martyrdom in Alexandria as nothing more than fiction. He makes a case using early church documentation and archeology. Given that no other place puts forth competing claims, I see no reason not to give credence to the ideas. The book is more detailed and academic than my usual read. The target audience is scholars, not lay readers.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Bouma

    The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition by Thomas Oden is an epic tale that challenges the Western understanding of one of the most important figures in the Church: the writer of the Gospel of Mark and founder of African Christianity, John Mark. For 2,000 years, Christian memory and scholarship and exegesis from the Nile Valley, Libya, Ethiopia and the Maghreb have remembered Mark as the apostle who was born in and later returned to Africa, bearing the gospel of salvation The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition by Thomas Oden is an epic tale that challenges the Western understanding of one of the most important figures in the Church: the writer of the Gospel of Mark and founder of African Christianity, John Mark. For 2,000 years, Christian memory and scholarship and exegesis from the Nile Valley, Libya, Ethiopia and the Maghreb have remembered Mark as the apostle who was born in and later returned to Africa, bearing the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.They have remembered Mark as "the son of Libya, the first Christian martyr in Africa, and as the apostolic father of every believing Christian in Africa, then and now." (232) Western tradition, however, holds the African memory of Mark as a mere legend (233), as unreliable hagiographical oral tradition "received with a yawn" (222). As the Western tradition holds, which is what I was taught in my NT2 Gospels class, Mark was Palestinian in origin--born, raised, lived, and died. The African memory is very different, however, and this book sets out to "de-mythologize" the Western myth construct. This memory contends a boy was born to a Jewish family--that was part of the diaspora living there since fleeing their harsh lives during the time of the Maccabees--living in Cyrene, Libya. They were of the tribe of Levi and that boy was John Mark, the later gospel writer. This memory contends this boy and his family were forced to move from Africa to Palestine, where young man Mark and his mother joined the followers of Jesus. And this memory contends this boy who grew up in Africa was the first one to take the gospel of Jesus back to Africa. (21-22) Oden contends, "Those who look at the world only through modern Euro-American eyeshades will easily bypass and miss Mark's African identity." (31) This Euro-American centric interpretation of the early church is just was is confronted in this book, which sets out to reassess the value of the tradition surrounding Mark as gospel writer, interpreter of Peter and evangelist to Africa. (14) Why is such a reassessment necessary? As Oden argues, "Because it has not been told in the west...The story has hardly been factored in, even modestly, in the current Euro-American literature concerning either Mark or Africa." (53) A stronger contention is this: "The historical critical questions surrounding Mark, even if urbane and fascinating, will not be complete if they do not grasp the primal story itself. It will be seen only from a Western evidentiary point of view, not from an African point of view as a story of a saint." (53) Having read through Oden's striking, compelling read, I wholeheartedly agree! Just what is meant by "African memory?" As Oden defines it, "The African memory is the characteristic way of looking at history from within the special experience and outlook of the continent of Africa." (28) Memory refers to a 2,000 year history of a way of remembering. To qualify as such a memory an event must have 5 characteristics: *the event must be commonly remembered on the continent of Africa. *the event is remembered in the same or similar way. *consent to the event is uncoerced. *the event has been remembered over many generations in Africa. *the narrative has been retold in many indigenous languages of Africa. In the case of the identity, birth, life and death of Mark as an African memory, it is well known throughout Africa, similarly remembered, has garnered full and free voluntary consent to the memory, has existed in memory for nearly 2,000 years (even 6 centuries prior to Islam), and has been remembered in virtually all of the major indigenous languages to Africa. In other words: the tale of African Mark isn't merely myth, but deeply embedded memory in the fabric of the Church of Africa itself. The sources of this identity is apparently wide and deep, including: Coptic liturgies, especially its synaxaries (accounts of martyrs), which have appeared in languages of both upper and lower Egypt, Coptic, Ge'ez, Amharic, later Arabic, and other languages; the primitive text of Martyrium Marci, a 2nd to 4th century document that contains the "acts of Mark," the core of which is found in pre-Nicene Orthodox synaxaries; an important History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria written by the scholar-bishop Sewirus Ibn Al-Muqaffa, which was a catalogue of extant (still surviving) sources from a variety of ancient accounts that existed in the 10th century, including pre-Eusebian documents, sources that we do not have now. Historically, the picture becomes a bit clearer still, though it was attacked by the modern academy. The original picture-memory of African Mark was severely distorted and darkened with Adolf von Harnack and Walter Bauer. Harnack dismissed the ecumenical consensus that existed prior to Eusebius as worthless hagiography: "The worthless character of this history is now recognized...Whatever item from the apocryphal Acts, the local and provincial legends of the church, the episcopal lists, and the Acts of the martyrs, has not been inserted or noticed in these pages, has been deliberately omitted as useless." (183-184) Bauer followed suit and so did most of the Western academy. Oden makes a compelling case that our African memory of Mark was well intact and preserved early on, well before even Eusebius, including: John the Elder, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, one of the strongest source who testifies to the tradition before 200 AD that Mark was the first apostle to be sent to Egypt and established churches in Alexandria (193) Eusebius--the most widely trusted early historian of Christianity of the time of Constantine--is another strong source who testified that Mark preached in Egypt, the first apostle to do so; wrote his gospel before his mission to Africa, likely in Rome; and was the first to organize churches in Alexandria. (209) As Oden writes, "Eusebius ascribed the beginning of Christianity in Africa to Mark." (209) I think the case has been made. While I've never given thought to the story behind Mark the gospel writer--falling victim to typical Euro-American retellings of Mark's story and never even knowing of an alternative--I was intrigued and, at the end, grateful for Oden's work in recapturing the African memory of Mark, one that's been lost and tossed by the Western academia. It is commonly believed by such Westerners that there were no Christians in Egypt until the 2nd century and Libia before the 3rd. (245) Furthermore, the martyrdom memory of Mark is thought to have been invented by 4th century Alexandria to bolster the shaky church. (235) Oden seems to think and believe otherwise, and so does Africa. While Oden does to some extent grant the common objection that holding to the African memory "requires many hypotheticals to elicit a clear judgment," (253) there is still much evidence to suggest the memory isn't false and certainly enough plausibility to require active engagement, rather than neglect or simple dismissal. After reading this book I tend to agree. I agree with Oden's final assessment that treating 2,000 years of testimony and tradition as myth is downright bad historical method. (256) And reducing the African memory to a hypothetical "invention" "puts in bold display the temptations of the hermeneutics of suspicion." This suspicion seems to be especially acute whenever non-Western ideas and sensibilities crop up within the church, which I believe this suppression of the African memory illustrates. I believe Oden has done a good service to the academy for bringing to the light of day the living, real memory of Africa regarding who appears to be the founding apostle of African Christianity. The arguments were clear, compelling, and convincing, though foreign. While the evidence does seem like a strand of popcorn Christmas garland, the kernels do seem to add up. I only wish Oden would have contrasted his evidence more with his detractors and the prevailing attitude regarding Mark and the African memory. There were times when I thought, "OK this seems right, but why care?" I think providing more background to the African memory issue--in terms of the prevailing Western view; how the break occurred from the African memory; and the arguments made by the Euro-American academy against the African memory--would have provided a more concrete answer to the "why care" question, while also making the argument even stronger. Nonetheless, Oden's effort with this book to counter the Euro-American centricity of Christianity by recapturing a very important part of our history--the African memory of Mark--is much appreciated, both as a historic theologian and as a Western Christian. We've forgotten how and where and who our 21st century faith originated, and it's a book like The African Memory of Mark that will go a long way in helping the 21st century Church rediscover the ancient personal roots to our contemporary faith. In fact, I am grateful for the host of books that have and will be coming from Oden and his colleagues who have launched the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University. If this book is any indication of what is to come, I'm excited and grateful! (In the interest of disclosure, I received a free review copy from the publisher, which did not impact the content of my review.)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Dennis Henn

    "Treating as myth two thousand years of testimony is bad historical method. It displays moral callousness toward those who suffered . . . based on the truth they proclaimed." Oden's work on Mark's presence and work in Africa was extremely interesting to me. I had never heard most of what he shared. That lapse in my knowledge supports Oden's claim that Western historical method put forward by Harnack and Bauer has led us to discount the African memory of Mark, which ends in his martyrdom in Alexa "Treating as myth two thousand years of testimony is bad historical method. It displays moral callousness toward those who suffered . . . based on the truth they proclaimed." Oden's work on Mark's presence and work in Africa was extremely interesting to me. I had never heard most of what he shared. That lapse in my knowledge supports Oden's claim that Western historical method put forward by Harnack and Bauer has led us to discount the African memory of Mark, which ends in his martyrdom in Alexandria. Did you know there was a Christian community that sought refuge in Babylon of Cairo? The reason for three stars is that Oden repeated himself tiresomely as he tried to defend his contentions against the supposed attack of traditional historians. Written for the lay person.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Wayne

    A must read for anyone interested in the history of Mark's gospel but even more so for those of us in Africa. Fascinating assessment of early church tradition and the neglect of modern scholarship. A must read for anyone interested in the history of Mark's gospel but even more so for those of us in Africa. Fascinating assessment of early church tradition and the neglect of modern scholarship.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kwan Qi Xiang

    A little rambly and i feel that oden could have made his point in 2/3 the length. Interesting read that challenges readers to consider the legacy of the african continent to christian history and thought, but i'm not entirely sure who Oden thinks his opponents are, or how he thinks this project will do anything for Africa as a continent. Maybe a more "intellectual history" approach would be helpful - how did Mark, and his successors, bring the gospel to bear on the African thought-world? What tr A little rambly and i feel that oden could have made his point in 2/3 the length. Interesting read that challenges readers to consider the legacy of the african continent to christian history and thought, but i'm not entirely sure who Oden thinks his opponents are, or how he thinks this project will do anything for Africa as a continent. Maybe a more "intellectual history" approach would be helpful - how did Mark, and his successors, bring the gospel to bear on the African thought-world? What traces of ancient Africa do we see in their writings? Without that, it is well and good to say that Africans contributed to the ecumenical dialogue, but that doesn't make their contribution "African". Unless the point simply is that Africans can contribute to ecumenical dialogue? Not sure how this works.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tiffany

    I enjoyed this book simply because it piqued my curiosity about a biblical figure that I haven't studied a lot and it caused me to consider, at a much deeper level, the role of Africa in early Christianity. As with many academic discourses, the book is hard to read from beginning to end as it really engages in a back and forth argument as to the validity of African memory of Mark. However, if you're willing to wade through the details, you can take away some very important nuggets concerning the I enjoyed this book simply because it piqued my curiosity about a biblical figure that I haven't studied a lot and it caused me to consider, at a much deeper level, the role of Africa in early Christianity. As with many academic discourses, the book is hard to read from beginning to end as it really engages in a back and forth argument as to the validity of African memory of Mark. However, if you're willing to wade through the details, you can take away some very important nuggets concerning the character of Mark. I'm definitely interested in learning more about John Mark because of this book, though I doubt I'll turn to further academic discourse to do so.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Hardy

    Oden weaves together a compelling narrative and some interesting evidence for the historical authenticity of the African Memory of Mark as the founder of Christianity in Africa and all that goes with it. I found pieces of this to be very convincing, but I ultimately felt he was overstating the evidence. I won't go into the details since I'm fairly sure that no one will ever care about this review, but this is a well written (if sometimes fallacious and depending on far-from-proven evidence) stud Oden weaves together a compelling narrative and some interesting evidence for the historical authenticity of the African Memory of Mark as the founder of Christianity in Africa and all that goes with it. I found pieces of this to be very convincing, but I ultimately felt he was overstating the evidence. I won't go into the details since I'm fairly sure that no one will ever care about this review, but this is a well written (if sometimes fallacious and depending on far-from-proven evidence) study that raises some important points.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Watson

  9. 4 out of 5

    Brian

  10. 4 out of 5

    Josh Mattson

  11. 5 out of 5

    Donald W. Baldwin

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jesse L Richards

  13. 5 out of 5

    Shaun

    Offers a compelling argument on the historic authenticity of the African traditional account of the St. Mark's connection with the African continent - probable that John Mark is from Cyrene (modern-day Tunis in North Africa) and martyrdom in Alexandria, the great intellectual centre on the African continent. Offers a compelling argument on the historic authenticity of the African traditional account of the St. Mark's connection with the African continent - probable that John Mark is from Cyrene (modern-day Tunis in North Africa) and martyrdom in Alexandria, the great intellectual centre on the African continent.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jinnyc

  15. 4 out of 5

    Arnoldo Fayne

  16. 4 out of 5

    David James

  17. 4 out of 5

    Dakota

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kerry Buttram

  19. 5 out of 5

    Brandon

  20. 4 out of 5

    David Reeves

  21. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Stokes

  22. 5 out of 5

    Rayna Johnson

  23. 4 out of 5

    Andrew N Sodestrom

  24. 4 out of 5

    Et Carter

  25. 5 out of 5

    Braedon

  26. 4 out of 5

    Luke Beattie

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lesly Jules

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ann

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bess Camarata

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Harwood

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